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Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Faith Alone?

Trent Horn

As the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation draws near, expect lots of people to be talking about the central pillar of the Reformation called sola fide, or justification by faith alone. Protestants who claim Catholics illicitly add works to the gospel usually (and sometimes only) cite St. Paul’s letters to prove their point. In fact, at a 2010 conference, John Piper gave a lecture titled “Did Jesus Preach Paul’s Gospel?”

Anglican scholar Scot McKnight says of Piper’s approach, “The order—asking if Jesus fits Paul!—might rankle many Bible readers and historians, but such questions about the Bible are not inappropriate.” The Evangelical author Alan Stanley, however, asks an important question: “Why is it that Jesus must be reconciled to Paul as if Paul were the benchmark? If anyone should be the benchmark, should it not be Jesus himself?”

So what did Jesus teach about justification?

Words and Works

In Matthew 12:36-37, Jesus said, “On the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Stanley notes that this parallels the instruction in James 2:12 to “speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” He writes:

Clearly Jesus knows of a justification that will take place in the “day of judgment” and it is likely James is speaking of the same judgment, that is, all people will be judged on the basis of their works vis-à-vis their eternal destiny.

Protestants usually claim that Jesus means our words are indicative of the content of our hearts, and so it is our hearts (and the faith they contain) that will be judged rather than our words or actions. But in Revelation 2:23, Jesus says, “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.” Jesus does not render a judgment based solely on what our hearts deserve but also on what our works deserve.

Does this contradict Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee who boasted of his works and the lowly tax collector who simply prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13)? Jesus said the tax collector was justified “rather than” the Pharisee (Luke 18:14), a statement Calvin seized upon as evidence that faith rather than works justifies us.

But this parable doesn’t teach the sufficiency of faith for justification; it teaches the necessity of repentance. According to the Calvinist theologian Richard Gaffin Jr.:

There is nothing wrong with what the Pharisee prays. It is a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the thoroughly commendable deeds enumerated. . . . What is wrong and deeply flawed is what is missing (and present in the tax collector’s prayer): a heartfelt confession of his own sinfulness and guilt, and acknowledgement that ultimately, despite the undeniable difference in their behavior, he is “even like this tax collector.”[1]

When Jesus explains this parable, he does not say the tax collector was justified rather than the Pharisee because the former did not rely on works for his justification. Instead, the Pharisee was not justified because he was guilty of the sin of pride, whereas the tax collector was humble and recognized his need to repent. Jesus even explains why the tax collector rather than the Pharisee was justified: “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14)—indicating it is the tax collector’s humble, repentant attitude that is the distinguishing factor.

In fact, in the next chapter an actual tax collector, Zacchaeus, repents of his wrongdoings and seeks forgiveness from Jesus. It is only after Zacchaeus declares he will pay back everyone he defrauded that Jesus tells him, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).

Fide, not Sola Fide

Consider also Jesus’ answer to the question “What good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). Rather than merely saying, “Have faith in God” or “Believe in me,” Jesus tells the young man, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). This does not mean Jesus denied that faith plays a part in our justification. In John 6:28 the crowd asks Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” to which Jesus replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).

But it would be a mistake to conclude, as John MacArthur does, that verses like these make it “easy to demonstrate from Jesus’ evangelistic ministry that he taught sola fide.” Jesus exhortation to “believe in him” doesn’t mean we must only believe in him, just as Jesus’ exhortation to “keep the commandments” doesn’t mean we must only keep the Ten Commandments.

MacArthur also claims that because Jesus said to several people in the Gospels, “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34, 10:52; cf. Luke 7:50), it follows that “all those healings were object lessons on the doctrine of justification by faith alone.” But just because a passage speaks about faith, it does not follow that it is talking about justification by faith alone, or even justification.

We cannot conclude from these texts that individuals who had faith that Jesus the prophet could heal them were justified. In fact, Jesus’ rebuke of the nine lepers who failed to return and thank God as the Samaritan did provides further evidence that our actions also contribute to our growth in righteousness. Just because faith in Jesus saved someone from a temporal harm does not mean they possessed faith that saved them from eternal harm.

Finally, MacArthur cites John 5:24, because Jesus said, “He who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” But just four verses later Jesus says that, at the final judgment, “All who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”

Matthew’s description of Jesus at the final judgment casting out the goats who failed to feed, clothe, visit, and care for “the least of these my brethren” (Matt. 25:40), and receiving the sheep who did do these things, also shows that acts of charity and obedience do play a role in our justification (Matt. 25:31-46).

Jesus did not teach that salvation came from man obeying God’s law apart from God’s grace. But neither did Jesus teach that salvation consists only of being justified by faith in him. In Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works?, Alan Stanley provides the following answer to his book’s titular question:

If by works we mean works prior to conversion and thus originating from ourselves, then it is clear—Jesus did not teach salvation by works. If, however, we mean final or eschatological salvation and post-conversion works originating from God himself, then, yes, Jesus did teach salvation by works—in the same way that James taught justification by works.


Adapted from Trent’s new book The Case for Catholicism: Answers to Classic and Contemporary Protestant Objections, available now.

[1] Right with God: Justification in the Bible and the World, 124

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