Justification: The Great Division Between Protestant & Catholics

cathedral interior religious with benches empty in back
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The doctrine of justification is at the center of the Christian faith. To be justified, is to be made right with God. It is to be declared righteous before God, and therefore to be saved. The entire Christian faith rises and falls on our answer to the question, ‘How can a sinful person be justified before God?’ As it stands, Catholics and Protestants have two different answers to that question.

Protestants believe that our justification is complete and secure the moment we place our faith in Christ, and is totally dependent on Christ’s righteousness alone. Catholics believe quite the opposite. Roman Catholicism believes that at Baptism we ourselves become righteous, as a gift of grace, and that we are justified before God on account of our own righteousness. Because our justification rests at least in part on us, it is therefore not secure nor complete, and thus likely dependent on future works to maintain.

The Protestant Reformation of the early 1500’s, was largely a response to these faulty views on justification by the Roman Catholic Church. While many other doctrines and ideas were part of the Reformation as a whole, justification stood at the center. In our modern day there have been a number of efforts to whitewash over the differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant positions on this topic. These efforts—which often stem out of a genuine desire to see the Christ’s Kingdom extend—have attempted to state that while Protestants and Catholics might disagree in nuances, the larger picture is the same. Unfortunately, it is not simply the minor details in which Protestant and Catholics disagree when it comes to the topic of Justification. There is a fundamental divide, in which the true Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. RC Sproul summarizes the divide as follows,

“Trent [an official Roman Catholic council] said that God does not justify anyone until real righteousness inheres within the person. In other words, God does not declare a person righteous unless he or she is righteous. So, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, justification depends on a person’s sanctification. By contrast, the Reformers said justification is based on the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus. The only ground by which a person can be saved is Jesus’ righteousness, which is reckoned to him when he believes.”

RC Sproul. Are We Together.

In this post I aim to lay out with as much clarity and brevity as possible, the differences in doctrine on this topic. My aim is not to cause further division, but rather to attempt to provide some clarity of the already existing division. Much ink has been spilled over the last 500 years of Church history on this topic, and this post cannot summarize it all. I do however want to provide as many critical original sources as possible along with my commentary. You will find those in gray below. Precision of terminology is vital for proper understanding, and so engaging with original texts will be helpful.

Roman Catholicism’s Two Streams of Authority

In order to understand the Roman Catholic position, it is important to realize that Catholicism recognizes two streams of revelation which can be appealed to when making decisions on issues of doctrine, Scripture and tradition. This is opposed to the Protestant view of sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. Consider the following two quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 80)
“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.” “And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 81)

As we will see in this post, this fundamental difference between the Catholic & Protestant Churches, is the cause of much of the division on many topics. A number of the nuances of Catholic positions stem, not from the clarity of Scripture, but rather from councils and traditions of the Church. In relation to the topic of Justification, much of the Catholic understanding was developed and outlined in the official Council of Trent, which served as an authoritative council. RC Sproul summarizes the situation as follows.

The indisputable fact is that Rome made a number of strong, clear theological affirmations at the Council of Trent. Because Trent was an ecumenical council, it had all the weight of the infallibility of the church behind it. So, there is a sense in which Rome, in order to maintain her triumphant view of the authority of the church and of tradition, cannot repeal the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent.

R.C. Sproul, Are We Together? Page 9.

Faith + Works?

The Catholic position on Justification takes quite a bit of study to really understand. A number of terms must be carefully defined in order to be accurate. But parsing through the nuances is important. Perhaps the best place to begin is with a clear Protestant statement that can serve as a point of comparison. The Westminster Confession of Faith is a historic Protestant document that, while not considered “authoritative” by Protestants, has historically been viewed as a powerfully accurate summary of the Christian faith. In it, we read the following.

"THOSE whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone: not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.1)

The big idea for Protestants is that all of our salvation is entirely dependent on Christ and Christ alone. I heard it once said that, ‘the only thing we bring to our salvation is our sin.’ This is in accord with Protestant teaching. God freely justifies. The term “freely” denotes that our justification is absolutely a work of God and God alone. No action or behavior on man’s part is in any way related to man’s justification.

