When Martin Luther (1483–1546) made his big break from the Roman Catholic Church, he originated a new doctrine, which he set up as the foundation stone of Protestant belief. That doctrine is “justification by faith alone,” also known by its Latin shorthand name, sola fide (“by faith alone”).
Justification by faith alone is taught only within Protestantism. It is rejected by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which together represent nearly two-thirds of Christianity.
And yet, because Protestants—especially evangelical Protestants—are so vociferous about faith alone, many people think that being saved by faith alone is the cornerstone of Christianity, and the most important teaching in the Bible.
There’s only one problem: The Bible doesn’t actually say that we are saved by faith alone.
In fact, in the one and only place in the entire Bible where “faith alone” appears, it is specifically rejected as “justifying,” or saving a person:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
This doesn’t seem to bother most Protestants. They say that the important thing about being saved by faith alone is that it means salvation is completely God’s work; we can’t take any credit for it by piling up enough good works to earn heaven for ourselves. However, as I said in this comment on my article, “Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does,” doing good works has nothing to do with earning heaven.
Besides, there are deeper problems with Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is based on a whole series of non-Biblical and false doctrines, without which it falls to the ground:
- God is a Trinity of Persons.
- We are born with Original Sin from Adam, and are guilty from birth.
- It is impossible for us to be righteous or to satisfy God’s justice.
- God the Father therefore condemns us to eternal hell.
- Jesus Christ paid the price, or penalty, for our sins
- This satisfied the Father’s justice, and appeased the Father’s wrath.
- Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” to those who believe in him.
- The Father then accepts us as righteous even though we are still sinners.
These are the faulty foundations of faith alone.
Let’s look at each of them, and see why no matter how good salvation by faith alone may sound to some people, these faulty and crumbling foundations completely invalidate the doctrine that Luther invented in order to make a decisive break with the Catholic Church.
1. God is a Trinity of Persons?
The idea that God is a “Trinity of Persons” is the oldest of the faulty foundations of faith alone.
Let’s be clear. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God is a trinity of persons, that God is “three in person but one in essence,” and so on. These ideas were invented by various Christian theologians and bishops several centuries after the Bible was written. They became part of official Christian doctrine only after the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and especially after the Athanasian Creed was written a century or two later.
This isn’t the place to show that the Trinity of Persons is a faulty and false human-invented doctrine. For that, please see the first three articles linked at the end.
Although the Bible does not teach that God is a Trinity of Persons, that doctrine is a necessary foundation for the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
That will become clearer as we cover the remaining faulty foundations of faith alone. Meanwhile, here’s the short version:
Salvation by faith alone is based on the idea that God the Father is angry with us due to our sins, and that God the Father’s justice requires that we be punished for our sins. But as the theory goes, we fallen, finite humans are incapable of satisfying God’s justice by our own efforts, which means that we are inevitably doomed to spiritual death—meaning eternal hell—as our punishment from God.
To overcome this intolerable situation (so the theory goes) God the Son, whom we know as Jesus Christ, came to earth and lived a perfect, sinless life, and then died on the cross instead of us, thus satisfying the justice and assuaging the wrath of God the Father. And since the sinless, divine Christ died instead of us, this pays the penalty that we should have paid for our sins.
From this brief synopsis, it is clear that if the Father and the Son are not separate “Persons” of God, the whole scheme of justification by faith alone simply doesn’t work. This theory of justification requires that one “Person” of God—the Son—must suffer and die to satisfy the requirements of another “Person” of God—the Father.
In short, if there is no Trinity of Persons in God, the doctrine of justification by faith alone completely falls apart.
And as shown in the first three articles linked just below, the doctrine of the Trinity of Persons is a false doctrine that is taught nowhere in the Bible, but was invented by human beings.
The Trinity of Persons is the first and most basic false, non-Biblical foundation of faith alone.
For Part 2, click here: The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 2: Original Sin?
For further reading:
Good article focus Lee. However, most Protestants are introduced to this way of thinking not from a trinity of three persons, but rather the book of Romans which is taken out of context. And this gets complicated as Paul used the word “works” in different contexts. This was the subject of criticism by the epistle of James; James obviously was writing against what Paul wrote.
Thanks for your comment.
Yes, the book of Romans, plus Ephesians and a few other Pauline epistles, is where most Protestants look to (wrongly) support and propagate their belief in salvation by faith alone. Romans, Ephesians, and James are covered in the last two articles linked under “For further reading” at the end of this post, and in the comments on those articles.
However, even many Protestants aren’t aware of the doctrinal underpinnings of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Highlighting these false doctrinal foundations is what this series is all about. Any objective person who isn’t already indoctrinated in sola fide theology will see its falsity much more clearly if its faulty foundations are exposed.
Hi Lee, not trying to play antagonist here, but does James 2:24 *actually* speak as a rejection of justification by faith alone? Obviously Protestant scholars and theologians are aware of this passage, and aware of the seemingly plain rejection of faith alone that it professes, but the chief objection to that interpretation is that a contextualized reading of the passage shows that James was speaking to of Christians who profess to have faith and yet have no good works to show for it. In that regard, James is ultimately referring to how good works will naturally follow from authentic faith, and not that works in way serve to justify a person. Additionally, while the term ‘faith alone’ doesn’t appear throughout the Bible, what of passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 in which, despite the absence of the specific phrase, nevertheless seems to be describing what is in essence ‘faith alone?’
Yeah, I know you’ve seen more than enough Protestant articles that attempt to show how the true meaning of the Biblical text isn’t what it seems to plainly say, but we also don’t want to fall into a different kind of literalism where we take everything at face value without taking into account the textual and historical context of things (and I think some of your articles attempt to do this, like when you try to clarify that ‘works’ means ‘works of the law.’).
Like I said, I’m not presenting this as a counterpoint to your position, but I am curious to see how you, from a Swedenborgian perspective, interact with the objections to your interpretation (and I know you try to keep the prooftexting to a minimum, so hopefully this doesn’t exceed what you’re willing to do).
Thanks for your comment and questions.
