The greatest moment of the Reformation was not what Luther nailed on the castle doors of Wittenberg, but what he discovered later, while searching for truth. Luther began to study the Scriptures, carefully, meticulously, line by line and then he came across a passage in Romans chapter 3 where it says that believers –
“are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time so that he would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:24, 26)
Luther saw how God could forgive sin without compromising His justice. God justifies – that is, he declares righteous those who put their trust in Jesus Christ to save. Therefore, God remains just (in punishing sin) and the justifier (making sinners righteous) of those who believe. This divine declaration is not in response to any spiritual or moral advances within the sinner. It is a direct imputation of the righteousness of Christ by faith alone. When Luther came to understand this doctrine, he thought he had entered the gates of paradise.
Well the Church of Rome wasn’t going to have a bar of this. It sounded like heresy, and indeed was formally declared so later at the Council of Trent:
“If anyone saith that by faith alone the impious is justified in such wise as to mean that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtaining the grace of Justification…let him be anathema…”
In case you thought you read that wrong, the Roman Catholic Church declares any person who believes he can be justified by faith – that is, made right with God by faith in Christ’s merits alone, let him be anathema. Let him be cursed.
Why such strong words? Because Luther’s findings strikes at the heart and soul of Roman Catholic teaching and doctrine. More than that, it threatens its very existence. If you read some of their doctrine, you’ll see why. In the Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (which carries the official authorization of the Vatican) we find this:
Why did Christ establish the Church?
Christ established the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation.
How is the Church the universal sacrament of salvation?
The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation as the divinely instituted means of conferring grace on all the members of the human family.
What does the Catholic Church believe about the forgiveness of sins?
She believes it is God’s will that no one is forgiven except through the merits of Jesus Christ and that these merits are uniquely channeled through the Church He founded. Consequently, even as the Church is the universal sacrament of salvation, she is also the universal sacrament of reconciliation.
How does the Church communicate the merits of Christ’s mercy to sinners?
The Church communicates the merits of Christ’s mercy to sinners through the Mass and the sacraments and all the prayers and good works of the faithful.
Are the sacraments necessary for salvation?
According to the way God has willed that we be saved the sacraments are necessary for salvation.
These words clearly express the official position of the Church of Rome. There is no salvation apart from participation in the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. There is no other means of obtaining saving grace.
You may have heard in the past decade of an organization called the ECT. ECT stands for “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”, an attempt (on the Protestant side) to bring unity between Protestants and Roman Catholics on the basis of shared affirmations. How can you have unity on an issue like this, you may ask? Well, that’s a good question.
The doctrine of justification has long been a dividing point between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The participants in the dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals Together (ECT) recognized that agreement on this doctrine was vital. After quoting Ephesians 2:8 this is what they came up with:
By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving work for us in Christ. By our response of faith to Christ, we enter into the blessings promised by the Gospel. Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).
Taking these words at face value, they declare that agreement on the doctrine of justification has been reached between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals and both parties declare their assent to justification by faith alone. What had separated Catholics and Evangelicals for nearly five hundred years has now been reconciled if the above statement is true.
But wait a minute here. It’s not quite as simple as that. And the reason lies with the differences regarding what is termed the formal cause of justification (what actually justifies the sinner). The formal cause of justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner. God declares the sinner to be righteous because the righteousness of Christ has been imputed, or put, to his account. Luther called this imputed righteousness of Christ an alien righteousness because its origin was from outside of the individual. The individual contributed nothing to this justifying righteousness; it was Christ’s righteousness alone. The instrumental means of receiving Christ’s righteousness was by faith. It was an adequate means because faith looked to Christ alone. This brought together two Reformation statements: Christ alone (solus Christus) and faith alone (sola fide).
This is in direct contradiction to what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. It teaches that the sacrament of baptism infuses the righteousness of Christ into an individual. As the individual co-operates with this infused righteousness it increases until the point in time when he or she becomes righteous and is accepted by God (a confusion, in Protestant terms, in the doctrines of justification and sanctification).
It is over the question as to whether the righteousness of Christ in justification is imputed or infused that the differences emerge. Evangelicals do not deny that there is an infused righteousness in sanctification. However, the question under discussion refers to justification, a person’s legal standing, and not sanctification, a person’s moral condition.
This is not theological hair-splitting. Doctrine matters. Words matter, because words affect our understanding of God, the gospel and our salvation. If we get the words wrong (or we leave some out), we get the doctrine wrong. And if we get the doctrine wrong, we get salvation wrong. And that is something that affects effects each and every one of us for all eternity.
Sola Fide. It matters.
If you have 5 minutes, have a look at this excerpt from a conference message where R.C. Sproul explains why it’s imperative to hold fast to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It’s worth listening to.
 The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1910), Decree on Justification, Chapter XVI, Canon IX.
 John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden City: Image, 1981), Questions # 401, 402, 461, 462, 1119).
 Timothy George, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A New Initiative,” Christianity Today, December,1997, p. 35.