“Since the gospel stands at the heart of Christian faith, Luther and other Reformers regarded the debate concerning justification as one involving an essential truth of Christianity, as a doctrine no less essential than that of the Trinity or the dual natures of Christ. Without the gospel, the church falls. Without the gospel, the church is no longer the church.” Faith Alone, R.C. Sproul, p. 23
With the coming of the Reformation two brilliant truths began to take center stage in 16th Century radical Christian circles. For Luther and other reformers foremost in their thinking was the revolutionary idea that the Bible and the Bible alone would be their rule of faith. That meant a break with church traditions and most of the writings of former Christian writers who built their arguments around church teachings and doctrinal pronouncements from the Mother Church. From their desire to know the Bible came forth the rediscovered concept of justification by faith without the works of the law. These two concepts are known as Sola Scriptura and Sola fide (Scripture alone and faith alone). These are the backbone of evangelical Christianity.
Being good evangelicals, however, it wasn’t long until they were fighting amongst themselves over a host of theological points. The result was a splintering of Protestantism into differing and often times warring camps. Everything from the Lord’s Supper to last day events were thrown into the fray, and battered and beaten by dozens of camps all striving for theological supremacy. It wasn’t long until even justification came into contention.
Remember, none of this was happening in a vacuum. The Catholic church was in the midst of a counter-revolution and attempting to put some reforms into place to clean up their act and better compete for the hearts, souls and pocket-books of European nobility and peasant alike. Also the reformers had to deal with hostility on the part of royalty and provincial leaders who saw the reformation as an undermining of state control over the people. As well Islam was making gains into Christian lands through conquest and diverting energy and wealth in the fight against that expansion.
Though Christendom split into differing denominations the idea of justification by faith through Christ alone by faith alone held fairly steady until the 19th Century with the immergence of liberal theology. When we speak of the school of liberal thought during that period of time we don’t want to think in terms of liberal minded people in our own era. Theirs was a school of thought that believed very differently from historic Christianity. They taught the Bible was not inspired, miracles were probably not true, great parts of Scripture such as the Davidic kingdom was not true, and the gospel was gutted.
They understood the teachings of the New Testament as the writings of a good man who presented ethical and social teachings that could help people live better lives. This is probably an oversimplification of their position and different teachers held different views on many topics, but it is the basic gist of the situation. The point is that personal reconciliation to God through Christ for the forgiveness of sins began to slide into the background.
In the 20th Century the people who continued to hold to the Bible alone and faith alone in light of the modernist views were often known as fundamentalists. Where once evangelical as a whole held these two doctrines as central now the evangelical camp became known as fundamentalists in opposition to the modern teachings on Scripture.
As liberal theology spread, especially through mainline churches, evangelicals became known as people who believed in personal salvation and especially doing evangelism. The two terms, “evangelical,” and “evangelism” for the population as a whole became inter-changeable.
Though evangelicals held, as they should, to the Bible alone and faith alone, they were not as involved as the Scripture would demand in the social welfare of society as a whole. The result was a drifting apart of the church into a camp where social justice ruled and the evangelical camp, to the most part, where personal salvation was king. Sproul points out, “Social just was now the liberal agenda and personal evangelism the conservation agenda.” p. 28
It was during this time that the term born again came into vogue amongst many evangelicals. It described the experience of accepting Jesus as one’s personal Saviour and rejection of the “things of this world.” Sproul points out how far the debate between liberal and conservative theology has taken the Christian community when people started using the term “born again” to highlight their experience. Classic Christianity would contend that there is no such thing as a non-born again Christian. In other words, you are a Christian or you are not—being born again is a redundant term. It had always been assumed that if you were a Christian you were regenerate but times were a changing.
Today, millions of Christians claim to be believers while rejecting the historical concept of faith alone and the Bible alone. On a positive side evangelical’s rediscovered the social aspect of Scripture and became more involved in the physical aspect of our society as well as their spiritual well-being. However, there was to be another movement that would rock the evangelical community to its core—the charismatic movement.
By the 1960’s a full reconfiguration of western Christianity was in full force. Mainline denominations, Catholicism and evangelical congregations were swept up in the revival that emphasized unity and the work of the Spirit. Once again doctrines such as justification began to lose its distinctive voice and often took a backseat to the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit, miracles, and revival.
Also during this time liberal theology was making headway with a very watered down view of the historical belief in the Bible as the divine word of God. Archaeology, higher forms of criticism, basic skepticism from a generation weaned on the 60’s, and a desire for unity within the church led to a lessening view of Scripture as the Inspired Word of God.
But the confusion and attacks on justification were not over. With the rise of the “Lordship/Salvation controversy a new confusion was hoisted upon the church. The question was over the conditions for salvation, or to put it a little clearer, it was over faith and works. Can a person be saved without producing works of obedience? Is salvation by grace alone or is salvation grace and the proof of conversion a Christian life? Both sides believed a Christian should live in harmony with their faith but the question was does that walk help constitute salvation or is it the consequence?
We as Christians have come a long way from Luther and it is not always for the better. Today the Christian church has everything from fundamentalist groups who believe handling snakes and drinking poison reveals the saving grace of God to mainline denominations that feel silly to talk of the atoning death of Christ.
There are groups that believe in faith alone and then do as you please and others that believe salvation is “both” justification and sanctification. Talk to fifty Christians and you will discover fifty views on the historical concept of what constitutes true “faith,” and “redemption.” Other churches believe the gifts of the Spirit are proof of their acceptance by God and still others that reject anything to do with “gifts.”
As Christians our faith must be upon the word of God as revealed through men of God under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. This is the challenge for contemporary Christians; do we believe what we are told, or what we think the Bible says, or a modern prophet tells us, or do we dig deep into the word of God to see for ourselves?