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The Sixteenth Century Debates on Justification


In 1517 a monk in Germany nailed a document to a church door. There was nothing unusual about this since it was the common practice to use the church door as a bulletin board. Issues for debate were often nailed to the church door. However, the hammer blows that sounded that day reverberated throughout Europe. That monk was Martin Luther and the document he nailed to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg was his Ninety-five Theses. Luther invited the Wittenberg University students and faculty to a public debate regarding the university’s position on the sale of letters of indulgence: “Out of love and zeal for the elucidation of truth, the following theses will be debated at Wittenberg, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, presiding. He begs that those who cannot be present at the oral discussion will communicate their views in writing. In the name of Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”1

Simply stated, an indulgence was a way in which a person could purchase merit before God, the idea being that one could ultimately gain enough merit before God to enter heaven. Luther’s invitation to debate was followed by ninety-five points in which Luther challenged the practice of selling indulgences and set forth the New Testament message that salvation only comes through faith in Christ. Luther’s timing was strategic. He posted his challenge to the sale of indulgences on the eve of All Saints’ Day. The Castle Church at Wittenberg possessed almost 18,000 so-called sacred relics containing such absurd items as a twig from Moses’ burning bush, five particles of the milk of the Virgin Mary, four pieces of the hair of Mary, three pieces of the shirt of Mary, one piece of the straw on which the Lord lay when he was born, and a thorn from Jesus’ crown of thorns.2 By viewing these relics and making the proper prayers, it was said that one could cancel out 1,902,202 years in purgatory.3 Each year, on the Day of All Saints, the church was visited by thousands of pilgrims. They traveled to Wittenberg in order to pray before these special relics and earn the many years worth of indulgence before God. On November 1, 1517, however, as pilgrims entered the Castle Church, they read the Ninety-Five Theses which were questioning the very purpose of their pilgrimage. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, in accordance with the teaching of the Bible, said that forgiveness is free through faith in Christ and that viewing religious relics had nothing to do with salvation. The Ninety-Five Theses were printed and circulated throughout Europe. Within one month, the content of the Theses was broadly known and there was intense interest in the outcome of the debate. Historically, this event touched off the Protestant Reformation as well as signaled the beginning of the most intense theological debate in Church history.

In the debates which followed the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, two primary issues emerged as the principle issues of the controversy: justification by faith alone (sola fide) and the axiom that the Scriptures alone were the basis of authority for the Church and the believer (sola scriptura). As Luther and later Reformers debated how a person was justified before God, their opponents brought up papal decrees, church councils, and the tradition of the church to refute the Reformation positions. This raised the question of theological authority. Were the Scriptures the sole authority for the formation of doctrine or did authority rest in the Scriptures and the tradition of the church? The Reformers insisted that only the Scriptures were the sole authority, not papal decrees, church councils, or church tradition. In regard to justification, the Reformers insisted that justification is a forensic or legal declaration of God by which the believer’s sins are forgiven and he is accepted as righteous before God. The basis of this legal declaration is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness which is received by faith alone. The instrumental cause of justification is faith; faith is the instrument or means by which we are united to Christ.

The primary theological response of the Roman Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation was the Council of Trent. This council had three main sessions, spread over eighteen years, with long interruptions because of war, plague, and politics. The first session met from 1545 to 1547; the second from 1551 to 1552; the third from 1562 to 1563. While the council established certain reforms concerning the selling of church offices and ecclesiastical politics, its main work was formally to repudiate the Protestant positions and affirm the Roman Catholic positions concerning the doctrines of salvation and the authority of the church. Historians Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank Turner state: “Not a single doctrinal concession was made to the Protestants, however. In the face of Protestant criticism the Council of Trent gave a ringing reaffirmation to the traditional Scholastic education of the clergy; the role of good works in man’s salvation; the authority of tradition; the seven sacraments; transubstantiation; the withholding of the Eucharistic cup from the laity; clerical celibacy; the reality of purgatory; the veneration of saints, relics, and sacred images; and the granting of letters of indulgence”4

