Dr. Mohler By Faith Alone

This week Dr. Al Mohler, the President of a Southern Baptist Seminary, reminds us that the Roman Catholic Church is a false church that teaches a false gospel.

His reason?

“First and foremost, evangelicals must affirm that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is an essential, because that is the very definition of the gospel itself, and there is nothing more core, central and essential than the gospel. The reformers were absolutely right in saying that any understanding of justification – even the understanding that justification is by faith and something else — is another gospel, is anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Mohler said. “The only way of understanding salvation by grace alone through faith alone is defining justification as the Scripture defines it, and that is justification by faith alone.”

Please tell me if I’m missing something here (I mean that sincerely) but the logic seems to be this:

The core of the gospel is justification by faith alone.
If you don’t believe that then you are believing a “false gospel.”

Is that what he’s saying? If so, I have a question about this logic. Isn’t the insistence that I must believe in the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” to be a faithful Christian a contradiction?

It sounds to me like Mohler is doing the exact thing he is accusing Catholics of doing. Isn’t he basically saying that “Justification is by faith alone AND your belief that justification is by faith alone”? In that case, neither the Catholics nor Mohler are saying that justification is by faith alone.

So, to sum up:

If the Catholic Church says the core of the gospel is faith + works, it’s heresy.

If Mohler says the core of the gospel is faith + correct beliefs about faith, it’s orthodoxy.

Got it.

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26 responses to “Dr. Mohler By Faith Alone

  1. I see your point Jared and its something I wrestle with as well. Does one have to be right or faithful to be “saved”? But what good is a religion if it doesn’t clearly define what it believes, there has to be boundaries or it starts to fall apart. Mohler is still in the old guard of evangelicalism that strains itself theologically to keep hegemony, while guys like you and me tend to want to be more faithful than right.

    • Yes, you have hit on the larger issue that I was too lazy to mention. The problem is: who decides on the boundaries? And I would argue that the bigger question is: what specific fears do we have that leads us to unquestioningly assume we need boundaries. What exactly does it mean for Christianity to “fall apart” in your mind? Why do we think that without hegemonic protection of the boundaries it will in fact fall apart?

      • one more thing… the gospel is a declaration, is it not? It is a proclamation of what God has achieved for us in Christ Jesus, and we receive it by faith (by trusting in it). So do you think it’s possible to receive and believe the gospel without ‘hearing’ it?

        I just don’t see how you think it’s illogical for me to say that one must hear the gospel in order to believe it (if I might summarise my view like that).

    • But surely being faithful involves seeking and knowing God’s truth? Of course, saying that one needs right theology to be saved would be adding to the gospel, but I don’t see Mohler arguing that here (and would be very surprised if he did!) But faith, by definition, involves resting our trust in certain truths; one of the core truths of the gospel is that we must repent and trust what God has done for us in Jesus (i.e all we need). If we add works we *deny* the sufficiency of Christ’s work – is it true faith which doesn’t trust the finished work of Christ?
      So Mohler is not arguing for faith + right belief, he’s arguing for real faith which necessitates right beluef of who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. To be faithful, one’s faith must be appropriately focused.

      • I am still confused. It sounds like you are equivocating. What’s the difference between saying “real faith necessitates right belief,” which you affirm, and saying “one needs right theology to be saved,” which you deny?

      • “What’s the difference between saying “real faith necessitates right belief,” which you affirm, and saying “one needs right theology to be saved,” which you deny?”

        I suppose I’d say that one needs some right theology (i.e. thinking about God) in order to be saved, because the nature of faith is trusting in someone / something, so you have to have at least some amount of right understanding to even have faith. That’s why, I think, we’ve historically made the distinction between primary and secondary things: essential and non-essential doctrines. So if I say something like ‘real faith necessitate right belief’ it’s not a general statement, but in the specific context of who Jesus is and what he’s done, because saving faith is faith in Jesus, is it not?

      • “Faith, by definition, involves resting our trust in certain truths” – I very strongly disagree with this. For me, Christian faith, by definition, involves resting our trust in a certain *person*, Jesus Christ. Salvation is from God alone, not from our works, whether works of action or works of belief.

