All Christian churches teach that we need faith for salvation — we can’t earn our way to heaven by doing good works. But does the Bible teach that faith alone is enough for salvation?
My whole life, I believed that the words “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8-9) meant that works didn’t matter for salvation at all — but then I dug deeper into the Bible and learned what these words really mean.
I always thought that “sola fide,” or “faith alone,” was a rock solid teaching from my Protestant childhood that I could always depend on.
Come to find out, of all of the issues I’ve researched during My Journey Through Protestant and Catholic Beliefs, the issue of Sola Fide and Faith vs Works is the one I’ve had to grapple with the most.
It’s not because I have a hard time understanding the Protestant meaning of sola fide, or the Catholic teaching of faith and works. But it’s just hard to really nail down an issue as huge, messy, and complex as sola fide.
With the Eucharist, things are pretty black and white — it either is or is not the real Body and Blood of Christ. But with faith and works, figuring out exactly how the two mix together… and how much you need of both, and why… well, it can get pretty tricky!
Is salvation really only faith, not works? Is it faith and works? How do these two interact?
This issue is fundamental to Christian belief, so I set out to find what the Bible says.
What Does Sola Fide Mean Anyway?
But first let’s take a step back: If you read the title and asked yourself, “What is sola fide?”, let me explain!
Sola fide is a Latin phrase that means “faith alone,” and it was a hugely important part of the Reformation. Sola fide means that Christians receive salvation by faith alone. Martin Luther believed that the Catholic Church was teaching that salvation required both faith and works, and he disagreed.
That’s the quick 101 on the meaning of sola fide — now let’s dive in!
The Protestant View: You Gotta Have Faith (Alone!)
Traditional Protestant belief (the way I was raised) states that we are saved “sola fide,” by faith ALONE. That while good works are nice and all, they have absolutely no bearing on our salvation. That we should do them, but if we don’t, it won’t affect our salvation at all.
I use this analogy from everyday life: When you get married, it is saying the words and signing the paper that actually make you married. Whether you are a good spouse or a bad spouse after the ceremony doesn’t change the fact that you are truly married. Being a good spouse will make your life happier and easier, but it won’t make you any more married than you were before. You have the signed papers to prove that you said the words, so you’re married, end of story!
This analogy crystallized sola fide for me: If you had faith once and were saved, then you have that faith always, and you are always saved.
Does the Bible Support Sola Fide?
To answer my questions about sola fide, I began searching the Scriptures to see what the Bible REALLY says about salvation by faith alone. At first, it seemed easy to find verses that seem to support sola fide:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Romans 3:28)
And then the verse that every kid I knew memorized in Sunday School:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
At this point I thought that sola fide must be correct: These verses seemed pretty clear that we receive salvation by faith, and my analogy about marriage makes pretty good sense. It had to be faith, not works!
But, that wasn’t the last word…
Can We Really Have Faith Without Works?
As I kept reading the Bible, I found more and more verses where some type of work or good deed was an integral part of salvation — not just sola fide. The number was almost overwhelming.
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Romans 2:6-7, 13)
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.‘ (Matthew 19:16-17)
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)
And my favorite one of all…
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?… So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead… You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!…Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ — and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:14, 17, 19, 21-26)
It’s easy to look at one verse, or even a few verses of the Bible and come to the conclusion that sola fide must be right. At first, it really looks like Ephesians 2:8-9 does teach sola fide, and that it separates faith from works.
But when you look other verses, another picture begins to emerge. And I’d say these verses make it pretty clear that sola fide is not enough, and works have to be a part of the faith equation somehow.
Does this mean that the Bible contradicts itself? Or is there more to learn about faith and works?
The Phrase “Sola Fide” Is Not Actually in the Bible
As I did more research, I was surprised to learn this: Nowhere in the original language of the Bible do any of the writers teach “faith alone.” Rightly or wrongly, Martin Luther actually added the word “alone” to his German translation of the Bible in Romans 3:28.
I repeat, “faith alone” is not in the original language!
And another huge thing I realized? “Faith” has to mean more than just “belief.”
