This article on the Catholic doctrine of justification draws largely from the Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification1 (hereafter DJ), which is the Catholic Church’s most exhaustive statement on the doctrine. Quotations from DJ and Scripture will be indicated by in-text citations; footnotes will accompany all other quotations. This article is intended primarily as an explanation of the Catholic doctrine for Protestant readers, not an apologetic defense.
Baptism, the Sacrament of Regeneration
Protestants consider the Pauline faith/works dichotomy the major difference between their doctrine of justification and the Catholic doctrine. However, the sacramental system is the true foundational difference. Although Catholic theology acknowledges that God’s grace can work outside of the sacramental system, two sacraments – baptism and confession – are the normal instrumental causes of justification.
All people are born children of Adam and contract his injustice as their own. People born again in Christ are justified. “Though He died for all, yet do not all receive the benefit of His death, but only those unto whom the merit of His passion is communicated” (DJ III).2 Christ’s passion is communicated by the sacrament of baptism. “In that new birth, there is bestowed upon them, through the merit of His passion, the grace whereby they are made just” (DJ III).
Preparation for Justification in Adults
Infants as well as adults are justified through baptism, but adults must prepare for justification. God calls people to justice through prevenient, or preceding, grace. In this respect, the Catholic doctrine does not violate the Protestant ordo salutis,3 or the order of salvation, which rightly holds that salvation begins with God. However, people must respond to God’s call. Trent explains the manner of preparation:
Now they [adults] are disposed unto the said justice, when, excited and assisted by divine grace, conceiving faith by hearing, they are freely moved towards God, believing those things to be true which God has revealed and promised, and this especially, that God justifies the impious by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; and when, understanding themselves to be sinners, they, by turning themselves, from the fear of divine justice whereby they are profitably agitated, to consider the mercy of God, are raised unto hope, confiding that God will be propitious to them for Christ’s sake; and they begin to love Him as the fountain of all justice; and are therefore moved against sins by a certain hatred and detestation, to wit, by that penitence which must be performed before baptism: lastly, when they purpose to receive baptism, to begin a new life, and to keep the commandments of God.DJ VI
Trent describes the preparation for justification in adults in language that is familiar to Protestants. The adult comes to faith by hearing, accepting God’s self-revelation, chiefly the doctrines about the saving work of Christ, and repenting of sin. However, the language also includes the theological virtues – faith, hope, and love – identified by St. Paul especially in 1 Corinthians 13 and Romans 5. The foundational difference is revealed at the end, when Trent makes clear that all of this is preparation for baptism, which it later names the “instrumental cause” of justification.
The necessity of preparation is not unbiblical. St. Paul writes of “our endeavor to be justified in Christ” in Galatians 2:17. Nor is cooperation with grace foreign to Scripture: “Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1).
However, people can only share God’s goal of human salvation with prevenient grace: “When Catholics say that persons ‘cooperate’ in preparing for and accepting justification by consenting to God’s justifying action, they see such personal consent as itself an effect of grace, not as an action arising from innate human abilities.”4
God requires human consent to his justifying action because without it people would be mere automatons. Redemption must be consistent with Creation, which gifted humanity with intellect and free will. The first of God’s graces (prevenient grace) frees the intellect and will from their slavery to sin so that people can knowingly and willingly consent to justification. However, this grace only makes human consent possible; it never forces it.
It’s worth noting that the Catholic doctrine holds that infants (really, any children below the age of reason) are truly justified when they are baptized, even though they have not come to faith. This, too, may seem unbiblical to the Protestant, but there are at least implicit references to the baptism of children in Scripture (cf. Acts 16:15, 1 Corinthians 1:16). In any case, the justification of infants in baptism clearly demonstrates that Catholics do indeed believe in justification apart from works.
Although both Catholics and Protestants hold that the first part of justification is the forgiveness of sins, they disagree about the second part. The Protestant doctrine is objective justification, which is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness onto the believer. The Catholic doctrine is interior justification, which is the realization of the believer’s righteousness. “Preparation is followed by Justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man” (DJ VII).
