Justification By Faith: Catholic and Protestant Views

A Concise Explanation

Roman Catholic justification equals: justification by faith, and works, including due acceptance and appropriation of the role of the sacraments.
Protestant Justification equals: Justification by Faith - That's it - end of story.

R ight at the centre of the division which occurred between Catholicism and the first Protestant reformers right back in the sixteenth century was the question concerning the nature and means of Justification.

Just what does it mean to be justified by God, and how was this accomplished in the believer? At the time there were, of course, several areas of serious disagreement, but the matter of Justification would prove pivotal and, in this early twenty-first century, it still probably remains the major difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. It is pivotal because it affects many other areas of Catholic theology and practise.

The Reformers came to support a view of justification by an alien or extrinsic righteousness, that is to say, they did not accept that the man or woman who comes to Christ is saved by becoming internally righteous but, rather, that it was a case of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the repentant and faithful believer (Romans 3:21-31; Romans 4: the entire chapter). The new believer will later grow in grace and knowledge but, for Protestantism, Justification happens right at the beginning where genuine and God-granted faith is present. After all, we all know that new believers (and older believers) still occasionally lapse and sin as even the Apostles Paul and John seemed to fully understand (Romans 7:7-25; 1 John 1:8-10), this providing more evidence that to be declared righteous in the court of Heaven does not imply a total, internal righteousness. While we indeed become children of God, sin is never far away within our natures. (Romans 7:21-25). The development of Christian character in which one should be expected to become increasingly 'Christlike' is viewed within Protestantism as 'sanctification,' being a separate matter from Justification.

So, for the Reformers, and evangelical Protestantism today, Justification starts with forgiveness, this enabling the new Christian to be declared righteous (in place of the condemnation which otherwise waited to exact it's toll), and this being accomplished through an exchange which occurs between the new believer and Christ:

'For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21).

So Christ takes a repentant person's sins upon His own shoulders, and the sinner takes Christ's righteousness. Yet personal acceptance and appropriation in faith of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ does not mean that the new believer truly becomes internally righteous, a fact evidenced (as we have already noted) by a certain continuing proclivity to sinful lapses. In like manner, Christ's acceptance of sin upon His own shoulders did not make Him 'sinful,' it is a matter of accepting responsibility.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65)

There is much that the Protestant might admire about Vatican II. It led, for instance, to Roman Catholicism no longer considering Protestants as heretics, but as fellow Christians. Vatican II stated:

"The Catholic Church professes that it is the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church of Christ; this it does not and could not deny. But in its Constitution the Church now solemnly acknowledges that the Holy Ghost is truly active in the churches and communities separated from itself. To these other Christian Churches the Catholic Church is bound in many ways: through reverence for God's word in the Scriptures; through the fact of baptism; through other sacraments which they recognize."

But many were sorry that the giant obstacle of Justification was never properly tackled. It is widely believed that Catholicism will never discuss Justification because any abandonment of the Catholic position would seriously threaten the continued existence of numerous things which make Catholicism distinctive; things such as the Catholic view of the sacraments, penance, confession, absolution and the use of the rosary.

The position of Roman Catholic theology however was - and still is - that justification occurs by an intrinsic, infused righteousness. To further complicate matters, Roman Catholicism does not separate justification from sanctification ('sanctification' - to become increasingly Christlike and holy). For Catholics, justification includes sanctification whereas, for the Protestant, sanctification mainly, though not entirely, comes later; but the two things are separate. Therefore Catholicism insists that 'works' play a large part in the process. For Catholicism, one can never be saved by "justification by faith alone" since that would be insufficient. The Catholic concept is of a lifelong justification (that justification to include, of course, what the reformers called 'sanctification'). Only right at the end of the process can anybody be said to be 'saved.' This is why the Catholic looks in amazement upon the Protestant who might say things like, "I accepted the Lord at age 21 and I was saved!" To the Catholic, to say such a thing is just dreadful presumption. And Catholicism rejects the idea of a regenerate man or woman being declared righteous without the presence of any works. This is largely because the acceptance of sacramentalism, including Catholic Mass, or Eucharist, with it's very 'high' view of literally eating and drinking Christ's body and blood (transubstatiation), confession, penance, prayers, an understanding of 'purgatory' plus various pious and charitable works, are right at the very hub of Roman Catholic theology: these things are intrinsic to it. The Catholic faithful's acceptance, and practicing, of such matters are the things which will reveal Justification.

