One of the greatest disagreements in the history of the Church has been the attempt to answer the question: How is the work of Christ applied to me? Faith is the answer, and that answer is widely agreed upon. The dispute, however, arises in determining the effectiveness of faith in bringing Christ to us.
In the 16th Century, the fire of this debate blazed more brightly than ever between the Church in Rome and the Reformers. Both the Catholic Church and the Reformers claimed that sinners are justified by faith, yet they meant completely different things by the term. For the Catholics, faith was a work--primarily the sacrament of baptism--that acted as the instrumental cause in salvation. For the Reformers, faith was a belief in Christ's work, transferring His obedience, atonement, and righteousness to the sinner completely. Both claimed that faith played a part in applying Christ's work to humanity, but it was the Reformers who claimed that it was faith alone.
With this claim, they were assuming another important truth: salvation was by grace. Again, the Catholic Church and the Reformers agreed that salvation was by grace, and again, it was the Reformers who claimed that this grace was alone. Catholic doctrine taught that grace was a sort of ‘thing’ given to us in the sacraments. Therefore, if you wished to be saved, you had to partake in the sacraments, and because grace was a thing to be obtained, the more you could get of it, the better. Definitionally, however, grace cannot be earned.
The greatest clarity Scripture gives about this topic are found in Paul's words to the Ephesians. "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). In one small sentence, all the Catholic Church believed (and still does to this day) about faith and grace are reduced to rubble. Grace and faith work in tandem, almost synonymous in their contribution to our salvation. It is as John states in his gospel, "Grace upon grace" (John 1:16).
To the Romans, Paul’s message is the same when he contrasts the work of sin with the work of Christ. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). The early church father, Augustine, expounded upon this point:
“Now, when it was in his power to say, and to rightly say: “But the wages of righteousness is eternal life,” he yet preferred to say: “The grace of God is eternal life.” He did so in order that we may understand from this that God does not, for any merits of our own, but from His own divine compassion, prolong our existence to everlasting life.”
The Christian life is a life of “grace upon grace” because it is a life of faith in Christ. Our faith trusts not in our work or merit, but in the work of another. The one with faith says, “I have no works, past, present, or future that will ever make me righteous, but Christ, who is now mine, has given me His righteousness.” If grace is alone, faith must be alone; and if faith is alone, we must conclude that it is only by grace alone that we are saved.
In the Reformation, the glorious truth of grace alone dispelled the darkness of the conditional salvation given by Rome. This same truth still shines today. Contrary to popular belief in our western world, in the court of heaven, our good works never outweigh our bad works, nor do our good works change God’s mind about our bad works. The only way we can stand righteous before the judgement seat is if God saves unconditionally. And so, He must save by grace alone through faith alone.