It is Reformation Day! For Roman Catholics, it is All Saints Day. Reformation day marks the day when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the church of Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517. The Reformation marks the time when the church returned to the Scriptures and away from the traditions of man which have so far away. Since it is Reformation day, it is only fitting that I address Roman Catholicism. In this particular article, I aim to address the material cause of the Reformation, that is the doctrine of sola fide.
Protestantism believes that a sinner is justified by faith alone. The Reformers used the Latin term; “Sola Fide”, which translates to “faith. It’s the belief that we are not saved by our works, but by putting faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. The Roman Catholic view, in summary, affirms that salvation requires faith in Christ and works in order to be justified. Any notion that salvation is by faith alone, without works has been dispelled and anathematised in the Council of Trent, which was the church council which sought to respond to the Protestant Reformation, defining key doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”.
This declaration permanently defined the RCC’s position on the issue of justification and caused a permanent rift between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. From here we will consider the two differing views of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
The Protestant View
The Protestant view on justification is explained by the Westminster Confession of Faith;
“Those whom God effectually called, He also freely justifies: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting the persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing or any other evangelical obedience to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God”
Protestants believe that justification is founded upon the “imputed righteousness” of Christ. The act of imputing Christ’s righteousness is “accounting…the persons as righteous”. The righteousness which is accounted to the sinner does not belong to them, it belongs to Christ, it is put into their account. This action is done on God’s part, not on the basis of some prior righteousness which deemed the sinner worthy of justification. Rather it rests solely upon the mercy and grace of God who pitied sinners, moving Him to save them.
This “righteousness” is the “obedience and satisfaction of Christ”, or as the London Baptist Confession explains; “Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in His death” . Protestant theologians have distinguished between “active” and “passive” obedience. The active obedience of Christ imputed to the sinner, makes him blameless to the law because Christ perfectly obeyed it, where the sinner has not. The passive obedience of Christ pardons the sinner because his sins were borne by Christ on the cross, with the Father expiating his wrath upon the Son so that the sinner would no longer be under his wrath. It is predicated on these two things that God considers the sinner to no longer be regarded as condemned before His sight. A sinner who has been justified by God then has this righteousness conferred to them by the means of faith in Christ. The Westminster Divines sought to distinguish themselves from Rome, by stating that faith is “the alone instrument of justification”, which is to say that the only way for a sinner to take hold of this righteousness is to have faith in Christ’s satisfaction and obedience, to rest upon it completely apart from the works of the law.
The Roman Catholic View
Rome teaches the concept of “infused righteousness“, which is where God infuses righteousness into the sinner through the means of sacraments. It must be clarified that this is not a matter of disagreements over semantics. “Infused” is not the same as “imputed”. When Rome states that God infuses righteousness in to the soul of the sinner, they mean that they “pour” the righteousness of Christ into the sinner. Christ’s righteousness is actually transferred to the sinner and becomes theirs.
According to Roman Catholic theology, “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy” . Trent refers to the sacrament of baptism as the “instrumental cause” of justification. What Trent means by “instrumental” is that Baptism is the instrument by which justification is infused into the person. The person is justified because the sacrament removes the stain of original sin . At the very moment of baptism, the person is absolutely pure and innocent, without guilt. The sacrament of baptism removes the stain of original sin, but it does not free the person from the effects of sin, as they are still inclined towards it . What’s more is that Trent even states that “the grace of justification” can be lost either 1. due to the loss of faith or 2. the committing of mortal sin, in which case faith is retained, but justification is lost . Since baptism doesn’t erase the struggle with sin, a Catholic then inevitably becomes defiled by sinful acts and loses their innocence. In order to enter into heaven, a person must remain and die in the “state of grace” through the participation of the sacraments, particularly through the specific sacraments of the Eucharist and penance as the RCC believes all the sacraments “confer grace” on the sinner every time they are received (and also anathematises anyone who disagrees with them). So in Roman Catholicism, the way to salvation is one that is paved by adherence to Rome’s sacramental system and not by faith alone. We can conclude then that according to Rome, faith is a necessary component to justification and salvation. However, faith is, as Dr R.C. Sproul observes, “…remains the necessary foundation and root of justification”, but Rome does not hold to faith as the “instrumental cause”.
Here The Church Stands
Now one might say, “doesn’t this debate about justification seem trivial and unnecessary, this reformation is irrelevant now and you’re just clutching at straws”. To this, I would passionately and wholeheartedly disagree. Whilst Rome does affirm doctrines that would put them in the realm of orthodoxy (i.e. the Trinity, virgin birth etc.), the doctrine of justification by faith alone is one that cannot be overlooked for the sake of unity. The reason for this is that justification by faith alone is an issue that touches upon the gospel itself! The very same thing which Paul refers to as the “the power of God for salvation”, which is why getting it right is absolutely crucial. Martin Luther said that sola fide is “the article with and by which the church stands, without which it falls”. Luther is saying this doctrine determines whether or not the church is able to stand the judgement of God, because “the doctrine of justification has to do with our status before the just judgement of God” .