Trent set forth the Roman Catholic view of justification and placed the anathema or condemnation of God upon anyone who held a different position. The council did affirm the necessity of grace for salvation; it had a concern to avoid the heresies of Pelagius who had been condemned as a heretic in A. D. 418 for denying the necessity of grace and the imputation of Adam’s sin to the race. The debate centers on how that grace is applied to the Christian. Among other points, the council addressed the key points of the Reformed concept of justification: faith alone (sola fide), the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, forensic or judicial justification, and the relationship of works and justification. The issues of this debate and conflict continue to this day. Therefore, it is important to have a clear understanding of the points of difference between the Roman Catholic concept and the Protestant concept of justification. Having a clear understanding of these debate points also helps bring a deeper understanding of the biblical teaching concerning justification by faith alone.

SOLA FIDE – FAITH ALONE

The Council of Trent set forth its position on justification in its Sixth Session (January, 1547). This Session confessed its views with sixteen chapters and thirty-three canons of anathemas. Robert Reymond summarizes the work of this session:

Chapters one through nine stress humankind’s incapacity to save itself but confirm the necessity for the cooperation of human free will, including the resolve to receive the sacrament of baptism and to begin a new life. Chapters ten through thirteen affirm that justifying grace may be increased through obedience to God’s commandments and deny that predestination to salvation can be known with certainty. Chapters fourteen through sixteen declare that justifying grace is forfeited by infidelity or by other grievous sins and must be recovered through the sacrament of penance, and that salvation is given to the justified person not only as a gift but also as reward since he has meritoriously fulfilled God’s law by good works performed in a state of grace.5

Trent affirmed that faith was necessary for justification: “But when the Apostle says that man is justified by faith and freely, these words are to be understood in that sense in which the uninterrupted unanimity of the Catholic Church had held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, ‘without which it is impossible to please God’ (Heb. 11:6) and to come to the fellowship of His sons. . . .”6 Trent acknowledged that faith was a necessary part of justification; it was at least the beginning, foundation, and root of justification. What is important to note is that the word alone is excluded; Rome will acknowledge that justification is by faith, but not by faith alone. In fact, Trent emphatically denied that justification is by faith alone:

Against the subtle wits of some also, who “by pleasing speeches and good words seduce the hearts of the innocent” (Rom. 16:18), it must be maintained that the grace of justification once received is lost not only by infidelity, whereby also faith itself is lost, but also by every other mortal sin, though in this case faith is not lost; thus defending the teaching of the divine law which excludes from the kingdom of God not only unbelievers, but also the faithful [who are] “fornicators, adulterers, effeminate, liers with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, railers, extortioners” (1 Cor. 6:9f.; 1 Tim. 1:9f.), and all others who commit deadly sins, from which with the help of divine grace they can refrain, and on account of which they are cut off from the grace of Christ.7

R. C. Sproul comments on this statement:

Trent indicates that the grace of justification can be lost in two ways. The first is by infidelity, in which case faith is lost and justification with it. The second and more significant way is by mortal sin, in which case one may have faith but lose justification. If it is possible to have true faith but not have justification, then it is clear, by resistless logic, that justification is not by faith alone. Again it is arguable whether such faith would be considered true faith by the Reformers. Yet it is considered true faith by Rome, and this faith does not include justification.8

The critical point of sola fide is that we are justified by faith in Christ alone and not by faith plus works. The Council of Trent affirmed that grace and faith are involved in justification, but that justification is not by grace alone and faith alone. The Council ruled: “If anyone says that the justice [righteousness] received is not preserved and also not increased before God by good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not a cause of its increase, let him be anathema.”9 Therefore, Rome holds that works are necessary for a person to be justified.

