Faith Alone, the Doctrine of Justification What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters by Thomas Schreiner

Thomas Schreiner, professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, contributes this volume on Sola Fide to the 5 Solas Series, published by Zondervan and edited by Matthew Barrett.  The book is broken down into three parts, the first being a “Historical Tour of Sola Fide.”  This is an excellent overview of how the Church Fathers, the Roman Catholic church, the Reformers and Puritans, as well as Edwards and Wesley, understood justification.  Schreiner defines justification as “being right before God.  Justification, then, refers to how we attain righteousness” (p. 26).  One of the primary distinctions often debated concerning the doctrine of justification is whether it is forensic – that is, a declaration of righteousness (taught by Reformers) or transformative – that is, it actually makes believers righteous (taught by Rome, following the lead of Augustine (pp. 30, 34-35, 38).  Most of the earlier Church Fathers apparently did not address these distinctions, but virtually all of them, as well as the Reformers and those who have followed in their footsteps, have believed that, while works cannot save, they nevertheless are evidence of genuine conversion (pp. 33, 40, 48, 61, 83-84, 88-89).   “Salvation is received by faith alone but saving faith is not alone” (pp. 62, 68), is the common refrain among Reformers.   There have been some however, such as Richard Baxter (p. 73) and John Wesley (p. 91), who rejected double imputation.  They did not question justification by faith alone, nor that our sins are imputed to Christ.  But they challenged the idea that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer.

The second part of the book is a tour through the biblical and theological teachings on Sola Fide.  Here Schreiner provides excellent support for Sola Fide form the NT (pp. 112-113), unpacks the debate concerning faith in Christ verses the faithfulness of Christ (pp. 124-132), exposes the New Perspective on Paul teachings of N.T. Wright (pp. 137-143), traces the subject of righteousness through the OT (pp. 149-152), defends forensic righteousness (pp. 158-169) and imputed righteousness (pp. 182-190), shows that mere mental assent is not saving faith (pp. 191-199), and proves that works are an evidence of salvation (pp. 199-206).

In the final part Schreiner addresses some of the contemporary challenges to Sola Fide, in particular the New Perspective as championed by N.T. Wright (pp. 239-261), as well as recent developments within Roman Catholicism (pp. 209-238).

The only serious concern in this work is the strange phraseology found on numerous occasions that seem to imply that works are necessary for final salvation (pp. 11, 72, 76-77, 87, 93, 191, 199, 243).  John Piper, in his foreword, sets the agenda by claiming Sola Fide teaches that one is “right with God by faith alone [but does not] attain heaven by faith alone.  There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God…Love and obedience…is ‘required of believers, but not for justification’ – that is, required for heaven, not for entering a right-standing with God” (p.11).  Apparently Richard Baxter and John Wesley also believed in two justifications, “one at the inception of the Christian life and one on the last day.  The second justification is dependent on perseverance, and thus works are a condition of justification” (pp. 76, 77 cf. p. 93).  N.T. Wright would concur (p. 242).  Schreiner himself seems to take the same route when he writes, “We must carefully attend to the relationship between faith and final perseverance since the latter is a condition for final salvation” (p. 72), and “I will show later…that good works are necessary for salvation” (p. 87).  Schreiner adds, “The NT clearly teaches that bare faith cannot save, and that works are necessary for final justification or final salvation” (p. 191).  The author explains himself when he adds, “Merely saying one believes isn’t the same thing as saving faith…faith without accompanying works is not a saving faith” (p. 191).  What Schreiner is apparently trying to prove is that saving faith will be evident through works, and so-called faith that does not produce works does not save.   However, the quotes above are confusing at best.   They are easily misunderstood and seem to imply that justification comes in two stages – an initial justification on the basis of faith and a final, eschatological justification that is based on our good works.  That is exactly what Baxter, Wesley, N.T. Wright and apparently Piper teach.  It would be wise for Schreiner to distance himself from such ideas rather than using almost identical language only to clarify himself at a later point.

Aside from this issue, Faith Alone is an excellent and useful contribution to our understanding of Sola Fide and justification.

Faith Alone, the Doctrine of Justification What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters by Thomas Schreiner (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015) 288pp., paper $19.99.

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel