Reforming the Reformation (1): Is “Justification by Faith” the Gospel?

Matthew W. Bates

There are many false gospels, but justification by faith—the hallmark of the Protestant Reformation—might prove to be the most surprising false gospel of all.

Let’s climb together—through the rafters, above the sanctuary, and out to the roof. It is precipitous as we ascend. Yet this is a free climb: no ropes or anchors. Somehow, clinging to shingles and tiles, we make it to the roof line. I hold the edge of the steeple, and you grab my hand. Do you trust my grip? We stand on top of our church, teetering. We can see all the other steeples in our town etched along the horizon. We begin to count them—10, 15, 20. And these are just the churches in our city.

As we contemplate the state of the universal church 500 years after Martin Luther dispatched his 95 theses, much has changed. As we observe the skyline and count steeples—and there are millions worldwide—how many are Protestant? About one-third. One in three Christians in the world has heeded Martin Luther’s call for drastic theological reform. I am among them.

Even those who have remained Catholic or Orthodox have been dramatically impacted by that sharp-tongued, fearless reformer. That my thought exercise involves you and me as discrete individuals, not disconnected from the church, but nevertheless as distinct above and beyond the collective, is intentional. Luther’s reform accelerated the emerging individualism of the Renaissance.

Moreover that you, as an individual, are addressed with the imperative, “Will you trust?”—and that this question is of ultimate significance—is nearly inconceivable apart from Luther. And yet the demand for personal faith resonates in contemporary Catholicism and Orthodoxy as much as in Protestantism. Luther’s ghost is everywhere, even in the cathedrals that have been most anxious to conduct an exorcism.

And the postmodern individual—even those who are clinging tenaciously to the church—staggers along unsecured, walking the roof line. For false gospels and their accompanying diseased faith requirements abound. And if these false gospels are not damaging enough, a blanketing apathy accompanies the entire quest for ultimate truth—“Who cares? What is on Netflix tonight?” Could this be because the church has misplaced the harnesses, clips, and ropes by pairing personal faith with a deformed gospel? Many of these pseudo-gospels are well known: consumerism, nationalism, physicalism, easy believe-ism, health-and-wealth, therapeutic moralistic deism, and utilitarianism.

In response, churches, especially those with a Protestant-evangelical heritage, pride themselves on clinging to the actual gospel, advertising that they are a “gospel-centered” or a “gospel-driven” church. In seeking to preserve the true gospel, these churches look back to Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and other early reformers. And what is this gospel? That we are justified by grace alone through faith alone, not by works. This is what the Bible emphatically teaches. Or does it?

It is precisely because of this rootedness in Scripture and in the Reformation’s slogans that Protestants, especially those with an evangelical heritage, might discover that “justification by faith” is the most surprising false gospel of all. Let me clarify by advancing three basic propositions:

(1) The “gospel” (euangelion) given to the apostles is true and unchanging.

(2) Justification by “faith” (pistis) is true and unchanging.

(3) But the gospel is not “justification by faith.”

So, the gospel is true, and justification by pistis (“faith”) is true, but they are not the same thing. From a biblical standpoint they are not even approximately equivalent. The problem is that both euangelion (“gospel”) and “justification by pistis” were understood in slightly inaccurate ways in the Reformation era, and then falsely equated. The result: confusion in the church’s theology of salvation.

Why claim that the gospel is not “justification by faith”? The answer is simple. When the Bible describes the boundaries and content of the gospel, justification by faith is never mentioned. There is no passage where “gospel” (euangelion) is straightforwardly equated with “justification by faith”?

There are passages, such as Paul’s speech in Acts 13, where language of gospel proclamation, justification, and faith are related, but imprecisely. Only a faulty interpretation of Romans 1:16-17 might tempt an interpreter to make this equation. The closest we get to an actual equation between euangelion and “justification by faith” is in Galatians, where Paul expresses astonishment that the Galatians are abandoning his gospel and turning to a non-gospel (1:6-7). Paul further describes the gospel-compromising activities of others (e.g., 2:5; 2:14), suggesting that others are seeking justification by Law or works of Law (Gal 2:16; 3:11; 3:24; 5:4) rather than by pistis. But importantly Paul never says that his gospel is justification by faith, even if many of Paul’s commentators (from Luther onward) have gone beyond Paul in drawing this conclusion.

