Little children, let no one deceive you, he who does right is righteous as he is righteous.”

 1 John 3:7

 Ever since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the doctrine “Sola Fide,” or ‘”by Faith Alone,” has been one of the most hotly contested issues between Catholics and Protestants. With “sola Scriptura” it formed the two pillars of the Reformation. It was the rallying cry of the Reformers against the ‘Papists’ who, they thought, were preaching a “works-based” salvation. In their view, this was contrary to Scripture and had to be eliminated.  Were they correct in their understanding of what the Catholic Church taught regarding Salvation?  If they were correct, did they respond properly?

 This chapter will delve into the issue of justification and the Protestant concept called “Sola Fide” or “justification by faith alone.”  We will develop the following points; 1.) The great difference in our understanding of justification (is it a one time event or not); 2.) The doctrines of infusion or imputation; 3.) The eternal security debate, does man have an absolute assurance of salvation. The book we will use for the Protestant-Evangelical side is Faith Alone, The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification written by R. C. Sproul. Dr. Sproul is a marvelous speaker and writer.   He is a proclaimed theologian, minister, and teacher, and is a graduate of Westminster College, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and the Free University of Amsterdam.  He is currently professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando Florida. He is well qualified to speak on behalf of the Evangelical community. The rest of this chapter will test Dr. Sproul’s arguments to see if they stand the test of greater scrutiny.

Luther and the Reformation

 In the first chapter of his book, Dr. Sproul deals with Luther and the Reformation, the how and why of it. “We know how Martin Luther felt about the controversy. Luther called justification by faith alone ‘the article on which the church stands or falls’ (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclessiae). . . .The issue of how justification and salvation are received became the paramount point of debate. . . . The Reformers concluded that when Rome rejected and condemned sola fide, it condemned itself, in effect, it ceased to be a true church.”   Sproul goes on to note: “The logic followed by the Reformers is this:

  1. Justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel.

  2. The gospel is essential to Christianity.

  3. The gospel is essential to a church’s being a church.

4. To reject justification by faith alone is to reject the gospel and to fall as a church.”

To the Catholic the Reformers’ logic was wrong.  That is, the list is in the wrong order.  They’ve basically put the cart before the horse by placing ‘justification by faith alone’ (#1) ahead of the Gospel as being necessary for Christianity (#2).  The Gospel as being essential to Christianity should be first, and everything else should flow from that. The Catholic views the “big picture,” that is, the Gospel as one whole. From this “whole” then, the Catholic gets his understanding of justification and all other doctrines pertaining to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  While here the Protestant view seemingly stems first from “sola fide’, then to the Gospel.

 On the same page, Sproul notes that the Reformers “rescue(d) the gospel from the impending danger of total eclipse.  The eclipse metaphor is helpful.  An eclipse of the sun does not destroy the sun. An eclipse obscures the light of the sun . . . The Reformation sought to remove the eclipse so that the light of the gospel could once again shine in its full brilliance, being perceived with clarity.”

 The problem the Catholic has with this passage is the idea of “sola fide” is nowhere to be found in early Christian writings.  One has to assume that if “sola fide” were the Biblical teaching proclaimed by the Apostle’s, then the first and second century Christians would certainly have been practicing and preaching it.  But we find neither.

  Justin Martyr writing in the second century says: “And we have been taught, and are convinced, and do believe, that He accepts those only who imitate the excellences which reside in Him, temperance, and justice, and philanthropy, and as many virtues as are peculiar to a God who is called by no proper name. And we have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man's sake, create all things out of unformed matter; and if men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy, and so we have received--of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering. For as in the beginning He created us when we were not, so do we consider that, in like manner, those who choose what is pleasing to Him are, on account of their choice, deemed worthy of incorruption and of fellowship with Him.”   Justin states succinctly that man must DO something to inherit the Kingdom, his faith being taken for granted.

 We also see St. Clement of Rome, writing in the year 95 preaching the same gospel message.  “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 . . . Why was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because of his deeds of justice wrought in faith?”


 St. Clement of Alexandria in Miscellanies (202 ad) writes: “when we hear, ‘your faith has saved you,’ we do not understand (the Lord) to say simply that they will be saved who have believed in whatever manner, even if works have not followed.  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.”

 Origen adds: “Whoever dies in his sins, even if he professes to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in him; and that even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the epistle bearing the name of James” (Commentaries on John, 19:6 AD 226-232).

