Grace Alone and Faith Alone: What is Wrong with the First Two Solas?

by David Servant

Perhaps you’ve heard a pastor or preacher say, “We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed by Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.” Those are known as the “five solas” (or “solae”) because in Latin they are: Sola gratia, sola fida, solus Christus, sola scriptura, and soli Deo gloria. Although all five were not articulated together until the 20th century, the first two, grace alone and faith alone, were mentioned by some of the 16th-century Protestant Reformers to summarize what they felt was most wrong with Roman Catholicism. It isn’t easy, however, to summarize all that God has revealed about salvation in Scripture with four Latin words. In fact, it is impossible. That is one reason why God gave us an entire Bible, and not just four words.

"What's Wrong with the First Two Solas?" by David Servant

Anyone who reads the Bible and filters everything he reads through the first two solas is going to be scratching his head. That is always the problem with theological mantras. They are limited by their brevity, and if they’re unduly elevated, they can end up supplanting Scripture. If you find yourself often saying to yourself as you read the Bible, “That can’t mean what it says, because it doesn’t agree with one of the solas,” then you’ve got a problem. You are filtering the Bible through your theology rather than what you should be doing, and that is filtering your theology through the Bible.

But it can get even worse. Not only is Scripture often twisted to fit into theological mantras, but the mantras themselves are often twisted to mean what they did not originally mean. That has certainly happened regarding the first two solas. In the end, both Scripture and mantras are misused. Allow me to explain.

Some Historical Context

Many modern Evangelicals (“born-again” Christians) who quote the five solas seem to be unaware that they were all coined by Calvinist/Reformed theologians, and so their intended meanings were originally Calvinistic/Reformed. When a Reformer declared, for example, that “we are saved by grace alone,” he was speaking of Calvinism’s “irresistible grace” by which God zaps those whom He has (allegedly) predestined for salvation. Human will or yielding have nothing to do with salvation in Calvinistic understanding. If they did, Calvinists claim, then salvation would not be by grace alone. “Irresistible grace” operates alone in the strictest sense.

In contrast, modern non-Calvinistic Evangelicals (who do not subscribe to the Calvinistic idea of “irresistible grace”) rightly maintain that salvation is by grace, as that is what Scripture teaches, yet they also believe that human will—under the influence of God’s Spirit—has something to do with receiving the benefit of God’s grace. This is also plainly taught in Scripture, for example, in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower and the Soils. If Calvinism were true, that parable is meaningless (not to mention thousands of other scriptures). So, even though some non-Calvinistic Evangelicals may claim to believe the first sola, they certainly don’t believe it like the Reformers meant it.

The real truth is, even though they may claim to believe in sola gratia, non-Calvinistic Evangelicals really don’t believe we are saved by “grace alone,” simply because they believe that human will plays a part in salvation. If non-Calvinistic Evangelicals were more honest, they would say that we are saved by God’s grace, but not by grace alone, because only if we yield to God’s gracious drawing and conviction are we saved. God plays the major part in salvation and we play a very small part. And that human part is of necessity, because God gave us free moral agency, and He doesn’t want a family of robots.

In spite of that, non-Calvinistic Evangelicals keep parroting the Protestant mantra, “We are saved by grace alone.” The reason is, if you would ever state that salvation is not by grace alone, you would be shooting a sacred cow, and you would run the risk of being labeled self-righteous, a Pharisee, a thief of God’s glory, and a heretic who believes that you can save yourself. All of those are very unfair characterizations that actually reveal more about the labelers than they do those whom they label. And what is most tragic regarding those labelers is that they unwittingly label Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, John and Jude, who all affirmed that ultimate salvation—inheriting God’s kingdom—is only for those who demonstrate some degree of holiness, which obviously requires some human effort.

As a simple example of biblical grace, consider the woman who was caught in the act of adultery, whose story John told (see John 8:1-11). Who would argue that she was not “saved by grace”? She deserved to be stoned according to the Mosaic Law, but the One who gave the Mosaic Law did not stone her. Rather, He said, “I do not condemn you.” That’s “undeserved favor”! At that moment, she was saved by “grace alone.” But Jesus went on to say to her, “Now, go and sin no more.” So, Jesus expected her to do something that would require effort by her human will. And the implication is that if she continued in her sexual promiscuity, she could find herself regretting it. That harmonizes perfectly with Paul’s repeated warnings that immoral people will not inherit God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-5).