Imputation vs. Infusion

The Westminster statement above says that God does not “infuse” righteousness into us. This language might sound overly dogmatic but in fact it is central to the divide. Protestants believe that Christ “imputes” righteousness to us. The idea of “imputing” righteousness is perhaps most easily seen in Romans 4:3 where we read that, “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham was not actually righteous (ie blameless), rather he was counted as righteous as a result of his faith. In other words, God credit an amount to Abraham’s ledger that was not naturally his. In the same way, God credits to our account a right standing that is not actually ours, it is Christ’s. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,” (Romans 4:5).

“Infusion” as Catholics believe, means that through Baptism (more on Baptism later), righteousness is not imputed to us, but rather it is infused in us, and we actually become righteous ourselves. It is on that ground, of our own righteousness (what they refer to as the meritorious cause), that we are then justified by God. Francis Turretin, a key historic Protestant theologian writes,

"Is the impulsive and meritorious cause (on account of which man is justified in the judgment of God) inherent righteousness infused into us or good works? 

We deny against the Romanists." (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Page 637.

Turretin is asking whether the “meritorious cause”—the efficient reason why God justifies us—is because of an “inherent righteousness” that has been infused in us by God. In other words, are we justified by God because of our own righteousness, even if that righteousness was a gift of God. The answer is No! We are not justified because of our righteousness, we are justified because of Christ’s righteousness. Turretin condemns the Catholic position with great clarity when he writes,

"For although they do not appear to exclude entirely the righteousness of Christ, inasmuch as they hold that by it he merited that God should communicate to us by the Holy Spirit internal righteousness and thus it is a condition of the formal cause (i.e., of inherent righteousness that it may be given to man), still they maintain that the right to seek life depends upon inherent righteousness and that on account of it God justifies us." (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Page 638.

As is seen from Turretin’s critique of Catholicism, Catholics believe that God “infuses” righteousness into us at Baptism, and that as a result God then justifies us as a result of our righteousness. As Louis Berkhoff has said so well,

With respect to the nature of justification the Reformers corrected the error of confounding justification with sanctification by stressing its legal character and representing it as an act of God’s free grace, whereby He pardons our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight, but does not change us inwardly. As far as the ground of justification is concerned, they rejected the idea of Rome that this lies, at least in part, in the inherent righteousness of the regenerate and in good works, and substituted for it the doctrine that it is found only in the imputed righteousness of the Redeemer

Louis Berkhoff. Systematic Theology.

Formal Cause vs. Meritorious Cause

Consider a few Roman Catholic statements on this topic that demonstrate this belief

"The formal cause of it [our justification] is the righteousness of God, not that by which he is himself righteous, but that by which he makes us righteous; and by which, bestowed upon us as his gift, we are renewed in the spirit of our mind and are not only accounted, but are truly called and are righteous, receiving each of us righteousness in ourselves, according to our measure, which the Spirit distributes to everyone as he wills and according to the peculiar disposition and cooperation of everyone." (Schroeder. Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Session 6.7)
If any man shall say that men are justified solely by the remission of sins to the exclusion of grace and charity which is shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit and is inherent in them, or even that the grace by which we are justified is only the favor of God, let him be accursed” (Session 6, Canon 11, Schroeder, p. 43)

From these quotes, we can see that the Roman Catholic position is that it is our own inherent righteousness that is the grounds upon which our justification rests. In order to make this leap, the Roman Catholic Church attempts to separate the “formal cause” from the “meritorious cause,” relating the former to Christ’s righteousness and the latter to our righteousness. But this is simply an inconsistency that was developed not from the Bible, but from the Greek Philosopher Aristotle who wrote about the five different causes of a thing. The Bible does not use this kind of language or even hint at this kind of idea. There is no difference between the formal and meritorious cause of our salvation.

Francis Turretin goes on to clearly explain the Protestant position over and against the Roman Catholic position of “Infusion.” He begins with a question and then provides the brief answer.

"Is the righteousness and obedience of Christ imputed to us the meritorious cause and foundation of our justification with God? 