What difference might it make to our theories of salvation if we were to conclude that Paul is upset about the way in which the purpose of the gospel has been compromised in Galatia, rather than with the raw content of the gospel? Could it be the response to the gospel? Could it be the result? Would this misaiming be sufficient to explain Paul’s ire in Galatians and elsewhere?

Paul’s letters give the most explicit description of the gospel in the New Testament. Yet in Paul’s letters there are only a couple passages that give the content of the gospel in detail—Romans 1:2-5; 1:16-17; 16:25-27; 1 Cor 15:1-5; 2 Tim 2:8—and these passages do not directly equate the gospel with our justification by faith. They do suggest a Christ-centered content and make vital claims about “faith” (pistis) and the purpose of the gospel. They might help us make sense of why Paul believes that the activities in Galatia are a denial of the gospel, even if the gospel is not justification by faith. Although I discuss all of these passages elsewhere (See Salvation by Allegiance Alone [BakerAcademic, 2017], Ch. 2), here I can only discuss one, Romans 1:2-5.

…the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures concerning his Son, who as it pertains to the flesh came into existence by means of the seed of David; who as it pertains to the Spirit of Holiness was appointed Son-of-God-in-Power by means of the resurrection from among the dead ones—Jesus the Christ our Lord—through whom we received grace and apostleship for the obedience of pistis among all the nations in behalf of his name. (Rom 1:1-5; my translation)

There are five things I want to mention about Paul’s description of the gospel here. First, it was promised in advance by God in the Old Testament scriptures. Second, it presupposes the preexistence and sending of the Son to take on human flesh—that is, the incarnation (cf. Rom 8:3). Third, although Jesus preexisted as the Son of God, his resurrection was the means by which he was appointed to an even more exalted office: Son-of-God-in-Power. Jesus is now ruling as the king of heaven and earth at the right hand of God the Father. Fourth, implicitly in Rom 1:5 and explicitly elsewhere (Rom 16:26; cf. 15:18), the gospel is purposed toward bringing about the “obedience of pistis (traditionally: ‘faith’)” so that Jew and Gentile can be incorporated into one family in the Christ (cf. Eph 3:6). I suggest that this “obedience of pistis” can be accurately described as embodied allegiance to Jesus the king. Fifth, Paul says nothing overt about justification by faith in describing the content of the gospel.

If we were to take all of Paul’s statements where he delineates the content of the gospel, looking also at the four Gospels, the speeches in Acts, and other texts, we might find that the gospel contains certain core elements (Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 52).

Jesus the king:

  1. preexisted with the Father,
  2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David,
  3. died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
  4. was buried,
  5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
  6. appeared to many,
  7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and
  8. will come again as judge.

So, the gospel is not justification by faith (pistis); rather it is a story about Jesus the Messiah centered upon his pistis (trusting allegiance) that includes his justification. More precisely, it is a Trinitarian story about Jesus the king. The Christ is sent by the Father, shows faithfulness to God and us in dying for our sins, is justified and raised, and is installed as king of kings. The purpose of this gospel is not said to be “salvation in heaven,” or anything like that. It is to bring about the obedience of pistis (embodied allegiance) among the nations, as Jesus the Christ pours out the Spirit. Then Jew and Gentile can be united together via the Spirit in the Messiah, that is, in Jesus the king.

What, then, should we make of our beloved doctrine of “justification by faith”? It is not the content of the gospel—not even close. It is, though, vitally important.

Briefly, our justification is not part of the gospel proper—only Jesus’s justification. Yet our justification is bound up with his. Meanwhile, our pistis (traditionally “faith” but  better “allegiance” in certain contexts) is not part of the gospel proper either. Rather, it is the only valid response to the gospel. Meanwhile, the purpose of the gospel is not justification by faith, but allegiant obedience to Jesus the Messiah (the obedience of pistis) among the nations.

My subsequent essay will explain why faith is best construed as allegiance and expand on how the gospel relates to justification by faith.

Posted May 07, 2018