One reason is the failure of Pope Leo X to gauge the magnitude of the situation. At first, he viewed is as the minor squabbles of an insignificant monk, “some drunken German” is one of his descriptions of Luther. (His lack of seriousness on matter may be a reflection of his overall attitude. Upon attaining the papacy, Leo, the first of the Medici Popes, is supposed to have said, "God has given us the Papacy, so we might as well enjoy it."
Eventually, of course, Luther was excommunicated. In a sense, that obviated the need for a council, one purpose of which would have been to declare Luther a heretic in a public forum and excommunicate him. Too late for that.
Finally, it was the insistence of the emperor, Charles V, who did appreciate the magnitude of the Reformation. Charles pressured the Roman Catholic Church into holding a council, rightly concluding that a council would provide a sense of official sanction to Luther’s excommunication and place the Church on firm ground.
The Council of Trent (Northern Italy) ran from 1546 to 1563 (not continuous, wars and such kept interrupting the procedures.)
There were no Protestants present when the important issues were discussed. Some arrived late in the council when the main issues were settled, and they left almost immediately. This was not a council of adjudication. Leo’s actions made the result of the council a foregone conclusion. The reason for Protestants to attend would be for them to perform penance, and they were of no mind to take that step.
Trent’s Anathema on Sola FideJustification: The means by which an unjust sinner is made acceptable to a Holy God.
The great mystery of salvation is justification. How are we made acceptable to a Holy and perfect God who demands an unattainable perfect compliance with His law? Clearly we can never, on our own, meet such a demand.
The problem is not that our sins are not forgiven. The problem is that the price of admission to heaven is an unblemished record. And once one has sinned, the record can never be expunged. Christ said “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13). The (mythical) righteous man has no need of justification.
Justification is like being acquitted of a crime, though not because the accused is innocent, but because an innocent third party (Christ) has made a satisfactory restitution to the offended (God). We get off on some clever legal maneuvering.
So exactly how does this happen? Here again is an area where there is a substantive difference between the Roman Catholic view and the Reformed view.
The difference between the Reformed and Roman Catholic view of Justification is sometimes cast as the “mere” addition of the word alone:
Rome: Justification is by faith.
Reformers: Justification is by faith alone.
There is a big question here, above and beyond the nontrivial insistence on the word alone. To wit, how does justification happen? And here we find a substantive difference between the Rome and the Reformers. It is not “just” the “aloneness” of justification, but the way it happens.
The question is whether we can actually become righteousness enough to be acceptable to God, or whether God treats us as if we were righteous. The former is the view of the Rome, the latter of the Reformers.
Neither side holds the position that any sort of justification can occur apart from Grace (that is the heresy of Pelagianism). Both Rome and Reformed position is that grace is necessary for justification. There is a difference as to whether it is sufficient.
The Reformed ViewCalvin wrote:
Thus we simply interpret justification as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favour as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.Calvin also writes that the justified is “deemed righteous” and “regarded not as a sinner.”
This makes it clear that the Reformed view is that man himself does not have sufficient inherent righteousness, even after justification. The righteousness with which we present ourselves to a Holy God is by imputation; it is not inherent or infused into us. It is symmetric with the view that our sins were imputed to Christ on the cross and he was punished as if they were His own.
The Roman Catholic ViewContrast Calvin’s view with what Rome declared at the Council of Trent:
… the instrumental cause [of justification] is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which no man was ever justified finally, the single formal cause is the justice of God, not that by which He Himself is just, but that by which He makes us just, that, namely, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and not only are we reputed but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to everyone as He wills, and according to each one's disposition and cooperation.We see here a very different view from Calvin’s. Rome’s view is that we are justified not by an imputation but by an infusion. We acquire inherent righteousness, initially from the instrumental cause: baptism. Justification also requires cooperation. Furthermore, the state of being justified can be lost through the commission of sin and must be restored by another sacrament: penance.
There is an important point: the Reformers do not deny the concept of infused righteousness. This is no denial of the process of sanctification through the work of the Holy Spirit. The difference is the grounds of our justification: it is always in the imputed righteousness of Christ, never in infused righteousness.
Rome disputes the Reformed view of Justification and holds that if we must be righteous before God then we must have a true, internal righteousness which, though accomplished through grace, is nevertheless “ours”.
The difference between the Roman Catholic view and the Reformed view on justification is shown in stark relief when one considers the following statement:
By grace, God reckons Christ's righteousness to us.To the Reformed, this statement is the gospel. We are acceptable to God because Christ's righteousness is credited or imputed to us, not because we actually become righteous. To the Roman Catholic Church, as is made clear in the Council of Trent, the same statement is viewed as a legal fiction, one that impugns God's character. To Rome, God is not deceitful, declaring the unjust as just. God declares the just to be just.
There is a modern trend to discount the importance of the differing views on justification. To say, in effect, that the Reformation was much ado about nothing. But once you see that what one side views as the gospel, the other side views as worthy of excommunication you should be dissuaded of the notion that the differences are trivial.
Catholicism does not teach salvation by works. Rome agrees with the Reformed that the righteousness of Christ is required for justification. The difference is that in Rome's view, our Lord's righteousness is sacramentally infused into the sinner—which is to say that by grace (not by works—no need to slander the RCC) the sinner actually becomes just (or righteous). In this way the "legal fiction" is avoided. In Rome's view, the just are justified. In the Reformed view, regenerated man is declared justified while still a sinner.
It should be clear from the Atonement that imputation does not constitute a legal fiction. On the cross, our sin was imputed to Christ. Our sin was not infused into Christ—that would make Christ actually sinful, and His death would have accomplished nothing. In a like manner, His righteousness is imputed to us. It is not a legal fiction, because in both cases the one who gets the short end of the stick (Christ) (a) possessed a perfect righteousness and (b) voluntarily agreed to the imputation.
