Is R. C. Sproul Wrong About Martin Luther? An Analysis of R. C. Sproul’s Faith Alone: the Evangelical Doctrine of Justification With respect To Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Catholic Luther Scholarship -- By: Matthew C. Heckel

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 47:1 (Mar 2004)
Article: Is R. C. Sproul Wrong About Martin Luther? An Analysis of R. C. Sproul’s Faith Alone: the Evangelical Doctrine of Justification With respect To Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Catholic Luther Scholarship
Author: Matthew C. Heckel


Is R. C. Sproul Wrong About Martin Luther? An Analysis of R. C. Sproul’s Faith Alone: the Evangelical Doctrine of Justification With respect To Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Catholic Luther Scholarship1

Matthew C. Heckel

[Matthew Heckel resides at 12183 McKelvey Road, Maryland Heights, MO 63043.]

R. C. Sproul’s thesis in his book, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, states that justification sola fide (by faith alone) is the essence of the biblical gospel. He marshals the witness of Scripture in support of this assertion and brings the testimony of the Reformers, specifically Martin Luther and John Calvin, to bear as secondary witnesses. From this evidence Sproul draws the implication that without the doctrine of sola fide, the gospel is so deprived of vital content that it ceases to be the gospel. Sproul draws the further implications that those bereft of the doctrine of sola fide, like the Roman Catholic Church, are apostate, and that modern evangelicals who declare unity in the gospel with Rome are guilty of compromising the good news. The declarations of such gospel unity with Rome and the denials of the same constitute this justification controversy that Sproul addresses.

In this essay, I am primarily concerned with the Reformers—Luther and Calvin—and Sproul’s exposition of their cause against Roman Catholic opponents in the sixteenth century and how Sproul uses the Reformers’ teachings on justification to support his thesis today. While I conclude that Sproul is basically correct in his understanding of the Reformers, I also believe that his thesis is deficient in three areas: first, it raises serious historical and theological questions about the Christian status of Augustine and the pre-Reformation Church that it does not answer but to which the Reformers did address themselves; second, it fails to account for a Reformation emphasis on what might be called an existential appropriation of the gospel by faith alone without an explicit awareness of the doctrinal formula—sola fide; and third, it fails to consider how the Catholic theologians, since the beginning of the twentieth century, have dialogued with Luther, moved beyond rejection of the Reformer, and how the Catholic Church has officially adopted many of his theological reforms of the doctrine of justification.

In response I will, first, present the background of this controversy and how R. C. Sproul has framed the issues involved; second, demonstrate the implications of Sproul’s thesis on the pre-Reformation Church by relating it to St. Augustine, whose doctrine was determinative for the pre-R...

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