Justification, the teaching office of Rome, and confessing Protestants

My first exposures to Protestant-Catholic conversation were more like shouting matches than dialogues. Speakers took a confrontational approach and charges flew on both sides. In my mind, they sound roughly like this

      Protestants charge, "You…"                                

Preach salvation by works                             

Take Scripture from the people                      

Create rites, saints, and false means grace     

Rob Christ of glory and give it to Mary        

Tolerate a corrupt, oppressive hierarchy        

Deny the priesthood of believers                   

Form novel doctrines by papal decree           


Catholics reply "But you…"

Ignore the importance of works.

Trust Scripture to any interpreter

Ignore God-given sacraments and means of grace

Reject God's blessing on Mary and other saints

Reject God-given leaders

Indulge the triumph of the individual

Invite ecclesiastical disorder and disunity

Is there a basis for constructive dialogue?

      There is reason to believe that confessing evangelicals could reduce the depth of their disagreements with Catholic theologians. The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic church, 1962-65, advocated increased dialogue with Protestants, the addition of Bible translations in the mother tongues of the faithful, and an increase in Bible study by believers. The results of the encouragement to study Scripture are visible in non-denominational Bible study ministries such as Bible Study Fellowship, where a large minority of students is Catholics. Vatican II did not adjust the Catholic position on justification, but it did allow dialogue and study of Scripture that inevitably led to a re-examination of the issue.

      For the next section of this blog, my primary source is The Catechism of the Catholic Church, "promulgated by John Paul II" in 1994 and 2000 (2nd ed.). It is right to give thanks for large stretches of The Catechism. Confessing evangelicals and Catholics agree on the person and work of Christ. We both assert that Jesus is fully God and fully man, God incarnate, the sinless redeemer who offered an atoning sacrifice for sin. He is the anointed Messiah and the unique, pre-existent Son of God. He is God in flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, Lord of all (paragraphs 422-86). The Catechism also says that Jesus' atonement is offered by God's grace and received by faith. Confessing evangelicals and Protestants differ sharply on the way grace is offered and how faith receives Christ. But we agree both on the person and work of Christ and the centrality of grace and faith.

      Take grace. The Catechism says "Grace is… the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God" (par 1996). It also says "Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God." It adds that it is also "free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed" (par. 150).

      So we agree that salvation rests on the work of Christ, that God's grace enables us to call upon God, that faith adheres to Christ. We also agree that, in some sense, faith and grace necessarily brings personal transformation that manifests itself in works. With all these points of agreement, no wonder we quarrel so effectively when we differ, since important differences in our views remain, especially regarding justification. Michael Reeves summarized them this way in Why the Reformation Still Matters (32-33; the wording is mine)

Justification in Contrast

Protestant view of justification                             Roman Catholic view of justification

Justification is a forensic act                               Justification is a healing act

The problem: Mankind is guilty                           The Problem: Mankind is wounded

The dominant metaphor: the court                     The dominant metaphor: a hospital

Cure: Alien righteousness of Christ                   Cure: Inherent righteousness of believers

God imputes righteousness                                God imparts righteousness

Means: By faith                                                        Means: By faith, works, and sacraments

Justified in the present thru Christ's work         Justified in the future, synergistically

Justification grants assurance                            It is erroneous to seek or assert assurance

Exploring agreement and disagreement on faith and justification

      It may seem a minor point, but the Catechism defines faith as assent, an intellectual act, while Protestants define it as assent and trust, an act of heart and mind. This explains at least part of the Catholic objection to the teaching of salvation by faith alone. Catholics say "Works are essential" because they prove there is more than intellectual assent. Protestants agree, but we say it this way: One receives salvation by faith and grace alone, but saving faith is never alone. Since real faith pervades the whole person, works inevitably follow.

      Let's compare the way Protestants and Catholics view faith and works. We agree that no one is saved by works and agree that works necessarily accompany salvation. We disagree here: Protestants say works necessarily follow justification; they are a consequent absolute necessity. Catholics say works accompany justification as an antecedent absolute necessity: No works, no salvation. To sharpen the point, if one commits a mortal sin and does not repent, he or she is lost. "To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever" (The Catechism, par 1033, 1854-61).

Faith, Works and Justification in Protestant and Catholic thought

No one says:                     Works -> Justification

The reformers say:           Faith    -> Justification; works necessary follow

Catholics say:                  Faith + works -> Justification

      We agree that salvation or justification is by faith in Christ, through grace. We agree that works are necessary but disagree as to why. Protestants say "Works show our faith lives." Catholics say works complete our faith. The Catechism says "When it is deprived of hope and love, faith does not fully unite the believer to Christ and does not make him a living member of his Body" (par. 1815).

      This connects to the question of assurance. Reformed thinkers insist that assurance of salvation is possible because salvation rests on the finished work of Christ. Catholics say one can be sure they are saved in the present by living faithfully and receiving the sacraments. The issue may be clearest in contrasting definitions of justification.  

Justification and sanctification in Westminster and Catholic Catechisms

      WSC 32: 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.

      WSC 35: Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

      A significant group of Catholics, as they study Scripture and dialogue with Lutherans, has moved toward the Protestant view of justification. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Catholic Church Pontifical Council for promoting Christian Unity with the Lutheran World Federation affirmed justification by faith, through grace, on basis of merit of Jesus, imputed:

Justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation… of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit…. We confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works (par. 11). 

      The document has elements that a confessing evangelical would question, such as this: "Justification is the forgiveness of sins… liberation from the dominating power of sin and death… and from the curse of the law…. It unites with Christ and with his death and resurrection… It occurs in the reception of the Holy Spirit in baptism" (par. 11). We notice the document implicitly combines justification and sanctification when it says justification is both "the forgiveness of sin" and "liberation" from sin's power. Still, the first part of this formulation moves in the right direction.

      Nonetheless, the Catechism, promulgated by the pope 1994 and 2000, hence both before and after the joint document just cited, reaffirms the traditional Catholic formulation. It combines justification and sanctification. The Catechism, paragraphs 1989-90, says

Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man. Justification detaches man from sin… and purifies his heart of sin [We call this sanctification]. Justification follows upon God's merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals [Again, this is sanctification].

      Later paragraphs also combine justification and sanctification. "With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us" (par. 1991). Justification "conforms us to the righteousness of God." It "establishes cooperation between God's grace and man's freedom" and "entails… sanctification (1992-5).

      As we appraise these developments, we offer three thoughts. First, a real difference remains on the doctrine of justification. We reaffirm that justification is a forensic and judicial act, distinct from moral reform. In Paul, the opposite of "to justify" is not "to corrupt," it is "to condemn," as we see in Romans 8:33-34, "Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?" Similarly, Jesus opposes justification to condemnation, but not sanctification when he says "By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned" (Matt 12:37, cf. Prov 17:15). When we recognize that justification is a judicial act that rests on the imputed righteousness of Christ, we reaffirm that "Salvation belongs to the Lord" (Jonah 2:9).  

      Second, there is reason to give thanks for points of agreement on Christ, the atonement, and grace (above). Third, the Catholic interest in dialogue and Bible study creates hope of progress and edification. Catholics helpfully remind proponents of cheap grace that real faith shows itself in works. Moral recklessness is no friend of the gospel. Let us hope that mutual study of Scripture will lead the whole church to affirm salvation by grace alone, through faith alone. 

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.

Dan Doriani