The popular understanding of “sola fide” among both Catholics and Evangelicals is that it is the dogmatic and definitive Protestant answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” According to Catholics, this question has quite a complicated answer, involving faith, love, works of charity, the sacramental life and final perseverance (ie, dying in the state of grace). In comparison, Evangelicals boil down the entire Catholic list of requirements for salvation to one: Faith alone.
“Just believe in Jesus and your place in heaven will be secured” exhorts the Evangelical minister. Ironically, this is a complete and utter misreading of the original Lutheran doctrine of sola fide, and both Catholics and Evangelicals together have failed to understand both the doctrine itself and its driving motivation. The original doctrine was not intended to be an answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” rather, it was intended to be an answer to the question “How should we proclaim the Gospel?” The original sola fide was intended to be a guiding principle for preaching homilies and understanding the sacraments and it was never intended to be an alternative ordo salutis in rivalry with the traditional Catholic ordo. In this paper I will first properly articulate and explain the sola fide doctrine and suggest that – when correctly understood – it need not pose any threat to traditional Catholic doctrine. I will then show how the original sola fide is an incredibly sacramental doctrine, and thus has particular relevance for teasing out a robust and profound interpretation of the Eucharistic liturgy.
The Grammar of Homiletics
Understanding the distinction between “preaching law” and “preaching gospel” is crucial to come to a correct understanding of the original sola fide doctrine, and the distinction is as close to a dogma as you will find in the Lutheran denominations. In short, the distinction is between any form of preaching which generates works, efforts or striving in the listeners – which is preaching law – and any form of preaching which generates either faith or outrage in the listeners – and this is preaching gospel. It is important here to comprehensively explain the distinction.
Consider the following statements:1
If you get straight HDs this semester, I’ll buy you the latest iPhone.
If you avoid missing your rent for three years straight, your credit rating will improve.
If you make five sales this week, I will promote you.
These statements reflect the standard, everyday, contractual language of secular life. A condition is stated, and something is promised as a reward for fulfilling the conditions. Someone hearing these statements will either disregard the promises because they don’t particularly care about the reward, or they will work and strive to fulfil the conditions because they want to obtain the reward. Notice that all of the statements are framed in terms of condition and reward. It is common to find contractual promises posed in the negative mode of transgression and punishment:
If you get caught speeding, you will be fined $200.
If you do not manage to make a sale this week, you will be fired.
If you do not take this pill and kill yourself, I will murder your daughter.
In these cases, it is fear of the negative consequence which drives the listener to work and strive to avoid the conditions. Notice that just as in the previous set of statements, the language is conditional and contractual, and tends to generate either effort or apathy.
This contractual and conditional style of preaching occurs in Christian contexts all the time. Lets look at some examples:
If you repent and believe in Jesus, you will be saved and go to heaven after you die.
Notice that the reward promised for fulfilling the conditions is highly desirable; under most definitions of the word “heaven,” the reward here is something that anyone should definitely be willing to chase after. But a question is raised: will it be easy or hard for me to repent and believe in Jesus? Most confessing evangelicals today would probably claim to find it fairly easy, because they have already been convinced by the various apologetics they have heard in favour of Christianity. Furthermore, someone might hear this promise and think to themselves “I’m not such a bad person; I don’t steal, murder or take drugs. I just need to watch my language and change the music I listen to.” However what might seem simple and straightforward to one might be completely soul crushing and impossible for another. What about the struggling Christian who really wants to believe but is racked with doubts? Suddenly “Just believing in Jesus” doesn’t seem so easy. What about an addict who is utterly enslaved to her vice? Telling her to “repent” will come across as an impossible demand, and generate despair. After looking at the issue closer, it turns out that when “faith” is understood with its full theological and scriptural weight, this statement presents us with a contractual reward which seems more and more impossible to attain the more you chase after it.
If you donate all of your wealth to the poor, sell all of your possessions, renounce marriage and become a missionary in China, you will be blessed with eternal life.
Someone hearing such a statement might respond like so: “Things are getting more serious. Do I really have to do all of that in order to please God and go to heaven? I want to get married and have kids, and my IT career is currently on fire; does God really need me to give all of that up ‘for the sake of the kingdom?’ I suppose it is possible to fulfil these conditions, but it sounds incredibly difficult.”
If you do not obey the moral law perfectly, Almighty God will condemn you to everlasting perdition.
Someone hearing this promise might respond like so: “Oh no. This is the most terrible thing anyone has ever told me. I complain about Pope Francis regularly. I can’t stand praying the rosary. I spend too much money on whiskey and don’t give enough to the homeless people at the bus stop (what is enough?). I smoke too much. I am a slave to vice. I’m definitely going to Hell.”
