With the Pope’s recent visit to the US, the differences between Catholic and Protestant theology on a number of key issues has come to the forefront of the internet. It is occasions like this that bring to remembrance those important doctrines that divide us. Doctrines that cut to the heart of the gospel and our understanding of God’s work in Christ in salvation.
Once such doctrine is justification. The doctrine of justification was the foundational match with which Luther sparked the fire of the Reformation. “Justification by faith alone!,” was the battle cry of the Reformation. But while the Reformation may have popularized and brought to the forefront of Christian’s minds this important aspect of justification, the Reformational mantra of sola fide (justification by faith alone) was not born with Luther. It was already a part of orthodox theology because it was a part of Scripture.
Sola fide is one of five Reformation slogans which form the basis for a new series of books titled The 5 Solas Series from Zondervan and is edited by Matthew Barrett. The first book in this series is Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner. In the span of just over 250 pages, Schreiner carefully unpacks the historical development of sola fide, the biblical and theological grounds for the doctrine, and the continuing contemporary challenges to the doctrine.
From an historical perspective it would be easy to see the birth of sola fide within the Reformation period. But this would be wrong. The roots of the churches belief in this doctrine runs back much further – to the first century. Schreiner charts a path from the first century church fathers all the way to Edwards and Wesley. While sola fide may not have been the major focus of the church until the Reformation, it was by no means tucked away in a closet.
What will be quite shocking for some readers is to see the diversity of belief, especially among those of the Reformed tradition, on the relationship between justification and faith. For example, Richard Baxter, while believing in single imputation (that there is forgiveness of sins in Christ) did not believe in the imputation whereby Christ’s righteousness is credited to the believer (76-77). Further, after surveying Edwards position on the issue, Schreiner concludes that his “writings on justification lack clarity, and hence he is interpreted in different ways” (89).
From a biblical and theological perspective, Schreiner goes to work in the second section succinctly hammering out the various aspects of sola fide. He makes a convincing cumulative case that the biblical authors clearly taught justification by faith alone. He shows the reader that justification is needed because of sin (our inability to keep the law), that it is by faith alone and not by works (though works are the fruit of true faith), that, while justification is ultimately eschatological, “the end-time declaration has been pronounced in advance by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” and the “future is revealed and announced in the present” (156).
In addition to laying out the biblical and theological basis for sola fide, Schreiner takes the time to address a number of challenges to the doctrine. For one, the work of N. T. Wright on justification has forever shaped and permeated the discussion, and will so for generations to come. Schreiner ably responds to Wright’s rejection of imputed righteousness as found in texts like Romans 5:12-19 (see chap. 15). An entire chapter is spent addressing the “faith in Christ” vs. “faithfulness of Christ” controversy. While I think he overstates the significance of the issue and his defense of the “faith in Christ” reading, he fairly presents those who hold to the “faithfulness of Christ” reading.
Closing out the book is a section on the contemporary challenges to sola fide. Here, Schreiner returns again to respond to some of the challenges by Roman Catholics, N. T. Wright, and others to sola fide. While he gave a defense for justification as forensic in chapter thirteen (over against the transformative view), Schreiner returns to this in chapter seventeen with a greater focus on the Roman Catholic documents. The RC church sees it as (like Augustine) an act of sanctification rather than an event and declaration about ones current position before God in Christ. In regards to Wright, Schreiner further parses out the problems with his rejection of imputed righteousness and why it is not enough to locate justification within ecclesiology but must also be tied to (and more primarily so) soteriology. Reading Schreiner list a number of things he agrees with Wright on, it further confirmed for me my thoughts towards Wright – I either really like what he says or really disagree with him; there is almost no middle ground when it comes to Wright.
While recognizing that the doctrine of justification is complex, Faith Alone manages to succinctly lay out a convincing historical, biblical and theological case for justification by faith alone. This is a mid-range level book that will require thoughtful reflection. Schreiner is thoroughly biblical and his confidence in his position shines through as he does not shy away from presenting alternative views to his.
This is an enjoyable book to read that will deepen your faith in sola fide. I look forward to the rest of the books in this series.
I received this book for free from Zondervan for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”