We affirm against the Romanists and Socinians." (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology)

As Turretin writes, Protestants believe that grace is “imputed” to us, not “infused” in us. The Meritorious Cause—the true basis of our justification—is Christ’s righteousness, not our own. Turretin goes on to give eight reasons why “inherent righteousness cannot be the cause of justification. I will list them out here and provide a brief summary of each:

  1. Because ‘inherent righteousness’ is imperfect: James 3:2 says, “We all stumble in many ways…” Galatians 5:17 says, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.” Catholics must therefore, per Biblical testimony, place their faith in an imperfect righteousness.
  2. Because works are excluded: Romans 3:20 says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” This is then confirmed in Romans 4:6 and Galatians 2:16. Biblically, no works are in any way a part of our justification before God.
  3. Because justification is free: Romans 3:24 says, “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,” If it is truly free, then not one single amount of works can be included.
  4. Because justification consists in the remission of sins: Romans 4:8 says, “blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” It is a contradiction to say that a man is justified by the “remission of sins” (a work Christ does on our behalf), and by “inherent righteousness.”
  5. Because justification is not by the law: Philippians 3:9 says, “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…” If justification were a result of inherent righteousness, then justification would be a result of the law, and not the Gospel.
  6. Because this is derogatory to Christ and furnishes material for boasting: If our justification is a result of inherent righteousness than we have an argument for boasting. Luke 18:11-12 describes a Pharisee who is condemned despite giving thanks to God for ultimately believing his own works were a thing to boast in, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.'”
  7. Because inherent righteousness does not take away guilt: “It is impossible by a quality of finite virtue and worth (our inherent righteousness) for an offense of infinite indignity to be blotted out and compensated for
  8. From the testimony of Contarini and Bellarmine: These are two well known Catholic Cardinals who ultimately when pressed agree with the Protestant position. Lengthier quotes are provided but a section of Contarini reads, “…Therefore we cannot in the sight of God on account of this our righteousness be esteemed righteous and good, as it becomes the sons of God to be good and holy. But the righteousness of Christ given to us is a true and perfect righteousness. It is altogether pleasing in the sight of God. In it there is nothing that offends him; that does not in the highest degree please him. We must therefore rest upon this alone (sure and stable) and on account of it alone we must believe that we are justified before God, that is, considered righteous and called righteous.”

The Role of the Sacraments (Baptism & Penance)

The Roman Catholic position on justification adds an interesting, and from my perspective wildly heretical, spin. When reading the following three quotes from the 1995 Roman Catholic Catechism of Faith, consider the way that Baptism is spoken about in relationship to one’s justification.

Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life. (Section 1992)
Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ. It is granted us through Baptism. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who justifies us. It has for its goal the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life. It is the most excellent work of God’s mercy. (Section 2020)
“The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1999)

The Roman Catholic view is that our Baptism is the point at which grace is “infused” into us, and therefore the point at which we personally become righteous, a righteousness that becomes the “meritorious cause” of our justification. But what happens when throughout a person’s life they prove themselves to be still a sinner, as certainly all are destined to do? Can this “infusion” diminish over time due to our sin? According to Catholic doctrine, yes! A person can fall into patterns of sin that diminish his infused grace. In fact, some sins are so bad that they can cause a person who was once justified, to lose their justification. These sins are called ‘mortal sins.’ The term ‘mortal sin’ is how Catholics refer to sins that are so bad that they may cause a person to lose their state of justification, and therefore lose their salvation.

"For whoever offends God, even by one mortal sin, instantly forfeits whatsoever merits he has previously acquired through the death of Christ on the cross, and is entirely shut out from the gate of Paradise, which, when previously closed, was thrown open to all by our Saviour’s passion." (Catechism of the Council of Trent. Chapter XI, Question IX.)

In cases of Mortal Sin, a person is able to restore themselves through participation in another sacrament, penance.

"[S]o, whoever desires to recover the grace of baptism, forfeited by mortal sins, must have recourse to another means of expiation, namely the sacrament of penance." (Catechism of the Council of Trent. Chapter XI. Question IX).

Elsewhere in the Roman Catholic Catechism we read,

In what manner the Name of God can he Sanctified among Sinners? 