Another important point concerning the difference between the Reformers and Rome is how each used and understood the term “by” (per). The Protestant and biblical view of justification by faith alone considers faith as the instrumental cause of justification. Christ’s righteousness or perfect obedience to the law of God is the basis of our justification and that righteousness is imputed by faith alone. Faith is the instrument by which the believer is brought into spiritual union with Christ. Rome does not use the term “by” in the same way. Rome holds the position that baptism is the first instrumental cause of justification. The grace received in baptism may be lost and so a second instrumental cause is needed. The second cause is the sacrament of penance. Trent stated:

Those who through sin have forfeited the received grace of justification, can again be justified when, moved by God, they exert themselves to obtain through the sacrament of penance the recovery, by the merits of Christ, the grace lost. For this manner of justification is restoration for those fallen, which the holy Fathers have aptly called a second plank after the shipwreck of grace is lost (Trent, session 6, chapt. 14).10

The formula for justification that Trent avows is: faith plus works begins a process that leads to justification. The Council clearly repudiated the concept of sola fide or faith alone. It states in its Sixth Session, Chapter XVI on the fruits of justification:

. . . to those who work well unto the end and trust in God, eternal life is to be offered, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Christ Jesus, and as a reward promised by God himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits. . . nothing further is wanting those justified [in Rome’s concept of the word] to prevent them from being considered to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to truly merited eternal life.

Notice that eternal life is said to be a reward “given to their good works and merits” and it is the person’s own “good works” which merit eternal life. After presenting its views on justification with sixteen chapters, this session set forth thirty-three canons of anathemas. When Trent used the phrase, “let him be anathema,” it echoed Paul’s statement in Galatians 1:8, 9 that if anyone preached a different gospel, let them be anathema. In the view of the Council of Trent, anyone who taught that justification was by faith alone was under the condemnation and curse of God. Trent pronounced that the biblical position of justification by faith alone was “another gospel” which was under the curse of God. The Roman Catholic position is that, while faith is involved in justification, it is not the instrumental cause of justification and justification is not by faith alone. This is a direct contradiction of the biblical teaching concerning justification by faith alone: “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of Works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:27,28).

A sample of these canons shows clearly the Roman Catholic position on justification:

If anyone says that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to mean that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.11

If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice [righteousness] of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.12

If anyone says that justifying faith in nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.13

If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase in glory, let him be anathema.14

Robert Reymond writes:

The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing the Council of Trent (Sixth Session, Chapter VII), declares: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (paragraph 1989, emphasis supplied). Clearly, Rome declares by these statements that the Christian’s faith in Jesus Christ plus his life of meritorious works leads to his justification before God, a justification, by the way, that is never complete in this life.15

THE IMPUTATION OF CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS AND FORENSIC JUSTIFICATION

A second essential difference between the Reformation position of justification and the Roman Catholic position is the issue of imputed versus infused righteousness. Rome holds the position that in the process of justification, Christ’s righteousness is infused into the believer. The believer is not yet justified in the sight of God, but begins a process of growth in righteousness where, hopefully, he will reach a point of personal righteousness that is sufficient enough for God to declare him justified. Therefore, Rome holds that justification includes a process of sanctification. Trent stated that justification is “not a remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts by which an unrighteous man becomes righteous.”16 Trent emphasized this process concept in the affirmation that it is a lifelong process that even extends after this life. Purgatory is part of the mechanism by which a person continues the process of becoming righteous:

If anyone says that the guilt is remitted to every penitent sinner after the grace of justification has been received, and that the debt of eternal punishment is so blotted out that there remains no debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world or the next in purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened – let him be anathema.17

The Reformation view is one of imputed or credited righteousness. Rather than an infused righteousness which makes justification possible if the believer assents and cooperates (assentire et cooperare) with the grace given, the Reformed position is that Christ’s perfect obedience to the law of God is credited to the believer. The believer is then declared righteous in the sight of God because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to him and received by faith alone. John Calvin argues that since God is just and holy, no one can be accepted before him unless they are perfectly just and holy:

