Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, Thomas R. Schreiner (Zondervan 2015, $19.99)
Review by Andrew J.W. Smith
The doctrine of justification is just as important in the 21st century as it was five centuries ago, writes Thomas R. Schreiner in his latest work, Faith Alone. The book explores salvation by grace through faith from a historical perspective, a biblical-theological perspective, and contemporary challenges to the doctrine.
Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Seminary and associate dean of the School of Theology, contributed Faith Alone as the first in Zondervan’s “Five Solas” series to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in 2017.
“Justification by faith alone isn’t the product of rigid and brittle orthodoxy,” Schreiner writes. “It speaks to the minds and hearts of people all throughout history because it tackles one of the fundamental questions of our human condition: How can a person be right with God?”
Schreiner has written numerous books, including New Testament Theology and The King in His Beauty along with several commentaries, but Faith Alone represents a unique contribution. It is a popular-level treatment of “faith alone,” and Schreiner spends a great deal of time explaining the historical development of the doctrine of justification.
Schreiner focuses on how justification was understood in the early church, then traces it through theologians like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Francis Turretin. He particularly demonstrates that while the early church fathers did not articulate the doctrine of justification with the same precision as the later Reformers, they still consistently demonstrated an awareness that Christians are justified by faith apart from works, yet good works are still necessary for ultimate salvation. They certainly never rejected the doctrine, as skeptics claim.
Schreiner also explores the biblical-theological aspects of justification, arguing that the phrase “works of the law,” often employed by Paul as a contrast to justification by faith, refers to any actions performed in accordance with the whole law. Although various proponents of the New Perspective on Paul have maintained the phrase refers chiefly to ethnic boundary markers which distinguish Jewish Christians from Gentiles, Schreiner upholds the traditional reading of the phrase.
While many Christians struggle to reconcile an apparent contradiction between Paul’s understanding of faith and James’ understanding of faith, Schreiner helpfully observes that James does not reject the idea that genuine faith alone saves, but the claim that mere mental assent — a “claiming faith” — without good works has any saving benefit. Instead, he argues, true faith is dynamic and active and always followed by good works.
Schreiner defends the doctrine against its critics, from Douglas Campbell’s attacks directed at “justification theory” to Frank Beckwith’s Roman Catholic and synergistic understanding of salvation to the New Perspective’s criticism of the doctrine of imputation. The Reformers’ understanding of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ on the basis of his imputed righteousness remains compelling, Schreiner writes.
“Our righteousness, even after we are Christians, can’t qualify us to enter the new creation and God’s presence, for, despite all the changes in us, we are still defiled by sin,” he writes. “How comforting to know that our righteousness doesn’t lie ultimately in ourselves but in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen one. He is our righteousness, and thus our hope for life isn’t anchored to our achievements but to his grace.”
The book is not just theological, but also pastoral. Schreiner notes that justification is not simply a heady doctrinal category, but a hope-giving promise for the Christian life.