Mainly, I’d recommend that you read (or re-read) these two articles, and their comments, which deal specifically with James, Romans, and Ephesians:
As for whether James 2:24 actually speaks as a rejection of justification by faith alone, and actually states that works do justify a person, one simply has to read the passage. It is short, simple, and very explicit:
Nothing else in the wider context in any way denies this or calls it into question. Rather, everything James says strengthens and illustrates this plain and simple statement.
What words could James possibly have used to be more clear that we are justified (i.e., made righteous) by our works? How could he possibly have been more explicit in rejecting justification by faith alone?
Literalism aside, don’t words have meaning? And isn’t the meaning of James’s words here crystal clear?
Even Luther recognized that James rejected his newly invented doctrine of justification by faith alone—which is why Luther attempted to get James, along with a few other books of the New Testament, removed from the Bible.
No, it’s crystal clear that James rejected justification by faith alone, and taught that we are justified by our works together with our faith, not by faith without or prior to works.
Further, Paul and the other New Testament writers were perfectly capable of saying “faith alone” if they had wanted to. After all, James said it. And James used the same Greek language that Paul and the other NT writers used. But the fact of the matter is that neither Paul nor any other NT writer besides James ever used the term “faith alone.”
Isn’t that strange, if “faith alone” is what they really meant?
If Paul had meant to say that we are justified by faith alone, wouldn’t he have said so at least once?
Paul may sometimes have used convoluted language, but he was perfectly capable of saying “faith alone” if that’s what he meant. But the simple fact of the matter is that he never said that we are justified by faith alone.
The simple, plain fact of the matter is that the Bible never says that we are justified by faith alone, but it does say that we are not justified by faith alone.
Shouldn’t we pay attention to what the Bible actually does and doesn’t say, rather than trying to explain away what it does say, and read things into it that it doesn’t say?
The plain fact of the matter is this: Martin Luther invented the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Prior to Martin Luther it did not exist.
For 1,500 years, nobody saw the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the Bible.
Is the Bible really that bad at saying what it means on such a fundamentally important issue as salvation that it took 1,500 years for someone to finally figure it out?
The only things I might have to add to this, Lee, is that I see a difference between ‘the Bible does not say faith alone’, as a phrase, and ‘the Bible does not say faith alone,’ as an idea. For instance, Swedenborg accepts the Trinity (though not a Trinity of persons), and yet the Bible never uses the term once. Likewise, just because the Bible does not use the phrase ‘faith alone’ (at least not outside of James 2), it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t articulate that same idea. This isn’t an attempt to show that it either does or does not, but rather that emphasizing how the phrase is virtually never used, and how the other Biblical authors could have easily used that same language if ‘faith alone’ is conceptually what they intended to express, isn’t really a satisfactory basis by which to conclude that sola fide is anti-Biblical.
This is the very thing that the various Protestants I’ve debated on this subjects over the years, and right up to the present, say: that even if the exact words “we are justified by faith alone” don’t appear in the Bible, that’s what the Bible means, and it presents that concept.
There are several problems with this, most of which I’ve covered in the two earlier articles on faith alone linked at the end of the above article.
One of them, of course, is that James explicitly repudiated faith alone. So it’s not as though the Bible doesn’t ever use the term “faith alone.” It does use that term, and specifically rejects it as justifying, or saving a person.
But the bigger problem is that the Bible really doesn’t present the concept of faith alone. The only way to draw faith alone from the Bible is to yank the letters of Paul completely out of their historical context, and therefore to completely miss the point he was making with his statement that “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28).
I covered this in the article, “Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does,” so I won’t repeat the whole argument here.
Short version: “The works of the Law” means the observing of the Jewish ritual law of Moses, not good works in general. This was part of a roaring debate among the earliest Christian apostles and believers in the aftermath of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.
One thing I didn’t cover in that article, but probably should have, was the evidence of this debate within the Bible itself. Specifically, the so-called “Council of Jerusalem,” which scholars believe took place around 50 AD, and which is commonly thought of as the very first Christian council. This event, and the issue it was convened to resolve, is recorded in Acts 15:1-35.
If you read this passage for yourself—which I highly recommend—you will see that the burning issue was whether Gentile converts to Christianity should be required to be circumcised and observe the ritual Law of Moses that the Jews observe. One faction, based in Jerusalem, said yes; another faction, composed of Apostles who were evangelizing in Gentile areas, said no. And it was resolved overwhelmingly in favor of those who argued that it was not necessary to observe the Jewish Law in order to be a Christian and be saved.
This is the historical and doctrinal context in which Paul’s letters were written. And this is what he was talking about when he wrote that we are saved by faith without the works of the Law. He didn’t mean without good works. He meant without being observant Jews. And he didn’t mean “faith” in the sense of intellectual assent to particular beliefs, but rather confidence in and faithfulness to Jesus and his teachings. “Faith,” for Paul as for James, necessarily involved living according to the teachings of Jesus Christ (which, he said, fulfilled and superseded the Law of Moses). This is covered in the article, “Faith Alone Is Not Faith.”
Once the historical and doctrinal context in which Paul wrote is known and understood, a person can read Paul’s letters in a whole new light. Suddenly many things he says that seem obscure and convoluted become crystal clear.
For example, why does he keep talking about “circumcision” whenever he talks about being saved by faith and not by the works of the law? Once we realize the historical context, the answer is obvious: “circumcision” is a code word for being an observant Jew, meaning following the ritual Law of Moses.
Today, the issue of whether Christians have to observe the Jewish law his been settled for so long (nearly 2,000 years), that Christians don’t even think about it anymore. So when they read Paul, they may scratch their heads, wonder what he’s talking about, and come up with odd theories such as justification by faith alone. But in Paul’s day, whether or not Christians were required to keep the Jewish Law was a very big issue—and Paul’s letters simply can’t be properly understood if they’re yanked out of that historical context.
For a little more on how this issue was a key point separating Christianity from Judaism as a religion, see the second part of my answer on Christianity StackExchange here: How did the Christian movement distinguish itself from Judaism? (This link will have to do until I post the material about the Council of Jerusalem here on this website.)
