a discussion starter
The national and provincial churches that came into existence in the sixteenth century were not new creations but reformed parts of the old, Western, Latin Church, centered upon Rome.
It is clear that they were not new creations for not only did they occupy the same territory and holy buildings—churches, chapels and cathedrals—but they continued the basic teachings of the traditional Church.
The Lutherans in Germany, the Reformed in Switzerland and the Anglicans in England all confessed the received truths set forth in the Three Creeds (Apostles', Nicene and Athanasian) and in the dogmas of The Holy Trinity and the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ as set forth by the Ecumenical Councils of the Early Church. Further, they all accepted the divine inspiration and authority of the Holy Scriptures and confessed Jesus as the Lord.
With this clearly in mind one can appreciate what was the unique message and doctrine of these churches. It was in the area of what we call soteriology, the doctrine of how God saves sinners—how I as a sinner may be in a right relation to God my Creator and Judge—and it is expressed in a phrase, justification by faith alone. We can extend this phrase in this way: justification by grace alone, through faith alone, as taught in Scripture alone, based upon the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. And the teaching is based primarily but not exclusively upon the Epistles of Paul to Galatia and Rome.
The Latin-speaking medieval Church had of course taught justification and there is an exposition of it in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas. However, it was not justification by faith alone but justification by grace infused into the soul and by faith and works. In the Council of Trent of the Roman Catholic Church (1545ff.) the "new" or "recovered" doctrine of justification by faith alone through imputation of the righteousness of Christ was rejected, in favor of justification by infusion of grace which produces righteousness in the faithful slowly over time.
The mature statements of the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican Churches, from the second half of the sixteenth century, on justification by faith make it very clear what it was on which they all agreed and which they taught. The repentant and believing sinner, called by the Gospel, is declared by God the Father, solely for the sake and merits of Jesus Christ, to be forgiven the guilt of sin and to be accounted as righteous in his sight. That is, there are two parts to imputation by God: first there is the non-imputation of sin (which means forgiveness of the guilt of sin), and, secondly, there is the full imputation of the righteousness of Christ (which means that the Father reckons to the believer the fullness of obedience which Christ Jesus as Representative Man offered to the Father in life and in death).
The believing sinner is declared righteous; that is, he is justified before and by God the Father, not for anything he has done, and not even because of his faith/trust (which is itself the gift of God's prevenient grace), but only and solely because of the mediatorial righteousness of Jesus, the Savior.
The Roman Catholic Church wholly rejected this doctrine of imputation and insisted that justification is a process based upon the infusion of grace into the soul, leading to the renewal of the whole person and justification at the end. The Protestant churches claimed that Rome confused justification with sanctification; further, they insisted that each and every believer is called to become righteous, holy and faithful—that is, be sanctified, set apart wholly for God—and that this begins from the moment of justification by imputation and continues throughout life. Indeed, they insisted that those who are truly justified will desire to be conformed in their lives to the purity of the mediatorial righteousness of Christ and will thus long to be made righteous in practical terms.
To understand justification by faith alone, how it is so very different from the doctrine of justification taught in the late medieval Church and by the Council of Trent, and how it speaks powerfully to the human conscience laden with the guilt of sin, is also to see why in the national churches of Europe much of the medieval sacramentalism, ritualism and ceremonialism was removed in the sixteenth century! Of all the reformed churches, the Anglican was the most conservative in terms of what it retained (as not denying justification by faith alone) from the religion and polity received from the medieval Church.
It has been said—and this is worthy of careful reflection—that the mainline Protestant Churches (and all shoots therefrom), which have emerged from the original national, reformed churches of Europe, have little or no reason for existence if they have given up, or do give up, the doctrine of justification by faith alone based upon the imputation (reckoning) to believing sinners of the mediatorial righteousness of the one Lord Jesus Christ.
--The Revd Dr Peter Toon, M.A. M.Th. D.Phil., President of the PBS 2007