At the time of the Reformation, the Catholic church had so corrupted the gospel that many man made requirements were necessary for one to be saved. Conveniently, a person needed the church for most of these requirements. For example, in addition to faith in Christ (see our previous article on Sola Fide here), the Catholic church taught that the sacraments were necessary for salvation. Of course, only the church could administer the sacraments. The seven sacraments identified by Rome were baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, penance, extreme unction, order, and matrimony (not that one needed to be married to be saved). Indeed, even God’s grace for salvation was believed to be imparted by the sacraments.
The Reformers rejected this, as we have seen in the previous Sola articles. As we said about Sola Fide, there is a large overlap with Solus Christus, for a person is saved by faith alone in Christ alone. Salvation is by faith alone apart from works, and it is also in Christ alone apart from works. The key question when it came to Christ alone was, “Is Christ sufficient for our salvation, or must we add something to His work?” The Catholic church said salvation was by Christ plus works, sacraments, etc. The Reformers said it was Christ alone.
(As an aside, the Catholic church actually teaches that people can be saved apart from Christ, through works alone. This is taught in the Catholic Catechism: “847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.” In the interest of brevity, compare this to Romans 1 and 3 (people exchange the truth of God for a lie, worship the creature rather than the Creator, no one seeks God, there is none righteous, etc.). By this logic, you’d be better off not preaching the gospel to remote jungle natives. If they reject the gospel they are damned; if they are ignorant, they have a chance. Such teaching is clearly un-Biblical. This is why it’s important to always look to Scripture alone.)
Man’s problem is that we are sinners, and are separated by sin from our Holy God. We cannot save ourselves; we need a Savior. Our savior needs to solve our problem on two levels. First, our sins must be punished, for God is a just God. Second, we must be perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect. How one believes this is accomplished determines whether a person has the true gospel or a false gospel.
Also as mentioned in the Sola Fide article, the Catholic church ironically accepts the teaching of original sin. This doctrine states that we are born sinners because of Adam’s sin. Adam was our representative, so to speak, and part of God’s curse was that all of Adam’s progeny would be fallen, or spiritually dead, just as Adam died when he ate of the fruit. The Catholic church accepts that our sins were punished in Jesus when He sacrificed Himself on the cross (sort of; more on this below). The irony is that although they accept that Adam’s sin was imputed, or credited, to all mankind, and that our sins were paid for by Christ, they strongly deny that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers. Instead, the official teaching of the Catholic church is that one must become inherently righteous by his own deeds, although those deeds are done with God’s help. They deny Christ’s righteousness alone is sufficient for the believer.
At the other end of the spectrum, Martin Luther had this to say about Christ and His righteousness: “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 a person is justified (declared righteous) is not his own but that of another, Christ.” This was a large part of the disagreement between Luther and the Catholic church, and was at the heart of the Reformation. This question remains incredibly important today. Who is right? We look to Scripture alone for the answer.
Before we do that, however, it’s useful to consider some of the Catholic church’s teachings on forgiveness of sins. Although they believe Christ paid the price for our sins, they do not accept that He paid the price for sins committed after baptism. For those sins, other means of forgiveness are necessary. We read this from the “infallible” Council of Trent, fourteenth session:
“If such, in all the regenerate, were their gratitude towards God, as that they constantly preserved the justice received in baptism by His bounty and grace; there would not have been need for another sacrament, besides that of baptism itself, to be instituted for the remission of sins. But because God, rich in mercy, knows our frame, He hath bestowed a remedy of life even on those who may, after baptism, have delivered themselves up to the servitude of sin and the power of the devil, --the sacrament to wit of Penance, by which the benefit of the death of Christ is applied to those who have fallen after baptism…. The Lord also said; Except you do penance, you shall also likewise perish; and Peter, the prince of the apostles, recommending penitence to sinners who were about to be initiated by baptism, said; Do penance, and be baptized every one you.”
Recall that the word penance is not in the original Greek of the New Testament. Rather, the word repent was mistranslated by Jerome into Latin in the Latin Vulgate Bible. Indeed, compare Luke 13:3 from the 1582 Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible (translated from the Latin Vulgate) to the newer (corrected), Catholic New American Bible: DR – “No, I say to you: but unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish.” NAB – “By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” So much for infallibility.
From the (also “infallible”) Catholic catechism (produced in 1994): “1493 One who desires to obtain reconciliation with God and with the Church, must confess to a priest all the unconfessed grave sins he remembers after having carefully examined his conscience. The confession of venial faults, without being necessary in itself, is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. 1494 The confessor proposes the performance of certain acts of "satisfaction" or "penance" to be performed by the penitent in order to repair the harm caused by sin and to re-establish habits befitting a disciple of Christ. 1495 Only priests who have received the faculty of absolving from the authority of the Church can forgive sins in the name of Christ.” (my emphasis added)
The Mass (or the Eucharist) is also considered necessary for the forgiveness of sins committed after baptism. Again, the Council of Trent: “And forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner [the wafer and the wine], who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy Synod teaches, that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid, if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different.” (my emphasis added)
With respect to becoming inherently righteous, the Catholic church teaches that this is a process, whereby our good works make us righteous over time. They teach that by Jesus infusing His virtue into believers, good works proceed from this, and we thereby make ourselves truly righteous. Here is what Trent teaches:
CANON XI.-If any one saith, 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 the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema. (my emphasis added)
CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.
