With this blog, I want to look at the difference between the Catholic Church’s understanding of justification and the biblical teaching regarding justification. That sounds condescending, but the Catholic Church gets justification wrong. This is one of the reasons for the Reformation in the 1500s. With that said, this blog will not be overwhelmingly comprehensive. There are much better resources out there to study this. However, this blog will aim to be helpful. Let’s begin with the Catholic Church’s understanding of justification.
Catholics on Justification
First, it is vitally important to note that the Catholic Church believes that the term justification means, “to make righteous.” Now, they are incorrect in their understanding here, as we will see later, but this is how they interpret the term justified.
With that said, the Catholic Church holds to the doctrine of original sin just like Protestants do. So, they believe that, “All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). They believe that, ever since Adam’s sin, we all have incurred guilt, condemnation, and a sin nature. That, in Adam’s sin, we all sinned because he is the representative of the human race. Protestants and Catholics are in agreement here.
However, Catholics believe that infant baptism brings about the conversion of the infant, forgiveness of sins, and the removal of the ramifications of original sin. Below you find proof of this from their own resources:
“Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called.”
Catholic doctrine goes on to say:
“By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin. In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam’s sin, nor personal sin, nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God.”
Thus, the Catholic Church is clearly saying that infant baptism saves people. God, through the baptism, converts the child, forgives the child of Adam’s sins and personal sins, and gives the child eternal life. Now let’s look specifically at how they believe the infant is justified in baptism.
They say, “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.” As you can see, for the Catholic, God confers justification to the individual, the infant, in baptism. And notice how they say that justification “conforms us to the righteousness of God.” This is where you see that justification, for the Catholic, means to make righteous.
Also, notice how justification, for the Catholic, is a lifelong process. Justification begins at baptism, but the individual is continually made inwardly just “or righteous” by the mercy of God. It is evident that baptism begins the justification process whereby you are made more and more righteous throughout the whole of life.
Secondly, the Catholic Church does not believe in a separate doctrine of sanctification like Protestants do. Rather, they believe that justification entails sanctification.
They say, “Justification entails the sanctification of the whole being.” From this statement we notice that, for justification to be complete, the whole person has to be sanctified. The whole person has to be made righteous. However, if the person is not completely sanctified, made righteous, upon death they go to purgatory in order to be purged of their remaining sin (for hundreds, thousands, or millions) of years until they are completely righteous. Then, after all that purging, they can finally appear before God.
Also, this is a key reason that they do not believe that people can have assurance of salvation. Since justification entails the sanctification of the whole person, nobody can actually be sure that they are justified. It ultimately depends on how much they toil and work for righteousness. And ultimately, how will they ever know if they have worked enough? They can’t. That is why they do not believe in assurance of salvation.
Also, at this point, it is helpful to mention this: The Catholic Church believes that some individuals can merit salvation for others. They say, “Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.”
As you can see, the Catholic Church believes that, by the Spirit, you are to work hard in order to merit the grace (strange use of words there…a bit contradictory if you ask me) needed for the ultimate attainment of eternal life. Then, as you keep reading, you’ll notice that they believe you can work hard and merit eternal life for other people. So, you are earning your own final justification and the final justification of others.
Lastly, since the Catholic church believes that initial justification comes at infant baptism and that it entails a process of being made righteous, individuals who fall into grave sin later on can lose that initial justification. Or, and this is the best-case scenario, they can go do confession with a priest and be given certain acts of penance in order to get that initial justification again so that they can start back on the process of being made righteous. You’ll see this in the quote below:
“Above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as ‘the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.’”
In conclusion, the Catholic Church believes that the sacrament of baptism brings about initial justification, forgiveness of sins, and an infusion of righteousness that entails the sanctification of the whole person. Justification ultimately takes place throughout the whole of life and is a process of being made more and more righteous. This justification, depending upon your obedience or disobedience, may be lost, incomplete, or completed. Ultimately you can have no assurance that you are justified. You simply must toil and work seeking to merit final justification for both yourself and possibly for others. (If you are wanting to read more on Catholic doctrine then you can go here).
Protestants on Justification
Now let’s look at why Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and other reformers protested this aspect of Catholic doctrine and heralded that a sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone.
First, as men and women were looking at the Bible, they realized that the term “justified” did not mean, “to make righteous,” as the Catholic Church articulated. Rather, they saw that the term “justified” meant, “to declare righteous.” Let’s look at some biblical texts to see this:
- Deuteronomy 25:1 “If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty,”
- Here, we see that a judge was to look at the innocent and justify him, declare him to be righteous, based off his innocence. And was to look at the guilty and declare him to be condemned based off his wrongdoing.
- Proverbs 17:15 “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.”
- Here, we learn that declaring the wicked to be righteous is an abomination to the Lord. Also, to condemn the righteous is an abomination to the Lord. The Lord detest judicial verdicts contrary to reality. These are perversions of justice.
