A recent comment on the article, “What is the biblical basis against Sola Fide (salvation by faith alone, apart from works)?” led to a multi-part question by a regular reader of this blog named Rami. You can read his comment here. If you do, it will be clearer what this post—which is a lightly edited version of my comment replying to Rami—is responding to.
Here it is, with headings added:
Yes, I’ve had Protestants make all of these arguments in response to my attacks on justification by faith alone and penal substitution as being unbiblical and false.
However, all of these arguments have major problems. I’ll take them in the order you present them.
There is no confusion about the theme of the Bible
First: The Bible is quite clear in many places what it’s about.
Just to pick one: salvation.
In the Old Testament, salvation is mostly about physical life and death, prosperity and ruin. And the Old Testament is crystal clear in passage after passage that these are the stakes, and that if you do this you’ll receive life and prosperity, whereas if you do that you’ll receive ruin and death.
The New Testament is also very clear that if you repent from your sins and live a life love and service to God and the neighbor instead, you will be saved spiritually, and if you don’t you will be doomed spiritually.
I completely disagree that the Bible isn’t all that clear on what its theme is. Based on my extensive reading of the Bible, it is very clear, and there’s really no need for fancy human theologians to “figure it out” for people and provide some “larger theological interpretation.” Any person with basic reading comprehension can read the Bible and get a pretty good idea of what it’s about and what you have to do to be saved.
Even people who have had false, unbiblical doctrines hammered into their heads still commonly live according to what the Bible teaches, and are saved thereby. That’s how clear and powerful the Bible is. It can cut through all of our human confusion and fallacy, and still convey the message of eternal life to those who sincerely seek it.
There are far better ways to understand the Bible
Second: Protestant doctrine is very far from “the only way to make sense of the Biblical data.”
Emanuel Swedenborg made far better sense of the entire Bible, and everything in it, while rejecting the entire edifice of Protestant doctrine.
But it’s not just Swedenborg. For 1,500 years, Christians of all stripes made sense of the Bible without a single Protestant doctrine, because neither Protestantism nor its signature doctrines of justification by faith alone and penal substitution existed.
In short, the idea that justification by faith alone and penal substitution are “the only way to make sense of the biblical data” is not only wrong, but just plain silly.
People do need to know what to believe and do to be saved
Third: No, it’s not necessary for people to understand the mechanism of salvation. There are many abstruse, non-common-sense doctrines about the mechanisms of salvation in Swedenborg’s theology that I believe are true, but that no one really needs to know in order to be saved.
However, people do need to know what they themselves must believe and do to be saved. And the Bible is quite clear on these subjects, without the slightest need for the doctrines of justification by faith alone and penal substitution.
In fact, those doctrines do real damage to the Bible’s teaching on what people must believe and do to be saved. They make it sound like believing is far more important than doing, when the Bible says the opposite. Faith and belief in the Bible are useful only in leading people to repent from their sins and to live a good life, which is what actually saves people. Penal substitution makes it sound like it doesn’t matter if we’re sinners because Christ paid for all of our sins anyway.
No matter how many times fancy theologians say that you still have to repent, not sin, and live a good life, what comes down to ordinary folks from their doctrine is, “If I believe the right thing, I’ll be saved.” And the corollary is, “Even if I sin, I’ll be saved.” There are millions of Protestants who think this way, despite all the fancy theologistics that fancy Protestant theologians engage in.
These doctrines confuse people’s minds and do damage to the plain, clear teachings of the Bible about what leads to eternal life.
The Protestant “hermeneutic” flatly contradicts the Bible.
Fourth: Any “larger hermeneutic” to justify justification by faith alone and penal substitution has a further basic problem. Not only is the Bible clear on what we must believe and do to be saved, but it states very clearly that the key Protestant doctrines of justification by faith alone and penal substitution are wrong.
I simply don’t see how the Bible could be any clearer than to say:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
Now, if there were other passages in the Bible saying that we are justified by faith alone, there might be some room for doubt.
But there aren’t.
That is the only passage anywhere in the Bible that even mentions faith alone, and it specifically rejects the idea that we are justified by faith alone.
