God’s Word and Reformed theology teach that our ultimate acceptance with God is grounded in Christ’s imputed righteousness, received by faith alone apart from human works. This precious truth, in fact, is central to the good news. Why, then, doesn’t it seem like good news to some people, particularly to our Roman Catholic friends and loved ones?
Not Fire Insurance
According to the Council of Trent (1545–63), justification is a process in which one becomes increasingly righteous. So, to Roman Catholic ears, the Protestant conviction that God accepts us by “faith alone” often sounds like “cheap grace.” Many of them hear us saying: “Don’t worry about pursuing a life of holiness. Just say the sinner’s prayer, walk this aisle, and then you’ll be safe for all of eternity.” Many Roman Catholics view our doctrine of justification as a kind of fire insurance, requiring a minimal investment in exchange for an eternal payoff.
Of course, the idea that one can simply say a sinner’s prayer and be assured of salvation is certainly not what the Reformers or Puritans taught. They were clear that justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone. As John Calvin wrote, “We dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them.” Calvin was hardly alone in this conviction. From the sixteenth century to the present, evangelical theology at its best has always emphasized that the purpose of salvation is maturity in Christ for the glory of God, not mere fire insurance.
J.I. Packer helpfully explains how this tradition is ultimately rooted in the teaching of Jesus:
A man must know that, in the words of the first of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, “when our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance,” and he must also know what repentance involves. More than once, Christ deliberately called attention to the radical break with the past that repentance involves. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me . . . whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same (but only he) shall save it.”
The Necessity of Good Works
So, what does this life of repentance look like?
Over against the ideas of Roman Catholic renewal advocates, the Reformers refused to see Jesus as merely an ethical paradigm for Christianity. Rather, they insisted on the spiritual union of believers with the crucified and risen Christ as the guiding impulse of faith (John 15:5; 1 Cor. 6:15–19; Eph. 1:7–13). “Did we in our own strength confide,” Luther wrote, “our striving would be losing.” We come to the Savior full of weakness and find His grace sufficient.