Justification by Faith Alone
If the formal cause of the Reformation was the restoration of Scriptural authority in the church (sola Scriptura), then the material cause of the Reformation was the recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone (sola fide).
During the Medieval period, the Roman Catholic Church taught that salvation was earned through participation in the seven Catholic sacraments, which infused grace into the individual. The Medieval Church had a saying that God “would not deny his grace to those who do what lies within their own power.” In other words, they taught that God saves those who help themselves.
In contrast, the New Testament declares that Christians are “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phi. 3:9). Martin Luther called this “alien righteousness,” the idea that God declares believers just from righteousness outside of themselves, that of Jesus Christ.
The Corruption of the Roman Catholic Church
Ecclesiastical corruption was rampant during the medieval Roman Catholic Church. They engaged in simony—selling powerful church offices to the highest bidder. Bishops and priests engaged in absenteeism, receiving a full salary but never showing up to minister to the people. Immorality was disgustingly common, most notoriously Pope Alexander VI (1431 – 1503), who had ten illegitimate children. Then there was the greed and materialism: Acquiring lots of lands and then renting it out at high prices, charging fees for confession, baptism, and indulgences.
Luther was incensed when he saw Johann Tetzel peddling indulgences. Tetzel traveled around the Holy Roman Empire selling indulgences to knock years off purgatory for dead relatives. The effect was that uneducated peasants thought they were purchasing salvation for their dearly departed. The real intention of indulgences, however, was to raise money for more church building projects. Tetzel’s sales jingle illustrates the absurdity of it all, “As soon as the coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs.” In Luther’s ninety-five theses, he puts indulgences in his cross-hairs. Thesis #27, “There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of purgatory immediately when the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.” Thesis #32, “All those who believe themselves certain of their own salvation by means of letters of indulgence, will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”
Declared Right with God by Faith in Christ Alone
Justification deals not just with the question of how can people be right with God, but how can sinful people be right with a holy God? Psalm 130:3 frames the problem this way, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” The answer: Apart from Christ, no one could stand no matter how many indulgences are purchased.
Romans 3:23-26 says, “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.”
And so it is that justification by faith is where God declares a believer just because the righteousness of Christ is counted to their account. Faith is the instrument by which Christ’s perfect righteousness is counted to sinners. People don’t earn God’s forgiveness. Christ earned it for them. It is the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone in Christ alone, which remains as the central affirmation of the Reformation.
Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.