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Next to Sola Scriptura, the doctrine of justification is the central difference between Catholics and Protestants. However, all too often, proponents of one side will mischaracterize the other and vice versa. To keep that to a minimum, I want to begin by explaining the Protestant doctrine of justification and then the Catholic position. The 33rd question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism gives an excellent and brief definition:
Q. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
Right away we can see some differences. Justification is an act of God; it is monergistic. It is His free grace, completely unmerited. In justification, God pardons all our sins, not just some. We are righteous before Him because Christ’s perfect righteousness has been imputed to us. And how did we receive it? By faith alone.
To elaborate on these differences further, I’d like to quote from the Larger Catechism, which expands on this in questions 71-73:
Q. 71. How is justification an act of God’s free grace?
A. Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet inasmuch as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.
Q. 72. What is justifying faith?
A. Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.
Q. 73. How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.
Hopefully this is beginning to bring our main differences into focus. Our difference on justification is fed by our differences in how we understand man’s sin, God’s grace, Christ’s atonement, and the Spirit’s application of that redemption. These all shape how we understand justification and the means by which we receive it.
Now, conversely, what does Rome teach about justification? Well Rome’s doctrines on justification were not dogmatically defined until the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. Thus, we’ll begin by consulting the Decrees and Canons of the Council of Trent (and specifically Session VI’s Decrees on Justification). It defines justification:
as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour.
The translation that is justification is a process whereby righteousness is infused into the believer, not an instantaneous forensic declaration wherein Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer, so where does this process start? Trent goes on to say,
…the instrumental cause, moreover, is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which justification never befell any man.
Contrary to this, the Westminster Confession states (Chapter XI, Article II):
Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification…
How then does Trent interpret those passages where the Bible clearly says we are justified by faith?
We are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons; but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, then is it no more by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle saith, grace is no more grace.
Even though baptism is the instrumental cause of justification, faith (which is wrought by cooperation with prevenient grace) is also required, which is why they call baptism “the sacrament of faith,” as are Christ’s merit, one’s own meritorious works, and the grace which is infused through the sacraments, etc. etc. These things can also increase one’s justification. Conversely, the commission of a mortal sin destroys one’s justification and removes one from a state of grace. This requires one to do penance, wherein one’s justification is restored (hence why penance is called “the second plank of salvation” or “the sacrament of reconciliation”).
Rome is very careful to say that all these things come from grace. Canon I of Trent’s decrees on justification reads:
If anyone shall say, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the strength of human nature, or through the teaching of the law, without the divine grace through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.
Rome believes that grace is needed, and, in fact, that even God’s acceptance of meritorious works is gracious. This counters a common Protestant misconception which is that Rome teaches justification by works or that you can earn your salvation. But that’s not quite right; the difference is a little more subtle: Rome believes that grace is necessary, but not sufficient; you need grace but you do have to contribute something. In other words, Rome teaches that faith is required for justification, but so are meritorious works.
Now, Romans 11:6, which reads, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace,” draws a strict dichotomy between works and grace whereas Rome attempts to blur the distinction by calling God’s acceptance of meritorious works “grace.” In fact, some Catholics will go so far as to say “sola gratia,” but they mean something very different from what Protestants mean by it. They would say that since God’s acceptance of meritorious works is an act of grace, justification is by grace alone. Beyond not squaring with Romans 11:6, if anything which is ultimately gracious of God can be said to be “by grace alone,” this overthrows the natural understanding of the words. Section 2,006 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The term ‘merit’ refers in general to the recompense owed” but then qualifies this in 2,007, saying, “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man.” But this attempt to qualify the word “merit” ignores Paul’s strict dichotomy between works and faith. Rather than blurring the distinction between merit and grace, Paul highlighted them, saying in Romans 4:4-5:
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…
Rome’s blurring of merit and grace is part and parcel of the larger issue here, which is her blurring of justification and sanctification. As Trent put it, “Justification… is not merely the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man…” Protestants, on the other hand, carefully distinguish between the two. Question 77 of the Westminster Larger Catechism reads:
Q. 77. Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?
A. Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.
To put it succinctly, both Rome and Geneva believe God infuses righteousness into the believer. We call it sanctification; they call it justification. We say God imputes Christ’s righteousness to our account by God’s gift of faith, and we call that justification; Rome says there is no such thing.
Ultimately, this is what it boils down to: Is justification an act of God, declaring us righteous, making us legally so by imputing our sins to Christ and His righteousness to us? Or is it a process where righteousness is infused into us, in which we increase and merit eternity for ourselves,1 which we can lose, which is never perfect or sure in this life? All of our other differences on justification flow from these headwaters. Now that we’ve compared and contrasted the Protestant and Catholic doctrines of justification, it is time to weigh them in the balance of Scripture. So in our next article in the series, we’re going to examine the major passages which talk about justification. As we read through those texts to see which doctrine they support, you may find this chart2 a handy reference to summarize the difference between the two views.
Editor’s Note: This article explains the distinction between synthetic and analytic justification in greater depth.
In the words of Section 2,010 of the Roman Catholic Catechism.
I got the idea for a chart like this from a lecture I ran across on YouTube from a Presbyterian minister teaching a high school class on philosophy. I’ve obviously made plenty of modifications and additions to his design, but that was the germ of the idea.