Reviewed by Nathan Sundt
No theological synthesis or formulary from the Reformation stands out quite as memorably as the “Five Solas,” and of these five Solas, no jewel of the crown shines more brightly than “faith alone,” the centerpiece of Reformation teaching on justification. However, the significance granted to this doctrine is particularly historical and functional; that is, justification by faith rightly is not a material first principle in the historical creeds and confessions but is one of history’s most needed mechanisms of maintaining the apostolic teaching of Christ in church history. At this crossroads, Schreiner sets forth his treatment of faith alone in a book series on the five Solas at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—and the book is perfectly fit to the occasion. Schreiner’s treatment of the doctrine is balanced and deep enough to satisfy the scholar, while being readable enough for the average pastor and lay person. Schreiner’s thesis is also perfectly fit to the place of the book not only in its series but also in the very flow of the Reformation and church history which it marks: Schreiner argues that the sola fide rendering of justification—like so many other theological concepts—is a needed, helpful, and durable theological achievement of the Reformation that offers the best exegetical treatment of key texts, proves faithful to church history, and meets contemporary challenges.
Summary and Evaluation
Chapter 1, “Sola Fide in the Early Church,” glosses several writers from the church’s earliest generations to demonstrate that their teaching is in accordance with and not contrary to what the Reformation would later summarize as justification by faith alone. To this end, Schreiner begins by setting forth what he means and does not mean by the very term justification. Quite obviously, the definitional issue sets the table for whether the reading of the early church favors forensic readings of justification, or transformational readings, et cetera. The chapter argues that no direct parallel exists between the earliest church and the Reformation teaching, yet also that the early church frequently set forth and defended the gospel by contrasting faith (as saving) and works (as damning).
Chapters 2 and 3 highlight the context and content of the Reformation teaching. Schreiner sets the seminal contribution of Martin Luther within the context of the historical moment while arguing that Luther’s doctrines of man and of God control justification’s key commitments: that only active righteousness could save, since all expressions of divine law serve to highlight human inability and ignominy. Chapter 3 turns its attention to John Calvin, arguing that the “fundamental agreement on justification by faith alone” is most “striking” between the great synthesizer of Reformation thought and his German predecessor. Union with Christ undergirds and integrates the soteriological doctrines in Calvin, Schreiner argues.
Chapter 4 sets forth plainly the Roman Catholic response to the developing clarity on sola fide—“Let it be anathema.” The place of the chapter in part 1 of the book and the place of the book in the history of doctrine explain its purposes: Schreiner charitably articulates the response of the Roman Catholic Church, arguing also that that church “isn’t where it was in the 16th century, and thus one might hope that it will embrace a Protestant view of justification” (67). Consistently, Schreiner employs the 500-year distance of his thesis toward the end of a cool, settled consideration. Trent replied with utter clarity: “Justification is… a process and is defined in terms of inherent righteousness” (66).
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 thus are to be taken as a whole, representing responses to the essential features of the Reformation doctrine in historical theology. To this purpose, chapter 5 treats of new emphases within the Reformed understandings of the doctrine: imputation, the covenantal context of the work, and the instrumental nature of faith in the believer. Chapter 6 sets the mature doctrine against the largesse of Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, whose treatments of faith alone have proved original and provocative.
Having shown how Jonathan Edwards could be interpreted to the contrary, Schreiner treats Edwards as in harmony with the Reformation affirmation of sola fide. Many of Edwards’s writings on the matter lack clarity and are taking up primarily with the doctrine’s setting within and implications for larger metaphysical portions of Edwards’s thought. With regard to Wesley, Schreiner again emphasizes the great Methodist’s explicit affirmation of sola fide, while showing that the Wesleyan lack of an imputation doctrine, as well as an overriding concern to hold back antinomianism, significantly altered the place and role of sola fide.
In part 2, Schreiner presents “A Biblical and Theological Tour of Sola Fide,” affirming the importance of historical preachers and theologians as guides (“We are not the first ones to interpret the Scriptures,” 97) together with sola scriptura as the principal for final authority. Schreiner employs the two principles harmoniously. In an interview about the book, Schreiner concretized his exegetical inference for sola fide: “Now quite interestingly, nowhere does it say explicitly in the New Testament that justification is by faith alone, which is one of the Five Solas. I would argue, as Luther did, in Romans 3:28, that when Paul says that justification is by faith and not of the law, it is a right deduction to conclude from that that justification is by faith alone.”  Further, Schreiner sets forth four themes for the scriptural portion of the book: (1) Why is justification by faith alone? (2) What is the role and nature of faith? (3) What is the meaning of the term righteousness and how does this affect possibility of faith alone as the instrument for its reception? (4) How ought New Testament texts that command works and obedience be integrated? Due to historical considerations once again, Schreiner focuses the discussion on the Pauline writings, where these issues are teased out in greatest detail.
