“We are saved by faith alone.”
The Bible doesn’t say it. In fact, the Bible rejects it.
It was not part of Christian belief for the first 1,500 years of Christianity.
Even today, only about one-fifth of Christians belong to churches that teach it.
And yet, the minority of Christians who do believe in it think it’s the most important, essential teaching of Christianity.
“Justification by faith alone” is the Protestant doctrine that the one and only thing that saves us is believing that Jesus Christ died for us on the cross. Our “works,” meaning what we do and how we live, do not contribute anything to our salvation. If we believe that Jesus died for us, we will go to heaven. If we do not believe that Jesus died for us, we will go to hell.
I have been told that I am going to hell because I am unwilling to say and believe that faith alone saves.
Now that could be a problem!
The numbers don’t look good
Let’s do a little math.
Approximately 20% of Christians belong to churches that teach that faith alone saves. Approximately 32% of the world’s population identifies as Christian. This means that approximately 6.4% of the world’s population belongs to churches that teach that faith alone saves.
The current world population is 7.3 billion.
This means that by the most optimistic estimates (if all of the people who belong to churches that teach faith alone actually believe the way they are supposed to), of all the people alive today:
- 467 million people are saved and will go to heaven.
- 6.8 billion people will be damned and go to hell.
Or put another way, over 93% of the world’s population is going to hell.
Is God incompetent?
So I have a question for you:
Is God incompetent?
If you worked in an automobile design studio, and one day you rushed into your boss’s office and said, “Look! I’ve designed a car that works 6.4% of the time!” how would your boss react? I’ll tell you how: “Back to the drawing board!”
Supposedly God loves all of the people whom God has created. And yet, if the only thing that saves us is faith in Jesus Christ, and the belief that we are saved by that faith alone, then over 93% of the people God supposedly loves are going to hell.
I would call that an epic fail.
Even if we broaden the definition, and say that everyone who believes in Jesus can be saved, you’re still talking a success rate of only 32% at best—and that assumes that everyone who self-identifies as a Christian truly believes in Jesus Christ.
Even a 32% success rate would still be a major fail on God’s part.
Yet according to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, that is the best success rate God could possibly have in the population of the world today.
Is God really such a bad designer that somewhere between 67% and 93% of the human beings on earth end out in the scrap heap with “REJECT” stamped on them in big, red letters?
Yes, but what about the Bible?
The churches and preachers who teach salvation by faith alone know about these numbers. Their general response is, “Yes, it sounds harsh. But we must believe it because that’s what the Bible teaches.”
So here’s a little quiz:
Question: How many times does “faith alone” appear in the Bible?
Here it is:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
That’s right. In the one and only place in the entire Bible that “faith alone” appears, it is specifically rejected as saving!
Christians who believe in faith alone think that Paul teaches it.
But Paul never even says “faith alone” in any of his letters. (He also doesn’t say “grace alone.”) And Paul was articulate enough that if he had wanted to say that faith alone saves, he certainly had the vocabulary and the ability to do so.
But he never did.
What Paul did say is that we are saved by faith apart from the works of the Law (Romans 3:28). And that is one of the most misunderstood verses in the entire Bible.
Paul was not saying that we don’t have to do good deeds in order to be saved. Just one chapter earlier, he had said:
God will repay each person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (Romans 2:6–11)
So it’s crystal clear that Paul, like every other writer in the Bible, taught that we must do good works in order to be saved, and that if we don’t, we will be condemned.
“Faith apart from the works of the Law”
When Paul said that we are saved by faith apart from the works of the Law, he was talking about the Law of Moses.
He was arguing, against the main group of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, that it was not necessary for Christians to obey the ritual laws of sacrifice, diet, circumcision, and so on prescribed in the ancient Jewish ritual code found in the Torah, or Law, which is the first five books of the Bible. Paul, an “apostle to the Gentiles” (see Romans 11:13), did not want to saddle pagan converts with the ritual laws of Judaism. Further, he believed that faith in Jesus made it unnecessary to follow those ritual laws.
For observant Jews, strictly following these laws was a matter of great pride. See, for example, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9–14:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
That’s why Paul said in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Here “works” like the “circumcision” that he talks about in the next few verses, is shorthand for “the works of the Law”—meaning the ritual laws given by Moses in the Torah.
Paul even says in the very next verse, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10, italics added).
Yes, Paul was big on faith. He’s always talking about faith. But he never taught faith alone. Just like the other Bible writers, he insisted that we must do good works as commanded by the Lord if we wish to be saved and go to heaven.
Where did faith alone come from?
