Sola fide: Does Christianity always promote morality?

July 22, 2015 • 12:00 pm

When I was chatting with Linda Calhoun at the goat dairy, she brought up the “justification by faith, not works” issue as an argument against religion. What kind of God, she argued, would forgive someone who lived a life that harmed others (Hitler is the classic example), if that person simply confessed on his deathbed that he accepted Jesus as a personal savior?

The doctrine of Sola Fide, or “justificationism” (sole justification and forgiveness by faith, not by one’s deeds) is one of the five solas of many—but not all—Christian sects, and is summed up by Wikipedia:

Historic Protestantism (both Lutheran and Reformed) has held to sola-fide justification in opposition to Roman Catholicism especially, but also in opposition to significant aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy. Protestants exclude all human works (except the works of Jesus Christ, which form the basis of justification) from the legal verdict (or pardon) of justification. In the General Council of Trent the Catholic Church stated in canon XIV on justification that “If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema (excommunicated).” Thus, “faith alone” is foundational to Protestantism, and distinguishes it from other Christian denominations. According to Martin Luther, justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls.

Some brands of Christianity reject the doctrine. Catholics, for example, claim that if you have the requisite faith in Jesus, you will necessarily do good works and lead a moral life, and if you don’t, mere confession on your deathbed won’t keep you from frying. But other churches adhere pretty strictly to the doctrine—with some theological waffling, of course. Here are some statements of church doctrine used to justify sola fide:


Article XI
Of the Justification of Man
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1571)


Article IV Of Justification

Our churches by common consent…teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.

Augsburg Confession, 1530

Southern Baptist

Baptist Faith and Message – 2000

Article IV, sub-article B.
Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God.

United Methodist[edit]

We believe we are never accounted righteous before God through our works or merit, but that penitent sinners are justified or accounted righteous before God only by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Article IX—Justification and Regeneration (The Discipline of The Evangelical United Brethren Church 1963)

After Linda mentioned this, I realized that sola fide, besides being morally repugnant to us today (seriously, would God forgive Hitler if he confessed?), has another implication: it destroys the argument that religion promotes morality. After all, if, as many Christians aver, simple acceptance of Jesus as one’s savior is sufficient to get you to heaven—and works don’t count at all—what motivation is there to do good? (Remember that religion is supposed to provide the motivation that atheists lack, which is why we supposedly have no impetus to be moral.)

Now a believer may argue, in response, that if you accept Jesus you will naturally be a moral person and do good. That is the Catholic Church’s argument. But remember that sola fide claims that ONLY  faith, and not deeds, matters when it comes to salvation. You can lead a moral and exemplary life, helping all kinds of people, but if you’re a heathen or a Jew, sola fide damns you to perdition.

Perhaps I’m missing something here, but it seems to me that those sects that embrace sola fide provide no genuine impetus to be moral, but in fact give you a loophole that allows you to live as immorally as you want and still sing with the choir invisible—something that secular humanists don’t have.

I know there are former adherents of those faiths here, so tell me: doesn’t sola fide argue against religion being a source of morality, at least in those sects? (Of course the Euthyphro Argument blows any argument for religiously-derived morality out of the water.)

169 thoughts on “Sola fide: Does Christianity always promote morality?

  1. Better question – does xianity ever promote morality? If so, does it ever promote morality that a non-xian could not follow?

    1. Or course, no. What Jerry is pointing out is not an observation of the actual behavior of Christians versus their claims, but instead that their claim that xianity promotes positive morality is logically inconsistent with one of their primary doctrines, Sola Fide. The actual behavior of Christians does lend support to Jerry’s criticism.

    2. Yes and yes.
      Of course, that depends on what you mean by morality, but it isn’t an absolute concept unless you go for a broad generalisation such as Sam Harris’s maximal well-being – anyway, there are issues that multiple religions agree on, and they would all argue that their position is moral. An example of that would be their attitude to same sex marriage, blasphemy etc.

      However, that’s completely tangential to the question that Jerry is asking. Under the Sola Fide doctrine, morality technically becomes irrelevant.


  2. Many radio preachers do teach that the only way into heaven is through Christ, which means accepting him as your savior. They sometimes go further in their “teaching” that if one truly accepts this then the life they live will promote good works. Further some state that although all who accept this proposition will still be judged and further rewards could be bestowed on those who lived according to Christian principles. Although I wonder what the would consider more rewarding than going to heaven?

    1. Preaching is primarily concerned with rationalizing, contorting, twisting and making shit up in order to justify their religion. Exactly the same as a carny (not the NZ kind!).

      Well, I’m sure some have reasonably decent intentions. Sometimes.

  3. What kind of God, she argued, would forgive someone who lived a life that harmed others (Hitler is the classic example), if that person simply confessed on his deathbed that he accepted Jesus as a personal savior?

    A god created by a priest whose sole interest in you is your contribution to the collection plate.

    If you have to be a good person to get the (more-than-questionable) rewards of heaven, you’ve just eliminated from your customer base anybody who’s clearly not a good person. In the end, you may well be left with only saints…and they’re notorious for not being flush with cash.

    But if even Hitler is a candidate for tossing a few Deutschmarks into the hat…well, now you’re talking some serious profit.

    After all, if, as many Christians aver, simple acceptance of Jesus as one’s savior is sufficient to get you to heaven—and works don’t count at all—what motivation is there to do good?

    Nothing beyond the seduction of the marketing materials that claim that Jesus can make even Hitler into a swell guy.

    The reality of the situation, of course, is even worse. Christians are called upon to do YHWH’s work, and the Lord works in mysterious ways. If Hitler really was the true believer he always at least publicly vigorously demonstrated himself to be, then everything he did really was good — just as Moses was good when he raped all the Midianite pre-pubescent girls after killing their parents and enslaving their brothers, for example.

    Religion truly is the ultimate parasite. Basically everything that we’re taught by religion that is good is good for the priests and nobody else.


      1. And to make the masses think it is a noble and worthy thing to be treated immorally in the name of religion. Classic con-man tactic since, well, probably our common ancestor with chimps.

    1. And don’t forget the 4 Crusades in which the good Xtians of Europe slaughtered untold thousands in the near east under the sign of the true cross. Presumably they all thought they would go to heaven for this savagery.
      Theology is a sewar.

      1. Well, sewers are a gold mine of useful resources, if treated properly. They can stink about as bad as theology though, I’ll give you that.

      2. Just to be pedantic, there weren’t only four crusades (there were eight), and as well there were several crusades within Europe against what the Catholic Church considered heretics.

    2. But you’ve got it all rong, religion isn’t really like that and god is the ground of all being. Now that leaves me wondering, what is the air, or the food of all being, what sustains it on a daily basis? It’s pretty deep theology, I know.

            1. No, no, no. It’s a special kind of tank that is found in Hell. It is filled with liquid fire, and into it God, with Tertullian at his shoulder, gloatingly drops every sceptic, or skeptic, who comes his way. It has got rather fuller recently, I am told.

              1. There are numerous pictures of sceptic tanks in Google Images (though mostly placed there, I suspect, by people who couldn’t spell)


              2. I imagine these tanks must mostly be situated in areas where fundamentalist Christianity is strong?

              3. Are you suggesting that faith is negatively correlated with spelling ability? 😉


              4. Ah, you are still there, are you, Ben? Or you think you are? I suggest having a very circumspect look about you, and to keep in mind what Mephistopheles told Faustus:

                Faustus: Where are you damned?

                M: In hell.

                F: How comes it then that thou art out of hell?

                M: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

                Yes, if you look closely, you might be able to make out, even here, on the very edge of the faculty of sight, the near-invisible walls of a sceptic tank about you…

              5. You mean, like the Cosmic Microwave Background? I can’t see that, of course, but I know how to measure it, if that’s what you mean….


