What do Protestants mean by salvation by faith alone?

I am a bit confused as to what many protestants mean by “salvation by faith alone.” I was at a protestant church a few months back where the pastor said that you only need to faith to be saved. He specifically instructed people not to try to become a better person, but to just pray and let God make all of the changes for you. This seems to fit the what salvation by faith alone would mean.

Other preachers I have heard seem to be sending mixed signals on what faith alone means. At a pentecostal church that my mother took me to for awhile when I was younger preached faith alone, but some other teachings seemed to conflict with this idea. On a weekly basis, the pastor there would remind the congregation that if they were not giving ten percent of their income, they may as well count on a seat in hell. I may be wrong, but it seems like if tithing (a work) was necessary for salvation, then they were really preaching faith and works of some kind.

I also noticed many people at this same church wearing WWJD bracelets. It seems if one believed in salvation by faith alone, he or she would not need to be so concerned with imitating Jesus. Again, maybe I am missing something.

I also once encountered a street corner evangelist who believed in salvation by faith alone, who warned others of the dangers of hell for those who engaged in various sinful practices (lying, stealing, sexual immorality, etc.). Once again, this did not seem to be salvation by faith alone to me.

Can anyone here explain exactly what protestants mean by salvation by faith alone?

I will not speak for “protestants” - indeed no one can since “protestant” covers a whole range of beliefs and understandings. In fact, if I may digress a bit, the term "protestant is only useful in describing that collection of faith communities who trace their lineage directly or indirectly back to the Reformation. After that, the term gets very murky in so far as describing any set of beliefs and teachings.

Anyway - to offer my opinion on the subject and thread title. What is meant is going to vary from community to community. This will be based on how the particular person, preacher or group defines the term “faith”.
On the one extreme, some seem to equate it with simple belief.
Others recognize in it things that are much deeper and more complex.

The key is going to be in how they define “faith”. So in this thread that is what I would be looking for. How does each non-Catholic responder understand this term “faith”. What is involved in a living and saving “faith”?

Looking forward to the replies.

Peace
James

Most mainline Protestant churches believe that justification is through faith alone but not faith that is alone. True faith is accompanied by works. Our works in this life however cannot reach God’s standard which is perfection. Jesus tells us:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(Mat 5:48 ESV)

As Augustine wrote, anything that is not is not done solely for love is not done as it should be.

Thus the end of every commandment is charity, that is, every commandment has love for its aim. But whatever is done either through fear of punishment or from some other carnal motive, and has not for its principle that love which the Spirit of God sheds abroad in the heart, is not done as it ought to be done, however it may appear to men. For this love embraces both the love of God and the love of our neighbor, and “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” we may add the Gospel and the apostles.

Augustine (The Enchiridion, Chapter 121)
newadvent.org/fathers/1302.htm

Neither can we be perfectly righteous in this life.

A Psalm of David. Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.

(Psa 143:1-2 ESV)

Therefore the first commandment about righteousness, which bids us love the Lord with all our heart, and soul, and mind (the next to which is, that we love our neighbour as ourselves), we shall completely fulfil in that life when we shall see face to face. But even now this commandment is enjoined upon us, that we may be reminded what we ought by faith to require, and what we should in our hope look forward to, and, “forgetting the things which are behind, reach forth to the things which are before.” And thus, as it appears to me, that man has made a far advance, even in the present life, in the righteousness which is to be perfected hereafter, who has discovered by this very advance how very far removed he is from the completion of righteousness.

Augustine (On the Spirit and the Letter, Chapters 64)
newadvent.org/fathers/1502.htm

We are to be judged by our works but those works are imperfect. However through faith righteousness is imputed to us. God sees our works through our faith in Jesus so any faults in our works are covered and our works become acceptable to God and we can be confident when we are judged by them. However this is only because of faith. Justification through faith alone allows us to pursue sanctification and work out our salvation by making our imperfect efforts satisfactory to God.

All it means is that it’s not your works which saves you, it is faith in God. There is nothing that you can do to earn it only Jesus could have done that.You are expected as a christian though to do good works and abstain from sinning. So, from their viewpoint, let’s say there is a man/woman who is a good person does not lie/steal/kill, feeds the hungry etc. but does not believe in God…that person will not enter heaven. Another way you may have heard it expressed is that “faith in Jesus is the only way” to enter heaven (even if you are a good person)

Lol, the WWJD bracelets seems to be an american thing though so I am not sure you can attribute it to all protestants. Although it is a good reminder of the question we should always be asking ourselves if we are followers of Jesus.

Just a little side note too, not all protestants believe in the faith only theory. A small number of denominations do teach that there are certain “works” you have to do to earn your place in heaven.

SyCarl. You said:

Our works in this life however cannot reach God’s standard which is perfection.

Would your theology say: Our faith in this life however can reach God’s standard which is perfection?

If the answer is “no”, why use this argument against “works” in some way factoring in to our justification?

God bless.

Cathoholic

Hi JK,
I moved the important question to the top.

