Peter Leithart on “sola fide”

I saved this post in my drafts a while back, but never published it. Here it is:

In his letter resigning from the PCA, Jason Stellman wrote this about sola fide:

Regarding Sola Fide, I have become convinced that the teaching that sinners are justified by a once-for-all declaration of acquittal on God’s part, based upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone, is not reflective of the teaching of the New Testament as a whole. I have come to believe that a much more biblical paradigm for understanding the gospel—and one that has much greater explanatory value for understanding Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John—is one that sets forth the New Covenant work of the Spirit, procured through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, as internally inscribing God’s law and enabling believers to exhibit love of God and neighbor, thereby fulfilling the law in order to gain their eternal inheritance (Rom. 8:1-4). While this is all accomplished entirely by God’s grace through the merits of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it is at the same time not something that occurs through the imputation of an external and alien righteousness received through faith alone. Rather, as Paul says, God’s people are justified by a faith that works through love—itself the fruit of the Spirit—and with God’s law inscribed on our hearts and minds we sow to the Spirit and reap everlasting life (Gal. 5:4-6, 14, 16, 22; 6:8).

Leithart responded that Stellman is following a stream of Reformed theology that strips down the meaning of the gospel so that it only refers to justification by faith. Looking at 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, Leithart notes, “Not a word about justification, imputation, active or passive obedience.  Justification is an essential dimension of Paul’s gospel; it is not the sum total of it.  The good news is the announcement of the kingdom; it is, as NT Wright has put it, the story of ‘how God became King.'”

Leithart continues:

Second, Jason says that the biblical paradigm of the gospel emphasizes the work of the Spirit who inscribes the law of God on human hearts so that believers fulfill the requirement of the law and by doing good in the power of the Spirit inherit eternal life.  The faith that justifies is a faith that works through love.  I find Stellman’s brief summary of Paul quite accurate, but I think he’s wrong to conclude that his views on this issue have put himself outside the Reformed faith.  Why can’t he say this: We are justified by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and also the Spirit inscribes the law on our hearts so that we reap everlasting life?  Or, following Richard Gaffin, why can’t we say that God’s reckoning us righteous and the Spirit’s work of putting the law in our hearts are both fruits of the reality of union with Christ?  Why can’t we say: The “external and alien righteousness” by which we are justified is Jesus Christ Himself, the Righteous One, to whom are are united by faith?  And then why can’t we say: Jesus Christ the Righteous is no inert resident of my heart, but active and powerful by His Spirit?

Much of Reformed theology has seen no need to polarize the way Jason does.  On Galatians 5:6, Calvin writes: “It is not our doctrine that the faith which justifies is alone; we maintain that it is invariably accompanied by good works; only we contend that faith alone is sufficient for justification. . . . Paul enters into no dispute whether love cooperates with faith in justification; but, in order to avoid the appearance of representing Christians as idle and as resembling blocks of wood, he points out what are the true exercises of believers.”  The Westminster Confession of Faith itself (11.2) makes the same point: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”   The Westminster Confession (33.1) says that at the final judgment each will “receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.”  The Westminster Confession (16.2) connects good works to our inheritance of eternal life in much the same way Jason does: “These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.”

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One thought on “Peter Leithart on “sola fide”

  1. Leithart asks, “Why can’t he say _________?” “Why can’t he say _________?” “Why can’t he say _________?”

    It seems clear to me, that Spellman can’t say any of those things because NONE of them mention the role of the individual in salvation. He seems to believe that Scripture teaches our cooperation is part of the cause of our salvation: not that we can accomplish it on our own without God’s grace, but that we do have a role to play in our own salvation beyond simple faith.

    It is no coincidence that the only time the phrase “faith alone” appears in Scripture is in what Luther termed the “espistle of straw” and tried to have thrown out of the Bible, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

    Really believing that a man is justified by works and faith together through God’s overarching grace clearly puts one outside the reformed tradition.

    Obviously, I know that there are ways Protestants interpret these things, but when Leithard asks, “Why can’t he say_______?” one of those statements ought to at least mention someone other than God acting. After all, Scripture does so when people ask “What must I do to be saved?” Thus one would think at least one of Leitharts statements would mention a role for humans other than just faith if the statements were truly representative of how Scripture answers the question. Humans are actors in the great drama of salvation, not simply objects to be acted upon.

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