Does the Bible Teach Sola Fide?

Bryan Cross Sep 03, 2009

One primary impediment to the reconciliation of Protestants and Catholics concerns the doctrine of justification. Protestants endorse justification by faith alone (sola fide), while the Council of Trent condemned justification by faith alone. (Session 6, Canon 9) The question I ask here is this: Is there any Biblical evidence for “justification by faith alone”?

In order to answer that question, we need to understand what is meant by it. The Protestant claim that we are justified by faith alone means that on the part of humans, faith is the only thing necessary in order to be justified. As soon as we have faith, we are justified. With respect to what is needed within us for justification, faith is both the necessary and sufficient condition for justification.

The Catholic doctrine, by contrast, is that faith is not the only thing necessary, on our part, in order to be justified.1 We also need love [agape] for God. If we believe the message about Christ, but do not have love [agape] for God, then we are not justified, because such faith is not a living faith. Only when accompanied by love for God is faith living faith, and hence justifying faith. The Council of Trent declared,

“For faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites man perfectly with Christ nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said that faith without works is dead (James 2:17, 20) and of no profit, and in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but faith that worketh by charity. (Gal 5:6, 6:15)2

If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.3

Likewise, in November of 2008, Pope Benedict said,

“For this reason Luther’s phrase: “faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.”

In other words, in Catholic soteriology we are already justified by faith alone (i.e. without works) if that faith is accompanied by love for God.4 Without love for God, we cannot be in friendship with God, even though God loves us, because mutual love is necessary for friendship. And no one who is not a friend of God is justified before God.5

So when considering the relevant passages from Scripture, the pertinent questions are these: Do these passages teach that persons are justified prior to receiving love for God or through a faith devoid of love for God? Does any passage teach that justification precedes friendship with God? If no passage of Scripture teaches that we are justified prior to receiving love for God, then Scripture does not support the Protestant claim over the teaching of the Catholic Church.6

There are many passages in the Gospels in which we see that those who believe in Christ have eternal life. Here are a few:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life (John 5:24)

For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life (John 6:40)

I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies. (John 11:25)

These passages do not support the Protestant position over the Catholic position (or vice versa), because they do not specify whether the sort of belief in question here is one that includes love for God, or not. So these are not evidence for either position.

There are also some relevant passages in Acts that speak of belief and salvation:

Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins. (Acts 10:43)

And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith (Acts 15:8-9)

Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household (Acts 16:31)

Here again, the passages themselves do not tell us whether the type of believing referred to here is one that does or does not include love for God. If it is a type of belief that is conjoined with love for God, then it is a type of belief by which one ipso facto enters into friendship with God. But if it is a type of belief that does not include love for God, then friendship with God would only come later.

When we consider the letters to the Romans and Corinthians, we find the same thing:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16)

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith (Rom 3:21-25)

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.(Rom 3:28)

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. … But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness (Rom 4:3,5)

and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them (Rom 4:11)

For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (Rom 4:16)

but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead (Rom 4:24)

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,(Rom. 5:1)

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; (Rom 9:30)

But what does it say? “The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” –that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. (Rom 10:8-10)

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor 1:21)

Why is it that the Protestant and the Catholic can each sincerely affirm the truth of each of those verses? Because the Protestant believes that when St. Paul says ‘faith’ or ‘believing’, St. Paul is meaning “faith and not agape.” The Catholic, by contrast, believes that when St. Paul says ‘faith’ or ‘believing’, St. Paul is using the term here in a broader sense, such that the other two theological virtues (i.e. hope and agape) are included together with it. The verses themselves do not specify which sense of the term ‘faith’ is in use here, and hence do not answer the question, or show us who is right.

Someone could claim that Romans 4:5 shows that the justified person is simultaneously justified and ungodly, and hence simultaneously justified and devoid of agape. But the verse can be interpreted in either of two ways: either God justifies the ungodly such that at some moment they are simultaneously justified and ungodly, or God justifies the ungodly such that at no moment are they simultaneously justified and ungodly. The verse itself does not tell us which of these interpretations is correct, and so it provides no evidence that the faith by which we are justified is a faith devoid of agape.