He is said to be justified in God’s sight who is both reckoned righteous in God’s judgment and has been accepted on account of his righteousness. Indeed, as iniquity is abominable to God, so no sinner can find favor in his eyes in so far as he is a sinner and so long as he is reckoned as such. Accordingly, wherever there is sin, there also the wrath and vengeance of God show themselves.18

After making this statement that only perfect righteousness will bring the judgment of God that a person is justified, Calvin continues his consideration of justification:

. . . therefore, he in whose life that purity and holiness will be found which deserves a testimony of righteousness before God’s throne will be said to be justified by works, or else he who, by the wholeness of his works, can meet and satisfy God’s judgment. On the contrary, justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man. Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.19

Calvin states that ultimately there are only two ways for a person to be justified before God: by his own works or Christ’s works. The first way is to be perfectly holy and righteous in one’s life. If a person keeps every nuance of the law of God both externally and internally and, therefore, is without sin and positively righteous, he will be declared justified before God. Since all men are sinners both in the imputation of Adam’s sin and in personal sins, no one can be justified in this way. The second way is to be justified by Christ’s works receiving by faith Christ’s perfect obedience to the law of God: Christ’s righteousness. Therefore, for Calvin, God only declares a person righteous if they actually possess righteousness. The Roman Catholic view is that the individual must possess righteousness inherently in himself; the Reformed position is that the believer possesses righteousness by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. This is exactly the position that Paul sets forth in Romans 4:2-6:

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works. . . .

When a person believes in Christ, God declares him as just because of Christ’s righteousness reckoned or imputed to him. God declares him as just as if he were just even though he is not inherently just or righteous; the believer is counted as righteous because of Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to him. This is how God can “justify the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). Martin Luther had a phrase to describe this idea: simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously just and sinner). We are justified before God because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us while at the same time sin still remains in us; sin, however, does not dominate or rule over us. Based upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, God legally or forensically declares the believer justified. It is at this point that Rome calls the imputation of Christ’s righteousness a legal fiction. Rome attacks the Reformation position in claiming that this concept has God engaging in a false declaration. Rome claims that the Reformed position has God declaring people just and righteous who are not inherently just and righteous. The Reformed response to this attack is to point out that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a real imputation of the real righteousness of Christ. When God declares the believer as justified in his sight it is based on this real imputation.

WORKS AND JUSTIFICATION

A significant aspect of the debate over justification centers on the relationship of works and justification. The Reformation position is that we are justified by faith alone, but never by a faith that is alone. True saving faith is a living faith that produces good works. The Roman Catholic view of justification is: faith plus works equals justification. The Reformation view is faith alone equals justification plus works. The Roman Catholic view sees works as a necessary condition for justification; the Reformation view sees works as a fruit of justification. As mentioned before in our discussion of sola fide, Trent made this position clear: “If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.”20 In this canon, Trent affirms that a person is not justified by faith alone, but that works are an absolutely necessary precondition for justification. Again, this position is in diametric opposition to the biblical teaching concerning justification.

In the debates of the sixteenth century, Rome argued that if people believed they could be justified by faith alone, then they would not have any desire to do good works. The Reformers insisted that saving faith was a living faith and that good works were a necessary fruit of justification. John Calvin, in his Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto wrote:

This calumny, which our opponents have ever in their mouths, viz., that we take away the desire of well-doing from the Christian life by recommending gratuitous righteousness, is too frivolous to give us much concern. We deny that good works have any share in justification, but claim full authority for them in the lives of the righteous. For if he who has obtained justification possesses Christ, and at the same time, Christ never is where His Spirit is not, it is obvious that gratuitous righteousness is necessarily connected with regeneration. Therefore, if you would understand how inseparable faith and works are, look to Christ, who, as the Apostle teaches (1 Cor. 1:30) has been given to us for justification and for sanctification. Wherever, therefore, that righteousness of faith, which we maintain to be gratuitous, is, there too Christ is, and where Christ is, there too is the Spirit of holiness, who regenerates the soul to newness of life. On the contrary, where zeal for integrity and holiness is not in vigor, there neither is the Spirit of Christ nor Christ Himself; and wherever Christ is not, there is no righteousness, nay there is no faith; for faith cannot apprehend Christ for righteousness without the Spirit of sanctification.21