This dispute over the second part of justification highlights a parallel dispute over the work of the Savior. Catholics hold that Christ merited a participation in the divine life while Protestants claim that Christ acted as a substitute for sinful humanity.5 Nevertheless, the object of justification for both Catholics and Protestants is the justice of God. It is the interaction between God’s justice and the believer that distinguishes the doctrines. In the Catholic view, God’s justice is the new heart and the new spirit promised in Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you” (36:26). In the Protestant view, God’s justice is a cloak worn over the believer’s sinfulness. Both views involve some human sharing in divine justice. Protestants argue that their view of the sharing does not confuse God’s justice with ours. But Trent argues the same (though a bit awkwardly in this English translation):
Neither is our own justice established as our own as from ourselves; nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated: for that justice which is called ours, because that we are justified from its being inherent in us, that same is (the justice) of God, because that it is infused into us of God, through the merit of Christ.DJ XVI
Protestants do hold that the believer is eventually “strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”6 They claim this waits until after justification, during sanctification: “Justification is a matter of imputation… the sinner’s guilt is imputed to Christ; the latter’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner…. Sanctification is a matter of transformation.”7 Therefore, in Protestant theology, justification and sanctification are two distinct, albeit connected, steps in the believer’s salvation.
Scripture does not make such a clear distinction. Justification is sometimes a future event (cf. Matthew 12:36-37, Romans 2:13) while sanctification is sometimes a completed past event (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11, Hebrews 10:10). Therefore, Catholics hold that justification includes sanctification.
Protestants insist on the separation of justification and sanctification because they claim the actions have different agencies. They hold that justification is solely God’s onetime act of declaring a sinner righteous. However, they admit cooperation between God and the believer in sanctification. Separating the act of justification and the process of sanctification helps to separate God’s work from man’s. Nevertheless, Scripture itself does not so clearly distinguish the terms.
Catholics do believe that the believer is justified at a specific moment (normally baptism), but they deny that justification is afterwards complete since the subordinate work of sanctification continues. Trent explains progressive justification:
By mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified.DJ X
Assurance of Salvation
Many Protestants claim the possibility of an assurance of salvation. Catholics deny the possibility: “No one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God” (DJ IX). Although St. Paul writes of his “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8), he also writes, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Loss of Justification
This point of the Catholic doctrine is probably most offensive to Protestants. How can people lose that for which they never worked? they ask. Admittedly, this is a difficult question. Trent explains how justification is lost: “The received grace of Justification is lost, not only by infidelity whereby even faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin whatever, though faith be not lost” (DJ XV).
Throughout justification, human consent must be sustained. If people consent to temptation and commit mortal sin, they are by implication no longer consenting to God’s justifying action and therefore fall from the state of justification. Mortal sin is distinguished from venial sin, which does not result in the loss of justification, as St. John writes, “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” (1 John 5:17). The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains mortal sin: “To choose deliberately – that is, both knowing it and willing it – something gravely contrary to the divine law and to the ultimate end of man is to commit a mortal sin.”8
The biblical evidence supports the possibility of losing justification. St. Paul opens his letter to the Galatians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ” (Galatians 1:6). Later, he is more explicit in his warning to those who accept circumcision: “You are severed from Christ” (Galatians 5:4). Perhaps the author of Hebrews provides the most explicit evidence of the loss of justification:
A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?Hebrews 10:28-29
If grace can be lost, then it is no surprise that the apostles frequently urged their disciples to remain in grace. Barnabas exhorted the Christians at Antioch to remain in the grace of God (cf. Acts 11:23) and he and Paul likewise urged the Jewish converts (cf. Acts 13:43). Paul instructed, “Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). St. Peter cautioned, “Stand fast in [grace]” (1 Peter 5:12).
Protestants interpret this lack of security as an affront to the efficacy of Christ’s saving work. This is an unfair assessment, however, since the Church presents the lives of the saints as the marvelous fruits of the Redemption. Protestants must also consider the alternative: if God did not require human consent before and during justification, then it would indeed be secure, but it would be the justification of automatons, not true humans.
Justification can be regained, however, through recourse to the sacrament of penance (confession): “As regards those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace of Justification, they may be again justified, when, God exciting them, through the sacrament of Penance they shall have attained to the recovery, by the merit of Christ, of the grace lost” (DJ XIV).
