R. C. Sproul. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Baker, 1997. 221 pp.
Sproul has produced a very lucid and insightful theological work dealing with the Reformation teaching concerning sola fide in relationship to the situation facing the modern day church. It is written on a level that can be read with profit by pastors, teachers, students, and laymen alike. In our age of tolerance and neglect of “divisive” doctrine, Sproul’s book is a much needed cry for the importance of dealing with the doctrines of salvation with knife-edge precision.
Protestants and Catholics are seeking to be united in spite of doctrinal differences, but Sproul maintains that there is no room in orthodox Christianity for disagreement on issues that deal with the very heart of the gospel. This is an issue of truth versus error. Someone’s “gospel” is a false one. The central issue of the book and of the debate concerns the questions of how a sinner can be accepted by a holy God (13).
The conflict of the Reformation is still a relevant issue for today. Rome has not changed her teaching, and many Protestants are committed to the same doctrine of justification by faith alone on the basis of the merits of Christ alone. In spite of this difference, many are seeking a union between Rome and Protestantism, apart from any real changes in doctrine. ECT affirms that all those who “accept Christ as Lord and Savior” from both Evangelicalism and Catholicism “are brothers and sisters in Christ,” but this is to ignore the essential points of difference and water down the gospel to no gospel at all (29).
Although ECT may seem to show an agreement between Catholics and Protestants on the point of justification, it is clear from closer examination that they are not on the same page. One such statement says, “We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ” (35). Rome can affirm that salvation is by grace, and even by grace alone, but she cannot affirm that justification is by faith alone, nor can she maintain that Christ’s vicarious merit is the sole objective ground or basis of justification (36). So while there may appear to be agreement, such agreement is merely superficial. Nothing meaningful is accomplished when two groups can agree to an affirmation if both understand the statement to mean different things (40). Such is the case in this “agreement” with Rome. To unite on the least common denominator, ignoring essential issues, is to deny the gospel (43). The key point of issue in the Reformation has been completely ignored by the framers of ECT.
Martin Luther was the key figure in the historic conflict with Rome concerning justification. This issue of justification became the material cause for the Reformation (67). Luther referred to justification as the issue by which the church stands or falls. Calvin and others echoed this same sentiment in the years following. The ground of justification was an essential point of dispute. Does God declare us righteous on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us? Or Does God declare us righteous on the basis of the impartation or infusion of Christ’s righteousness in us? Is the righteousness that God sees and that is the basis of His declaration outside of the believer or within him? Men have a tendency to misrepresent the protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone by charging it with antinomianism. But it must be understood what is meant by this faith. It is comprised of notitia, assensus, and fiducia and thus is a living and working faith that will produce obedience to God.
From another angle, the watershed issue between Rome and Protestantism was the nature of justification itself. Is it a legal declaration alone? Or does it in some sense include the act of actually making the sinner just? Both Rome and Protestantism agree that justification is a legal declaration. And both agree that this declaration is made on the basis of a righteousness “given” to the sinner. But is it the righteousness of Christ imputed or the righteousness of Christ imparted or infused (which essentially becomes the sinners own righteous life, albeit by grace) that serves as the ground of that declaration? Both Rome and the Reformers agree that God makes the sinner inwardly just, but where they disagreed is whether or not this inward justice functions as the basis for God’s legal declaration. One of the major objections to the Protestant doctrine was that justification then becomes a lie. God is declaring something that is not true. Man must first be inherently righteous if God is to be accurate in calling him righteous. But such an objection is not valid. Justification is not legal fiction “precisely because it is based on a real (or true) imputation of real and true righteousness” (106).
One of the biggest problems in the debate with Rome is that both groups use the same language in different ways. For example, what Rome means by “by faith” is quite different from what the Protestants mean. For Protestants faith is the sole instrumental cause or means of justification. For Rome, however, the instrumental cause is twofold: the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of penance (122). Thus for Rome, justification is not by faith alone.
Today’s religious milieu is characterized by compromise, tolerance, and a general disbelief in absolute truth. Unity is pursued at the expense of doctrine. But regardless of what is popular today, the Scriptures still teach that there is an absolute truth and that departure from that absolute truth is heresy or even apostasy. The central issue of importance is whether or not sola fide is essential to the gospel. If it is, Rome has committed apostasy and must be rejected as a heretical group.
Sproul has, in his normal didactic manner, produced a very clear discussion of the issues at hand between Catholics and Protestants. They are in essence the same issues the church faced nearly 500 years ago. He has successfully shown that these differences are not minor, but are at the very heart of the gospel. There is no basis for agreement when the central issues are ignored or minimized. Therefore, apart from a real change in doctrine, the divide between Protestantism and Rome must be maintained. Both Evangelicals and Catholics need to hear these words from Sproul.