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“By Faith Alone”—Really?!

by Dr. Eitan Bar
3 minutes read

The phrase “by faith alone” is frequently cited within Evangelicalism, but its interpretation varies significantly between its two main theological camps (Arminianism vs. Calvinism). In fact, I would say that “by faith alone” is nothing more than a placebo in most of Western Christian theology.

What do I mean?

On one hand, Arminianism1 teaches that you are justified by faith alone. However, it is also believed that if you fail to live holy, keep all the rules, produce abundant fruit, successfully avoid sin, and endure until the end, you lose your salvation—resulting in your skin being melted in flames forever in God’s tortures cosmic fire chamber.

Conversely, Calvinism2 (aka reformed) also advocates for justification by faith alone and embraces the concept of “once saved, always saved.” Yet, Calvinists assert that failing to live a holy life, keep all the rules, produce fruit, successfully avoid sin, and persevere until the end suggests that you were never truly saved, to begin with; your faith was fake all along—resulting in your skin being melted in flames forever in God’s cosmic tortures fire chamber.

Thus, despite the shared mantra of “by faith alone,” most Protestant theology, much like most Catholic theology, ultimately ties salvation to works. Arminianism incorporates works at the outset, aligning them with Christ’s finished work, whereas Calvinism integrates them retrospectively. Both perspectives subtly blend salvation with works rather than embracing a pure doctrine of justification by faith alone. This implies a correlation between one’s actions and one’s salvation, suggesting that salvation isn’t truly a free gift of grace but something earned or sustained through one’s hard work and deeds. In essence, most Protestant theology (which mostly originates from Catholic theology with just a few tweaks…) involves a combination of faith and works in some form.

Our works and deeds are of utmost importance – both for the quality of our lives and those of others. They are also essential for the Christian’s rewards and roles in the afterlife. As a Jew, Paul knew exactly where the line between faith and works was drawn, a line which later became blurry. Paul himself acknowledged the importance of his works as he knew the rewards he may or may not receive in the afterlife were in accordance with how he lived his life in the present world (1 Corinthians 9:27). Rewards are something you earn and can lose, but if your salvation is also something you must earn, then how can you ever sleep at night?

What if our Father was a Calvinist or Arminianist?

When your child sins against you, it no doubt damages the quality of your relationship (at least temporarily). If they repent, your relationship will heal faster. But if they don’t repent, will they cease being your child? Will you forever stop communicating with them? Will you burn them? Of course not. You will seek to restore and mend what is broken. But wait, what if they repeatedly continue to sin and never seem to change their ways? Let’s say they are a university student and keep getting drunk, sleeping around, and never going to church. Will you ever think, “That’s it! There’s no repentance nor fruit in their life. I must kill them!” (Arminianism)? Or perhaps you would think, “Look at their behavior! This is not how I raised them! This proves they never were my child to begin with!”? Of course not! You might be disappointed with them, but these thoughts will never cross your mind! And yet, this is precisely how many Christians—always anxious and walking on eggshells—believe their Father in heaven views them. 🙁

Like it or not, the children of God sin just as much as any other child in this world, and God put the Corinthians in the canon of the Bible twice to prove just that. Paul called the members of the Corinthian church “sanctified” (1st Corinthians 1:2) while simultaneously accusing and convicting them of their sins, demanding them to stop (1st Corinthians 15:34). They were both “sinners” and “sanctified” at the same time. Their sins caused them a handful of problems. Yet, Paul’s motivation for them to get their act together was the fact that God was their Father, not the fear or threat of Him torturing them forever. God is a loving Father, not a sadistic psychopath.

In Judaism, the concept of salvation is viewed dramatically differently than in most Christian denominations, and so is the concept of works. To the Jew, works are crucial as they affect the quality of your life, God’s rewards, and your status in the afterlife. However, they have nothing to do with where you’ll end up. I believe Paul’s theology of salvation was Jewish rather than what much of the Christian church teaches today.

Evangelicals’ endless, relentless, and fervent debates over salvation reflect a profound lack of inner peace and faith rooted in fear rather than assurance. Their obsessive concern with the mechanics of salvation reveals deep-seated insecurity about their own spiritual state, as evidenced by the excessive amount of time they devote to these disputes (not that I’m silent about it, but being a theologian—I have a good excuse… 😅). This preoccupation suggests that their relationship with faith is more about anxiety and less about tranquility or certainty. Instead of viewing God as a loving Father, there is a perception that He is a tyrant out there to get them.

  1. Including Methodist, Nazarene, Calvary Chapel, Assemblies of God, Pentecostal, Holiness, Adventist, Open Brethren, and others. ↩︎
  2. Including Presbyterian, Reformed Baptist, Dutch Reformed, Anglicanism, Lutheran, Closed Brethren, and others. ↩︎

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist