“Sola fide” is one of the central aspects of Martin Luther’s theology which has influenced Protestant Christianity to this day. It means “faith alone,” to which Orthodox and Roman Catholics would take issue only with the word ‘alone’ yet are accused by many brothers and sisters of believing in works-based salvation. The Western (Protestant) reading of scripture gives greater attention to the apostle Paul, whereas in the Eastern (Orthodox) reading of scripture greater priority is given to the gospels.
In this article I will address how the protestant doctrine of sola fide is a theological novelty invented by Martin Luther in the 1500s, was never part of patristic consensus, and how the topic of free will is integrally tied to this dogma. I will also address the eastern view of justification and the claims leveled of “works-based salvation.” I hope this is edifying and portraying of truth to the best of my ability, may God have mercy and bless it to serve and assist others in their walk with Him. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Think not to grasp the wind in your fist, that is, faith without works.” – St. Isaac The Syrian
St. Paul employs the verb “to save” in the past tense of “we have been saved, in Romans 8:24; Ephesians 2:5; in the present tense of “we are being saved,” 1 Corinthians 1:18; 15:2; and in the future tense of “we will be saved,” Romans 5:10. This means salvation is a process, Theosis is a process not a one-time event. This ongoing process is experienced through the sacraments of holy baptism, chrismation, confession, the Eucharist, etc. Baptism gives us the Holy Spirit, Chrismation seals the Holy Spirit within us, and the other sacraments are intended for a nurturing and renewal of this spirit as we fight against the three hours.
“It is not the church which, through the medium of its institutions, bestows the Holy Spirit, but it is the Spirit which validates every aspect of church life, including the institutions.” – John Meyendorff. We are not inspectors of souls to find out “who is saved and who isn’t,” for no one truly knows but God Himself. Our job is to show Christ’s love in ourselves to others, this is why the invisible God becomes visible in each of us. Christ is THE way for you to become A way. Each made in His image, each made to have free will. This free will is often a necessary discussion point when addressing this topic.
Free will is not truly free if it is chained to only a singular past-tense moment, this may be why Paul emphasizes past, present and future in our salvation. For salvation is found in each one, and cannot be separated from the others. So time itself is a reflection of the trinity, with present as the fountainhead connecting to both past and future. Past, present, future are both one and separate. In the present, both the past and future can be called to mind, and all three are not a total of three different times but simply three different aspects of time itself, each one is still time itself. Free will itself also lies primarily in the present, with its influence echoing into past and future (not that it does not exist there too). As time itself converges on Christ on the cross, so the past and future also converge on the present of us taking up our own cross for the Lord. Our entire lives are meant to follow in the footsteps of God.
Again, free will would not truly be free if it were a one-time original assertion, for if you changed your mind and then could not because your free will was cemented in your past then you have no free will. Just the fact that you can change your mind or your life or anything right now is proof free will has no source in the past (yet existing in). How many times have each of us been wrong in the past? How terrible would it be if each of us were chained to these decisions as our beliefs of the present? Free will itself is an ongoing process, an endless giving of our own will to God forever as God is forever. Thus, salvation and theosis follows identically.
Let’s use Judas, he once followed Christ, later deciding to betray Him, if his first decision was all-binding then it would not be possible to betray Christ as he would be bound to his first decision of essentially stating “I am saved.” Yet he used his free will to turn away, so is possible for each of us. Another perspective if you hold to OSAS (once saved always saved) is that you’re essentially saying Judas’s past will (following) takes precedence over his current will (betraying), yet how is it that we can change the present but not the past? In this conception, it places distinction or person-hood above essence by neglecting the present and future tenses of salvation. For more on this click here.
Some will immediately retort “Judas was never saved.” Then you once again violate free will, as you make God a creator who specifically wills people to damnation AKA Judas. This is not the case, God wills every man to salvation (1 Timothy 2:4), our free will plays a central role in our path. This is the pivotal mistake of John Calvin when erroneously understanding St. Augustine that has taken root across the ethos of Christianity in America in more ways than one. “Judas was never a true believer,” this actually self-refutes the Calvinist proposition of unconditional election, for how does Christ choose Judas to damnation (death) and also choose Judas to follow Him as an apostle (life)? Obviously Judas was chosen for life like all of us, and chose death.
In Revelation chapter 3, God spits out those who are lukewarm in spirit and works as He specifically says “I know your works…” The lack of commitment is revolting to the Lord, thus professing openly without action is not enough. Saying “I believe in Christ” is a wonderful thing but not enough alone, for even the demons believe in Christ and tremble. Yet the lack of responsibility for our actions in the West by believing you are assured salvation, means we are even less than demons, as the trembling has vanished. Philippians 2:12.
The Word became flesh, faith became action. While salvation is focused behind us in the past-tense in the west, it is focused in front of us in future-tense in the East. Christians never have to announce that they are Christians, they are known by the way they treat others. In our works of love (Galatians 5:6) we are showing God to others, as God is love.
