For 1-1/2 chapters at the beginning of Romans, Paul repeatedly emphasizes the doctrine of justification by grace alone (3:24) through faith alone (3:25, 28). Justification is not received through any kind of good works (4:1-8), though circumcision or physical heritage (4:9-12), or through obedience to the Law (4:13-16). It is by grace alone and through faith alone.
And Paul further demonstrates that faith is the mechanism through which justification is received not only in his day, but in the Old Testament as well — beginning with Abraham (4:1-5) and including David (4:6-8). And that OT justification is received in the same way by NT believers as well (4:12, 16, 24-25).
Is all this talk about justification through faith alone too much? Has Paul gone to an extreme to make his point? Isn’t it widely accepted that justification is through faith alone? No, it’s not too much and Paul hasn’t gone to an extreme and justification through faith alone is not widely accepted. The tendency in Paul’s day was to appeal to works for salvation and the tendency in our day is the same. Because of its tendency toward pride, the human heart is always inclined to depend on one’s own achievements for justification and to reject the necessity of Christ’s work.
Every religious system apart from the true gospel depends in some way on the individual’s merit for salvation, but perhaps no system has codified and attempted to defend justification by personal merit as much as Roman Catholicism.
The difficulty of discerning the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that it blends some measure of truth with falsehood. And so it is with the relationship between justification and faith. Consider for instance what the Council of Trent (the Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation that met periodically for almost 20 years in the mid-sixteenth century) says:
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 has held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God.…
If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.…
If anyone says that without the predisposing inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without His help, man can believe, hope, love, or be repentant as he ought, so that the grace of justification may be bestowed upon him, let him be anathema. [my emphasis]
Those sound like true statements; so does Roman Catholicism embrace an evangelical understanding of salvation by grace alone through faith alone? Are we spiritually related brothers because of a common theology?
A more careful reading of the Counsel of Trent would answer, “No.” For while Trent affirms that justification is begun by faith, it also says that justification is not by faith alone:
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone meaning 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.…
If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of 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.
Those two statements affirm that the members of the Counsel of Trent understood clearly what the Reformers taught and they were directly rejecting and repudiating the reformation doctrine of justification through faith alone.
In part that rejection was because the framers of Trent also say that grace is not by faith alone because grace is dispensed by the sacraments:
If anyone says that by the said sacraments…grace is not conferred through the work worked but [says] that faith alone in the divine promises is sufficient for the obtaining of grace, let him be anathema.…
This same teaching has been reaffirmed in the recent (1994) Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. The Holy Spirit is the master of the interior life. By giving birth to the “inner man,” justification entails the sanctification of his whole being.
In other words, the sacraments are the means of justification and even of sanctification, not faith alone; in fact, faith alone is inadequate to produce justification.
Further, Trent argues that justification is a life-long process (even into the afterlife, in so-called purgatory), not an event in which God secures and keeps the believer for all eternity:
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 in the next purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened — let him be anathema.
And lest the reader misunderstand, Trent also adamantly denies that justification is imputed to the believer. That is, Trent denies that the believer is accounted to be righteous (or, declared righteous), saying instead that the believer is infused with righteousness (actually made righteous, so that he does things that please the Lord in a manner that results in a meritorious final justification at the end of life):
If anyone says that men are justified either by the imputation of righteousness of Christ alone, or by the remission of sins alone, to the exclusion of grace and love that is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit and is inherent in them; or even that they grace by which we are justified is only the favor of God — let him be anathema.
The Counsel of Trent could not be more clear in its rejection of the doctrine of justification through faith alone. The document of the Catholic Church asserts that man is justified by some form of his own meritorious work. So Paul has not gone to far in his argument. He has rightly expended much effort in explaining and affirming the doctrine of justification that comes by grace alone through faith alone in the work of Christ alone. It was an essential doctrine in Paul’s day and it is an essential doctrine in our day. So when one writer was asked, “how important is the doctrine of sola fide (faith alone)?” he answered, “How important is the gospel?” This was and is a gospel essential. If sola fide is lost, then the gospel is lost.