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Faith Alone: The Material Cause of the Reformation

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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March 13, 2023 12:01 am

Faith Alone: The Material Cause of the Reformation

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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March 13, 2023 12:01 am

We are declared just in God's sight not by baptism, nor by penance, but through faith alone in Christ alone. Today, R.C. Sproul identifies the underlying cause of the Protestant Reformation.

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Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul

When it comes to the Gospel, one word can make all the difference between eternal life and eternal death.

Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and thanks for joining us today for Renewing Your Mind. At the heart of the Gospel is the doctrine of justification, and throughout church history there have been battles in how we define that, and one word really does make all the difference. Martin Luther said that it's this doctrine by which the church stands or falls. So what is that word, and why is this doctrine so important?

Here's Dr. Sproul. This series is going to follow the so-called solas of the Protestant Reformation. At the church where I'm the minister of preaching and teaching, we have on our bulletin every Sunday morning a list of the five solas of the Protestant Reformation, and they include sola fide, which means justification by faith alone, sola gratia, salvation is by grace alone, solus Christus, that our salvation is through Christ alone, sola scriptura, that the sole authority that binds the conscience of the Christian is the Bible alone, and then finally sola deo gloria, to God alone belongs the glory. And so we're going to start our study of the solas by looking at the first one, sola fide, and I'd like to address that subject under the subtitle of, What Was the Matter with the Protestant Reformation?

Let me say it again. What was the matter with the Protestant Reformation? Now some people would answer that question by saying the matter with the Protestant Reformation was there was one, because it produced the largest schism in the history of the organized church. Others see the Protestant Reformation as the acme of spiritual recovery of biblical Christianity in church history, and therefore in a sort of golden age of biblical faith. Well, when I ask the question, what was the matter with the Protestant Reformation, I'm not using the word matter in the normal way that that expression is indicated.

When we say, what's the matter with something, we mean what's wrong with it, or what was the fault of it. But I mean something quite different when I say what was the matter with the Protestant Reformation. What I mean by that is what was the essence, the substance, the stuff, or what we call in philosophy the material cause of the Protestant Reformation? What was the chief issue that provoked such massive consequences as this split that occurred in the 16th century? And when historians of theology and of church history look back to the 16th century, they'll often use distinctions originally set forth by the philosopher Aristotle when he distinguished between different types of causes, and they will distinguish between what's called the formal cause and the material cause. And when the church historians distinguish between the formal and material causes of the 16th century Reformation, they will say the formal cause, the intellectual background to the issue, was a dispute over the seat of final authority that binds the Christian conscience, and we'll look at that separately under the title of sola scriptura.

But what is called the material cause? Again, the substantive issue that was the core point of dispute was the doctrine of justification, and the Protestant view is expressed in the shorthand of the Latin sola fide. And just a sola is similar to solo. If you take flying lessons and the first time you fly solo, that means that you fly the plane by yourself, that you fly it alone. And if you stand up in church on Sunday morning in the choir and sing a solo, that means no one else is singing with you.

You're there all by your lonesome singing the song. Well, the same word is behind the word sola, which means alone. And we've heard the motto of the United States Marine Corps semper fidelis, which means always faithful. And if we're not familiar with that, we are familiar with the hymn that we sing during the Christmas season, adeste fidelis, which means O come all ye faithful.

We have a word in the English language where we speak of fiduciary responsibilities, responsibilities that require good faith and so on. So here what we're talking about is the Latin word for faith, and the phrase sola fide means by faith alone. And again, as I say, this is shorthand for the central issue of the Reformation, which focused on the question of justification, and the Protestant Reformers set forth the doctrine that our justification is by faith and by faith alone, without any mixture of good works or merit on our part. Now, to understand sola fide in its historical context, we have to understand something about the theological dispute based on the Roman Catholic understanding of justification.

But first a word about justification itself and its relevance to the 16th century, to the first century, and to the 21st century. At the heart of this dispute was not a tangential debate over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or in a needless controversy over pedantic points of theology and of doctrine that professors disagreed about. But this issue touched the very heart of the Christian faith because the question of justification is designed to answer the deeper question, how can an unjust person possibly survive the judgment of a just and holy God? Now, in our day, I find that people really don't care that much about the doctrine of justification. It has been reduced pretty much to a non-issue, just as the differences among churches historically over the substance and the meaning of the gospel itself, that those differences have now been minimized as being no significant matter.

