Justification in Catholic Teaching

Justification in Catholic Teaching

by Jimmy Akin

The key document giving the Church’s teaching on this subject is known as the Decree On Justification from the Council of Trent (1545-1564). This document contains a set of sixteen short, paragraph-long “chapters,” followed by a series of canons excommunicating the teachers of false views.

The first two chapters deal with fallen man’s need for justification and the provision that God has made for fulfilling this need. Then there is a group of these chapters (ch.s 3-9) that deal with the initial justification, which the believer receives when he first becomes a Christian. Then the Council turns its attention to the subsequent process of justification, which starts in the Christian’s life (ch.s 10-11). Then it turns to the possibility of failing to persevere in God’s grace, of losing one’s justification, and of subsequently regaining it (ch.s 12-15). And finally, it takes up the issue of how our acts of love will be rewarded in heaven, which deals (though the fathers of Trent do not says so) with our final justification on the Last Day.

So the Catholic Church, like the Bible and like some Protestants, teaches that justification is a process. It is something that begins when we first become a Christian, which continues in our life, and which will be completed when we stand before God at the end of our life and on the last day.

We can divide up this process into a number of stages: first, there is an initial justification, which occurs at conversion; second, there is a progressive justification, which occurs as a person grows in righteousness; and lastly there is a final justification, which occurs on the last day. There is also the possibility of a loss of justification and a subsequent re-justification, which occurs when a believer returns to the faith. We will examine each of these four aspects of justification in subsequent sections. For now, let it be noted that justification, like salvation in general, has past, present, and future dimensions.

II. Receiving Righteousness: Initial Justification

A. Original Sin

Our justification begins when we initially receive righteousness at the beginning of our lives as Christians. Prior to this time, we have been in a state of unrighteousness because we were born in Adam. Because of our birth into the human family, we received original sin from our first parent, Adam.

Original sin is a term, which has different meanings in different theological circles. In Catholic circles, it refers to the deprivation of righteousness in which we are born. In Protestant circles, it refers to both the deprivation of righteousness and the disordered desires that are caused by our damaged nature.

Both sides agree that we are born with both a lack of righteousness and a tangled mess of sinful inclinations, they simply label these differently. Protestants lump them both together under the term “original sin,” while Catholics call the lack of guilt original sin itself, and the sinful inclinations they call the stain of original sin.

This is not something that the two sides need to fight each other over. The term “original sin” is a theological term, not a biblical one. It does not appear in the Bible, and so it gains its meaning from what theologians give it. If different theologians use it differently, that is no cause for strife among Christians. It simply means that we need to be aware of how other Christians use it.

The Apostle Paul himself forbids us to engage in fights about words “Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2Tim. 2:14, RSV; cf. 1Tim. 6:4).

At any rate, we are born children of Adam, lacking the righteousness we need to unite us to God and allow us to enter his presence. Furthermore, because of our sinful inclinations, our concupiscence, we end up committing actual, personal sins, which incur God’s wrath and punishment. So because of original sin we not only lack the unity with God we would have if we were righteous, we also commit personal sins, which actively incur God’s anger and punishment.

We are therefore in quite a fix. We need some way out of this situation. We need someone to save us from our otherwise hopeless faith. Praise God, there is someone to save us: Jesus Christ, who paid the price for our sins by his death on the Cross, and who is able to restore us to the righteousness which restores our unity with God and which will allow us to go and be with God at the end of our lives. Justification is what that process of restoring righteousness is all about.

B. What Justification Is

Now before going any further, we need to say a few words about what justification actually is, especially our initial justification. Thus far we have stated that justification is a process, but we have not offered a formal definition of justification. The time has now come to do that. I will use the following definition of justification. Justification is . . .

“[A] translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior.”

I have picked this as a definition of justification because it is something with which neither Protestant nor Catholic will disagree.

Protestants will not disagree with it because everything it says is true. Before we are justified, we are in a state of unrighteousness, and when we are justified we are transferred to a state of righteousness. So justification is a translation from a state of unrighteousness to a state of righteousness.

Furthermore, the basis for the state of unrighteousness is our unity with Adam. Because we are born a child of the first Adam, we are born in a state of unrighteousness. Similarly, the basis for the state of grace or righteousness into which we enter is our unity with the second Adam. Because we are united to Christ, we receive the state of grace or righteousness, and we receive the adoption as sons of God.

This is something with which the Protestants agree. For example, Calvin wrote in Institutes:

“You see that . . . we possess it [our justification] only because we are partakers in Christ; indeed, with him we possess all its riches.”

