On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, hoping to restore the Roman Catholic church to the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Rome was not amused. Martin Luther, who loved God’s Word more than he feared the pope, began a Reformation that would restore a Biblical understanding of salvation. To understand why the Reformation remains essential to 21st Century Christians, let’s look at one of its most important tenets.
Luther insisted that the doctrine of sola fide (Latin for “faith alone”), formed the bedrock of the Gospel. The system that Rome had developed over 1500 years had morphed Christianity from a glorious Gospel of the Incarnate God taking our place on the cross and shedding His blood for the remission of sin to a man-made system that dispenses “grace” in return for human performance. Thus, man once again assumed ultimate responsibility for salvation.
Most Catholics who study their religion try to argue that they look to Christ as their only Savior. Now, largely taking cues from Pope Francis’ attempts toward ecumenical reconciliation, they insist that they also believe in justification by faith.
Yet faith, according to Catholic theology, requires human cooperation. Catholics believe that they receive “grace” as they observe various sacraments, such as confession and penance. These sacraments, as much as Catholics might insist otherwise, incorporate human effort into the acquisition of salvation. Furthermore, the Council of Trent (which convened from December 13, 1545 to December 4, 1563 to repudiate the teachings of Luther, Calvin and other Reformers) boldly condemned the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
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. ~~Council of Trent, Chapter XVI, Canon 9
Scripture, in contrast to Catholic doctrine, convinced Luther that Christians need nothing more than faith in the finished work of Christ for salvation. Critics of the Reformation either ignore this pointedly or don’t understand it, often asserting that the Reformers “started a new religion.” The 16th Century Reformers, however, simply recovered the Biblical teaching on this matter.
To demonstrate that the concept of sola fide comes directly from the Word of God, allow me to take you back to the apostle Paul’s teaching on the subject. Paul’s letters very frequently repeat the theme of justification by faith alone, and his letter to the church in Rome (ironically) first offered Luther a taste of this liberating doctrine. The phrase, “The just shall live by faith” from Romans 1:17 set Luther free from his constant striving to secure salvation. I believe, however, that we need to look at Romans 3:21-26 for a glimpse of how justification by faith comes about.
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. For there is no distinction: 23 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. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 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. (ESV)
Paul’s letter to the Galatians further emphasized that human works could not add to Christ’s atoning work on the cross. False teachers had been advising the Christians in that region to become circumsised and adopt Jewish laws in order to really be saved. Paul rejected such teaching as another gospel.
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. ~~Galatians 2:15-16 (ESV)
The letter to the Galatians certainly applies to the question of whether or not the Catholic Sacraments are necessary for salvation. I wish I had time today to take you through that letter to help you understand how it applies. I hope, at a later date, to look at Galatians in detail, but for now I encourage you to read it for yourselves. I believe you’ll see the parallel between the situation in Galatia and the errors in the Roman Catholic Church that spurred Martin Luther to maker his stand.
As Luther learned, Christ made complete atonement for sin through His blood, requiring only that we trust in Him. Contrary to the Council of Trent’s declaration, the real damnation for professing Christians happens when we presume to augment His work on the cross with our own actions. 21st Century Christians absolutely must stand with the Biblical teaching that justification comes through faith alone, without any human cooperation. May we learn from Luther to cling to the witness of Scripture on this crucial teaching.
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