 And this from St. John Chrysostom : “’He that believes in the Son has everlasting life.’  ‘Is it enough, then, to believe on the Son,’ someone will say,  ‘in order to have everlasting life?’  By no means!  Listen to Christ declare this himself when he says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” shall enter the kingdom of heaven’: and the blasphemy against the Spirit is alone sufficient to cast him into hell.  But why should I speak of a part of our teaching? For if a man believe rightly in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit, but does not live rightly, his faith will avail him nothing toward salvation.”

   These are some of the many instances we could provide from the early church that show ‘justification by faith alone’ was not part and parcel of the early Christian faith.

  Dr. Sproul goes on to say “the life of the Protestant church in the sixteenth century was not perfect, but the revival of godliness in that era is a matter of record that attests to the power of the gospel when viewed in full light. I don’t deny that godliness was evident in that era, but I would argue it was almost all on the Catholic side. I would show the lives of the great saints, like St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Francis De Sales, St. Phillip Neri, St. Charles Borremeo, among others.  These are giants of the faith who not only preached the Gospel message amid much persecution, but who also lived and worked in holiness of character and spirit.


 The Lordship Controversy


  Sproul next notes what is known as “The Lordship Controversy.” This is not crucial to the “sola fide” controversy between Catholics and Evangelicals, but it bears a looking at here. “The chief question in dispute was whether a person can be saved by embracing Jesus as Savior, but not as Lord. . . . At the heart of the question: does saving faith necessarily produce works of obedience? MacArthur insists that true saving faith must necessarily and inevitably yield works of obedience. Ryrie and Hodges maintain that though faith should immediately produce works of obedience, it does not always do so.” Both Evangelical camps say, “the Bible alone is our sole rule of faith and everything we need to know pertaining to salvation can be found there,” yet they are now squabbling over the most important issue of all: how are we saved?  Can one separate the Lordship of Jesus from his role as Savior of mankind? “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” “So there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Scripture is very clear that Jesus is both Lord AND Savior; you cannot separate the two.

 “Lurking behind the scenes of this debate is a crucial difference in what happens in regeneration.  Is the person who exercises saving faith a changed person or not? . . . Reformed theology views regeneration as the immediate supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that effects the change of the soul’s disposition.  Before regeneration the sinner is in the grips of original sin, by which he is totally disinclined toward God.  He is in willing bondage to sin and has no desire for Christ. Faith is a fruit of regeneration.  The believer is a changed person. He is still a sinner but is in a process of spiritual reversal that has, by the efficacious work of the Holy Spirit, already begun.”

 Now here is where Reformed theology is confusing. On the one hand, they deny infusion of God’s grace into the heart of man to justify oneself, while on the other hand they affirm that “faith is a fruit of regeneration.” Now if the latter is true, then how can one say that infusion is a false doctrine? If it is by regeneration that faith comes to us, in Dr. Sproul’s own words, then it is the Holy Spirit working in us, and thus it is the Catholic definition of infused grace. Infusion, therefore, precedes justification. Thus justification is by infusion, not imputation, for infusion would then be the operative cause.

 To quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man” (#1989). 

 Taking the Protestant understanding to its logical conclusion, we have a form of Calvinistic predestination.  If, as Dr. James Kennedy argued in the tape series “Irreconcilable Differences,” that it is ALL God from beginning to end, man does nothing at this moment of justification, he can neither accept nor reject this infusion (regeneration), then we’ve just made God into a monster who predestines some for eternal glory, and the rest for eternal damnation.  We know well that there are many in the world who are not now, nor will be in the future, saved. Therefore, if it is all God from beginning to end, and some wind up not saved, then how is it that God did not regenerate those who are perishing? The Scriptures teach that “God wills all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”(1 Tim 2:4).  Thus, either the Protestant concept here is correct, or the Scriptures are correct, you can’t have it both ways.   Personally, I’ll side with the Word of God every time!

 Jesus proclaims in the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).  If man has nothing to do with his salvation, why does Jesus say “I knock?”  Why wouldn’t he just enter in to the hearts of the elect?  The verse is clear that we have to open the door for him, thus there is effort on our part.

 One Gospel

 In his next section, Sproul elaborates on the recent documents filed by joint ventures of Catholics and Protestants. Most notably Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian mission in the Third Millennium (ECT).  He shows his indignation for the statement in that it never addresses ‘sola fide’ directly or indirectly.  From pages 26 to 44 he belabors the point.  ECT was not satisfactory to him because of this omission:  “This list nowhere mentions justification by faith alone. Indeed justification is not included at all (unless it is hinted at in the veiled issue of sacerdotalism).” This again shows a varied understanding among many Protestant denominations as to the nature and effect of justification, and this by those who all go by the “Bible alone.”

