By Shawn Lazar
Sola fide or fides caritate formata? Are we saved by faith alone, or faith formed by love?
During the Reformation, that was one of the questions faced by Martin Luther, and it is an objection that the Free Grace movement still hears today. Faith in Jesus isn’t enough, some people say, you also need love to go with it!
Those who make this claim will usually agree (on the surface) that we are not saved by faith plus works. That is because they assume that making love a condition of justification is not the same as making works a condition of justification. Are they right?
I’ve been reading through Philip S. Watson’s Let God Be God! An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1949), a very lively and helpful introduction to the unique character of Martin Luther’s theology. Watson explains why Luther recognized fides caritate formata as just another form of legalism.
Love is Law
The first thing is to understand that love is not something different from the Law of God, but the summary of that Law. So to say that we need faith formed by love in order to be justified before God, is the same thing as saying we need faith and works:
“The Law of God, as Luther understands it, is revealed in three main stages. The first is the Natural law, or the awareness which, as we have seen, all men natural have, that they ought to worship God, and that they ought to do to others as they would have others do to them. The second is the Mosaic law, the Decalogue, of which the first table states more explicitly man’s duty to God, and the second his duty to his neighbor—Moses being not so much the lawgiver as an interpreter of the Law already given by nature but obscured by sin. The third stage is that of the Gospel commandment of love toward God and our neighbor, by which our Lord reveals the true inwardness of the Law, and which He illustrates both by His teaching and by His example” (pp. 105-106).
Love is the inward fulfillment of the Law:
“The Law is fulfilled, however, only when our behavior is governed by love in our hearts, and love of such a kind that we would ‘do the works’ even if they were not commanded. This fulfillment is what the Law essentially and inexorably requires. Unlike the laws of men, God’s Law cannot be satisfied merely with works, for God judges according to what is at the bottom of the heart, and His Law makes its demands upon the inmost heart and will. It requires perfect love, free from every selfish consideration” (p. 106).
Love Demands Perfection
What does the Law demand? So few people realize that it demands perfection. Legalistic traditions never make their laws demand perfection. If they did, people would give up too easily! So legalism always has ways of curbing the Law’s demand to suit its people.
But not the Law of God.
The Law of God demands perfection. You break one Law, you’re guilty of breaking them all (James 2:10). To say that the condition of justification is faith formed by love, is the same thing as saying that the condition of justification is faith plus perfect works.
“The Law requires us to love with our whole heart and our whole strength, and we sin if we do less” (pp. 108-109).
Has anyone loved like that? Has anyone love with our whole heart and whole strength? I haven’t. Remember how Paul described love?
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Cor 13:4-8).
Anyone who expects to be justified by faith formed by love should take an honest look at whether they have ever loved in their entire life. “Love does not envy.” Have you wanted what someone else has? Then you’re guilty. “Love is not puffed up.” Ever been full of yourself? Then you’re condemned again. “Love doesn’t get provoked.” Are you getting provoked now? Then I’ve got bad news for you. “Love never fails.” Has yours?
Love is the highest, most demanding Law you’ll ever be faced with. How do you measure up?
When legalists are faced with the true inwardness of the Law’s demand, they usually try to evade it. Instead of keeping God’s Law as it is, they somehow modify it and accommodate it to suit their legalism. But that just reveals legalism for what it is: man-made religion. God’s Law is immutable, because God’s holiness is immutable. But man-made religion is always changing. It’s like a wax nose, adapting itself to suit the situation. The legalist wants to appear merciful, so they change the Law. They’ll say something like this: “Oh, you’ve stumbled? Don’t worry, saying a thousand Hail Marys and confess again in the morning. You got irritated today, or angry? Don’t worry, there’s an act of repentance for that. Not measuring up? We’ve got a sacrament to patch up where you’re lacking. Do what’s in you. That’s all the Law really requires.”
That may be all that man-made laws require, but God’s Law is not a wax nose. It doesn’t demand our best efforts. It demands perfection, and anything short of that is condemned:
“The Law demands nothing less than perfection, Luther maintains, and all who fall short of this are under its condemnation. But to demand perfection is to demand ‘impossible things’—not because perfect love is in itself an impossibility, but because it is entirely beyond the capacity of fallen man” (p. 108).
The Law is a mirror. How will you react to seeing your true reflection? Hopefully, it will crush your heart. You thought you had a few flaws. But the Law shows you that heart is wicked beyond comprehension. Hopefully you’ll realize that you’re a sinner with nothing to offer God. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be more open to hearing the good news that Jesus will impute righteousness to all who believe in Him. Not only does God not justify us on the basis of works, He actually justifies the ungodly sinners who don’t work at all, but who merely believe: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom 4:5).
Are We Justified by Faith Formed by Love?
Now we come to Luther’s answer to the question of why we cannot be justified by faith formed by love. The reason why is because it is works salvation plain and simple. None of us have loved perfectly. None of us have loved constantly. None of us have loved our neighbor, let alone the world. Our love cannot save us. But our failure to love can condemn us under the Law. So there’s no hope for us there. The only hope we have is to be justified by faith in Christ apart from works of the Law. Fides caritate formata is just another form a legalism:
“Why, then, will [Luther] not allow that we are justified by faith formed by love? Much might be said in answer to this question, but here it will suffice to notice how this conception represents an ultimately legalistic, and therefore anthropocentric, point of view. The thought of faith formed by love as the ground of justification, rests on the assumption that God cannot receive man into fellowship with Himself unless man must therefore possess the love it requires, if he is to be acceptable to the Lawgiver. If he cannot achieve it by his own natural powers, then he must have the necessary love ‘infused’ into him by a supernatural operation of grace. In other words, man must be sanctified by some means or other, if he is ever to be justified in the sight of a God who is Himself holy and just. Such is the principle underlying the doctrine of justification by fides caritate formata. It cannot be said to differ in any essential way from the standpoint of ‘works-religion’, for it is fundamentally legalistic” (p. 53, emphasis added).