The answer to this question was the hinge on which the Reformation turned. Martin Luther and the later reformers answered that question differently than did the Roman Catholic Church of their day and churches in the Protestant tradition continue to answer it differently than the Roman Catholic Church does in our day.
The Protestant answer is by faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solus Christus). In other words, Christ is sufficient. In His active and passive obedience, Christ did all the work necessary for the justification of His people. As Jonathan Edwards said “You bring nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.”
There is ample scriptural evidence for this position but none more clear than Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
The Roman Catholic answer, however, is that Christ is necessary and very, very helpful to be sure, but He’s not sufficient. His work must be supplemented by men for them to be reconciled to God. In fact, the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century declared that salvation by grace through faith alone was an “anathema,” meaning those who believe that are cursed. The pronouncements of Trent remain Roman Catholic doctrine today.
This idea that Christ’s work must be supplemented was brought home to me when I read the eulogy for Justice Antonin Scalia delivered by his son, a Roman Catholic priest, who said in part:
We are here, then, as he would want, to pray for God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner; to this sinner, Antonin Scalia. Let us not show him a false love and allow our admiration to deprive him of our prayers. We continue to show affection for him and do good for him by praying for him: that all stain of sin be washed away, that all wounds be healed, that he be purified of all that is not Christ. That he rest in peace.
Heartfelt words but troubling words as well. Notice we are to “continue to do good” for Scalia by praying for him, praying specifically that “all stain of sin be washed away.” Friends if “all stain of sin” is not “washed away” at the moment I pass from this life into the next I have no hope. No amount of prayers can help me at that point. The writer of Hebrews tells us “…man is appointed to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). There is no opportunity to get right with God after the door of death closes behind us.
Thankfully, because of the finished work of Christ, we don’t have to face the moment of death unsure if our sins have been washed away, unsure if we’ve done enough. If we’ve trusted in Christ alone they have been washed away because He’s done enough. In John 19:30, Jesus said “it is finished.” He didn’t say “My part’s done, now get to work,” He said “It is finished” – full stop.
Are you trusting in Christ alone for salvation? If not, I urge you to do so and to rest in His finished work. As Lord’s Day 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism says that is our only comfort in life and in death.