If the Bible never says that faith alone saves, how did it become the distinguishing doctrine of Protestantism?
The answer is simple. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone did not come from the Bible. It came from Martin Luther (1483–1546).
Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic priest in Germany who, in time, rejected Catholicism and became the leading founder of Protestantism.
As part of his doctrinal break from Rome, he promulgated the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. This doctrine became the primary doctrine distinguishing Protestantism from Roman Catholicism, and the key doctrine of Protestantism as a whole.
John Calvin (1509–1564), a French theologian who became another primary figure in the Protestant Reformation, founding the Reformed or Calvinist branch of Protestantism, adopted the doctrine of salvation by faith alone from Luther.
These two theologians, along with Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), who systematized Lutheran theology, established salvation by faith alone as the fundamental doctrine of Protestantism. This is the doctrine that distinguishes it from Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and all other Christian churches. It is only Protestants who say, over and over again, that we are saved by faith alone.
Protestants—especially the Evangelical and Fundamentalist variety—believe and claim that the doctrine of salvation by faith alone comes from the Bible. But the reality is that it comes from Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon.
The Bible itself never says that faith alone saves. Instead, as I pointed out earlier, the Bible specifically denies that we are saved by faith alone. Martin Luther actually wanted to remove the book of James from the Bible because it contradicted his distinctive doctrine of salvation by faith alone.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
What does it matter whether the doctrine of salvation by faith alone is true or false? Isn’t it just another one of those endless and useless doctrinal debates that those old Christian theologians are always having with each other?
Well . . . first of all, if we were truly saved by faith alone, it would mean that somewhere between two-thirds and nineteen-twentieths of the world’s population will spend eternity being tortured in hell mostly because they just happened to be born into the wrong culture and religion.
I don’t know about you, but the idea that a loving God would design the world so that most people end out in hell really bothers me.
What is our life for, anyway?
But let me ask you a more practical question.
What do you spend more of your time at: believing things or doing things?
Don’t get me wrong, faith is very important. If we don’t believe in God, or at least in some higher power and morality than ourselves, about all that’s left is for us to live for the pleasure of today, and hope for more pleasure tomorrow. And that’s not much of a life.
However, for most of us, believing things takes up only a small part of our time and energy. The reality is that we’ve got work to do.
Most of us spend most of our days, and most of our lives, getting up in the morning and going about our daily tasks, going to our day job, taking care of our families and other people that we’re responsible for, and getting things done around the house and around the community.
The main problem with faith alone is not that it isn’t taught by the Bible—as bad as that is. The main problem with faith alone is that if it were true, it would mean that almost everything we do during our lifetime here on earth is irrelevant to our eternal life.
Our daily work matters
Why would God put us on this earth and give us bodies, and work to do with them, if all that matters is what we believe? If all that matters is faith, why didn’t God just give us a brain, and a thinking mind, and leave it at that?
The reality is that everything we do all day—all of our work, all of our struggle, all of our blood, sweat, and tears—does matter in eternity. God did not put us on earth merely to believe and have faith. God put us here on earth to act on our faith, and live by our beliefs. That’s why the Apostle James said:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14–17)
The Bible everywhere, and in many different ways, tells us that faith by itself is useless. Everywhere, the Bible tells us that if we wish to be saved, we must love our neighbor, care for our neighbor, and engage in active service to our neighbor. Jesus himself tells us that only those who tend to the needs of others will go to heaven (see Matthew 25:31–46).
Our daily labor, our daily job, our daily service to our fellow human beings is the crucible in which our eternal life is forged.
God gave us the Ten Commandments, and all the other laws of life in the Bible, for a reason. Only by following God’s commandments, only by living with integrity toward our fellow human beings, only by serving other people day in and day out with love and humility, can God build in us the depth of spiritual character required to spend eternity as angels in heaven.
God did not make a mistake putting us here on earth and making it a requirement that we spend much of our life, and much of our day, engaged in useful services of one sort or another. Quite the contrary. God knew that it is only through active service to others that we can develop as spiritual and heavenly beings.
The doctrine of salvation by faith alone fails miserably not only because it is contrary to the teachings of the Bible, but also because it would make most of our life, most of our labor, most of what we spend our days doing totally irrelevant.
But I’m here to tell you that what you do all day does matter. What you do with your life does matter. Because little by little, with each task done and with each service rendered to your fellow human beings, you are building the spiritual character you need for God to bless you with eternal life and joy in the vast community of service that is heaven.
For further reading:
- Faith Alone Is Not Faith
- The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 1
- God is Love . . . And That Makes All the Difference in the World
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth