IT IS EASY TO FORGET WHY THE REFORMATION OCCURRED. This is especially true in the presence or zealous, sincere, Jews, Catholics, or liberal Protestants. Two of my favorite political commentators are Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro, both Orthodox Jews. We have much in common. They honor the Bible. They believe in personal responsibility. They promote law and order, the traditional family, and biblical sexual ethics, and they are doing great good for America.
In addition, my wife and I both grew up in Roman Catholic families. All of our extended family are also Roman Catholic. They are hardworking, honorable people for whom I have great respect. For all the Orthodox Jews, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and honest, hardworking Americans like them I am deeply thankful. In fact, I honor them for their contribution to family and society. Where would America be without them? Yet, although it pains me greatly to write this, despite all the good they bring to the table, they have rejected Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf and so are enemies of the gospel. It is crucial that you and I never forget this.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians makes this clear.
The first-century churches in Galatia had begun adding circumcision as a requirement for salvation. Note: This was a seemingly small thing. They had not abandoned justification by faith. They did not throw out the Trinity. They did not reject belief in the need for Jesus’ penal substitutionary death on the cross. They did not reject the bodily resurrection. They just added one small requirement—circumcision—to the gospel, and Paul responded with vehemence. In Galatians 1:6-9 he argues that this small change actually meant a different gospel. Speaking with apostolic authority, he told them that it even meant “deserting” Christ and all that he came to do.
So serious is this seemingly s small alteration that Paul ended this paragraph by praying an imprecatory prayer. He asked God to curse—i.e. send to hell—anyone willing to add circumcision to the gospel. Then, perceiving that this narrow understanding of salvation would make him unpopular, that he was not being inclusive, that in fact, he was being most insensitive, he ended “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
Paul did not end this language here. In the 10th verse of chapter three he wrote that all who rely upon works of the law (i.e. circumcision) for God’s acceptance are under a curse. This means “not saved.” In chapter five he warned that they would lose all the advantages of Christ’s life and work (verse 2), and that they have “fallen from grace” (verse 4). To put an exclamation point on all that he has said, he asks them to castrate themselves (Verse 12).
In Philippians 3:2 he gets even harsher. He labels anyone willing to add circumcision to the gospel a mutilator of the flesh, a “dog,” and an “evildoer.’
This is strong language. It is the “narrow gate” Christ warned about that was the only way to life (Matthew 7:12-14). It is decisive black and white thinking. It is confrontational to an extreme. It is not inclusive. It divides people into two groups—those who embrace the gospel and those who are its enemies. In the world’ eyes, “nice’ people don’t talk like this.
Most of us find this kind of thinking difficult. It is offensive. It doesn’t unite people it divides them, and this is the great sin in our pluralistic age. But if we are going to be faithful to Christ and his gospel we need to side with Paul. We need to be gracious, but we need to be decisive.
Why did Paul speak so strongly about merely adding one little requirement to salvation? After all, Roman Catholics add many more than one. They add mass attendance, participation in the sacraments, and a host of other rules. Jews add all the Old Testament laws. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox churches, and Muslims have other requirements. Paul spoke this way because a rejection of justification by faith alone is a rejection of four deeper crucial assumptions. They are the edifice upon which the gospel—justification by faith alone—stands. Without these assumptions, we have no gospel.
These assumptions, and their conclusion, Justification by Faith Alone, is the reason there was a Protestant Reformation.
Council of Trent
Roman Catholics believe in justification by faith, but they leave out the alone. The Reformers, siding with Paul, realized that the rejection of this one small word made them enemies of the gospel. In fact, astoundingly, the counsel of Trent (1645-63) completely reversed Galatians. They actually called down a curse on anyone willing to affirm justification by faith alone. Canon Twelve reads—
“If anyone shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified…let him be accursed”
Here we need to pause and differentiate between the Roman Catholic church and individual Roman Catholics. Although this is the official position of Roman Catholicism, we are grateful that many individual Catholics either do not understand this or reject it. In other words, some Roman Catholics believe they are justified through faith alone. They are evangelical Catholics, and for that we are glad.
Here are the four assumptions. The gospel assumes that God is holy, that his standards are perfection, that humans are woefully imperfect, and that therefore salvation must be received as a gift, or no one will be saved.
