What "Faith Alone" Really Means

As the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches, the spotlight of interest in Bible-believing circles is focusing on the principal teachings of the Reformers, particularly regarding Biblical authority and the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.

As those familiar with history will remember, the word “alone” figured prominently in the message and slogans of the Protestant movement. The Latin rendering of “alone”—sola—became notably featured in the key phrases with which the Reformation would be associated in the centuries to follow:

            Sola scriptura (the Bible alone)

            Sola gratia (grace alone)

            Sola Christo (Christ alone)

            Sola fide (faith alone) (1)

Some at times have questioned how the last three of these phrases—grace alone, Christ alone, and faith alone—can be consistent with each other. The Bible, after all, uses none of these phrases—aside from the negative reference by the apostle James where he writes, “Ye see then how by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). (Our discussion will demonstrate that the works James is talking about are not the same as those excluded by Paul from the saving process.) The Bible says that “by grace are ye saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8), but it never speaks of “grace alone” or “faith alone” so far as human salvation is concerned.

Ellen White, however, does use these phrases, or variations of them, in such statements as the following:

There is not a point that needs to be dwelt upon more earnestly, repeated more frequently, or established more firmly in the minds of all than the impossibility of fallen man meriting anything by his own best good works. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone (2).

If man cannot, by any of his good works, merit salvation, then it must be wholly of grace, received by man as a sinner because he receives and believes in Jesus. . . . Justification is wholly of grace and not procured by any works that fallen man can do (3).

She clarifies this point further by making plain that everything involved in the salvation process is a gift from Jesus, none of it originating with humanity:

The Lord Jesus imparts all the powers, all the grace, all the penitence, all the inclination, all the pardon of sins, in presenting His righteousness to man to grasp by living faith—which is also the gift of God (4).

In the light of all these inspired statements, from both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White, it is clear that the Reformation mantras sola gratia (grace alone), sola Christo (Christ alone), and sola fide (faith alone) are entirely consistent with each other. Christ is the exclusive Source of the grace that draws, transforms, forgives, and empowers us, as well as the exclusive Source of the faith by which we grasp and apply to our lives the promise of these divine realities. The entire saving process—regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification—is from start to finish the free gift of our benevolent and blessed Savior.

Faith in Action

This doesn’t mean, of course, that proactive effort empowered by divine grace is not an integral part of Biblical salvation. What it does mean is that only that effort empowered by God’s grace and executed through faith is acceptable as part of Biblical salvation. The Bible is clear that “without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6), and that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). When Jesus declared to the rich young ruler, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17), He went on to say, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (verse 26). Jesus underscored this truth with even greater emphasis when He stated to His disciples, “Without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). Writing to the Romans regarding the conditions of salvation, the apostle Paul declared: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die, but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:13).

In other words, it is only through God’s grace, imparted by the Spirit and received by faith, that the obedience required by the law as a condition of salvation can be fulfilled in one’s life. This, of course, occurs in addition to the imputation of righteousness to cover our past failings, which is also received through faith. Any attempt to seek forgiveness or practice true obedience apart from the conversion experience of total surrender to Jesus—the only way God’s pardoning and empowering grace can be received—is doomed to failure.

Too many Christians have embraced the theory that being saved “by faith” is a merely passive experience, in which God completes our salvation entirely on His own, with the believer simply accepting “by faith” this accomplished fact. Whether this “finished salvation” is assumed to have transpired at the cross two thousand years ago, or whether it is thought to be accomplished in Christian lives today through a “let go and let God” relationship, either way it is believed that righteousness by faith consists of God accomplishing our salvation all by Himself. But this passive definition of righteousness and faith is not supported in Holy Scripture. Perhaps the most articulate survey of Biblical righteousness by faith can be found in Hebrews chapter 11, often called the Faith Chapter.

Repeatedly, in this chapter’s listing of faithful worthies through the centuries, faith is depicted as the means by which human beings actively and visibly obey God’s commands. “By faith” Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain (verse 4). “By faith” Noah built an ark (verse 7). “By faith” Abraham went out from Ur of the Chaldees, not knowing whither he went (verse 8). “By faith” Sarah received strength to conceive seed (verse 11). “By faith” Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (verse 24).  “By faith” the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea (verse 29); “by faith” the walls of Jericho fell down (verse 30). “By faith” Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, David and others subdued kingdoms, stopped the mouths of lions, and quenched the violence of fire (verses 32-34).                                                                        

What is especially significant is how it is stated that Noah’s building of the ark was the means whereby he “became heir of the righteousness which is by faith” (verse 7). By faith Noah claimed God’s promise of strength and wisdom to build the ark, but this didn’t mean God built the ark Himself. Faith is declared to be the means whereby Sarah “received strength to conceive seed” (verse 11), though obviously she and Abraham played an active role in this process (Gen. 15:4; Heb. 2:16).