But in chapter five St. Paul writes:

and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:5)

Since the Holy Spirit has poured out love (agape) for God within our hearts, then the context of the other passages speaking of justification by faith (itself a gift imparted by the Holy Spirit) in the book of Romans should not be assumed to be speaking of faith devoid of agape.

St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is considered by some Protestants to be the most poignant biblical evidence in support of justification by faith alone. Here he writes:

[N]evertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (Gal 2:16)

This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Gal 3:2,5-6,8-9)

But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. (Gal 3:22)

Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. (Gal 3:24)

Once again, however, both Catholics and Protestants can affirm these passages. These verses do not show us whether the faith St. Paul is referring to is devoid of agape or is conjoined with agape. But St. James helps us understand the condition of Abraham, when Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. St. James writes:

and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. (James 2:23)

Notice that Abraham was called “the friend of God.” Friendship with God entails the presence of love for God, as a I explained above, because friendship requires mutual love. So what James says here implies that the faith of Abraham by which it was reckoned to him as righteousness, was not a faith devoid of agape, but was a faith conjoined with agape.

In the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we find another key to understanding the relation of faith and agape, with regard to the justification he has been writing about in earlier parts of the letter. He writes:

For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. (Gal 5:5-6)

Notice that for St. Paul, we hope by faith. He is not saying that we are waiting for hope, but that by faith we are waiting for the object of our hope, i.e. that for which we are hoping.  This object is the putting away of all sin once and for all, in the life to come. St. Paul assumes that hope is present with faith. Faith without hope would be despair or fear. Moreover, notice that St. Paul assumes that love (agape) is present as well. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any strength or effect [τι σχει], but faith working through love [πστις δι' γπης νεργουμνη]. What has any strength or effect, is not circumcision, uncircumcision, or faith by itself, but faith working through agape. Here we see St. Paul not only assume the presence of the other two theological virtues (hope and agape) along with faith, but also show that faith is of no avail apart from agape. These two verses give us evidence that at least in the other parts of his letter to the Galatians, when he says that we are justified by faith, we should not assume that this means faith-but-neither-hope-nor-agape. Rather, we should assume that this means faith in conjunction with hope and agape.

When we come to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we find the well-known verse:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:8-9)

Should we understand the term ‘faith’ [πστεως] here as devoid of agape or conjoined with agape? This verse does not tell us. But at the end of his letter, St. Paul writes:

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith [γπη μετ πστεως], from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph 6:23)

Here again St. Paul shows us a relation between agape and faith. This conjunction of the two is evidence of their mutual soteriological relation in the mind of St. Paul. And this should give us pause, if we are tempted to assume that the faith referred to in Ephesians 2:8 is to be understood as devoid of agape. Similarly, St. Paul says in Ephesians 3:17:

so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love (Eph 3:17)

Should we understand this faith by which Christ dwells in our hearts to be devoid of agape? No, because Jesus Himself said:

If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. (John 14:23)

Jesus teaches us that He and the Father (and the Spirit) abide in us when we love Him. So St. Paul’s statement in Ephesians 3:17 that Christ dwells in our hearts through faith should be understood to be faith conjoined to agape, not a faith devoid of agape. So the evidence in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians leans toward conceiving of justifying faith as a faith conjoined to agape.