Reformation thinking about justification begins with a stark picture of human sin, and Schreiner begins with this point—and employs the arguments surrounding the phrase “works of law” to do so. He argues that the New Perspective on Paul is correct to emphasize the exclusivity of covenant badges but also that the New Perspective needs the traditional interpretation as well. Thus, Paul’s references to “works of law” and to the law covenant emphasize human depravity, sinfulness, and guilt. These passages properly conclude that a perfect righteousness is demanded and that the demand is utterly unattainable through human working. Schreiner offers this point as good initial evidence that justification is by faith alone.
Chapter 8, since it is less focused on Pauline concepts and more focused on the meaning of the term faith, presents a balanced picture across the New Testament data for how the noun faith and the verb believe function in their semantic contexts. Schreiner emphasizes the Synoptics, John, and Acts before treating Paul and concludes that the New Testament consistently presents faith as the mechanism for spiritual healing and salvation. Since faith is “fundamental to one’s relationship with God,” such things as working or some manner of spiritual wages are not.
The brief and detailed argument of chapter 9 sets forth the debate over “faith in Jesus Christ”/“faithfulness of Jesus Christ” and defends the former interpretation. Schreiner, however, ably sets forth the more novel view and shows how the concept is not entirely alien to the New Testament. Schreiner grounds the importance of the discussion in the fact that it “reveals the emphasis in Paul’s thinking” (132). The location of faith in Christ is correlated with the lack of any merit, work, or law-keeping and therefore is congruous with sola fide.
In chapter 10, Schreiner defends the centrality of justification in Paul and the integrity of the Reformed tradition’s formulation of that central concept. Deceptively brief, chapter 10 impressively treats significant controversies over the course of centuries of Pauline scholarship: from Albert Schweitzer’s argument that righteousness is “a subsidiary crater within the main crater” of Paul’s thought, to New Perspective exponents—such as N. T. Wright and James Dunn—who argue that justification is fundamentally ecclesiological rather than soteriological. Schreiner’s exposition of these various scholars affords him the opportunity to allow for their genuine insights into key texts: no interpreter should fail to see the nuanced and kaleidoscopic presentations of the apostle himself. However, Schreiner insists on his “modest argument that justification should not be pushed to the periphery in Paul’s thought” (140). In support of his argument, Schreiner appeals primarily to matters of eschatology: how God’s righteousness is the character which he upholds in judgment and how the declaration that justifies offers that judgment in the believer’s favor here and now.
Chapters 11 and 12 fill out the initial table-setting of chapter 10 to show justification and righteousness as (1) saving and (2) eschatological throughout the Biblical witness. Schreiner’s presentation is remarkably mature and confident as he sets forth debates over righteousness as (1) holy character and divine attribute or (2) covenant faithfulness. Schreiner advances the significant insights of those scholars who identify and emphasize the saving nature of righteousness vis-à-vis the covenant in key Old Testament contexts. Schreiner replies, however, that this faithfulness itself is a matter of God’s keeping his own word and holy character—which conundrum is central to the logic of justification, in which God is “both just and justifier.”
Schreiner amasses biblical data and relatively brief comments in chapter 12 to demonstrate that justification is an act of God’s final promises to his people; justification is eschatological. The eschatological nature of justification coordinates well with its forensic and declarative nature and its sola fide instrumentality—not by the reality of a transformed life or some other such “birthpang” of the new creation does justification come to the sinner. Schreiner notes in conclusion that the peculiar Protestant doctrine of assurance rests in the fact that justification is a definite eschatological act in which the believer may take comfort—even and especially when sin seems all too near.
Chapters 13 through 15 continue Schreiner’s discussion concerning the nature and the role of righteousness. Chapter 13 offers the standard defense of transformative righteousness and then prefers forensic justification, both in the Old and New Testaments, as the more central semantic use. The biblical evidence supports “a forensic understanding of justification” and our righteousness refers to “our right standing before God by faith,” making justification a divine declarative act. Chapter 14 addresses righteousness from the angle of its use in the phrase “the righteousness of God.” The phrase, in part, turned the mind of Martin Luther on the matter, and its interpretation continues in importance. Schreiner notes that in key contexts the phrase may present God as the one “righteous to judge,” but this meaning is not sufficient for all the data. The chapter further notes the treatment of the genitive as a “gift” or attribute of God (which makes many interpreters to conclude that the “gift” includes fundamental transformation). Schreiner argues that the forensic meaning again is the most central domain, the meaning fit to allow the necessary nuance in more particular passages.
With the nature of faith and righteousness clearly set forth, most of the furniture is in place for chapter 15 to defend the historic understanding of imputation. Schreiner highlights the critiques of N. T. Wright and Robert Gundry, noting, however, that each critique most powerfully undercuts misunderstandings of imputation rather than the best of the Reformed tradition. To support that tradition, Schreiner offers the nature of covenant headship in Adam or in Christ (Romans 5:12–19) as a singular text. Further, 2 Cor. 5:21 and such text as 1 Cor. 1:30 and Phil. 3:9 support the idea of crediting righteousness to the sinner, though, Schreiner warns, it should not be said that this “doesn’t mean that faith is our righteousness.” (190, emphasis original).”
