What Does the Bible Say About Faith Only?
There is a sense in which "faith only" is true, and a sense in which it's false.
“Faith only” or “faith alone” has been a major debate and discussion for centuries. It’s often seen as a “central doctrine” of the Protestant Reformation.
From my studies, I think there is a sense in which “faith alone” is false. But I also think there is a sense in which “faith only” is true.
I’m going to use “faith only” and “faith alone” interchangeably in this article, as both phrases are commonly used.
The Sense in Which “Faith Only” is False.
It is often argued that all a person must do to be saved is to believe. Some of the passages that are usually referred to include:
And he brought them out and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" So they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household." (Acts 16:30-31)
…that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
What must be believed?
John Piper mentioned some things that must be believed.
You must believe you are a sinner who has fallen short of the expectations of Almighty God. Therefore, you are under His holy judgment or wrath upon sin.
You must believe in the deity of Jesus, the Son of God.
You must believe that Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life, that He died in your place, was buried, and rose from the dead so that you might live.
While there may be some things that one must believe that could be added to this list, I agree this list is the core of what must be believed.
Is belief all that is necessary to be saved?
My problem with “faith only” is when people are told that all they have to do to be saved is believe.
We do find people being told to believe - so belief is necessary. But belief is not all sinners are told to do to be saved.
For example, when the crowd who heard Peter and the other apostles preach the gospel realized their sin and who Jesus is, they asked, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). We are told what the answer was.
"Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." (Acts 2:38-40)
Question: Were these people saved when Peter gave this response? Clearly, they were not saved yet because Peter urged them to “be saved from this perverse generation.”
What did these people believe at this point?
That Jesus was crucified according to God’s plan, He was buried and rose from the dead according to the Scriptures.
That they had sinned by rejecting and crucifying the Lord and Christ and now stood guilty before God and were subject to His holy judgment and wrath.
They pretty much believed the list of things given by Piper in the list mentioned earlier - and yet Peter still urged them “to be saved.” The ones who listened to Peter’s urging “were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (Acts 2:41).
The verse mentioned earlier from Acts 16:30-31 includes something similar in the following context.
Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household. (Acts 16:32-34)
The jailor is said to have “believed” after he was taught more - because he probably knew very little if anything about “the Lord Jesus Christ” - showed repentance for his sins by washing the stripes of Paul and Silas and was baptized.
The word “believe” often stands for the entire response to the gospel of Christ - for example, the “believing ones” in Acts 2 were the ones who responded to what was preached by submitting to what Peter told them to do. Another example of this would be Ephesians 2:5-9, where Paul mentions Christians have been saved “by grace through faith.” God’s entire plan of salvation is in view here - “it is the gift of God.”
I put these examples forward for your consideration because we don’t see people merely believing - or accepting as true - what was taught to them about Jesus and being saved.
The Sense in Which “Faith Only” is True.
So, I’ve pointed out the sense in which I believe “faith only” is not true. But I think there is a sense in which it is true.
If by “faith only” we mean we are saved by the faith in Christ Jesus apart from the deeds of the Law, apart from meritorious works, or from human wisdom or philosophy - then I would agree with that, and I believe the Scriptures make this abundantly clear.
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Romans 3:21-28)
What is Paul's point here?
We are justified “by faith” - “by the law of faith,” not the Law of Moses or “the law of works.” Paul discussed that further in Galatians 3:1-14.
The Law of Moses brought us to Christ “that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). In Christ Jesus - and we get into Christ by putting Him on in baptism (Galatians 3:27) - everyone is an heir of God according to the promise made to Abraham (Galatians 3:28-29).
Paul again stresses this point in Colossians by reminding his readers that Christ is the way of salvation - not human philosophy, the law of Moses, or carnal living (Colossians 2:1-3:11).
So if by “faith only” we mean “the law of faith” or “the system of faith in Christ Jesus” - then I would wholeheartedly agree with that.
I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on this.
I think it’s important to think about things we may have heard for a long time and make sure they’re things we find support for in God’s word.