The Objections of Rome to the Reformation

A main objection of Rome to the Reformation was that Luther had gone too far. By teaching that a person is justified by faith alone, apart from good works, apart from keeping the sacraments, Rome felt other Biblical truth were violated. The book of James clearly teaches the importance of faith and good works. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:6).

When Rome listened to Luther, what was heard was a type of antinomianism, and that was alarming. Anti-nominanism, is a word that speaks of lawlessness, or libertinism in manners and morals. People might say, “All I have to do is believe, and I can live any type of ungodly life I want.” It did not help when Luther appealed to St. Augustine who had said, “Love God and do as you please.” Rome did not want Christians to embrace any form of an “Easy Believism”, or, “Cheap Grace.”

To counter the accusation of antinomianism, the Reformers clarified what they meant by “saving faith.” They explained that while individuals are justified by faith alone, they are not justified by a faith which is alone. Saving faith is always accompanied by good works. “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

When defining saving faith, the Reformers were careful to mention three specific elements which included the notitia, assensus, and fiducia.

The notitia is the data. No one is justified and saved without factual information concerning Christ. “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; 2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. 3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:  5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:1-5).

The Reformers did not embrace the notion that it does not matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. It does matter what a person believes. A person must believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matt. 16:16). Christ must be the object of faith. ” And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). It does matter what you believe.

“I know not why God’s wondrous grace
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.

But “I know Whom I have believed,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.”

There is a content to the gospel which must be comprehended by the mind. The gospel contains the good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the redemption He accomplished at Calvary. The faith which justifies is not any empty faith, or a naked faith. It is a faith clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

Faith in the data that is acquired, requires intellectual assent.  The data that Jesus was born of a virgin, died a substitutionary death for sinners at Calvary, and rose again from the dead on the third day must be assented to. The question must be answered. “Do you believe the gospel?” “You have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, but do you believe it?” “Is there an intellectual assent to Christ?” “Do you affirm the statements about Jesus are true?” The Christian will say, “I believe.”

Now, to have notitia, or informed data about Christ, and to give assensus, or an intellectual assent to the gospel truths about Christ requires something more, for even the demons will go this far, and tremble (James 2:19). Demons know Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. They are sufficiently informed with that data. Demons will also give intellectual assent to the person and work of Christ. But demons are not saved, nor is any unbeliever saved apart from fiducia, or faith. True saving faith necessitates fiducia.

Fiducia means to personally trust. Fiducia means to rest wholly in Christ. But where does such saving faith come from?

It does not come from the Natural Man, for wholly trusting in God was lost in the Fall. Saving faith is a gift of God. The apostle Paul explains. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9).

Fiducia is closely related to assensus, in that fiducia involves intellectual assent, but there is something more in fiducia. Saving faith is the heart fully given to Christ. Faith believes that Jesus saves. Faith believes that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins. Faith believes Jesus does give eternal life to all who believe. Faith rests on the promises of Jesus. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: 28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:27, 28). Faith says, “I believe. I have eternal life through Jesus Christ the Lord.”

Saving faith is the will choosing what the mind is affirming. Jonathan Edwards in his book, Freedom of the Will, pointed out that the will cannot choose what the mind rejects. When the mind has a certain affinity for a proposition, the will embraces it.

When the proposition is set forth that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, when the mind consents to that proposition as being true, and the will chooses to embrace that idea, saving faith occurs. So said the Reformers.

The Church of Rome did not, and does not, believe that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Catholic Theology adds to the death of Christ and His substitutionary death the good works of an individual to form a synergistic form of salvation.  The formula for salvation according to Rome is that God’s grace, plus the redemptive act of Christ at Calvary, plus the good works of the person wishing to go to heaven, will result in salvation.

No! Said the Reformers. It is Christ who saves, and Christ alone apart from human merit for those who are in the flesh cannot please God. “The just shall live, by faith!” (Rom. 1:17). Salvation comes to the soul that agrees to the sweetness of Christ, to the loveliness of Christ, to the excellency of Christ.

Let the gospel truth go forth. Jesus saves! Salvation is not some form of Easy Believism whereby someone raises their hand, gives assent to several points, and says a prayer. Salvation is the heart of a person seeing Jesus in all of His splendor, glory, grace, and sweetness.