“Works Based Salvation”
Revelation 20:12, “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”
At the judgement, our works are examined. This does not mean our works save us, for both “works alone” and “faith alone” are incorrect lines of thinking. Works without faith are filthy rags to God and faith without works is a dead faith (James 2:17). Just as previously mentioned our free will requires synergy with God, so faith & works operate synergistically with one helping to preserve the other. If works meant absolutely nothing, why will we be judged for them?
So begins the charge of “works based salvation” that is often thrown at followers of apostolic Christianity, however Orthodox have no problem in saying salvation is by grace. And no Orthodox Christian believes their works alone (nor faith alone) can restore their communion with God, it is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the Eastern Orthodox position. A culture that has painted everything black and white cannot fathom a shade of gray. “And on the seventh day God finished the works He made, and He rested on the seventh day from all the works He made.” – Genesis 2:2
Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Here we see an emphasis placed on faith and mercy, but Jesus also says to not neglect the others. ‘Others’ meaning works, such as prayer, fasting – not to bring about salvation by these things alone, but to keep us in harmony with the grace already bestowed in us.
Salvation is not a simple legal transaction, it is something deeply personal, through repentance, prayer, and humility to have fellowship with God, to partake of His divine nature in love (2 Peter 1:4). By God’s grace and faith we are reconciled, by works we maintain this reconciliation.
A Response To Sola Fide
One of the slogans of the Reformation is faith alone, articulated by Martin Luther that has become a hallmark of Christianity in America. The Bible does speak the specific words ‘faith alone’ in only one place, and ironically it is in a verse that speaks against faith alone. “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” – James 2:24
There is no disagreement that faith plays a primarily role, but only in the word ‘alone’ added. Paul says, “Therefore we reckon a man to be justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Romans 3:28). Paul is saying we are saved apart from the law of Moses, because he was arguing against the Judaizers who believed that Christians must obey the laws of sacrifice, diet, circumcision, etc. And in the chapter before this Paul explicitly states, “God will repay each person according to what they have done.” Misconceptions of context has lead some to believe in this doctrine of faith alone comes from their Bible when it’s inception comes from Luther and other reformers.
Another verse commonly used to purport faith alone is Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” However many fail to address the context of the very next verse, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” When Paul taught that we are saved by faith without the works of the Jewish Torah or Law that requires many external rituals and observances, he was in no way saying that we do not have to do good works in order to be saved. Paul, just like all of the other Bible writers, insisted that real faith is “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6).
While the protestant denominations vary greatly in belief, faith alone by definition is faith without anything else. That means faith without prayer, faith without love, faith without action. Which is what faith alone essentially tends to breed, is a faith without action, a faith without true spirituality. This doesn’t mean we should generalize every believer in sola fide that they do not perform good deeds or have a deep connection with God but recognize that it sets a dangerous precedent for others. Especially considering the fact that this belief does not exist in the patristic consensus for the first 1,500+ years of the Christian faith.
Upon this assertion, you can find many articles involving quote-mining of various church fathers out of context to attempt to support this position. To which I could give counter quotes to each one, such as St. Igantius of Antioch, “Those who profess to be Christ’s will be recognized by their actions.” (Letter to the Ephesians, 14:2; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 91). Or Clement of Rome, “Let us therefore join with those to whom grace is given by God. Let us clothe ourselves in concord, being humble and self-controlled, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words.” (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 30: 3; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 44-45). To not engulf this article in more myriads of quotes than it already is, I will continue.
“Your faith has saved you,” is repeated a few times by Christ in the gospels, but this doesn’t imply that they will be saved who have believed in any matter they wish, or without any works to justify them. “To begin with, it was to the Jews alone that he spoke this phrase, who had lived in accord with the law and blamelessly and who had lacked only faith in the Lord.” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis or Miscellanies 6:14:108:4 A.D. 202). In fact, most of the quotes used out of context to attempt to justify sola fide are simply contrasting faith against the works of the law, and not works itself. The correct context is crucial, the devil is cunning.
I’ve outlined in this article that Luther wanted to remove the book of James from the Bible, and at the very least take it out of schools where it cannot be taught. Even to his own followers this was extreme, “Luther even added the word “alone”—allein—in Romans 3:28 before “through faith” precisely to counter the words in James.” (George Florovsky – St. Vladimir Seminary). Revelation 22:18 speaks of the plagues added to the person who adds to His Word. I recommend reading Patriarch Jeremiah II’s reply to Lutheran Scholars in Tübingen for more information.
Do Orthodox believe we are saved by grace through faith? Yes! A free will sustained by grace. But we do not separate faith and works, just like we do not separate scripture and tradition. In both cases each are intertwined with the other, thus we cannot say it is faith alone nor works alone, nor can we appoint ourselves the judge of who is or isn’t saved. Only that God will have mercy on all of us.
A man came up to Christ with a question about eternal salvation. “Teacher,” he asked, “what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” Jesus did not send him away or correct him. He didn’t say: “You are asking the wrong question; you need only to believe in me only and you will be saved.” Rather Jesus said to him: “Keep the commandments . . . You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:16-19). Rather than separate faith and works, Jesus closely united the two as being definitive to Christian life.