            2. Good Lord, no! I would never suggest anything of the sort! I am sure fundamentalist Christians spell very well. I was simply thinking it might be be convenient, were you a fundamentalist among fundamentalists, to have some sort of tank in which you could dunk the local sceptic, or skeptic – if he or she happened to be American – you know, just to teach him or her a lesson, rather as witches used to be dunked in ponds in the past, though these tanks would of course be rather more odoriferous than those ponds used to be, so far as I know. Sceptics (or skeptics) are after all in rather bad odour (or odor) with God, who, as I recall, is very sensitive to smell, particularly that of burnt sacrifice…ah, those auto-da-fes…

              1. “I am sure fundamentalist Christians spell very well.” Well, judging by the number of Google results, some people don’t!

                But your suggestion of the utility of sceptic tanks as employed by fundies is, umm, rather alarmimg. I must remember to watch my step.


              2. Well, here it refers of course to Xtians, since I was surprised that after all that home-skooling they might not be able to spell, but since you raise the issue, I did come to wonder as a result of your confusion of finches with fish on another thread whether you might not have been home-skooled… Yes, or No!

              3. Hah!

                I was the fifth person to own up to misreading that misleading headline!

                Note that confusing two things on a first quick read-through is NOT the same as not knowing the difference.

                I went to skool like evrybody else. But Im not sure wear I got my speling abillity from, its just a kcnack. like my punkuastion.


    3. To be fair, the Universalists (when they still existed as a distinct denomination) would claim that everyone can be reformed somehow and such, not that Hitler would immediately get entrance. (How this works when heaven is atemporal, whatever the heck that means, I have no idea.)

  4. I think the Catholics, at least the old-time ones, required you to spend several hundred thousand years in purgatory to atone for your sins before you went to heaven — that is, unless your relatives and friends said Hail Marys and bought indulgences for you. The whole edifice of Christianity is insane in a modern context.

    1. You’re spot on with the observation that it’s insane in a modern context…but it’s also worth noting that it’s not all that unreasonable in an ancient context. In days of yore with sympathetic magic and Words more powerful than humans and Platonic idealism and the gods living somewhere between the Moon and Uranus…it all makes perfect sense.

      I think it’s important to keep in mind that, given the premises the religious typically start with, their conclusions are often inescapable. That’s why we need to refrain from arguing within their worldview and instead grab them by the ankles, shake them, and demand how they could possibly be so blinkered in the first place.

      Yes, if you start with Genesis as a reasonable account of universal and especially human origins, it makes perfect sense that we are all inheritors of Adam’s sin and only the salvific grace of Jesus could purify the taint in our souls — and that only your state of mind would matter, since it’s the corruption of the body and the material world that’s the problem in the first place.

      But it’s also true that, if you start with the assumption that faeries spend their time frequenting magic flowers, and it’s the dust of those flowers that grants them the power to fly, then all you have to do to get to Neverland is propagate the right type of flower and dust yourself in a sufficient quantity of its pollen.

      When anybody who mentions the necessity of Jesus’s salvation instantly gets slapped with, “Wait — you mean because you still believe in that story about the enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard?”…that’s when people will start to wake up from their millennia-long slumber.


      1. Well, being raised in the Catholic tradition during the Vatican II era; the purgatory idea had pretty much been dismissed. However, the idea that if you confessed your sins (no matter how horrible they might have been), and were honestly (god would know) contrite, you could reach everlasting paradise was the doctrine I was taught.

        Based on the teachings I was given, yes a Hitler or a Stalin or a Caligula could certainly make it into heaven. Of course they never provided any evidence that a heaven actually existed.

        1. To their credit, I suppose, the modern Catholic Church has dumped, kicking and screaming, some of their crazier ideas (Limbo, anyone?).

        2. That was pretty much my experience as well. I would add that it was standard operating procedure for all clergy to disavow the knowledge of whether specific persons had indeed gone up or down. That was only for the personal God (and the intended victim) to know.

          Except when it wasn’t, of course (in the instance of conferral of sainthood by the proper authorities).

          1. Yes, it was interesting how over time the church changed it’s position on purgatory (became non-existent) and hell (from a fiery pit to an obscure “separation from god’s love).

            Apparently, the Vatican has the ability to evolve, if enough selection pressure is put on it.

            1. That’s the greatest joke of all. The religious like to brag about how they’ve got absolute and unchanging moral values, yet even their holy texts are powerfully fickle. Which is it — did Jesus come to bring a new covenant or to fulfill the law? And why was the first covenant made not with Adam, not with Noah, but with Abraham? And why wait until Moses to give the Commandments?


    2. The Catholics have started to modernize somewhat, which I find ironic given that they are Catholics but maybe they came up with these stupid ideas first so they’ve had longer time to reconsider.

      I posed the question to my devoutly Catholic friend if she felt it were fair that I would burn in hell forever along with the Buddhists and the Jews and many others who had no knowledge of Christianity through no fault of their own. She went to her priest and told me that Jesus would come to us at the moment of death & we would have the choice to accept him or not.

      Kind of a crappy scenario bit then again, it is Catholicism.

      1. If that is what her priest told her then he doesn’t know his catholic theology at all. In fact, under the catholic scheme of things, buddhists, jews, heathens, pagans of all kinds who sincerely desired to know the “truth” but never heard it due to circumstances of culture & place of birth would be granted by doG a virtual baptism called “baptism of desire” and would be just as eligible to go to heaven as any good catholic. No question of the late JC coming at the last moment with a with an offer you can or can’t refuse.

        1. It’s nice to know my questions make them squirm. When I asked about the burning forever she was noticeably upset and said that in your mind an eternity may not be that long and no one knows what these things are like. Funny. The logic just falls a part with more logic to explain the illogical.

          1. If she were of the kinder & gentler Catholick stripe, she would’ve fallen back on the “separation from God” metaphor for the eternal crispy ride. And when questioned further, would’ve gone from there to the favorite riposte of the experts in G*d studies: “it’s a mystery”.

          2. BTW, I used to get the “it’s a mystery” response a lot. I used to innocently toy with them a lot.

            Reminds me of the old Carlin routine (probably on “Class Clown”): “Hey Fadda… here’s one. It’s Easter Sunday. And you’re on a ship at sea… and the chaplain goes into a coma… But you REALLY wanted to receive! You really wanted to. And then you cross the International Date Line!!”

          3. It’s quite entertaining to see how when you put the hard word to them they wriggle and and writhe and eventually admit that they don’t actually believe it literally but only in some fuzzy metaphorical way. This, for instance, lets them believe in the fall of humankind without there ever having been a specific time and place and dramatis personae when that happened but still lets them believe in original sin OR lets them think of the eucharist as a symbolic rather than actual Corps de Christ without having to abandon belief in transubstantiation. This is more than mere cognitive dissonance….

            It’s all just nonsense!

          4. “No-one knows what these things are like”…..For two thousand years christians have been claiming that they know exactly, in great detail, what these things are like.

        2. But I think that is only a recent teaching of the Catholic Church, is it not? To make itself look up-to-date and caring? (Just as it was not all that long ago that it was decided that, no, unbaptised babies would not have to spend eternity in Limbo.) I think that up until pretty recently, Catholics would cheerfully consign Jews, heathens in all their splendid variety, atheists, agnostics, Calvinists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Orthodox believers, Plymouth Brethren, Baptists, Anabaptists, Cathars, Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a host of other reprobates to the eternal bonfire.

          1. Not sure if it’s well-known enough to be somewhere on the interwebs, but if so, take a gander at the 17th or 18th century painting “The Virgin Mary casting the sinners Calvin and Luther into hell”. It’s a hoot.

  5. The evangelical argument is that original sin cannot be forgiven through acts alone, but only through the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice. If one acknowledges that premise, then the only conclusion is that it doesn’t matter what you do in this life, except for that one act of acceptance. Which reveals the nuttiness of the premise.

    1. I would add one thing to this: old-time Methodists, for example, believed in the free dispensation of freely received grace. This was conversion. BUT, unlike some other (and more Calvinistic) denominations, such Methodists also believed that one had to live up to the moral standard implied by grace; and one could backslide, disgracing oneself, so to speak. While re-conversion was possible, it had to be achieved in the open church community through good works rather than by sola fide.

    2. As you stated it there, your conclusion doesn’t seem to necessarily follow. Another valid interpretation (logically speaking) would be that both acts and acceptance, together, are necessary.