Our desires and prayers also extend no less to those who, contaminated by crimes and enormities, have lost the spotless integrity of baptism, and the robe of innocence, whence the most foul spirit has again taken up his abode in those most unhappy beings. We therefore desire, and beseech of God, that in them also his name may be hallowed; that returning to the heart, and unto holiness, they may recover through the sacrament of penance their former holiness, and present themselves a pure and holy temple and dwelling to God (Catechism of the Catholic Church. Chapter 8.6)

To follow the logic, according to Roman Catholic tradition, a person who was once infused by righteousness at Baptism in a way that made them actually righteous and attained justification upon that basis, can sin in such a way that they become unrighteous and lose their justification. The sinner however, can repent through both confession and penance, some works of satisfaction. These works of satisfaction develop a particular kind of merit that can restore their previous state. Here is where the details matter. The merit that is earned through penance is not Condign Merit (demanding a reward), but is rather Congruous Merit (real merit but dependent on previous grace). In other words, the penance opens one up to receive grace and be restored to their justified state.

This is problematic because the doctrine of Penance thus teaches that works are at least a part of the equation of our justification before God.

The Protestant View: Just & Sinner

It was on this issue that the Reformers fought, and bled, and very often died. We cannot add anything to Christ’s atoning work on the cross as the basis of our justification before God. No work, no penance, no amount of sacraments, can assist in any way. Our salvation is simply and solely a work of Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross, despite our sin! “A man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). Further, “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” (Galatians 2:16). As the great Richard Baxter once said,

No man may look at his own graces as a part of his legal righteousness, in conjunction with Christ’s righteousness as the other part. We must go wholly out of ourselves and deny and disclaim all such righteousness of our own.

Richard Baxter. Spiritual Peace and Comfort.

The Scriptures that support and strengthen the Protestant vision of justification are many. I happened upon a section in William Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology recently where he was laying out a brief argument for the Perseverance of the Saints, the idea that a true Christian can never lose their salvation. His arguments and selected passages shed light on this topic as well.

  1. Faith is the instrument, not the “meritorious cause” of justification and is a gift itself.

    “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” (Ephesians 2:8).

    “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” (Philippians 1:29).
  2. Justification is both instantaneous and complete.

    “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

    “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:33-34).

    “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24)
  3. All of our sins are forgiven at our justification: past, present, and future.

    “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).

    “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:24-28).

Martin Luther—the German monk who light the match that ignited the entire Protestant Reformation—once concisely summarized the divide between Catholics and Protestants with one simple Latin phrase ‘simul justus et peccator,’ which can be translated into English as “at the same time just and sinner.” Christians are simultaneously justified freely by the God’s grace and sinful by our nature. Unlike Roman Catholic doctrine that states that we are justified because we are truly righteous with an “infused righteousness” due to our Baptism, the Bible affirms that we are counted as righteous solely as a result of the work of Christ on the cross, our own righteousness having nothing to do with the equation.

Christians can never perish! This is the great news of Christ’s defeat of death. We are no longer under the law which condemns us (Romans 6:14), but we are under grace!. We have already received eternal life, and been given the Holy Spirit as a seal of that promise (Ephesians 1:14)! We have been declared sons and daughters of God, adopted eternally into his family. If we are son, then we shall most certainly have full salvation.

Concluding Remarks

I pray that whoever takes the time to read this lengthy post will be blessed. My aim is not to cause division, but rather to reveal the division that already exists. The Catholic Church is fundamentally wrong on the issue of Justification, and the standard by which we know this to be true, is the revealed Word of God. We are commanded in Scripture, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The ideas that are contrasted in this post are no small thing. Justification matters. In the words of Spoul,

 “That means that the Reformation is not over and we must continue to stand firm in proclaiming the biblical gospel.”

RC Sproul


Leave a Reply

Kingdom Finances

Kingdom Finances

Text: 1 Corinthians 16:1-4Date: Sunday May 21, 2023 Introduction Jesus told a

Episode 64: Justification: Catholics vs. Protestants

Episode 64: Justification: Catholics vs. Protestants

In this episode Pastor Raef digs into one of the core divisions between

You May Also Like
%d bloggers like this: