Top Five Books on the Five Solas: Sola Fide
Often referred to as “the material cause” of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification sola fide (by faith alone) was a key point of debate between the Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and it has remained a point of disagreement ever since. Martin Luther expressed the importance of the doctrine by stating that it is “the article by which the church stands or falls.” Was Luther correct in his assessment? Why did he make such a strong statement? In order to answer these questions, we must grasp the meaning of justification itself as well as the differences between the Protestant and Roman Catholic doctrines of justification.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is most clearly expressed in the Decree Concerning Justification produced in the sixth session of the Council of Trent in 1547. According to this Decree, fallen human beings are “made just” through the “laver of regeneration.” In short, the instrumental cause of justification (being made just) is baptism. Justification is said to involve remission of sins and “also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man.” Justification is not by faith alone, according to the Council of Trent, because hope and charity (love) must be added to faith as the basis for justification.
The Reformers rejected the ideas that justification means “making just” by a faith that is not alone and that it is accomplished through the instrument of baptism. But why? In order to answer that question, we must have some understanding of the basic issues underlying the debate. The first point to observe is that God is absolutely just and righteous, and He will judge the world in righteousness. So, what is the problem with this? The problem is that although God is perfectly just and righteous, we are not. We are fallen, sinful, unjust, and unrighteous creatures (Rom. 3:9–18). This raises an infinitely serious question for each of us: How can I, an unjust sinner, stand before God at the final judgment?
Rome offered one answer. In order for a person to be declared righteous by God, he or she first has to be made righteous by God. As we saw above, justification for Rome means to be “made just.” The following is something of an oversimplification of a much more complicated doctrine, but at its heart, the Roman doctrine of justification includes the idea of sanctification and renewal. The grounds of justification, the basis upon which the declaration of righteousness is made, therefore, is an infused righteousness. It is a grace that is infused, or poured, into our souls. If a person cooperates with this infused grace, he or she is renewed and sanctified. The person cooperating with grace, therefore, has an inherent righteousness. One can lose this state of grace through mortal sin. However, if this happens, the sacrament of penance is the means by which a person can be restored to a state of justification.
According to the Reformers, there were serious problems with the Roman doctrine. In the first place, the standard of God’s judgment is perfect righteousness (Matt. 5:48). He cannot require less than absolute perfection without denying Himself and His own holiness. A person cannot be declared righteous and survive the judgment of God, therefore, on the grounds of anything less than perfection. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, however, only one man has ever lived a life of perfect righteousness—Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:15). The Reformers argued, therefore, for a doctrine of double imputation in opposition to Rome’s idea of infusion. To impute something means to reckon it legally. The doctrine of double imputation means that our sin is imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us (2 Cor. 5:21).
It is also important to note here that for Rome, justification is by faith, but it is not by faith alone. For Rome, faith is necessary but insufficient for justification. Recall that for Rome, the instrumental cause of justification is baptism. The Reformers argued, on the contrary, that the sole instrument of justification is faith, and that even this faith is a gift of God. It is by grace alone (Rom. 3:28; 5:1; Eph. 2:8).
The Reformed doctrine of justification is clearly expressed in the classic Reformed confessions and catechisms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Westminster Larger Catechism, for example, provides a concise statement of the biblical doctrine:
Question 70: What is justification?
Answer: Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.
The sixteenth-century debates over justification remain as important today as they were then, and it is necessary for Christians to understand the teaching of Scripture on this subject. False gospels continue to assault the church, and believers cannot be on guard against them if they are unaware of the points of attack. There are many books dealing with various aspects of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The following are a good place to start for any who are interested in exploring the nature and importance of this doctrine.
- Francis Turretin, Justification. Turretin is arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the post-Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians. The section of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology on justification has been published in a separate paperback version and is required reading on this subject.
- John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith. Owen is the greatest English theologian of his or any other century. His treatise on justification is, like all of his other works, deep and dense. But it is also well worth the effort expended.
- James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification. Buchanan was a minister in the Church of Scotland in the nineteenth century. His book on justification is a Reformed classic.
- R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Dr. Sproul wrote Faith Alone in the aftermath of the controversy about the document Evangelicals and Catholics Together. This book is the most helpful introduction to the importance of this doctrine for the life and health of the church.
- J. V. Fesko, Justification. Fesko’s work on justification is one of the most recent full-length works on the doctrine by a confessional Reformed theologian. His book is a nice supplement to Buchanan’s because it deals with more recent controversies that have arisen in connection with the doctrine of justification (for example, the New Perspective on Paul, the teaching of Norman Shepherd, the Federal Vision, and more).
- Top Five Books on the Five Solas: Introduction
- Top Five Books on the Five Solas: Sola Scriptura
- Top Five Books on the Five Solas: Sola Fide
- Top Five Books on the Five Solas: Sola Gratia
- Top Five Books on the Five Solas: Solus Christus
- Top Five Books on the Five Solas: Soli Deo Gloria
Dr. Keith Mathison is professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College.