      1. There are, of course, numerous and conflicting versions of the rules. What I cite is what I most often encounter among U.S. evangelicals with whom I’ve had this argument: they tend to agree that acts alone have no value. In fact, when I use the Hitler test, which I modify by adding Gandhi, they usually agree that Hitler would get into Heaven and Gandhi would not (assuming Gandhi didn’t convert).

    1. As Ben Goren so convincingly shows, good luck with that. But even should you ‘find’ a historical Jesus, that would only be testament to a particular person’s existence once upon a time. The ‘Christ’ aspect, on the other hand, requires a trip into the supernatural. And better luck with that!

    2. Ya know folks this mythicist trope “We don’t have Jesus’ driver’s license therefore he didn’t exist” is getting pretty tiresome. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

      1. Mythicist trope? And it tires you out? I’m not sure what would exhaust you, except perhaps the difficult search for evidence of Jesus’ actual existence. What there is is not convincing.

      2. Erm…if you think the reason one should be overwhelmingly confident that Jesus is an entirely mythical figure boils down to nothing more than that we don’t have his driver’s license then, yes, indeed, it’s far more complicated than that.

        Jesus first appears in the historical record half a millennium before the time of the Caesars, in Zechariah 6 at the tail end of the Old Testament. He’s got all the essential theological elements: the founder and high priest of YHWH’s one true church; the Prince of Peace; the Rising; crowned / anointed / CHRISTened with many crowns; and so on. Long before any Christian wrote “boo” about Jesus, Philo of Alexandria equated Zechariah’s Jesus with his own life’s crowning achievement, the incorporation of the Hellenistic Logos into Judaism. You might be familiar with the Logos from John 1:1. When Paul wrote of Jesus, he might as well have been copying from Philo…it’s all the same stuff, down to Adam being the Platonic archetype of the body and Jesus / the Logos being the archetype of the soul. Nothing of Jesus’s biography is ever mentioned by anybody until after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, when Mark invents an archetypal Euhemerized biography for Jesus in the classic Homeric style, complete with palindromic story structure. And every biography after Mark either copies or explicitly refutes him.

        If you have any remaining doubt, just read the earliest Christian apologies, such as Justin Martyr’s. He’s positively obsessed with the notion that Jesus is no different from all the various Pagan demigods (and he explicitly identifies them multiple times). His only complaint with the Pagans is that Jesus is the real deal, but evil daemons planted the stories of the Pagan equivalents centuries in advance in order to lead honest men astray. Or, you could read the Pagan descriptions of Christians and Christianity, in which they’re universally dismissed as a bunch of gullible lunatics with a bizarre new religion and god, just as we today dismiss the Raelians or Scientologists.

        “Don’t have his driver’s license” has got to be the lamest apologetic defense of Jesus’s historicity I’ve yet come across, honestly. Basically, if you think there’s even the slightest chance Jesus is an historical figure, you should be even more confident that Hercules and Perseus and the Olympians are all historical figures, too — along with Thor, the Buddha, Muhammad, Quetzalcoatl….


          1. Apparently, it’s worn you out so much that you can’t even be bothered to pretend to hint at what you think is nonsense, let alone why you think it’s nonsense.

            Which isn’t at all surprising, because the only way you’d think anything I wrote is nonsense is if you’re too lazy to similarly pretend to familiarize yourself with any of the source materials I gave references for.

            Here. I’ll make it easy for you. Four short passages demonstrating the evolution of Jesus. You can tell us why you think the latter two refer to an actual human being but the first refer to some entirely different entity.

            First, from the Old Testament:

            Zechariah 6:9 And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,

            10 Take of them of the captivity, even of Heldai, of Tobijah, and of Jedaiah, which are come from Babylon, and come thou the same day, and go into the house of Josiah the son of Zephaniah;

            11 Then take silver and gold, and make crowns, and set them upon the head of Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest;

            12 And speak unto him, saying, Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, Behold the man whose name is The Branch; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord:

            13 Even he shall build the temple of the Lord; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.

            Next, from Philo’s On the Confusion of Tongues:

            “Behold, the man named Rising!” [Zechariah 6:12] is a very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul. But if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who is none other than the divine image, you will then agree that the name of “Rising” has been given to him with great felicity. For the Father of the Universe has caused him to rise up as the eldest Son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn. And he who is thus born, imitates the ways of his father.

            Now, Paul:

            1 Corinthians 15:45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.

            46 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual.

            47 The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven.

            48 As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly.

            49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.

            Lastly, a Gospel:

            John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

            2 The same was in the beginning with God.

            3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

            4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.


            10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

            11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

            12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

            13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

            14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

            But, of course, you’re so bored that you haven’t even scrolled down far enough to read these words here….


  6. Former Christian for 25 years and son of a theologian. Yes – Sola Fide is absolutely a loophole. Not only does it allow gross immorality with no consequence, but in some ways it actually encourages it. When your moral choices are primarily motivated by fear, you’ll obey just enough to avoid punishment (which, in this case, is as little as you want, since eternal punishment is not based on your moral choices at all). A morality founded on mutual respect for all forms of life, a dedication to relieving the suffering of others, and careful reasoning, does not allow this “out”. As an atheist, you don’t get to comfort yourself with promises of forgiveness, but instead must bear the actual (not spiritual) consequences of your actions. This, I would argue, is harder to do. The morality of atheism “weighs more”, because there is no prayer that will pull it off of your shoulders.

    1. I don’t see why “Sola Fide” could be a source of immorality. People have a builtin capacity to do good without the need for an external motivator.

      Seneca captured this notion quite nicely with
      “Helping others is helping yourself.”

      That’s all the motivation anyone ever needs and most people seem to adhere to that with or without religion.

  7. It’s a brilliant political decision. At one blow the church absolves the oligarchy, on who’s sufferance the church depends, fr not sharing the wealth, and gives succor to the dispossessed for their petty crimes against their overlords. It is a perfect justification of the status quo, and signals the church’s complete acceptance of the rotten class system.

  8. Person A: “I accept Christ…” then appears to die.

    Person B: “Oh good Xian. Up to heaven you go”

    Person A: “…has no historical veracity whatsoever.”

    Person B: “You can’t do that! You repugnant &!#$!!….”

  9. I also think Sola Fide was created by Luther simply to break away from the edifices of Catholicism. Taking the priest out of the equation for salvation: personal faith, personal salvation, direct communication with god. An evasion that doesn’t stand up to logic.

    I’m reminded of my late grandfather; a bigot, alcoholic and misogynist, who after a serious heart condition and surgery ‘accepted Jesus as his personal savior’. He was in his 80’s by then, and all his life didn’t believe or go to church. All of the religious dupes in my family (most in my family are) thought it was the work of god that allowed him to find the Truth. I was an atheist by then and the irony of Sola Fide just made me laugh. Humans when faced with death can be very petty and foolish. ‘Fear is the little death.’

  10. The ultimate display of how absurd the prevailing understanding of this doctrine is this scene from the film “Freeway” (which really ought to have wider circulation in the Freethought community) in which a teen age prostitute (Reese Witherspoon) apprehends serial murder Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland) in a car, and holding a gun to his head insists he accept JC as his personal savior, and then shoots him.

    In this excerpt from “Freeway” which runs 5 minutes and 8 seconds, you can scroll ahead to 4:00

    However, It is arguable that what Paul originally meant is quite different.

    I am of the decided opinion that Paul changes his mind from one epistle to the next, and in particular the interpretation of “justification by faith” in Romans is not the same as that in his earlier letter Galatians.

    Here he seems in context to be arguing for a kind of sinaholics anonymous, an inner freedom from the addiction to wrongdoing, not so much on how to cut a bargain/deal to get a ticket into heaven. This is after all from the letter to the Romans, which has a considerably kinder view on Jews than earlier letters of his, and whose conclusion can be construed as advocating belief in universal salvation.

    See E. P. Sanders “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” for gory elaboration.

    1. Not surprising since here were at least three people writing (at different times) using the name of Paul – one of them may actually have been Saul of Tarse

      1. I was referring to the seven letters (out of 13 attributed) that scholars are reasonably certain are by the real fellow.

