Bible Teaching Newsletter

of Biblical Doctrine & New Testament Assembly Life

Volume 4, No 2 March 1, 1997

The Doctrine of Justification and Roman Catholicism

by David Dunlap

     Martin Luther had tried everything: sleeping on hard floors, fasting for days, even upon bloodied knees climbing the staircase of the church of St. John Lateran in Rome. His teachers said he was doing enough to have peace in in soul, but he did not He had no peace, for his sense of sin was too deep. He had been studying the Psalms and he often noticed the term, the "righteousness of God". This statement brought conviction to his soul. He knew he was a sinner and did not possess this righteousness, and these words of scripture condemned him all the more. One day he opened the Bible and began to read in the book of Romans chapter one. "For in it is the righteousnes of God revealed..." - there was that word again. But then he read on in verse 17, "The just shall live by faith" and suddenly the truth of salvation by grace through faith alone came rushing into his soul. At that moment the torch was lit which would lead the world in a spiritual revolution: a return to the biblical doctrine of justification.

     While the light of this great truth resounds throughout the world today, the Roman Catholic church continues to cling to a doctrinal postition established in the 16th century at the council of Trent. Alarmed at the teaching of Luther and Calvin, brought to light in the Reformation, the Church formulated a doctrinal position set forth through a series of decrees and canons. The "decrees" state the churche's teaching in a positive form while the "canons" express its teaching in a negative form. Even until our present day the Roman Catholic church has never repudiated or revised her position set forth in the Council of Trent.

     What does the Roman Catholic Church teach? What do the majority of Roman Catholics believe about justification? Both of these questions are answered by looking more closely at the decisions of the Council of Trent For these decisions form the foundation and teaching of the Roman Catholic church on this subject.

1. In Roman Catholic theology, according to Trent, justification is an infusion of grace which results in a change in man's spiritual nature.
For proof of this we note the following decree from chapter 7 of session 6 of the council of Trent, "Whence in the very act of being justified, at the same time that his sins are being remitted, a man receives through Jesus Christ, to whom he is joined, the infused gifts of faith, hope and charity." (1) In Canon 9 of the same chapter we read the following, "If anyone says that a sinful man is justified by faith alone,... let him be anathema." (2)

     Here Trent sharply attacks the biblical position in denying Romans 4:5, "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." On this point the Roman Catholic church rejects the very cornerstone of the Reformation: Man is justified by grace through faith alone. In a careful reading of Trent, one discovers that its concern is spiritual renewal and not the forgiveness of sins. According to Trent, justification is not the declaration that one is righteous, but rather an infusion of grace which brings about sanctification. At this juncture it is important stress the biblical distinction between justification and sanctification that is so crucial. Three points of contrast should be recognized.

      1. Justification removes the guilt of sin, whereas sanctification removes the pollution of sin and enables the believer to grow in their likeness to Christ.
      2. Justification takes place outside the believer and is a legal declaration by God the Father. Sanctification takes place within a believer and transforms him.
      3. Justification takes place once and is not a process nor a repeated event. Sanctification is a process and continues throughout the believer's life.

2. According to Trent faith does not have a central significance in justification.
The scriptures teach that we are justified by grace through faith alone. Romans 3:28 says, "Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law." While Trent admits that there is a sense in which we can be justified by faith, its emphasis is upon works though baptism. Trent says, "We may then be said to be justified through faith, in the sense that 'faith is the beginning of man's salvation'..." (3) In the teaching of Trent, what really justifies is not faith, but the sacrament of baptism. Is this what the Roman Catholic Church teaches today? Notice what a recent Catholic catechism for adults teaches concerning salvation,
"What is necessary to be saved? You have to be brought into spiritual contact with the saving death of Jesus by faith and Baptism and loyal membership in his church, by love of God and neighbor, and proved by obedience to His commandments, by other Sacraments especially Holy Communion, by prayer and good works and by final perseverance, that is perserving God's friendship and grace until death." (4)

     This teaching reaches to the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II has also gone on record affirming that salvation is by works. He stated in a printed interview with the Los Angeles Times, "Man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (5) Rome may admit that justification is by faith, but what she fails to affirm with conviction is that justification is by grace through faith alone. This was the heart cry of the Reformation, solo fide, solo fide - faith alone!!

3. According to Trent justification can be earned through good works.
One of Paul's strongest emphases is that no one can earn eternal life by his or her good works. Ephesians 2:8-9, "For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God - not of works, lest any man boast." Furthermore the Bible guarantees that eternal life is a present possession to those who believe. In the book of Romans 3:23, Paul states this truth emphatically, writing, "the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord." Yet, disregarding the crystal clear words of scripture, the council of Trent states that one can merit eternal life through his or her good works.This point is made in a negative way in Canon 32 of the council of Trent:

"If anyone says that the good works of a man are not the good merits of the justified man himself; or that, by the good works he performs the man does not truly merit an increase of grace, life everlasting, and , providing that he dies in a state of grace, the attainment of that life everlasting, and even an increase of glory: let him be anathema." (6)

     It was this very point, the denial of salvation by grace through faith alone, which the leaders of the Reformation so vigorously opposed. They were convinced that Rome's teaching on this point obscured and threatened the gracious character of justification, and made it necessary to add works to the once for all finished work of christ. Through Rome's teaching, the biblical truth of the grace of God and the work of Christ were not only in jeopardy, but buried under a mountain of good works.