        Most quotes about this from Ephesians 2 tend to finish a bit early, I reckon: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Grace, faith and works all have their part, but salvation is a gift from God alone.

      • @BlackPhi “I very strongly disagree with this. For me, Christian faith, by definition, involves resting our trust in a certain *person*, Jesus Christ. Salvation is from God alone, not from our works, whether works of action or works of belief.” < I strongly agree with you. Faith is in Jesus, the One who IS the Truth. But as Romans 10:14 talks about, in order to trust in Christ, we have to hear about who he is and what he's done. So when I say that we have to rest our trust is certain truths I mean that we have to rest our trust in the truths of who Jesus is and what he's done, which is to say, to trust in Jesus.

      • I am not sure we can really make that distinction Andrew. I mean, I know that’s the common way of looking at it, but I’m not sure if the logic holds up. It’s almost as though there are some “important” things that you “must know” if you are going to say you “know Jesus,” and then there are minor things that aren’t important.

        My point is this: we never know all of a person. They are always “The Other” in important ways. For instance, I both know and do not know my wife in really important ways. Who is Jesus? Don’t we learn that throughout our lives? Isn’t that a process? And if it’s a process, what is the sine qua non of that knowledge? And who decides when I have “enough” knowledge about Jesus to “be saved”?

        What does it even mean for Jesus to be the Truth? How is a person a truth?

        I think your statement “we have to rest our trust in the truths of who Jesus is and what he’s done, which is to say, to trust in Jesus” betrays a logo-centrism in your theology. In what other relationship does “trusting a person” equate to “knowing some facts about her & how she’s helped me”?

        What do you think? Again, I don’t mean anything personally, just trying to think through things!

      • Thanks Jared.
        “It’s almost as though there are some “important” things that you “must know” if you are going to say you “know Jesus,” and then there are minor things that aren’t important.”

        Sort of. I wouldn’t say they aren’t important, but I do think there are certain things we need to know in order to ‘believe’ (the very reason that John writes his gospel, for example).

        I’m happy to have a logo-centric theology, because I believe that a thorougly trinitarian theology will inevitably be Christo(the logos)centric. It is Jesus who shows us who God is, and it is through Jesus that God has ‘finally’ spoken to us (as Hebrews puts it), so it stands to reason then that the inspired Word about Jesus is important. I don’t see the illogic in saying that in order to know someone you need to know at least some things about them. How can you know someone if you don’t know anything about them?

        “And who decides when I have “enough” knowledge about Jesus to “be saved”?
        I’m not arguing that we need knowledge, per se, to be saved (it is not knowledge that saves us), I agree that we need to trust Jesus. But what does it mean to trust Jesus, to ‘receive by faith’? Can I say that I think Jesus is an invisible elephant and I trust him, ergo I’m saved? That would be nonsense, would it not? Would that faith save anyone?
        Of course we don’t know everything about Jesus (that would take an eternity) but I’ve not said we need exhaustive knowledge for saving What I am suggesting is that to trust in someone (and what they’ve done) requires recognition of who they are and what they’ve done, doesn’t it? Isn’t that why Hebrews spends so long recalling how God worked in the lives of the ‘heroes’ in encouraging faith in the reader?

        ” In what other relationship does “trusting a person” equate to “knowing some facts about her & how she’s helped me”?”
        Well that’s not exactly an accurate reduction of my argument. But perhaps you could explain or give an example of a relationship in which you trust someone with no prior reason or knowledge of who they are or what they are like…? I can’t think of ever having done so. I trust people based on what’s been revealed to me about them. And I still maintain that when we’re called to ‘trust in Jesus’ for our salvation, it’s a call to receive by faith what he has done on our behalf. Can we receive it and be ignorant of it?

        How will they believe Him who they’ve not heard?

      • There is an interesting ambiguity in English between ‘knowing’ (about) and ‘knowing’ (personally).

        Knowing someone personally may initially come about through personal introduction, through reading about them, through meeting them in some formal, organised context, or even just by bumping into them out of the blue. Many of these would involve coming to know stuff about that person, and the process of getting to know someone normally also includes knowing more about them. But there is still that deep distinction between knowing about a person and actually knowing the person.