In the table below, I list some of the similarities and differences between the Reformed and Roman Catholic views on justification.
The analytic vs. synthetic distinction is interesting. An analytic statement is a tautology. For example: A rectangle has four sides. There is no information added in the predicate (has four sides) that wasn’t present in the subject (the rectangle.) A synthetic statement, by contrast, adds information. An example: The bachelor is bald.
In the Roman Catholic view, the just are justified. It is analytic. In the Reformed view, the unjust are justified by imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In is synthetic.
For the Reformed, a saved person will undergo a process of sanctification, but will never arrive at a point where he could be justified by his inherent righteousness, even though that inherent righteousness is not really of himself but is the result of the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. For the Reformed, the basis of justification always rests on the imputed righteousness of Christ.
One criticism of the Reformed view of justification is that it is a change in status only. That is, God declares you to be justified, but you are still the same person after the declaration. Technically this is true, but it is not the complete story.
In Reformed theology, there are three steps that occur in logical if not actually temporal order: regeneration, faith, and justification. Both coming-to-faith and justification are reserved for those whom God regenerates. With that in mind, it is clear that a justified man is radically different from his former, unregenerated self. Furthermore, the process of sanctification inevitably begins. There is no room in Reformed theology where one can sneak in the perversion of antinomianism.
The doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone is often attacked on two fronts. The first is the fact that the phrase never appears in scripture, except in the epistle of James, in which it appears to be refuted, which is the second and more difficult front of the attack.
When Paul talks about justification, primarily in the book of Romans, he never states explicitly that justification is by faith alone. However, what is not explicit is nevertheless abundantly clear.
When we say justification is by faith alone, it is understood that the faith itself is by grace. So grace is not excluded, obviously, from the restriction: faith alone.
That leaves only one other thing that could possibly contribute to justification: keeping the law, or works. In an argument credited to Sproul, we have three possibilities:
- Justification is by works alone.
- Justification is by faith and works.
- Justification is by faith alone, sola fide.
The first option is rightly rejected by all Christians. The debate is really between the second and third choices.
So if Paul wants to teach sola fide he has two possible basic strategies at his disposal: He could affirm it explicitly, or he could eliminate option 2, justification by faith and works, so that only sola fide remains as a possibility.
That is exactly what Paul does. He eliminates works as a contributing factor. If works do not contribute to justification, then the only thing left is faith, and faith alone.
26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.In light of these passages (and the book of Romans as a whole) one sees how weak the argument is that Paul does not teach sola fide simply because he never names the doctrine that he so clearly espouses.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Rom. 3: 26-28, NIV)
If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. (Rom. 4:2)
know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:16, NASB)
Three CanonsAt Trent, the conferees established the Roman doctrine of Justification by infusion. They then took aim at what they perceived as the Reformed position, attacking in three cannons.
Canon 6.11: If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.
This is a straw-man argument. As already mentioned, the Reformers did not exclude infusion, but stressed that the grounds for justification rested solely in the imputed righteousness of Christ. The final clause does not apply to the Reformers at all, but to the Socinian (anti-rinitarians) view of justification.
Calvin wrote, in response to canon 6.11
I wish the reader to understand that as often as we mention Faith alone in this question, we are not thinking of a dead faith, which worketh not by love, but holding faith to be the only cause of justification. ( Galatians 5:6; Romans 3:22.) It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in the sun it is not alone, because it is constantly conjoined with light. Wherefore we do not separate the whole grace of regeneration from faith, but claim the power and faculty of justifying entirely for faith, as we ought. And yet it is not us that these Tridentine Fathers anathematize so much as Paul, to whom we owe the definition that the righteousness of man consists in the forgiveness of sins.
Canon 9 also is imprecise:
Canon 6.9: If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.
To which Calvin responded
This Canon is very far from being canonical; for it joins things which are utterly at variance. They imagine that a man is justified by faith without any movement of his own will, as if it were not with the heart that a man believeth unto righteousness. Between them and us there is this difference, that they persuade themselves that the movement comes from the man himself, whereas we maintain that faith is voluntary, because God draws our wills to himself. Add, that when we say a man is justified by faith alone, we do not fancy a faith devoid of charity, but we mean that faith alone is the cause of justification.
Calvin points out that Rome is condemning a caricature. The Reformers never taught that man’s will is not involved, what they taught was man must first be born again before his will can dispose him to favorably at the offers of God.
Then there is canon 10:
Canon 6.10: If anyone says that men are justified without the justice of Christ, whereby He merited for us, or by that justice are formally just, let him be anathema.
This is a strange canon indeed. The first clause is an attack on Pelagianism. It correctly states that one cannot be justified apart from the merit of Christ. That is, one cannot merit justification. The second is an attack on the Reformers forensic view: the view that we are declared righteous by legal declaration, not because we actually are righteous.
Although none of the canons attacked an accurate representation of the Reformer’s views, it is nevertheless clear that it was Rome’s intent was to anathematize the Reformers. The Reformation, in a sense, forced Rome, at Trent to be explicit in her doctrine on justification. When the smoke cleared, it was evident that her doctrine was very different from that of the Reformers.
If you agree with Luther that the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, is the gospel, and the point upon which the church stands or falls, then in placing the anathemas on the Reformers Rome, at Trent, placed an anathema on herself. The Roman Catholic Church, in that sense, died with the pronouncements of Trent, positions of the Roman Catholic Church that have never been magisterially revoked. While not impossible for Rome to declare that the anathemas of Trent were wrong, it would be exceedingly difficult.