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Whatever happened to sola fide?

Issue: "Stand in the gap," Oct. 18, 1997

Last October I sat in the Memphis Liberty Bowl a Promise Keepers skeptic. Having come to examine the phenomenon firsthand, I thumbed through my program booklet with a critical eye. Printed on a page titled "Core Values" was the PK statement of faith, summed up in five solidly evangelical points. In spite of PK's charismatic flavor, I was basically impressed.

I wanted to be impressed. Although the teaching seemed theologically homogenized, I was looking for things to affirm.

I left Memphis ambivalent, because PK is parachurch and ecumenical, and one of its primary stated goals is "visible unity." I knew this kind of unity could be achieved only when those involved agreed to leave doctrinal distinctives at home. But I knew that these problems are not unique to PK, and I saw no "new" issues of concern.

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Recently, watching the Washington event on television, I also was pleasantly surprised. I could hear scriptural challenge from some of the speakers rather than easy moralism. But, looking through my file of PK materials, I also ran across a new fundamental problem, one so subtle that most evangelicals may never notice it.

Last October, article 5 of PK's statement of faith read, in part, "man ... because of sin, was alienated from God. That alienation can be removed only by accepting through faith alone God's gift of salvation which was made possible by Christ's death" (emphasis added).

Today, the statement reads, "Only through faith, trusting in Christ alone for salvation which was made possible by his death and resurrection, can that alienation be removed."

What's missing? Faith alone, sola fide, the core doctrine of the gospel. As of at least last October, PK stood with the Reformation, itself a movement that reclaimed, among other truths, the clear Bible teaching that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. Only through trusting in God's mercy in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf can man be saved.

Now, according to PK, it is not faith alone in Christ that saves; it is faith in Christ alone that saves. The latter is the classic teaching of the Roman Catholic church, that faith is a necessary but insufficient condition of salvation; trust in Christ's death merely begins the process of salvation, which is "completed" as Christ enables us by grace to participate in works of righteousness.

This distinction may sound picky, but it is what led Martin Luther 480 years ago to pick a life of conflict rather than accommodation. Churches that celebrate Reformation Day in two weeks will be remembering the long struggle to establish the principle of "faith alone."

Even if the distinction is no big deal to evangelicals-though it should be-it is a big deal to Catholics, according to the Catholic weekly Our Sunday Visitor. Its July 20 edition reported that PK changed its statement of faith to accommodate Catholics who wanted to join but couldn't, because to embrace "faith alone" would "force them to reject their Catholic faith."

WORLD reporters sought out PK's side of the story. Staffers in the public-relations office issued a statement that claims the change "has not altered the meaning of this key principle in any way. Our objective was only to bring more clarity to this important fundamental truth of Christianity." Moreover, PK maintains, the revised statement of faith "expresses Ephesians 2:8-9 more accurately than the old statement, thus we felt we were being truer to Scripture. Promise Keepers believes that salvation is a free gift from God and cannot be earned by any human effort."

PK director of public affairs Steve Rupp told WORLD that PK was "not under pressure from Catholics or anyone else to make the change in any wording. Our board voted unanimously to make the change. Many board members would have objected if it was not biblically correct."

Pressed on how he reconciles his statements with the Our Sunday Visitor reporting, Mr. Rupp says, "I can't address what was said in the Catholic newspaper article. I wasn't there; I don't know what really was said."

Notice the wording of the written statement: "this key principle" and "this important fundamental truth." It's not entirely clear what is the "this" to which the statement refers. Top PK officials were not available to answer questions. But, fundamentally, there is only one: Is sola fide the official theological position of Promise Keepers, or is it not?

Mr. Looper is assistant pastor of Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.

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