The impact of justification by faith

The impact of justification by faith to the current Protestant and Catholic relationship

What is the one mission of the one Christ? If the mission is to proclaim salvation through the life and death of Jesus Christ, do Catholics and Protestants have the same mission?

Norman R. Gulley, PhD, is research professor in Systematic Theology, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.

The Council of Trent (1545– 1563) hurled anathemas at the Protestant doctrine of justification, and Protestants flung volleys back. Truth was at stake. But not now. Survival of Christianity is said to be the reason for deemphasizing differences and stressing agreements in order to face a common enemy—secularism.

Particularly since Vatican Council II (1963–1965), the Roman Catholic Church has worked steadily to bring other churches into union with itself. An article titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” states, “We together pray for the fulfillment of the prayer of Our Lord: ‘May they all be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, so also may they be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me’ (John 17). We together, Evangelicals and Catholics, confess our sins against the unity that Christ intends for all his disciples.”1 The article further adds that Catholics and Protestants in their joint consultations concur that “the scandal of conflict between Christians obscures the scandal of the cross, thus crippling the one mission of the one Christ.”2

What is the one mission of the one Christ? If the mission is to proclaim salvation through the life and death of Jesus Christ, do Catholics and Protestants have the same mission?

This article takes the position that Catholics and Protestants do not have the same mission, as evidenced in their understanding of salvation. We will note (1) justification defined by Trent; (2) justification defined by Scripture; (3) different views of salvation; (4) who is changing; and (5) the missing context.

Justification defined by Trent

Trent decreed that the Latin Vulgate version of Scripture was the official Bible, but this version doesn’t do justice to the Greek word dikaiosunÄ“, which means “to declare righteous,” for the Vulgate translates it by the Latin word iustifificare, which means “to make righteous.”3 To be declared righteous has nothing to do with personal merit, whereas to be made righteous leads to works of merit. “The Greek verb refers to something outside of a person in question” whereas “the Latin refers to the qualities of the person in question.”4

According to Trent, justification “is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend.”5 Faith, hope, and love are infused into the Christian, so states William Schroeder.6 With the infusion of justification there begins a process of justification in which works merit further justification.7 This is a crucial Catholic contribution. This Catholic view seems to confuse the categories of justification and sanctification and places sanctification before ongoing justification. William G. T. Shedd is right when he states that “Men are justified in order that they may be sanctified, not sanctified in order that they may be justified.”8 Furthermore, the Catholic concept of infused justification, or “physical justification,”9 is a state in which only a partial remission of sins is experienced, for guilt still exists and debt is to be met by temporal punishment, even beyond this world in purgatory.10 This, I believe, fails to do justice to the Cross.

Catholic theology holds that justification is a transformative act by which something supernatural is infused, placed within the soul of the believer. By contrast, the Protestant view affirms that “to be justified” means God says that a person is righteous through accepting Christ’s substitutionary death by faith. Nothing new is infused in one’s soul. This, it seems to me, does justice to the Cross.

Justification defined by Scripture

Justification comes by faith in Jesus Christ and cannot be earned. Paul says “they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24, RSV), for “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (3:28, RSV). And even that faith, itself, is not something that springs from the human heart, but a gift that comes from God (Rom. 10:17; Eph. 2:7, 8). Humans are “justified by his [Christ’s] blood” (Rom. 5:9, ESV). Calvary was the “one act of righteousness” that “leads to justification and life for all men” (5:18, ESV). “God made him [Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21, NIV). Justification is a level reality.

In Romans 4, Paul uses the terms justify (dikaioō) or righteousness (dikaiosunÄ“) in a declarative sense, not in a transformational sense. “ ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned [logizomai] to him as righteousness’ ” (Rom. 4:3, RSV), or “counted to him” (ESV). Reckoned or counted simply means that Abraham was legally declared or reckoned as righteous because of his faith in God. The term counted (nine times in Romans 4, ESV) signifies imputation, not infusion.

Christ’s imputed righteousness makes unnecessary any infusion through sacraments or works to merit righteousness. Calvary was payment in full. Reckoned righteousness finds the recipient always dependent on the imputed and imparted righteousness of Christ. By contrast, the Catholic Church’s teaching about infusion focuses on inherent righteousness and human works. Personal performance and the mediation of others (Mary and the saints) take the place of sole dependence on Christ crucified, resurrected, and interceding before the Father at Heaven’s throne.

