Critical to the Reformation was the recovery of the great doctrine of justification by faith. Martin Luther believed this doctrine was the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls. I will not assume that everyone understands the meaning of the word justification. But by justification, both Reformers and Catholics were referring to the act by which God granted sinners to enter into His favor.
The Disagreement Over Faith Alone
Protestants assert the Bible teaches that we are justified by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9) through Christ’s work alone (Galatians 2:21; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4) in faith alone (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:21-25). The Protestant Reformers believed all three of these elements were equally and necessarily true. We are saved by Christ alone because it is His obedience and substitutionary death, which is credited to us as “righteousness” (Romans 1:17; 5:18-19). We are saved by grace alone because all of Christ’s benefits are given to us as a “gift” apart from works. And finally, we receive the gift of Christ’s righteousness by faith alone.
The Catholic Church believed (and still maintains) that we are justified by six other key virtues in addition to faith. They include fear, hope, love, penitence, the sacraments, and a life of obedience.[i] In addition to faith, the Catholic Church taught that these six virtues were necessary for men to enter into the favor of God. The big problem with this doctrine, of course, is that there is no Scripture to support it whatsoever. The Bible never asserts that we are justified by fear, hope, love, penitence, the sacraments, or obedience.
Catholics like to point to James 2:24, where James asserts that we are justified by “faith and works”. But in the second chapter of James, he is not referring to the act of justification, but the assurance of justification. That is clear from James 2:14, where he asserts, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” Notice what James is addressing. James is concerned with those who claim to have saving faith, but exhibit no evidence of it in their lives. He asks specifically, “Can that faith save him?” James is not answering the question about how we are justified, but instead, teaching us about what type of faith justifies.
The Nature of Saving Faith
This leads to an important question, “What is justifying faith?” If faith is the instrument by which we are justified, then what does this faith consist of? Catholics and the Reformers could not even agree on this question. For Catholics taught that faith consisted of assent (assensus) and knowledge (notitia). Knowledge referred to the awareness of the truths of Christianity: Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Assent is the intellectual belief that these were indeed true. One must simply believe in her or his mind that Jesus is Lord and is risen from the dead. But Protestants did not believe that intellectual assent completely captured how the Bible referred to faith. They said that true faith trusted and placed its confidence in Christ himself. This was more than mere intellectual assent. This was trusting Christ as an act of the will (fiducia). This was the type of faith that Jesus demanded over and over again in the Gospels when He entreated His would-be disciples to “follow” Him (Luke 9:23; Luke 18:18-30). It was not enough to merely believe in Him with intellectual knowledge. But they must place all their confidence and trust in Him.
This Reformation and biblical idea of trust in Christ is beautifully preserved in Question 60 of the Heidelburg Catechism (1561). The question asks, “How are you righteous before God?” The following answer is given:
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. In spite of the fact that my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have not kept any of them, and that I am still ever prone to all that is evil, nevertheless, God, without any merit of my own, out of pure grace, grants me the benefits of the perfect expiation of Christ, imputing to me his righteousness and holiness as if I had never committed a single sin or had ever been sinful, having fulfilled myself all the obedience which Christ has carried out for me, if only I accept such favor with a trusting heart.[ii]
I love the last sentence of that answer. “If only I accept such favor with a trusting heart.” That is a true conversion. That is the essence of the Christian faith. Trusting Christ with all of our hearts as an act of the will.
Where Does Faith Come From?
I once heard a friend say that Christian faith was just like anything else. The faith we place in the sun to come up the next day. The faith we have that the news will be on at the television at night. Or as a religious comparison, the faith that Muslims have in Allah. But that understanding of Christian faith fails to understand not only what we have previously argued about faith being an act of the will, but it also misses the nature of our own depravity. Such faith cannot be conjured up by our enslaved souls. We must be regenerated and given new hearts in order to believe (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36). Left to ourselves, we are “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1-8). That is why faith is described as a “gift”. Morally speaking, we do not trust God. We do not believe God at His Word. We reject God, and we rebel against His desires. So the Holy Spirit must regenerate our hearts and wills so that we can exercise faith.
This is why when Nicodemus asks about being “born again”, Jesus answers him by pointing him to the work of the Holy Spirit. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Jesus’s response to Nicodemus is to point to the supernatural act of the Holy Spirit in giving the gift of new birth. This may seem disparaging but this means we cannot control who has saving faith. There are no human formulas to engineer faith. There are no “programs” or “strategies”, which are guaranteed success. No, the gift of faith is a work of the Holy Spirit, and we do not know where He “blows”. But we do know that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Therefore, our vigilance must be in gospel proclamation and articulation. That is our task in today’s world.
On this day, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is important that we remember these debates and the heroes who led in the Reformation. But more importantly, we should remember and champion the doctrines and truths, which they taught. That would be their desire, I am sure. And no truth is more important than the fact that we may be justified before God through simple, child-like faith. This is the truth of the gospel, which we must champion above all-else. If we do that, then we will have honored God and the Reformers well.
[i] William Cunningham, Historical Theology, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960), 60–61.
[ii] Mark A. Noll, ed., Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Vancouver, Canada: Regent College Publishing, 2004), 148.