“The Very Essence Of Christianity – Historic evangelicalism has therefore always treated justification by faith as a central biblical distinctive—if not the single most important doctrine to get right. This is the doctrine that makes authentic Christianity distinct from every other religion. Christianity is the religion of divine accomplishment—with the emphasis always on Christ’s finished work. All others are religions of human achievement. They become preoccupied, inevitably, with the sinner’s own efforts to be holy. Abandon the doctrine of justification by faith and you cannot honestly claim to be evangelical.
Scripture itself makes sola fide the only alternative to a damning system of works-righteousness: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5, emphasis added).
In other words, those who trust Jesus Christ for justification by faith alone receive a perfect righteousness that is reckoned to them. Those who attempt to establish their own righteousness or mix faith with works only receive the terrible wage that is due all who fall short of perfection. So the individual as well as the church stands or falls with the principle of sola fide. Israel’s apostasy was rooted in their abandonment of justification by faith alone: “For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3).
Biblical justification must be earnestly defended on two fronts. No-lordship theology (the error we dealt with in the November/December issue of Pulpit) twists the doctrine of justification by faith to support the view that obedience to God’s moral law is optional. This teaching attempts to reduce the whole of God’s saving work to the declarative act of justification. It downplays the spiritual rebirth of regeneration (2 Cor. 5:17); it discounts the moral effects of the believer’s new heart (Ezek. 36:26-27); and it makes sanctification hinge on the believer’s own efforts. It tends to treat the forensic element of justification—God’s act of declaring the believing sinner righteous—as if this were the only essential aspect of salvation. The inevitable effect of this approach is to turn the grace of God into licentiousness (Jude 4). Such a view is called antinomianism.
On the other hand, there are many who make justification dependent on a mixture of faith and works. Whereas antinomianism radically isolates justification from sanctification, this error blends the two aspects of God’s saving work. The effect is to make justification a process grounded in the believer’s own flawed righteousness—rather than a declarative act of God grounded in Christ’s perfect righteousness.
As soon as justification is fused with sanctification, works of righteousness become an essential part of the process. Faith is thus diluted with works. Sola fide is abandoned. This was the error of the Galatian legalists (cf. Gal. 2:16; 5:4). Paul called it “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6, 9). The same error is found in virtually every false cult. It’s the main error of Roman Catholicism. I’m concerned that it may also be the direction many who are enthralled with “the New Perspective on Paul” are travelling.