TL;DR: Once you understand the hot doctrinal issues among the early Christian believers of Paul’s time—and specifically the debate over whether Christians must also be observant Jews—his meaning becomes blindingly obvious. And the idea that he was talking about “justification by faith alone” becomes obviously and utterly wrong because it is utterly irrelevant to the issues Paul was dealing with.
Martin Luther was simply wrong about this.
And Protestants have been simply wrong about it ever since.
Also, couldn’t, say, Catholics leverage the same criticism against Swedenborg that you are against Luther? That is, the Bible is so bad at saying what it’s trying to say that it took 1700 years and a new dispensation from God in order to reveal the true meaning of a text that was misunderstood by the orthodoxy? How much of Swedenborg’s interpretation of Scripture- particularly of key passages involved in the major divisions in Christianity- is plainly graspable to the reader outside of his commentary? I’m not asking to make a point, I’m just wondering how many of Swedenborg’s Biblical insights ‘jump off the page’ without his help.
Certainly the Bible makes extensive use of elliptical and metaphorical language. But my belief, drawing on Swedenborg’s approach to the Bible, is that when it comes to the basic teachings needed for salvation, the Bible speaks plainly enough that no particular interpretation is necessary beyond an understanding of the meaning of the words and idioms of the text of the Bible itself.
Swedenborg expresses it this way, in a traditional (and somewhat archaic) translation:
This comes as a surprise to many people—even to many Swedenborgians—who know about Swedenborg’s “correspondential” or symbolic way of interpreting Scripture.
And yet when it comes to Christian “doctrine,” which I interpret as meaning the fundamentals of Christian belief, Swedenborg states that it must be drawn from the plain, literal meaning of the Bible. In fact, he specifically disallows formulating church doctrine through the use of correspondences, saying that this is an unreliable method that should not be used. And when he himself explains and expounds the doctrines of true Christianity (as he calls it), he does not use correspondences as any kind of source or authority; rather, he provides supporting quotations from the plain, literal text of the Bible.
For my own relatively brief presentation of the basics of Christianity for Christian believers based on the plain teachings of the Bible, see: Christian Beliefs that the Bible Does Teach
It is a common charge that Swedenborg invented new doctrines seventeen centuries after the Bible was written. And certainly there are some new elements to his teachings. But when it comes to the basics, it would be more accurate to say that he revived and highlighted the key beliefs of Christianity that go all the way back to New Testament times.
For the most general example, up until Luther the whole body of Christianity taught that it was necessary to believe in Jesus, repent of our sins, and do good works in order to be saved. And that is what Swedenborg teaches too, for Christian believers. This is so obvious from the plain, literal teachings of the Bible that to this day Protestant theologians must use hair-splitting ratiocination to try to explain away the overwhelming teaching of the Bible that if we want to be saved, we must believe in Jesus, repent from our sins, and do good works of love and service to our neighbor.
A lesser known example is Swedenborg’s doctrine of redemption and atonement.
Today, the primary theory of atonement and redemption in Protestantism is Penal Substitution, which has existed as a theory only since the Protestant Reformation. Catholicism has a bit of a mixed bag, but ever since Anselm in the 11th century, it has moved toward Satisfaction theory, a doctrine Anselm developed.
However, before either Penal Substitution theory or Satisfaction theory existed—meaning for the first thousand years of Christianity—the primary theories of atonement and redemption were Ransom theory and Christus Victor. Swedenborg’s theory of atonement and redemption is not identical to either of these. However, it is basically a variation on Christus Victor. So rather than being a “new” theory, Swedenborg’s theory of redemption and atonement is actually a revival and further development of one of the two dominant theories of atonement that held sway for the first thousand years of Christianity.
In short, the key points of Swedenborg’s theory of atonement predate the current dominant theories of atonement in Catholicism and Protestantism by a thousand years.
Ironically, it is not Swedenborg’s theory, but the theories that hold sway in Catholicism and Protestantism that are much later developments, having been invented by known human theologians 1,000 and 1,500 years after Christ, respectively.
And the reason Swedenborg’s key teachings about redemption, atonement, and salvation have existed in Christianity all the way back to the beginning in New Testament times is that they are based on the plain statements of the Bible, which any Christian can read and understand without the need for fancy theological interpretation.
I hear you, Lee. With regards to the specific phrase ‘faith alone,’ my remarks weren’t intended to either support or discredit the notion that it’s a doctrine the Bible actually teaches. Rather, I just noticed a trend toward the end of your first reply question that, if the Bible intended to teach ‘faith alone,’ then why is the phrase almost never used, and I just felt compelled to reply with how that wouldn’t seem to be a tenable pillar on which to base a rejection of the doctrine (though I knew from the beginning you had plenty other arguments).
With regards to the meaning of James 2, is a ‘death faith’ the middle ground between having faith and having no faith? In one of our past exchanges I outlined a conundrum I was sensing between someone who has faith and yet does not live it out (through charity), wondering if that was, in fact, a spiritual contradiction- is it even *possible* to have a genuine faith that isn’t lived out? Wouldn’t that mean it wasn’t genuine in the first place? Or is James referring to a ‘living faith’ here, one by which there is a dynamic, interactive relationship between belief and action, not just a faith that’s *attested* to by action?
Also, you mentioned that Swedenborg’s explanation of atonement is essentially a variation of the Christus Victor theory that was held for the first thousand years of Christianity. Do you see any theological ‘difficulties’ with the fact that Swedenborg is essentially offering an improvement over the original understanding of atonement? In that it, again, suggests that the Bible wasn’t clear enough on the matter of atonement that the first Christians, while not necessarily ‘getting it wrong,’ didn’t get it completely right, and required a new dispensation by some 1800 years later to properly clarify the Christian idea of atonement? This comment of ‘was not originally taught, but was instead something that developed many centuries later’ is ironically one of the criticisms some people leverage against Anselm and Luther.
Finally, and still on the subject of Christus Victor: what is the role that reconciliation plays in the Christus Victor theory? One thing penal substitution and satisfaction theory does with unmistakeable clarity is tie it all in together with reconciliation with God, and some would contend that the dominant, overarching theme of the Bible as a whole is reconciliation. So how is that involved here? Interestingly, I haven’t seen many Protestant or Catholic positions that outright *reject* Christus Victor, but it seems they feel that, alone, it is insufficient, and combines with penal substitution, as these same early Christians still used the language of sacrificial atonement.
The reality is that when confronted with the fact that faith alone simply isn’t taught in the Bible, Protestants will grasp at any straw available to try to claim that it is taught in the Bible. They have produced many millions of words attempting to prop up Luther’s big error. None of those words adds up to anything other than further error.
About James 2, in many ways dead faith is worse than no faith at all. At least with a person who has no faith—who, for example, does not believe in Jesus in any way, shape, or form—there is no hypocrisy. Such a person is actually more able to repent and come to faith than one who claims to have faith but doesn’t feel any particular need to live by that faith. People who have dead faith think they’re good with God, when in fact, as James says, their faith will not save them at all, precisely because it is a dead faith that’s not supported by their actions. And yet, because they believe they’re already saved, they will not seek salvation. Their lot in the afterlife is actually worse than the lot of those who have no faith at all.
James lays it out quite clearly: faith without works does not “justify” us (meaning make us righteous and good people), and it is a dead faith. If the translation were more plain-English, his meaning would become almost tautological. It is good works that make us righteous, because righteousness is doing good works, almost by definition.
The only quibble with that definition is that the good works must be done from good motives: because we actually love and care about the people for whom we’re doing the good works. It is possible to do good works for other reasons, such as “for boasting” to use Paul’s term—in other words, to build up our own status, reputation, and power. In that case, though the works may be good outwardly, and may benefit the people for whom they are done, they are not good works inwardly, and contribute nothing to our salvation.
The fact that our motives determine whether our works are spiritually good and saving is one that many Protestants miss when they reject good works as saving. This, however, is why faith and works must work together in our salvation. If we do good works, but not because we believe in following the commandments of Jesus Christ for their own sake, but only for our own benefit, then indeed our good works don’t save us. That was Paul’s point in his rejection of good works done for “boasting.”
About Christus Victor and Swedenborg’s variation of it:
First, I should point out that having a correct doctrine of atonement is less important, Biblically speaking, than actually believing and doing what it takes to be saved. The Bible’s primary goal is not to teach correct doctrine, but to lead us to a good life based on faith in God and on loving God above all while loving our neighbor as ourselves. So the finer points of correct doctrine really aren’t a big issue from a Biblical standpoint.
If Swedenborg’s theory was a further development and refinement of one of the two major theories of atonement that existed for the first thousand years of Christianity, that’s a relatively minor issue compared to the invention of two brand new theories of atonement (Satisfaction and Penal Substitution) that simply didn’t exist prior to the lifetimes of their inventors, and that have no sound basis in the Bible at all.
The reason Christus Victor held sway for the first millennium of Christianity is because its basic idea stated quite plainly in the Bible itself. The Gospels themselves portray Jesus fighting temptation battles against the Devil, and quote him stating that he has been victorious over the Devil. In other words, Christus Victor held sway in Christianity because its basic principle is stated plainly in the Gospels themselves.
Swedenborg may or may not have even been aware of Christus Victor as a dominant theory of atonement for the first thousand years of Christianity. Primarily, what he did was look to the Bible, and read the same passages that gave rise to the Christus Victor view of atonement in the first place. And Swedenborg’s similar theory, too, is simply an elaboration of what the Bible itself says.
By contrast, none of the fundamental principles of Satisfaction theory or Penal Substitution theory are stated in the Bible. As I pointed out in this comment on Part 2 of this series, Anselm largely avoided basing his Satisfaction theory on the Bible. And no matter how much Protestants may tear their hair out about it, the Bible simply never says that Jesus paid the price, or penalty, for our sins.
So comparing those theories with Christus Victor and Swedenborg’s variation of it is really comparing apples to oranges. The idea that Jesus achieved redemption by conquering the Devil, hell, and death is stated plainly, if sometimes poetically, in the Bible itself. The idea that Jesus “satisfied God’s justice” or “paid the penalty for our sins” simply isn’t stated in the Bible. That’s the basic difference between them, from a Biblical and Christian standpoint.
And the Bible doesn’t state those later theories for a very good reason: because they’re false.
The Bible does state the basics of Christus Victor and Swedenborg’s similar teaching also for a very good reason: because it’s true.
On your final point, about reconciliation:
The reality is that the Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories utterly fail in achieving real reconciliation between humanity and God. That’s because they fail to actually bring human beings into harmony with God.
The Bible is not concerned with legalistic issues of crime and punishment. Yes, punishments are prescribed for crimes. But the reason is always to stamp out the evil and to warn others who might consider committing similar evils. In other words, the purpose of punishments is always practical, and never merely legal.
Satisfaction and Penal Substitution are essentially legal theories. They are concerned with obtaining a pronouncement or verdict of “not guilty” for humans, regardless of whether the humans in question are or are not guilty. In fact, both theories simply assume that the “defendants” (all humans living on earth) actually are guilty, and attempt to get a “not guilty” verdict for them anyway.
This is totally contrary to Biblical principles of reconciliation.
In the Bible, there is only one way for humans to be reconciled to God. (And it is always humans being reconciled to God, and not the other way around. See, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, which makes this very clear.) The only way for humans to be reconciled to God is for humans to stop sinning against God, and to start living according to God’s commandments.
This is the message of the entirety of the Old Testament. It is also the message of the entirety of the New Testament. Jesus sent his disciples out to preach “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It was the same message that the God of the Old Testament gave to his people: that their sins were bringing about their ruin, but if they repented and turned back to God by following God’s commandments, they would be saved and blessed.
Satisfaction and Penal Substitution posit that Christ satisfied the requirements of God’s justice without the need for humans to repent and stop being sinners. These theories of atonement are therefore utterly useless in bringing about any actual reconciliation between humans and God according to the Bible’s teachings and standards of reconciliation.