Variations of these statements are regularly preached from the pulpit in both Catholic and Protestant circles. Catholics tend towards moral exhortations to works of charity, while Protestants tend towards exhortations to “believe harder!” The key thing uniting all these statements is that they have an “If … then …” conditional grammatical structure, and all of them – when spoken – generate either apathy, despair, or works in the listeners. This is the essence of what it means to preach law.
Now consider the following statements:
Because you have scored straight HDs at Uni this year, I’m giving you a month-long holiday to Europe!
Because I love you, I am going to wine and dine you at Opera Bar tonight.
Because you are struggling with your Latin so much, I’m going to spend an hour with you every night for the next month to help you pass your tests.
Notice how differently these statements hit home: In these cases, the burden for fulfilling the condition falls on the speaker rather than the listener. The person to whom these promises are spoken has only two possible responses: Trust the promise or not give a damn. But the crucial point is that the burden for fulfilling the promise falls on the speaker; the listener has no real say in the matter: “I love you and I’m going to spoil you” depends on the person saying it for fulfilment, rather than the person hearing it. Such language thus generates either faith alone, or apathy. This contrasts with the law-flavoured examples from earlier all of which generate effort and works.
Now consider the following “Christian” flavoured unconditional promises:2
Because God is unconditional love, therefore all of your sins are completely and forever forgiven. You may therefore let go all of your guilt and self-condemnation.
Because God is unconditional love, therefore you can stop trying to earn your way into God’s good graces. You are already accepted by him.
Because God is unconditional love, therefore you are assured a place in the kingdom. His love will triumph over your disbelief and sin.
This style of Christian proclamation is kerygmatic, in that when proclaimed from the pulpit, it will infallibly generate either faith or apathy in the people in the pews. No other alternative responses are open to a listener; either they will simply trust the promise (have faith), or their curiosity will be aroused towards such trust with relevant questions, or they will become angry, outraged and disbelieving: “How dare you contradict my freedom like that” a Catholic might object: “Who are you to say whether or not I’m elect” a Calvinist might fume.
The Sola Fide doctrine is simply a claim that all kerygmatic preaching must follow the “Because … therefore … ” grammatical structure in order to be effective. Any conditional preaching will always generate works and striving as a response, while unconditional preaching of this sort simply cannot generate striving/works/efforts, but rather must always generate either faith alone, or a living damnation of disbelief and outrage. Such preaching is thus understood to be an unleashing of the final judgement into the present moment: will you trust God in this moment as he declares his unconditional love for you and your certainly assured salvation? Or will you instead find some reason to object and disbelieve in anger and outrage?
There is much that could be written on this theme, but hopefully these examples are sufficient to demonstrate the law/gospel dichotomy when it comes to proclaiming the gospel and preaching homilies. The Lutheran conviction is that Christ is the kerygmatic word incarnate, and whenever one believer unconditionally promises salvation to someone in the name of Christ, Christ himself is there in the words that are spoken and the moment becomes a final judgement unleashed into the here and now for that person: If they trust the spoken word of unconditionally promised salvation, they experience the joy of the kingdom right here and right now. If they object to the promise and find reasons to deny it, they plunge into a experience of Hell and damnation right here and now.
A final note on this theme: The unconditional gospel promise must always be personalised to individual situations in order to be effective. Here are some more specific and practical examples of such kerygmatic “faith alone” preaching:3
Because Jesus has promised that your life is and will be fulfilled in his coming kingdom, you may give generously toward the feeding and sheltering of the poor.
Because Jesus was faithful to you unto death and beyond death, you may be faithful to your marital vows.
Because the cross of Jesus is the way of peace and life, you may stop abusing your spouse.
Because Jesus will provide for both you and your baby, no matter what hardship you may have to endure, you may unequivocally renounce the killing of your unborn child.
Because Christ is your food unto everlasting life, you may fast and embrace the ascetical disciplines
To conclude this section, I would like to draw attention to the fact that nothing said here is meant as an ordo salutis. The question sola fide answers is not “How do I get saved?” but rather “How do I preach the Gospel?” and therefore all of this is compatible with the Catholic sacramental economy. Luther himself understood this, which is why he strongly insisted on the importance of confession, baptism and the Eucharist. I will discuss how it is relevant to the Eucharist next.