All of this is to say, it is certainly unfair to be branded a heretic by Calvinists for not subscribing to sola gratia. It is even more unfair to be branded a heretic by non-Calvinist Evangelicals for the same thing, and for at least three reasons: (1) because the non-Calvinist Evangelical understanding of saving grace is actually contrary to sola gratia as the Reformers meant it, (2) because non-Calvinist Evangelicals all believe that human wills play a part in initial salvation, which also stands in contrast to sola gratia and (3), because the New Testament is abundantly clear on the fact that inheriting God’s kingdom has something to do with personal holiness.

What Would the Reformers Think?

Historically, both the first and second solas (salvation by grace alone through faith alone) were a Protestant reaction to the merit/works-based salvation being proffered at the time by Roman Catholicism, when some in the church were, for example, selling indulgences to people who wanted to assist their dead relatives escape purgatory sooner.

When the Reformers declared, however, that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, did they mean that obedience to Christ was not part of the salvation equation? No, certainly not! Reformer Martin Luther, for example, wrote, “It is impossible, indeed, to separate works from faith, just as it is impossible to separate heat and light from fire.”

Luther even coined a term to describe those who were convinced that, because salvation was a free gift of God’s grace, obeying God’s laws was optional. He called them antinomians, the roots of which are anti, against, and nomos, law. The antinomians of Luther’s day were the 16th-century version of today’s false-grace and hyper-grace teachers.

Tragically, the Evangelical church today is full of antinomians, including antinomians who frequently quote and misuse the first two solas to buttress their flawed theology. If Luther were alive today, he would not only cry out against the heresy of false-grace and hyper-grace teachers, he would also point out their misuse of the first two solas. And he would have no lack of scriptural support for his crusade, because Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, John and Jude all warned against the errors of antinomianism.

All of this is to say, when modern teachers quote the first and second solas as a means to support their idea that grace somehow makes holiness optional, or that anyone who says that holiness is part of the salvation equation is a heretic who is “preaching salvation by works,” they show that they interpret the Reformers just like they interpret the Bible—by ignoring essential context.

Sola Fida

The second sola, that we are “saved through faith alone,” has certainly become another Protestant mantra. But the Reformers who affirmed the second sola—again, in reaction to Roman Catholicism’s “works-oriented” bent—saw saving faith as something that God sovereignly granted to those whom He first zapped with Calvinistic “irresistible grace,” causing them to be born again, all through no human yielding. So, from their Calvinist viewpoint, the Reformers could rightfully claim, in the strictest sense, that salvation was through faith alone. Yielded human wills have nothing to do with salvation in Calvinist theology. Grace and faith are both sovereignly and irresistibly granted.

Just as non-Calvinists actually don’t believe that salvation is by grace alone in the strictest, Calvinistic sense, neither do they believe that salvation is through faith alone in the strictest, Calvinist sense because, again, they believe that human will, under the drawing and conviction of the Holy Spirit, always plays a part in salvation. Moreover, many non-Calvinist Evangelicals (that is, all who are not in the false- or hyper-grace camps) also believe that saving faith is always evidenced by works of obedience, so in that sense also they don’t believe that we are saved by faith alone.

And when you think about it, because most Calvinists believe, as did Martin Luther, that “it is impossible to separate works from faith, just as it is impossible to separate heat and light from fire,” neither do they actually believe that we are saved by faith alone, but rather that we are saved by faith that is not alone, but by faith that is evidenced and accompanied by works—in which human wills undeniably play a part. So, it is not only amusing to hear non-Calvinist Evangelicals sometimes quote the second sola as a sacred doctrine, it is even more amusing to hear Calvinists affirm the second sola, yet seconds later deny it by affirming that a living faith is always accompanied by works (that undeniably require human effort)!

And this brings us to a biggest problem with the second sola, and that is the fact that the only place in the Bible where the words “faith” and “alone” are found in the same verse is James 2:24, which states: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” That directly contradicts the second Protestant sola. James flatly declared that a man is “justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Protestant theologians, of course, have some explaining to do, since James 2:24 certainly appears to contradict a cardinal Protestant doctrine expressed in the second sola.

Some, therefore, make the claim that James was not talking about our being justified before God, but about our being justified before people. The only trouble is, that is not what the text or context indicates at all—if we are honest (read it yourself in Jas. 2:14-26). Plus, it requires us to believe that James wrote to correct a grave misconception among the early believers that they could be justified before people by faith without any works! Really? There was debate about that? Of course, that is silly. In fact, it is ludicrous, but theologians and pastors “explain” James 2:24 that way all the time with straight faces, parroting what they heard in seminary.

Other theologians, who perhaps realize how foolish that particular twisting of Scripture is, sometimes use a “clever” proverb to help us understand what they seem to see so clearly. They say, “We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.” Which is to actually say, “We are saved by faith alone, but we are not saved by faith alone.” It is pure doublespeak.

