In 1647, a group of Reformed pastors and theologians meeting at Westminster Abbey in London completed a set of documents we now know as the Westminster Standards, which include the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The divines (theologians) sought to codify Reformed teaching in order to create a unified Reformed church in the British Isles. In question and answer 33 of the Shorter Catechism, they summarize one of the chief pillars of the Reformed tradition:
What is justification? Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
Wrapped up in this brief statement is the idea that sinners are justified sola fide—by faith alone. But what does sola fide mean? Before we delve into its meaning, a little historical context is essential for appreciating its significance. A person can truly appreciate a brilliant light only against the backdrop of darkness.
A Backdrop of Darkness
When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety- Five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg in 1517, it took some time for the implications of his action to ripple through history. The fruit of his labors surfaced in a number of Lutheran and Reformed confessions that stated that sinners are declared righteous in God’s sight, not on the basis of their own good works but by faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone—sola fide, solus Christus, and sola gratia. The Roman Catholic Church was compelled to respond and did so at the famous Council of Trent, which offered a series of proclamations on the doctrine of justification in its sixth session on January 13, 1547.
Among the many points Rome offered, chief among them were several key claims: (1) that sinners are justified by their baptism; (2) that justification is by faith in Christ and a person’s good works; (3) that sinners are not justified solely by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ; and (4) that a person can lose his justified status. All of these points coalesce in the following statement:
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning thereby that no other cooperation is required for him to obtain the grace of justification, and that in no sense is it necessary for him to make preparation and be disposed by a movement of his own will: let him be anathema. (Canon IX)
The Roman Catholic Church clearly condemned sola fide—it did not confess that sinners are justified by faith alone.
A Light in the Darkness
Against this backdrop, we can appreciate how the Shorter Catechism biblically defines the doctrine of justification and explains that it is sola fide. For Rome, sinners are justified by faith and works. Its doctrine of faith is introspective—a person must look within to his own good works in order to be justified. The Shorter Catechism, on the other hand, argues that faith is extrospective—sinners look outside themselves to the perfect and complete work of Christ for their justification. But what, specifically, do sinners receive by faith alone?
The first benefit of justification is that God pardons all of our sins, past, present, and future. The divines cite Paul’s quotation of Psalm 32: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (Rom. 4:7; see Ps. 32:1). The second benefit of justification is the acceptance of the sinner as righteous in God’s sight “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.” To have the status of “righteous” conferred upon oneself is quite amazing. When a judge declares a person innocent, it simply means he is not guilty of breaking the law. But if a judge declares a person righteous, it means that not only is he innocent of breaking the law but that he has also fulfilled the requirement of the law. Let us take theft as an example. For a person to be righteous in this case, he must refrain from stealing. But in addition to this, he must also protect the property of others. He must fulfill both the negative and positive demands of the law against theft. By justification, a sinner is accepted as righteous, not just for one part of the law, but for the whole law—every single commandment, every single jot and tittle. He is counted as one who has kept every dimension of every law. From whence does this righteousness arise?
The righteousness, or obedience, belongs to Christ. The divines cite two key passages of Scripture to substantiate the imputation, or accrediting, of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. First, they cite 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” According to the Scriptures, Christ was the spotless Lamb, perfect and sinless (1 Peter 1:19; Heb. 4:15). Yet, Christ bore the sin of His people—it was accredited to Him and He carried it. The manner by which Christ was accredited with our sin so that He could bear the law’s curse (imputation) is the same manner by which we receive Christ’s perfect obedience—His fulfilling of every requirement of the law. The divines cite Romans 5:19 to this effect: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were constituted sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be constituted righteous” (translation mine). Adam’s disobedience was accredited to all who are united to him, and the obedience of Christ, the last Adam, is accredited to all of those united to Him (1 Cor. 15:45).
Ne’er the Twain Shall Meet
If it is not already apparent, the Westminster divines’ view of justification is diametrically opposed to the view of the Roman Catholic Church. For Rome, a sinner’s justification is an attempt at doctrinal alchemy, trying to mix the works of Christ with those of the believer in order to produce the gold of justification. Reformed theology, on the other hand, codified in the Shorter Catechism and reflecting the teaching of Scripture, rests the sinner’s justification solely upon the work of Christ. The only means by which Christ’s perfect work is received is by faith alone—sola fide. We have no other embassy of peace to find shelter from the just wrath of God save for the perfect righteousness and suffering of Christ; and there is no other bridge between man and Christ but faith alone.