Chapter 16 concludes the biblical and theological investigation of sola fide by addressing the role of good works in justification. Schreiner’s argument follows from his previous definitions of faith and righteousness. Schreiner points out that mental assent is not “saving faith” and demonstrates how the New Testament consistently identifies what by nature is a “deficient faith.” Thus the faith that saves is both living and active and salvation sola fide, therefore, implies, even demands, the presence of good works in the believing life, even though those good works are not necessitated as warrant for the justification.
Schreiner deserves to be defended at one point. Some suggest that the book’s reference to the role of works in entrance to heaven (actually penned by John Piper in the foreword) itself compromises justification by faith alone. This critique misses the point from the outset, since it applies to Schreiner’s view with regard to works and salvation, rather than works and justification. Moreover, the role of works in one’s entrance into and enjoyment of heaven has grown in its treatment in the secondary literature and enjoys provenance back to the immediate post-Reformation period (with such writers as Turretin affirming the role of works even as a material principal caused through God’s work in the believer). Good works are necessary as a logical consequence of salvation—but not as a logical prerequisite for justification.
Having established in parts 1 and 2 justification by faith alone as a doctrinal and conceptual achievement by the faithful and scriptural church, Schreiner attempts to show that sola fide surmounts contemporary challenges in part 3. Chapter 17 offers appreciative critique of contemporary dialogue between Protestants and Roman Catholics, most significantly presented in the Joint Declaration on Justification between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches, as well as the movement Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Schreiner, however, argues that the agreement is “superficial,” and that each ecclesial community could “interpret the statement in a way that concurs with their confessions” (230). Schreiner employs the writings of Richard John Neuhaus to demonstrate that the theological outlook of the Roman Catholic Church has not fundamentally changed. Interestingly, reviewer Tony Lane offers his “One Minor Misgiving” with reference to this point in the book, claiming that Schreiner has not properly understood the growing nuance in the Roman Catholic view as expressed in the updated catechism.  However, a fundamental difference in purpose overrides this disagreement: Lane must cite an approving citation of Teresa of Liseux made by the Catechism to the effect that she would want to appear “clothed in Christ’s righteousness” because of the filth of her own works. Assuming for the sake of argument that Lane’s inference from the catechism’s section on merit is correct, Schreiner’s argument still holds: that the Roman Catholic interpretation, both magisterial and general, of justification remains largely unchanged as represented in the Joint Declaration and Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Chapter 18 continues to present sola fide against the backdrop of Roman Catholicism by considering noted evangelical scholar Frank Beckwith’s joining of the Roman Catholic Church. Schreiner presents Beckwith’s reasoning as misguided—but also representative of many people who demur from the Reformed understanding: Beckwith appeals to the tradition of the early church and to the biblical text to argue that justification includes transformation and is thus on the basis of works. In this way, the challenge is contemporary but not novel.
By contrast, chapter 19 presents some of the new insights of N. T. Wright, while arguing that the enduring features of his views are not contradictory to sola fide. Schreiner offers an appreciation of Wright’s reading of Second Temple Judaism and, in particular, his notions about the continuity of exile in the time of Christ. However, Schreiner argues that only by way of false dichotomy may Wright and others in the New Perspective downplay the soteriological significance of justification (in favor of its ecclesiological significance). Justification, therefore, does address how “we become right with God” (252). Chapter 20 further discusses Wright and the New Perspective, highlighting the way in which God’s purposes in Israel for the world often serve in argument as warrant for N. T. Wright to deny imputation; he interprets the texts instead as related to the mission of Israel. Schreiner argues that the reader is again placed in a false dilemma and, furthermore, that the Reformation authors are hereby misread: Luther himself appealed to categories of conjugal union when describing how the righteousness of Christ might be imputed to his people. Thus, Schreiner concludes with a note of the doctrine’s pastoral urgency since its conception and shape through preaching and teaching will form fundamentally how the believer sees himself or herself related to Christ the Savior.
Tom Schreiner’s book Faith Alone sets forth and defends the Reformation’s teaching concerning justification for a new generation and—in the flow of the broader history of the church—characterizes sola fide as an essential historical doctrinal development for understanding the Biblical teaching about justification. The book is accessible in its summary of swaths of historical and magisterial in its understanding of key debates of recent decades. In fact, the book could form and shape disparate data in theology or exegesis or thus will prove a seminal contribution at the Reformation’s 500th anniversary.
Nathan Sundt is a Ph.D. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Associate Pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church at Victory Memorial in Louisville, KY.
- Books at A Glance, “Interview with Thomas Schreiner, author of Faith Alone – The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught…And Why It Still Matters,” accessed 20 Nov. 2016.
- See the defense of Mark Jones, which also addresses Schreiner’s views: “In Defense of Piper,” accessed 20 Nov. 2016.
- Tony Lane, “Yes, Justification Still Matters, Review of ‘Faith Alone—The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters,'” accessed 21 Nov. 2016.