The doctrine of Sola fide (Latin for "by faith alone") holds that:
God's pardon for guilty sinners is granted to and received through faith alone, excluding all "works."
God, on the basis of the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus), grants sinners judicial pardon, or justification, which is received solely through faith."
This doctrine is also commonly expressed as:
Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ's righteousness alone.
(Source for these three quotes: the Wikipedia article on Sola fide)
Belief in Sola fide is confined almost entirely to Protestants, who constitute about 37% of the world's Christian population (Source: Global Christianity - A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population - Pew Research Center). In fact, it was the defining doctrine by which Martin Luther distinguished his new form of Christianity from the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, with which he was making a decisive break. Luther said:
This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness. (In Commentary on Galatians)
He said, further, that:
If this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls. (In In Quindecim Psalmos Graduum Commentarii)
The doctrine of Sola fide has therefore been adopted as an essential doctrine, if not the essential doctrine of Christianity by Lutherans and by Protestants in general.
However, the Biblical basis for this doctrine is exceedingly thin. Further, key parts of it are explicitly rejected by the Bible. Its adoption depends upon an ahistorical reading of the Bible, anachronistic definitions of key Biblical words, and hair-splitting ratiocination that has no clear basis in the Bible.
1. The Bible does not state the doctrine of Sola fide
The term "grace alone" appears nowhere in the Bible.
The term "faith alone" appears only once in the Bible, and in that one place it is explicitly rejected:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
This is the one and only place in the Bible where the term "faith alone" appears. And it specifically rejects the teaching that a person is justified by faith alone.
Because of this statement in James, supporters of the Sola fide doctrine have pumped out a veritable flood of words in an attempt to show that James did not actually mean what he said, "that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." And yet, the fact remains:
In the one place in the Bible that the term "faith alone" appears, it is specifically and explicitly rejected as "justifying," or saving, a person.
Further, there are no other places in the Bible where the specific wordings used to distinguish Sola fide from the other major doctrines of salvation occur:
- The Bible does not say, "We are justified by grace alone."
- The Bible does not say, "We are justified through faith alone."
- The Bible does not say, "We are justified in Christ's righteousness alone."
- The Bible does not say, "God has granted sinners judicial pardon."
- The Bible does not say, "Christ paid the penalty for our sins."
- The Bible does not say, "God's pardon is granted and received through faith alone, excluding all works."
- The Bible does not say, "Justification is received solely through faith."
None of the phrases commonly used to define and distinguish Sola fide from other doctrines of justification and salvation occur in the Bible. The various definitions of Sola fide sound sort of Biblical, but in fact they are non-Biblical. In other words, Sola fide is not stated in the Bible, nor is it defined using the Bible's own statements. Its very definition depends on statements that are never made in the Bible.
Summary: The Bible simply does not state the doctrine of Sola fide. And in the one place in the Bible where that term occurs, the Bible explicitly rejects it.
2. Sola fide is asserted as an essential doctrine of the church, which impugns the Bible's effectiveness as the primary source of Christian doctrine
As noted above, Martin Luther asserted justification by faith alone as an essential doctrine of the church, on which the church stands or falls.
For any doctrine to be considered essential to Christianity, it must be clearly stated in the Bible. Luther himself asserted the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Latin for "by Scripture alone"), meaning that the only proper source of doctrine is Scripture (commonly known among Christians as the Bible).
However, as shown just above, the doctrine of Sola fide is not stated in the Bible, explicitly or otherwise.
Further, until Martin Luther articulated it 1,500 years after the Bible was written, no denomination or sect of Christianity understood the Bible to teach justification by faith alone. In asserting Sola fide as an essential teaching of the Church, Luther is in effect charging the Bible with being so unclear in its teaching that for the first fifteen centuries of Christianity, no Christian church or theologian was able to see and perceive it as a central Christian doctrine.
Yes, some Protestants now assert that various Church Fathers and other early theologians taught faith alone, and quote various passages that they claim demonstrate this. But these assertions are contradicted by non-Protestant theologians, and by the wider context of the writings of those early Christian theologians themselves.
The very first figure in Christianity who is universally accepted as teaching justification by faith alone is Martin Luther (1483-1546).
It strains credulity to believe that a doctrine so unclear in the Bible that no one saw or asserted it as central Christian doctrine for the first one and a half millennia of Christianity could be the foundational doctrine of the Christian Church.
Summary: A doctrine that is so unclear in the Bible that it was neither seen in the Bible nor asserted as fundamental Christian doctrine by any Christian church or theologian for the first 1,500 years of Christianity cannot be considered a doctrine taught by the Bible as essential Christian doctrine.
3. Paul did not teach Sola fide
The Bible passages most commonly cited as supporting the doctrine of justification by faith alone come from the writings of Paul. For example, Paul says:
For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. (Romans 3:28)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
First, notice that Paul did not say "by grace alone have you been saved through faith alone." Paul never attributes justification to grace alone or to faith alone. Rather, he attributes salvation to grace and to faith.
Beyond that, interpreting the above and similar passages as teaching Sola fide betrays a fundamental ignorance of the historical and doctrinal context in which Paul made these statements.
