In the 16th century the church elites were telling people that they must offer prayers, payments, and pilgrimages in order to get right with God. At the time people thought that you needed to beef up your faith with a few added works in order to enter heaven.
To be sure, having faith in Christ was considered a good thing. It just wasn't enough. You had to be just in order to be justified. So that means you had to do, do, do as much good as possible in order to become as good as possible.
This teaching though, was contrary to Scripture. Scripture declared that one was right with God not on the basis of what he does (or how good he is), but solely on the basis of Christ's perfect work. And this was merely to be recieved by faith.
The Reformers began to protest the standard teaching of the time because they read passages of Scripture like Phil. 3:9, which says...
"That I may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.
The Reformers understood that sinners cannot do enough or become good enough for God. They needed what they called an "alien righteousness." It is the "righteousness which comes from God" that Paul talks about.
That is why their mantra became "Faith ALONE." The sinner was to put his faith, not in himself or in what he could do, but rather in Christ and what He had done for them.
The Reformers understood that Christ's righteousness had to be imputed (given over) to us, not gained (infused) or improved by us. This is why faith may be said to be the "passive" instrument of salvation. It is not actively working to do something, but merely receiving and resting in the Savior.
And thus, it still stands that no amount of prayers, tears, payments, or pilgrimages can make God more inclined towards us. We must rely solely on the payment that Christ himself made on our behalf.
Find more in our latest issue of the Hopewell Weekly.