CANON XX.-If any one saith, that the man who is justified and how perfect soever, is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church, but only to believe; as if indeed the Gospel were a bare and absolute promise of eternal life, without the condition of observing the commandments; let him be anathema. (my emphasis added)
CANON XXIV.-If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema. (my emphasis added)
CANON XXVI.-If any one saith, that the just ought not, for their good works done in God, to expect and hope for an eternal recompense from God, through His mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ, if so be that they persevere to the end in well doing and in keeping the divine commandments; let him be anathema. (my emphasis added)
CANON XXX.-If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.
CANON XXXII.-If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,-if so be, however, that he depart in grace,-and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema. (my emphasis added)
Against the backdrop of this teaching, we now look to Scripture to see whether the Catholic church is correct, or if the Reformers were correct.
First and foremost, if you are a believer in Christ, your understanding of what He accomplished on the cross is absolutely crucial. Did He merely wipe your slate clean after you were baptized, but now you must be absolutely perfect the rest of your life? If you do sin (and we all do), do you need to do penance, the Mass, etc. to be saved? If your answer to these questions is yes, then the gospel is no longer good news. Rather, it’s a curse, because you are now under the Law again, at least as far as the Catholic church is concerned.
Thankfully, Scripture gives us true good news. When Christ died on the cross, He uttered these words: “Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” (John 19:30) The Greek word for finished is teleo, which means “finished, accomplished, perform, execute, complete.”
What did Jesus finish, or accomplish? He accomplished the justice demanded by a Holy God, namely that sins must be atoned for with blood. Before Jesus, the Jews had the sacrifices of the Law, the blood of bulls and goats, which could never atone for sin, and therefore had to be continually repeated. But now, Christ finishes the sacrifice God demands for the propitiation of sins. If we say that Christ has not fully and finally accomplished this by His death on the cross, then, logically, His sacrifice was not sufficient.
Yet again, Scripture confirms that indeed His sacrifice was sufficient. Hebrews 10 makes this abundantly clear: “11 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And on their mind I will write them,” He then says, 17 “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” 18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (my emphasis added)
Under the Law, the sacrifices never took away sin, nor were they intended to do so. Rather, they pointed to Christ, they were a shadow of the cross. Christ’s sacrifice, however, was a once for all time sacrifice. If by His offering we are made perfect, how is it we must do penance? And why must Christ be continually sacrificed in the Mass if God says He will remember our sins no more? Indeed, the good news is that there is no longer any offering for sin! Christ alone was necessary to pay for our sins. If we add anything to this, we no longer have the true gospel (Galatians 1).
With respect to Christ’s sacrifice and the Catholic church, the Reformer John Calvin had this to say, “But the whole religion of Popery tends to lead men to contrive for themselves innumerable methods of seeking salvation; and hence we infer, that it is full to overflowing with abominable sacrileges. More especially, this word of Christ condemns the abomination of the Mass. All the sacrifices of the Law must have ceased, for the salvation of men has been completed by the one sacrifice of the death of Christ. What right, then, have the Papists, or what plausible excuse can they assign for saying, that they are authorised to prepare a new sacrifice, to reconcile God to men? They reply that it is not a new sacrifice, but the very sacrifice which Christ offered. But this is easily refuted; for, in the first place, they have no command to offer it; and, secondly, Christ, having once accomplished, by a single oblation, all that was necessary to be done, declares, from the cross, that all is finished. They are worse than forgers, therefore, for they wickedly corrupt and falsify the testament sealed by the precious blood of the Son of God.”
Second, what you believe about how you become righteous is just as crucial for Christians. Do we really need to become perfect by our own works? Or, does God impute Christ’s righteousness (i.e., His perfect works) to us by faith? If the former is true, then again, this is not good news! If the latter is true, it is the best news ever.
If the Catholic church is correct, our righteousness, Christ says, must surpass that of the Pharisees. More than that, we are to be perfect just as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:20, 48). Just what does such behavior look like? Jesus tells us, “And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” (John 8:29) Do you always do the things that are pleasing to Him? I don’t, but thankfully, Christ did.
Scripture tells us that we are made righteous not by our own obedience to the commandments, as the Catholic church taught. Rather, Romans 5 says, “18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. 19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Beloved, this is truly good news.
Scripture confirms this elsewhere in multiple places:
So, we see that Scripture agrees with the Reformers. Christ paid the penalty for our sins once and for all time. Christ’s righteousness is imputed, or credited, to the believer. Thus, Scripture says, “23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3)
God is just in that He punishes sins, and He took the punishment Himself on the cross. He is the justifier in that it is He who gives faith to the believer, and credits Christ’s righteousness to us as well. This is good news, the best news ever in the history of the world.
God used the Reformers, men like Martin Luther and John Calvin, to restore the pure gospel to His church. The renaissance that resulted from the preaching of the true gospel transformed Europe, and created a sharp distinction between the man made religion of Catholicism and the good news of salvation that comes through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
Like the Judaism that existed in Jesus’ day, men had perverted the pure Law that God had given the Jews. They heaped burdens upon everyone, in addition to God’s Law. Similarly, over time, the Catholic church perverted the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, adding burden upon burden upon those who think they are doing what is necessary to be saved. What Jesus said to the burdened Jews is now also true for those shackled by the burdens of Catholicism: “28 Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Soli Deo Gloria!