Here is the short version of what Paul was actually saying:
By these statements Paul, "an apostle to the Gentiles" (Romans 11:13), was asserting, against the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, that it was not necessary to observe the works of the Jewish Law, or Torah, such as sacrifice, circumcision, and the various dietary laws in Hebrew Bible. He recognized that Jesus' teachings superseded those old ritual laws. And being a pragmatist as well, he recognized that Christianity would never spread far and wide in the pagan world if it required its converts to be circumcised and obey all of the Jewish ritual laws.
If you read Paul's statements about being justified by faith apart from the works of the law in their context, you will almost always find a mention of "circumcision" or some other tell-tale word indicating that when he said "the law," he was talking about the Torah, which is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
It is well-known that Paul relied heavily on the Septuagint, a pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible commonly used by Greek-speaking Jews. Many, if not most of Paul's quotations from the Old Testament come from the Septuagint. In that translation, the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew word תּוֹרָה (towrah), "law," was νόμος (nomos). When Paul used the Greek word νόμος (law), he was very often referring to how that word is commonly used in the Septuagint to refer to the Law of Moses.
For a statement in Paul that rejects Sola fide, see point 4 below. And the main passage from Paul quoted below is by no means the only one in which he says that we must do good works in order to be saved.
Summary: Paul did not teach justification by faith alone. When he spoke of being "justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the Law," he was arguing that Christians are not required to follow the ritual Law of Moses, which is required of faithful Jews.
4. Sola fide is contradicted by many passages throughout the Old and New Testaments
As stated above, the doctrine of "justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ's righteousness alone" is not stated anywhere in the Bible. And any doctrine that is not stated clearly in the Bible cannot be considered essential Christian doctrine, required for salvation.
However, that does not even come close to telling the whole story. There is an overwhelming number of passages throughout the Bible stating that our salvation depends not merely on our belief, but on obeying the commandments of God, and on loving and doing good works for our neighbor.
Here are only a very few of these passages, selected to represent the various segments of the Bible:
In the Law:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
In the Prophets:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die. (Ezekiel 18:21-24)
In the Psalms:
O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
In the Gospels:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:34-40)
And Jesus stated very clearly who from all the nations would be saved, and who would be condemned:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
"Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'
"And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'
"Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'
"Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'
"Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25:31-46)
In the Epistles:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, "We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth." Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:1-16)
And here is Paul's famous statement giving love primacy over faith, which should put a spike in the heart of Sola fide for all time:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Paul agrees with James on this subject, who says:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 2:14-26)
In the book of Revelation:
And he said to me, "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy."
"See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (Revelation 22:10-15)
These passages and hundreds of others like them make it crystal clear that our salvation and our eternal life do not depend on faith alone, but also on our works, meaning on how we live.
The Bible does not make the Protestant theologians' hair-splitting rational distinctions between faith and works, and which one justifies us, and which one follows from the other. Everywhere it says that if we want to be saved and enter into life, we must have faith and do good works just as we are commanded by God.
The common Protestant objection that we would somehow merit heaven by our works, and that this invalidates good works as having any part in our salvation, contradicts the clear, overwhelming teachings of the Bible. We do good works not in order to "merit" or earn heaven and salvation, but because God commands us to do them. If we disobey God's many commandments to love our neighbor and to do good deeds for our neighbor, then we have turned our back on God. And we cannot be saved if we turn our back on God. It's that simple.
The Bible is very clear about the requirements for justification and salvation. The doctrine of Sola fide contradicts that clear teaching, which is stated hundreds of times throughout the entire Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.
Further, the doctrine of Sola fide is not only non-Biblical, but it distracts the mind from the overwhelming teaching of the Bible that those who wish to be saved must believe in God and do good deeds of love and service to the neighbor. Sola fide is thus not only contrary to the plain teachings of the Bible, but actually detracts from and confuses the plain teachings of the Bible in the minds of faithful Christians.
The Bible never says that faith alone saves, nor does it say that grace alone saves. That idea never even occurred to any Christian theologian as a key teaching of Christianity until Martin Luther stated it 1,500 years after the Bible was written.
That's because the doctrine of Sola fide simply isn't in the Bible. The passages that are quoted to support it have been taken out of their historical context and therefore misinterpreted. The very use of the word "faith" to mean a belief that we hold to is alien to the Biblical meaning of faith, which is not belief, but faithfulness to God.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of passages in the Bible saying that if we wish to live, and to be saved, and to go to heaven, we must love our neighbor and do good deeds for our neighbor.
There are zero passages in the Bible that say that we are saved by faith alone. There are zero passages that say that works are merely the result of faith, but are not in themselves saving, as claimed by proponents of Sola fide. There are zero passages that say that love for the neighbor and good deeds for the neighbor do not justify or save us. There are hundreds of passages that clearly show that the opposite is true.
In short, there is no Biblical basis whatsoever for Martin Luther's invention of the doctrine of Sola fide 1,500 years after the Bible was written, and especially not for his elevation of it to the central, foundational doctrine of Christianity, on which the Church stands or falls.
(Note: Though this answer is based on the Bible, pure and simple, it is stated from the perspective of the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and of the denominations that follow his theology. For more on this subject, see my articles: Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does and Faith Alone Is Not Faith.)