Calvin makes the Reformed position clear. We are justified by faith alone; good works do not contribute to our justification. However, true saving faith will produce newness of life and good works. Calvin contends that justification will always be followed by sanctification. In the study of specific aspects of each of these doctrines, it is necessary to distinguish them, but they are never to be separated from each other.

THE CONTINUING POWER OF TRENT

The question that emerges from the previous examination is: Are the views of the Council of Trent still binding on the Roman Catholic Church? Does Rome still hold the positions set forth in this sixteenth century council? Chapter 16 of Trent ends with a strong declaration:

After this Catholic doctrine of justification, which whosoever does not faithfully and firmly accept cannot be justified, it seemed good to the holy council to add these canons, that all may know not only what they must hold and follow, but also what to avoid and shun.22

The canons which follow each end with the statement that if anyone does not affirm the position set forth “let him be anathema” or under the curse of God. The decrees of Trent do not simply reflect the opinion of the sixteenth century Roman Catholic Church; all subsequent Roman Catholic councils and popes have affirmed the positions set forth at Trent. Robert Reymond writes:

Lest one conclude that Rome does not take Trent’s deliverances seriously anymore, he should consider the following citation from from the 1994 publication, the Catechism of the Catholic Church: citing the Council of Trent (Sixth Session, Chapter VII, 1547), it declares: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (para. 1992, emphasis supplied). It also states: “Justification is conferred in Baptism” and by it God “makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy” (para. 1992, emphasis supplied). This catechetical deliverance and the following statement of Pope John Paul II, made in his 1995 address commemorating the 450th anniversary of the Council of Trent, should be sufficient to demonstrate that Rome does indeed still espouse Trent’s teaching on justification: Thus, with the Decree of Justification – one of the most valuable achievements for the formulation of Catholic doctrine – the Council intended to safeguard the role assigned by Christ to the Church and her sacraments in the process of sinful man’s justification.”23

The Second Vatican Council, which met in the early 1960s declared the doctrines of Trent “irreformable.” R. C. Sproul comments on the difficulty Rome has in changing or modifying prior theological positions:

Despite confessional positions, theologians continue to debate doctrines that were supposedly ‘settled’ by earlier historical decisions. Within Protestantism such ongoing dispute reflects the precept of semper reformanda, ‘always reforming’ and correcting past errors. Protestant creeds are not hampered by a commitment to any form of ecclesiastical infallibility. On the other hand Rome, with her infallibility decree at Vatican I and in Pastor aeternus (1870), has a bigger problem with introducing change into dogmatic formulations. Though some sort of change may be introduced, the change may not be construed as a ‘correction’ of former error. Here Rome suffers from a kind of theological hemophilia – scratch her and she bleeds to death.24

R. C. Sproul also states concerning any correction of the Council of Trent:

Rome can indeed develop the views expressed at Trent. What it cannot do without radically altering its view of itself is repudiate or “correct” Trent. Those who look for such a repudiation, or who think they have already found it, are whistling in the dark.25

Rome’s views concerning justification, as set forth by the Council of Trent have not changed since the sixteenth century. Trent’s rejection of sola fide, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and the forensic nature of justification is still the position of the present Roman Catholic Church.

