*As a note, the numbers in the citations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicate paragraph numbers, not page numbers.
The doctrine of justification is the doctrine most central to Christianity, and it is that which divides the Reformed from the Catholic. For centuries now, theologians have argued over the correct interpretation of this doctrine, yet today very few Christians understand it or to even give it fair consideration. As a result, Protestants in particular have often dismissed Catholics as essentially non-Christians. When given fair view, however, Catholicism holds commendable similarities to Protestantism, particularly on the role of grace in justification. However, fundamental, uncompromising differences remain between the Reformed and Catholic when the Catholic doctrines of infusion and justification by faith are scrutinized carefully and explicated alongside the Catholic understanding of grace.
The concept of justification cannot be defined without first understanding the arguments that Catholics and Reformed have for their particular views, for it is the interpretation of what it means to be justified that separates Catholics from Reformed. While both agree in their definition that to be justified means one will be saved from condemnation to hell, beyond this definition there are some, but not many, agreements, although perhaps more than many Christians realize. However, as will be shown later, these agreements are relatively superficial.
In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation came together with the Catholic Church in an ecumenical attempt to find some of these commonalities and formed what they call the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification as their statement of what they discovered (Aune 9). Out of the formation of this document came several points of agreement, the key statement of which was, “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works” (Truemper 35).
Along with this summary statement came seven other main points of agreement that David Truemper quotes:
(1)We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation….(2)We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin’s enslaving power and imparts the gift of new life in Christ….(3)We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ….(4)We confess together that in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies and truly renews the person. But the justified must all through life constantly look to God’s unconditional justifying grace….(5)We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the Gospel ‘apart from works prescribed by the law….(6)We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God…. (7)We confess together that good works—a Christian life lived in faith, hope, and love—follow justification and are its fruits. (35-36)
Many of these points would surprise most Protestants, excepting perhaps point number four, with which many Protestants would in fact disagree. The general conception among Protestants is that Catholics believe in merited salvation or that works are the means to achieving one’s salvation. This misconception needs to be dispelled or reevaluated, for it is an inaccurate representation, although perhaps not without a tiny bit of truth. According to Catholic doctrine, works are meritorious only in that they earn rewards in heaven (Matt. 5:12; 10:42). The intention of the Catholic affirmation of works is to “emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to question the character of those works as gifts, and far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace” (Wood 48). Susan Wood quotes Saint Augustine: “What then is the merit of man before grace by which merit he should receive grace? Since only grace makes every good merit of ours, and when God crowns our merits, He crowns nothing else but His own gifts” (Wood 49).
Clearly, the Catholic Church does not deny salvation by grace alone but rather affirms it. However, one must ask how the Catholic Church understands grace and applies it to their practice of doctrine. Also, one must examine the Roman doctrines of faith and its relation to salvation and then what qualifies as a “work,” or meritorious action. When the distinctions in these definitions are elucidated and then applied, then it is possible to better understand the Catholic and Reformed doctrinal differences. A good place to begin this analysis is with the doctrine of sola fide.
Sola fide, or the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls, according to Luther, and is also one of the key biblical doctrines upon which the Church split in the Reformation (Sproul 18). Now, the question of what faith itself is would require far more discussion than will fit into this paper, which is why the role of faith in salvation will be the focus of debate here. The Reformed doctrine of faith alone maintains that man is justified by God’s grace, which is received through faith, and that works play no part in salvation whatsoever (Eph. 2:8-9). Rather, works are the fruits or result of saving faith. It would even be incorrect to say that one is saved because of his faith, for that makes faith a merit or condition for faith. Faith is the instrument of justification, rather than the condition of justification. As Joel Beeke puts it,
We are not saved for believing, but by believing. In the application of justification, faith is not a builder but a beholder; it has nothing to give or achieve, but has all to receive. Faith is neither the ground nor substance of our justification, but the hand, the instrument, the vessel which receives the divine gift proffered to us in the gospel. (Beeke 62)
The Roman Catholic position also holds to justification by faith, but its meaning is nuanced. First of all, Catholics deny that justification is by faith “alone.” MacArthur quotes the Council of Trent’s declaration, “If anyone says that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to mean that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification...let him be anathema” (11).
Secondly, the Catholic Church uses the word “by” in a different sense than the Reformers did. Catholicism believes that the instrumental cause of justification is in the sacrament of baptism primarily and also secondarily in penances (Sproul 122). R.C. Sproul quotes the new Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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” (122-123). Accordingly, what Rome means by justification “by faith” is that justification is accompanied by and inseparable from faith, but it is not the sole instrument in justification; also important for justification is the rite of baptism. The most important thing to note is that clearly that baptism and faith are conditional requirements for justification, for one is not justified until one has undergone the rite of baptism in one’s faith. Therefore, justification is conditioned upon man’s actions.
The Roman Catholic idea of baptism in justification brings one back to examine more closely their understanding of grace. Grace is, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (1996) . God’s grace also “depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature” (Catechism 1998). Therefore, as was already stated, they do not believe that works merit salvation or grace. Catholics hold that their "works," such as baptism, are a result of grace, and the result of baptism is even more grace.
This understanding of grace may sound very much in line with Reformed thinking, which holds that salvation depends completely on God’s grace, until one considers it in light of the Catholic belief in free will. The Catechism says and quotes the Council of Trent:
Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent: ‘When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight’. (1993)
Here, it is clear that man does have some power to affect his salvation, for while he cannot move toward justification, he does have the ability to reject it. The Catechism also clarifies that “since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification…and for eternal life” (2010). So when the Catholics say that justification rests in God’s grace, they mean that God initiates the conversion by His grace in spite of man’s free will and that afterwards it is up to man’s will to merit grace by not sinning, although one must remember that not sinning still remains an act of grace in itself. 
The Reformed understanding, on the other hand, maintains that God’s grace is always active in the believer’s life and is irresistible through and through. God is not merely the initiator of grace but also the constant sustainer. The Christian relies on God’s sustaining grace for justification and for sanctification, and he cannot do anything to merit his salvation. John Calvin quotes St. Augustine on God’s effectual grace over man’s will:
Were man left to his own will to remain under the help of God if he chooses, while God does not make him willing, among temptations so numerous and so great, the will would succumb from its own weakness. Succour, therefore, has been brought to the weakness of the human will by divine grace acting irresistibly and inseparably, that thus the will however weak might not fail. (Sproul 142)
The reason for this difference between the Reformed and Catholic comes in part from either side’s understanding of the relationship between sanctification and justification. Catholicism believes that justification is a life-long process that occurs simultaneously with sanctification. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The Holy Spirit is the master of the interior life. By giving birth to the ‘inner man,’ justification entails the sanctification of his whole being” (1995). The Council of Trent also held that justification is a process that lasts not only over the course of this life but also into the next life or through purgatory (MacArthur 9). As justification is a continual process and requires continued perfection to the end, it is possible to lose one’s justification by committing a mortal sin or rejecting God’s grace. On mortal sins, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us—that is, charity—necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart…” (1856). 
The Reformed position, in contrast, understands justification to be a single occurrence in the life of the believer. James White quotes the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith on this: “God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified, and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure” (65). Justification is a one time event, not a continual process; once one is justified, one is always justified. White also quotes Charles Hodge’s definition: “[Justification is] an act, and not, as sanctification, a continued and progressive work” (68). Justification, for the Reformers, is the act by which man is counted as righteous; sanctification is the process of becoming holy and is evidenced by one’s good works. Sanctification is a gradual, life-long process; justification is not.
At the very root of the distinctive aspects between Catholics and the Reformed view lie the Catholic and Reformed views of what justification does to and for the Christian. The words used to describe the distinct doctrines are infusion and imputation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the justifying grace of Christ as “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” (1999). In another place, “Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin” (Catechism 1990). In other words, justification for the Catholic means “to make righteous” or to have one’s soul purified in and of itself so that there remains no sin whatsoever. As a result, God will judge one as a righteous and worthy person because one actually is righteous. However, no one can deny that man still sins in spite of his faith. If man commits a sin, then that sin blemishes his soul, like cookie crumbs on a child’s face after stealing from the jar. Therefore, when one sins, one falls out of his state of justification since he is justified by the perfect condition of his soul. This explains why The Catholic Church believes that one can lose one’s salvation.
Contrarily, the Reformed view of justification is often described by the phrase, “simul iustus et peccator,” which is the Latin for the idea that man is simultaneously saved and a sinner (Truemper 38). What this means is that man is not justified by being perfect and holy in and of himself; rather, man is justified by Christ’s Righteousness that is imputed to him while man is yet sinful and deserving of condemnation (Romans 4:5). This understanding is called imputed righteousness or forensic justification (Sproul 95). On this idea of imputation, James White quotes Hodge in saying,
[Imputation] does not produce any subjective change in the person justified. It does not effect a change of character, making those good who were bad, those holy who were unholy. That is done in regeneration and sanctification…[;] it is not a mere executive act, as when a sovereign pardons a criminal, and thereby restores him to his civil rights, or to his former status in the commonwealth…[;] it is a forensic, or judicial act, the act of a judge, not of a sovereign (68).
Hodge clearly affirms that justification does not change the person himself, but that “it simply alters his relation to the law” (White 114). Luther illustrated this famously with his analogy of the dunghill. White paraphrases it this way:
[Luther] likened our sinful state to a dunghill: ugly and offensive, it has nothing in and of itself that would be pleasing to anyone, let alone to God….We are foul and repulsive in our sin….Justification…is like that first snowfall of the approaching winter…that covers everything in a blanket of pure white….What was once foul is no longer. The smell is gone. The repulsive sight is gone. All is white and clean and pure (119-120).
It is seen, however, that the person remains filthy on the inside under the snow. Christ’s righteousness is a covering that makes one appear righteous in God’s eyes.
The question that remains is how this idea of imputation relates to the doctrine of sola fide, which the Reformers were so insistent upon in the face of great opposition. In other words, why is imputation by faith alone such an important issue? Both Catholic and Reformed views see Christ’s grace alone as the center of the gospel. Is anything else important?
The answer to these questions rests upon the careful distinctions that were made earlier and the implications that can be drawn from them. The important notion that separates the Reformed view from the Catholic is ultimately that of conditionality and focus, not to mention Scripture itself. Catholicism understands justification to be the result of meeting different conditions. The first of these conditions is the rite of baptism conducted in or with faith. The second of these conditions is the maintenance of one’s status as a righteous person by not sinning, mortally especially and also venially (Catechism 1855-1856). Although the Catholic claims that all works toward justification are the result of God’s initiating grace and therefore cannot be called meritorious, the fact that justification is conditional upon man’s actions seems to strongly imply that salvation is indeed merited in some sense. To put it in negative terms, if one does not do the necessary things (i.e. baptism in faith and refraining from sins), then one can lose or perhaps never achieve the position of justification. When one includes the Catholic doctrine of free will in this critical examination, then the claim that salvation is not merited really appears to be nothing more than a game of semantics, for if man acts or does not act based upon his own free will, then it is truly up to him, rather than God’s effective mercy and grace, to determine if he shall be justified. James White comments, “The focus moves away from the perfection of the work of Christ on behalf of the believer to the maintenance of a state or condition. The glory for salvation itself is divided between the Savior and the saved, for the work of the one only makes it possible for the other to engage in ‘self-salvation’” (116).
The Reformed perspective believes that there are no conditions for justification but the free grace and mercy of Christ, which is conferred to man by means of faith through the working of regeneration. Although anyone who is Reformed will affirm this, it is often forgotten what the exact role of faith is in justification. It is most important to remember that, as B.B. Warfield put it, “The saving power of faith resides thus not in itself, but in the Almighty Saviour on whom it rests….It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith” (White 109). This understanding of faith leaves no room for a conditional aspect to justification.
There is an irreconcilable dichotomy between the Reformed view of free justification and the Catholic understanding of conditional justification. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic position remains commendable in that it does hold Christ to be the ultimate reason for our justification, and that it is only because of God’s grace that man is able to perform the necessary actions for justification. For this reason, Protestants should not conclude that Catholics are beyond salvation, although perhaps Catholics may be rarer for it. The Catholic gospel, although compromised, can still be used to spread the message of salvation by grace in Christ. Ultimately though, it is not for man to judge who is saved and who is not, for it is not man who justifies but God. The Apostle Paul affirms this fact in Romans 8:33, where he says, “Who then shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Holy Bible).
 See also paragraph 2002 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “God's free initiative demands man's free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man. He has placed in man a longing for truth and goodness that only he can satisfy.”
 See also paragraph 2011 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men.”
 See also paragraph 1861 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.”
Aune, David E, ed. Rereading Paul Together: Protestant and Catholic Perspectives on Justification. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2006.
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Holy Bible, English Standard Version®. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.
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MacArthur, John. “Long before Luther: Jesus and the Doctrine of Justification.” Justification by Faith Alone: Affirming the Doctrine by Which the Church and the Individual Stands or Falls. Ed. Kistler. 1-22. United States: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995.
Sproul, R.C. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 1995.
Truemper, David G. “Introduction to the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification.” Rereading Paul Together: Protestant and Catholic Perspectives on Justification. Ed. Aune. 29-42. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2006.
White, James. The God Who Justifies. Minneapolis: BethanyHouse, 2001.
Wood, Susan K. “Catholic Reception of the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification.” Rereading Paul Together: Protestant and Catholic Perspectives on Justification. Ed. Aune. 43-59. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2006.