Did the Reformers Invent “Salvation By Faith?”

Title: Did the Reformers Invent “Salvation By Faith?”

Text: Romans 3:28, 20-22, 1 Peter 1:3-9

Time: June 23rd, 2010

Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians have often accused the Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin of essentially inventing the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Why? Because for most of the history of the Christian church the teaching about salvation by faith alone was neglected or almost entirely absent. How could this be? How could the church forget or omit such a basic and fundamental teaching as salvation by faith? I explained last time that if one doesn’t pay close and careful attention to the Bible it’s relatively easy to get off track theologically and spiritually. Unfortunately, for much of Christian history the official church perpetuated what was handed down from generation to generation instead of closely reviewing and reviving biblical teachings. Sure, the Bible was used in regular worship and studied by church leaders, but only selectively not comprehensively. More emphasis was placed on learning church tradition than on learning biblical teachings. The basic assumption guiding Christian theology for centuries was that church theology was biblical – and didn’t need proven or tested as such. Unfortunately, this assumption proved false. Over time it was possible for theological and spiritual error to creep into church tradition without anybody noticing it. Since church tradition was assumed correct simply because it was church tradition – passed down from generation to generation – nobody seriously or carefully checked it against close biblical teachings. Why didn’t anybody check or catch the theological errors creeping into church tradition? Because another assumption was in operation during this time – God, through the Holy Spirit, would keep the church free of all spiritual, theological and moral error. Didn’t Christ himself say, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it?” Isn’t that a promise of church infallibility? Evidently not, because what the Protestant Reformers painfully pointed out, although the Catholic and Orthodox churches continue to deny it, is that the visible, human Christian church is capable of error. As a part of the fallen, sinful world, the visible, human organization called the Christian church can and does make mistakes, as any fallible, human organization. It is not exempt from error the way older Catholic and Orthodox theologians used to argue. The promise of Christ is not that the church would be infallible or incapable of error, but that ultimately Christ’s church would prevail over all adversity, over all evil, to accomplish its divine mission. Looking back in retrospect, we can now see that indeed for a long time the church did error in not properly teaching salvation by faith, in giving the false impression that salvation could be obtained by performing good works, that salvation was the result of both faith and works. The truth is the Bible teaches and has always taught salvation by grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone. This is not an invention of the Reformation but is plainly taught in the New Testament. But let me explain further why salvation by faith alone is not an invented doctrine but it is instead the only true biblical teaching, indeed, the only true Christian teaching concerning salvation.

First, salvation by faith alone was not invented by the Reformers. Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” It is often said by Roman Catholic theologians that Martin Luther invented the doctrine of salvation by faith alone and promoted it by falsely mistranslating the Bible to prove it. For example, they accuse Luther of adding the word “alone” in his German translation of the New Testament passage Romans 3:28 — “Thus, we hold, then, that man is justified without the works of the law to do, alone through faith.” In his German translation, he adds the word allein or “alone” where it doesn’t exist in the orginal Greek of the New Testament. Technically, the Roman Catholics are correct – “alone” doesn’t appear in the original Greek of the New Testament, and Luther did add it into the verse. But in his defense, Luther insisted that it was necessary to make the verse understandable in the idiomatic German language. Unfortunately, Catholic and Orthodox Christians have jumped on the fact that Luther added a word in his German translation in order to make the charge that he invented the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The truth is, the New Testament teaches salvation by faith alone with or without Luther’s added word in Romans 3:28. The plain sense of this and other passages is that if salvation is “by faith from first to last” as Romans 1:17 states, then it is faith alone that saves us, not a mixture of faith and works. Now there is no question that by adding the little word “alone” into his German translation of the Bible in Romans 3:28 Luther strengthens the teaching of salvation by faith alone, but the word doesn’t need to be added for the clear biblical teaching to stand. Looking back, it would have probably been better for Luther not to have added the word for clarification because of all the controversy it caused and still causes today between Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians. It also adds an easy excuse for Catholics and Orthodox people to dismiss the true and accurate biblical teaching of salvation by faith alone. While Luther thought he was helpfing people understand the biblical teaching, he probably in the long run distracted them more from it by his addition. Nevertheless, he didn’t invent justification by faith or salvation by faith alone. The Apostle Paul clearly teaches it in the Book of Romans and elsewhere; and it is taught in other places of the New Testament as well. Luther and the other Reformers did a great service to the church by rediscovering a long-neglected yet fundamental Christian truth – God saves us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They should be complimented for this, not criticized for it. But let me go further in showing that the Reformers didn’t invent this essential doctrine.

