Fifth centenary of the Reformation: The main principles / Part I: Sola Fide

On the occasion of the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation, today we are launching a series in five parts intended to present the main principles of the Protestant Reformation. Today, our first part will be devoted to “sola Fide” (faith alone). May this series help all readers ofInfo Chrétienne to understand the stakes of the Reformation, and what it wanted to distinguish itself from the faith and the Catholic tradition.

Luther is an “extraordinary” character. Anguished, sometimes "outrageous" in his words (not to say rude), he is above all a man passionate about truth, refusing any "concession" on the word of God. Two anecdotes describe the character well: at the Worms diet, where his interlocutors ask him to retract, he answers: "I cannot because my conscience is bound by the Word of God". Then, having received his bull of excommunication by the pope, he will tear it up by fire in front of an admiring and dumbfounded crowd. But it should be clarified that Luther did not want to secede from the Church. He wanted above all to reform it from within: this separation was imposed on him in spite of himself, with the help of the German Princes, whose "role" in this affair cannot be neglected.

Augustine will defend in advance theses very close to Protestantism

It should also be noted that Luther was an Augustinian monk. Like Calvin, he had a deep respect for the work of St Augustine, the foremost theologian of the Catholic Church along with St Thomas Aquinas. However, in his fight against the monk Pelage, who minimized the corruption of nature and the role of Grace, Augustine defended in advance theses very close to Protestantism, to the point that some Protestants are not wrong to see in St Augustine a “Catholic” who became “Protestant” (despite the anachronism!) at the end of his life. St Augustine is by far the most cited author in The Institution of the Christian Religion of Calvin, the latter having above all the concern to show that the Protestant faith is in fact "older" than the Catholic faith, which is the product of a theological elaboration over the centuries (It is true that St Augustine has greatly evolved , and that the positions he previously adopted in his fight against Manichaeism are fully Catholic. In addition, its “ecclesiology” and its “sacramental theology” remain typically “Catholic”).

It is said that Luther, in his life as a monk, always relapsed into the same sins. So he ended up despairing of his salvation, failing to conform to the demands of Christian life, feeling abandoned by God. And then one day, reading theEpistle to the Romans from St Paul, comes enlightenment who changed his life and opened the doors of heaven to him.

“If Abraham had been justified by works, he is to be proud of, but not before God! What does the Scripture say? Abraham had faith in God and it was counted to him as righteousness. Now, to him who does works, his wages are not counted as a favor, but as a due. On the other hand, to him who does not perform works, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as justice ”
Romans, 4, 1-8

The righteousness of faith opposed to the righteousness of works

Luther then understands that it is not man who, by his works, can make himself right before God, but that it is God himself (doctrine of passive justice) which makes man just by paying was in the work of Christ accomplished for us on the cross, for the atonement of our sins. It's here righteousness of faith, which Luther opposes to the "righteousness of works" (of the law). Two other passages from Paul are equally decisive:

“For the sake of Christ I have lost everything and I regard it as garbage in order to gain Christ and to be found in him, no longer certainly with my own righteousness, which comes from the Law, but with that which comes by faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God and is based on faith ”
Philippians 3, 7-9

“It is by grace indeed that you are saved, by means of faith. It is not from you, for it is a gift from God. It does not come from works either, so that no one can boast before God ”.
Ephesians, 2, 4-9

It is therefore God who will come to the aid of man, and it is he who will accomplish a “saving” work for us.

We see what makes the originality of Christianity : all religions advocate a salvation by works. It is, to be Safe, to "do works" to make oneself pleasing to God. Christianity reverses this logic: sin has, in fact, dug an insurmountable abyss between man and God. Suddenly, man does not have the power to cross this abyss, only God can do it. It is therefore God who will come to the aid of man, and it is he who will accomplish a “saving” work for us (it is the work of Jesus accomplished on the cross). The only thing God asks of us is just toaccept this work, to believe in the redemptive work of Jesus who substitutes for us on the cross for the atonement of our sins, which allows us to be reconciled with God, to escape his "anger", and to enter into a new relationship with him, a filial relationship since God is now, for those who believe in jesus, a father "…

Be careful, however, not to confuse: if man is not saved BY his works, living faith ("Animated by charity", says Galatians 5, 6) is not without works either, these "Good works which God has prepared for us in advance, that we may practice them" (Ephesians 2, 9). The works are therefore not the causes of salvation (we are saved by faith alone, SOLA FIDE), but they are the "sign" by which we recognizes the justified man, which allows to grant James and Paul, Jacques insisting particularly, in his epistle (cf. James 2, 14-26) on the idea that the true faith, distinguished from this pseudo-faith which is the "faith of demons", is recognized by its fruits, by "works" which are like its manifestation (these are the "Works of faith", that should not be confused with "Works of the law", only the seconds being denounced by Paul).

Far from wanting to abolish works, Luther on the contrary always emphasized that works were the testimony of a living faith.

As such, it is necessary to rectify the erroneous interpretations that the Catholic detractors of Luther made of his thought, by relying on the latter's assertion that theEpistle of James (which insists on works as a sign of genuine faith) would be a “straw epistle”. Far from wanting to abolish works, Luther on the contrary always emphasized that works were the testimony of a living faith, and he especially insisted on the fact that it is faith which is the " captain of works », In the sense that it is not his works that make man pleasing to God, but it is the faith that animates them that makes his works good in the eyes of God. This is the Lutheran interpretation of the word of Christ according to which the tree is recognized by its fruits: it is not its fruits that make the tree good, but it is because the tree is good that fruits, which are the sign of this, will be good, while the bad tree (the unregenerated tree) is recognized by the fact that it does not bear good fruit. Anyway, so we don't do works for to be saved, that is to say by "calculation" and "interest", but by pure thanksgiving, because we are saved, on the understanding that God accepts us and justifies us by pure grace, free of charge, on the basis of "faith alone" (hence the idea that righteousness of christ is "imputed" to us from without, through faith in him). But this righteousness that is imputed to us from the outside, on the basis of the faith alone, is nevertheless inseparable from regeneration, "Since God has poured out his love in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that he has given us" (Romans 5, 5).

Hence the need to correct another misinterpretation made by the Council of Trent: relying on an awkward image used by Luther to show character forensic from justification, according to which the righteousness of Christ would come to clothe us like a cloak while leaving us internally in our sinful nakedness, Catholics drew the conclusion that justification by faith was not accompanied by any regeneration interior. And this is often how the famous "Simul justus, simul peccator" (both righteous and sinful) of Luther, as if man were declared righteous by God on the basis of faith alone, while continuing to be a sinner, which would then contradict what Paul says in Romans 6:15 -18. Yet here again Luther never denied that justification by faith brings about an interior regeneration of the heart of man (it is the purification of the heart by faith, what Paul calls the circumcision of the heart, and which is for him the true circumcision). And the "Simul justus, simul peccator" rather means, for him, that regeneration, which makes man a "new man", does not abolish the old man, an old man with whom the new man must henceforth enter into a permanent struggle, in order to win, even if it is not immune to defeat. But these defeats, of which he must repent, do not call into question the victory which was obtained for him on the cross by Christ, inasmuch as he has already taken upon himself all his sins on the basis of faith alone. This is the first major principle of the reform, SOLA FIDE.

Charles-Eric de Saint-Germain, teacher in preparatory classes, is author, among others, of An evangelical speaks to Catholics » (FX. De Guibert, 2008),  Private lessons in Philosophy », I and II, (Ellipses), "The defeat of reason" (Salvator, 2015), "Philosophical-theological writings on Christianity" (Excelsis, 2016).

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