[We remember our Reformation heritage with this second instalment of an article entitled the “Five Solas”. This instalment is on “Faith Alone, the keystone of the Reformation movement.]
By Dr. Keith Mathison, Reformation Bible College
Often referred to as “the material cause” of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification sola fide (by faith alone) was a key point of debate between the Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and it has remained a point of disagreement ever since. Martin Luther and his followers expressed the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone by teaching that it is “the article by which the church stands or falls.” Was Luther correct in affirming the central importance of this doctrine? In order to answer this question, we must grasp the meaning of justification itself as well as the differences between the Protestant and Roman Catholic doctrines.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is most clearly expressed in the Decree Concerning Justification produced in the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent in 1547. According to this Decree, fallen human beings are “made just” through the “laver of regeneration.” In short, the instrumental cause of justification (being made just) is baptism. Justification is said to involve remission of sins and “also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man.” Justification is not by faith alone, according to the Council of Trent, because hope and charity (i.e. love) must be added.
The Reformers rejected the idea that justification means “making just” by a faith that is not alone and that it is accomplished through the instrument of baptism. But why? In order to answer that question, we must have some understanding of the basic issues underlying the debate. The first point to observe is that God is absolutely just and righteous, and He will judge the world in righteousness. So, what is the problem with this? The problem is that although God is perfectly just and righteous, we are not. We are fallen, sinful, unjust, and unrighteous creatures (Rom. 3:9–18). This raises an infinitely serious question for each of us: How can I, an unjust sinner, stand before our infinitely righteous and holy God at the final judgment?
Rome offered one answer. In order for a person to be declared righteous by God, he or she first has to be made righteous by God. As we saw above, justification for Rome means to be “made just.” The following is something of an oversimplification of a much more complicated doctrine, but at its heart, the Roman doctrine of justification includes the idea of sanctification and renewal. The grounds of justification, the basis upon which the declaration of righteousness is made, therefore, is an infused righteousness. It is a grace that is infused, or poured, into our souls. If a person cooperates with this infused grace, he or she is renewed and sanctified. The person cooperating with grace, therefore, has an inherent righteousness. One can lose this state of grace through mortal sin. However, if this happens, the sacrament of penance is a means by which a person can be restored to a state of justification.
According to the Reformers, there were serious problems with the Roman doctrine. In the first place, the standard of God’s judgment is absolutely perfect righteousness (Matt. 5:48). He cannot require less without denying Himself and His own holiness. A person cannot be declared righteous and survive the judgment of God, therefore, on the grounds of anything less than perfection. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, however, only one man has ever lived a life of perfect righteousness, and that One is Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:15). The Reformers argued, therefore, in opposition to Rome’s idea of infusion for a doctrine of double imputation. To impute something means to reckon it legally. The doctrine of double imputation means that our sin is imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us (2 Cor. 5:21).
It is also important to note here that for Rome, justification is by faith, but it is not by faith alone. For Rome, faith is necessary, but faith is not sufficient. Recall that for Rome, the instrumental cause of justification is baptism. The Reformers argued, on the contrary, that the sole instrument of justification is faith, and that even this faith is a gift of God. It is by grace (Rom. 3:28; 5:1; Eph. 2:8).
The Reformed doctrine of justification is clearly expressed in the classic Reformed confessions and catechisms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Westminster Larger Catechism, for example, provides a concise statement of the biblical doctrine:
Question 70: What is justification?
Answer: Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.