So the Reformers of the sixteenth century defined justification as the act of reconciliation flowing from the grace of God through the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the sinner, and received by faith - irrespective of any progress in sanctification at that point. Catholicism. however, regards justification as equivalent to the whole process of salvation, not just it's inception, as flowing from the grace of God and as taking effect through the infusion of the very righteousness of God into the human soul. One could summarize this by saying that the Protestant view was - and is - that justification equals justification by faith, while the Roman Catholic position is that justification equals justification by faith, and works, including due acceptance and appropriation of the role of the sacraments.

Some hoped that the Vatican II Council (1962-65) would finally lead to a full Catholic Reformation, including a full review of their teaching on Justification, but that did not happen, although the council did start to recognise Protestant churches from that point forward. On Justification, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) still rules within Catholicism, that view having declared the Protestant view to be "anathema." Various Catholic writers, including Hans Kung, have tried to close the gap, some even by openly professing 'justification by faith' but these writers have mostly stood outside of the official Catholic magisterium and so little has changed. Some Protestant writers (mainly Church of England), have also tried to close the gap from the Protestant side, mainly through the 'NPP' ('new perspective on Paul') movement in which they have insisted that the reformers, mainly Luther, have misunderstood Paul, but their arguments have not finally proven persuasive.

Fact is: Both Lutheran and Reformed theologians have long recognised that the verb 'to justify' is forensic, meaning 'to declare or pronounce to be righteous' - not 'to make righteous.' So the matter is judicial but not ontological. It would seem to be a most vital point in how the sinner is reconciled to God and we should surely keep a sharp distinction between that sense of Justification and the sanctification which mostly comes later.

Justification by faith is at the very foundation of the Protestant churches and the grounds of the believer's assurance of salvation. Luther proclaimed that the just shall live by faith alone, and emphasised the incapacity of humanity for any kind of self-justification. The believer receives a righteousness that is not his own, but an 'alien' righteousness as a free gift of God's grace. For the Protestant, sanctification must indeed follow and this will certainly involve 'works' but such good works, facilitated by the Holy Spirit, are then seen as Christ's works as He lives within the true believer. For the Catholic, however, it is the believer himself/herself who must produce the 'good works' since he/she has been 'infused' with the very righteousness of God. Without doubt, this can be viewed as a works-based and 'earning' approach to salvation, an approach which we can surely safely say that Paul rejected in his writings.

In fact, my experience has been that, in their conversations, Catholics often do recognise that they remain 'sinners in the sight of God' yet, doctrinally, they deny this.

Possibly nobody has outlined the full implications of our justification better than Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his essay on that subject:

"...Justification does not merely mean forgiveness. It includes forgiveness, but it is much bigger than forgiveness. It means in addition that God declares us to be entirely guiltless; He regards us as if we had never sinned at all. He pronounces us to be just and to be righteous. In doing so, He is answering any declaration that the Law may make with respect to us. It is the judge upon the bench not merely saying that the prisoner at the Bar is forgiven, but that he pronounces him to be a just and righteous person. In justifying us, God tells us that He has taken our sins and our guilt, and has 'imputed' them to, or, 'put them to the account of,' the Lord Jesus Christ and punished them in Him."