Can anyone here explain exactly what protestants mean by salvation by faith alone?

Its shorthand. I can’t speak for other communions, but as a Lutheran I believe that I am justified by Grace alone, through faith in Christ. Grace saves, and faith which is itself a gift of grace, the way one accesses justification.

=JK8619;12185468]I am a bit confused as to what many protestants mean by “salvation by faith alone.” I was at a protestant church a few months back where the pastor said that you only need to faith to be saved.** He specifically instructed people not to try to become a better person, but to just pray and let God make all of the changes for you. This seems to fit the what salvation by faith alone would mean.**

While I would not reject the truth that sanctification is the work of the Spirit in us, Paul seems clear that we are to "work out our salvation in fear and trembling. That doesn’t mean that our works save us, but it also doesn’t mean that we play no role in becoming a better person. Guided by the spirit, we receive grace through the means of grace, hearing His word, receiving the sacraments, then using the strength we receive from them, we become better people, striving to help our fellowman, and returning to His grace when we falter or fail.

Other preachers I have heard seem to be sending mixed signals on what faith alone means. At a pentecostal church that my mother took me to for awhile when I was younger preached faith alone, but some other teachings seemed to conflict with this idea. On a weekly basis, the pastor there would remind the congregation that if they were not giving ten percent of their income, they may as well count on a seat in hell. I may be wrong, but it seems like if tithing (a work) was necessary for salvation, then they were really preaching faith and works of some kind.

A sad error in mixing Law and Gospel.

I also noticed many people at this same church wearing WWJD bracelets. It seems if one believed in salvation by faith alone, he or she would not need to be so concerned with imitating Jesus. Again, maybe I am missing something.

If I am justified by grace alone through faith, then I (should) want to do those things Christ commands of us. He tells us the first important command is to love the Lord your God, and that the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself.

I also once encountered a street corner evangelist who believed in salvation by faith alone, who warned others of the dangers of hell for those who engaged in various sinful practices (lying, stealing, sexual immorality, etc.). Once again, this did not seem to be salvation by faith alone to me.

Repeated, unrepented sin leads to a loss of faith, clearly.

Jon

QuestLove. You said . . .

There is nothing that you can do to earn it only Jesus could have done that.

.

Would you say your faith can “earn” salvation?

Trent says our faith or our works or anything else of us cannot earn salvation. But once we are saved by undeserved Grace and have the power of the Holy Spirit in us, we must grow in faith, hope and charity. We must continue to be justified.

Do you agree with this?

I think you are going to reply that you already pointed out Jesus saves. And I agree. The issue is HOW? Does Jesus give us faith ALONE, by grace or is there MORE that Jesus gives us?

Once you admit that Jesus can supernaturalize our faith (its not our faith but God’s gift of faith IN us), I am going to ask you if Jesus can supernaturalize our works too (its not our works, but God at work in you both for the will and good pleasure of the Father).

Is our justification a mere moment? Or is our justification a moment followed by a lifelong process?

The other obvious question your theology raises is: Do you HAVE to do good works (assuming you can. I.e. an adult of sound mind) or can you go to Heaven by ignoring good works?

You will probably say I do good works because of my faith (I would say that is partially true. You do them because of Grace), but the question remains . . . do you HAVE to?

Thanks for the replies, everyone. I think I understand the perspective a little better now.

This journal would go into it more: chnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/salvation.pdf

Any question that starts by asking for an explanation of the protestant view of something is already hopeless. Nobody has the authority to speak for “protestantism” so you’ll get lots of different answers and no one of those speaking has any greater claim than another.

The best answers will be like JonNC’s and will be specific to one particular kind of protestant view.

Myself, I’ve heard protestants holding to very similar views as catholics on the matter and protestants claiming that nothing that we do on earth has any relevance at all. It’s all over the board.

And in fairness, you can easily find voodoo practicing catholics… and of course there’s Nancy Pelosi! The difference, of course, being that at least with Catholicism there is somewhere you can go to get authoritative decisions and answers.

Right, but on justification the basic “justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone” position is clearly the classic, mainstream one and is held by most Protestants. Some Protestants are indeed antinomian heretics who think that you can have living faith without doing good works. And the Reformed and those derived from them who hold to “perseverance” or “eternal security” have to do a difficult little dance when dealing with people who seem to have had faith but then persistently live in sin. The usual explanation is that they were never clearly regenerate, but some will also admit that a person may have true faith and live in unrepentant sin for quite a long time. Which leads to the question: could a person die in that state and still go to heaven? At that point we’re approaching antinomianism again.

Those Protestants who don’t believe in eternal security don’t have this problem.

Wesleyans, Pentecostals, Restorationists, and Anabaptists are the most willing to make good works a condition of final salvation, and are in fact sometimes accused by other Protestants of believing in “works righteousness” for this reason.

Edwin

The classic Protestant view would be that this isn’t how faith works, for two related reasons:

  1. Faith is a gift of God, not something we produce by our own effort, and
  2. It does not itself merit anything but simply accepts the merits of Christ. Thus, careful Protestants will say that we are “justified by grace through faith.” Grace justifies, and faith is just the “receptacle” as it were. This is why Luther suggested that infants may be able to have faith, and may indeed be the ideal believers!

