One of the most significant watersheds of my own journey was the realization that I had totally misunderstood the pastoral implications of Justification By Faith Alone.
Now I wholeheartedly agree with the doctrine. If one asks the questions that Luther asked, then one needs to answer as he did, but it never occurred to me that the phrase can signify two radically different positions. Well, the phrase itself stands in for a myriad of understandings, but in the end each of these falls into one of two categories.
Either Justification By Faith Alone is a statement about the only type of faith that justifies or its an affirmation that only faith justifies. These aren’t the same. One says….
1) We are only justified if our faith is alone in the sense of being purely directed away from ourselves. We are only justified if we are not trusting in any contribution of our own. We are only justified, if our faith is uncorrupted by confusion about what justifies ; the other affirms…
2) Amidst all the confusions, misconceptions and fears that we might bring to God, only faith in the gospel is really used by God to justify us, instrumentally.
It seems to me that there are a few significant distinctions between the two approaches. For example-
The first ends up being about my faith and the need to keep it pure. The second focuses on the gospel that is effectually grasped by faith- though weak, impure, conflicted, immature, or confused.
The first puts the emphasis on what is not there. The second emphasizes what is there.
The first warns that the effectual ingredient must be pure, if one wishes to receive its promised effect; the second comforts with the knowledge that regardless of what else might have made it into the elixir, as long as the effectual agent is present, one can be assured of the promised effect.
The fist implicitly makes the gospel (what is believed to justification) about ‘Justification By Faith Alone’ (a term never mention in a positive sense in scripture). The second presents the gospel (as scripture does) as a declaration about the person of Christ.
The first leads to principled division between otherwise orthodox and baptized followers of Christ; the second requires principled table fellowship between all orthodox followers of Christ. Justification By Faith Alone is the great ecumenical doctrine.
The first makes division over the formulation proof that the doctrine has been properly understood; the second makes division a denial of the doctrine and communion around the body and blood of Christ its natural manifestation.
Like I said, I was raised in the first understanding. Believing that ‘we are saved by faith alone’ meant that people who thought they must ‘do’ something were not saved.
I later discovered the more rigorous approach of Reformed theology. Reading the federal Puritans, Calvin and Luther ought to have taught me that people actually mean different things byJustification By Faith Alone, but I fell under the influence of the large tribe that is committed to the phrase itself as a shibboleth whose defining character was ‘alone’ understood in the first sense, despite differences about the ‘mechanics’ which the phrase itself referred to. Heartfelt concern that Luther (!) didn’t grasp the doctrine because of the Reformer’s commitment to baptismal regeneration (i.e. the Nicene Creed) made sense to me.
While the Anglican giant, Richard Hooker, made it standard Anglican fare a long time ago, the understanding that there are many, many people who are justified by faith alone- though out of step with the doctrine that says so- never occurred to me. It was the Anglican, NT Wright, who first allowed me to see it. And it was a good day.
I no longer needed to worry about the salvation of the fathers who gave us both scripture itself and the radical Trinitarian and Christological distinctive of our faith- even thought they lived centuries before the Reformed doctrine was first formulated.
I didn’t have to feel schizophrenic in pulling out the powerful ‘Augustine card’ in support of many a point while naming him a proponent of an anti-gospel when justification came up.
I could quite worrying about whether I got my efforts to rid myself of all effort, right. I didn’t have to make sure I ‘didn’t.’ Neither did I have to make sure I ‘did’ just right. I only had to look to Christ imperfectly and confusedly.