Protestant affirmation of biblical teaching
The Christian is irrevocably justified before God by faith alone, apart from his own works, by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. This is encapsulated in the Reformation doctrines of sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone) and solus Christus (Christ alone). According to the Reformers, faith is the sole instrumental cause for our justification. By this they meant that the instrument by which we are linked to the work of Christ and receive all the benefits of his work, is faith — through putting our trust in him alone. There is a critical distinction between “infused” righteousness and “imputed” righteousness. Sola fide affirms that we are justified on the grounds of Christ’s righteousness for us, which is achieved by his own perfect active obedience apart from us. Therefore, at the heart of the gospel is that we don’t have to wait for righteousness to be accomplished in us before God reckons, or counts, justification in his sight. We are declared just on the basis of Christ’s own merit alone, his righteousness imputed to us.
According to the Protestant view, all sin is “mortal sin,” in the sense that any act of transgression against God puts us in the position of condemnation before God. When we commit sin against an eternal and holy God, we’re hopeless to reinstate ourselves to a position of positive righteousness. This is exactly why we need an external source of merit, namely, Christ.
For Protestants, for an organization to anathematize “justification by faith alone” is to anathematize the gospel itself.
(The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XI: Of Justification) “II. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.
III. Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, in as much as He was given by the Father for them; and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for any thing in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice, and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.”
The English word justification is derived from the Latin term justificare, which means “to make righteous.” Protestant theology also believes in satisfaction for sin — but holds that this satisfaction occurred once for his people, in the inseparable context of penal substitution achieved by Christ alone (Isaiah 53:10-12, John 19:30, Romans 5:8-9, Colossians 1:13-22, 2:14, I Peter 2:24).
Going as far back into history as the patristic writings, we find that at one time, Rome did affirm justification by faith alone. St. Clement of Rome, who was listed by the historian Jerome as “the fourth bishop of Rome after Peter,” wrote a letter in the late 1st century or the early 2nd century to the Christians in the city of Corinth. In chapter 32 of the First Epistle of Clement, he wrote, “We, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
This certainly flies in the face of the current Roman Catholic sacrament of Penance. Many modern Roman Catholics might be surprised and even vexed to know that one of their earliest pontiffs, Clement I, was a Protestant.