        If I am drowning and someone comes to rescue me, I really don’t care about all the doctrinal clutter. All I care about is whether I trust them enough to let go of the plank that is (just about) holding me up, so I can grab hold of their outstretched hand. Any Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Mormon, whatever, who believes their particular plank is essential to their rescue might find that more difficult, of course, but it is still the actual letting go and grabbing hold that really matters. Salvation is by grace, through faith – God’s gift.

      • I don’t think the gospel is ‘doctrinal clutter’. I think it’s the message of the hand we are to grab hold of. Faith + Works is the case of holding on to a plank (our own righteousness) instead of both hands receiving by faith what Christ has done for us (forgiven us and imputed us with his righteousness). So yes, salvation is by grace, through faith, the very gift of God. And anything that denies that (adding works) is a false gospel which keeps us dragged down to the plank of self-righteousness, doesn’t it?
        I agree that it’s not about doctrinal knowledge, or knowledge merely about someone. But I do think we need to know that there’s a hand, and where it is in order to grab it.

  2. I don’t follow your logic, that saying faith + x is a false gospel equates to adding to that gospel as well, or contradictory.
    The very definition of ‘faith alone’ is faith alone in the gospel of Jesus Christ, that his atoning work is sufficient to save.
    Saying that any addition to ‘faith alone’ makes it a false gospel doesnt add to the gospel as you’ve (i think, unfairly) put it, it simply defines what the saving gospel is.

    • Andrew – I would love to hear more. You are on track for what I was hoping to understand better, but I’m still fuzzy about it. I understand your paradigm and assume it’s the stance Dr. Mohler would take as well: he’s not adding to the gospel, he’s defining it. But where do we draw the line between adding & defining? I guess that’s my question. If Jesus’ atoning work is “sufficient to save” then why do I need to acquiesce to the “proper definition of the gospel” to “be saved”?

      Apparently it’s not “sufficient to save” if it requires my ascent. Does that make any sense? Or am I just overthinking things, as I often do?

      Perhaps I am dipping back into discussions that lead us more heavily into Reformed thinking surrounding the efficacy of the atonement.

      • Hey Jared.. I’m glad you’re asking hard questions and making me think!! 🙂
        I’ll put my hand up now and acknowledge that I hold the classically (reformed) evangelical understanding of the atonement, though I don’t know that it changes much..?
        It seems that if we say that receiving what Christ has done by faith makes the atonement somehow insufficient then the only way we can talk about the sufficiency of the cross is to become a universalist, which is even more problematic. I’d rather hold that tension of acknowledging (with scripture) that Jesus work is totally sufficient, and it is to be received by faith.. does that makes sense?

        To come back to the point of defining and adding, I thought about this for a while yesterday and I think we need to step back and look at our terms, for a moment.
        When we talk about being saved by ‘faith alone’ we can easily lose the full sense of what is meant. We’ve tended to reduce it to saying the sinners prayer or something like that, when a more robust understanding is kind of a two part thing: Jesus has taken our sins away and imputed us with his righteousness. There are two problems ‘solved’ by Christ – our sin and our inability to fulfil the righteous requirements of the law. So when we say we are saved by faith alone, it means that we are saved by trusting in this two-sided work of Christ on our behalf.
        Now, to talk about faith + works is also misleading, I think, because by definition, we’re not talking about the same dual-actioned faith. As soon as we talk about our works being a part of salvation, it means we are not trusting in the imputation of righteousness. So what we really mean is half faith half works instead of completely faith.

        So ,my question is can one be saved if we don’t actually receive what Christ has done for us, the means by which we are saved? So I think it’s more a case of defining what the saving good news is, rather than adding to it.

        Does that make sense?

  3. Jared – I think your analysis is sound but can it matter without the avenues of dialog? I am afraid that when any schismatic community refuses to engage in discussion with others who are not “like minded” then there is not much opportunity for “iron to sharpen iron.” Shame too because it is likely the Baptists do have the potential to make valuable contributions to the communion.