We may also consider St. Paul’s statement in his letter to the Philippians:

that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (Phil 3:8-9)

What kind of faith should we understand this to be? The verse itself does not specify. But the context shows us that this is a faith deeply imbued with love. St. Paul is explaining what he has sacrificed, for the sake of Christ, so that on that Day (i.e. the Day of Judgment) he may be found in Christ, having the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith. The faith of which St. Paul is speaking, is the faith of his entire Christian life, not merely a faith at some initial moment, subsequently followed by agape. We can see that because he is talking about the Judgment. He has done all these things, he is explaining, so that he may be found in Christ on that Day. But the sacrifices he has made for Christ demonstrate the presence of love for Christ, because greater love has no man than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13) So the context implies that the faith St. Paul refers to here is a faith conjoined to love [agape] for Christ. One would have to take this passage out of its context in order to justify assuming that the faith of which he is speaking is devoid of agape.

When St. Peter speaks of salvation he says:

and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

Notice here St. Peter’s explicit reference to love for Christ, in the context of explaining that the outcome of our faith is the salvation of our souls. This is evidence that the faith in question is not faith devoid of agape, but faith conjoined with agape.

And in his first epistle St. John makes the connection between faith and agape even clearer:

For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith. (1 John 5:3-4)

He who does not love abides in death. (1 John 3:14)

The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:8)

Should the overcoming faith in St. John’s epistle be understood as something devoid of agape? St. John makes that impossible. If the person who does not love, abides in death, then the person who has faith without agape, cannot be justified, for no one who abides in death is also justified. Likewise, if the person who does not have agape does not know God, then the person not having agape does not have justifying faith, because no one (among those having reached the age of reason) who does not know God can have justifying faith. Justifying faith must therefore be faith working through agape.

St. James writes:

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (James 1:12)

Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? (James 2:5)

According to St. James, the promise is to those who love God. But to be justified is to receive the promise of the kingdom and the crown of life, on condition of perseverance. Therefore, we should understand the faith by which we are justified to be a faith conjoined with love for God.

So far we have not found any evidence that justifying faith is faith devoid of agape. At best we could point to the passages referring to justification by faith, and use an argument from silence to imply that if St. Paul (and the Holy Spirit) had wanted us to know that justification is by faith-and-agape, they would in no places have talked about “justification by faith.” That’s quite a weak argument.  We have seen good evidence so far that justifying faith is faith conjoined with agape. And there is still more evidence that this is the case. Jesus says:

For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much (Luke 7:47)

Such a statement does not fit with the notion that justification is by a faith devoid of agape. It fits only with the notion that justifying faith is conjoined with agape.

St. Paul provides additional evidence that justifying faith cannot be a faith devoid of love for God. He writes:

and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing [οθν]. (1 Cor 13:2)

If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed (1 Cor 16:22)

The person having all faith, but lacking agape, is nothing. But the justified person is not nothing, because Christ dwells within him, and Christ is not nothing. Therefore, the person having all faith, but not having agape, is not justified. Likewise, says St. Paul, the person who has faith, but does not have love for God, is accursed. But a person cannot be both justified and accursed at the same time. Therefore, justifying faith must be a faith conjoined with love for God.

St. Paul teaches elsewhere that faith and agape are as one piece:

But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. (1 Thess 5:8)

Together, faith and agape form one piece of armor. This again implies that without agape, faith does not serve as a breastplate, i.e. does not protect our heart from destruction. And in three places in his epistles to St. Timothy, St. Paul connects faith and agape:

But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Tim 1:5)

and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. (1 Tim 1:14)

Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim 1:13)

In no place does he say or imply that we are justified by a faith devoid of agape. Instead, he explains that the crown of righteousness is given to those who have loved [γαπηκσι] Christ’s appearing.

in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved [γαπηκσι] His appearing. (2 Tim 4:8)

Similarly, he teaches that those who did not receive this divine love, cannot be saved:

and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love [γπην] of the truth so as to be saved. (2 Thess 2:10)

This love of which St. Paul speaks is not the natural virtue of love, but the supernatural, divine love that is a gift of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul is saying that agape is necessary for salvation. Hence, a person who has faith but does not have agape, is not yet in a state such that, if he were to die, he would obtain salvation. But anyone who dies in a justified state, obtains salvation. Therefore, receiving agape is necessary for justification.