      2. Even if so, it’s difficult to even theoretically identify any particular individual as “Paul,” since almost all we know about him is a clearly bullshit made-up biography of him in Acts. We know that has no bearing on reality, so of what sense does it make to identify the author of the “authentic” Epistles with that character?

        Of course, somebody did write those Epistles, and “Paul” is as good a name as any to identify the author…but it’s dangerous in the extreme to conclude much of anything else about him than that. We know he was clearly deluded and a conman, so I’d be leery of even taking his autobiographical statements at face value.


  11. It’s always possible that you die a sudden unexpected death after behaving badly so that you didn’t have the chance to confess. But when you’re young and healthy that is unlikely and you can take your chances. With a cell phone and you priest on speed dial you can make the call right after a crime.

  12. “After all, if, as many Christians aver, simple acceptance of Jesus as one’s savior is sufficient to get you to heaven—and works don’t count at all—what motivation is there to do good?”

    But, the hard-core Calvinists don’t believe that. They believe that everyone’s after-life fate is per-determined at birth. Yet, they come up with reasons to still be (what they consider) a moral person.

    As a physical determinist, I find their arguments fascinating in that they both almost parallel my thoughts on morality and also vastly diverge at the same time. They appear to take the stance that, even if your fate is predetermined, you should act morally because you don’t know the outcome, and even if you are selected, you don’t want to have to answer tough questions at the judgement. I look at it a differently, DNA and experience have caused me to enjoy my fellow humans happiness and feel disdain for human suffering. They have also programmed me to want express those feelings to others around me (thereby changing their environment and consequently their worldview).

    If the Calvinists didn’t have their view tied to a conscious will without a material brain (an idea I find absurd), I think we would have a lot to talk about.

    1. I like your reasons, but I don’t think “disdain” was the word you were looking for, was it?

  13. As far as I remember the local lutheran sect, it isn’t necessary to do good but to believe. But it is expected to strive for doing good, while it is claimed non-believers have no such help.

    Of course the sect claims non-believers can be as good. And of course the sect members disagree, and think morality is magic (“god”) given.

  14. The Catholic and the Protestant views usually require a bit of straw-manning and misunderstanding of the other, by both parties. When both of these parties are forced to dig deeper, they find that their differences are not all that substantial at all.

    Neither Catholic not Protestants believe salvation can be earned. Nor does anyone believe some inauthentic repentance would get you into heaven either. Nor does either party believe that there’s a contradiction between James and Paul’s views here, which much of the debate revolves around.

    I say this as someone with a long history of being in the middle of these debates for many years, not just between protest and catholics, but also between various protest groups. Most in the course of a dialogue can see eye to eye on the question.

    To put the point more analogously. It’s likely that for a variety of transgressions that I can easily forgive a man who was truly repentant of what he did. But there are variety of transgressions in which the person repenting is being inauthentic, not truly sorry for what he had done, but merely doing so to curry favor, or to get back into good standing. Think of all the celebrity and corporate apologies deemed as such.

    Hitler repenting on his death bed is likely to be inauthentic, an act merely to curry favor, but not truly recognizing the evil that he had done, or truly being sorry for it.

    1. I’m glad that somebody knows something about the issues, and is interested in more than scoring points. The Anglican Church, by the way, in its origins is fundamentally Calvinist, as a look at Article XVII of the Thirty Nine Articles clearly shows. Every person who has lived, is living and will live has been predestined to grace or to damnation since the beginning of the world. All sin is damnable, but the sins of those elected to grace, or, in Calvin’s words, ‘the holy ones’, ‘are veniall or pardonable, not of their owne nature, but because they obtaine pardon by the mercie of God.’ (Jean Calvin: Institutes of the Christian religion.) That is to say, the elect are forgiven not because they act like saints, but simply because they are (and have already been from the beginning of time)forgiven. Those who are interested in the arguments about determinism that every so often grace this website may find something familiar in these words of Calvin: ‘(if) this, that it is of necessitie that God doe well, doe not hinder the free will of God in doing well, if the divell which cannot do but evil yet willingly sinneth, who shall then say that a man doeth therefore lesse willingly sinne for this that hee is subject to necessitie of sinning.’ That is to say, even though a man is not responsible for what he does, he is still to be held responsible. Ah, theology: the mother of the sciences, or at least of some modern debates that involve the sciences!

      Elsewhere (I cannot remember where), Calvin asserts that God will on occasion give to one of the reprobate (those damned by predestination) intimations of being saved so that the sinner may, after realising that, no, grace is not for him, despair the more deeply and thus deserve his damnation more (despair being an especially mortal sin). That is, I am pretty sure, what happens in Faustus’s last speech at the end of Marlowe’s great play, when he sees ‘where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament’: God is playing with Faustus, as a cat with a mouse. Marlowe had, of course, studied the latest theology at Cambridge. He was also reputed to be an atheist (and was almost certainly one). As the scholar R.G. Hunter has said, Marlowe’s play, rather than terrifying its audiences ‘into faith and godliness’, was more likely ‘to terrify the more intelligent and informed of its beholders out of their beliefs or at least into a serious examination of them’ So much, I am afraid, for the characterisation of art as a ‘palliative’.

      Another great work that deals with the issue of predestination is one of the most remarkable and strangest novels in the English language: ‘The Private Memoirs & Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ (1824), by the Scottish writer James Hogg. The novel is now mostly known by the simpler title of ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’.I recommend it.

      1. I might add that if God existed and if he were merciful, and if such as Hitler did sincerely and not cynically and out of fear of damnation repent of what he had done, then… Would anyone here seriously like to be like the saved in Heaven in Tertullian’s vision and look down eternally on awful Adolf being tormented eternally? What good would it do?

        1. Adolf, Idi Amin, some people in ISIS… I certainly wouldn’t want to let them off the hook. But equally, I wouldn’t want to watch. It would be enough to know that they were getting their just rewards.


          1. To know – and also to imagine them getting their just deserts, perhaps? But might you not want to – very occasionally – take a peek, perhaps? Just to make sure they really are getting those just deserts and not getting let off that hook? I don’t know, but whether or not I accept the lessons of determinism, that Adolf & Idi are no more morally responsible for what they do than are Gandhi or the Dalai Lama, I really don’t care what happens to Adolf & Idi after they are no longer here to trouble us. Torturing them for eternity is not going to mitigate the suffering they caused, or to pay for it. What purpose would it serve?

            1. I just have an instinctive sense of fairness. (Okay, what I judge to be ‘fair’). And some bastards are so spectacularly and gratuitously unpleasant, that to allow them the same tolerance we would give to a normal person or even an averagely ‘bad’ person, just seems wrong. Unfair. Inequitable. However you want to put it.

              (Now I know perfectly well that the universe doesn’t give a shit about ‘fairness’, some people suffer quite unfairly and others get away with murder. But IF there was an afterlife, and IF there was a just God, then Hitler et al should certainly merit the most severe punishment. And I don’t, instinctively, accept the predestination / deterministic ‘excuse’ for their behaviour).

              I wouldn’t need to personally check up on whether Hitler was getting sufficiently mangled, or to gloat over it. Just so long as he was.

              To throw the ball back into your court – should war criminals – after the war is over and they’re not in a position to do any further harm – be tracked down and tried? And if so, why? To use your phrase, what purpose does it serve?


              1. I should say that there are very good reasons for putting Dick Cheney, for example, on trial. What is needed is a public accounting, and that is what the trial of, say, Eichmann provided. As for what happens after that public accounting, I am not particularly concerned about it.

    2. “When both of these parties are forced to dig deeper, they find that their differences are not all that substantial at all.”

      I could be wrong, but I disagree about this. Many Protestants in fact will point to the day when they were “saved”, the point in time when they achieved salvation. Under Catholic soteriology, such a statement would not really be possible, as salvation is something that is actively worked towards through a combination of God’s grace and works.

      From the Council of Trent:

      “If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or by the teaching of the Law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.”

      And also this: “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.”

      While the first passage fends of claims that Catholics believe that you can simply earn your way to heaven, the second passage seems to openly contradict what many Protestants believe.