  On page 44 Dr. Sproul puts forth in his defense, Gal 1:8: ‘But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.’ “For now let it suffice that the apostle recognized only one gospel. This apostolic gospel either did or did not include sola fide as a necessary and essential element . . . .ECT nowhere mentions forensic justification or the concept of imputation, the fiery issue of the reformation. Is a doctrine that denies the forensic character of justification properly called the gospel?”

 If we are to understand Sproul correctly, then what are we to do with the myriad of “different gospels” being proclaimed from the myriad of Evangelical and Protestant denominations? If there is only one true gospel, and there is, which one is it?   My own understanding of ECT was that it attempted to show the areas where we are in complete agreement, and those areas where we agree in part (or to a lesser degree).  It was designed to keep both sides talking in order to understand each other better. “Justification by faith alone” is not dealt with because we don’t agree on it.  I doubt that the authors of the statement meant it to cover every possible area, as Sproul seemingly wanted it to.  By the way, we’ll return to Galatians 1:8 a little later in this chapter.

 In response to ECT, the Evangelical community came up with a document entitled Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue.  In it we read: “We see justification by faith alone as an essential of the gospel on which radical disagreement continues, and we deny the adequacy of any version of the gospel that falls short at this point.” Sproul then adds, “To indicate that the Roman view is ‘inadequate’ or that it ‘falls short’ is a gentle criticism. In my estimation it is too gentle. One could construe this statement to mean that, though it has shortcomings and is less than adequate, the Roman ‘version of the gospel’ is still just that, a ‘version of the gospel.’ The New Testament makes it clear that there is only one gospel.  An ‘inadequate’ gospel is not the gospel. A ‘gospel’ that falls short of its essence is not a true gospel and must be vigorously rejected.” The document goes on to state that “We perceive that the Roman Catholic Church contains many such believers. We deny, however, that in its present confession it is an acceptable Christian communion, let alone the mother of all the faithful to whom every believer needs to be related.”

 So here Dr. Sproul denies that the Catholic Church is Christian.  In a sense, Sproul is to be commended, for he rightly sees that justification is crucial to the Gospel.  To his credit he doesn’t want to see the Gospel watered down for the sake of unity. But you know the Catholic Church was ridiculed for its stance on “no salvation outside the church.” It was perceived as arrogant and unforgiving on that account. While this charge is badly misunderstood by many (and outside the scope of this essay), we could appropriately assign it to Sproul’s own statement about the Catholic Church being unchristian. Realize that this (sola fide) is a doctrine that prior to the sixteenth century was unheard of.

  What the Catholic views on this issue is this: no one taught “sola fide” until Martin Luther came along in the 1500’s (as evidenced already by the quotes put forward previously). This very idea that the whole church, even those that were taught by the Apostles got it all wrong, and that an Augustinian monk 1500 years later corrected all of Christendom certainly tests ones reason. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was lax in His duties. For Jesus had said; “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” For us to accept the axiom “faith alone” as the Reformers hold, we must believe that the Holy Spirit did not lead the Church into all truth until Martin Luther’s day!  That’s 1500 years of Church error with regard to the most important doctrine in the Church; i.e., justification. This is one pill that the Catholic finds hard to swallow.


 1. To get a more comprehensive Catholic understanding of justification see: Robert Sungenis, Not By Faith Alone, (Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing 1997). We will quote extensively from this work in this chapter.
2.   R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone, , (Baker Books 1995). Pp. 18-19
3. Ibid., p 19
4. Ibid., p 19
5. First Apology, Chapter 9
6. 1st Letter to the Corinthian, 97 A.D. , 30:3, 31:2,
 7. John Chrystostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 31:1 AD 391
8. St. Ignatius (107 AD), St. Clement (97 AD), Hippolytus of Rome (circa 220 AD), Origen (235 AD), St. Cyprian, (250 AD), to name a few.
9. Faith Alone,  p. 25
 10. There is a more detailed discussion of this issue in another chapter.
Luke 2:11
121. 2 Peter 1:11
13.  See also Phil 3:20, 2 Peter 2:20, 3:2, 3:18,
14.  Faith Alone, p. 26
15.0 Faith Alone, p. 41
16. Ibid., p. 44
17. Ibid., p. 45
18. Ibid., p. 46
19. These are believers who would hold to sola fide, as the Evangelical understands it.
20. Quoted in Faith Alone, p46
21. This teaching has been developed down through the centuries.  Sproul rightly describes this development in Faith Alone.
22. While it is true the the phrase “faith alone” appears in early Christian writings, it is not used with the same meaning as the Reformers used it.
John 16:13 (RSV)