Christus Victor and Swedenborg’s doctrine of atonement brings about reconciliation in this way:
At the time of the First Coming, humanity had reached such a low ebb spiritually that the Devil (evil and hell) was in the ascendancy, and had gained so much power that it was getting to the point where even people who wanted to be faithful to God were unable to do so, because the evil influences on them were so strong. This is portrayed in various ways in the New Testament. One of those ways was by portraying the common phenomenon of people being possessed by demons against their will.
Through Jesus Christ’s life on earth and his battles with the Devil and hell, he gained a complete victory over that rampant power of evil, and reduced it to order and subjection to his power. He therefore turned away the killing blow that the Devil had aimed at humanity, and in this way saved all of humanity from eternal death. This is explained a little more fully in the article, “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?” starting with the subheading “What is Redemption?”
By defeating the rising power of evil and bringing the spiritual world and our spiritual environment back into balance, Christ restored our spiritual freedom, and made it possible for us to be “born again” if we choose to do so.
Reconciliation then happens when we actually are born again. This happens when we believe in Jesus Christ and his message, repent from our sins, and begin a new life of love for God and love for our neighbor. And this, of course, involves a lifelong process of setting aside our wrong desires, thoughts, and actions, and replacing them with good desires, thoughts, and actions. This is something we can’t accomplish through our own power, but must accomplish through the Lord’s power working in and through us.
So the actual process of reconciliation is the same as the one that’s described throughout the entire Bible. It is a process of “ceasing to do evil and learning to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17), which brings us into harmony with God’s will, and thus brings about reconciliation between us and God.
Satisfaction and Penal Substitution fail to bring about any reconciliation at all because they involve mere pronouncements of “not guilty” without any actual change in the people who are pronounced not guilty—who continue to be just as sinful and guilty after that pronouncement as before.
Only if the sinners so exonerated actually go on to repent of their sins and live a good life do they actually achieve any reconciliation with God. But those theories of atonement do not require them to do so in order to be saved. It is considered an after-effect of “justification” and “salvation”—when in fact the repentance from sin and living a good life actually is justification and salvation.
So in fact, Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theory fail to bring about any reconciliation at all between humans and God, except perhaps as an adventitious after-effect.
But Christus Victor, and Swedenborg’s variation of it, do bring about reconciliation first by making it possible for humans to repent from sin and begin a new life, and then by teaching them that they must repent from sins and live a good life if they wish to be saved.
Hi Lee, and thanks for all that. As usual, the breadth of your reply isn’t one I can nor am qualified to do full justice to, so I’ll mine from it the most pressing detail. I understand what you’re saying about how a dead faith can be worse than no faith, and I wasn’t describing it as a ‘middle ground’ to suggest that it’s in any way better on a hierarchy of things. I brought that up because it seems Protestants would believe that you either have faith or you don’t- ‘dead faith’ isn’t an authentic faith that is dead, but is maybe just an intellectual acceptance of something. With regard to James 2, how do Protestants interpret the idea of a ‘dead faith?’ Through Catholicism and similar ‘salvation and works together’ theologies it seems clear that it means a faith that either has not been brought to life or stripped of life, but I’m unclear on how a ‘you either have it or you don’t’ theology accounts for it.
This is actually really important, because consider this example: let’s say someone reads the Bible (and we’ll just say in this case through Swedenborg’s eyes), and in that process they experience an inner transformation- they find themselves filled with love of God and love of neighbor. But then imagine that same person then goes out into the world fails to act on that inner transformation. Simple enough, it seems- that person is a hypocrite. But wait a minute: if it is *true* that this person is transformed and genuinely loves other people, how could they fail to act? ‘Acting’ would seem to be a necessary condition for this to be true. If a man loves his wife, but does not act on that love…can we say he truly loves her? Or is it a ‘dead love?’
That’s what’s confounding me about ‘dead faith.’ It seems here that James is referring to faith as something you just believe to be true. After all, according to this passage even the demons have faith. So the issue then is can faith transform us without works? I can absolutely see that happening, like in the above example. And if so, is it possible for them to fail to act on that? If not, and if an inner transformation means that acting on it will inevitably follow, then it sounds like you’ve got a case of salvation by faith. Hope this makes sense.
My, oh my! You do like to tie your brain up in knots! 😛
But yes, underneath it all, these are important questions. Instead of responding with a lot of abstractions and hypotheticals, I’ll provide you with some illustrations from the Bible, and from real life.
But first, I would not presume to speak for Protestants on the finer points of their interpretation of the Bible. I’ll leave it to them to say how they interpret the idea of “dead faith.”
Now about your example of inner transformation that fails to make it into action:
Yes, some people do experience an inner transformation upon encountering Christ and the Gospel; but it is a shallow transformation, with no depth of root. They may have an ecstatic experience of love and joy; but it is only like going to the movie theater and watching an uplifting movie, and then going back to real life where they go back to their same old life of drudgery and depression. And soon that ecstatic experience withers away, and they are just as spiritually dead as they were before. No transformation has taken place.
This is not an experience of salvation by faith. It is an experience of a “transformation” of one’s surface emotions only, but not of the whole self. For salvation to occur, the entire person must be transformed, not just the person’s momentary emotional state.
Faith is not a binary thing that you either have or you don’t. Otherwise the disciples would not have said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). If faith can be increased, then it is not binary, but has many levels and gradations. Faith is not something we just suddenly have. It is something that starts small, then grows larger and stronger, like the mustard seed, which, as Jesus said in his parable, starts as the smallest of the seeds, but grows to become like a tree so that the birds can nest in its branches (Matthew 13:31-32).
Getting a little more abstract for a moment, Swedenborg says that it is possible for the intellect, or thinking mind, to rise up to great heights of insight, understanding, and inspiration. But if the heart and the hands don’t rise up with it, the intellect sooner or later falls back to the level of the heart and hands, and resides there.
So ultimately, a “salvation” that is only of our faith is not real. It is only a flight of fancy or of emotion, with no expression and no foundation. And without a foundation of living a good life in the practical, everyday world, it will soon crumble and fall apart. That’s what Jesus was teaching us when he said:
So to use your example, a husband who says he loves his wife, but doesn’t act on that love, does not actually love his wife at all. Love is not a mere feeling or sentiment. It is an active substance and force in our being that does express itself in action. Just as our real faith is the beliefs that we act on, so our real love is the love that we act on. If we don’t act on it, it is neither faith no love. A man who says he loves his wife but treats her poorly does not love his wife at all.