      I would also point out that the first passage seems to preclude any non-Christians from achieving salvation – I wonder how many of the mushheads (moderate and liberal Christians) understand this.

  15. Neat. I’d never heard the term Sola Fide before. It’s nice to know the official term for what I call “Entitlement Christianity” – where you don’t need to *do* anything to get into heaven or be a good person, rather you merely consider yourself entitled to it based on your religion.

  16. from wikipedia (Theological determinism):
    “Humans, for Luther, know what is morally right but are unable to attain it. He claimed that humans thus must give up aspiring to do good, as only by this could salvation be formed.”

    I think the biggest source of immorality in Christianity is this well known ambiguous book. Popes, Luther, Calvin and others simply try to cover up for its shortcomings. The result is pretty unbelievable.

  17. The Catholic Church invented purgatory in the Middle Ages. It soon became a money making scheme – “Indulgences” were sold that could get you time off from purgatory. Prayer by others after your death also helped reduce your time in purgatory. Priests had manuals listing and describing all the different sexual sins, for example, along with what was needed to get back in with the Church for each. A year of penance on Earth was considered to reduce your time in Purgatory by a day. It was common practice to pay a priest or church to say a certain number of masses after your death – often thousands and for years.

    One of the great lines in fraud in the time was the selling of indulgences in markets. People who could write would write a forgiveness for adultery, fornication, blasphemy or whatever, then claim that it came from someone like an archbishop and sell it to someone who needed forgiveness for that sin. The Church did the same thing, but they considered doing it themselves valid of course.

    Anyway, the selling of Indulgences by the Church is one of the practices that Luther railed against in his 95 theses. His argument was this wasn’t in the Bible, and they needed to get back to that. The whole sola fide thing was to separate themselves from the corruption of the Catholic Church as Luther saw it. The Bible just said you had to follow Jesus, so that must be right. It was what made Luther (and German society) such a major anti-Semite – Jews didn’t just not accept Jesus as their saviour, they actively denied He was the saviour.

    Calvin introduced the idea of predestination – before you were even born it was decided whether or not you were going to heaven, and this is where the Jehovah’s Witnesses idea of only 144,000 making it comes from. (I can’t remember if Calvin specified a number – I’m dredging all this from a memory of a paper I did at uni more than 30 years ago – but it was a pretty low number.) However, if you were one of the chosen, you had to live a good life to be worthy of your place and provide an example to others. This included working hard, which was the origin of the Protestant work ethic thing.

    1. “Priests had manuals listing and describing all the different sexual sins, for example…”

      For a brief moment I thought you were going to give us an example. I’m disappointed.

  18. To me the worst thing about this doctrine is that a person bent on doing evil things might knowingly do so believing that he could confess his sins at any time and believe himself to be forgiven and saved from damnation. What is to stop someone from doing that? So yes, it’s clear that such a doctrine does nothing to promote moral behavior.

    The Catholic doctrine that a repentant person will NATURALLY behave morally–that is, he will demonstrate his faith through his behavior– is of some interest. Atheists can be just as moral as believers, so faith isn’t necessary to be moral. So the unanswered question still turns on whether or not the person doing good works is doing it because he wants to get into heaven, or because he is a naturally good person. And who is to determine that?

    1. Yes. It can easily be argued that the ability to be forgiven encourages bad behaviour. For example, people often feel really bad after they’ve done a bad thing, like beat their partner. They shower them with gifts and attention, go off to confession and repent, promise to never do it again etc. Then they inevitably do it again, and more and more often. Confession etc doesn’t stop the behaviour – it requires proper psychological intervention, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with religion.

      1. Just to contrast with adults confessing and begging forgiveness, remember that for Catholics, they take their first confession at around age 8. That is a pretty important time in the brain’s development starting to learn and about logic and rationalization etc. The 8 year old Catholics are learning early and then regularly that they have a get out of jail free card, and all the adults around them who should know better, encourage this (and make a big deal about it). What are the life-long consequences of this?

        1. I think the guilt they inflict often prevents the get out of jail free mentality. I was always terrified and embarrassed to confess my more grievous sins and sometimes I would skip them. Then, the guilt sets in for lying while confessing…

  19. I spent 28 years in a Pentecostal denomination before denouncing it as myth and superstition. Using the bible as their defense, a Pentecostal would say that yes, it is by faith you are saved, so that no man may boast. One of the parables of Jesus taught that a landowner paid the same wage to those who worked all day and to those who were hired at the end of the day, resulting in grumbling from those who worked all day. The landowner’s response was basically, I own the land, I will do what I want. this parable seems to reinforce Sola Fide. However, Paul taught that we are saved by grace, and we should no longer be slaves to sin following conversion. In fact he stated that he lived as if he could be disqualified from salvation, which would imply he could lose salvation or at least come to a point by living immorally that he rejected it willfully. In the book of James, the bible states that faith without works is dead. So you really have a contradiction, where on one hand you are saved by faith, but on the other if you are not moral, as evidenced by good works, your faith is dead anyway, so in essence you are saved by works. Protestants rationalize this contradiction by saying that if you are truly saved, the indwelling Spirit of God will compel you to do good works.

    1. But they have an out.

      It’s also part of the doctrine that we are depraved, natural sinners, that we can NEVER meet the challenge of being sinless, which is why someone who could be utterly free of sinning had to take our place – Jesus.

      Even those who think they can be in touch with the Spirit Of God don’t take that to entail they are without sin, and won’t sin again.

      Therefore, for Christians holding to Sola Fide, there is no inherent contradiction between accepting Christ as one’s savior and sinning. One will always fall short. And this can be used to excuse virtually any behavior.

      It is surely the excuse many of the lecherous preachers use in their minds for their infidelities etc. “I’m a sinner, but God still loves sinners…”

      1. That is a great point. In an attempt at humility, I have heard many Christians say the only difference between a Christian and a Sinner is forgiveness. Of course, then in the next breath they will decry the immorality of the Sinner.

    2. Perhaps it all simply means that there is no solid foundation whatever for any christian beliefs. These all seem to be have been made up post the facto of Yeshe bar Yussef disappearing from the community (if he ever existed). Many different versions of christianity were concocted, and are still being concocted today. Look how many recent splinter groups there are today among brethren, amish, mennonites etc.
      It is of no importance what any of them say. Obviously to answer PCC’s question if having faith is the only thing that gets you into heaven then that doctrine has nothing to do with morality.

  20. If the sacrifice of Jesus is supposed to be a corollary to the sacrificial goat, only more so, then I don’t get why “faith” is necessary at all.

    When you sacrifice a goat, do you have to believe that the goat is a goat in order for it to work? And how many sins will one goat wash away? Just yours, or your whole family?

  21. Salvation is by faith and not by works because it’s not your works that condemn you in the first place. It’s your sin “nature” inherited from Adam. This is why the historicity of Adam is so important to Fundies. It doesn’t ultimately matter what you do. It’s what you believe. It’s all about doctrine.

    This why you hardly ever hear sermons taken from Matthew 25 which pretty much bases your ultimate spiritual destiny on how you treat other people.

    1. Yes, when it used to matter to me, I leaned pretty heavily on Matthew 25:40. “In as much as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.” I’m quoting from memory with a fair amount of confidence. I combined that with “Love your neighbor as your self” and didn’t bother much about the rest. I needed these as an antidote to a terrible prayer of confession we recited weekly. “. . . But thou, Oh Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.” What?! “We have done those things we ought not to have done, and have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and there is not health in us.” No health in us; really!!!! What an awful prayer to repeat every week! Unless, of course, one becomes a psychotherapist. In which case, it generates a lot of business.

  22. Consider the John Calvin (the pope of Geneva) version of Christianity (Presbyterianism): He, with a different twist, made the same argument for no-free-will as does Jerry, et. al. Calvin called it “predestination.” Since according to that doctrine, one’s “life” (including post-mortem destination)is determined by the sky daddy, morality or lack thereof is not a factor in distinguishing the saved from the damned. Oh happy day, sayeth the mean-spirited folk of the world!

