The sola fide, or “faith alone” gospel, teaches that all that is required of Christians to enter into and remain in a salvific relationship with God is faith. This gospel as we know it originated not with Christ but in 16th-century Germany, nearly 1500 years after Christ’s death. Since its invention, this gospel has spread to infect every continent on earth and is now touted by the vast majority of professing Christians in the United States1. Though popular, this ideology is far from biblical and represents a grave and heretical rejection of what the Bible teaches. The inventor of the lethal sola fide gospel, German reformer Martin Luther, not only violated inspired Scripture by modifying God’s Word with his own, but also found it necessary to undermine God’s holy Law and even reject several New Testament books to support his beliefs. The result: a heretical and flimsy gospel with little to no true biblical support, created by a man who lived to regret his antinomianism the closer he drew to his last days on earth.
Bolstered by the power of Germany’s princes, Gutenberg’s printing press, and the skill of crafty speech, Luther was able to intoxicate the western world with the dangerous idea that faith alone was all that was truly necessary to be saved. As a former monk in the Roman Catholic Church, Luther had come to believe that the Bible taught a works-based salvation – that people must earn their way to heaven through meritorious acts or obedience to God’s Law. Bound by this faulty understanding – and the conviction that nothing other than perfection would be acceptable before a Holy God, Luther created what he believed to be the solution: a view of Christ as not only our atoning sacrifice for sin but also our perfect Law-keeper, or “merit-maid” before God. Therefore, by putting faith in Christ, a person not only receives the blessing of forgiveness but also the works necessary to earn their way to heaven. This then became the only essential in Luther’s system of salvation. In a letter to Philip Melanchthon, Luther wrote,
“Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your faith in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. This life is not a place where righteousness can exist. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery a thousand times each day.”
In his treatise, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther expresses similar sentiments,
“The Christian or baptized man cannot, even if he would lose his soul by any sins however great unless he refuses to believe; for no sins whatever can condemn him, but unbelief alone.”
As would be expected, this faith-alone view of salvation also affected Luther’s hermeneutic. The Bible was to be split into two parts or messages: one gospel, the other law. In his mind, Gospel represented any portion of Scripture that speaks to what God does for us through Christ. The other, Law, are those portions which speak to what we must, but cannot do, and consequently are condemned for2. According to Luther then, our obligation to obey the Law, was something outside, or opposed to, the idea of the Gospel. The Law served the Gospel (in bringing people to see their own sin), but the Gospel could never serve the Law3
For Luther, this included not only initial justification but after a person became a Christian as well. Faith alone would remain the only essential. The Law was viewed as neither binding nor applicable to Christians,
“[The Law of Moses] is no longer binding on us because it was given only to the people of Israel…Moses has nothing to do with us [New Testament saints]. If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses…Moses is dead. His rule ended when Christ came. He is of no further service…Exodus 20:1…Makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us…We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver – unless he agrees with both the NT and the natural law…not one little period of Moses pertains to us.”
(Luther’s Works 35:164-166)
“This shall serve you as a true rule, that whenever the Scriptures order and command good works, you must so understand it that the Scriptures forbid good works. If you should not sin against the gospel, then be on your guard against good works; avoid them as one avoids a pest.”
(A Treatise on Good Works, 1520)
As such, what the Reformers referred to as the third use of the law, Luther viewed as a threat.
In the words of James Payton Jr.,
“Indeed, it would not be too much to state that Luther detected a threat to justification by faith alone behind every blade of grass and under every rock in the landscape…It is worth noting though, that it introduced a particular limitation in the way he allowed that believers should be directed as they sought to live before God. Luther considered it a corruption of the Christian message to teach that the law directs believers in this regard. Luther allowed for two uses of the law but repudiated the third. The first use of the law was its general one to structure society and declare what must be done if society is to continue to flourish; this was the law as it related human beings to each other. The second use of the law was to condemn sinners and bring them to an awareness of their sin before God; this was the law as it related human beings to God. Luther repudiated what came to be called the third use of the law, which some (alleged) showed believers how God wants them to live for Him. Luther bristled at this notion. He had learned by brutal experience that the law offered no comfort to human beings and only drove them to despair before God. To reintroduce the law as a guideline for Christian living must eventually lead, according to Luther, to a reversion to works-righteousness.”4
Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings
Therefore, to discuss obedience to God’s Law – or anything else for that matter, as also essential to salvation, was in Luther’s eyes neither the gospel nor a proper understanding of the Scriptures. This included even the Scripture itself. Those portions that disagreed with his personal interpretation, he sought to modify or remove. For example, Luther added the word “alone” to his German translation of Romans 3:28 (“we maintain that a person is justified by faith alone, apart from the works of the law”), though the original text does not contain the word.5 Ironically, the only place in the Bible that the words “faith” and “alone” occur together is in the negative, directly refuting the idea Luther was attempting to promote by vandalizing the text.
