In the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, the Church of Rome decided to call a general church council to address a number of issues. Besides being the first council of a divided Western church, the Council of Trent became notable for being part of the Counter Reformation. So, included in the many statements issued by the delegates, appeared an explanation of justification. Considered against the backdrop of the Reformers’ famous five statements of scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone, the council’s statements appeared complicated, traditional, and aimed at maintaining the authority of the church.
To be fair, the council’s statement on justification did attempt to solve a problem that many Christians continue to confront. That problem involves the difficulty of maintaining a strong sense of human freedom and responsibility, and at the same time deal with the apparent hopelessness of a sinful human race. What does God expect of humans? And to what extent does God come to our aid and/or expect some kind of perfection?
One thing the council did not want to do, of course, was to give any ground to the reformers who maintained that justification was entirely from divine grace. Human works, although important in the Christian life, played no role in justifying a person. The righteousness necessary for salvation, according to the reformers, must be found completely outside of a person. In that sense it was an “alien” righteousness, completely foreign to human beings because it came as a complete and total gift from God. Luther, in particular, clung to Paul’s statement “The just shall live by faith.” And he came to understand “the righteousness of God apart from law,” as God’s disposition to save sinners, not destroy them.
The Council of Trent, in contrast, had to give works their due. So it opted for a kind of faith-plus-works view of justification. In practical terms this meant that a person was expected to have faith in God’s gift of grace and then prove the validity of that faith by doing acts of penance and other good works in order to be saved. What about human fallibility and sinfulness? The answer was, humans should do the best they can, and God will make up the difference.
The notion of Christ making up the difference was not unknown to the reformers. And many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, still use similar expressions to affirm that God is always there to help the struggling sinner. But for the medieval Roman Church, the expression denoted a literal balancing of the scales of justice. It meant that a certain amount of merit had to be accounted for through a combination of good human works, and the merit accrued by Jesus on the cross. Since humans fall short of the merit necessary for salvation, the weight of Christ’s righteousness was added to that of the believer, both of which when summed together yielded the amount needed to balance the scales and qualify the sinner for salvation. Unfortunately, this kind of making up the difference only strengthened the notion that salvation was a matter of merit and accounting procedures. Try as hard as you can, and God will make up the difference. It sounded logical, perhaps even merciful. But not only did it contradict the reformers’ “grace alone” affirmation; it contradicted scripture, and denigrated the character of God. It turned the sinner's relationship to God into one of uncertainty and legalism.
Unfortunately, certain modern derivations of the faith-plus-works idea still circulate. One of the more common in my youth was the stair-step theory of salvation. This was usually represented by a graph that showed the lifelong progress of people as they lived the Christian life from conversion until death—or the second coming, whichever came first. And the shape of the graph usually resembled an ascending stairway, a ladder, or perhaps a rather optimistic forecast of the stock market. It started low and ended high. The top of the graph represented some sort of perfection or sanctification, which was expected either at death or when Jesus comes. Until that point of perfection, Jesus made up the difference. So, incredibly, as a person progressed in their character development, they relied less and less on Christ’s righteousness, because they had more and more of their own!
The folly of such an idea ought to be obvious, especially when compared to passages of scripture in Romans and Galatians. Although the reformers were human, and that humanity often appeared in their scriptural interpretations—both Luther and Calvin, for example, retained the Augustinian notion of predestination—on this point they were correct. Salvation is a matter of grace, not works, and certainly not some sort of stair-step progress report. We are saved by grace alone, period.
Paul faced a faith-plus-works teaching in Galatia. His answer was; the law, as good as it is, could only be our schoolmaster. It could not save us. Its purpose was to lead us to Christ. Unfortunately the stair-step theories of salvation, as well as the Council of Trent statements, turn the schoolmaster role on its head. Christ, in the stair-step theory, is simply an agent of good law keeping. He becomes then, merely a helper that satisfies a legal requirement. So instead of the law leading us to Christ, Christ leads us to the law. Paul called that “no gospel at all.”
The good news is, salvation is not a matter of balancing scales or showing upward progress. It is a matter of belonging to Christ. And if we belong to Christ, then we “are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). We can inherit salvation. We can receive salvation as a gift. But we cannot earn it, buy it, or leverage it. In a sense there is stairway to heaven. It is the one provided by God so that through Christ he could descend and rescue fallen humanity.