Second, salvation by faith alone is found in the early church fathers. Romans 3:20-22, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made know, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” For some strange reason the early church fathers – those Christian thinkers and leaders who came immediately after the generation of the original apostles – became distracted by orthodoxy and order within the church. They had to fight many spiritual battles on many different fronts. For example, there were problems to deal with within the church as well as without the church. There was persecuation to withstand coming from outside the church, coming from the Roman Empire for example; many Christians died for believing the faith. Then there were challenges within the church with heresy, apostasy and division. The early church fathers were often distracted by these concerns – and consequently didn’t carefully balance these concerns with true biblical priorities. In other words, Christian leaders often got distracted from spiritual essentials. In the case of the important doctrine of salvation by faith alone, frankly, it got neglected under an avalanche of other concerns. Often, the early church fathers taught more about proper moral conduct than salvation by grace. They often gave the false impression that morality and order in the church were most important. Often, little was said clearly about salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And as tradition goes, and as it gets passed on generation after generation, this imbalance, this lack of proper priority balance, was mutliplied down through the ages in the church until the middle ages when hardly ever anything was heard of justification by faith alone until the Reformers rediscovered it. But some early church fathers clearly did teach it; some didn’t forget it. For example, the church father Clement of Rome writing at the end of the first century explains salvation by faith alone: “And we, therefore, who by his will have been called in Jesus Christ, are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.” Of particular importance is the phrase, “And we . . . are not justified of ourselves . . . or by religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men.” This is salvation by faith alone. Luther didn’t invent salvation by faith alone; Clement didn’t invent it either. Both men simply repeated what they learned from reading the New Testament, particularly the Apostle Paul in the Book of Romans.

Third, salvation by faith alone is taught in the New Testament in many places. 1 Peter 1:3-9, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to sufer grief in all kinds of trails. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Here’s an example of an apostle other than Paul who is explaining the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Even though Peter never uses the word “alone,” it’s clear that he means to say that it is by faith alone we are saved by Jesus Christ. He says Christians have an inheritance of salvation through faith. Even though our faith is tested in this life we can have joy because we know we’ll receive the goal of our faith – salvation. Many other passages such as this one are found throughout the New Testament. We shouldn’t expect them to explain the doctrine of salvation by faith alone as clearly and concisely as the Apostle Paul does, because that was his unique calling and gift to do so. But what we gather from the whole New Testament is that we are saved from our sins by faith in Jesus Christ. Nowhere does the New Testament contradict this teaching when properly read and interpreted in context. For example, in John 6:28-29: “Then they said unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.'” Again, salvation is by faith alone in Christ, not good works or a mixture of faith and works. Just because every or any verse in the New Testament doesn’t go into detail explaining the doctrine of justification by faith alone like the Apostle Paul doesn’t mean the doctrine isn’t being taught. On the contrary, wherever faith is taught in connection with salvation in the New Testament, it’s talking about faith alone in Christ.

So then if the doctrine of salvation by faith alone is so clear from the New Testament why then did it fall into obscurity for so long in the history of the church? Why did it take a Reformation to rediscover it? Again, because of the gradual departure from dependence upon the Bible in the church as the primary source of revelation and authority for the Christian life. Church tradition became more important than the Bible as the source of theology and spiritual authority within Christianity for over a thousand years. It’s amazing to look back at the material that church leaders where trained in for Christian ministry for many centures – it mostly consisted of reading and studying church tradition, not the Bible. This is amazing for us to comprehend today as Protestants, but it’s the truth. It goes a long way in explaining how the doctrine of justification by faith alone could have been practically lost in the Christian church for many years. As someone whose gone through seminary training, it’s hard for me to imagine how a pastor could study and prepare for ministry without an emphasis on the Bible. As a student I was required to learn Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in the original Jewish langauge. I was also required to learn Greek in order to read the New Testament in its original langauage. I was taught to take the Bible seriously because it’s the Christian’s primary source of authority in the church. But sadly that wasn’t the way it was for most of church history, as tradition and ritual took priority even over the Bible. How could the doctrine of salvation by faith alone get lost in Christianity? If Christians aren’t carefully reading and studying the Bible, if tradition and human cultural customs are emphazed, if writings of human authors are venerated above everything else – it’s easy to see how even the most important doctrine of justification by faith alone could be lost. It’s a sober reminder to us today that if this doctrine was lost once in the history of the church it could just as easily be lost again. We need to never let that happen. Unfortunately, today the church is still in danger of losing the doctrine of salvation by faith alone through distraction to other lesser things. In many churches – even evangelical Protestant churches – faith alone is hardly ever heard or taught. It’s not that pastors go out of their way to avoid it, they just carelessly neglect it. I’m afraid there are thousands, perhaps millions, of people sitting in Protestant church services listening to sermons year after year who know little about justification by faith alone. What a shame. We need a revival of preaching on this most important doctrine. It might take a revival to awaken the church again to this great truth. Let’s pray that revival comes soon.

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