Faith alone – sola fide – is one of the five rallying cries of the Reformation. In Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification (Zondervan, 2015), Thomas Schreiner insists that sola fide still matters today “because it summarizes biblical teaching” (p. 15) and because “it accords with the Word of God” (p. 15). Misunderstanding of this doctrine does not mean that one ought to surrender it for it is a vital theological truth. We are to be cautions and aware that “our efforts at guarding the gospel do not become more important to us than cherishing the life-giving freedom and joy the gospel provides to us” (p. 17) and keep in mind that “doctrines are maps and model, not mathematical formulas” (p. 17) thus “we must avoid, then, relying on simplistic appeals to sola fide, or condemning without conversation or understanding those who reject the term” (p. 17).
In Faith Alone section 1 (chapters 1-6) a tour of church history of the scriptural witness on sola fide is conducted. In Faith Alone chapter 1 we encounter definitions of key terms such as forensic, transformative, imputed and infused righteousness and a description of how justification by faith is alluded to by several of the early church fathers. It cannot proved that the early church denied this truth for “even a cursory tour of some of their writings indicates that they frequently upheld the truth that we are justified by faith rather than by works” (p. 36).
In Faith Alone chapter 2 we are told about what Martin Luther taught about justification and sola fide. Luther viewed justification as “the Master and prince, the lord, the ruler and judge, over all kinds of doctrine, which preserves and governs the entire church doctrine and sets up our conscience in the sight of God” (p. 41). His views on the theology of sin, the role of law of God, imputation and not impartation of Christ’s righteousness, good works and the new Finnish interpretation of Luther are easily understood.
In Faith Alone chapter 3 revisits Calvin’s teaching on justification, necessary and crucial because of sin, God’s demands of perfect obedience and the futility of works for righteousness. Calvin affirms sola fide; faith as a gift of God, one that is ‘living, active, and vital” (p. 56) and justification as forensic providing although not as the foundation upon which man stands firm before God. Calvin underscores that it is in union with Christ that the believers enjoy these benefits.
In Faith Alone chapter 4, we are reminded that the Council of Trent not only rejected sola fide but also stated that “faith cooperates with good works and increases our justification” (p. 65). Trent treats justification as a process that calls for inherent righteousness. Schreiner is admits the changing nature of the Catholic Church and the variety of the beliefs of individuals but recognizes the improbability of change due to the practices of catechisms and sacramental theology.
In Faith Alone chapter 5 we get to see the thinking of John Owen who is very pastoral in his affirmation of sola fide, the relationship between faith and obedience, the forensic nature of justification and the importance of union with Christ; of Richard Baxter’ whose concerns with antinomianism somehow separated him a bit from his confessionally Reformed brothers; and Francis Turretin whose justification is grounded on covenant theology.
In Faith Alone chapter 6, the thought of Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley on sola fide is explored. Schreiner affirms that Edwards did not depart from the Reformational understanding in his views on justification, faith, and perseverance. Wesley’s concern with sola fide as leading to antinomianism is recognized although we are told despite mixed reviews that Wesley believed that we are saved only through the merits of Christ and in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
In Faith Alone section 2 (chapters 7-16), we go on a biblical and theological tour of sola fide.
In Faith Alone chapter 7 we learn that the phrase ‘works of law’ does not refer the boundary markers that divide Jews and Gentiles (the New Perspectives on Works of Law) but to the entire law. Working through Romans, Galatians, Philippians 3:2-9 and other Pauline texts, Schreiner affirms that Paul stresses that justification cannot be obtained by works but by faith alone.
In Faith Alone chapter 8 touches upon the prominent role of faith in the NT. The Synoptic Gospels illustrate the central role of faith, something not to be “confined to mental assent to truths” (p. 117). Various verses in Acts support the primacy of faith and the Pauline letters underscore the centrality of faith and trust.
In Faith Alone chapter 9 the phrase ‘faith of Jesus Christ’ in Paul’s letters is examined. Schreiner indicates that the debate can be clearly seen in the English versions of NET and HCBS. Contrary to the ‘faithfulness of Christ’ Schreiner prefers an objective genitive and therefore supports (and finds more persuasive) the traditional phrase ‘faith in Jesus Christ,’ a dispute that is important for “it fits with the idea that we are saved by faith alone and not by our accomplishments” (p. 132).