So a Protestant would not need to disagree with our definition of justification at all. A Catholic would not disagree for exactly the same reasons.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note the source I drew on for this definition of justification. It comes from the fourth chapter of the Council of Trent’s Decree On Justification. Even here, at the heart of the controversy between Protestants and Catholics, there is common ground. Both sides can agree on the definition of justification. We are here talking about our initial justification, the righteousness we receive when we first become a Christian, but this does not lessen the point. Both sides can affirm the same definition of justification.

When we become Christians and are first justified, we change from the state of sin and unrighteousness, which we inherited from Adam, and are transferred to a second state, one of righteousness and grace, which we inherit from the Second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ. The basis of our justification is therefore our saving union with Christ.

C. The kind of righteousness we receive

Both Protestants and Catholics can agree that the basic meaning of the verb “to justify” is “to make righteous.” When we are justified, we receive a righteousness that we did not have before. Namely, we receive the righteousness of Christ or the righteousness of God.

But the two sides disagree about what the phrase “the righteousness of Christ” means. And the phrase itself is ambiguous. On the one hand, it could mean the righteousness that belongs to Christ as his own, personal possession. On the other hand, it could mean the righteousness that comes from Christ. Protestants commonly say that the phrase means the former, while Catholics say it means the latter.

Therefore, while the two sides can agree in saying that when God justifies us he makes us righteous, they often disagree about the kind of righteousness we receive in justification.

To explain their common claim that when we are justified we receive the exact, personal righteousness of Christ, Protestants employ a legal metaphor. They say that when we are justified God declares us righteous, just as a judge declares a person innocent of having committed a crime. They therefore often say that when we are justified we receive a legal or forensic righteousness because God simply declares us to be righteous before the courts of heaven.

Catholics go beyond this and say that God gives us more than merely forensic righteousness.

The kind of righteousness we have is not merely a legal righteousness, but a real, ontological righteousness, which strips away our guilt before God and makes our souls, as it were, glow with light before God (see the essay Righteousness and Merit for more information). It is also distinguished from behavioral righteousness, by which we behave more righteously. Thus we must distinguish legal righteousness, which deals with the way we are treated, ontological righteousness, which deals with the way we are, and behavioral righteousness, which deals with the way we behave.

As the term is used in Catholic theology, justification is the event by which we are given ontological or real righteousness. Coextensive with this, of course, is legal righteousness, for God will not treat anyone as unrighteous who is really righteous. Similarly, God will not treat as righteous anyone who is really unrighteous. As God declares in Scripture, ‘I will not justify the wicked” (Ex. 23:7) — his holiness prevents it. Thus for God to make someone legally righteous, he also must make them actually righteous; he must constitute them in righteousness. And for God to make someone actually righteous, he must correspondingly make them legally righteous.

So a Catholic need have no problems with the forensic/declaratory aspects of justification. God does indeed declare us righteous, and that is nothing with which a Catholic needs to quarrel. A Catholic also does not need to quarrel about which kind of righteousness is the cause and which is the effect, whether God declares a person legally righteous and that, by the miraculous creative power of his word, makes the person actually righteous, or whether God makes the person actually righteous and therefore declares the person legally righteous. This is a matter of indifference in Catholic theology.

In the seventh chapter of Trent’s Decree On Justification the council listed a number of different “causes” of justification—the formal cause, the final cause, the instrumental cause, the meritorious cause, and the efficient cause. All the courtroom language would ask us to do is add one more: the forensic cause. The forensic cause of our justification would be the decree God issues from his throne in heaven, and that decree brings about what it speaks of.

So we see that there are a great many issues upon which a Protestant and a Catholic may agree concerning the righteousness we receive at our justification. But there are a couple of aspects of this righteousness where there is often disagreement.

First, one will recall that Protestants often say that we receive Christ’s own personal righteousness when we are justified. This is what they have in mind when they say that when we are justified God treats us just like Christ—that God looks at us and sees Christ instead.

Now this is a metaphor that not all Protestants accept. Even Keith Green, the noted anti-Catholic, God rest his soul, rejected it. He recognized that when God looks at us he does not see Christ. There are good reasons for that. I don’t know if these are the reasons Keith Green used; I also don’t know how his rejection of the metaphor affected his understanding of the phrase “the righteousness of Christ,” but off the top of my head I can name two very good reasons why we do not receive Christ’s own personal righteousness when we are justified.