PLURALISM, RELATIVISM, AND THEOLOGY

The United States has been described as a pluralistic society. Sometimes it is called the great melting pot in which people from various ethic and national backgrounds live together and, hopefully, work together to create a fair and harmonious culture. However, our present culture takes pluralism to a new level. Not only are we pluralistic in terms of ethnicity, but it is popular to speak of a pluralism of truth. It is said that truth is relativistic or pluralistic. Therefore, no one can claim any ultimate truth. The worst heresy in our culture is to claim authoritatively that something is true and its opposite is false. This principle is also applied to theological debate. As a pastor, I have had people say to me concerning opposing theological positions, “They’re both right.” They both could be wrong, but opposite positions cannot both be right at the same time and in the same relationship. That violates the fundamental law of non-contradiction (A cannot be A and non A at the same time in the same relationship). While our country tolerates all religions, that does not make all theological views or religious opinions equally valid before God. The Christian is bound to the teaching of Scripture and when the Scriptures are clear, the matter is settled. The Bible teaches a unified system of truth; it does not contradict itself or contain antinomy in its presentation of truth. Therefore, two opposing theological positions cannot both be right.

ONLY ONE GOSPEL

In the opening chapter of the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul argued vehemently that there is only one gospel. He was deeply concerned and distressed that false teachers were corrupting the message of salvation, the message of justification by faith alone:

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ (Galatians 1:6-10).

False teachers had come into the region of Galatia and were teaching that certain aspects of the ceremonial law, particularly circumcision and the dietary laws, were necessary for salvation. These false teachers, called the Judaizers, said that we are not justified by faith alone, but by faith plus law-keeping; the Judaizers taught a plan of salvation that mixed works and grace. Apparently, some of the people in the Galatian church were confused and were forsaking the truth of the gospel that they had received from Paul and were accepting the false teaching of the Judaizers. Paul first expresses astonishment that these people were forsaking the gospel; he is amazed that they were exchanging the message of God’s free mercy and grace for a message of bondage. He states that the false message that mixes works and grace is not the gospel; it is pure falsehood. After these expressions of astonishment, Paul gives the strongest and most serious rebuke in all of his writings. He states that even if he or an angel from heaven, should preach a message contrary to the gospel which the Galatians first heard, let him be accursed; let him be damned. Paul said that it did not matter who preached the false gospel, be it one of the apostles or the angel Gabriel or Michael coming from heaven itself, the false teachers are to be under the condemnation and curse of God. To emphasize this point, Paul said it again in verse 9: “As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” Paul does not have any trouble applying the law of non-contradiction to the message of the gospel. He strongly proclaimed that there is only one true gospel and any person, angel, group, or church that teaches a message contrary to the one true gospel is under the curse or anathema of God. This was a prominent consideration in the sixteenth century and present debates concerning justification. It should be a prominent consideration for the Christian today.

The Council of Trent came to its positions primarily because it used the tradition of the medieval church as the authority and interpretive principle for the Scriptures dealing with justification. The Council then condemned the Reformation position as heresy. In doing this, they believed they were protecting the gospel. In Trent’s canons, it echoed Paul’s statement in Galatians 1 that if anyone taught a false gospel, let him be accursed. R. C. Sproul writes concerning this:

Is sola fide essential to the gospel? The Reformers answered this question with a categorical affirmative. Rome answered with a categorical negative. Rome not only denied that sola fide is essential to the gospel, she denied it altogether. She declared it a pernicious heresy and put her emphatic and unambiguous anathema on it. It is to Rome’s credit, in my opinion, that she placed her anathema on what she believed to be a false and heretical gospel. If sola fide is a distortion of the biblical gospel, surely it deserves such anathema. If the Reformers were preaching and teaching a false gospel, then they were apostates and deserved the labels put on them by Vatican I: “schismatics and heretics. . . .” If, on the other hand, sola fide is the very essence of the gospel, then in her misguided zeal Rome condemned the gospel. If the true gospel is condemned after careful deliberation, then that condemnation, intentional or not, is an act of apostasy.26

Dr. Sproul aptly applies the law of non-contradiction to the debate on justification. Both sides cannot be right. If Rome is right, then the Reformation position is false and heretical and churches holding that position are apostate churches. If the Reformation position is right, then the position of Rome is false and heretical and it is an apostate church. Robert Reymond, in his book, The Reformation’s Conflict With Rome – Why It Must Continue, after commenting on these issues of justification writes:

