For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith.
– Ephesians 2:8
Writing to the church in Ephesus Paul tells Christians that they “have been saved…” This past tense act of saving is otherwise known as justification. Christians are being sanctified in this life and will be glorified in the age to come. But Christians have already been completely and for all time justified. Unlike sanctification, justification is not an ongoing work of God in the life of the believer. It is a fully accomplished reality in which the Christian stands before God having been declared righteous without the slightest possibility that it can be altered or taken away.
The Roman Catholic Church has always taught that sinners are saved by grace. However, the Reformers understood that Rome’s definition of grace had departed sharply from that which is taught in Scripture. As a result the gospel itself had been gravely distorted. For Rome, grace was a substance one received from God which enabled the recipient to then do the works necessary to be justified. This amounts to a formula of justification by works.
After centuries of this errant teaching the Protestant Reformers recovered the biblical doctrine of grace which is that sinners are justified before a holy God entirely by grace alone. Rome taught that sinners are justified when God graciously gives them the ability to do the things which justify. The Reformers, armed with Scripture, retrieved the truth that sinners are justified not by any works of obedience that they perform. Rather, sinners are justified by God as He imputes or credits to them His own righteousness. The only righteousness that can justify the sinner is the righteousness of God.
Does God give His people the grace to live increasingly obedient lives? Absolutely! But those works of obedience can never be enough to justify or contribute to the justification of a sinner. Sinners are justified before God not because He enables them to live righteously. Sinners are justified before God when He, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone declares them righteous. That is the great recovery of the Protestant Reformation. Any other formula for man’s salvation is a false gospel and cannot save.