After all, James 2:19 tells us that “even the demons believe” in God, which means that if just belief were enough, all the demons would be Christians too. Which doesn’t make any sense at all!
The devil’s in the details, right?
So the words “sola fide” aren’t in the Bible. But does the Bible support the broader teaching?
So Do Bible Verses Support Sola Fide?
To understand if the broader context of certain verses support sola fide, I looked at Ephesians 2 as a case study.
Remember, Ephesians 2:8-9 is often cited as a passage that supports the faith alone teaching. What happens if we step back and look at the wider teaching here?
When I read the passage, I saw that Paul was not saying that no works are necessary for salvation, but that you can’t earn your salvation yourself by being a “good person.” Paul wasn’t actually teaching sola fide!
If we start in verse 4, we read:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved). (Ephesians 2:4-5)
When I looked closer at this passage, I saw that Paul is actually focused on grace in our lives — he’s talking about the ability to make the decision to follow Christ in the first place.
We don’t choose Christ because we earned it through doing all the right things. The fact that we are able to believe AT ALL and in the first place is the grace of God even while we were still sinners.
When I stepped back to look at the big picture, I saw that Bible passages often used to support sola fide aren’t actually talking about sola fide.
What Paul is teaching in Ephesians 2 is that we can’t earn God’s grace. And God’s grace is necessary for us to have faith.
But does that gift of grace give us a free pass for faith and good works?
The Catholic View: Faith Without Works is Dead
Because many people mistakenly believe that the Catholic Church teaches that people are saved by their works, I met with a Catholic priest for clarification. (If you’re interested in more of that conversation, we also spoke briefly about purgatory and indulgences; you can find what I learned in this post.)
That idea about Catholics is false: Catholics don’t believe that anyone is saved by works. In fact, the Catholic Church expressly denounces the idea that people can be saved by works, apart from faith.
But they also denounce the idea that people can be saved by faith alone, apart from works.
Catholic teaching is that faith IS what saves us, but not just any kind of faith. Faith that saves has to be an active, living faith that naturally results in good works.
It doesn’t matter for our salvation if we produce one or one hundred (or even zero) good works over the course of our lifetime, because good works don’t “earn” salvation.
But we must have the kind of faith that is growing and bearing fruit in our lives. It’s not the number that matters, but the direction of our growth.
And we can’t separate faith and works because the two will naturally grow together.
The works themselves don’t save you, but they do show what kind of faith you have.
Can a Non-Catholic Believe that Faith Needs Works?
I know that hearing that faith needs works can sound really strange and even alienating to people who grew up believing in sola fide.
And it might seem even more suspicious because a Catholic priest said it. Because of this, I highly recommend listening to this fantastic video clip of Francis Chan explaining how faith and works interact.
He’s non-denominational, not Catholic, so I can’t say that for sure that it is 100% Catholic-approved, but it seems spot-on to me.
(Fast forward to 29:30 for the relevant — and sometimes humorous! — talk about faith and works.)
True Faith Means Good Fruit Will Follow
So what did I learn about the meaning of sola fide? At the end of the day it turns out that my original beliefs were a great place to start. What is true about sola fide is that works don’t save us — we are only saved by grace.
But this doesn’t mean that works don’t matter. True faith in Jesus and love for Him means that our lives will show that love to others, just like His life did.
Our works are a really great indication of what kind of faith we have — and if we even have faith at all.
And really, doesn’t this just make sense? If you REALLY, TRULY believed in Jesus, wouldn’t you naturally WANT to follow him? And of course, by follow Him, I mean keep his commandments and teachings, an outward expression of your inner faith that leads to salvation.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions!! What did you grow up learning about the meaning of sola fide? Have your beliefs and your faith changed over time? Leave me a note (or a book 🙂 ) in the comments section below!
Enjoyed this post? Don’t miss the rest of the posts in the series!
I’m not asking you to believe because I say so. Please DON’T take my word for it! The purpose of this series is only to share what I’ve learned on my journey in order to inspire you to begin a journey of your own. Here are a few helpful resources to get you started.
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