  23. It has to be said it probably had it’s practical uses, keeping the hordes in line, etc. For all I know I might not be here if some ancestor didn’t adhere to this fear of hell doctrine. I would concede to there being a certain amount of honor in having a so called holy life, when there is not a lot of options in understanding the world.
    Not sure about my father’s line, history showed they were war mongering by nature and a little wayward. Although some of them must have met Darwin when the Beagle dropped it’s anchor in the Bay of Islands, NZ.
    By Darwin’s account there were a few sinners in the port of Russell. It was a hell hole I believe.
    After that diversion I agree with the ‘ Sola Fide has nothing more to offer’ camp. It has to be the most weasel contribution to morality there ever was and it’s continuation like all after life illusions needs a bullet.
    Strong words but there, Nga Puhi don’t mince their words so I take my cue.

    1. “For all I know I might not be here if some ancestor didn’t adhere to this fear of hell doctrine.”

      Perhaps, but you might also ponder how many Cathars or their descendants you see today. Supposedly the motivation for killing them off was to encourage them to repent and save their souls.

  24. Actually, to claim that sola fide absolves one from acting morally, is a heresy in most (but not all) evangelical protestant groups. It is called Antinomianism. Only some independent fundamentalist sects with ill-educated or immoral leaders are antinomian in doctrine. Most major denominations harmonize sola fide with christian morality.

    Part of the problem is that sola fide is not taught or explained properly. Sometimes pastors do not know how their denomination views sola fide with morality. And the Catholic Church, which rejects sola fide, perpetuates the problems of that protestant doctrine leading to immorality.

    (BTW, I’m an atheist with some theological training in the past.)

    1. “Sometimes pastors do not know how their denomination views sola fide with morality.”

      Surely you’re not suggesting that they’re making stuff up! That would hardly be moral, in this context.

  25. There’s a broader point here about the ineffectiveness of Heaven and Hell as deterrents – it’s the problem of distant, all-or-nothing punishments.

    Everyone priests are trying to persuade not to sin has in fact already sinned, at least once. Are these people already doomed to Hell? If so, they might as well sin some more, for all the difference it will make. If not, that proves that it’s possible to sin and escape punishment altogether; maybe they can get away with doing it again.

    Human legal systems work much better than this, because they have incremental punishments. Even after you’ve been found guilty, you can still make things better or worse for yourself, depending on how you behave.

  26. I hope this point hasn’t already been made, and I realize it doesn’t address Jerry’s question. Anyhow “believing,” or “accepting Jesus as Savior,” requires an act of volition on the part of the believer. It is, de facto, a “work.” Faith as opposed to works is an incoherent idea from this angle. Perhaps to get around this, some Christian thinkers have asserted that faith is a free gift from God, which implies the doctrine of the elect, or “predestination…

  27. I was reared in one of those Protestant religions and I concur with PCC.

    I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 when I started asking the adults about it. I got what I later realized was the expected hemming and hawing. “It doesn’t work like that.” “So believing isn’t enough?” “Well, yes it is.” “But you just said…” “We’ll talk about it later.”

    At some age I realized the idea was indefensible. In fact, this may have been the first big crack in the edifice of my faith.

  28. IIRC, sola fide is a response to two ‘errors’ in doctrine. First, the belief that good works *alone* are sufficient to get you into heaven. Sola fide reinforces the preeminence of faith in Christ. Second, it’s a reaction to the ownership of salvation by priests, and the buying of favours by the rich.

    So it’s intent is to reduce the role of ‘earthly works and structures’ in controlling the proletariat, rather than justifying or facilitating poor behaviour. Unfortunately that is one of the effects.

    In the case of Hitler, for example, Christians would add that any such deathbed contrition should be genuine, rather than a convenient escape, and that God would know the true motivation.

    1. The problem with hypothetical deathbed conversions for Hitler was that he had always passionately self-identified as Christian, and framed all he did as being for the greater glory of Christ, following his examples in his footsteps. And he had copious examples of Scripture to back him up on that.

      That’s the bit that the Christians don’t want to admit nor even confront. Hitler was profoundly evil, yes. But he was thoroughly Christian, and much more true to the Jesus of the Bible than any modern Christian.

      The problem isn’t that Jesus wasn’t Christian enough; it’s that he was too Christian.

      If you have even the slightest doubt of the truth of this, start with Luke 19:27: “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.” Which is exactly what the Holocaust was all about. And, no the “parable” card doesn’t get Christians out of this one; the parable is of Jesus’s return come Armageddon, and the king Jesus is quoting is Jesus himself. What’s Jesus himself going to do come Armageddon? Lead the ultimate battle where he’ll kill all non-Christians and hand them over to his brother to be eternally tortured.

      If Christianity is true, if anybody is rejoicing in Heaven right now, it’s Hitler.


        1. Yes! Those belt buckles are all the evidence one needs to know that Christianity is worse than useless when it comes to matters of morality.

          If scores of generations of belief in Christ couldn’t keep the descendants of Martin Luther from committing the most iconic atrocity in modern history, what the fuck good is Jesus? And how am I (or is anybody else) supposed to know that today’s Christians aren’t every bit as devastatingly faithful as those of not quite a century ago?

          Whatever is keeping today’s Christians from killing all the Jews (or Native Americans or witches or Muslims or Pagans or…) sure isn’t their devotion to Jesus or any other religious characteristic.


    2. It’s not “works alone” but “works also” that sola fide is trying to correct (as per protestant position). The reformers are protesting the common Church position that “works” help a departed soul to get to heaven from purgatory. They are not denying faith as a pre-requisite to salvation, only that it may not be fully sufficient. These “works” comes in the form of prayer, righteous acts, martyrdom, penitence, volunteering for holy war/crusade, and even prayers to the dead (other peoples’ “works” helping you to escape purgatory).

      The “works also” problem came the boiling point with the selling of indulgences. It was believed that for the dead souls to leave purgatory earlier, they have to make penance (for themselves while they are still alive, or for their dearly departed), which involves penitence, prayers (hail marys and such), and to do some physically inconvenient activity like making a pilgrimage to a holy site.

      Indulgence was (and still is) a way for those who have physical disabilities and cannot go on a pilgrimage or do other physical activity, to pay instead of doing it. Later, when the church is making a lot of money from indulgences, they began selling it for wealthy princes and merchants who can’t be bothered to sweat for their salvation. So works-salvation became have-money-have-salvation.

      Even today I see rich catholic patrons “donating” money for the care and upkeep of their parishes. My wife’s uncle (FSM bless his recently departed soul) spent a quarter million dollars of his retirement money to refurbish this alter in his hometown:

      1. I wonder just how big a role religious trappings–architecture, costumes (er, clerical garments), music, etc., play in convincing followers of its validity.

  29. My sect held that it was faith that saved you, however they had a very skeptical view of death bed confessions, saying in essence that sure, if your death bed confession was truly sufficiently sincere it might work, but generally suggesting that most such confessions were not really sincere. The message, delivered with as much fear as they could drum up was: Why risk it?

    As for motivating us to be good, I think what they played on was the uncertainty. If you were sufficiently sincere when you made your christian confession, of course you are going to be doing your best to do moral things out of gratitude and/or the presence of Jesus/Holy Spirit in your life. How could you not be transformed? It follows that if you’re not doing the most moral things you can then perhaps your confession wasn’t really sincere after all? And if your confession “didn’t take”, you’re going to fry. This cloud of uncertainty made you feel like you never really knew for certain whether you had been sufficiently sincere, and you tried to be moral to convince yourself that you had.

    A closely related issue is the Calvinist predestination doctrine which holds that those who are going to Heaven were picked by God ahead of time and there is nothing you can do to change your state. However, those going to Heaven will, of course, be the righteous on Earth. Their good actions, nor their confession, do not get them into Heaven, but are mere signs that they are the people going to Heaven (The Elect). This is a fiendishly wicked mental trick to play on youth because, after terrifying you of Hell, you are told you can’t influence whether you go there or not BUT, if you’re one of the lucky few who won’t fry you can tell by your really good behavior. Logically one would think that if you believed in predestination you should go out right away and *try* to sin, and if you fail, lucky you, you’re one of the elect and if you succeed, well, you weren’t going anyway. But psychologically what happens is that you’re terrified of finding out that you’re not one of the elect, so you try to behave well in order to convince yourself that you’re OK.