Finally, there is the well-known passage in the book of James, where he teaches very explicitly that faith alone does not justify.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? … You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (James 2:21, 24-25)

In this chapter, James is showing that a faith that does not work, is a dead faith. And a dead faith does not justify. A living faith is one that works. But how does a living faith work? It works, as we saw earlier, only through love. (Gal 5:6) The life of faith, according to James, is lived in love for Christ. (James 1:12, 2:5) Hence a faith devoid of agape is a dead faith, which does not justify.

Louis Berkhof seems not to have imagined the possibility of the Catholic position when he writes:

If James actually meant to say in this section of his letter that Abraham and Rahab were justified with the justificatio peccatoris, on the basis of their good works, he would not only be in conflict with Paul, but would also be self-contradictory, for he explicitly says that Abraham was justified by faith.7

What Berkhof seems not to see is that agape is the connection between faith and works. That is why he thinks justification by works contradicts justification by faith. So he must impose on the text here two types of justification, one before God and by faith, the other before men and by works. But given the Catholic understanding of justification by a faith conjoined with agape, then there is no need for splitting justification into one before God and one before men. The initial act of turning away from sin (in repentance) and toward God (in faith informed by agape) is a small participation in the infinite righteousness of Christ. Every subsequent act of faith working through agape increases our participation in God’s righteousness. And that is how justification is both initial and yet increases; these increases in justification are also referred to as being justified. And that is the sense in which Abraham and Rahab were justified by works, i.e. a faith working itself out through agape.


The question that I have examined here is whether there is Biblical evidence for the claim that we are justified by faith alone. When we unpack the distinction between the Protestant and Catholic positions on this subject, we find that this question rests on a deeper question, namely, whether there is any Biblical evidence that persons are justified prior to or apart from, love for God. My survey of the relevant passages in the New Testament has shown that there is no evidence that persons are justified prior to or apart from, love for God. Not only can all the passages teaching justification by faith be understood as referring to faith conjoined with agape, but as I have shown, there is a good evidence from Scripture that justifying faith should be understood as necessarily conjoined with agape in order to be justifying.

Even if the evidence were a 50-50 toss-up, not favoring one position over the other, the Catholic position would have the benefit of the doubt. That is because a schism cannot justifiably be created or maintained, on the basis of a hermeneutical coin-flip. The hermeneutical evidence would have to be strongly tilted in favor of the Protestant position, before one could (hypothetically) even begin to make a case for causing a schism from the Church or remaining in schism from the Church. But what I have shown here is that the evidence tilts in the direction of the Catholic position. And that has important implications for the reconciliation of Protestants with the Catholic Church.

  1. The Council of Trent’s condemnation of sola fide in Canon 9 of Session 6 is based  on the role of baptism as the sacrament through which we receive the grace of justification. Given that baptism has this role then it follows that we can and should prepare ourselves for baptism. But if justification comes entirely and completely through faith alone, as Protestantism maintains, then once we believe, we are already justified and so there is no place for us to prepare ourselves for our justification.
  2. Session Six, Chapter 7
  3. Session Six, Canon XI
  4. Here, for the sake of simplicity I am setting aside the role of baptism in justification. The grace that we receive from the Holy Spirit in baptism can precede the sacrament itself, as we know in the case of catechumens. This does not nullify or make superfluous the sacrament, because even for the one who has received such grace prior to his baptism, the sacrament of baptism nevertheless deepens his participation in the life of God and more firmly establishes grace and the theological virtues within him.
  5. I’m not considering here the difference between the Protestant and Catholic conceptions of the nature of justification. I’m only considering the biblical evidence for the notion that faith does not need love for God, in order to justify the sinner.
  6. One possible response here is that agape always is co-present with justifying faith, but that justification is nevertheless not dependent on the presence of agape. But if we agree that agape is always co-present with justifying faith, then there is no reason to hold imputation-but-not-infusion, and hence no reason to remain in schism over the issue.
  7. Systematic Theology, p. 521