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Message # 2 | November 13, 2016


As we move through the Five Solas of the Reformation, we come to the doctrine of sola fide.  Martin Luther said of this doctrine, it is “the article by which the church stands or falls.” His pronouncement seems extreme, so for us to assess whether we agree we will need to better understand the meaning and differences between the Protestant and Catholic understanding of justification.

Historical Significance

The focus in this message is on how faith is the sole means by which one is justified. To accomplish this understanding, let us look at the progression from how our sins are pardoned to why indulgences were being sold.

The Romish doctrine of the pardon of sin.  The doctrine is divided into two parts. The first part involves the pardon of sin prior to water baptism and the second part involves the pardon of sin following one’s baptism. According to this doctrine, all sin (including original sin) committed prior to baptism is pardoned. On the other hand, the temporal punishment of all sins committed after baptism remained to be endured. Therefore, pardon of these sins was left to the confession of the penitent and the absolution offered by the priest.  If an individual did not accumulate sufficient pardon through these means, they would suffer in Purgatory until such pardon was accomplished. Therefore, this “pardon” of sin is no pardon at all and it

does not restore the sinner immediately to the favour and friendship of God,—it leaves him still exposed to . . . temporal, and even of purgatorial, suffering, and bound to submit to self-mortification and penance, in the vain hope of meeting the claims of that awful justice, which the blood of Christ had not fully satisfied, and of deserving that divine mercy which the merits of Christ had not fully secured![1]

The doctrine of personal merit. Pardon may have forgiven sin, but it did not result in merit. At this point, I may have been forgiven, but I still need to obey to produce personal righteousness and eternal merit.

The doctrine of Supererogation. Here’s the problem. If God’s acceptance of me is based on my own personal merit, I’m in trouble. Most of us will never live in a way that would merit heaven.  So then, what can we do? It was this logic and struggle that led to the teaching that the surplus merit by the saints could be accessed and dispensed to others. Imagine for a moment. Some people lived such amazing and righteous lives that when they died they bypassed purgatory and went straight to heaven. Yet, they had an access of good works – or an access of merit. The Roman church took it upon themselves to administer these access storehouses of good works and dispense these to others – for a cost of course.

The introduction to Indulgences. This fund of human merit would have been immensely valuable, therefore the Church was placed as the guardian of this storehouse. The papacy dispensed these stored up merits by means of indulgences. You could purchase pardon for yourself or even for someone else by purchasing an indulgence which transferred the merit from a saint to your account.

Martin Luther

The issue at hand for Martin Luther was the selling of indulgences. Eventually Luther worked back from the selling of indulgences to the root doctrinal issue – that being the issue of how one is justified. Are people justified solely by faith in the sufficient death of Christ or are people justified through the death of Christ and their penance and good works?

Luther personally struggled as he sensed the heavy weight of his own personal sin. “he had felt the burden of guilt on his conscience, and had been all but overwhelmed by despair of mercy.”  Not only did Luther sense the weight of his own sin, but he was aware of the weight of sin on all those he pastored. Indulgences were being sold to his people and impacting them in several different ways.  His people were “neglecting the penance he prescribed . . . and [these indulgences were] acting as an opiate on the conscience of the sinner.” Crassly put, I don’t need to repent of my sin or deal with my sin. I just paid to have them pardoned.

[H]is soul was stirred within him; for he felt that it was God’s pardon, and not man’s, that he needed for himself . . . [and] equally needed by every one of his penitents. . . . from that day forth, in the whole exercise of his ministry, whether by word or writing, he set himself to disprove the one, in the only effectual way, by explaining and establishing the other. Convinced that truth alone can expel error, just as light alone can expel darkness, he sought to bring home to the hearts and consciences of his people the simple but sublime truth, that ‘there is forgiveness with God’ through faith in the blood of Christ; and to make them feel that they had no need of any of those human inventions by which that truth had been obscured and corrupted in the Church of Rome.[2]

The Council of Trent

So then, at the root of sola fide was a wrong understanding of justification. To help us understand how the Catholic church understood justification, let me read for you part of the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent.