A professing faith is not necessarily saving faith. Saving faith is something that is produced in the heart, by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit who causes the heart to see with understanding, and the will to choose Christ, and Christ alone as Lord and Savior.

A second objection Rome had against the Reformers, was the Legal Fiction they believed was involved in the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. Rome said that the Reformation view of justification undermined the integrity of God, for it made God out to justify the ungodly.

However, that is exactly what the Bible teaches. The Bible says that “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Christ did not die for the godly, but for the ungodly. Christ came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10).

Rome accused the Reformers of a “Legal Fiction”, or, a “Make Believe” form of justification. Rome asked, “How can a holy God ever declare a sinner to be just who is in fact not just?”

It was a good question. It is a good question. It was a good question when Paul raised it more than two thousand years ago.

The Reformers were ready to answer the objection of Rome, by saying that God can declare a sinner to be just in His sight, because God imputes the real righteousness, of the real Christ, to the sinner’s account so that in the sight of the Law, all sins are paid for, all debts are cancelled, all penalties have been paid. Before the Bar of Divine Justice, the sinner who is in Christ can be declared JUSTIFIED in the sight of the Law.

There is no Legal Fiction in the fact that God is free to justify those for whom Christ has died, and impute His righteousness to them. “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. 4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3-5).

The third, and biggest objection of Rome during the Council of Trent in the sixth session against the Protestant view of the Doctrine of Justification, was that it could not be reconciled to the book of James. In the second chapter James wrote, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:21-24).

For Rome, the Protestant Doctrine of Justification by Faith alone cannot be reconciled with the clear teaching of James.

Such an assertion does not resolve anything, because the tension is not ultimately between Luther and Rome, but between Paul and James. Paul wrote in Romans 3:28, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”

In considering these contrasting statements, it must not be thought that James wrote his epistle to correct Paul. Nor did Paul write his epistles to challenge and correct James. Each man was inspired. Each man wrote as the Holy Spirit moved. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

Nor must it be thought that Paul and James are irreconcilable. Faith and works can be united within Christian theology when the relevance of the audience is kept in mind.

When Paul writes to the Gentiles, he is declaring that the ungodly are justified before God apart from circumcision, and the keeping of the Law. A person will be declared righteous before God by faith.

When James writes to the Jewish Christians, he is reminding them that the Gentile world is watching to see if how a believing person lives. A converted person will be careful to maintain good works. Good works will justify, or declare a person righteous, not before God, but before men. God already knows the true state of a person’s heart. However, without good works, a watching world will conclude that faith is dead. It changes no one. It is a blessing to no one.

It is instructive to note that both Paul and James uses the same Greek word, dikaiousune, for righteousness. And they both use Abraham as their primary example.

The conclusion, is that parallel truths can both be truth. This is a paradox, but not contradictory.

When Paul speaks of Abraham in his Epistle to the Romans, he does so in Romans 15. Paul teaches that Abraham believed God, and that was accounted to him for righteousness. Before Abraham had done any deeds of the Law, before Abraham had offered Isaac, he was declared to be a righteous man.

When James speaks of Abraham in his Epistle in chapter 2, Abraham is manifesting his declared faith by his works, recorded in Genesis 22.

The key thought, is that a righteous person will perform good works because of their justification, not in order to get it. A person will be careful to maintain good works because of salvation, not in order to merit it.

Finally, the teaching of Paul and the teaching of James can be reconciled by understanding the basic proposition each person was trying to establish.

Proposition. In his epistle, Paul was trying to answer how a person is justified, or declared righteous in the sight of God.

In Romans 3 Paul concluded “that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). “What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).  

When Paul uses the word “justified”, he uses the word in the highest theological sense possible to explain how a person is declared righteous in the sight of God. The answer is, “by grace.” “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).

Proposition. In his epistle, James was trying to answer regarding how a person is justified, or declared righteous in the sight of men.

In James 2:14, the apostle asked, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can [that] faith save him?”

If a person says he has faith, but there are no good works, can that faith save him? No! A thousand times no. A naked faith, a faith without works is a dead faith. Dead faith does not save anyone. Only a vital faith, a living faith, an obedient faith, saves. Good works add nothing to the ground of justification, but they do add to the evidence of justification.

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