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Historical Protestantism (particularly in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions) have since the Magisterial Reformation held to two doctrines relating what is required of an individual for salvation.

The first is the doctrine of Sola Fide, meaning "by faith alone". This principle states that salvation is not by works of man, but by faith in Christ. In fact, not only are works insufficient to merit salvation on their own, they account for not even a portion of our salvation--it is, rather, wholly through faith in Christ.

The second doctrine was worked out by Luther and put into its present form by his collaborator and successor, Melancthon. This doctrine is simply a definition of faith, or sometimes known as the three aspects of faith--as such, it is intended to explain what is required of the "faith" for salvation "by faith alone". The doctrine has three steps:

  1. notitia One must know the basic information (or "content") such as Christ's death and resurrection.
  2. assensus One must agree that the basic information is correct. In other words, he/she must not only have heard that Christ died and rose again, but they must believe that he did do that.
  3. fiducia One must trust in Christ, and rest on the knowledge that the content to which he/she assented is sufficient to save.

It is this last piece--fiducia--that I struggle with reconciling with the concept of Sola Fide. Scripture makes clear that these first two points are insufficient (James 2:19), and on the face of it, it makes sense that we must trust in Christ for our salvation.

Where I struggle is that fiducia puts faith in functional terms. This means that, although in theory, I trust in Christ for my salvation, I don't always do so in practice.

Here's an example: I'm can be a bit of a control freak, and sometimes yell at my wife in trying to assert my control. I am not loving her as I'm commanded to do so, and it stems from my pride. Although I think I trust in Christ for my salvation, my actions show that I am considering another functional 'gospel' (control) of 'salvation' and another function 'god' (myself) that will effect that 'salvation'.

When I stop and think about it, I know that I am no god, and that my gospel is no gospel, but I do stumble and my actions reveal my heart. In fact, I would argue (and Luther has) that every sin follows such a pattern.

To come at the problem more directly, this notion of fiducia makes my faith dependent upon my works, whereas "Sola Fide" asserts that salvation is through faith and not works. How does this puzzle fit together?

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Related (but different) question: What is faith? –  jimreed Oct 21 '11 at 13:59

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The question of whether the act of having faith constitutes a "work" in opposition to sola fide was considered by Karl Barth. He firmly identifies sola fide as "the opposition of faith to all and every work [...] no human work as such either is or includes man's justification (not even the work of faith as such)." 1

He explicitly disclaims the idea that we can "self-justify" by possessing faith:

"Justification by faith" cannot mean that instead of his customary evil works and in place of all kinds of supposed good works man chooses and accomplishes the work of faith, in this way pardoning and therefore justifying himself. As his action, the action of sinful man, faith cannot do this.

Nor does it make any odds whether a man means by faith a mere knowledge and intellectual understanding of the divine work and judgement and revelation and pardon (notitia), or an assent of the mind and will to it, the acceptance as true of that which is proclaimed as the truth of this work of God (assensus), or finally a heart's trust in the significance of this work for him (fiducia). It is not in and with all this that a man justifies himself, that he pardons himself, that he sets himself in that transition from wrong to right, from death to life, that he makes himself the subject of that history, the history of redemption. 1

The language of "subject" and "object" is important here. The object of faith - Jesus Christ - already exists, and having faith does not change the fact of his existence, nor the saving work that he has already accomplished. We are the "subjects" who do the believing, but that faith is always to be understood as coming from above:

[The believer] has not created his own faith; the Word has created it. He has not come to faith; faith has come to him through the Word. He has not adopted faith; faith has been granted to him through the Word. [...] Man acts as he believes, but the fact that he believes as he acts is God's act. Man is the subject of faith. Man believes, not God. But the fact that man is this subject in faith is bracketed as a predicate of the subject God, bracketed in the way that the Creator encloses the creature and the merciful God sinful man. 2

If we thought that we were achieving justification (or even sanctification) under our own power, that would deny the necessary humility which is a component of true Christian faith: "Man can glory neither in his faith nor in his works." 3

In becoming the "subject" of faith, we are reinvented or regenerated by God, in a "mutual indwelling". This process will not be accomplished instantaneously, and fiducia is not seen as the cause so much as it is one of the means by which it takes place:

Trustful faith is the appropriate counterpart to the fidelity of God as actualized and revealed in His judgement and verdict, and it is particularly an imitatio Christi insofar as the obedience of humility is a true reflection of divine condescension, a human re-enactment, a human mimesis and imitation. Not as if this human re-enactment itself justifies man, since all of this is merely man's doing, yet without this re-enactment faith would not be justifying faith, and would not be a concrete response to Christ. 3

In summary, there is a real problem to be reconciled. Barth achieves the reconciliation by a strong commitment to sola fide; he uses the three aspects of "realization", "acknowledgement" and "acceptance" but does not believe that they can cause justification independently of God's choice. Rather, they are part of the means of the working out of our salvation: by them, we respond to God's call, and through the process of achieving faith we are regenerated according to God's design.