How Can God Be Just, and Pardon Sinners?
The Psalmist asked the question “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities… who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3). The question is rhetorical and highlights the guilt of mankind because every person is naturally born in the state of original sin . In the Bible, we read things like “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist… I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22) and yet at the same time “the LORD loves righteousness and justice” (Psalm 33:5) and that nothing impure can ever enter into heaven in the presence of God (Revelation 21:27).
So how does this work? How can God be just and forgive sinners? Imagine if a judge lets someone who is clearly guilty of rape go without any charges. Is that justice? But it appears that God lets the sinner go, how can God overlook it like that? Does he simply sweep it under the rug and pretend like it never happened? This is exactly the same questions that Martin Luther had.
Luther’s Struggle with God’s Justice
In order to understand why Luther so cherished the doctrine of sola fide, we need to understand Luther himself. Luther’s decision to become a monk arose when he found himself in a storm in which he thought he was going to die. Luther was so greatly afraid that he called out to St Anne to save him, and in return, he would become a monk. Luther survived this ordeal and did just that, he left the university from studying law and joined the Augustinian order.
Luther was no ordinary monk, Luther himself said: “I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I” . One episode which highlighted this when his confessor was so tired of hearing him confess insignificant sins, that he was told to come back to confess something worth confessing. So morbid was Luther’s guilt complex that there are many who believe he was insane. But Dr Sproul believed otherwise because Luther’s background as a law student is often overlooked. He observes that Luther had a “grasp of subtle and difficult points of the law… some heralded him as a legal genius… he (Luther) had a superior understanding of the law. Once he applied his astute legal mind to the law of God, he saw things that many people miss”.
Luther knew that in any human court, there ought to be a just punishment when someone commits a crime. So for Luther, he knew that there ought to be a punishment when one breaks God’s law? As we’ve seen, Luther was acutely aware of his own sinfulness and it caused him turmoil because he knows he can’t stand before God. Instead of seeing God as a saviour, to Luther, “Christ seems… nothing more than an angry judge who comes to me with a sword in His hand” . But this all changed for Luther when he studied the Scripture in Wittenburg in 1512. It was there where Luther met Christ, the redeemer of sinners.
The Law In Relation to Sinners
The book that changed it all for Luther was the book of Romans. Particularly in Romans 1:16-17, where Luther realised that it was the righteousness of God that saved him, not his own. Knowing this, the tremors inside Luther’s soul ceased and for the first time, he had known true peace. This then leads us to a passage I want to bring your attention, for your consideration in the debate concerning justification. This passage is Romans 3:19-26 and in this section, I will examine the first two passages, as they are foundational;
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
If a sinner were to be saved by obedience to the law, salvation is impossible because the law demands perfect obedience (James 2:10). In the immediate context, Paul took great lengths to demonstrate the guiltiness of man. In the first and second chapter, he demonstrated sinfulness of Jews and Gentiles. In the preceding verses (v. 10-18), Paul quotes from Old Testament scriptures to show that “none is righteous” (v.10). So in v. 19-20, Paul is drawing out what the implications of the passages he was quoting by making it clear that in God’s divine courtroom, they have no excuse because his law holds them accountable to Him.
Douglas Moo’s observation is helpful, as he explains that the terminology that Paul uses in this text evokes a courtroom imagery. The Greek word translated “accountable” appears only in this verse in the New Testament. Other ancient documents use this to mean; “answerable to” or “liable to prosecution”. So in this picture, God is both the offended party and the judge. After consideration of the evidence, He pronounces the verdict. God has concluded in his divine court that man is sinful and deserving of wrath, therefore “no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20). This is because The law is the perfect reflection of God’s moral character, and so it is righteous because of its source. Therefore it is not unjust for God to judge sinners according to it. Thus, Christ taught against the breaking of God’s law (Matthew 5:19). The Psalms praised the law because that it instructs them in the ways of righteousness (Psalm 119:9-16). Reformed theology historically taught and upheld that the moral law (i.e. the ten commandments) is still binding on Christians. It’s obeyed not to earn justification, but because it pleases God.
God’s Righteousness Revealed in the Gospel and Received by Faith
After finishing pronouncing God’s judgement, Paul then proceeds with the words;
“21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. 23 For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. It was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”” (Romans 3:20-26).
“But now…”. Martyn Lloyd Jones said; “there are no more wonderful words in the whole of Scripture than these two words”. This righteousness of God, or “the righteousness which belongs to God” is now revealed or manifested by the means of faith, apart from the law.
I want to consider the phrase “righteousness of God” and what is meant here by Paul, as this is the main theme in the book of Romans. Paul states that this “righteousness of God”, has been spoken about by the “Law and the Prophets” (v.21). When Paul uses the words “righteousness of God”, he is referring to God’s saving righteousness of God which was prophesied about in the Old Testament. In Isaiah, God says: “Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness: I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory” (Isaiah 46:12-13). We can see in this text that there’s a connection between God’s righteousness and salvation. This righteousness which God will “bring near”, doesn’t condemn sinners, it is one that saves. Similarly, David writes; “In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!” (Psalm 31:1-2). God becomes a refuge to the sinner who runs to him for refuge, and it is in His righteousness that sinners are delivered. We can see that the righteousness which Paul is talking about in the book of Romans is not God’s righteous judgement of sinners. Rather it refers to the means by which he will save sinners. But then this passage begs the question; how does the righteousness of God save sinners? The law is a perfect reflection of God’s personal righteousness. How does that righteousness save? It is revealed apart from the law.