A longer version of that proverb would have to read like this: “We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone, but rather, by a faith that is evidenced by works. So, we are only saved by a faith that is accompanied and validated by works, and thus we are not saved by faith alone.” Just as James said!

Imagine a survivor of a shipwreck saying, “I was saved by air alone, but not by air that was alone! That is, the air inside the raft that kept me from drowning saved me. But anyone who says I was saved, not by air alone, but by an air-filled raft, is a heretic!” You would wonder about that person’s sanity.

The question is, why is there a Protestant mantra that directly contradicts James 2:24? The sad answer is that, it was a reaction to Roman Catholicism’s merit/works-based teaching, but it doesn’t encapsulate everything the Reformers actually believed regarding faith and works. If Martin Luther believed that, “It is impossible, indeed, to separate works from faith, just as it is impossible to separate heat and light from fire,” then Martin Luther actually didn’t believe, in the strictest sense, that we are saved by faith alone.

Was Paul Confused?

It is not just James who troubles sola-quoting Protestants. It is also Paul who, although he wrote famous words like, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28), which might sound a lot like “salvation through faith alone,” he also wrote things that seem to contradict those famous words. For example, just one chapter earlier in the very same letter, he penned these words:

But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom. 2:5-10).

So, God is going to repay everyone according to their deeds. Those who do good will receive glory, honor, peace, and eternal life. Those who do evil will receive wrath, indignation, tribulation and distress. So, one’s eternal destiny is determined by their deeds! That sure doesn’t sound like “salvation by faith alone.” That sounds like salvation by works.

And please note that the Greek word Paul used that is translated “deeds” in his declaration that God will “render to each person according to his deeds,” is ergon. It is the identical word he used one chapter later when he wrote: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works [ergon] of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). So, according to Paul, people are justified, or made righteous before God, by faith apart from deeds, but their eternal destiny is determined by their deedsHow can those two apparent contradictory facts be reconciled?

There is only one way they can be reconciled, and if we read everything Paul wrote in Romans 1 through 3, it becomes clear. For example, just five verses into his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote about “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5). More specifically, he wrote that he was called as an apostle in order to “bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” Faith, true faith, produces obedience. When someone believes, he repents, and he starts to obey. God, by His grace, forgives him of his sins and gives him His Holy Spirit to empower him to live a holy life.

So, clearly, although salvation is not the result of works, genuine salvation results in works. And the believing, repentant, forgiven, saved person is ready to stand before God to be “rendered to according to his deeds.”

Some of this is actually implied in the very passage in Romans 2:5-10 we are considering that seems, at first glance, to stand in contrast to “salvation by faith.” Remember that it began with these words: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5, emphasis added). Implied is that the one who repents will find mercy and escape from God “rendering to him according to his evil deeds.” Obviously, biblical repentance is a change of heart that results in a change of actions, from doing evil to doing good.

There are other places in the first chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans that make it clear that, although salvation is not the result of works, genuine salvation results in works. For example, within seconds after Paul wrote, “”For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28), he wrote, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Rom. 3:31, emphasis added). What did Paul mean?

Paul’s letter to the Romans could be considered his treatise to answer Jewish objections to his gospel. So, just imagine Jews, who believed the Mosaic Law was their ticket to salvation, saying to Paul, “Your message of salvation through faith nullifies the Law!” Paul’s response was, “No, just the opposite is true! Through faith “we establish the Law.” He could only have been referring to the fact that those who believe repent and starting obeying God.

Moreover, Paul declared the same idea using different words in the very first chapter of Romans when he wrote in his introduction:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith'” (Rom. 1:16-17, emphasis added).

It is obvious that another common Jewish objection to Paul’s gospel was that it made God appear to be unrighteous. So, Paul repeatedly counters that accusation, and his first counter is to declare that, in the gospel, God’s righteousness “is revealed from faith to faith.” That could be paraphrased to say that God’s righteousness “is revealed from one person to another person who has faith,” because Paul wrote directly before and after about people who have faith.

And how is God’s righteousness revealed from one person to another person who has faith? It is revealed when people believe and thus repent, turning from sin and turning to righteousness. Moreover, when that occurs, God then sets them free from the power of sin, and He comes to live inside of them by His Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit also come His fruit, which Paul once listed as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness [and] self-control” (Gal. 5:22). True believers are “filled with the fruit of righteousness” (Phil. 1:11). So, when believing, repentant, forgiven, Spirit-indwelt people display holy fruit that has its origin from God Himself, they display God’s righteousness. Thus, God’s righteousness “is revealed from faith to faith.”

