The Lutheran Difference: Sola Fides

Last week, we talked about how, for Lutherans, grace is foundational for everything. Grace is what saves us, not anything that I do. There’s nothing that I can contribute to my salvation. It’s all completely up to God, something that He accomplishes because of His grace. I brought up the extremely important Bible verse, Ephesians 2:8-9, where Paul tells us that we are saved by grace, through faith.

Now, upon reading that post, maybe some of you were maybe scratching your head and wondering, if grace is so all-important to everything, where does faith come in? After all, one of the three solas is sola fides, which means “faith alone” in Latin. So faith has to play some sort of role in all of this, right?

It does, but it depends on what kind of faith we’re talking about here. There are two different kinds of faith that we can talk about, which we’ll call “reflective faith” and “funnel faith” in this post (there are more technical terms for them, but we’ll just stick with those nicknames for now).

Let’s start with “reflective faith” first. This could also be called “intellectual faith.” This is the cognitive process by which we are able to think about, process, and explain our beliefs. This is the faith that tries to understand the triune nature of God (and usually fails or comes up with insufficient illustrations). This is the faith that can sift through what the Bible says and codify what we find there into a more systematic doctrine. Reflective faith is what allows me to realize that I am a child of God and what God had to do to make me that way. Reflective faith is important, no doubt about it.

But is reflective faith “saving faith?” In my not-so-humble opinion, no. It’s not. And thank God for that.

Allow me to explain why: while reflective faith is important, it’d actually be quite frightening if it was the basis of our salvation.

For starters, how much of Christianity would we have to understand to be saved? The Bible really doesn’t say. So is it enough to simply confess, “Jesus is Lord?” It might be tempting to say, “Yes,” but then we have to remember that there have been a lot of examples of people who quibbled over the centuries about what that phrase meant exactly, and they still do today! Besides, what if we get other parts of our belief wrong? What if we have the wrong understanding of what happens in Communion? Or what if we have the wrong beliefs about what will happen when Jesus returns? How much of the faith do we have to get right for it to work?

That’s a scary proposition right there, and it only gets worse when we consider this: if saving faith is a cognitive exercise, what happens when our brains stop working?

Let’s suppose that one day, on my way home from work, I get t-boned by a car going about a hundred miles an hour and I suffer catastrophic injuries. The higher functions of my brain stop working, meaning I can’t think about or confess my faith anymore. But my body, big jerk that it is, refuses to stop working. I dwindle in a coma for two weeks until my body catches up with my brain. If saving faith is reflective faith, then I’m in a lot of trouble.

And I wouldn’t be the only one. There are a lot of people who, for one reason or another, can’t think through their faith anymore. I’m thinking of the thousands of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other debilitating brain issues. What happens to their faith when that happens?

Besides, once again, if reflective faith is saving faith, then it really is up to me to save myself. Making the decision or holding the right beliefs becomes the good work tat I have to do to be saved. And then, once again, my salvation is up to me.

That’s why Lutherans don’t believe that reflective faith is saving faith. It’s important, to be sure, but it’s not what saves us. Instead, we rely on something I like to call “funnel faith.” Or maybe a better name for it would be “relational faith.” This faith is the relationship that exists between God and me. This faith is the funnel through which God pours His grace into my life. This kind of faith is something that is created and initiated by God, and not by me. This is saving faith.

Now I believe that the two kinds of faith go hand in hand, but reflective faith is subservient to funnel faith, not the other way around. Reflective faith can ruminate on our relationship with God, strengthening it and making it more vibrant. It can even poison it if the wrong sorts of beliefs start percolating in our brains. But it can’t generate it.

This ties in with something I said last week: so far as Lutherans are concerned, there’s nothing that we can contribute to our salvation, not even faith or belief or anything like that. And it occurs to me that maybe this is important enough that we need to take a break from the solas to dive a bit deeper into this. So next week, we’ll talk about one of the key concepts that Lutherans have when it comes to a human being’s free will.

There are two kinds of faith. So which one is saving faith? Click To Tweet



  1. John, I really enjoy your clear presentation of Lutheran beliefs. It seems from your explanation of sola gratia that Lutherans must believe God had sovereignly decided who will be saved and who damned for eternity. And that he has decided this without reference to anything we have or haven’t done or believed. Is this accurate?

    • Actually, it’s not. What you’re describing sounds more akin to a Calvinist’s understanding of double predestination. Lutherans (at least, the strain that I come from) flatly reject the idea that God predestines anyone to hell and damnation.

      Maybe the best way to explain it is this way (and I’ll be going into more detail on this next week): the only thing that human beings can do is resist God’s grace. The Holy Spirit calls us to faith and enkindles it within us. But we, in our sinfulness, can turn away from it and resist the call.

      • Ok. I get that. It seems, however, that one is thus deciding to yield to the Holy Spirit or deciding not to resist. Yet you seemed to rule out us deciding anything or doing anything that contributes to our salvation. Yielding to the Holy Spirit’s drawing of us seems a simple and logical contribution like some one stretching out their hands to receive a completely free gift. Yet it seems essential.

        • I understand where you’re coming from (really!). Maybe a little analogy is in order:

          The human body can survive three days without liquids before we die from dehydration. Well, let’s say that it’s been two days, twenty-three hours, and fifty-nine minutes. You’re just mere seconds from death’s door and, because of that, you’re pretty much unable to move or speak or do anything like that. And along comes someone with an emergency rehydration IV. They kneel down next to you and try to hook you up to the IV. All you can do is just lie there and let them do it or you could, in your delirium, flop out of their grasp. It’s sort of like that. Well, not totally, since Lutherans see a non-believer as being completely dead and gone spiritually.

          Trust me, we’re getting into this more in the next two weeks. 🙂

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