In a word, this righteousness is “imputed” to sinners. In order to understand what Paul means in v.21, we have to go back to the first chapter, wherein he writes; “I’m not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes… For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “the just shall live by faith”” (Romans 1:16-17). The gospel itself reveals the righteousness of God. Christ lived a perfect life, fulfilling the laws and its demands, and then became our substitute to atone for our sins. So then, this righteousness of God is founded upon the merit of Christ, received by faith. The phrase, “from faith for faith”, stresses the promises of it – that it is faith and only faith that can justify a sinner . Paul supports this from Habakkuk 2:4, that the “just shall live by faith”, which means that sinners who have been declared righteous will live fully dependant upon the saving work of Christ in the gospel and nothing else.
The rest of our passage in Romans 3 only accentuates the argument. Take note that every time “faith” and “believe” is used in the text, it is always in connection to salvation, justification or the “righteousness of God”. For example; “The righteousness of God through faith…for all who believe” (3:22); “justified by his grace as a gift” (3:24). Concerning the propitiatory work of Christ upon the cross, it is to be “recieved by faith” (v.24) and that God is the “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). In other passages within the epistle, the same is found. In 4:5, “to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). In chapter 5, “we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
The words “through” and “by” communicate the same thing here, which is to mean “means” or “instrument” and Paul makes it clear here that it is only faith is the instrument and the only means by which God justifies the ungodly sinner. Therefore 3:22, can be read “the righteousness of God through the instrument/means of faith”. Hence what can be gleaned from this text is that the righteousness of Christ is imputed completely into the sinner because the law, as we’ve established cannot and will not save a sinner – just as God counted the faith of Abraham as righteousness to his account. And how was Abraham justified? And where did this righteousness come from, that is imputed to Abraham, indeed all those who believe? The righteousness of Christ Himself.
Rome and Justification
The case I have made above suffices to demonstrate that the Roman Catholic Church, as defined by the Council of Trent has justification wrong according to Scripture. Trent teaches that the Sacrament of Baptism is the “instrumental cause” of justification, but this concept is foreign to Scripture. Indeed the Scriptures contradict that, as the Bible teaches that “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 3:17), “we have been justified by faith” (Romans 5:1) and “obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). This grace in which we stand is the solid rock of Christ – which Peter, who according to Rome is the first Pope, “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:6). If the words of the “Vicar of Christ” is true, then why does Rome so clearly reject their own Pope’s words? Whoever trusts in Christ can be sure that they’ll never be put to shame before the presence of Almighty God, that they will be vindicated, and therefore can have the bold assurance that they are justified, contrary to Trent’s condemnation of it .
As I’ve stated earlier this is a gospel issue, as it defines the very heart of the gospel itself. Indeed I would boldly state that there are two radically different gospels being purported here. On the one hand, Rome tells us that faith does not suffice to “justify the ungodly” (Romans 5:8), and a lifelong obedience to her sacraments are required, and even then there’s no assurance. On the other, there is the Biblical gospel, where God in his kindness and mercy, imputes his own righteousness, founded upon the all-sufficient merits of Christ to the sinner. And it is this gospel that the Protestant Reformation has brought back to the church. Hence why it is said of the Reformation “post tenebras lux”, which is Latin for “after darkness, light”.
With everything said, the reason why I’m not a Roman Catholic is that Rome offers no gospel at all. I am convinced by the Sacred Scriptures that my justification doesn’t rest upon my own merit, but in Christ in whom I put all my trust in. I have no merit to show for, no righteousness in me to render me guiltless before the presence of God. Therefore I say with Toplady;
“Not the labour of my hands can fulfil thy laws demands, could my zeal no respite know, all for sin could not atone, thou must save and thou alone”
(Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me)
Grace and Peace,
- Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 9
- The Westminster Confession of Faith 11.1
- London Baptist Confession of Faith 11.1
- Westminster Confession of Faith 11.2
- Catechism of the Catholic Church 1213
- Council of Trent, Session 6 Chapter VII
- Catechism of the Catholic Church 977
- Catechism of the Catholic Church 978
- Trent, Session 6, Chapter XV
- Council of Trent Session 7, Canon 6
- Quoted from Faith Alone, Sproul, pg 83
- Sproul Faith alone, p.87
- For the RCC definition see Catechism of the Catholic Church 417. For the Protestant view, see Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 6
- Bainton, pg. 26
- Sproul, Holiness of God, pg. 86
- Quoted from Sproul, Holiness of God pg. **
- Moo, Romans pg.205
- ibid pg.205
- Douglas Moo, Romans,76
- See Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter IX