These truths are repeatedly found all through the New Testament letters. They ought to be common knowledge among all professing Christians. Sadly, however, they are not, and some teachers ignore or twist passages of Scripture to make the New Testament authors appear to say what they did not say. One of the most common twistings is to claim that when Paul wrote about righteousness in these passages, he was always referring to legal righteousness rather than practical righteousness. So, people can supposedly be righteous in God’s eyes without actually living righteously! “When God looks at you, He sees the perfect righteousness of Jesus!” they claim. They ought to read Jesus’ messages to the seven churches in Asia found in Revelation 1-3. Jesus sure didn’t seem to be seeing Himself when He looked at those churches! Similarly, John wrote, “The one who practices righteousness is righteous” (1 John 3:7).

Continuing in Faith

Tragically, some false-grace teachers claim that God only requires that we have faith for a single moment in our lives, and if we do, that guarantees eternal salvation. If one believes in Jesus for one second, even if one becomes an atheist for the rest of his life or a serial murderer, he is safe in God’s grace and will spend eternity in heaven!

The exact opposite, however, is taught in the New Testament. Scripture is very clear that we must continue in faith, which also means continuing in obedience, since “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:26). Remember, everyone will be repaid according to their deeds. We will either inherit “glory, honor, peace and eternal life,” or “wrath, indignation, tribulation and distress,” all depending on our deeds.

Obviously, continuing in faith and obedience has something to do with our own human wills. Thousands of scriptures testify to that fact, not to mention every human being’s experience. But, as you might imagine, those who embrace sola gratia and sola fida and thus reject the idea that human wills have anything to do with initially receiving salvation must also reject the idea that human wills have anything to do with ultimately receiving eternal life, otherwise salvation is not by grace alone through faith alone. Again, when you filter the Bible through your theology rather than filter your theology through the Bible, you are making a huge error.

Scores of New Testament scriptures, both in the Gospels and epistles, plainly indicate that to ultimately inherit life, one must continue in faith and obedience, both of which require human will and effort. We’ve already previously read Paul’s words that it is “those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality” who will inherit “eternal life” (Rom. 2:7). Here’s Paul again:

Yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard (Col. 1:22-23, emphasis added).

The Colossian believers had been, at the time Paul wrote to them, reconciled to God through Jesus’ death, “in order to present [them] before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” Yet, if they were to ultimately be presented before God by Jesus as holy and blameless, it was necessary that they “continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel.” How much clearer could it be?

Believers must not only continue believing, they must continue obeying. Paul wrote to the Philippians:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12 -13, emphasis added).

There isn’t any doubt on the spiritual status of the Philippians to whom Paul wrote. They were believers, “saints in Christ Jesus” who had been “filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:1, 11). And, in the passage we just read, Paul declared that God was at work in them “to will and to work for His good pleasure.” So they were saved! But Paul didn’t recommend that they “just rest in God and let Him work.” No, he admonished the Philippian believers to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.” That means they had a part to play in their ultimate salvation, and they should take their part so seriously that they should do it “with fear and trembling.” What was there to fear and tremble about? Just the loss of some rewards? Amazingly, that is what some commentators claim. When the Bible doesn’t harmonize with your sola, it sure can’t be your sola that needs adjustment, can it?

Some teachers claim that the “salvation” Paul admonished the Philippians to “work out” could not be a reference to salvation as in ultimate salvation/damnation. It must just be a reference to something like getting victory over sin. Again, when the Bible doesn’t harmonize with your sola, it’s apparently OK to change the plain meaning of words.

But let’s be honest. Salvation means salvation. And the Greek word translated “salvation” (soteria) in Philippians 2:12-13 (“work out your salvation“) is the same word translated “salvation” in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

In Conclusion

There are so many other New Testament scriptures that could be cited that all affirm everything I’ve been saying in this article. If you read the New Testament with an open mind, they will start jumping out at you like popcorn in a hot kettle. We are indeed saved by grace, but God’s grace is not a license to sin. Rather, it is a temporary opportunity to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, repent, be born again, be indwelled by the Holy Spirit and His wonderful fruit, and live a righteous life, “walking after the Spirit and not after the flesh,” so that you will be ready to stand before Jesus and be judged and repaid according to your deeds.

And we are saved through faith, but not by a faith that is nothing more than a mental assent to some theological facts about salvation, but by faith in a divine person, the Lord Jesus Christ. If we believe in Him, we will believe He is Lord, and we will repent and start following Him. And He will come to live in us and through us. And as we “continue in the faith” our salvation is secure.

It is miraculous and wonderful to actually be born again. But to just think you are born again because you are a believer in, and a defender of, the first two solas—as you wrongly perceive and exalt them—is tragic beyond anything else I know. — David

So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God (Rom. 8:12-14, emphasis added).

His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you (2 Pet. 1:3-11, emphasis added).