Nothing has been more misunderstood in Protestant theology than the term sola fide – by faith alone – because this has been understood not only by the Romans but also by Protestants themselves as an intellectual act of man called “faith,” which forces God to give His forgiveness. But sola fide means that in the moment in which our sins are forgiven, we can do nothing else than receive this forgiveness, and that is what sola fide means. Anything else would destroy the activity of God, His exclusive grace.
Now this central position of the Reformers, the doctrine of grace received only – and therefore by faith alone – was first misunderstood and then rejected. This means that from this moment on, the split of the Church was final. There was no reconciliation possible between these two forms of religion – the one in which the act of our turning to God and receiving His grace is unambiguously a receptive act, in which God gives something to us and we don’t do anything; and the Catholic doctrine that we must act and prepare for it, that we must cooperate with God, and that faith is an intellectual acknowledgment, which may or may not be there. All the anathemas given by the Council of Trent in this point are based on this misunderstanding of sola fide. The central position of the Reformers was rejected and condemned, in the Council of Trent.
The next point is the sacraments. While in the doctrine of justification, the fathers of Trent tried to have at least some approximation to the Protestant position, they didn’t try that at all in the realm of the sacraments. Here caution was unnecessary because every caution would have undercut the very essence of the Roman church, namely, to be a church of the sacrament. So the Council of Trent says: “All true justice starts, and if it has started, is augmented, and if it has been lost, is restituted, by the sacraments.” This is the function of the sacraments, I. e., it is the religious function altogether.
They didn’t say much about the way in which the sacraments are effective; they didn’t say very much about the personal side of him who receives the sacrament; but they formulated it in the following way: the sacraments are effective ex opere operato non ponentibus obigem , i. e., by their very operation for those who do not resist. — If you do not put before the effectiveness of the sacraments in yourselves an impediment (obicem ), something which prevents them from being effective, then they are effective, however you may be subjectively, ex opere operato – by their mere performance, by their very operation. Now this was another central point for the Reformers, that there cannot be a relationship to God except in the person- toperson relationship, in the actual encounter-with Him – I. e. faith. And this is much more than non-resistance; it is an active turning towards God. Without this, the sacraments are not effective for Protestants. For Catholics they are.