What Does the
Roman Catholic Church Teach About the Doctrine of Justification?—Part Two
by Dr. John
Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon
What Does the Roman Catholic Church
Believe About the Doctrine of Justification?
Roman Catholics maintain that "the Catholic Church
teaches the true biblical doctrine of justification."
However, we think it is impossible to argue this point successfully
because Rome not only rejects the biblical teaching on justification, it
adds various forms of works salvation. For example, in Chapter 4, we see
that in Roman Catholicism the sacraments are works of human merit which
must be mediated through the Church; this constitutes an effective
denial of the biblical teaching on justification.
No one denies that Rome officially rejects salvation
solely by works; it condemned Pelagianism (salvation by works) at
the Synod of Carthage in 418 and semi-Pelagianism at the Council of
Orange in 529—and Trent upheld these condemnations.
But that is not the issue. The problem is two-fold.
First, Rome may have officially condemned salvation by works alone, but
it has also officially endorsed salvation by grace and
works. As Trent decreed, "By his good works the justified man really
acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God."
2 And, "It is both possible and necessary
to keep the law of God." 3
Second, historically, the practical effect has been to
uphold a doctrine of works salvation in the lives of its
people—irrespective of its claim to absolutely honor the grace of God.
In essence, throughout Catholic history, grace has been subjugated to
Church teaching and institutionalized into a system of works. Indeed,
the Catholic Church is known for its stress upon works
salvation—eternal life simply cannot be had without meritorious works.
Thus, official condemnations of salvation by works
mean little when they are wholly undermined by other official
declarations and the basic practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church
as a whole.
To illustrate the theme of one hand taking away what
the other has offered, it should be emphasized that the Catholic Church
has never denied that justification occurs by an act of God’s grace. In
fact, Catholic writers often sound perfectly biblical—and this is what
leads to confusion.
For example, consider the answer given to the
question, "How is the sinner justified?" in Stephen Keenan’s
Doctrinal Catechism: "He is justified gratuitously by the pure mercy
of God, not on account of his own or any human merit, but purely through
the merits of Jesus Christ; for Jesus Christ is our only mediator of
redemption, who alone, by his passion and death, has reconciled us to
his Father." 4
The issue here is not that Catholics teach that
"justification occurs by grace." This is their teaching. The problem is
that the Catholic definition and function of "justification" and "grace"
are different than what the Bible teaches. For example, the Catholic
Church teaches that justification is the infusion of sanctifying
grace or supernatural ability which actually works to make a person
objectively righteous and pleasing in the eyes of God. If sustained
until death, this grace permits one to merit entrance into heaven
because of the righteous life he lived: One actually deserves
heaven because one’s own goodness, in part, has earned it. This
explains why the basis for justification in Catholic theology is not
the fact of Christ’s righteousness being reckoned (imputed) to a
believer solely by faith. Rather, it is the fact that—through the
sacraments—Christ’s righteousness is infused into our very being so that
we progressively become more and more righteous. And on that basis—the
fact we have actual righteousness now—we are declared "righteous." Thus,
in Catholicism justification occurs primarily by means of the sacraments
and good works and not exclusively by personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Because this infusion of sanctifying ability is not
merited by anyone, the Church argues it is therefore entirely a free
gift of God’s grace. While this is technically correct, in the end, all
this really seems to be saying is that God gives the means by which
individuals can subsequently help earn their own salvation. In other
words, what actually saves us is the works we do after conversion
that have been energized by grace. Let’s explain this more fully.
In Catholic theology infused grace is a spiritual
power or strength given to the believer which empowers them to perform
meritorious works. When believers cooperate with this grace and make
good use of it, they gain the power to become just and righteous in
themselves. If we have this "grace" (i.e., a power or substance) within
us, we can then literally earn our way to heaven. How? By cooperating
with the habitual grace within us, we can arrive at a state of actual
righteousness. It is at this point only that we are then declared
(provisionally) to be "just"—because, in fact, we are (allegedly)
objectively righteous. By further cooperating with God’s grace and
through performance of individual works of merit, we actually’ increase"
our grace and justification. 5
Because "The soul becomes good and holy through the infusion of grace,"
5a as these are consistently
increased throughout life, a person hopefully dies in a state of grace.