COT:  justification . . . is not merely the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man . . . whereby man from unjust becomes just . . . the instrumental cause, moreover, is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which justification never befel any man . . . For faith, unless to it be added hope and charity, neither unites [man] perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body. . . . neither is this to be asserted . . . that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone[3]

Simply put, justification, which is a renewal of the inward man, occurs at baptism. Faith must be accompanied by hope and charity because faith alone will not justify or pardon men. How then is this different from the Reformers views?

The Westminster Catechism

Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.[4]

How then is this different than the Catholic view? First, justification, in Catholic doctrine, is being made righteous, whereas the Reformers (along with Scripture) believe that justification is being declared righteous. In justification, God does not actually change the believer. He will through the process of regeneration and sanctification but not in justification. In justification, no actual change occurs within the sinner.  It is just a divine and legal action.  It changes our status only. Secondly, the means to obtain justification, for the Catholic church, is not just through faith but as well “hope and charity,” penance, and good deeds.

The Reformers had serious issue with this false doctrine. Their primary concern and issue was rooted in the fact that God expects perfect righteousness. He can accept nothing less than absolute perfection. Therefore no one is able to be declared righteous on any grounds other than perfect righteousness. And yet, since the fall of mankind in Adam and Eve no one has lived a perfectly righteous life other than Jesus Christ.

The Reformers argued, therefore, for a doctrine of double imputation . . . The doctrine of double imputation means that our sin is imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us (2 Cor. 5:21).[5]

The Catholic view coincides well with our inherent desire to have some part in our salvation. We don’t want to feel like we’ve added nothing to it.  Sadly, we want to earn what is freely given. Yet, how weak is God’s solution for our salvation if he requires our help to accomplish it. No. Salvation is in no way of us, but is completely and entirely by God’s grace, solely through the death of Jesus Christ and acquired through the means of faith alone.

Biblical Evidence

To truly wrestle with this doctrine, we could go to many passages. There are a number of passages that teach that our salvation (justification) comes only through faith in Jesus Christ.  We could also go to several passages that the Roman church would use in debating us, but due to the time available to us, we will only look at one this morning.

Ephesians 2:8–9 (ESV) For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Faith is the Conduit to God’s Grace

If God’s grace is the ground of salvation, then faith is the means by which it is appropriated. We often relegate faith to a human endeavor and to some degree rightly so. In the process of salvation, God extends grace, Christ is the one who died and paid for our pardon and gives us his righteousness.  What part do we have? We place our faith in Christ’s sufficient work. So then, faith is something that is done by us, but we are going to see in this passage even our personal faith is due to God’s magnificent grace.

Faith is a Gift from God

We’ve already established that grace is not of ourselves. God’s grace is his divine favor given to us.  We also know that salvation is not of ourselves. Therefore, is it fair to conclude that faith is as well not of ourselves? We know grace is a gift, and that salvation is a gift, therefore is faith a gift?

Verse 8 tells us that something is “not of ourselves” and that “it is a gift.”  To what is this referring? Some say grace, some say salvation, fewer say faith.  Neither of these phrases point back to faith or grace. Both faith and grace are feminine nouns and the word for it is in the neuter.

Let me explain by way of example. Consider the following statement, “She is a nice person, it does nice things for people.”  Would we not say that that statement does not seem to work well?  Why? Because where it says, “it does nice things for people” it should say, “she does nice things for people.”

In the same way, this verse uses feminine nouns and then a neuter word.  So then, if it doesn’t apply specifically to faith or specifically to grace what then does it apply to?  It refers to the whole work of salvation by grace through faith. Therefore, the whole work of salvation is a gift and it is not of yourselves.  Would it not then hold true that if the whole of salvation is a gift then its individual parts are as well a gift?

