Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 10/23/2007 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. Explores the Reformed and Catholic teachings on justification in light of recent ecumenical initiatives.
Precursor to Sproul’s 1999 Baker effort Getting the Gospel Right, which examines the second document released by the assortment of church leaders calling itself “Evangelicals and Catholics together,” Faith Alone takes issue with the first document circulated by that group, entitled “The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” Headlined by figures such as Charles Colson, Mark Noll, the late John Cardinal O’Connor, Bill Bright, Os Guinness, Pat Robertson, and J.I. Packer (with whom Sproul takes particular umbrage), in the first ECT document the group sought to find common ground on a host of issues, including the sacraments, the nature of the church, and the means of justification. It is compromise on the latter topic that Sproul identifies as perilous to the continuing doctrinal integrity of evangelicals. However, he does not see ECT as rotten to the core. He freely celebrates the group’s united defense against the “self-help moralism and shallow sentimentalism” so rampant in today’s churches. He gives credit to the group for ranging itself as a bulwark against liberalism and modernism. But he nevertheless devotes almost two hundred pages to soundly thrashing ECT for soft-peddling on the subject of justification.
It could be said that Sproul’s argument revolves around a single word; or rather, the omission of a single word so incendiary in the Reformation era: “alone.” How much rides on the modifying effect of this word on theological terms such as “grace” and “faith”? The entire basis of our conversion, Sproul contends. Not that one’s actual justification depends on an in-depth understanding of how God effects our justification, but the very God-centeredness of justification itself is endangered if scriptural distinctions are not observed. Very carefully, and often cyclically to ensure we’ve gotten the point, Sproul delineates between the Roman Catholic view of justification by faith and the Reformed view (the Evangelical, biblical view, he calls it) of justification by faith alone. Sproul also takes aim at other controversies within the evangelical church: the ‘free grace’ element of the Lordship salvation debate, for one, spearheaded by Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie. The book also has a significant historical section providing an almost blow-by-blow account of the events surrounding Martin Luther’s defense of his doctrinal positions at the Diet of Worms.
In the hands of many folks, this book will only frustrate. I would not recommend its heavy theological fare for those not conversant with traditional reformed theological terminology, or to those who lack a head for advanced logic. If Reformed theological concepts of merit, works, and active obedience put your head in a spin, veer away from this book. With a caveat, I can recommend it to the lay reader, although it would be best to familiarize oneself with Wayne Grudem’s descriptions of the doctrine of justification in either Bible Doctrine or Christian Beliefs beforehand. Not Guilty, the Evangelical Press abridgement of James Buchanan’s classic volume The Doctrine of Justification, would also be a worthwhile forerunner to Sproul’s book. To anyone who feels the need to be on the inside track of current justification controversies, this is just the book for you.