As Jesus said:
Why do you appear to be the same person against whom you preach against. You cherry pick verses without context and then make judgements based on them.
You base a lot of your argument on James 2:24. But you intentionally or unintentionally ignore the context of James 2.
James 2 states that out of faith comes deeds. A faith that is genuine is one that produces fruit. May be you can see the similarities between fruits and deeds.
See all of Jesus’s parable about fruits including the seeds that feel on good soil producing thirty times more fruit and the fig tree that didn’t produce fruit.
What is common amongst these is faith came first.
Once you understand that fruit is essential to validating your faith, you must then investigate what are the fruits in question.
Thanks for your comment and question.
I’ve heard many times from Protestants that deeds come from faith, are the result of faith, and so on, and that this is what James was talking about. But I simply don’t see James saying that deeds come out of faith. He says, rather, that the two of them are to work together:
He does not say works flow from faith, but rather that faith and works are active together with one another. Even saying that faith is “brought to completion” by works is not the same as saying that the works come from the faith. Rather, it is saying that without works, faith is not complete.
In fact, works do not come from faith, or flow from faith. Rather, they flow from the Lord, as he himself taught:
So it’s not accurate to say that good works come from faith. Good works come from God. Faith is only a conduit for them. It would be more accurate to say that good works flow from love—specifically from God’s love and from our love for God and the neighbor—and flow through faith, which directs and guides them into productive channels.
As for faith coming first, that is simply how we humans experience it temporally. When we first begin to have faith in God—and for Christians, in Jesus—we begin to examine our life, and recognize that we are sinners in need of repentance. Then, guided by that faith, we begin to stop sinning, and start doing good works instead. The good works don’t come from our faith. They come from Christ dwelling within us. But we are guided toward Christ and toward doing good works by our faith, and our faith shows us how best to do good works. So although we humans experience faith as first, it is actually God’s love that is first. When faith opens our mind and heart to the love of God, we then begin to accept God’s love and do good works from it.
God’s love is always first.
The Protestant idea that good works flow from faith is simply mistaken. And you are mistaken in saying that James says this. Read James 2:14-26, on faith and works, for yourself. Nowhere does he say that good works flow from faith. Rather, he says that our works express and complete our faith. But the works themselves come from God, as Jesus teaches in the passage from the Gospel of John that I quoted above.
Further, the commonly quoted passage from Ephesians does not say that we are saved by faith, but that we are saved through faith:
“Grace” is another word for God’s love. We are not saved by faith. Rather, we are saved by God’s love, and God is able to do this through our faith, because our faith causes us to turn to God, open our soul to God, and allow God to flow into us and through us into good works, as it says just two verses later in Ephesians:
The Protestant minimizing of good works and over-emphasis on faith simply doesn’t match what the Bible itself teaches. And in particular, the Bible does not teach that works flow from faith, but rather that good works flow from God through those who have faith.
Also why do you exaggerate to your readers with the following statements to back up your point:
1) most protestants do not know about James 2:24
2) two thirds of the world is Catholic or orthodox so they must be right.
Point 1 is highly acknowledged and debated in protestant circles. Just because Martin Luther had issues with it does not mean that protestants today have no answer to it. Why do you make your opposition appear to be dumb amateurs.
2) The two thirds were born in to the faith and we all know how many of them are actually genuine Christian.
Sorry for being disrespectful but an insecure theologian seeks to convince but a confident one puts the facts on the table and walks away.
I think you sometimes spend a lot of time and effort fighting points of contention (eg. faith vs deeds) rather than fighting ignorance (eg. biblical faith vs false faith).
Where did I say that most Protestants don’t know about James 2:24? I never said that.
And where did I say that the two-thirds of Christianity that is Catholic or Orthodox must be right? I never said that either.
Please don’t attribute to me things I never said.
I speak out against the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone because it is false and contrary to the plain teachings of the Bible, and it leads many people astray.
I understand that many Protestants who innocently believe in salvation by faith alone simply because that’s what their pastors teach them are still good Christians. And they’re good Christians precisely because they actually live by what Jesus taught, just as James, Paul, and all of the rest of the New Testament writers teach us we must do if we wish to be saved.
Read Romans 2:1-16. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
And read Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus simply couldn’t be clearer that people of all the nations who do good for their fellow human beings will go to eternal life, while those who do not will go to eternal punishment.
Martin Luther erred badly when he invented the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And Protestants have been misled ever since by this doctrine that originated from a human being, not from the Bible.
Fortunately, God does not judge us by our beliefs but by our actions pursuant to our beliefs. So even people who believe false doctrines such as salvation by faith alone will still go to heaven if they live by the teachings of Jesus.
God is ONE. (Deuteronomy 6:4) However, we know that Jesus is God because of John 8:24, John 8:58, John 10:30-33, John 20:26-28, and some others. As for Christ being righteous, us being born with original sin and Christ imputing His righteousness, HERE YOU GO MY FRIEND: Romans 6:23, Hebrews 4:14-15, 1 Peter 2:21-24, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Romans 5:19. I am not sure how people can read these verses and interpret them as anything other than what they mean. Jesus called Himself God and almost got stoned for it. Jesus was either God or He was a liar. Period. And if He was a liar then He is not righteous and His death on the cross was for nothing. We can not earn our way to Heaven by doing good works (Ephesians 2:8-9). As James says it is our works that justify our faith but it is not our works that save us.
Hi Foundations of Sapphires,
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.
Yes, God is one. That is a fundamental teaching of the Bible. God is not three. God is one.
And just as John 1 teaches, Jesus Christ is God made flesh—God come to earth to live among us. Not some “second Person” of God. God himself bent the heavens and came down in order to save us from our sins.
Though there is not time to cover all of your Bible references in detail, I would point out that not a single one of them says that Christ’s righteousness was “imputed” to us. Here, instead, is what they say (quoting one of the passages you reference):
Christ suffered for us “leaving us an example, so that we should follow in his steps.”