Grace is a gift. Romans 3:24 tells us that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Paul as well acknowledges that “grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph 4:7 Cf. Eph 3:7).

Faith is a gift. In Acts, Apollos is ministering to Ephesus. When Apollos goes to Achaia, “the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed” (Acts 18:27). Their belief is due to God’s grace. Paul as well acknowledges the fact that faith is a gift in Philippians 1:29, “(ESV) For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Let me simply emphasize in this verse that it has been granted to them to believe in him.  The ability to believe was a gift, it was granted to them.

We see in other passages, such as John 16:8-11, that faith is a result of the Holy Spirit’s conviction.  And, that faith is the direct result of God’s effectual drawing. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44 ESV).

Faith is an acceptance of Christ

Faith means to believe or have confidence, trust, or reliance on. You see here in the definition that faith appears to be synonymous with belief. Friberg’s Lexicon tells us that belief is “primarily an intellectual evaluation.” It refers to “having confidence in what is spoken or written.” But in the context of religious belief it as well carries the idea of a commitment to, faith in, or a reliance on God.[6]

Assent to the Truth. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists.” In this verse we see an example of mental assent. A person must simply mentally believe that God exists.  This is not the only element to saving faith or belief.

We must as well accept the Truth. Acceptance of truth goes a step further than mental assent. John 1:12 discusses how one becomes a child of God. It is limited to those “who believe in His name.” As John Paton, a missionary in the Pacific, was attempting to translate the word for believe, he struggled translating the inherent meaning of trust. He ended up with the following translation when the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” Paton translated their response as “Lean your whole weight upon the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.”

A huge crowd was watching the famous tightrope walker, Blondin, cross Niagara Falls one day in 1860. He crossed it numerous times—a 1,000 foot trip, 160 feet above the raging waters. He asked the crowd if they believed he could take one person across. All assented. Then he approached one man and asked him to get on his back and go with him. The man refused! Mental assent or even verbal assent is not real belief.[7]

In salvation, we must entirely rest in the truth of Christ and rest back or fall back in Him.  If we just stand there with the mindset that we know he’ll catch us, that is not true faith.  We must let our mental knowledge be expressed through resting in Christ. Let me caution you, you can go an entire lifetime knowing that salvation is offered but never accept it.

Current Importance

While our salvation is in no way dependent on our own works of righteousness, those who truly believe will do works of righteousness. These deeds though will be done not to garner God’s favor but out of gratitude for the favor we already possess from God. We will not be working so we can be saved, we will be working because we have been saved.



[1] James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and of Its Exposition from Scripture. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1867), 104.

[2] James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and of Its Exposition from Scripture. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1867), 102.

[3] Theodore Alois Buckley, The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (London: George Routledge and Co., 1851), 33-35.

[4] Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition (Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1851), 213–214. Question # 70.

[5] Keith Mathison, Top Five Books on the Five Solas: Sola Fide, ( Accessed November 1, 2016.

[6] Believe – pisteu,w (1) as primarily an intellectual evaluation believe; (a) w. what one is convinced of  added as an obj. believe (in), be convinced of (JN 11.26b); (b) as an evaluative orienter, using o[ti or the acc. and inf. believe  that (AC 9.26; 15.11); (c) as having confidence in what is spoken or written, using the dat. believe, give credence to, think to  be true (JN 2.22); (d) as having confidence in a pers., using the dat. believe, give credence to someone (MK 16.14); (2) as  primarily a relig. commitment, esp. w. God or Christ as the obj. of faith believe (in), trust; (a) w. the obj. in the dat. have faith  in, believe (AC 16.34); (b) esp. denoting the exercise of saving faith, w. the obj. expressed by using eivj or evpi, and the acc.  believe in or on (JN 3.16; AC 9.42); (c) as denoting relying on God for help have confidence, believe (MT 21.22); (3) as  committing someth. to someone entrust, trust (LU 16.11); pass. as having something committed to someone be entrusted with  (RO 3.2).

[7] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 185.

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