One of the most significant watersheds in my own journey was the realization that I had totally misunderstood the pastoral implications of Justification By Faith Alone.

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 for my purposes 🙂 they each fall into one of two categories.)

Either Justification By Faith Alone is a statement about the only type of faith that justifies, or it’s an affirmation that only faith justifies.

Let me try again: the first is comparable to saying that the body can only use the water we drink, if it is completely pure; the second wishes to point out that all the additives in the drink are so much marketing fluff; what the body actually uses is the water.

You can see that these aren’t the same. One says….

1) …the doctrine is about the purity of our faith. 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) … that the doctrine is about identifying the only instrument by which God justifies, and living as a community in light of all that implies. 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. Amidst all the deep disagreements and ethnic/cultural divisions, all those who believe that God has made Jesus, the crucified and risen King Of Israel, Lord of all, belong at the same table together.

It seems to me that the  distinctions are significant. 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 (or must not be) 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 first 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.

The first makes Justification By Faith Alone the great dividing wall between those who follow Christ the Lord. The second makes Justification By Faith Alone 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.

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 (all ostensibly within ‘the fold’) actually mean very different things by Justification By Faith Alone, but I fell under the influence of that (thankfully small) tribe that is committed to the phrase itself as a shibboleth. I shared RC Sproul’s concern that Luther (!) didn’t grasp the doctrine because of the Reformer’s commitment to baptismal regeneration (i.e. the Nicene Creed). No really; that once made sense to me.

Thankfully the world was much bigger than I realized. The Anglican giant, Richard Hooker, had pointed out a long time ago that there are many, many people who are justified by faith alone- without knowing it to be the case. 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 those who gave us both scripture itself and the radical Trinitarian and Christological distinctives of our faith- even though 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 quit 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.


Saint Athanasius, Francis and the Cappadocians my justified brothers! Teresa of Calcutta and John Paul the Great, family. Like I said, it was a good day.