Differences in understanding salvation

The pivotal difference between Catholic and Reformation understanding of justification is the difference between infusion and imputation. Paul G. Schrotenboer says, “Apart from a new Roman Catholic confession on justification by faith, Trent remains a major barrier between the heirs of the Reformation and Roman Catholicism.”11

In harmony with ancient Catholic tradition, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio, issued December 7, 1990, states, “God has established Christ as the one mediator and that she herself [the Church] has been established as the universal sacrament of salvation.”12 Quoting from Vatican Council II, the encyclical goes on to state that “Dialogue should be conducted and implemented with the conviction that the Church is the ordinary means of salvation and that she alone possesses the fullness of the means of salvation.”13

Vatican II also noted, “Through the Church, we abide in Christ.”14 The church is the body of Christ. “In that body, the life of Christ is poured into the believers [an infusion], who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ. . . . Truly partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharist bread, we are taken up in communion with Him and with one another.”15 The church and its sacraments have a central role in the Catholic process of salvation—a position not found in Protestantism.

Further, the papal encyclical made a significant statement, entrusting the church and its mission to the guidance of Mary, a view not accepted by Protestants. While Protestants hold that salvation is through Christ alone and that He is both the sole cause and the Mediator of salvation, Catholics believe that the church, Mary, and the saints also have a mediatory function between God and humans. These three come between Christ and believers, and often function as if Christ’s mission—life, death, present intercession—is not enough.

Who is changing?

Is the barrier of Trent coming down? Or is the sixteenth century mission of Protestants changing? Some leading Protestants are concerned.

David F. Wells, for example, writes, “The evangelical world, in fact, is now coming apart because its central truths, what once held it all together, no longer have the binding power that they once had and, in some cases, are rejected outright with no following outcry.”16 Examples are the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) and Federal Vision (FV) that reject the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide), the foundation upon which the Protestant church stands or falls. Guy P. Waters rightly warns, “The church is facing a threat that strikes at her foundations.”17

Karl Barth referred to the Council of Trent as the one that “speaks of the good works of the regenerate man, who is only a little sinner and commits only tiny sins, and who is the happy position of being able to increase the grace of justification in co-operation with it, and even to augment the degree of his eternal bliss. The practical consequence of all this is that the misery of man is not regarded as in any way serious or dangerous either for Christians or non-Christians. The Reformation communions could not reunite with a Church which held this doctrine, and they cannot accept the call to reunion with it to-day.”18

Barth added, “With its doctrine of justification the Roman Church closed the door to self-reformation and deprived itself of all possibility of seizing the initiative in uniting the divided Church. It was impossible for the Evangelical Churches to return to fellowship with Rome when the decisive point of dispute was handled in this way. They could not surrender truth to unity.”19 This surrender of truth to unity is well under way in recent Catholic-Protestant documents to achieve a superficial unity against secularism.

Although Scripture alone was the Reformer’s position in the sixteenth century, today critical methods are placed above Scripture by some Protestant scholars just like the Magisterium is placed above Scripture in Catholicism. When Scripture is not supreme, when Scripture doesn’t interpret Scripture, tradition usurps Scripture’s interpretive role whether in Catholic or Protestant hands. This is one foundational reason why more harmony between Catholics and Protestants exists today than in the sixteenth century. In other words, Protestantism has changed.

The missing context

Salvation, of course, is much broader than justification. The gulf between sinners and the Savior is uncrossable from the sinner’s side. It took God to come from His side and cross the abyss in order to rescue humans. Salvation requires the life, death, resurrection, and present ministry of the Savior. Salvation involves justification, sanctification, and final glorification. It requires the work of the Holy Spirit, who restores the image of God, damaged by sin.

Salvation involves a work of re-creation, and only God can create. That’s why Scripture speaks of salvation in three tenses: those who “were saved” (Rom. 8:24, ESV); those “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18, ESV); and those who “ ‘will be saved’ ” (Matt. 24:13, ESV). Salvation is a process, beginning with the new birth (John 3:3–7), and ending in glorification at the second advent of Christ (1 Cor. 15:51–55). Salvation is God’s answer to the problem of sin. Because sin is law-breaking (1 John 3:4), resulting in death (Rom. 6:23), Christ died to pay for human sin (Isa. 53:5). Calvary was no mere revelation of God’s love—it was redemption. In dying Christ maintained the unchangeableness of His law. He revealed the truth about the Cross. This is not addressed in the current Catholic-Protestant debate.

Salvation needs to be studied in the context of the relational Trinity. Salvation is not the result of human works of merit as our Roman friends believe, nor is it God’s work of deciding human destiny in eternal decrees as our Reformed friends believe. The former looks at salvation as a human work, the latter looks at salvation as a divine decree. The latter view was launched to counter the other view. Both theologies need to consider salvation in the context of the relational Trinity.