- In Luke 7:29, after a teaching Jesus gives regarding John the Baptist, the Bible says, “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just.”
- These people are not making God righteous, they are declaring him to be what He truly is. . .righteous.
- Romans 5:1 “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- To remain consistent with Scripture, justified here means, “to declare righteous.” An individual is judicially declared righteous by faith in Christ.
As you can see, justified is used in the legal since. It is when a judge looks at an innocent individual and declares him to be righteous based off his innocence.
Secondly, since justified is a legal term and it means to declare someone to be righteous, it is not a process like the Catholic Church teaches. Rather, it is an instantaneous declaration. As a judge wades through all the material and sees that the person on trial has not done anything wrong, the judge justifies him. Thus, the judge authoritatively declares him to be righteous. This is not a process. It is an immediate declaration.
Thirdly, if this is the case, then how in the world will we, who are not righteous, be declared righteous by God? If we do not get this right, we will end up hopeless. We must answer this properly.
And in order to answer this properly, we need to clearly understand that we will not be justified by our works. Romans 3:19-20 says, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” No amount of obedience to the law will ever lead to justification. Rather, the law is going to increasingly show you that you are a sinner and that you have no hope of being justified, judicially declared righteous, before God.
Also Galatians 2:15 says, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law.” Once again, seeking to work out your own righteousness by obedience to the law will never lead God to judicially declare you righteous. The reason for this is because we are sinners and cannot fulfill the whole law. It says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ So, if you are relying on the Law, you are cursed by God because in order to be justified by the Law you have to be perfectly obedient to the entirety of the Law. You are not permitted to transgress one part of it. Nobody has or will do this (except Christ, but more on this later).
So, we will not be justified because of any of our works. We will not be declared righteous because we saved our self for marriage, we attended church often, we read the Bible periodically, we participated in the sacraments of the Catholic Church, we refrained from getting drunk, we were baptized, we walked an isle and said a prayer when we were younger, or because we volunteered at a non-profit.
None of this will lead God to judicially declare you righteous. God will look at the futility of all of these works and judicially declare you guilty and deserving of condemnation! He will not render a judicial verdict contrary to reality and the reality is that we have sinned in a myriad of ways and that even our ‘good works’ are deplorable to him.
Therefore, this brings us to this, God will justify, declare righteous, us unrighteous people through faith alone in Jesus Christ! Here are some verses that show this:
- Romans 3:28-31 “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised (Jews) by faith and the uncircumcised (Gentiles) through faith.”
- Romans 5:1 “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Galatians 2:15-16 “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet 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.”
Scripture makes it abundantly clear that if we, as sinners and transgressors of God’s law, are going to be justified ‘declared righteous’ it is going to be through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
Fourthly, how can God justify the ungodly when Proverbs said it is an abomination for a human judge to justify the ungodly?
This is where you get to something that is really remarkable and should cause you to have a whole lot of joy. There are two aspects of our justification by faith alone in Christ alone that we need to understand. The first is this, pardon or remission of sins. You see, when Christ died on the cross many years ago, he died in order to save you from your sins. He died as our substitute. On the cross, he bore the sins of all those who would believe in him by faith. Therefore, when you have faith in Christ Jesus, you can no longer be condemned for your sins because Christ Jesus was condemned for those sins in his death on the cross (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24).
And the second is this, imputed righteousness. So, the Catholic church articulates infused righteousness throughout the whole of one’s life. As you co-operate with the Holy Spirit in doing good works, God is infusing more and more righteousness into you. However, the Bible teaches imputed righteousness. Imputed means credited. Something that is given to you. When you have faith in Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ’s righteousness is imputed to you. It is given to you as a gift from God. Paul says in Philippians 3:8-9:
Philippians 3:8-9 “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 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.”
Now, if you put these two together then you will have what we call the doctrine of double imputation. Our sins imputed, or credited, to Christ on the cross, and Christ’s righteousness imputed, or credited, to us. This is beautifully taught in 2 Corinthians 5:21 where Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Therefore, God is justified in justifying the ungodly because the ungodly, through faith in Jesus, are truly righteous. We have the righteousness of Christ given to us. God justified us because the righteousness of God was gifted to us through faith in Christ. This is the hope of the Gospel! Though we are all sinners, we can be declared righteous through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
This is the difference between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church on the doctrine of justification. And, as you can tell, the difference is vast. The Catholic Church’s understanding will lead people to a reliance on works while the Protestant teaching will lead people to a reliance on the finished work of Jesus Christ. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I evangelized a girl from the Catholic Church on NC State’s campus. I asked her how I could be forgiven of my sins and go to heaven. She simply responded, “You have to go to confession and do penance.” Thus, the Catholic Church once again makes you look to yourself for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.
After she said that, I told her the good news of the Gospel is that through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone she can be forgiven of sins and be credited with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Thus, contrary to the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, once again, makes you look to Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.