Because we're living in a time in the first place of relativism that says truth is relative or pluralism that says there are many different approaches to truth and views of truth, and doctrinal issues should never divide us because what really counts are personal relationships, not doctrine. That despite the New Testament is replete with apostolic concern about correct doctrine. But that's not where the church is in this day and age, and sometimes we have to ask the question, why?

Well, to try to answer that question, why, let me use a little anecdote. I was driving my car down the highway, and I was listening to my friend Alistair Begg on Christian radio, and he was giving the second of his addresses on being an almost Christian. And he talked about people who are exposed to the preaching of the gospel, who join the church, who come Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, but who have never really committed their lives to Christ. And in the context of this particular radio program, at the end of his message where Alistair was basically giving an altar call over the radio, he said to the people in his own congregation, there are some of you here today who have heard this message of the gospel and are untouched by it.

You're indifferent to it, and you have not responded to it, and you perhaps today will not respond to it. And for you people, what you are faced with is the judgment of hell itself. And then he went on to give a recapitulation of the biblical doctrine of the last judgment and of hell and told his congregation what awaited those people who rejected the gospel of Christ. And basically what he was saying is that those people who reject the gospel of Christ stay in their sins and remain unjustified. And we think back to the Old Testament to David's rhetorical question, if the Lord would mark iniquities, who would stand?

And it's rhetorical because the question is obvious that the answer is no one. And what Alistair was trying to awaken 21st century Americans to with his message was that promise, that divine promise from the lips of God that all men will be brought into His judgment and will be judged according to the righteousness of Christ and those who are found wanting will be sent into the abyss of hell is a doctrine that the church doesn't believe anymore because if it did believe it, it would preach it. And if it did believe it, justification would be just as much a theological issue today as it was in the 16th century. You see, if you're going to understand the upheaval that came about in the 16th century, you have to understand that the church in the 16th century believed in a last judgment. The church in the 16th century believed in the wrath of God. The church in the 16th century believed in the justice of God.

And the church in the 16th century believed in hell. That's why at center stage was the question, how can I be saved? Recently I've published a book with the simple title, Saved from what?

A book that I wrote at the risk of offending the intelligence of anybody out there. Why would anybody ask the question what we're saved from? Isn't it axiomatic? Isn't it manifest? Isn't it clear that what we're saved from is the wrath of God that is to come?

I would think it would be axiomatic, but it's not. People are now saying what I'm saved from are bad habits, addictions, social failure, psychological deficiency, broken relationships, and all the rest. And we are so concerned about the relationships that we have in this world, we don't even worry about the relationship that we have with a just and holy God. But what the Christian faith is about in the first instance is not the restoration of human relationships, although it cares very much about human relationships.

In the first instance, it has to do with the repair of our relationship to God. And so at the center is the question, how can a sinner escape the judgment of God? How can a sinner possibly be accepted by God in God's judgment because I've written a whole book on this, by the way, called Faith Alone, which I think is one of the most important books I've ever written. And I encourage those who want to look deeper into this doctrine of justification by faith that they would please read that book.

But let's look now at what is the issue. At the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, something may come as a surprise to many Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church then as now believed that justification is by faith, by grace, and by Christ.

Three of the issues that are captured in the essence of Protestant thinking are, as I've already mentioned, sola fide, by faith alone, sola gratia, by grace alone, solus Christus, through Christ alone. And because of that, many Protestants believe that the Roman Catholic Church did not believe in justification by faith or in justification by grace or in justification by Christ. That's simply not true because very early the church had to combat the heresy of Pelagius, an Irish monk who challenged St. Augustine in the early church and taught that people can be saved without grace, that people can achieve lives of perfect righteousness without any assistance from God. And so for Pelagius, people don't need grace. They don't need the help of Christ.

He would say that grace and Christ facilitate salvation, that is, make it easier and assist in the process, but they're not absolutely necessary, that we have it within our own power to live lives of perfect righteousness. Now, you have to understand that the Catholic Church roundly and soundly condemned Pelagianism in the ancient world, again in the 16th century, and as recently as the Catholic Catechism, that the Roman Catholic Church emphatically does not believe that people can be saved by their own righteousness without any help from God. But what did they teach in the 16th century, and what do they continue to teach today? Well, they teach that faith is a prerequisite. Faith does three things for justification. Faith is what they call the anitium, that is the initiation or the beginning of justification. They also say that faith is the fundamentum or the foundation of justification.

And they also say that faith is the rodex or the root of justification. So you see that faith is of critical importance according to the Roman Catholic Church in three ways with respect to justification. It's important to start the process of justification.