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, "Justification by faith alone".
2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1, "The Word of God and faith".
3 Hans Küng, Justification: the doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic reflection, ch. 15 "Through faith alone", 1964 (translation of Collins, Tolk and Granskou).

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The apparent contradiction stems from a misunderstanding of "works," and specifically of what Paul wrote about them. Two passages in particular tend to cause a lot of confusion:

Romans 10:9

That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

Ephesians 2: 8-9

8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.

Some people have taken this to mean that salvation comes by some simple act of claiming faith and that after this, the person is saved and salvation is not affected by a person's works. This is a very bad notion, because of what you get when you take it to its logical conclusion: "I have free license to sin because I'm saved and what I do doesn't matter!"

This isn't a hypothetical problem, either. Here's what Richard Hill, an 18th century Wesleyan theologian, had to say on the subject:

"God sees no sin in believers whatever sin they commit... adultery, incest and murder shall, upon the whole, make me holier on earth and merrier in heaven."

This notion is in direct contradiction to the words of the Savior, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, where he taught that not only do sinful actions put us in spiritual danger, but also sinful thoughts. Of particular interest are his words at the conclusion of the sermon:

Matthew 7: 21-23

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

In verses 22 and 23, the Savior reaffirms that works of righteousness do not bring salvation if the person's heart is not in the right place and they do not truly know Jesus, but in verse 21, we see what appears to be a direct contradiction of Romans 10: 9.

James 2, which has already been quoted, states that faith without works is dead and cannot bring salvation. Peter warned his readers about misinterpreting Paul and wresting the scriptures to their own destruction. And John, in Revelation, makes it clear that in the resurrection we will all be judged according to our works.

So here we have Jesus himself, and also Peter, James and John, the three most trusted of his apostles, all contradicting the simplistic notion of salvation by faith alone and without works. Faced with this, we must either condemn Paul as a heretic, or seek an alternate interpretation, and I don't particularly think Paul was a heretic.

Let's look at Romans 10: 9 first. Remember that he was writing to Roman Christians, subject to Roman law, which wasn't all that favorable to Christianity at that point, to put it mildly. Being willing to confess belief in Christ with your lips was no simple thing the way it is today; it was exposing yourself to persecution and possibly even death simply for the sake of your religion. That's quite a difficult thing to do, even for someone with a lot of faith!

Then we have the passage from Ephesians, where Paul states that salvation comes from faith and the grace of God, and "not of works, lest any man should boast." Reading the context makes it clear that the works he is talking about are the works of the Law of Moses, through which Jews could find a focus for their faith and obtain salvation before it was fulfilled in Christ. The explanation in verse 9 can be understood in that context by reading Luke 18:

Luke 18: 9-14

9 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.

12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

There were those in Jewish society then, as there have always been and still are in every civilization, who boasted of their piety and outward good works and thought that what they did made them better than others. Paul is making it clear that that attitude will score you zero points with the Lord, that even with good works and acts of righteousness, you are still a sinner and nothing you do can undo your past. Only through God's grace can you find forgiveness for your sins.

So we see that good works do not bring salvation in and of themselves, but also that professions of faith that are not backed up with actual righteous living "is dead, being alone," as James put it. Fiducia is a principle that bridges the gap, basically equivalent to the Savior's exhortation, "if you love me, keep my commandments," or James's explanation that we show our faith by our works. A person with true faith will not simply sit around believing that they believe, but will go out and live the Gospel, doing good works out of love for God and love for their fellow men and striving to come always a little bit closer to fulfilling the ultimate commandment, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)

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This is clearly a thorough and well-thought-out answer. It does answer a different question than the one being asked, however. –  Ray Oct 21 '11 at 18:33
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@Ray: I disagree - you asked concerning a conflict between your stated faith and your actions, saying that your actions belie your faith. Mason has quite adequately demonstrated from scripture that a simplistic understanding of Sola Fide fails to take into account the whole revelation of scripture, wherein in your seeming dilemma arises. –  Lawrence Dol Oct 21 '11 at 18:42

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