God Is Holy
First, God is holy (Isaiah 6:3). He is transcendent. That means he is unlike us. He is morally perfect in a way we cannot imagine. He hates sin and evil. You could say he is allergic to all forms of it. Nothing sinful can approach him or be anywhere near him. His Holy Spirit is a seven-fold fire in front of God’s throne, ready to consume any sinful person impertinent to approach (Revelation 4:5). He is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). So great is this separation from us that no one can see him and live (Exodus 33:20). The contrast between our sinfulness and God’s holiness would mean our instant obliteration.
God Demands Righteousness
Second, the gospel assumes that the requirement for salvation is righteousness. No one will enter heaven that God has not declared righteous. Jesus said it this way. “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Pay careful attention to the words “must” and “Perfect.”
Not you should be perfect. Not you should try to be perfect. Not you should aim at perfection. No, you “must” be perfect. “Must” means it’s a requirement. There are no exceptions!
We also need to think about the word “perfect.” The standard is not 90% good. It is not even 99%. It is 100%. No faults. Moral perfection. No sins. It means total and complete obedience to the first commandment 24 X 7. “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with all your whole soul, and with all of your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). None of us have done this except for a few rare moments of exceptional fervent devotion. We have never done it 24 X 7. This takes us to our third assumption.
We Are Not Righteous
The gospel assumes the complete lack of righteousness (perfection) in sinful humanity. “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). Notice the universal language—“None,” “Not one,” “No one,” “all,” “Not even one.” This means only one person has been sufficiently righteous to earn a relationship with God—the Lord Jesus Christ. He lived a “perfect” life. He loved God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength 24 X 7. He alone meets God’s standard. Everyone else falls short. Everyone else is under God’s condemnation.
This means that no matter how hard you and I try, we will never be able to earn salvation. If we are to be saved it must be a divine gift.
The Gift of Salvation
The gospel assumes all of this. It assumes that God must save and that our salvation must be entirely God’s work, not ours. The gospel presumes that from first to last, our salvation will be by faith alone on the basis of God’s grace alone.
This is why Paul reacted so strongly to the suggestion that one simple requirement, circumcision, be added to the gospel. It was an attempt to bring God down (he is not really holy: his standards are not that difficult), and lift humanity up (you are not really that sinful). It rejects these four assumptions about God, his holiness, his standards and man’s inability.
This is why Paul opens his letter to the Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Why such negativity? Because he knows the rejection and resistance that the preaching of these four assumptions will produce, and he wants his readers to know, yes, this teaching is unpopular, but I am not ashamed of it. In fact, if you have never been tempted to be ashamed of the gospel, it is likely that you have never understood it.
Then Paul declares God’s glorious solution to our infinite need. The gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17). This means that the righteousness that you need to get into heaven can only be received by humbling yourself, admitting that you have a problem that you cannot solve, and that there will be no solution unless, like that lady in the picture above, you open the hand of faith and receive the free gift of righteousness. Any and all attempts to earn it will bring God’s condemnation.
Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, and member of the Orthodox communion all reject this gospel. Yes, some of them believe in justification by faith, but they reject the word “alone,” and that is why there was a Reformation. When the word “alone” is removed the gospel morphs into a different, non-saving, non-Christ-glorifying gospel.
But Paul is zealous for the gospel. He is very clear about these issues. That is why he called down God’s cursing on anyone willing to add circumcision as a requirement for salvation. Are you and I willing to do the same?
In summary, we need to be very clear about the gospel. The winsomeness and helpfulness of our Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Mormon friends makes this position difficult. We love them. We care for them, and there is much to admire about them. But their future is hopeless unless they transfer their faith from their performance to Christ’s, and embrace justification by faith alone.
Adding any requirement except faith and repentance is a “distortion” of the gospel. A distortion of the gospel is a “different” gospel. Belief in a different gospel is “deserting” Christ. It is no small thing. It is a cause for God’s “cursing.” To maintain this gospel you and I will need to conquer the fear of man.
The gospel is a narrow gate, and it opens onto a narrow path. Are we willing to use that gate and walk that path? Are we willing to call our friends, our relatives, and our associates to do the same?
The word “alone” is one of the most important words in the English dictionary. It changed the course of history. Your fate and the fate of everyone you know rides on your willingness to use it.