First, if God simply saw us as Christ, if he gave us Christ’s own personal righteousness, then we would all be rewarded equally in heaven. We would all be as righteous as Christ and so we would all be rewarded equally. Since Scripture clearly teaches that there will be different degrees of reward in heaven (1Cor. 3:12-15), we must conclude that we will have different degrees of righteousness. We may all be free of any unrighteousness—by virtue of our sins having been taken away—but we will not all share the same degree of positive righteousness before God.

Second, and similarly, if we all received Christ’s own personal righteousness then we would all be rewarded equally with Christ. We would all have exactly the same level of glory as our Savior who went to the Cross for us. This is clearly unacceptable.

To begin with, Scripture teaches that because Christ went to the Cross, God gave him “the name above every name” (Phil. 2:8-9; cf. Eph 1:20-21). Having the name above every name is therefore a unique blessing Christ has received because he alone went to the Cross. He alone did that righteous act that get him the name above every name.

But if we all received Christ’s own personal righteousness, then we would all receive names as glorious as Christ’s. So Christ would no longer have a name above everybody else’s. Our names would be just as blessed as Christ’s. “Jimmy Akin” would be a name equal in glory to that of Jesus of Nazareth. This is clearly unacceptable. Christ alone has that uniquely glorious name because Christ alone went to the Cross and Christ alone has the level of righteousness that comes from going to the Cross.

Furthermore, Scripture states that Christ has the preeminence in all things (Col 1:18). But if we all received a level of glory equal to him then he would no longer be preeminent in all things. He might be preeminent in the sense that he alone is the God-man while we are just men, but he would not be preeminent in all things because he would not be preeminent in glory. All redeemed human beings would have the same level of glory that he will.

Finally, there are simply no verses in Scripture which state that we receive Christ’s own personal level of righteousness. None!

Most Protestants don’t know this. They have heard so often the theory that we are given Christ’s own personal righteousness that they accept it without thinking about it, assuming Scripture teaches it, but in fact there are no passages anywhere in the New Testament which state that we are given Christ’s own personal righteousness.

There are passages (such as Romans 5:12-20) which state that we are given the gift of righteousness and made righteous on account of Christ, but there are absolutely no passages which state that we receive Christ’s personal level of righteousness. The claim that we do is therefore refuted by the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura and, in view of its theologically unacceptable consequences, was rightly rejected by Trent.

As a result, it is completely unacceptable on Biblical grounds to say that we receive Christ’s own personal righteousness when we are justified. We do receive the righteousness of Christ merited for us—that is, the righteousness which comes from Christ and which Christ merited for us—but we do not receive his own personal level of righteousness and reward.

Therefore, chapter seven of the Decree On Justification rightly states that we are given, not the personal righteousness of God or Christ by which they are individually righteous, but by a righteousness which comes from God and which makes us righteous in the metaphysical sense discussed above.

There is one other aspect of the righteousness we receive in justification which we need to touch on. Thus far we have been talking about legal righteousness before the courts of heaven and of metaphysical righteousness which makes our souls shine before God, but there are still a couple of other forms of righteousness which we need to touch on. These concern our behavior.

You see, a person may be righteous in a legal sense—in the sense that he has been declared righteous by a court; and he may be metaphysically righteous—in the sense that he has the property of objective righteousness clinging to his soul; but he may also be righteous in a behavioral sense—in that he performs righteous acts.

Both Protestants and Catholics agree that when a person is justified, God starts to change his behavior. He starts to purify our thoughts and intentions so that we begin to behave more righteously than we did before. But Protestants are normally—though not always—opposed to saying that the term “justify” applies to our receiving of this kind of righteousness. Instead, they use the term “sanctification,” which means “to make holy,” to refer to this behavioral change.

This is a subject we will take up at length in our next section but for now it should be noted that Protestants usually try to draw a sharp distinction between sanctification, where God puts the love in our hearts that makes us act more and more righteously, and justification, where God declares us righteous.

On the other hand, Catholics use the terms differently. They do not draw a sharp distinction between justification and sanctification because the apostle Paul does not, as we will see in a minute. Instead, they affirm, like the Protestant does, that at the time we are justified by God, God plants his supernatural love in our hearts, enabling us to love him and love others in a new and unselfish way that we could not love before.

This new, supernatural love is something that we are fundamentally incapable of without the grace of God. And without this new, supernatural love, we are fundamentally incapable of pleasing God in a real, substantial sense. Therefore, without God’s grace we lack the love that is needed in order to please him.