I know that some readers will bristle at and be put off by my last remarks as being not only highly judgmental and irrational but also unbridled stridency and serious error since, they would remind me, the pope and the Roman Catholic faithful regularly confess their faith using the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed. This observation is true enough, and I commend Rome for revering these early Creeds as valiant efforts to state and to protect the full unabridged deity of Jesus Christ and thus the triune character of the one living and true God. But what is overlooked is that these early creeds are not evangelical creeds, that is, creeds explicating soteric matters. As I just intimated, they were framed in the context of the Trinitarian and Christological debates in the fourth and fifth centuries and are sorely underdeveloped respecting and virtually silent on soteriological matters. As has been often pointed out, there is nothing in them that the Judaizers whom Paul confronted in his letter to the Galatians could not also have endorsed. Nevertheless, Paul condemned the Judaizers in the strongest terms possible because they were preaching “another gospel which is not another” when they corrupted the doctrine of justification by faith alone. . . . In order that I might make myself crystal clear here – and what I am about to say may shock the reader but I assure him that I do not say it for its shock value – I would contend that one can believe from his heart that every statement of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed is true and still be lost, if in order to be saved he is trusting to any degree in his own character, and/or if he believes that he must contribute at least some good works toward his salvation, and/or if he is trusting in Christ plus anyone or anything else.27

The issue of justification by faith alone is not an ambiguous teaching in the Bible; it is clear and set forth in a variety of ways in an abundance of passages in Scripture. After careful study, The Council of Trent repudiated the biblical teaching concerning how a person is justified before God. Trent repudiated the heart of the biblical gospel and substituted in its place a “false gospel.” When they placed their anathema on anyone teaching the biblical doctrine, citing Galatians 1, they placed themselves under the anathema of God. While we recognize that there may be individuals in the Roman Catholic Church who believe the biblical gospel, Rome still holds, as its official position, Trent’s renunciation of justification by faith alone and substitutes a doctrine that mixes works and grace. The Christian world is still waiting for Rome to repent.

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Works Cited

1 Martin Luther, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (St. Louis: Concordia, 1983), 11.
2 Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1978), 47-49.
3 Clyde L. Manschreck, ed., A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church, Vol. 2, The Church from the Reformation to the Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1981), 5.
4 Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, Frank M. Turner, The Western Heritage to 1715 (New York: MacMillian Publishing Co., 1979), 389.
5 Robert L. Reymond, The Reformation’s Conflict With Rome: Why It Must Continue (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), 12, fn. 2.
6 Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: Original Text with English Translation, trans. H. J. Schroeder (London: Herder, 1941), 34-35.
7 Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 40.
8 Sproul, Faith Alone, 123.
9 Trent, Session 6, Cannon 24, Cannons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 45.
10 Trent, Session 6, Chapt. XIV, Cannons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 39.
11 Trent, Session 6, Cannon 9.
12 Trent, Session 6, Cannon 11.
13 Trent, Session 6, Cannon 12.
14 Trent, Session 6, Cannon 32.
15 Reymond, The Reformation’s Conflict With Rome: Why It Must Continue, 14.
16 Trent, Session 6, Chapter VII.
17 Trent, Session 6, Cannon 30.
18 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.2.
19 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.2.
20 Trent, Session 6, Cannon 24, Cannon and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 45.
21 John Calvin, “Reply to Sadoleto” in The Protestant Reformation ed. by Hans J.Hillerbrand (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 163.
22 Cannons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 42.
23 Reymond, The Reformation’s Conflict With Rome: Why It Must Continue, 19, fn.12.
24 Sproul, Faith Alone, 117-118.
25 Sproul, Faith Alone, 121.
26 Sproul, Faith Alone, 178-179.
27 Reymond, The Reformation’s Conflict With Rome: Why It Must Continue, 125-126.


Next article in this series: The Connection between Faith and Works

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.