As this is a very well-known and oft-used phrase, let’s pretend someone asked me, “Wes, do you believe a person is saved by faith alone?” I actually would not answer with either a “yes” or a “no” answer. Here is how I would answer the question of whether or not we are saved by faith alone.
What do you mean by, “faith”?
The first thing I would do in this hypothetical conversation would be, establish what the person means by “faith.” Many people do not seem to understand what the biblical authors meant when they used the word “faith.”
The Greek word for “faith” is “pistis.” That word carries with it not only the idea of belief, but more importantly the ideas of devotion, trust, and loyalty. The word “pistis” can also be translated “faithfulness” (see Romans 3:3 and Galatians 5:22). When the biblical writers said a person had faith, they didn’t just mean the person believed in the existence of Jesus. They meant the person had given their loyalty and devotion to Jesus, trusting in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice as the basis of their salvation.
I would want to know if the person asking this question understands that faith implies trust and devotion.
What do you mean by, “saved by faith”?
I would also want to know what this person means when they talk about being saved by faith. That phrase is shorthand. When the apostle Paul preached, “we have been justified by faith” (Romans 5:1), he didn’t mean we are justified by any type of faith. He meant we are justified by putting our faith in Jesus.
A Buddhist, a Hindu, or a Muslim has faith; but their faith will not save them because the object of their faith is not able to save them. After all, when we say we are “saved by faith,” we don’t actually mean that our faith – in and of itself – saves us. We mean, the Person in whom we put our faith saves us.
The Apostle Paul went to great lengths to convince both Jews and Gentiles that they were all “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1; Galatians 3:24). By that, he meant the basis of their right relationship with God was not circumcision or keeping the Law of Moses, but was faith in Jesus Christ. The big question of Paul’s day was, “In addition to becoming a disciple of Jesus, do Gentiles also need to be circumcised?” Paul would say that faith in Jesus – becoming Jesus’ disciple – is the only thing that mattered; circumcision had nothing to do with it.
In our imaginary conversation, is that what is meant by “saved by faith”?
What do you mean by, “alone”?
I have no problem with the word, “alone” as long as I know what a person means by it. If I show up at a restaurant and the greeter asks, “Will you be dining alone this evening?” I know she doesn’t mean, “Will there be any other people in the whole restaurant while you eat?” Obviously, I will not be “alone” in that sense. So, when someone says, “Saved by faith alone,” I want to know in what sense they mean, “alone.”
Though he didn’t use the word “alone,” I think Paul would agree we are saved by faith alone, in the sense that we are not saved by faith in Jesus AND circumcision. He would also agree we are saved by faith alone, in the sense that we are not saved by faith in Jesus AND because our own merit (Ephesians 2:18-19); he taught that our good works are a result of our salvation, rather than our salvation being the result of our good works (Ephesians 2:20).
Sadly, some people use the word “alone” to mean they reject baptism as a condition of salvation. The apostle Paul taught that baptism was tied to salvation because baptism is the ceremony through which you put your faith in Jesus. He wrote:
“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).
Many people today see a contradiction between the ideas of being saved by faith and baptism being necessary for salvation. The biblical authors saw no contradiction between those ideas.
A person is saved solely on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ. They put their faith in Jesus Christ by penitently being baptized in water for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:1-7; 1 Peter 3:21). There is no contradiction there. That is exactly what the New Testament teaches from beginning to end.
Faith without works?
Finally, a word must be said about James 2:14-26, where James tells his readers, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (vs. 24). There is no contradiction between what James wrote and what Paul wrote. James is simply helping us understand that biblical faith is a faith that moves us to do something. If your faith doesn’t move you to action, James says it is “dead” and “useless.”
James is essentially teaching Christians that Jesus did not intend for us to sit around being philosophers. It is not enough to know, believe, or understand the right things. Your knowing, believing, and understanding must drive you to action. Faith must be visible through your deeds.
So if a person is using the idea of “saved by faith alone” to comfort them in their spiritual laziness, they need to hear the words of James. They need to stop talking like a Christian and start living like a Christian. They need to stop wishing people well and start feeding and clothing the poor (James 2:15-16).
Biblical faith means devotion to Jesus and devotion to Jesus can be seen in how you live.
I love you and God loves you,