     What is the current position of the Catholic church since Vatican II? Has the Church reversed the teaching of the Council of Trent, as so many believe? In 1957 a Roman Catholic theologian named Hans Kung wrote a book called Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. This book caused quite a stir among Catholics and Protestants. Kung candidly admitted and argued, that the Reformation view concerning justification was correct and this view should be the position of the Catholic church. One would expect that when a leading Catholic theologian reversed his teaching concerning justification that it would have a deep impact and transforming effect upon the Catholic church and her teaching. Is this the case? John Stott, a noted evangelical Anglican, has written concerning Kung's impact upon the Catholic church, "More than a quarter of a century has passed since the publication of his (Kung's) book, and one is not conscious of any widespread proclamation in the Roman Catholic Church of the gospel of justification by grace through faith alone." (7) In fact, the very opposite is true. Notice a quotation from one of Rome's more progressive theologians, Karl Rahner, concerning Rome's position on justification: "Justification, understood as God's deed, transforms man down to the deepest roots of his being; it transfigures him and divines him." (8) One can conclude that there is little evidence of any change in the Church's teaching of justification since the Council of Trent. Furthermore, Catholic leaders argue disparagingly that the evangelical's view of justification is "legal fiction" or "merely a robe thrown over a corpse." Since this teaching is in opposition to the plain teaching of scripture, Christians must continue to oppose Rome on this crucial doctrinal point.

     Why then are so many Evangelicals joining hands with Rome, even to the point of calling them "brothers and sisters in Christ"? On March 29, 1994, a statement of cooperation was drawn up by eight protestant and seven Roman Catholic leaders called "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium." This effort was led by Charles Colson and signed by such noted and respected evangelicals as J. I. Packer and Bill Bright, the president of Campus Crusade. (9) How will this trend of drawing together with Roman Catholics affect the witness and work of the church of Christ to the lost? Moreover, how will this trend affect the doctrinal purity of the gospel of salvation, over which the the Reformers, Scottish Covenanters, and others risked and lost their lives in seeking to protect it from compromise? Sadly, even now seeds are being sown which portend ominously for the spiritual and doctrinal future of the church.

     In 1993, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a number of Christian young people in the high school began to witness to their fellow classmates and a number of Jewish and Catholic students were saved. Catholic and Jewish leaders became irritated and concerned. They approached and later met with Evangelical leaders in Colorado Springs to discuss the matter. These leaders met with the directors from Navigators and Young Life, a ministry to high school students nationwide. The outcome of this meeting was that a document was drawn up which was called the "Covenant of Mutual Respect". This document was later printed in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph. Some of the evangelical signers of this document were Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Terry Taylor of the Navigators and Terry McGonigal of Young Life. The following excerpt from this document sums up the purpose and intent of this public statement, "The effort to evangelize by some communities was creating an atmosphere of animosity. ...Youth leaders, Jewish and Catholic leaders met together to discuss whether the evangelization efforts were a problem, and determined that they were..." (10) This account serves to illustrate the perilous situation in which the evangelical church now finds itself. The evangelical church has found that in compromising its historic position concerning justification, she is also compelled to further compromise its mission and character. May we resist every subtle attack and attempt to further compromise the truth of the word of God.

(1) John F. Clarkson et al., The Church Teaches, Documents of the Church in English Translation, St. Louis, B. Herder Books, 1955, p.234
(2) ibid, p.243
(3) ibid, p.235
(4) William J. Cogan, A Cathechism for Adults, Youngstown, AZ: Cogan Productions, 1975, p.50
(5) Pope John Paul II, Los Angeles Times, March 8,1983
(6) The Church Teaches, Documents of the Church in English Translation, p.246
(7) John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Downers Grove,WI: Intervarsity), 1986, p.184
(8) Karl Rahner, Theological Investagations, Baltimore, MD, Helicon Press, 1969, p. 222
(9) Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Institute on Religion and Public Life, 1992
(10) Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, April 22,1993



"Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that 'the just shall live by faith.' Then I grasped that justification is through grace and the sheer mercy of God through faith. Thereupon, I felt myself reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.

Martin Luthor - Here I Stand, Life of Martin Luthor



"Man is justified by works and not by faith alone."

Pope John Paul II - Interview, Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1983.



"If anyone says that the sacriments of the Church are not necessary for salvation but ... that without them ... men obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification ... let him be anathema."

Council of Trent (1546)




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