In Faith Alone chapter 10 we are right away introduced with various views that have questioned the importance and centrality of justification. Schreiner indicates that his aim is not to defend justification as the center of Paul’s theology but to emphasize that it plays a crucial in Paul’s theology. Schreiner defends justification’s importance by responding to critics such as N.T. Wright and offering insights from parallel passages in the NT. Schreiner underscores that there is no need to have justification and participation as competing with each other and close this chapter by briefly touching upon justification as exposed by Duke Divinity Douglas Campbell in his Deliverance of God and then rebuts his main arguments by exposing inconsistencies.
In Faith Alone chapter 11 examines the noun ‘righteousness’ and its verbal forms. Schreiner examines the plural and singular uses of the term righteousness noting that it speaks of salvation and deliverance, that it cannot be separated from the notion of covenant while including also God’s judgment.
In Faith Alone chapter 12 we are told that justification in Paul is fundamentally eschatological. Schreiner scripturally demonstrates that the time when justification occurs is at times in the future, in the past and at vague. Justification can be both future and past. ‘Believers in Jesus Christ are now justified through faith in Jesus Christ … still, they look forward to the day when the declaration will be announced publicly and to the entire world … justification is an already but not yet reality” (p. 157).
In Faith Alone chapter 13 considers whether God’s righteousness is transformative or forensic. Schreiner presents and explains the biblical verses in favor of transformative righteousness. Then, biblical evidence is provided as to the forensic understanding in both the OT and in Paul (a declarative understanding of righteousness, counted as righteous, righteousness denoting a status, righteousness by faith). Objections to these being forensic rather being declarative are dealt with always having in view that the former serves as the basis of the latter and that they are inseparable though to be distinguished.
In Faith Alone chapter 14 argues that the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ includes “the idea of right standing with God” (p. 170) particularly in soteriological contexts. God’s righteousness is not only revealed in the gospel where God’s love and holiness are underscored but is also a gift. Schreiner shortly responds to objections that advocate God’s righteousness as being transformative and that God’s judgment is not only a verdict (particularly justice to the poor) that is effective and executive but also one that involves deliverance.
In Faith Alone chapter 15 takes on the notion of imputation which means that “Christ’s righteousness is counted or credited to believers” (p. 179). Using the biblical texts of Romans 4:1-8; Galatians 3:6; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9 and Romans 5:12-19, Schreiner summarizes the fundamental objections to imputation as found in the writing of N.T. Wright and argues in favor of imputation.
In Faith Alone chapter 16 asserts that while justification is by faith alone meaning that our works do not count or warrant our justification it does not follow that faith is lifeless or death (pointing out to James 2:14). Schreiner tours Matthew, John and Paul and finds that as in James that there could and it is indeed a kind of faith that is ‘bare’ and ‘empty’ and therefore “doesn’t embrace and love Jesus, and in the final analysis it proves to be no faith at all” (p. 192). Schreiner insists that the Scriptures presents a saving faith that is living and active. As it relates to sola fide, we are reminded by the NT witness that “good works are necessary for final salvation, yet these works don’t compromise salvation by faith alone” (p. 199). “True works always leads to works, to a changed life. There is no such a thing as cheap grace in the Bible, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly said” (p. 206).
In Faith Alone section 3 (chapters 17-21) contemporary challenges to sola fide are discussed.
In Faith Alone chapter 17 closely looks at some of the most recent discussions between Protestants and Catholics on sola fide. Schreiner investigates the teaching of justification as it accords to the New Catholic Catechism. Schreiner then describes, analyzes and evaluates the joint declaration on justification by Catholics and Protestants (particularly Lutherans) and the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document clarifying the meaning of the latter one while adding the objections of Anglican minister and theologian J.I. Packer and addressing and responding to the perspective of Lutheran-turned-Catholic and founder of the First Things Journal Richard John Neuhaus, who claimed that sola fide was merely a “sixteenth-century formulation and does not represent pure biblical truth” (p. 225). Nonetheless, Schreiner cites Protestant-turned-Catholic individuals who know evangelical theology well although reject the Protestant view of sola fide. These individuals include Scott Hahn, a Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary alumni and Christian theologian, apologist, founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and Robert A. Sungenis another apologist who has written critiques directed at justification by faith alone. At the end of this chapter, Schreiner recognizes the difficulties inherent to agreements on justification particularly for its resulting ambiguity and especially for its undermining of imputed righteousness. However, Schreiner is quite convinced that both Roman Catholic and Evangelicals can collaborate and cooperate on social issues thought understanding that at the end of the day agreeing on justification will remain far from any concord.
