Justification by faith alone (sola fidei) was Martin Luther’s cry after he read Romans 1:17 and realized that God’s righteousness could become the sinner’s righteousness by faith alone. After he nailed his 95 thesis on October 31, 1517, his view was condemned by Rome and the Reformers equally condemned Rome’s view of justification.
After more than 400 years, on October 31 1999, in Augsburg, Germany, representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and of the Roman Catholic Church signed a Joint Declaration of Justification, disclaiming previous differences. As a result, “the corresponding doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century do not apply to today’s partner.“
This consensus presupposes that the Reformation was unnecessary; based on a “misunderstanding” on Luther’s part or that he was deceived to think he had found “sola fidei” in Scripture whereas the Catholic church had taught it all along.
But to the shame of the joint declarers, none of the condemnations Rome placed on Protestant beliefs has been removed till date. This is why Catholics still attack sola fidei (and sola scriptura) as a novel concoction by Luther – a notion refuted by the fact that other Reformers (Calvin, Zwingli, Denck, Hess, Propst, Voes etc) also stood for sola fidei. Sadly, many Christians today are not well informed of the issues behind the Reformation, thus they are ill-equipped to respond to the Catholic well-worn rhetoric.
Now, why is sola fidei so important? Because it provides the foundation of the bridge that reconciles God and man. Take this doctrine away and Christianity falls. If we allow this vital doctrine be discarded into the theological dung hill, the door to apostasy, legalism and ecumenism is opened.
The Declaration was a result of a 30 year dialogue between Lutheran and Catholic leaders. Yet when a jailer asked apostle Paul “what must I do to be saved?” He answered: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). It was that simple. He didn’t say “give me 30 years to explain it to you.”
If the Bible teaches justification by faith alone apart from human works of any kind, to water it down or reject it would be a perversion of the Biblical Gospel that saves.
Justification – What is it?
The Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology defines justification as “the declaring of a person to be just or righteous. It is a legal term signifying acquittal.” Another work defines it as “a divine act where God declares the sinner to be innocent of his sins.”
Note the Biblical usage of the term “justify”:
Deut. 25:1 “…that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked.”
Job 13:18 “Behold, now I have ordered my cause; I know that I shall be justified.”
Isa. 5:23 “Which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!”
From these and other passages, to justify implies to “declare,” “reckon” or “show to be righteous.” It doesn’t mean to make righteous. A man is justified before God when He reckons him righteous.
Justification involves 3 things: pardon from sin’s penalty, imputation of righteousness and a position of right-standing before God.
Since Adam’s fall from his position of right-standing before God, all of mankind stands guilty and condemned. “There is none righteous … For all have sinned” is God’s declaration (Rom 3:10, 23). Jesus had to come to pay sin’s penalty to remove this guilt so that man can be justified and “have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1).
To pardon means to forgive; to release a person from punishment or to acquit like when the death penalty was lifted from Barabbas as the guilty criminal and Jesus took his penalty (Lk 23:25). Or when Paul mediated with Philemon over Onesimus and asked him to put his debt to his own account (Phile. 1:18). This is what being justified means.
Jesus told a parable in which a sinful tax collector was placed in a better position spiritually than a praying Pharisee. The tax collector “went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14). The tax collector’s justification was an instantaneous reality.
There was no process, no time lapse, no flames of purgatory. The man only understood his own helplessness and knew he owed an impossible debt he could not pay. He did not recite what he had done, he only pleaded for divine mercy and looked to God to do for him what he could not do for himself. In essence, justification is based on what Christ – not man – has done.
II. Imputation of righteousness
When Adam sinned, his sin was imputed on the human race. “So death spread to everyone, because everyone sinned” (Rom 5:12). When Christ died at Calvary, the sin of the human race was “imputed” on Him (2 Cor 5:18-21). He died for our sins and rose again for our justification (Rom 4:24-25).
Jesus Christ spoke of a divine righteousness. “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20) “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).
A sinner is justified when he obtains this perfect righteousness – God’s righteousness – which exceeds that of the Pharisees, and stands before God as if he never sinned. When a person is justified, Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed to him and he receives it by faith (Romans 4:9-11).
III. A position of right standing before God
Justification is a divine judicial edict which changes our status. It doesn’t change our nature, but our position.
For example, when a pastor says to a man and woman at an altar “I now declare both of you husband and wife,” legally, they become married. Nothing inside them actually changes when those words are spoken, but their position or status before God, the law and everyone present changes.
When a jury reads his verdict in court, a defendant is no longer “the accused.” He either becomes guilty or innocent, depending on the verdict. His nature is not changed, but his position. So he is either imprisoned if guilty, or walks away free. This gives us a picture of justification.
A sinner who puts his faith in Christ’s work is pardoned and has Christ’s righteousness imputed to him. Thus, his position changes from that of a sinner under God’s wrath to that of acceptance and full privilege in Jesus Christ. He becomes freed from any charge of guilt because the merit of Christ is reckoned to his account (Rom 8:33).
When a person is justified:
(a) He is made a fellow heir with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
(b) He becomes God’s spiritually adopted child (Rom. 8:15).
(c) He is “united with the Lord” (1Cor 6:17).
(d) He is in Christ and Christ is in him (Gal 3:27; Col 1:27).
Faith Alone or Not Alone?
Roman Catholicism also teaches justification by grace through faith. But what is missing, however, is the word “alone.” By omitting this vital word, they re-define justification, grace and faith in a way that undermines what the Bible teaches on these subjects.
