The Issues Surrounding the Doctrine of Justification That Divide Catholics and Protestants - Part 3 | John Ankerberg Article Archive

The Issues Surrounding the Doctrine of Justification That Divide Catholics and Protestants – Part 3

By: Dr. John Ankerberg; ©1999
This four-part series examines some of the differences in belief regarding the doctrine of Justification, especially as it relates to the Catholic church. Key terms defined are. “No Human Merit” vs. “Congruous Merit”.



So far we have looked at the differences between the Catholic and Protestant under­standing of the doctrine of justification in three areas: “Forensic” vs. “Legal Fiction”; “Syn­thetic” vs. “Analytic”; and “Imputation” vs. “Infusion”. We now continue the discussion beginning with point 4.

4. No Human Merit vs. Congruous Merit

This category of terms reinforces what has already been said. Thus, on the Protestant side we find the words No Human Merit. By this, Protestants mean that man has no merit of his own whatsoever that can dispose God to justify him. Again, it is emphasized that justification is not God’s declaration based on the righteousness with a person relative to any good works that a person can do.

Justification is God’s judgment based on the work of Christ at the cross—something that He only asks us to believe in order to appropriate. The Bible says, “But now a righ­teousness from God, apart from law, has been made known,…This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22, emphasis added). Elsewhere the Apostle Paul emphatically states it is, “Not by works of righteous­ness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Titus 3:5). Thus, true righteousness before God is attained only by faith—this is the essence of the Christian gospel: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:17, emphasis added).

In contrast to this, across from the Protestant phrase no human merit is the Roman Catholic phrase, congruous merit. Catholicism teaches that by working in cooperation with prevenient grace, or the infused power of Christ within a person, that a person can then live a life that, while not being absolutely perfect, is still a life that is meritorious enough to make it congruous or “fitting” for God to grant him justification. In brief, a sinful man’s cooperation with Christ’s infused power can lead him to do good deeds that will earn him fitting merit before God.

Now, this whole issue is very important: Those good works done in the power of Christ which earn him congruous merit are necessary for salvation and must be present before justification takes place according to Roman Catholic teaching. These good works are a condition for receiving a right standing before God and without them the promise of heaven cannot be had.

5. Security vs. Insecurity of Justification

Point number five for Protestants is the phrase Can’t Lose Justification. Historically, the Protestant Reformers argued that since a man’s justification depended solely on Christ’s meritorious life and atoning death—and not upon anything which a man can do— that a person could never lose his justification before God. Since Christ had already lived a perfect life and died to pay for all of man’s sins, nothing will ever change what Christ did— this is the very basis of a man’s justification. Therefore, once a person believed in Christ, he or she was entirely and eternally secure. In essence, because salvation was a gift from God based solely on Christ’s atoning death, the number of good or bad deeds in a person’s life would never change a person’s perfect standing before God[1].

Across from the Protestant position declaring that a person Can’t Lose their Justifi­cation is the Roman Catholic position that a person, Can Lose their Justification. Ca­tholicism believes that justifying grace within a man can be obliterated by his committing of mortal sin. Roman Catholicism distinguishes between venial sins—sins that are not so serious that they involve the destruction of justifying grace—and mortal sins, sins so seri­ous that the grace of justification is entirely destroyed within a man or woman. Say you commit a mortal sin and destroy your justification. In order for you to regain it, Catholicism teaches you must come to the Church via the sacrament of penance, which involves con­fession, absolution, and satisfaction. (For a discussion of these topics, see Protestants and Catholics, Do They Now Agree? (Harvest House, 1995) by John Ankerberg and John Weldon. This book is available through the Resource Center at

Further, Catholics who believe in Christ are constantly reminded that their justification also depends on their works cooperating with Christ. Catholics are taught that because a person cannot know his own heart—and because we are subject to so many temptations, we may commit a variety of mortal sins. But any one of these will destroy our justification. That is why the Council of Trent warned, “Each one, when he regards himself and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension touching his own grace; seeing that no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.” (H. J. Schroeder, trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978), p. 35) So in Catholicism, a man or woman can lose their Justification and can never be certain they will someday be in heaven. The only exception is when, under rare circumstances, God grants a person this special knowledge through revelation.

6. Faith Alone vs. Faith and Works

The sixth major point concerning justification is represented in the famous words of the Reformation, By Faith Alone.

For Protestants, faith is not merely an intellectual assent to certain facts about Christ’s salvation; rather, faith is a knowledge of the facts plus a total trust or resting of one’s eter­nal destiny in Jesus Christ, who is the sole reason and grounds upon which God justifies us.

For Protestants, justification is an act that can take place in a single moment, the moment the sinner, through faith alone, trusts Christ completely. At that moment, the benefits of Christ are applied to the sinner’s life and he is officially judged and declared by God to stand in His sight as righteous.

Across from Faith Alone is the Catholic belief that Justification is by Faith Plus Works. For Catholicism, faith is required but they strongly object to saying that faith alone is all that God requires for Him to justify a person. In addition to faith, Catholicism also requires “works.”

We will continue our discussion in the next article with the question: Is “faith” a “work” in Catholicism?


  1. It should be pointed out that though Luther agreed that the merits of Christ were the sole basis of a man’s justifica­tion and that the imputation of Christ’s merit did not depend in any way on a man’s deeds, Luther still thought that a man could lose his justification if he decided to totally turn away from Christ. Since God’s gift of forgiveness of sins and eternal life was received by faith, if a man decided not to believe and to rest his eternal destiny in Christ, and totally turned against Him, only then would a man lose his salvation. In other words, to lose his salvation he would have to commit the sin of unrepentant apostasy. On the other hand, Calvin taught that once God justified a man, God would strengthen that man’s faith and protect him so that he would never want to turn away from believing in the work of Christ on his behalf.

Read Part 4


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