While there is important agreement on the issue of justification (how one is saved) between Catholics and Protestants– such as the shared value that it depends upon grace and is on the basis of what Christ has done– there are major disagreements that are of incredible importance to the definition of the gospel itself. To begin, I will elaborate a basic Protestant view with supporting Scriptures, and then I will contrast this view with the Roman Catholic understanding. Any feedback is appreciated! All Bible quotations are from the ESV.
The Protestant View
1. Justification is a gift of God that does not depend upon works. Grace is the ground of our justification, and faith is the means by which we are saved.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith… For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
(Romans 3:21-25, 28)
“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ The law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'”
“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
2. Justification means being declared righteous by God and having a right relationship with Him. Good works do not increase our justification. Being in a right relationship with God also entails that we have been delivered from the penalty for our sins.
“[Abraham’s] faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“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, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.'”
“Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
“Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.”
3. If someone believes that they contribute to their justification by doing works, they are doing damage to the gospel.
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
“Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”
4. Good works flow from being regenerated by the Spirit and are an evidence of genuine faith.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? …faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
(James 2:14, 17-18)
“God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
The Roman Catholic View
1. Justification is by the grace of God.
“…In that new birth that is bestowed upon them, through the merit of His passion, the grace by which they are made just.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter III)
“…we confess that we need the grace of God.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter IV)
“If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works… without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XVI, Canon I)
2. By having faith in God AND the sacrament of baptism, one is justified.
“The meritorious cause [of justification] is… Jesus Christ… the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which no man was ever justified finally.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter VII)
“If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation… [but that] men obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification… let him be anathema.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XVI, Canon 4)
3. If one loses one’s justification by committing a “mortal sin,” another sacrament– penance– is required to regain justification.
“The grace of justification once received is lost not only by infidelity, whereby also faith itself is lost, but also by every other mortal sin, though in this case faith is not lost.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XV)
“Those who through sin have forfeited the received grace of justification, can again be justified when, moved by God, they exert themselves to obtain through the sacrament of penance the recovery, by the merits of Christ, of the grace lost.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XIV)
4. Temporal punishments awaiting sin may remain after justification if venial sins are committed.
“If anyone says that… it is a fiction that there remains often a temporal punishment to be discharged after the eternal punishment has by virtue of the keys been removed, let him be anathema.”
(Council of Trent, Fourteenth Session, Canons concerning penance, Canon 15)
“[The sacrament of penance includes] satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers and other devout exercises of the spiritual life, not indeed for the eternal punishment, which is, together with guilt, remitted either by the sacrament or by the desire for the sacrament, but for the temporal punishment which, as the sacred writings teach, is not always wholly remitted.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XIV)
5. These temporal punishments can be lessened or removed by indulgences (including attending Mass) or through purgatory.
“If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world of in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XVI, Canon 30)
“We are able through Jesus Christ to make satisfaction to God the Father not only by punishments voluntarily undertaken by ourselves to atone for sins, or by those imposed by the judgment of the priest according to the measure of our offense, but also, and this is the greatest proof of love, by the temporal afflictions imposed by God and borne patiently by us.”
(Council of Trent, Fourteenth Session, Penance, Chapter IX)
“[The sacrifice of mass] is rightly offered not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those departed in Christ but not yet fully purified.”
(Council of Trent, Twenty-second Session, Chapter II)
“If anyone says that the sacrifice of the mass is… not a propitiatory one [and] ought not to be offered for the living and the dead, for sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities, let him be anathema.”
(Council of Trent, Twenty-Second Session, Chapter IX, Canon 3)
“Souls [detained in purgatory] are aided by the suffrages of the faithful and chiefly by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.”
(Council of Trent, Twenty-Fifth Session)
A Summary of the Issue
One major difficulty with comparing Protestant and Roman Catholic views on justification is that we don’t always define words in the same way. Roman Catholics do define justification as being received by faith. Works (other than the sacrament of baptism) are not necessary for INITIAL justification. However, because Catholics believe we may retain temporal punishments for sins after justification, they end up with practically the same problem that all legalists do– they are not at peace with God and must do works (albeit by grace) to actually be at peace. Even if this were not the case, the requirement of the sacrament of baptism in essence takes the place of circumcision in the circumcision controversy that Paul dealt with in Galatians.
“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
Some Catholics will say that in Galatians, Paul is simply telling the Galatians not to follow ceremonial aspects of the Old Covenant law, like circumcision. But Paul is clear that what he is contrasting is salvation by works (in this case, of the Old Covenant law) and salvation by faith. Not salvation by faith and baptism, or faith and the sacraments, or faith and good works, but salvation that comes only by faith. Of course, if this faith is a genuine faith, it will issue out in good works. As James says, if a man has a faith with no works, can that faith (a dead faith that is faith in name only) save him? Absolutely not.
It is important that we don’t misrepresent Roman Catholics as teaching a bootstrapping salvation that they do by themselves (even the Judaizers Paul chastised in Galatians would be aghast at this view of salvation). It is also important that Protestants be charitable when it comes to the state of salvation and sincerity of Roman Catholics. However, it does us no good to gloss over differences in the interest of an ecumenism that is based on false unity. Let there be unity where it is genuine and disunity where we must be honest that unity does not exist.