Modern evangelicals typically believe strongly in free will and tend to treat faith as if it were indeed a human decision (hence the language “decide for Christ” or “accept Jesus into your heart,” which Calvinists and other more traditional Protestants typically find worrisome). I have sometimes, in a polemical mood, accused such Protestants of believing in “salvation by one very easy work,” especially when they also believe in eternal security while rejecting the other, more challenging aspects of Calvinism.

Trent says our faith or our works or anything else of us cannot earn salvation. But once we are saved by undeserved Grace and have the power of the Holy Spirit in us, we must grow in faith, hope and charity. We must continue to be justified.

Once I understood this (coming from a Wesleyan Holiness background and hence relatively close to Catholicism on this issue) I realized that my objections to Catholic doctrine on this point had been based on a caricature.

The key point Catholics need to make, I think, is indeed that in Catholicism both faith and works are gifts of God! As St. Augustine put it, “When God rewards our merits, He is crowning His own gifts.”

The other obvious question your theology raises is: Do you HAVE to do good works (assuming you can. I.e. an adult of sound mind) or can you go to Heaven by ignoring good works?

You will probably say I do good works because of my faith (I would say that is partially true. You do them because of Grace), but the question remains . . . do you HAVE to?

The typical answer is that you “have” to not in the sense of “do them or else” but in the same sense that a healthy apple tree “has” to produce apples.

Edwin

Well no, I don’t think that most protestants teach that justification is a mere moment. The only exception I am aware of are Jehovah’s witnesses (are they considered protestant? christian?) who believe in an elect and so it doesn’t matter what the elect does, they will still go to heaven.
The fact that most Protestant churches have the concept of “back-sliding/disfellowshipping” shows that it is not a free-for-all. Getting saved is not “get out of jail free card.” As a saved christian, who has confessed Jesus you can’t just go on sinning. In fact, the first thing you are taught is that living your christian life is a daily process.

So, most Protestants believe that the “faith apart from works is dead” and you will show good works if you are indeed transformed.

James 2:14
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

Ephesians 2:8
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

Ephesians 2:10
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

In fairness, catholics should remember that the underlying concern most protestants (see how I did that?) have on the matter is to emphasize the fact that human fallenness is so severe that mere human willpower isn’t enough to regain what was lost. We need a Savior and the Grace that He brings. If you’re going to screw up doctrinally, you can certainly start with worse motivations than that!

The analogy I find useful when explaining the catholic understanding of Grace, faith and works is that of a hiker fallen into a glacier crevasse. He’s stuck down there and can’t get out. No matter how hard he tries, he won’t be able to get out. His Savior tosses him a rope and offers to pull him up. The Savior will do the heavy lifting, but the hiker needs to hang on! Hardly a scenario that puts the hiker in a bar several hours later bragging about how he was responsible for saving himself, and yet that’s precisely the criticism catholics mostly get from the evangelical world.

You bring up a good point here. To which I might add my two cents. When growing in holiness, and cooperating with graces provided by the Holy Ghost, we naturally want to help others (good works), as we grow in love of God and neighbor. But there are those who, as they grow in holiness, may not have the opportunity to help others, but they can still do “works,” such as prayer and penance. One of my favorite saints, St. Mary of Egypt, spent the last years of her life in the dessert, living a severe austere life as a form of penance for her sins as a former prostitute. She grew very much in holiness, and when her body was found about a year after her death, it was incorrupt. So “works” can mean many things. Sometimes it means just working on becoming a better person, not necessarily because we fear Hell (though Hell is a concern) but because we want to please God, and not offend Him.

I actually like that example. It is similar to the example used by my my pastor except instead of a hiker he uses a drowning man in his analogy.

The righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer (just as the believer’s sin and debt were imputed to him, as he incurred God’s wrath at the cross) by the sovereign action of the Holy Spirit, who quickens the believer to new life (regeneration) and this leads to the believer becoming conscious of his sin, repentance, and trust in Christ for his forgiveness. This comes about by the means of grace alone (the Word and sacrament ministry of the church - you’re not going to become a believer by seeing Jesus in the mirror) and the sole instrument of justification is faith.

Faith is never “alone” in that good works come about as the necessary fruits of a true and lively faith. But it is the faith that justifies.

:nope:

Titus 3:7-8 so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life. 8 The saying is sure.

James 2:20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, 23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.

I’d quibble by saying that it’s GRACE that is primarily responsible. Attempting to parse out the response to Grace that is both faith and works is really quite futile.

Exactly! Faith and works are inextricably linked and can no more be separated than the soul can be separated from the body. To speak of works as if they were absent of faith does nothing to further the sola fide position because no one has ever claimed that works without faith gets us anywhere.

It is the grace of God and our response to that grace that matter. We are called into relationship with God and a relationship requires participation by both parties.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.