Rome declares : “If anyone saith that he who has fallen after baptism … is able to recover the justice which he has lost … by faith alone without the sacrament of Penance … let him be anathema” (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Ch. xiv, Can. xxix).
In Catholic theology, through baptism (often done at infancy), all sins are pardoned and the Catholic receives initial justification. This grace of justification which can be lost through mortal sin is restored through penance. Evidently, the work-based sacramental system of Rome blinds Catholics to justification by faith alone.
Baptism does not confer any grace, neither does the water have any cleansing power. An infant cannot understand the gospel “which is the power of God unto salvation to them that believe” (Rom. 1:16). An infant cannot choose whom to serve, let alone believe in Christ. Even if the recipient is an adult, his faith in physical objects – water, candles, chants, or incense – to impart grace, is misplaced and unscriptural.
Biblical faith “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith always involves what is unseen. It is no more faith to believe in something present in a visible form. Since grace and justification are invisible qualities, receiving them can only be by faith which is invisible. Faith reaches out to the unseen world of the spiritual and eternal.
In fact, the Christian Faith is not based “on the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.” Because “the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2Cor. 4:18). Grace, justification or salvation are eternal and invisible, and therefore are received only by faith – not by objects, ceremonies or rituals.
Another problem is that sacraments and rites have nothing to do with justice or punishment and therefore cannot pay for sin. No ritual can satisfy a court of law in paying the penalty prescribed for a major crime, let alone God’s infinite penalty. The sinner can either reach out in faith and receive God’s pardon offered in Christ or reject it and face the penalty.
The Council of Trent also says: “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” (Ch. xvi, Can. ix).
Catholicism teaches that justification is when an individual’s soul is being infused with grace through the sacraments which makes him righteous and enables him to perform good works. These works supposedly make him justified enough to merit eternal life. So in Catholicism, justification is a long process of the individual being made righteous in a moral sense.
But Scripture is clear that the grace of justification is not “infused” through sacraments; it is received by faith. No amount of works can justify (Gal. 2:16). “Therefore, it is of faith, that it might be by grace” (Rom. 4:16). If it’s by grace alone, then it’s also by faith alone.
“To the man who does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5) The justified one does not work; he trusts God, confesses his wickedness and his faith is credited as righteousness.
The tax collector in Jesus’ parable went away justified without performing any good works or ritual whatsoever because it was solely on the basis of his faith that he received a new status. Everything necessary to atone for his sin and provide forgiveness had already been done on his behalf. All he had to do was receive it by faith.
Catholics love to quote James 2:14 “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man says he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?“
James was writing to Christians – those who were already saved. There is an outworking of the grace received in justification evidenced by good works (1Tim. 6:18, Tit. 3:8, Eph. 2:10 etc). This is sanctification, which is distinct from justification. Catholics flog around this line because Rome confuses justification with sanctification without noting the distinctive between both:
1. In justification, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to the sinner’s account (Rom 4:11). But in sanctification, the righteousness is imparted to the sinner practically and personally. Justification is like being given a white Tuxedo coat to cover your stained shirt while sanctification is being given a good detergent to wash your shirt.
2. Justification changes a believer’s status or position (Rom. 5:1-2) while sanctification changes his nature and internal state.
3. Justification is an event while sanctification is a process. Though both are elements of salvation, (God doesn’t sanctify whom He doesn’t justify), we need to keep these distinctions in mind.
To muddle them up as Rome has done is to have a religious system where people trust their works in place of Christ’s work. This makes out justification as an incomplete process and thus there’s no assurance of salvation.
It is argued that Martin Luther added the word “allein” (alone) to Romans 3:28 in his German Bible translation by his own authority, to promote sola fidei. But Luther himself explained in his Open Letter on Translating, why he rendered the text this way:
“The text itself, and Saint Paul’s meaning, urgently require and demand it. For in that passage he is dealing with the main point of Christian doctrine … So, when all works are so completely rejected which must mean faith alone justifies – whoever would speak plainly and clearly about the rejection of works will have to say ‘Faith alone justifies and not works.’ The matter itself and the nature of the language requires it.“
There are Catholic New Testament versions also containing “alone” in Romans 3:28. The Nuremberg Bible (1483), Italian Bibles of Geneva and of Venice (1538) all had it. Luther’s translation was completed before the Council of Trent defined justification. By Catholic rule, if a doctrine is yet to be defined by an infallible council, one can disagree with it.
Luther also indicated where he got his authority: “Furthermore, I am not the only one, nor the first to say that faith alone makes one righteous. There was Ambrose, Augustine and many others who said it before me.“
Catholic scholar, Joseph Fritzmyer gave examples:
Augustine in De Fide et Operibus (22:40): “God’s commandments pertain to faith alone if it is not dead [faith], but rather understood as live faith which operates through love.”
Victorinus: “But only faith in Christ is salvation for us” (Pauli Ephesios 2.15-16)
Thomas Aquinas: “Therefore the hope of justification is not found in them [the moral and ceremonial requirements of the law], but in faith alone. Rom 3:28″ (Expositio in Timotheum cap. 1, lec. 3)
Ambrosiaster: “through faith alone they have been justified by a gift of God” (Romanos 3:24)
Bernard: “…is justified by faith alone” (Canticum serm. 27.8). Origen noted the same in his Commentary on Romans (cap. 3), as well as John Chrysostom (Hom. Titum 3:3) (Romans, A New Translation with Interpretation and Commentary, 1Yale University Press, 993, 360-361).
The Joint Declaration fraud notwithstanding, Rome still teaches a false gospel that is opposed to Scripture.