Then he enters purgatory to pay the final penalty for his sins and to
await his heavenly reward. In a very real sense, then, Catholic
"justification" is simply God’s recognition of divinely empowered human
merit or goodness.
Perhaps a review would be helpful at this point. In
Catholicism, justification is an internal renovation and empowering of
man—both a regeneration and sanctification. It comes through an infusion
of God’s grace and it means that man himself, in his own being, is made
just or pleasing to God.
In essence, justification is the gracious act of God
whereby an individual, in cooperation with God, makes himself
righteous. Another way of saying this is that in Catholic theology
justification is the work of grace within a man to make him internally
and externally holy. As Keating argues:
… the Bible shows that justification is a rebirth. It is a
generation of a supernatural life in a former sinner (Jn. 3:5; Titus
3:5), a thorough inner renewal (Eph. 4:23), and a real sanctification
(1 Cor. 6:11). The soul itself becomes beautiful and holy. It is not
just an ugly soul hidden under a beautiful cloak [a reference to the
Protestant view]. Because it is beautiful and holy, it can be admitted
to heaven where nothing unclean is allowed. 6
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines justification in the following
manner, "Primarily and simply justification is the possession of
sanctifying grace. ...We are justified by Christ...and by good works,…"
7 Thus, as Ott says, "eternal blessedness in heaven is the reward for
good works performed on this earth…." 8
But in essence, Catholicism has confused justification with
sanctification and regeneration. 9 As Catholic P. Gregory Stevens writes
in The Life of Grace, "First of all, justification is a real and
profound transformation of man [regeneration], a genuine gift of
sanctification to him." 10 But
this is wrong because justification (Romans 3:28-4:6; Philippians 3:9),
regeneration (John 3:6-7; 6:63; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15)
and sanctification (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Peter 3:18) are three
distinct and separate biblical doctrines. To confuse them is to
distort the very essence of biblical salvation.
Stevens proceeds to quote the Council of Trent noting
that Trent specifically repudiated the Reformation position of
justification as imputed righteousness: "the heart of Catholic teaching
is contained in this passage. First of all comes the assertion that
"justification is not only the remission of sins, but sanctification and
renovation of the interior man through the voluntary reception of grace
and the gifts, whereby man becomes just instead of unjust.…"
The Bible, however, teaches that justification is
God’s work of grace in Christ. It is not God’s work
of grace in man to actually make him righteous, which is
sanctification. Again biblically, justification is God’s judicial
declaration that because of a man’s faith in Christ, God has now
declared him perfectly righteous irrespective of his personal
righteousness or sanctification.
Because Catholicism denies the biblical teaching on
justification, it opposes the very heart of the Christian Gospel: by
grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone. As we proceed with
our discussion of the Catholic view of justification, this will become
1. Karl Keating, What Catholics Really
Believe—Setting the Record Straight (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant,
1992), p. 101, emphasis added.
2. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma
(Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), p. 264, emphasis
3. Peter Toon, Foundations for Faith:
Justification and Sanctification (Westchester, IL: Crossway,
1983), p. 84, from Norman Geisler, pre-publication manuscript.
4. As cited in Robert D. Brimsmead, ed., "The Basic
Doctrine of Justification by Faith," Present Truth: Special
Issue—Justification by Faith, nd, p. 7. Available from P.O. Box
1311, Fallbrook, CA 92028.
5. Catholics do not like the term "quantitative
grace," but it is difficult to deny such a concept in their theology;
cf., R. C. Sproul, "Systematic Theology," trans. of cassette tape, nd.,
npp., p. 6.
5a. Karl Keating in "The Salvation Debate," March
11, 1989 held at Simon Greenleaf University, Santa Ana, CA (with Dr.
6. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism:
The Attack on "Romanism" By "Bible Christians" (San Francisco, CA:
Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 168.
7. Robert Broderick, ed., The Catholic
Encyclopedia, rev. and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers,
1987), p. 319.
8. Ott, p. 264, emphasis added.
9. H. J. Schroeder, (translator), The Canons and
Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978),
7th Session. Canon 1, 51 cf., pp. 29-46.
10. Cited in Brimsmead, ed., p. 8.
Mr. Mike Gendron
Mr. Greg Durel
Carlos Tomas Knott
Copyright 2006, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute