A common critique is that this doctrine makes for lazy Christians. The objection goes something like this: If I am justified merely by faith and not works, then there is no need for me to do good works. But the Reformers scoffed at that notion, because it misinterprets what God is doing for us through faith in Christ!
To understand the importance of the statement “faith alone,” we need to remember why the Reformers sought to recover the doctrine of God’s grace. They wanted to emphasize the fact that we are made right with God not through any merit of our own but rather through God’s own free grace. In Christ, we receive unmerited favor from God.
The Roman Catholics in the sixteenth century would have agreed with this to some extent. They indeed believed we needed God’s grace to get to heaven. But how do we get the grace? Here’s what they said at the Council of Trent in 1547 (which is still Roman Catholic doctrine today):
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 accursed. (Sixth Session, Canon IX)
Faith is the gift of God.
This is very strong language. What Rome is saying is that if you believe that it is purely by faith that you receive God’s grace, you will be accursed—that is, damned to hell. What’s the problem with this? It’s the very teaching of Scripture that they are condemning! Paul could not be clearer:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)
Rome wanted to say that we are saved by God’s grace in cooperation with faith and works. In fact, it even saw faith itself as one of the works that earns us God’s grace. But you can’t earn grace—otherwise, it’s not grace, not a gift. Rome taught a theological contradiction, one that Paul warned against in Ephesians 2.