Exegesis and analysis of the Roman Canon
Sola fide is not only a rule for preaching, but also a way of understanding what happens during the sacraments. In the seven sacraments, the unconditional kerygmatic promise is being spoken in shorthand via the sacramental words and at various other moments in the relevant sacramental liturgies. It is possible to analyse all of the sacraments – and even minor sacramentals and indulgences – under a sola fide lens to great result; Luther himself had wonderful things to say on this theme with respect to the sacraments of Confession, Baptism and Eucharist. Here I will restrict my analysis to the Eucharist. I have chosen to analyse the mass according to the 1962 missal, as this is more representative of deeper Catholic tradition and more closely reflects the liturgy as it would have been around the time of the reformation.
During the Confiteor, the priest and the servers alternate in a short liturgy of confession and absolution which runs like so:
Priest: Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Joanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et tibi Pater: quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem, beatum Michaelem Archangelum, beatum Joannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et te Pater, orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum.
Server: Misereatur vestri omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis vestris, perducat vos ad vitam aeternam.
Priest: I confess to almighty God, to the blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary, ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me.
Server: May almighty God be merciful unto you, and forgiving you your sins, bring you to everlasting life.
This section of the liturgy is interesting and relevant for an analysis according to the grammar of sola fide. Here we have the priest and the server each confessing their sinfulness, and each absolving each other of sin. This hints at the “Gospel of unconditional forgiveness” as mentioned in the previous section. It could be argued however that it doesn’t quite hold up because the absolution is done with a subjunctive verb, rather than an indicative/declarative one. Rather than proclaiming forgiveness to each other as a given fact, the priest and server absolve each other by means of a petition to God. I propose that this early exchange sets the scene for what is about to take place during the course of the liturgy. The priest and the server confess their sins and together pray for forgiveness, and then together they embark on the work of the liturgy, by the end of which their prayers will be answered.
One other curious thing to note before moving on is the following concluding prayer for absolution that the priest offers:
Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum, tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus.
May the almighty and merciful Lord grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.
The interesting thing here is that the priest is “speaking the gospel to himself.” Although again, the fact that it is a subjunctive clause rather than an indicative one weakens the point.
The next point in the liturgy to stop and dwell is the prayers at the consecration, particularly the oblation of the Victim to God (the Hanc Igitur):
Hanc igitur oblationem servitutis nostrae, sed et cunctae familiae tuae, quaesumus Domine, ut placatus accipias: diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari: Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.
We therefore, beseech Thee, O Lord, to be appeased and accept this oblation of our service, as also of Thy whole family; and to dispose our days in Thy peace, preserve us from eternal damnation, and rank us in the number of Thine Elect. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
There is a presumption that these prayers are efficacious in the context of the mass, and that they therefore state the agenda for what the priest and congregation are aiming to achieve by their liturgy. With this in mind, it’s important to take note of the fact that the priest prays that all who are present would be “ranked in the number of the elect.” This is highly relevant to the gospel promise of unconditional predestination, election and final perseverance. All of the prayers being racked up during the buildup to the consummation at the climax of the mass are a description of what Christs sacrifice efficaciously achieves, and therefore the entire mass could be understood simply a long and elaborate description of what Christ’s sacrifice has achieved. Here, we see that it has achieved the election of the congregation; the faithful attending mass are being promised by means of the mass that they are elect.4 As we will see shortly, this long list of prayers and petitions are transformed into promises at the climax of the liturgy, when all that the alter-christus has prayed for is secured and guaranteed by the consummation.
We arrive at the words of institution:
Hoc est enim Corpus meum. Hic est enim Calix Sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni Testamenti: Mysterium fidei: qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.
For this is My Body. For this is the Chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal Testament, the Mystery of Faith; which shall be shed for you and for the many unto the remission of sins.