    1. Have you read John Bunyan’s account of his spiritual struggles? ‘Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners’. The Calvinist view he believed in put him on a mental rack

  30. Very (read: way too) briefly, as I just got back from vacation and came home to 900+ e-mails, all of which I deleted except for a dozen or so WEITs. As always, I’m writing from the ex-Protestant evangelical point of view. Furthermore, this is only what they teach; I no longer believe a word of it (see last paragraph 😉 )

    Yes, sola fide. However, faith necessarily implies works; see, for example, Ephesians 2.8-10 (verses 8-9 are one of the best-known passages in the new testament for sola fide; yet verse 10 clearly indicates the necessary works) or the epistle of James (which Luther notoriously referred to as a “right strawy epistle”) which unambiguously states: “Yes, a man may say, You have faith, and I have works: show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2.18).

    I actually used to think of it this way: F –> W. Therefore, by the contrapositive, not-W –> not-F (wasn’t I just the biggest fucking intellectual around. Golly gee, I could even regurgitate creationist arguments against evolution!).

    As Dave Barry once said, “I am not making this up.” (You think I am making this up. You’re wrong). We used to have debates, both in seminary and in Sunday School classes as to whether one had to “accept Jesus as savior” *or* one had to “accept Jesus as savior and lord” (for those of us baptists, the second point of view was the heresy known as “lordship salvation”). Who was it who said “insanity is the ability to draw fine distinctions between slightly differing shades of nonsense”?

    And, of course, we *all* believed that deathbed conversions counted. Prooftext: the thief on the cross (see Luke 23.39-43). Or, the Lady Hope story about Darwin (rolls on floor laughing, swallows tongue, chokes and dies, rots away).

    Anyhow, the more I think about it, the more I think that not only does christianity not always promote morality, but that it never does, and very possibly *can’t* promote morality. For its moral “system” consists solely of “obey what you are told to do,” which is the morality of a child, not of an adult. But, I need to give it more thought.

  31. i’m reminded of the reason i didn’t like the ending of star wars vi: revenge of the jedi, wherein mass murderer darth vader, by sacrificing his life to destroy the emperor his master and save his son luke, gets to go to jedi heaven with his victims, including a very pleased obi wan kenobi (and presumably all the younglings vader personally slaughtered in star wars iii: revenge of the sith).

  32. It should be pointed out that Catholics, when pressed, defer to God as the ultimate judge and that we cannot know with certainty that any particular individual is in Hell. In an inconsistent turn of events, we can know for certain that saints are in Heaven.

    Of course, this conversation never leads to the next logical question: If any person can end up in Heaven while being genuinely ignorant of Church doctrine, what the hell is the advantage of proselytizing? There is none. If an ignorant person who is moral can make it to Heaven, why increase the burden by teaching them additional dogma to abide by?

    1. It’s not really inconsistent. No one is certain if a dearly departed is in heaven or loitering in purgatory. All must be cleansed in purgatory before they can be in the presence of god in Heaven. But there is a subset of humans who, by virtue of their holy life or martyrdom, earned the privilege of bypassing purgatory. These are the saints.

      Because they are in heaven, they are chumming around with Jesus and god and the angels. And if someone were to pray to this dead person in heaven, s/he can ask Jesus for a suspension of physical laws, poof, miracle happens.

      That is why miracles are proof of sainthood in catholicism. If your dead spirit cannot effectuate a miracle, then that means you’re not close to Jesus, and therefore still in purgatory.

      You can mock (Medieval) Catholic Christianity, but if you study it, you can see a self-consistent logic to it. No wonder because for a thousand years, the best minds in christendom wasted their brain power making christianity consistent with platonist & aristotelian logic (to some success).

  33. I was brought up as a Lutheran in Minnesota, though only in the most nominal sense, and was never baptized. I don’t recall sola fide ever being discussed, but I do remember going to the church basement to play ping pong. And we had a lemon-sucking contest once. I’m afraid I was never very good at religion, so maybe they said something about making a confession of faith to clear the way after death in the confirmation classes I skipped. Too late now!

  34. Former Catholics, just what is the deal with the Last Rites? Are they still considered as crucial as they once were?

    1. Most definitely. (BTW, I was not, and never have been, a Catholic.) The main feature of Catholicism is its system of sacramental theology. It is the means by which the undeserved sinners receive bits and pieces of divine grace from their spiteful god. Catholicism has seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. Last rites is another name for extreme unction, though after Vatican 2 it became “anointing of the sick”.

      Indeed, if you understand how catholic sacramental theology works, you pretty much have a good idea how catholicism works in general, and some of the odd doctrines and practices of catholics makes some sense.

  35. If I read this aright, the Catholic position is actually more reasonable and logically justifiable than the Protestant one.

    Well, there’s a turn-up for the books.


    (Hey, I didn’t say it was credible – just less in-credible 🙂

    1. Indeed, Catholicism has always taught that faith and works is the key. If they really wanted to get rational, they could go all the way and say it is just works. Of course, then there’d be no motivation for people to go fill the Church coffers every week, and they couldn’t have that. Plus, without the faith part, the whole eternal bliss/torture dichotomy would fall apart as well. After all, there’s no reason other than faith to buy into it.

  36. In response to Heather Hastie way up about forgiveness promoting bad behaviour:

    A thought about Catholic “confession”:

    Catholic children take their first confession at around age 8 — just when the brain is heavy into developing logical reasoning, rational argument ability etc. All the adults around these children think confession with a few hail Marys is a get out of jail free card. Children are encouraged to think this too, and are made to feel special and mature as they are now old enough to confess their sins; a pretty big deal is made of it in Catholic schools.

    What do you think is the long term effect of this early manipulation of brain development?

  37. the bible is incoherent on what one needs to do to be “saved”. The closest you get to needing to actually do something is maybe the bit where there are sheep and goats, taking care of the least But the character JC doesn’t say that only believers do this. Indeed, it seems to be the origin of how Christians try to coopt any decent humane person as “really” being a Christian.

    JC also says that belief is all that is needed. Then you get Romans 9 where it’s all about this deity picking and choosing by whim, works not having anything to do with it at all. Ephesians 2 says emphatically that works has nothing to do with it. A special bit is where Paul says that women only can get saved by childbirth (1 Tim 2). And of course James says that Paul is wrong. All of these claim that their words are from this deity.

    1. ‘…the bible is incoherent on what one needs to do to be “saved”.’

      This is probably one of the reasons why there are over thirty thousand Christian sects, each one believing their sect to be the One True Path.

      It’s incoherent on a lot of things, so they just make it up as they go. The next thing you know there is whole bunch of people basing their lives on that incoherence.
      It explains a great deal about Christianity.

  38. I know there are former adherents of those faiths here, so tell me: doesn’t sola fide argue against religion being a source of morality, at least in those sects?

    I haven’t read all of the comments above so I may be repeating other people here. But as someone who grew up Lutheran:

    1. I think you have very accurately described both the Protestant and Catholic positions on the matter.

    2. The protestant argument against deathbed confessions is that if you’ve never really believed before, such a thing is unlikely to be sincere. God knows what’s in your heart, so if you’re converting last minute just to get into heaven and don’t really believe Jesus is lord etc., you’re SOL. This is not to say that it’s impossible, just unlikely. Sola Fides is not about saying magic words, its about your core beliefs – and changing ones’ core beliefs is usually a process that occurs over hours, days, or years; not seconds.

    3. Small quibble: I would not use 1500s quotes to back up Anglican and Lutheran support for sola fides. Both sects have changed some of their theology since then, so I would use a more contemporary quote of what they think sola fides means (to them). They haven’t rejected Sola Fides so their position probably hasn’t changed very much, but it seems incongruous to use such old quotes. Like you’re hiding something or selectively quoting.

    4. I’m surprised Calvinism didn’t get a mention. They’re pretty much the poster children for ‘not by acts’ theology, as they believe nothing you do, not even sincere statements of faith will get you into heaven. For them, God knew at the moment of the creation of the universe whether you would get in or not, since then your fate has been predestined.