Christ lived a sinless life, and suffered because of our sins so that “free from sins, we might live for righteousness.”
In other words, Christ, through his suffering, his example, and his conquering of sin, made it possible for us, also, to leave behind sin, and to live for righteousness instead. Christ made it possible for us to leave behind our old life of sin, and begin a new life of loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
When we do this by faith in Christ and his example, and through Christ’s power, his righteousness is not “imputed” to us; rather, it dwells in and works through us because Christ himself is dwelling in us and working through us. As he said:
No, we don’t earn our way to heaven by doing good works. The good works we do are heaven in our lives, because they are God’s goodness working in and through us. To be in God, to be in Christ, is to be in heaven.
Further, to be completely accurate, we are saved neither by our faith nor by our works:
We are not saved by faith, but through faith. That’s because we are saved by the grace of God, which is another word for the love of God. So we are saved neither by our faith nor by our works. We are saved by God, out of God’s love, and our salvation is a gift to us from God.
It is as great an error to think we are saved by faith as it is to think that we are saved by works. Both our faith and our works come from God. Both are gifts of God in us. And both are God’s salvation working in and through us. Without them both, we are not saved, because we are rejecting God’s truth (faith) and God’s love (good works) from our life. And we cannot be saved when we reject God’s presence from our lives.
You and many others quote Paul. There’s however quite a number that think Paul was no apostle but rather an imposter who claimed to be struck by God’s light on the way to Damascus. The problem with Paul’s recitation of the experience is apparently that in some written accounts there were no witnesses yet in others there were albeit in different modes of having witnessed Paul’s sudden conversion.
Paul’s “conversion” certainly is a curious thing no matter what! In a way I suppose it’s a bit like Swedenborg’s experiences in that one must take a leap of faith that what he experienced was true. The main difference however that I see with Swedenborg is that he already had the written Word, quotes from it, and yet AFAIK Paul didn’t. His contention with James a “true” apostle is a red flag to me as well.
Frankly Frank. 🙂
Hi Frankly Frank,
In light of this, you may be interested to know that Swedenborg did not include the writings of Paul, or any of the other Epistles, or the Acts, in his canon of scripture in the New Testament. Only the Gospels and the book of Revelation. In his earlier theological works Swedenborg rarely quotes from the Acts or the Epistles. In his later works, especially True Christianity, in which he’s specifically addressing a Protestant audience, he quotes from them quite a bit more. Though he didn’t view those books as Scripture, he did view them as “good books for the church,” helpful in providing teachings (“doctrine”) and building up the church.
For more on Swedenborg’s canon of Scripture, see this question, and my answer, on Christianity StackExchange: What writings are held as “biblical canon” by Swedenborgians?
Paul certainly was a complex character. Some of the things he said are questionable in light of today’s societal views. But he was unquestionably a major force and influence on the development of Christianity—and not all of that influence was bad. He was right in his argument with the Jerusalem Christians that Christians need not follow the Law of Moses (see Acts 15:1-35). And if that principle had not been established, Christianity would never have been anything more than a small, esoteric sect of Judaism. He was not the only apostle making that argument. But he was probably the strongest voice for it. And that’s what his statements about being saved by faith apart from the works of the Law are really all about.
[…] rejection of many traditional Christian beliefs. The excellent Rev. Lee Woofenden’s blog post on the faulty foundations of faith alone was my first introduction to Swedenborg. At the time, it was more provocative than […]
I could see how “original sin” and what’s mentioned in later parts would be foundations for faith alone, but I didn’t think that trinity was a foundation for faith alone.
This is explained in the above article. To offer a little more detail:
Justification by faith alone works within the Protestant penal substitution version of the satisfaction theory of atonement.
In Protestant penal substitution theory, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins by dying on the cross. This penalty was required due to the wrath of God the Father at our sins, which required punishment before it could be satisfied and appeased. Jesus, who was the incarnation of God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity of Persons, paid that penalty instead of us. Jesus’ blood on the cross assuaged the wrath of God the Father, and acquired merit (or righteousness) for Christ in the eyes of God the Father. This merit is then imputed to sinners who believe that Christ paid the penalty for their sins.
Without the Trinity of Persons, none of this works. If God the Father and God the Son are not two separate persons, but God is one Person who has three “essential components” as Swedenborg teaches, then having one part of God pay the penalty to satisfy another part of God would make no sense. It would be like your right hand punishing your left hand for something your left hand did. But it was you who did it. You are one person, not three. So punishing one part of yourself to satisfy another part of yourself would be ridiculous, not to mention schizophrenic.
Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone requires that there be one Person of God who pays the penalty to satisfy the justice and wrath of another Person of God. The third Person of God then conveys, or imputes, the merit and righteousness so acquired to sinners who believe in Christ. Without the Trinity of Persons, the entire doctrine falls apart.
Does this mean that the fellowship of the Trinity is not Biblical? The Father, Son, and Spirit having fellowship?
Did God have fellowship before the creation?
Right. The fellowship of the Trinity as conceived of by Nicene Trinitarians is not biblical. It is one element of their real belief, which is in three gods. These three gods, they believe, had fellowship with one another before Creation. Or in plain terms, they kept each other company when there was no one else to keep them company, because no one else had yet been created. Obviously, if there were three keeping each other company, that means there were three gods. That in itself is contrary to what the Bible teaches, which is that there is one God.
Philosophically and cosmologically, this idea of the fellowship of the Trinity before Creation also shows an old, outdated, and untenable view of time and space in relation to God and Creation.
As we now know, time and space are not some independent gridwork in which the universe exists. Rather, they are properties of the material universe. As properties of the material universe, they do not and cannot exist except in the material universe. This means that there is no time before the creation of the universe, because time itself came into existence with the creation of the universe.
In other words, there is no such thing as a “time before Creation.” Before Creation, there was no time. This is why temporally, there is no such thing as “from eternity.” Time began with the beginning of the created universe. Before that, there was no time. Therefore time started at a particular time, commonly known as the Big Bang. Before that, there was no time.