The inner history of the relational Trinity is an eternal covenant of love. Among the Persons of the Trinity there lies an eternal reciprocal love, so that each Person loves the other Two, and in so doing, loves God and fellow beings, the very essence of the law as enunciated by Christ (Matt. 22:37–40). The nature of God is love (1 John 4:8–16), and God’s inner history of Trinitarian love demonstrates that the law is a transcript of Their character. Sin is more than law-breaking (1 John 3:4), it is a broken relationship (Rom. 14:23: “everything that does not come from faith is sin” [NIV]). Sin breaks a relationship with the Trinity. Salvation, on the other hand, is a restoration of a relationship with the Trinity. This means that the covenant relationship between the Trinity and humans reflects the covenant relationship within the Trinity. In fact, the covenant relationship in the inner dynamic of the Trinity overflows into the outer dynamic between the Trinity and humans. Believers will love God and fellow beings, and keep God’s law through covenant communion with the relational Trinity.

Therefore, when Scripture states that salvation is by faith alone and is not dependent on human works (Eph. 2:7, 8), we have a fundamental truth. Salvation is solely the result of God’s love and grace towards sinners. Because of what God has done through Christ, He declares us to be righteous. Justification is not an infusion of anything into our lives; nor do our good works contribute anything to the salvation process. However, a saved person is saved for good works, not by good works. Saved persons will manifest a saved experience in their lives through works of obedience. As Christ said, loving God is revealed by keeping His law (John 14:15). Sanctification means, “ ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ ” (Gal. 2:20, NIV; cf. Phil. 2:13). This proclaims the truth about Calvary.

The essence of law-keeping is demonstrated in the eternal history of the Trinity. Their reciprocal love for one another never changes, for the law is as immutable as God. Scripture declares that God does not change (Mal. 3:6) and that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:5, NIV). That is why the law was written in the hearts of believers in the old covenant historical period (Deut. 5:29; 6:4; 11:13; 30:6, 10; Isa. 51:7) as well as in the new covenant historical period (Jer. 31:31–33). Salvation has always included law-writing on hearts and minds for salvation is restoration, changing law-breaking rebels into law-keeping believers. Scripture says saints “obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus” (Rev. 14:12, NIV). The importance of law-keeping in salvation seems to be missing in the Catholic-Protestant debate.

The union Christ prayed for was not a mere papering over of differences and pretending that there is agreement. Christ prayed, “ ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth’ ” (John 17:17, NIV). May “ ‘all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you’ ” (John 17:21, NIV). That’s real union. The relational Trinity is united in love and truth, and no other union will answer Christ’s prayer or combat secularism, because it is, itself, secular. So leaders pushing for Catholic-Protestant union are on the wrong road, journeying away from, rather than towards, true union.

1. Charles Colson et al., “Evangelicals and Catholics Together:
The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” First Things:
The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, May 1994, 43.

2. Ibid.

3. See Michael S. Horton, “The Sola’s of the Reformation,” in
Here We Stand: A Call From Confessing Evangelicals, eds.
James Montgomery Boice and Benjamin E. Sasse (Grand
Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 122; Martin Chemnitz, Examination
of the Council of Trent, vol. 1 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia,
1971), 472, 473. The Paris edition of the Vulgate eliminated
much of the corrupt transmissions in the thirteenth century,
Alister E. McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The
Protestant Revolution—A History From the Sixteenth Century
to the Twenty-First (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007), 29.

4. Ibid.

5. H. J. Schroeder, trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Council
of Trent (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978), 33.

6. Ibid., 34.

7. Ibid., 36; see also 45.

8. William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (1888), 3d ed.
(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing,
2003), 800.

9. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg,
NJ: Presbyterian & Reformation Publishing, 1994), 2:660.

10. Schroeder, 46.

11. Paul G. Schrotenboer, Roman Catholicism: A Contemporary
Evangelical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 66.

12. J. Michael Miller, ed., The Encyclicals of John Paul ll
(Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1996), 441, 442.

13. Miller, 441.

14. Walter Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican ll
(London: Herder and Herder Publishing, 1967), 19.

15. Abbott, 20.

16. David F. Wells, foreword, in By Faith Alone: Answering the
Challenges to the Doctrine of Justifi cation, eds., Gary L. W.
Johnson & Guy P. Waters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 13.

17. Guy P. Waters, “Introduction: What Happened to Sola Fide?”
in By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine
of Justifi cation, 32.

18. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4:2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark,
958), 498.

19. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4:1, 626.


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Norman R. Gulley, PhD, is research professor in Systematic Theology, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.

January 2010

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