    5. On the main question: IMO there is no question that these sects promote moral teachings (not all the same); they do. They claim Jesus/God lays out ways he wants us to behave. They tell you to behave in those ways. That is promoting (their) morality. Protestantism says you can get into heaven even if you don’t listen to their moral teachings, true, but that is not the same thing as ‘having no moral teachings’ or ‘not promoting morals.’ They clearly do have things they consider to be moral and immoral acts, and they clearly do spend time telling people to do the moral ones and not do the immoral ones.

    When it comes to promoting morality, we might in fact think of Protestantism as the closer-to-atheist version of Christianity. They promote moral claims without grounding them in some lockstep after-death reward for acting that way. They, like atheists, will probably say that you should act morally even if your eternal salvation is not dependent on doing so.

    1. FYI ‘anonymous’ is me. Le sigh. I will now go do three Hail Kittehs and four Our CeilingCats for breaking da Roolz.

  39. While some sects have the doctrine of Sola Fide, demon possession has become popular, along with exorcisms.

    If the Christian Sect doesn’t have the doctrine of Sola Fide, you may be able to be let off the hook by claiming it wasn’t you, it was a demonic spirit possessing you. With a relatively inexpensive exorcism you too can be set back on the path to heaven above.

    Even the Catholic Church has gotten into the act.

    A Pew Research poll showed 57 percent of respondents believe it’s possible to be possessed by demons.

    So there are two outs, being forgiven just by believing in Jesus, or just saying “It wasn’t me”, it was the demon inside me.
    In other words, the devil did it. We’ve actually seen people take this tack in the justice system. I can only believe they thought demon possession gets you out of criminal culpability as well as culpability in the church’s eyes.

    Those who have children will recognize the refrain. When you have young children, nobody is ever responsible, it must have been someone else, some other invisible person that causes mayhem, breakage and other minor to major catastrophes.

    In that light, should we be surprised demon possession is part of Christianity? If your acting badly, just go down to the local church and have the demon driven out and your good to go. If you commit another sin, then it’s just a relapse of that pesky demon.

  40. As an ex-evangelical (non-denominational, biblical literalist/inerrantist) I might be able to add a little to the conversation. At least I’ll try.

    First off I’ll say that most of the “Believe by faith and be saved” sects absolutely eat up death bed confessions. They love it. There’s nothing better than saving someone from the Jaws of Death/Damnation at the last second. What a wonderful story! He almost burned forever, but came to his senses right before he was lost forever. Yay! I mean, one of the very favorite stories in Christendom is that of the Thief on the Cross. Jesus was supposedly crucified between two criminals. One cursed him for not rescuing him. The other said he believed and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Jesus then said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

    Cue all the tears in the sermon for the beautiful story that it’s never too late for redemption.

    They don’t see it as a loophole, because nobody knows when they will die, it’s too great a risk to just hold out and be immoral. You might not have the chance to make that choice when the time of death is at hand.

    Anyway, regarding the morality aspect –

    There is more than one aspect to “salvation.” Justification by faith relates to the change in status as someone bound for eternal punishment to someone qualified to enter heaven. This is a single, completed transaction that trades your sins for Christ’s righteousness.

    This also initiates Regeneration, which is instantaneous and simultaneous with Justification in the eyes of many literalist denominations (some denominations, particularly many Charismatic sects, hold that this does not happen until the individual is baptised by water – versions vary, of course.) This is where you get the meat of the “born-again” aspect. Theologically, a person is made of three distinct *parts* – Body (our physical self) – Mind (Our intellect, will, and emotions) – and Spirit (the part of us that can spiritual interact with God.) When we are still “dead in our sins” this part of us is dead, therefore we are unable to interact with God in any way, though he can interact with us as he will. When you make the decision to believe, your spirit is “Regenerated” – resurrected, as it were – and you can now interact with God as the Holy Spirit indwells you, this part of you, and is there to provide guidance.

    The next aspect is Sanctification. This begins at the same instant as the others, but is ongoing throughout the life of the believer. This is where the rubber supposedly meets the road for morality. We are taught that even though we’re justified and regenerated, we still have in our temporal person (our Mind) a “sin nature” that must continually be disciplined by the Spirit, by prayer, by teaching, and by good works, to remain in the center of god’s will and usable by god. The better one behaves, the more good and faithful works one does, the more riches in heaven one stores up. The one who is saved is saved forever (some denominations teach otherwise, that one can lose their salvation) but if he or she fails to do good works and behave morally, they are saved “as one through fire,” singed and burned, with no riches stored up.

    Of course when you wonder why that should matter since heaven is supposed to be eternal bliss, well, the conversation usually broke down there, filed under “Mysteries to be Explained in Heaven.”

    I know that was long, but that’s the way fundamentalist sects look at Sola Fide in contrast to morality. Cheers.

  41. As others on this thread have pointed out, and Westermarck demonstrated convincingly in the first chapter of his “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,” one can’t say whether Christianity “promotes morality” or not, because morality is not subject to truth claims. (BTW, Westermarck’s book can be read for free at Google books.)

    The “root cause” of all morality lies in behavioral predispositions that evolved because they happened to increase the odds that the genes that give rise to them would survive and reproduce. Absent that root cause, morality as we know it would not exist. Obviously, those genes can manifest themselves in a myriad ways in creatures with large brains such as ourselves. However, we all act morally after a fashion. We must, because we are not intelligent enough to rely solely on reason in our day-to-day social interactions.

    Under the circumstances, it would probably behoove us all to understand what morality is, where it comes from, and what version of it would be both in harmony with our nature and most effective in regulating society in a way that reduces mayhem to a minimum and promotes a version of “human flourishing” that at least most of us can live with. Since Christianity is based on false beliefs, both about the existence of God and the source of morality, it is unlikely to promote such a rational morality. Indeed, it has demonstrably been responsible for death and suffering on a massive scale.

  42. “Consider the pleasures of Milton’s Satan when he contemplates the harm that he could do man…his psychology is not so very different from that of Tertullian, exulting in the thought that he will be able to look out from heaven at the sufferings of the damned.”

    Bertrand Russel, Unpopular Essay

    1. …and why can’t our modern egotistical strident New Atheists be as angst-ridden and regretfully respectful as the old atheists, we are scolded….


    2. Assuming all the best con artists and thieves end up in Hell, my money’s on them figuring out how to break out. Wait, doesn’t that mean Saint Paul is there too?

    3. And where did Tertullian get this idea? From the book that, according to the religious, is necessary for morals. See Isaiah 66.24 or Revelation 19.2-3.

  43. From my days in Campus Crusade For Christ, a “nondenominational” student group that was saturated in American style evangelical Protestantism, there was sharp distinction between faith and works. To explain this, an example was given of a man trying to jump across the ocean from a dock. His own efforts (his works) will only get him a few meters at most, while the power of Christ (through faith) would propel him the remaining vast distance. I also heard that good works would naturally follow from true faith, but it was clear that pretty much all of the work of salvation was done through faith.

    “Sola fide, sola scriptura”…yer faith and yer (King James version) Bible was all you needed.

    It was in sharp contrast to my Catholic upbringing, which (following the Book of James in the NT), maintained that good works were an integral part of the salvation process. Which still doesn’t seem to be much a break on bad behavior, child-abusing priests have proven. Either the priests don’t believe the BS they are shoveling, or they are fantastic at rationalizing their behavior.

  44. It’s interesting to note that this logical inconsistency occurs, in one form or another, in ALL religions whose tenets include reward or punishment after death for deeds done (or undone)- a good example is the old Hindu story of a man who lived a sinful life: on his deathbed, the man saw that demons sent by Mara, the god of death, were coming to drag him away: in his fright, he called out the name of his beloved son, Rama (a common name at that time), for aid. He cried, “Ram! Ram!” and, at that, the REAL Rama, incarnation of Vishnu, heard him and prevented the demons from seizing him. Mara “appealed” this decision, at which time a little conference ensued in which Rama determined that no, it didn’t matter whether the man was sincerely calling on Rama to save his soul, all that mattered was that he said Rama’s name. The power of the name itself was sufficient!

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