In 2 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul is telling us about the “thorn” in his flesh, a messenger from Satan that would torment him to keep him from becoming conceited from the “surpassing greatness of the revelations” he was receiving from the Lord. He said:
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor 12:8-9)
One over-arching theme of the Reformation was a simple, but crucial, fact:
God’s grace is sufficient to save.
The teachings of the Roman Church at the time leading up to, and including the Reformation, greatly focused on works, treating the Christian faith much in the same way the Pharisees had treated their own ideas of righteousness and justification — as though it were some checklist to be completed.
The Council of Trent, which met in a number of sessions from 1545 to 1563, addressing a variety of the concerns of the Reformers, allowed Protestants to attend, but not vote, and dug in its heels over the series of meetings, declaring that the official position of the Roman Catholic Church would be to hold fast to practices such as the “veneration” of saints, relics (things like a vial supposedly containing the Virgin Mary’s breast milk, or the myriad preserved body parts of martyrs, etc..) and the like. The Roman Catholic Church also reaffirmed its employment of indulgences (“being granted full or partial remission from temporal punishment for sins that have already been forgiven” through good works and/or certain prayers – Wikipedia). The Council of Trent did ban the selling of indulgences a la Johannes Tetzel, known for his sales pitch, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!” Tetzel was also said to have sold forgiveness for sins not yet committed.
One of the most important declarations, however, was on the subject of Justification.
To this day, the Roman Catholic Church rejects the doctrine that we are justified once and for all by Christ’s atoning work on the cross, and saved by grace alone, through faith alone (Eph 2:8), but they believe, rather, that Justification is an ongoing process that begins with baptism and continues throughout the life of the believer, and that, “At the final judgment, the individual’s works will then be evaluated. At that time, those who are righteous will be shown to be so.” (Wikipedia)
In essence, for the Roman Catholic Church, and those Protestants crying for reformation, the substance of the argument could be summed up as Roman Catholicism’s “Faith + Works” salvation, versus Protestantism’s “By Grace, through Faith” salvation.
The Roman Catholic Church is committed to the notion that works play a part in a sinner justifying himself before God.
In the Reformed (as in, reforming back to original Biblical doctrine) faith, those who are saved (the Elect) were predestined to life in Christ before the foundation of the earth was laid (Rom 8:29-30; Eph 1:5; 1:11). By God’s glorious grace, knowing that we are all incapable of justifying ourselves by works, the Justification of the Elect was done once and for all by God through Christ’s atonement for our sins:
“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” (Rom 3:22b-25)
Again, for the Reformers, and indeed for true Protestants to this day, we hold fast to the Biblical doctrine that we are unable to justify ourselves before God or to play any role whatsoever in our own salvation, as it is entirely an act of Grace on the part of He who saves, and that the outworking of salvation, or “good works” are only the fruit of a saving faith. The “good works” play no role in assuring our salvation, they are only the visible evidence of true conversion.
Thanks to the Reformation, and those great martyrs of the Christian faith who were burned at the stake for daring to translate the Word of God into the common man’s language, we can read for ourselves that God’s amazing Grace is sufficient to save. He is not waiting to see the works we produce in our lives to determine whether or not we will be saved. He already knows, because He chose us in Christ before the earth was ever created. He also assures us that when we are saved — something we can be sure of evidenced by our faith in Christ and a new life transformed by the Holy Spirit — that we can be secure in our salvation.
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Eph 1:13-14)
“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Cor 1:21-22)