24 “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
In response to criticism of this addition, Luther said,
“You tell me what a great fuss the Papists are making because the word ‘alone’ in not in the text of Paul…say right out to him: ‘Dr. Martin Luther will have it so,’…I will have it so, and I order it to be so, and my will is reason enough. I know very well that the word ‘alone’ is not in the Latin or the Greek text”.
As a result of this verse and many others within the book of James, Luther referred to the book as, “the epistle of straw”6, and attempted to remove it from the New Testament. Similar to the 2nd century heretic Marcion7, Luther sought to reject and destroy all New Testament books that could not be reconciled with his personal interpretation and gospel message8. In addition to James, this included the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. In regard to the epistle of James, Luther wrote,
“Let us banish this epistle from the university, for it is worthless. It has no syllable about Christ, not even naming him except once at the beginning. I think it was written by some Jew who had heard of the Christians but not joined them… The epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the Papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest…Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove.”
In response to Luther’s heretical practices, Paul Rainbow writes
“[These facts] ought to unsettle any for whom sola fide has become a shibboleth. It is reason enough to re-examine the biblical grounds.”
While evidence exists that Luther may have begun to reconsider some of his views in his latter years, the damage was already done. The sola fide gospel had become the entrenched mindset of many within the western world and was beginning to bear its ugly fruit. Which leads to what may prove to be his most ironic connection to the sola fide gospel, the terms evangelical and antinomian9. Though both terms were coined by Luther to distinguish respectively between orthodox Christians and those he considered heretics, the fruit of his soteriological system had inevitably made them one and the same. To be evangelical in America today, is to be antinomian. Once more from Paul Rainbow,
“With regard to [the sola fide gospel’s] effects in history, the doctrine is dangerous. Since the [time of Luther], it has proven powerless to check repeated outbreaks of antinomianism in churches… resulting in large fringes of congregants today imbued with the heresy that without mortifying sins they can nevertheless rest assured of reaching heaven. One prominent Lutheran theologian has dubbed antinomianism ‘the heresy of the [evangelical] American church.’”10
The fruit of Luther’s theology was, of course, a Christianity filled with debauchery. Luther later became so disillusioned by what his lax gospel had produced that he wrote, “since the downfall of…cessations of excommunications and spiritual penalties, the people have learned to despise the word of God. They no longer care for the churches; they have ceased to fear and honor God. After throwing off the yoke of the pope, everyone wishes to live as he pleases. They say, ‘we will spend the day like Lutherans.’ Drunkenness has come upon us like a deluge. If God had not closed my eyes, and if I had foreseen these scandals, I would never have begun to teach the gospel.” In a rare moment of humility, Luther seems to have realized and lamented the lawlessness that flourishes as a result of his gospel.
The faith-alone gospel is one created by a human mind, made possible only by modifying and denying Scripture, propped up on the wicked idea God’s holy Law is somehow lacking or even abusive. It promotes the idea that the fundamental issue in Creation is the Creator’s unfair expectations, rather than human sin and corruption. It is one that does not have biblical origins, as the true gospel undoubtedly should. Sola fide is certainly not the gospel that our Lord preached in His time here on earth. Unfortunately, despite its colossal pitfalls and heretical origins, it remains the cornerstone of the largest Christian denomination in the United States. Even this gospel’s inventor and primary champion, Martin Luther, saw its gaping cracks. Perhaps it is time for the modern world to face those fatal flaws and return to the biblical gospel as it was taught by our Lord Jesus Christ, not a cynical German monk.