    A second thought that I would like to share is that this view of the Baptists is somewhat understandable when viewed in terms of the beginning and end of Baptist life. If a Baptist answers the questions “When did I become a Baptist? and “When would I cease to be a Baptist?” then it is not strange to have a notion that a person is regenerated at the moment they develop the correct doctrine. If to be Baptist is to be Christian then this is significant, for if it is by doctrinal regeneration that they become baptist and… in their minds… Christian, and if those doctrines were ever cast aside then all that was gained by them would be lost as well. With the stakes so high the doctrine is not likely vincible without contact with other Christian communities and unlike views.

    I mentioned to you a long time ago that you remind me of a late history professor at Yale that I followed for many many years. I don’t know if he had the ecumenical effect that he desired but I am very happy for him that his personal search was so delightfully fruitful. I hope the same for you. Peace

    Garry Mott, OFS

  4. Jared, I would imagine that there is a distinction to be made, if one wants to understand Mohler, between what an individual must do to be saved and what an institution(and its agents) must preach/teach in order to be Christian. Mohler seems to be asserting that the RC institution is without the Gospel, but perhaps not that this would prevent individual Catholics being saved, in spite of heterodox/heretical beliefs. As with Paul in Galatia, the issue is with false teachers.

    • Yes, Caleb. I think that’s the distinction I was looking for. But do you think he makes that distinction? And is there a good way to make it in our rhetoric?

      • I would say that there is a potential gray area between the rhetoric concerning Mormonism and that concerning Roman Catholicism. The distinction I made above is common in (calvinistic) Baptist circles, who are quick to note that they cannot judge another’s heart or know the elect. Perhaps a person who happens to be Roman Catholic, but has real faith in Jesus Christ, could be saved in spite of receiving false teaching. But this leads me to two questions (especially since I’m a calvinist Baptist): 1. Do we say the same things about Christian “cults” like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.?…that there could be individuals who are saved in spite of false beliefs? If not, why not in contradistinction to Roman Catholicism (besides historical bias)? and 2. Don’t we all hold to false beliefs? (or at least hold to true beliefs falsely?) The problem with Sola Fides isn’t that it isn’t true, but that it doesn’t allow anybody to qualify and control what is true saving faith, and thus to control what they perceive to be the Kingdom of God.

  5. I also get confused about the criticism re: Catholicism and justification by faith because I see the most foundational principle of the gospel is Jesus Christ is Lord and the main disagreement between Protestants and Catholics is the latter’s doctrine of the church, which is the basis of their entire teaching.

  6. The trouble with Dr Mohler and his ilk is that they fight against paper tigers: modern Roman Catholic theologians are just as able to read and accept Ephesians as he is.

    Both wings tend to equate ‘through faith’ with ‘through right belief’, for slightly different definitions of ‘right’. Cynically I might add that in both cases ‘right’ tends to equate to ‘what our church says’.

  7. This is a common problem with believers, especially the Reformed (of which I am one)…but they quote Scripture (or a piece of Scripture) because it is Truth. But what they forget, or don’t know, is that Scripture is Truth, but only in it’s context.

    I can’t remember who said it, but someone once said something to the effect of “Scripture only remains Scripture in it’s context. Once a verse is removed from that context it no longer remained Scripture.”

    So to Dr. Mohler I’d say, yes, absolutely, faith alone. But what else did Paul say? It’s not a faith we came up with, but one given by God.

    But is his comment of “faith alone” just a modern day use of the rabbinical method of quoting a part of a verse and expecting the audience to know the context?

    We must remember, too, that words are simply words. They can only point to the Truth (or truth) we are trying to convey. They are inadequate. I think both the speaker and the criticizer often get too cute. There’s always another level, another tack-on that seems to invalidate or question the other’s point.

    I’m guessing Dr. Mohler is used to speaking to a Baptist crowd who have always been taught that Christianity is by faith alone, Catholicism by works. And thus, he’s just quoting that understanding. And then we can get into the faith without works is dead argument, but that’s stepping over the intended point and moving to a different argument.

  8. Pingback: Regarding Francis

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