This year, many people are celebrating the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But not everyone is. Some have raised severe criticisms against the Reformers and their work. The Reformers, they allege, replaced the authority of the church with the authority of the autonomous individual. Moreover, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, these critics claim, cut the nerve of morality and, effectively, baptized licentious living. Martin Luther and John Calvin, they continue, opened Pandora’s box, releasing two forces that not only rent the church but also went on to define the modern age: radical individualism and antinomianism. Understood on these terms, the Reformation is cause for lamentation, not celebration.
These criticisms rest on a profound misunderstanding of the Reformation and, specifically, a misunderstanding of two of the leading doctrines of the Reformation: sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and sola fide (faith alone). What were the Reformers saying when they declared that the Bible is the only rule of faith and practice? When they declared that a sinner is justified through faith alone, apart from the works of the law? As importantly, what were they not saying when they advanced these claims in the church?
In the pre-Reformation church, the Bible was widely recognized as authoritative for faith and obedience. No serious voices in the church challenged the authority of the Bible in the way that many in the modern church have questioned or denied Scripture’s inspiration and authority. Against what, then, did the Reformers raise their voices in protest? While the pre-Reformation church acknowledged the Bible’s authority, she also acknowledged other authorities in the church as equivalent to Scripture. Church tradition and the official pronouncements of the church were the standard for the belief and practices of the church at this time. For this reason, doctrines such as the veneration of Mary and the saints, purgatory, and transubstantiation came to have a settled place in the belief and worship of the Roman Catholic Church. The church did not justify these matters by an exclusive appeal to Scripture, nor did she sense the need to do so. The authority of the church was sufficient to establish them in the life of the church.
The Reformers affirmed that the Bible was authoritative for the church’s faith and obedience. But the Reformers equally insisted that Scripture alone is the church’s standard for faith and practice.
The Reformers affirmed that the Bible was authoritative for the church’s faith and obedience. But the Reformers equally insisted that Scripture alone is the church’s standard for faith and practice. To set other authorities alongside Scripture was in effect to dethrone Scripture. Just as the Pharisees had “for the sake of [their] tradition . . . made void the word of God,” so had the church done at the turn of the sixteenth century (Matt. 15:6). Only when we uphold Scripture as our sole infallible standard of belief and obedience, the Reformers argued, does the Word of God properly function as a standard at all.
But the Reformation was not a movement that sought to erase the first millennium and a half of the church’s history. It did not dismiss the creeds and councils of the church altogether. Neither did it disregard the great theologians who had helped the church better understand the Scriptures. A quick glance at Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion illustrates the point. Not only does Calvin quote liberally from the church’s creeds and councils and from the writings of the church fathers, but he often does so approvingly. Calvin, in company with the other Reformers, did not set out to jettison the church’s history but to place that history in submission to Scripture. The Bible was the sole infallible standard by which the Reformers evaluated the church’s historical beliefs and practices, whether for commendation or for criticism.
The Reformers, then, were genuinely appreciative of the ways in which previous generations of believers had understood and applied Scripture. They built upon and extended that heritage in their own day. They did not believe that Christians should read the Bible as though they were the first ones or the only ones who had ever read it. To try to do so would be untrue to the interdependence of the members of the body of Christ—no individual believer is sufficient unto himself (1 Cor. 12). It would also be ungrateful to the Spirit who has gifted the church through the ages with officers called to minister the Word to the saints (Eph. 4:11–16). The slogan “just me and my Bible” was as foreign to the Reformers as it was to Rome. What the Reformers insisted, rather, was that the church’s beliefs, worship, and life stand in submission to Scripture alone.
As the Reformers studied Scripture in this fashion, they recovered one of its leading teachings, a teaching that had been gravely obscured in the witness of the pre-Reformation church. That teaching is that a sinner is justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law.
It is sometimes said that the pre-Reformation church (and the Roman Catholic Church today) believed in justification by works, whereas the Reformers insisted upon justification by faith. But this way of putting matters misunderstands the debate and misrepresents both sides. In fact, a doctrine of justification by faith was taught within much of the pre-Reformation church (and is taught by Rome today). Justification was thought to be a lifelong process that began with an infusion of Christ’s grace at baptism. As the baptized person receives more and more grace through the church’s sacraments, he is equipped to produce more and more good works. In this way, he is made more and more inwardly righteous (justified). It is important that he continue to receive this sacramental grace, for justification is a losable grace, and it is through the sacraments that justification can be recovered if lost and also strengthened. But faith in God is required throughout this process. Since most Christians are not perfectly righteous when they die, they will have to spend time in purgatory to become even more righteous. Only when the Christian is truly and perfectly righteous will he receive what is called final justification. In this way, it was taught, one is “justified by faith.”
The Reformers argued that this teaching contradicted at many points Scripture’s testimony to justification. The Bible, they argued, instead teaches that the sinner is justified by faith alone. Justification is God’s definitive declaration in His courtroom (see Rom. 5:18; 8:1, 33–34). God declares the sinner righteous. He forgives him all his sins and accepts and accounts him as righteous in His sight. Justification is not a gradual change or transformation within a human being. This verdict is not rendered at the day of judgment but at the very beginning of the Christian life. How can this be? Because justification is in no way based upon anything that we have done, are doing, or will do. It is based entirely upon the righteousness of Christ—His perfect obedience and full satisfaction for sin (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:12–21). This righteousness of Christ is not infused but imputed to the sinner. Just as our sins were reckoned to Christ on the cross, so Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us at the moment of our justification (2 Cor. 5:21). The sinner, moreover, is not justified because of or on the basis of faith. The sinner is justified, rather, through or by faith. Faith is strictly instrumental in justification. It embraces the free gift of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Faith adds nothing but receives everything for justification. In this way, Christ receives all the glory in our justification. We have nothing in ourselves—not even faith—to boast in for our justification. This is what the Reformers understood Scripture to teach when they said that we are justified by faith alone.
Justification is not a gradual change or transformation within a human being.
Does this teaching mean that the justified person is free to live as he pleases? Has he received a divine license to indulge in sin? Deeply sensitive to such questions, the Reformers answered with one voice—“No!” We are justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law. But that faith will and must produce a harvest of good works. Faith works by love (Gal. 5:6). We are in no way justified by those good works, but we are justified by a faith that evidences its truth and sincerity by good works. Our good works, as James 2:14–26 teaches, show that Christians are truly those who they profess to be—justified people. Good works show to ourselves and to others the difference between true, justifying faith and an empty claim to faith. Good works do not justify us, but they necessarily inhabit the lives of every justified person. We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone (see Westminster Confession of Faith 11.2).
In summary, the Reformers rejected not only the view that authority in matters of faith and practice lies ultimately in the church but also the view that such authority lies ultimately in the individual. This authority, rather, is the Scripture alone. In rejecting the teaching that people are justified, even in part, on the basis of their good works, the Reformers also insisted that people who are justified by faith alone must pursue good works as the fruit and evidence of their justifying faith. The Reformers understood that radical individualism and licentious living were, in reality, bondage to sin. The Reformers did not want to see human beings transferred from one form of spiritual bondage to another. They longed to see men and women freed from sin and freed by and for Jesus Christ through the gospel of grace. If for this reason only, we have cause to celebrate the Protestant Reformation.
Dr. Guy Prentiss Waters is James M. Baird Jr. Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss., and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is author of How Jesus Runs the Church and The Life and Theology of Paul.