Further, God is not subject to time and space, because God is not a material entity, made of physical matter, but a divine entity made of divine substance, which is divine love.
This is why the idea that God needed a Trinity of Persons (really, three gods) to keep one another company for the eternity of time before God created the universe is a fundamental error and misunderstanding of God, Creation, and reality in general. God exists outside of time. God experiences all time in a single present awareness that sees past, present, and future in one view. For God, there was never a “time” when God was alone, with no one to keep God company, because for God, all human beings, past, present, and future, are eternally present in a divine Now.
I realize this is hard for us time-bound humans to grasp with our time-bound minds. Nevertheless, unless we at least have an intellectual understanding that God exists outside of time, and is not subject to the passage of time, we cannot rightly understand the nature of God, of Creation, and of the reality that we inhabit.
In short, not only is the idea of the fellowship of the Trinity unbiblical, it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God and Creation.
Continuing on, it occurred to me just yesterday that the supposed fellowship of the Trinity, or God from eternity sharing love by the Father loving the Son, the Son loving the Father, and both loving the Holy Spirit, as well as the Holy Spirit loving both, takes away the very reason for Creation itself. Here is a lengthy quote from Swedenborg’s Divine Love and Wisdom that explains why:
Now, if God actually is one, as trinitarians say, but do not really believe, then the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all loving one another would be divine self-love, which is not real love. Clearly, even by conceiving of such an idea, trinitarians demonstrate that they actually believe in three gods, not in one God.
But beyond that, if God were able to satisfy God’s love by loving the other members of a Trinity of Persons, there would be no need for Creation at all, and no need for any human beings. God would be completely sufficient in God’s own self, and would have no reason to create a universe in which there are human beings whom God could love.
Fortunately for us, the whole idea of the fellowship of the Trinity is utterly false and even blasphemous. Fortunately for us, God does not engage in infinite self-love, but in infinite love for other, non-divine beings whom God has created, especially human beings.
Trinitarians argue that this is fallacious because it would mean that God needs other beings. But God doesn’t need other beings. Rather, God wants other beings to love, because that is the nature of God’s love. And what God’s love wants, that God’s love is able to bring about, because God is also infinite in power.
Trinitarians would have Creation, and people in it, be purely an afterthought of an already entirely self-sufficient trio of gods who have been perfectly happy keeping one another company through an eternity of time up to the moment of Creation. But if that were true, there would be no purpose for Creation, and no Creation would ever have happened.
Even all of this is only scratching the surface of just how unbiblical, wrong, fallacious, and blasphemous the idea of a Trinity of Persons keeping one another company from eternity is. This idea is so wrong-headed and destructive that if it were true, it would destroy all of Creation before it could even come into existence.
I just saw your web site today.
I loved the answer you gave Mary, concerning hating her mother.
I use a similar argument when advocating for civil disobedience when the government abandons its God given role of ‘Punishing evil and rewarding good’ or even worse ‘Rewarding evil and punishing good’.
I am fascinated by your writing.
I have just a couple foundational questions.
Where do YOU fine truth?
What is your “Epistemology”?
Often, you reference the Bible. What is your hermeneutic? ex: Verbal Plenary Inspiration (God Breathed)?
Thank you for your reply.
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and questions. I’m glad you’re finding our website thought-provoking.
Resisting corrupt authorities is a complicated issue. It’s not always clear what the best course of action is. But I do believe that there are cases in which civil disobedience is the right course of action. It all depends upon the circumstances. In general, resisting the existing authorities is not something to be done lightly, but only after careful thought and consideration of the likely consequences, and whether the actions contemplated are likely to bring about real improvement. Generalized destructive protesting tends to do more harm than good to a society.
About your questions:
When I am seeking truth about material things, such as the nature of the physical universe, I look to natural science. That is the best tool we have to figure out how things work in the material realm.
When I am seeking truth about spiritual things, and about God, I look to revelation.
All revelation starts as direct experience of God and spirit given to human beings still living here on earth. Some revelation then gets written down as the various sacred texts of humanity. While not rejecting other revelations, being a Christian, I look first and foremost to the Bible as the primary place where God has communicated divine and spiritual truth to us in written form.
As for epistemology, I believe that truth, both material and spiritual, is knowable both through direct experience and through the experiences and teachings of other enlightened and wise people over the ages. At the same time, I believe we must evaluate what we read and hear based on all we have learned so far, and on the structure of knowledge we have built up, accepting what accords with our understanding of truth and rejecting what does not. And if we reach a point at which we realize that our current structure of knowledge is inadequate or even faulty, then we must do the difficult work of tearing down what needs to be torn down, and rebuilding a better conceptual structure.
My view of the Bible (“hermeneutic”) doesn’t fall easily into any of the existing Christian categorizations. I do believe that the basic teachings about God and salvation of any church that claims to be Christian should be stated plainly in the literal sense of the Bible. And in my view, the teachings of the vast bulk of churches that call themselves Christian fail this test. See:
“Christian Beliefs” that the Bible Doesn’t Teach
At the same time, I believe that the entire inspired Word of God contains deeper spiritual and divine meanings relating to our personal process of “regeneration,” or spiritual rebirth, and to the Lord’s (Jesus Christ’s) process of “glorification,” or becoming fully one with the Father, who is God, during his lifetime on earth.
The inspiration of the Bible, in my view, is not a matter of it being literally accurate scientifically and historically, but a matter of it containing spiritual and divine truth within its literal meaning throughout. But it also does contain right in its literal meaning the basics we need for Christian faith and life.
For a plain-English explanation of my general view of the Bible, please see:
Can We Really Believe the Bible?
In understanding the Bible, not to mention God and spirit generally, I do look to another set of writings that I believe are revelation: the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). Swedenborg’s writings are not an extension of the Bible, nor are they on the same level as the Bible. But they do provide new light on the old truths expressed in the Bible, not to mention a clear view of the afterlife, and a better understanding of Christianity. For more on what Swedenborg’s writings are and are not in my view, please see:
Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?
I hope this gives you at least basic answers to your good questions. Feel free to follow up with more thoughts and questions as the spirit moves you.