The Believer's Marriage to Christ

In The Liberty of a Christian (1520), Luther wrote,
"...As Paul teaches us, Christ and the soul become one flesh by this mystery (Ephesians 5:31-32). And if they are one flesh and the marriage is real....then it follows that everything that they have is held in common, whether good or evil. So the believer can boast of and glory in whatever Christ possesses, as though it were his or her own; and whatever the believer has, Christ claims as his own. Let us see how this works and how it benefits us. Christ is full of grace, life and salvation. The human soul is full of sin, death and damnation. Now let faith come between them. Sin, death and damnation will then be Christ's; and grace, life and salvation will be the believer's."

Within Catholicism the 'sin problem' which Justification addresses is exacerbated even further by their view that any post-baptismal sin can still cause a sincere believer to fall away and never be saved. Sin is divided into mortal sin and venial (lesser) sin. Repentance must follow all sins, but 'mortal sins' must be individually accounted for, and then confessed to a priest in order to receive absolution. I am told that in busy, city-based churches this often places a huge burden on a priest and one lady told me that her priest once said, "I just don't have time to take any more confessions. Simply go and pray to God and He will forgive you. You don't need me."!! Interestingly, this over-stretched priest was here endorsing the Protestant view! But in this area the contrast with Protestantism is especially sharp: Most Protestants (although not all) believe two things:

1. Once the repentant believer comes under divine grace, he or she will not fall away and be lost, there is no concept of law still standing over the believer, who is now declared righteous in the very court of Heaven. (John 10:27-29; Romans 8: the entire chapter; Ephesians 1:11-14; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; 2 Corinthians 5:5). Even such recipients of God's grace as David and Samson were never rejected despite their considerable failings.

2. The grace of God covers all sins as long as one lives in a continual attitude of humility and repentance. (1 John 1:6-10; 2:1-2; Romans 8:1; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21). If one is arrogant and refuses to acknowledge, or repent of sins, this would simply confirm that such a person was never under God's grace.

We may also see, then, that the Catholic has a much 'lower' view of grace than the Protestant, and a far higher view of what men and women can accomplish under their own steam! Catholicism also teaches a very high view of their own church laws and requirements, this is because they passionately believe that the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven were given to them alone (Matthew 16:19). From this authority they believe that their own traditions stand equal in importance to Scripture. But in contrast to Catholicism's numerous requirements, Paul writes,

23. Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.
24. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.
25. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
26. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,
27. for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
29. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.(Galatians 3:23-29).

Elsewhere (Romans 8:33-39), Paul teaches that Christians should now see themselves as already justified. How - it may be asked - can that be 'squared' with a ritualistic and legalistic approach which insists that true believers can still fall away by not carefully following the requirements of Catholicism? In the very next chapter of Galatians (4), we may read:

21. Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?
22. For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman.
23. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
24. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.
25. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.
26. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
27. For it is written: "Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband."
28. Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.
29. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.
30. But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son."
31. Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

So Christians are called to liberty, not to serve under another yoke (as the Israelites were required to).

We have been looking at Galatians, and let us all remind ourselves why Paul was so angry with the Galatians. It was because a Judaistic faction had gone to Galatia, teaching that Christ was not enough to save; that there also existed many other requirements which it was necessary to observe. Does that sound familar? Paul hotly rejected the idea that once a man or woman has come to Christ there still existed other requirements. He referred to this as a different gospel:

6. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—
7. which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.
8. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!
9. As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:6-9).

It is very hard to see how these Pauline comments can be lined up with the numerous requirements within Catholic practice. Just to randomly take another chapter by Paul, it seems to me that Romans 8 presents huge problems for Catholicism. With the best will in the world, it must be said that it is hard to see how Paul could have written that chapter if he held a loosely Catholic understanding on justification and salvation, but the chapter sits well with a Lutheran/Calvinist view, more specifically, it fits perfectly with New Covenant Theology.

I have not written the foregoing to attack Catholicism, and certainly not to attack Roman Catholics, but to suggest that the time is surely ripe for a new Catholic council to convene in order to fully review their entire theological system, especially as it pertains to the most vital biblical teaching on Justification.
Robin A. Brace, February 20th, 2010.