It's the initiation. It's the foundation upon which justification is established. And third, it's the very core or root of our justification. So to say that the Roman Catholic Church doesn't believe that faith is necessary or that you can be justified apart from faith is simply to seriously slander and misrepresent the Roman Catholic Church. Secondly, the Roman Catholic Church has always taught that grace is necessary, a necessary prerequisite for justification.

And without the grace of God that is infused into the soul sacramentally, which we'll look at more closely in a moment, without that grace we'd be left back in the hopeless condition of Pelagianism, of having to try to earn our way into heaven simply on the ground and basis of our own righteousness and our own merit. And Rome rejects that. And of course the Roman Catholic Church affirms the necessity of the atonement of Christ and of the work of Christ to help us in our justification. And so just a brief recapitulation, Rome believes that justification is by faith, it's by grace, and it's by Christ. What Rome doesn't believe is that justification is by faith alone or by grace alone or by Christ alone.

But rather it combines other elements. For example, in the Roman Catholic view it is faith plus works that gives us justification. It is grace plus merit that gives us justification. It is Christ plus me and my inherent righteousness that gives me justification.

That's the formula in a nutshell. The Reformers objected strenuously to this and said, no, our works do not count towards our justification. I'll explain that more later. That we have no merit of our own of any kind that we bring before God. As the hymn writer, Augustus Toplady, wrote in Rock of Ages, it's nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to the cross I cling. So this is crossed out by the Reformers, this is crossed out by the Reformers, and my inherent righteousness is crossed out so that you have faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone. Well, briefly for the Roman Catholic Church, justification begins with baptism. And baptism is called by Rome the instrumental cause of justification. Now what that means very simply is this, back in Aristotle's day when Aristotle divided different types of causes, he used an illustration of building a statue. And the material cause of the statue is the stone out of which the statue is made. The efficient cause is the sculptor who uses his instruments to bring about the shaping of the statue. But the instrumental cause would be the chisel and the hammer.

The instrumental cause of Rembrandt's Night Watch was his paintbrush. It was the instrument he used to bring about the effect. And so, according to the Roman Catholic Church, the instrument that God uses to bring justification to the needy person is, in the first instance, the instrument of baptism. In baptism, the person who is baptized receives an in-pouring or an infusion of what is called justifying grace, or what is called the grace of the righteousness of Christ. That is, when the person is baptized, something happens inwardly. The soul is infused with divine grace. And if that person cooperates with that infused or poured in grace in baptism, and not only cooperates with it, but assents to it, the Latin is cooperare et assentare, if you cooperate with that infused grace and assent to that grace, then you are in a state of justification, wherein you remain until or unless you commit mortal sin. And if you commit a mortal sin, the reason why mortal sin is called mortal sin is that because it kills the inhabiting grace that is poured into your soul at baptism. So you have this infusion of grace, and that's good until you commit a mortal sin. When you commit a mortal sin, that grace is killed.

It's destroyed. And so you are now no longer in a state of justification, and you have to be re-justified. Well, that doesn't mean you go back to baptism, but there's a second sacrament that's crucial to this process in the Roman Catholic system, and that's the sacrament of penance. And the sacrament of penance is defined by the Roman Catholic Church as the second plank of justification for those who have made shipwreck of their souls.

So the first plank is baptism. The second plank is penance, and we'll look at that more closely in the next lecture. But you see that in both cases justification is acquired instrumentally through the sacraments. The Reformers said, no, the instrumental cause of our justification is not baptism. It is not penance. It is faith in Christ.

That is the tool or the instrument that links us to Christ and all that He has done for us by which we are made just in the sight of God. Well, we'll look at that and the other issues that are attended in our next message. Such a crucial reminder there from Dr. R.C.

Sproul. Well, thank you for joining us today on Renewing Your Mind. As Christians, we not only want to believe the gospel, we want to be able to share it with others. In this series we're listening to this week, God alone helps us to not only better understand the gospel, but to more clearly communicate it. We'd love to send you this complete series. It is 10 messages across three DVDs for your donation of any amount. You can make your gift today by visiting or by calling us at 800 435 4343. That series again is God alone where Dr. Sproul walks us through those foundational principles and points of doctrine that were rediscovered during the Protestant reformation. We often sing of amazing grace, how sweet the sound, but do we really need God's grace to be saved? Well, tomorrow Dr. Sproul will answer that question with a resounding yes. So I hope you join us tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-13 02:48:21 / 2023-03-13 02:56:11 / 8

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