“Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and His righteousness.”
–Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 73.
How can sinful man be reconciled to a holy God? We understand the importance of that question. Answer it not at all results in eternal damnation. But answer it wrongly, and it results in just the same. Answer it correctly – and taking application thereof, by the grace of God it results in eternal life. It is a truth so imperative to know, and is at the very heart of the Gospel.
Faith Alone. This is the great schism between true Christianity and that of the Roman Catholic Church – it’s the heart of the Protestant Reformation. It’s true that there were in fact many issues in the RCC that led to Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and the other Reformers to protest against the Pope and the Church of Rome, but the “Five Solas” are what ultimately distinguished Protestants from Catholics, and are what united the Reformers together. Even so, “No single issue so captured the imagination and created as much furor as soteriology and especially the question of God’s righteousness and how humans gain a share in it or benefit from it for salvation.”1 The Reformers argued through Scripture that salvation was exclusively sola gratia et fides (by grace through faith alone), and when they called for the RCC to defend their doctrine of salvation through Scripture, the singular source of doctrinal authority (sola scriptura), the Catholic Church responded with the declaration that the Catholic tradition was the ultimate source of doctrinal authority, and Scripture was secondary.
For the Catholic Church, God’s infallible, inerrant Word took (and still takes) a back seat. Pride, power, and the love of money was at the root of all this. The RCC wanted the laity more dependent on the church, since the more the people were dependent on the Church, the more power and money they would have. So, through time, the importance of the church passed from being important for sanctification, to being necessary for justification. There could be no salvation except through the Church, rather than through Christ whose sacrificial death was insufficient for salvation. This made the Protestants blister in righteous indignation, and rightly so! There was no solus Christus, nor “no other name under heaven by which you might be saved” (Acts 4:12), but Christ plus the Pope and the Church. Now, if the people were dependent on the Church for accomplishing salvation, the Church had magnificent power, and the power of manipulation, which it needed to fund the completion of pope’s new cathedral in Rome.
But what does all this have to do with sola fide? “Merit had become a key term in Catholic soteriology. One could be truly saved only to the extent that he or she had gained sufficient merit before God through faith and works of love.”2 But not only was this a doctrine of faith plus works, but faith itself took on a whole new meaning. In Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas argued that faith was simply the “assent to the intellect” 3 Not only is this not the faith necessary for salvation according to the Reformers, but it is not the salvific faith presented in Scripture either.
James 2:19 provides a stark warning to “faith” or “belief” that is a mere acknowledgement of fact. “Even the demons believe, and they tremble.” Saving faith is always accompanied with repentance, and so “True biblical faith always repudiates works as a grounds for justification. Genuine faith always involves a turning from sin… and a surrender of the heart to Christ’s lordship, with the commitment to live for His will and His glory.” This is the faith of the Protestant Reformation, and the salvific faith described in Scripture.
Ephesians 2:8-9 is clear, that it is “by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, not of works that anyone may boast.” When asked how it is that one might be saved, Peter responded “repent and believe in the Gospel” (Acts 2:38). For the Catholic Church, however, repentance was replaced by penance, and faith was also no longer in God and the Trinitarian work of God in salvation. It was instead faith in the “teachings and practices of the church,” and works became defined as “buying indulgences, paying for masses for souls in purgatory and taking expensive pilgrimages to view relics as well as giving alms to the poor, etc.”4
So, saving faith was in the Church, and there was no imputed righteousness of Christ or the preservation of the Saints. Christ’s work was insufficient for justification of sins, and additional work was necessary for forgiveness. For any shortcoming in faith in the Church, the RCC taught that additional time would be spent in purgatory. Not only this, but the Catholic Church taught (and canonized) that anyone who taught salvation by faith alone was accursed (for more on this, I’d encourage you to read my last post, “Why Catholics Aren’t Christians”). It was on this issue that John Owen (1616-1683) wrote The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, where he committed more than 400 pages on the subject, providing us with one of the longest defenses of the biblical doctrine of sola fide. He writes that it is faith, apart from works, that justifies:
It is faith alone which on our part is required to interest us in that righteousness, or whereby we comply with God’s grant and communication of it, or receive it unto our use and benefit; for although this faith is in itself the radical principle of all obedience,… yet, as we are justified by it, its act and duty is such, or of that nature, as that no other grace, duty, or work, can be associated with it, or be of any consideration.5
It was upon understanding this through reading Romans that Luther came to know salvation:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’.” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.6
Every Christian can no doubt relate to this and it is the most wonderful truth of all, that God provides justification through His Son that by faith we can have eternal life. It is a complete impossibility that we can obtain salvation by our own merit (Rom. 3:23), but we have the promise that through faith, we can be declared righteous by the imputed righteousness of Christ (Acts 2:38; 3:19; Rom. 3:20 1 Pet. 2:24).
- Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 373. ↩
- Ibid., 372. ↩
- Webster, William. The Church of Rome at the Bar of History (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), 134. ↩
- Olson. The Story of Christian Theology, 372-3. ↩
- John Own, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, in A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 502. ↩
- Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, in Olson, 377. ↩