The doctrine of sola fide or “by faith alone” asserts God’s pardon for guilty sinners is granted to and received through faith, conceived as excluding all “works,” alone. All mankind, it is asserted, is fallen and sinful, under the curse of God, and incapable of saving itself from God’s wrath and curse. But God, on the basis of the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus), grants sinners judicial pardon, or justification, which is received solely through faith. Faith is seen as passive, merely receiving Christ and all his benefits, among which benefits are the active and passive righteousness of Jesus Christ. Christ’s righteousness, according to the followers of “sola fide,” is imputed (or attributed) by God to the believing sinner (as opposed to infused or imparted), so that the divine verdict and pardon of the believing sinner is based not upon anything in the sinner, nor even faith itself, but upon Jesus Christ and his righteousness alone, which are received through faith alone. Justification is by faith alone and is distinguished from the other graces of salvation. See the Protestant ordo salutis for more detail on the doctrine of salvation considered more broadly than justification by faith alone. What does the Catholic Church teach about this? Please read more.
Historic Protestantism (both Lutheran and Reformed) has held to sola-fide justification in opposition to Roman Catholicism especially, but also in opposition to significant aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy. Protestants exclude all human works (except the works of Jesus Christ, which form the basis of justification) from the legal verdict / pardon of justification. In the General Council of Trent the Catholic Church stated in canon XIV on justification that “If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema (excommunicated).” Thus, “faith alone” is foundational to Protestantism, and distinguishes it from other Christian denominations. According to Martin Luther, justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls.
From 1510 to 1520, Luther lectured on the Psalms, the books of Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians. As he studied these portions of the Bible, he came to view the use of terms such as penance and righteousness by the Roman Catholic Church in new ways. (See Romans 4:1-5, Galatians 3:1-7, and Genesis 15:6.) He became convinced that the church was corrupt in its ways and had lost sight of what he saw as several of the central truths of Christianity, the most important of which, for Luther, was the doctrine of justification—God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous—by faith alone through God’s grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God’s grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus.
“This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification,” insisted Martin Luther, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.” He also called this doctrine the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (“article of the standing and falling of the church”): “…if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls.”Lutherans follow Luther in this when they call this doctrine “the material principle” of theology in relation to the Bible, which is “the formal principle.” They believe justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s righteousness alone is the gospel, the core of the Christian faith around which all other Christian doctrines are centered and based.
Luther came to understand justification as entirely the work of God. When God’s righteousness is mentioned in the gospel, it is God’s action of declaring righteous the unrighteous sinner who has faith in Jesus Christ. The righteousness by which the person is justified (declared righteous) is not his own (theologically, proper righteousness) but that of another, Christ, (alien righteousness). “That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law,” said Luther. “Faith is that which brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ.” Thus faith, for Luther, is a gift from God, and “…a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.” This faith grasps Christ’s righteousness and appropriates it for the believer.
From a Catholic perspective, James 2:24 is remarkably clear: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Yet many Protestant denominations teach the opposite: They claim that we are “justified by faith alone”—saying good works are unnecessary for Christians in the process of justification.
This misconception is rooted in the misinterpretation of a few key texts, such as Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” Romans 4:5 is another: “And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” On the surface, St. Paul seems to be saying works are not necessary for our justification or salvation in any sense, but that is not the case when we examine the context of these passages. Not only would this interpretation contradict the words of James 2, but it would also contradict Paul himself.
Paul made very clear in Romans 2:6-8 that good works are necessary for attaining eternal life, at least for those capable of performing them: “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”
So what about the fact that Paul also said we are “justified by faith apart from works of law?” He was writing to a church in Rome struggling with a very prominent first-century heretical sect known today as the “Judaizers.” These heretics taught that belief in Christ and obedience to the New Covenant was not enough to be saved. A man also had to keep the Mosaic Law (which, according to Hebrews 7:11-12, has been superseded in Christ) and be circumcised in order to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1-2). Paul gave us one clue—among many—that he had this sect in mind when he wrote in Romans 2:28-29, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal . . . ” Paul told us in Colossians 2:11-12 that this true “circumcision of Christ” is baptism.
It is in this context that Paul says we are “justified by faith apart from works of law.” He did not in any sense say that works are unnecessary. He specified works of law because these were the works without which the Judaizers were claiming one “cannot be saved.”
The Catholic Church has never taught we “earn” our salvation. It is an inheritance (Galatians 5:21), freely given to anyone who becomes a child of God (1 John 3:1), so long as they remain that way (John 15:1-11). You can’t earn it but you can lose the free gift given from the Father (James 1:17).
While there are what seem to be endless resources that have attempted to address this subject matter, this issue seems to build on our previous week’s discussion about sola scriptura. We should constantly be asking the question “What is the truth?” As Catholics we can be assured of authentic and truthful interpretation of scripture when we read it with the understanding and context supported by over two thousand years of teaching handed down through apostolic succession (the magisterium) and with the protection of the Holy Spirit. For truth to be truth there can be only one. We can’t both be “right” with this. The choice is to believe the Church and its teaching about this going back to the time of the apostles or to accept the teaching of a man who wanted to “protest” the Church’s teaching with a different interpretation of scripture and going so far as to add the word “alone” to the bible. We all have to decide. With a bit of study and logic, hopefully the choice is clear.