And as for penal substitution, there are multiple passages in the Bible saying that God is utterly opposed to the whole principle behind it. Here are some of them:
Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. (Exodus 23:7)
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” (Exodus 34:6–7)
The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished. (Numbers 14:18)
When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. (Deuteronomy 25:1)
Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the Lord detests them both. (Proverbs 17:15)
Whoever says to the guilty, “You are innocent,” will be cursed by peoples and denounced by nations. (Proverbs 24:24)
The Bible is very clear that God detests acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—which is exactly what the doctrine of penal substitution says God does. The Bible says that God will not acquit the guilty and will not leave the guilty unpunished—which is exactly what the doctrine of penal substitution says God does. It says that God condemned Jesus, the only totally innocent person ever to live, to die on the cross, and that as a result of the death of this innocent person, acquitted every guilty sinner who believes that Jesus died instead of him or her.
So it’s simply not a matter of the Bible leaving things open for a “larger hermeneutic” to determine that justification by faith alone and penal substitution are correct doctrines. The Bible specifically and emphatically rejects them both.
There is no real theological muscle behind these doctrines
Fifth: I used to think that there was “enough thoughtfulness and intellectual muscle” in Protestant ranks to make their doctrines at least sound plausible. And when I was young, I used to think that somewhere in the Epistles it said what they believe.
Then I engaged in several close readings of the Epistles, and found that no, it never says what they believe.
And then, more recently, I read most of two books by eminent contemporary Protestant theologians (Thomas Schreiner and R. C. Sproul) on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And I found them so weak, nonsensical, and downright foolish that I no longer believe Protestants have even a single theological leg to stand on, or even a single valid argument for their doctrine. If the best contemporary Protestant theologians are reduced to basically saying, “Justification by faith alone is true because it’s the fundamental doctrine of the church, so that’s what the Bible must mean and that’s what people must believe,” then they have lost all credibility with me.
I finally grew so frustrated with the circular logic, sloppy thinking, and just plain dumb (if you’ll excuse my French) readings of various Bible passages that I couldn’t take any more, and stopped reading halfway through the second book. I simply couldn’t force myself to wade through so much fallacious muck any longer.
If that’s the best that the best Protestant theologians have to offer (these books were recommended to me by a theologically knowledgeable Protestant), then it’s clear to me that the Protestant theologians’ “intellectual muscle” is so weak and flabby that they can’t even do a single bench press for their doctrine, let alone put really solid muscle behind it.
Really, I was shocked at how weak their arguments were. I expected at least to have to exercise some of my theological muscle refuting them. But their arguments were so shoddy and full of holes that it was more like poking a finger through a used tissue.
There is absolutely no good reason to believe these doctrines
Finally, to sum up: There is absolutely no good reason to believe in justification by faith alone or penal substitution except that various Protestant theologians and many Protestant preachers insist that they’re true. And that’s not a good reason to believe something. The Bible not only doesn’t ever say these things. It explicitly rejects them. And there are far, far better “hermeneutics,” or in ordinary language, ways to understand the Bible, than these specious doctrines offer.
Further, these doctrines make God out to be a horrible, insane tyrant who sends billions of people to be eternally roasted in fire, even if they’re good, wonderful loving, caring people, just because they don’t believe the “right” doctrine, and who takes pleasure in seeing his own son brutally murdered as a payment for other people’s sins.
These doctrines are full of horrific blasphemy against the good name and character of God. Not only are they unbiblical and false, but they are the worst kind of stinking theological feces flung in the face of God. That’s why so many ex-Protestants are now atheists. They recognize those inhuman and insane doctrines for what they are, and they want no part of it.
So yes, I’ve heard all of these arguments. And they are all completely specious, wrong, and false.
There is absolutely no good reason to believe in either justification by faith alone or penal substitution, and there are massive reasons not to believe them. Really, they are outside the pale of reasonable theological discourse. They are a theological version of believing that the earth is flat:
Best line in the video: “It’s not okay to think that the earth is flat. This is not a viable argument.”
It’s not okay to think that we are justified or saved only by what we believe, and not by the way we live.
It’s not okay to think that God considers us innocent because God punished Jesus instead of us for all of our sins.
These are not viable arguments.
For further reading:
- What is the biblical basis against Sola Fide (salvation by faith alone, apart from works)?
- Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does
- Faith Alone Is Not Faith
- Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?
- The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 5: Jesus Paid the Penalty For Our Sins?
- The Logic of Love: Why God became Jesus