Luther located the core of the gospel as “promise” in these words, and saw them as the basis and guarantee of the real, substantial presence of Christ in the host. Specifically, when the priest says “This is my body,” these are Christs own words being repeated again in his name and person. The same promise of sacramental presence spoken by Christ himself on Holy Thursday is repeated by him again at this moment of the mass. To have faith in these words is to have faith in the unconditional gospel. Crucially, the words are unconditional. They are – for example – not “If you believe, then this is my body” or “If you are in the state of grace, then this is my body.” Rather, the words are plain, simple and unconditional. Christ is claiming identity with what appears to us as bread and wine, and this is simply the fact and reality of the matter regardless of how we think or feel about it. The correct response is to trust the words and believe in the real presence. Incorrect responses include over-theologizing about it or flatly denying it. One last thing to note about these words is the latin pro vobis et pro multis. Many people twist this part of the sacramental words in order to argue against universalism, claiming that “many” is a different word to “all” and therefore universalism is false. A whole paper could be written showing how stupid and short-sighted this argument is, however I’ll just quickly note two points of refutation. Firstly, Latin is a language which lacks articles, and in Greek – the original language of the mass – the words would be rendered with a definite article and would therefore translate as “the many” which is in actual fact an idiom for “everyone.” Secondly, the context of the mass should be enough to understand the statement. Christ is saying “this is the cup of my blood which is shed for your (ie, everyone present during this particularly liturgy, the saved, the elect) salvation, and also for their salvation (ie, those who are not present during this particular liturgy, aka the damned, the reprobates).” The vobis is a promise addressed to those believers present in the pews, and the multis is that same promise addressed to the souls wandering in the darkness outside the portal of the church where this mass is taking place. These words therefore have a missionary connotation: Christ speaks his promise of salvation to all who are present at his sacrifice (who as we have established, are the elect), but he also desires to speak that same promise to those who remain wandering in the darkness of the κοσμος (ie, the multis; the damned, the lost). In the Novus Ordo, this point is driven home by the dismissal “[You have been saved just now, so] Go and announce the Gospel of the lord [to the damned outside the church who need to hear it (Aka, invite all your friends to mass next Sunday)]” The work of Christ isn’t complete until the final eschatological liturgy where all of the multis have been brought in and become addressed as vobis. At this point, when literally everyone is gathered before the altar and addressed as vobis, universal salvation will finally be a reality, rather than a mere heresy. Until then, masses and missionary activity to the damned must continue.
Moving on to the final part of the mass. The promise has been spoken, but when will the promise be fulfilled? In one sense, only at the end of an eternity. But in the context of the mass, the promises are fulfilled shortly after being spoken, when the priest and the faithful consume the host. At this point, the priest makes what is perhaps the most explicit proclamation of the promise so far:
Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.
The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve thy soul unto life everlasting. Amen.
Here, the verb is neither subjunctive nor indicative, it is imperative. The theological linguistics here are incredibly dense and profound. This statement is simultaneously a prayer, a promise and a command. Salvation becomes personal and efficacious at this point, and immediately after the “amen” the communicant receives their salvation – the divine Christ himself – onto their tongue. To someone without the eyes of faith, it is just a moment where you have to chew on a tasteless wafer. But for those with the eyes of faith, this moment is loaded with eschatological significance, as it is the moment when all of the many prayers and petitions and promises that have been rumbled thus far during the liturgy are sealed, achieved, guaranteed and brought to final fulfilment. At the point where the teeth and tongue consume Christ, the communicant is receiving the fullness of their heavenly inheritance and knows (or at least, should know!) that they are elect and predestined to heaven. All fear and doubt melts away and all that remains is love, joy and blissful blessedness.
It might seem anticlimactic that we don’t just find ourselves whisked away to heaven, the beatific vision and the resurrection at the moment we receive our host.5 But Christ clearly has other plans for us. Just as he descends to Hell to save the damned on Holy Saturday, the end of the mass is also a new beginning for us, and arguably this is the significance of the fact that the final prayer is the prologue of John’s gospel, which is a description of the very beginning of the entire story. As the mass ends we are sent back into the darkness outside the church doors to announce the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it, and entice them to “come and see” Christ for themselves, and hear his promise for themselves. The mass ends and we leave the church to return to the darkness of the κοσμος because there are still a multitude of lost souls out there who need to hear the unconditional kerygma, and we are the ones who have to tell them. The vobis have already heard the kerygmatic gospel promise, but the multis are yet to hear and trust it. But as Saint Origen always knew, the ending is in the beginning, and so we finish the mass with the following words of victorious and salvific promise:
In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso facum est nihil quod factum est: in ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was made nothing that was made: in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men; and the Light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness can never conquer it.
1These and the other statements I will use were heavily inspired by Fr. Al. Kimel’s writings on similar themes. However I believe I have refashioned and repurposed them sufficiently that fine-grained citations are not essential.
2These examples have been taken verbatim from Fr Al. Kimel.
3These examples also have been taken from Fr Al. Kimel.
4One might want to dispute this analysis, but to do so would be tantamount to claiming that the sacrament of the Eucharist and the prayers of the mass are not efficacious, as if the things which Jesus tells us to pray for during mass will ultimately not be granted by the Father. It seems more reasonable to me to have faith that everything we pray for during the liturgy will be (indeed, has been) granted, including election and the grace of final perseverance.
5But then again, perhaps we do?
Johnny is a Bishop, Heretic, Prophet, Priest, Apostle and ASM (Ascended Spiritual Master). On his good days he is often also the one true almighty God incarnate. He enjoys writing theology and philosophy articles and spreading the Gospel promise of Universal Salvation