In none of these verses is faith depicted as something passive. In none of these verses is faith received, executed, or experienced apart from proactive human effort. Ellen White echoes the message of these texts when she writes: “God gives the talents, the powers of the mind; we form the character” (5).

Conclusion: What “Faith Alone” Really Means

In recounting the origin of the Protestant Reformation, Ellen White describes how the message of Martin Luther drew a contrast between the surface piety demonstrated by such practices as the purchase of indulgences, and the Spirit-empowered reform of the life:

Many of his (Luther’s) own congregation had purchased certificates of pardon, and they soon began to come to their pastor, confessing their various sins, and expecting absolution, not because they were penitent and wished to reform, but on the ground of the indulgence. Luther refused them absolution, and warned them that unless they should repent and reform their lives, they must perish in their sins. . . .

Luther now entered boldly upon his work as a champion of the truth. His voice was heard from the pulpit in earnest, solemn warning. He set before the people the offensive character of sin, and taught them that it is impossible for man, by his own works, to lessen its guilt or evade its punishment. Nothing but repentance toward God and faith in Christ can save the sinner (6).

And what in fact is repentance, according to the inspired teachings of Ellen White? “Repentance includes sorrow for sin, and a turning away from it” (7). Notice how the problem with Catholic teachings, against which the Reformers protested, is not that repentance and reformation of life are necessary in order to receive God’s forgiveness. The Bible itself spells out these conditions for the receipt of divine forgiveness (II Chron. 7:14; Prov. 28:13; Isa. 55:7; Matt. 6:14-15). Rather, the error in Catholic teachings regarding salvation is the illusion that outward compliance with human rituals and stipulations (e.g. the purchase of indulgences) makes one eligible for God’s forgiveness. According to Ellen White’s inspired commentary, this was the issue that split Christendom in the sixteenth century. No tug-of-war between forensic righteousness and the work of the Holy Spirit is cited by the inspired pen as the cause of this pivotal event in Christian history.

In short, “faith alone” does not mean faith in contrast with the obedience faith produces. Rather, it is faith in contrast with anything accomplished apart from faith and the conversion experience. This is why Paul illustrates the false doctrine of righteousness by works by citing Abraham’s relationship with Hagar and the resulting birth of Ishmael (Gal. 4:22-23), while the gospel doctrine of righteousness by faith is illustrated by Abraham’s relationship with Sarah and the resulting birth of Isaac (Rom. 4:16-22: Heb. 11:11-12). Ishmael’s birth was brought about through Abraham’s unaided strength, while Isaac’s birth was made possible through active divine/human cooperation.

“Faith alone,” in other words, includes Spirit-empowered obedience as well as the forgiveness which covers past sins and sins of ignorance (8). “Faith alone” does not, however, include obedience attempted in our own strength, which is really not obedience at all, as only a heart transformed by God’s grace can successfully subdue one’s fallen nature and render the obedience the law requires (Matt. 19:16-26; Rom. 8:13). In the absence of divinely-imparted faith and transformative righteousness, the best human beings can hope for is a relative level of surface compliance with God’s standard of holiness. But this superficial piety can in no way fit the sinner for the society of the sinless. Only through faith and the total surrender of the heart to Jesus can forgiveness for sin, and complete victory over sin, be accomplished for the Christian in this present life.



1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_solae NOTE: The article here cited speaks of “five solas,” including soli deo gloria (glory to God alone), the latter—according to the article—having been added by certain ones in the middle of the 20th century. But it is the four listed in the present article that have been historically and most often associated with the message of the Protestant Reformation.

2. Ellen G. White, Faith and Works, p. 19.

3. Ibid, p. 20.

4. Ibid, p. 24.

5. ----Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 331.

6. ----The Great Controversy, p. 128-129.

7. ----Steps to Christ, p. 23.

8. ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1092; Early Writings, p. 254.