When in the course of human language it becomes necessary to qualify the meanings of words, we must unite and defend the correct use of our language against the onslaught of misused phrases, misappropriated adjectives, and misunderstood words. In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformers found themselves amidst a raging battle. It was the great battle of qualification.
Somewhere along the line, the Roman Catholic Church decided to make itself the infallible authority over the church of Jesus Christ. By so doing, the Roman church usurped the authority of the divinely inspired Word of God and began to inject the people of God with weekly doses of a papal drug they promised was used only for medicinal purposes. In due time, they convinced the people of God that they needed this special medicine in order to get to heaven. After persuading most people of this, many of the bishops and cardinals got together and brainstormed. And although it was not very popular at first among some of the bishops on account of the implications that such an idea held, they authoritatively concluded that there is a place for purification called “purgatory.” This was ingenious. By having purgatory tucked away in its back pocket, the Roman church realized it could very easily have its front pockets full as well. Therefore, they invented yet another doctrine called “supererogation.” There was a “treasury of merits” they told the people of God; it was a treasury of the merits of Jesus and the saints — merits that were left over from their lives, extra merits that they did not need in order to get into heaven. And, sure enough, these merits could be purchased not only for oneself but for others who had died and were in purgatory in need of a few extra merits. As part of their strategy, the entrepreneurs of Rome began to sell indulgences. Top salesmen from every region of the church’s domain went out into all the towns in order to make deals that no one could possibly refuse. And so the saying went: “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” It was a great fund-raising scheme — in fact, many televangelists are still using this strategy today, and indeed it still works.
In the small town of Wittenberg, Germany, one Augustinian monk was studying the book of Romans. He came across the apostle Paul’s quote from Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by faith.” At that point, the battle of qualification began and the Protestant Reformation was ignited.
The Roman churchmen affirmed the doctrine of justification. And they even went so far as to admit that the Word of God does indeed teach justification by faith. However, in their estimation of the Christian life, it seemed only natural to assert that faith is only one part of justification. In fact, the entirety of the Roman system, including purgatory, supererogation, the treasury of merits, and indulgences, demonstrated the church’s true confession, namely, justification is accomplished by faith combined with a life of works and a life thereafter in purgatory until complete purification has taken place. And although the Roman churchmen cited James 2:14–25 as a proof text for their system of justification, they did so only to demonstrate their inadequacy at interpreting the context of the epistle of James and their inability to interpret Scripture as the unified and authoritative Word of God.
It therefore became necessary for the Protestant Reformers to make a biblical qualification. With one small word the war began, and with that same word the war was over. Although not found in the biblical text, it is a word that is implied at every point. It is the greatest of all doctrinal qualifiers, for it stands boldly demonstrating the audacity of those who would presume that such a word is not inferred by the biblical authors. It is the word alone.
Although it is unfortunate that the Reformers were forced to use this qualifier, it became absolutely necessary. Martin Luther could do nothing else — the Roman church left him no options. They had so contorted the meanings of words and doctrines that it became necessary to qualify just about every cardinal doctrine of the faith. At the outset, Luther sought to clarify the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls, namely, the doctrine of justification. At stake in this war was the church’s fundamental teaching about salvation. And by qualifying the doctrine of justification by faith, Luther helped to re-established the biblical Gospel and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, set the world on fire. Luther and the Reformers stood firm in their confession and proclaimed the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ: Justification by faith alone, sola fide. All of salvation is the work of God, they insisted as they affirmed the teachings of those from centuries past.
At the very heart of salvation is not man’s natural ability to choose God. Rather, the Reformers asserted, salvation is accomplished by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. Thus we affirm with the apostle: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).