Protestants imagine that Catholic life is a confusing shuffle between condemnation and justification, mortal sin and sacramental confession. This is untrue. Mortal sins are serious rejections of God and his law that are not often committed by practicing Catholics. Nevertheless, all believers fall occasionally even in grave matters. Protestants claim that these falls occur in justified and sanctified believers without detriment to their salvation. It is really this position which undermines the efficacy of Christ’s saving work.
Faith and Good Works
Protestants argue that St. Paul excludes works from justification in Romans 11:6 (among other verses): “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Protestants believe that justification by grace alone requires justification through faith alone.
First, the Church has never taught against the Reformation principle of sola gratia. Trent makes this clear: “We are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification – whether faith or works – merit the grace itself of justification” (DJ VIII).
Second, it not true that sola gratia requires sola fide. These Reformation principles do not contradict because grace and faith operate at different levels of justification. Grace is the primary cause of justification; it is what actually justifies a sinner. “Faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6) is the secondary cause, through which grace brings about justification and strengthens it. This is why we write that justification is by grace through faith. The distinction between primary and secondary causes is necessary because faith itself is a human act, regardless of whether Protestant theology admits that coming to faith is a “work.”
Trent does acknowledge a primary role for 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” (DJ VIII). But Trent rejects sola fide, teaching instead the full biblical doctrine that God (that is, his grace) justifies believers by “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Paul himself writes: “I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds; these are excellent and profitable to men” (Titus 3:8). What is “excellent and profitable” is necessary not for the first moment of justification but for its progress in sanctification.
Catholic apologist James Akin refers to a fine point of Catholic theology to demonstrate why works lack any meaning for salvation until after the believer is justified:
Lutherans [really, all Protestants] have been suspicious that the Church holds that one must do good works in order to enter a state of justification. This has never been the case. In Catholic teaching, one is not capable of doing supernaturally good works outside a state of justification because one’s soul lacks the virtue of charity – the thing that makes good works good.9
Justification places people in the state of grace, also called sanctifying grace. “Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love.”11 In this state, people receive actual graces, which are responsible for their good works. This is why St. Paul writes, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Corinthians 10:15).
Protestants claim that the chief purposes of good works are to confirm the believer’s salvation and inspire others to believe in God. They do not recognize the ultimate purpose of these works, which Scripture also names “acts of charity” or love, is “the fulfilling of the law,” which remains a concern of St. Paul in Romans 8:4, 13:10, and Galatians 5:14.
These two approaches to good works follow from two different concepts of salvation. Catholics hold that salvation is union with God, but Protestants claim that it is only acceptance by him. Union with God is only possible because of God’s love and the return of love that his grace effects in the believer and is expressed concretely in good works. “Faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body” (DJ VII). Akin likewise writes, “Charity – the supernatural love of God – is what ultimately unites the soul to God.”11
The Catechism teaches, “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.”12
Nevertheless, good works earn merit because of human cooperation with God’s grace:13 “He will have the things which are His own gifts be their merits” (DJ XVI). The 1999 Catholic-Lutheran statement on justification explains the Catholic position in a simple way: “When Catholics affirm the ‘meritorious’ character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works.”14
- “Decree on Justification,” 6th session, Council of Trent, 1547.
- The Church denies the Calvinist doctrine of Limited Atonement, which claims that Christ died only for the elect.
- A Survey or Table Declaring The Order of Salvation and Damnation, William Perkins (1558-1602).
- Paragraph 20, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification – Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, 1999.
- This is the Protestant doctrine of the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.
- Paragraph I, Chapter XIII, Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646.
- Hendriksen, William, “Galatians: New Testament Commentary” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 98.
- Paragraph 1874, Catechism of the Catholic Church.
- James Akin, The Salvation Controversy (San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers; 2001), 139.
- Paragraph 2000, Catechism of the Catholic Church.
- Akin,The Salvation Controversy, page 133.
- Paragraph 2009, Catechism of the Catholic Church.
- Paragraph 2007, ibid.
- Paragraph 38, Joint Declaration, 1999.