In 1 Timothy, Paul often calls us to hold fast to “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (6:3). He is referring to the gospel, which can be summarized in the five solas of the Reformation: sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, sola Scriptura, and soli Deo gloria.
Sola fide, that is, faith alone, is a key difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant theology. Faith alone is tied to the doctrine of justification, which answers the question: How can a sinful human being be set right before the holy God? Our Creator is perfectly righteous and only those with clean hands and pure hearts may stand in His holy place (Ps. 24:3–4), but we are polluted by sin and something must change if we are to live in his presence forever, not under eternal condemnation.
Contrary to what many Protestants think, Roman Catholicism affirms that we are justified or accounted as right before the Lord by faith in Christ and that no one is saved apart from Him. However, Roman Catholic theologians deny that faith is sufficient for justification. Instead, good works of obedience must be added to faith in order for God to declare us righteous. Justification comes first through the sacraments—justifying grace is poured into the soul at baptism, lost through mortal sin, and restored through confession and works of penance. Rome argues works cooperate with grace to make us righteous, and we are justified only if we have actually become righteous through our faith and works.
The Protestant (and biblical) doctrine of justification also affirms the necessity of faith, grace, and Christ, but it adds the important term alone. No one keeps God’s law perfectly and our good works are “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6, KJV); therefore, our works can in no way be the ground of our acceptance before God. Only the merit of Christ can set us right with God, and we access this merit by trusting in Christ alone. God does not wait for us to become righteous before He justifies us, otherwise we would never be justified. While still sinners He counts us as righteous in His sight through faith apart from any good we do.
The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the ultimate basis for our justification, a teaching we will explore later. For now, what we must remember is that good works do not set us right before God, although they do prove that He has declared us righteous in Christ (James 2:14–26). If we have to trust in our works at all, even if only a little bit, we can never be assured of our justification. None of us can do enough good to stand in God’s presence.