In Faith Alone chapter 18 shortly retells the story of former evangelical leader Frank Beckwith’s re-conversion to Roman Catholicism and considers his views on justification (whose claims is that the Protestant view of justification was not shared by the early church fathers; is a process; that works are not merely an evidence for justification and that infusion and imputation cannot be separated, the latter being a product from nominalism). Schreiner responds to these objections, acknowledge Beckwith’s gifts as a scholar and states that Beckwith’s moves constitutes a return to Rome.
In Faith Alone chapter 19 takes on a second challenge to sola fide, namely: the New Perspective of Paul in N.T. Wright, whose central claim is that “Paul’s main concern wasn’t legalism but the ethnocentrism, the racial superiority of the Jews” (p. 24). Schreiner views three polarities in the thinking of N.T. Wright, namely: “that justification is primarily about ecclesiology instead of soteriology … that Israel’s fundamental problem was its failure to bless the world whereas Paul focuses on Israel’s inherent sinfulness … [and] that justification is a declaration of God’s righteousness but does not include the imputation of God’s righteousness” (p. 244) and discusses each point supporting a soteriological character of justification, calling out Wright’s false dichotomy in Galatians and underscoring Wright’s misunderstanding of ‘works of the law’.
In Faith Alone chapter 20 examines yet another aspects of the Wright’s New Perspective on Paul, namely: his “discussion about the sin of Israel” (p. 253). Schreiner argues that that the main problem with Israel is not that they failed to bless the nations (instrumentally, true indeed according to Scripture) but that “the focus is on Israel’s idolatry and concomitant failure to do the will of the Lord” (ontologically, they are radically evil) (p. 254). Schreiner reviews God’s plan for Israel; points out Wright’s rejection and interpretation of imputation and pitting of legal declaration against moral character and succinctly explains and responds to Wright’s claims that as a judge in a court God cannot give his righteousness to a defendant. Schreiner is grateful to Wright for his scholarship and contributions to clarify biblical teachings. However, he stands with the firm conviction that “Wright’s view of justification needs to be both clarified and corrected, for our sure hope for eternal life is the righteousness of God that belongs to us through our union with Christ” (p. 261).
In Faith Alone chapter 21 serves as a concluding remarks to the work covered in the entire book itself. Schreiner focuses on the importance of saving faith, one that is more than mental assent and recognizes that the glory is to God alone while calling us to recognize that “our faith doesn’t ultimately save us, for salvation is of the Lord” (p. 262). Justification by faith alone takes into account Christian experience and Christian history. Faith does not qualify us for or constitute our righteousness but “unites us to Jesus Christ, who is our righteousness and our only hope on the Day of Judgment” (p. 263). Justification reveals the grace of God through the history of the church in the lives that have been transformed as well as underscores the undeniable historical facts that often at times the church has been guilty of horrifying sins in this fallen and broken world. Justification by faith alone is a wonderful biblical doctrine because, as the author states, despite our struggles with sin, our confidence does not rest in us but in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.
I am quite appreciative of Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification What the Reformers taught … and Why It Still Matters for three reasons. First, this is a quick and easy read where one can begin to understand the significance and meanings of this foundational and biblical doctrine. Second, I am thankful not only for Schreiner’s command of the historical, biblical, theological (and even at times brief exegetical points) and contemporary challenges to sola fide, but also for his candor, gracious, rigor, humility, and honesty with which he engages this profound and important topic. Finally, I am deeply appreciate for here is work that addresses a difficult and at times misread and misunderstood doctrine with a high view of Scripture and in a non-confrontational and invitational manner. After reading Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification What the Reformers taught … and Why It Still Matters, I remained convinced that sola fide is way too significant for the church to be dismissed or ignored. But then more importantly, reading Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification What the Reformers taught … and Why It Still Matters has fueled my interest and passion for once again opening and re-reading the Scriptures and serving the Christ’s church persuaded by the Spirit that salvation is by Grace alone, for Christ’s alone and for the glory of God alone.