The essence of supernatural love is unselfishness—doing something not because it will help us somehow, but because we want to do it out of sheer love for the other person, whether that person is God or one of our fellow human beings out of the love of God. This is the only kind of love that ultimately pleases God and therefore the only kind that ultimately gets us a reward in heaven.

At the time God justifies us, both sides agree, God puts this love in our hearts. The difference is that Catholics use the term “justification” to include this putting of love in our hearts, while Protestants commonly do not.

At this point, it is good to recall the apostle Paul’s warnings about engaging in word fights, which he says only ruin the hearers (2Tim. 2:14; cf. 1Tim. 6:4). According to Paul it is not the language in which a doctrine is expressed, but the substance of the doctrine that is important. So long as the two sides are agreed that as a direct and immediate consequence of justification God puts this love in our hearts, we do not need to beat each other up and bitterly divide the Christian community over whether the term “justification” should be broad enough to include the two or restricted in order to include only the one.

Still, many Protestants may wish to insist that Paul uses the word justify in their sense and that he draws the same distinction they do between justification and sanctification. But this claim is not borne out upon examining the Scriptures.

Consider the following passage from Romans:

(1) What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? (2) Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? (3) Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? (4) Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (5) For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be {in the likeness} of {His} resurrection, (6) knowing this, that our old man was crucified with {Him}, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. (7) For he who has died has been freed from sin. (Rom. 6:1-7)

Notice the last verse in that passage (v 7). Paul states that he who has died has been freed from sin, and the context is obviously sanctificational. Paul is discussing why we must not “continue in sin” (v 1), how we have “died to sin” and must not “live any longer in it” (v 2), how our “old man was crucified with him” so that, “the body of sin” might be destroyed so we would no longer “be slaves of sin” (v 6). It is in this sense that Paul says, “he who has died has been freed from sin.”

We died with Christ, and so now we have been freed from the power of sin, which is why we must no longer live in sin. We have been freed from its power, now we must leave it and put it behind us. The context here is obviously sanctificational. So obviously that every modern translation of the Bible renders verse 7 such that he who has died has been “freed” from sin.

But that is not what the passage says in Greek. Instead of the word “freed,” when we look at the Greek text we find the word “justified” (dikaioo). What Paul actually wrote was, “He who has died has been justified from sin.” Yet, as we said, the context is so obviously sanctificational that every modern translation renders this “has been freed from sin.” We therefore see that in Paul’s thought being justified from sin includes being freed from sin—not just forensically, but sanctificationally. As a result, in Paul’s thought and in Paul’s terminology there simply is not the rigid division between justification and sanctification that Protestant language suggests.

This is something that is admitted by the more sensitive Protestant scholars. In fact, E. Sanders points out that the phrase “that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been justified from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7) is paralleled by, “though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart . . . [a]nd having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:17-18) As a result, “has been justified” is paralleled with “having been set free,” indicating again that justification in Paul’s thought includes the idea of being freed from sin.

There are passages where Paul uses the terms “justify” and “sanctify” in different senses, but the point is that these terms are fluid in his thought. We have already seen that they apply to many different events and periods in the believer’s life—to things past, present, and future—and they are also fluid enough to overlap. “To be made righteous” and “to be made holy” can be the same thing, and in Romans 6:7 they are. As a result, Paul simply does not have the kind of rigid categories in mind that Protestants do when they approach his writings. He uses these terms fluidly, so that they can and do overlap. As a result, the Catholic is simply following Paul’s lead when he allows the term “justification” to include an experiential freeing from sin.

This does not mean that when a person is justified he is rendered incapable of sin or that all of his sinful inclinations vanish. Indeed, they do not. The Catholic Church teaches quite firmly that when a person is justified his sinful inclinations—remain with him throughout the rest of his life. But as he grows through the sanctification process, these sinful inclinations lesson and grow weaker, while at the same time the love—the experiential righteousness—which God planted in his heart at justification continues to grow.

Before moving on, I wish to note that while most Protestants try to draw a very rigid distinction between justification and sanctification, not all of them do. There is a growing number of modern Protestant Bible scholars who do not put this kind of inflexible wall between the two. I would name James Dunn, E. Sanders, and Dale Moody as examples. If you read their writings, all of them recognize that Paul does not have the kind of barriers between these concepts that Protestants have traditionally said.

Furthermore, many of the early Reformers did not put an inflexible wall between them either. Even though most Protestants do not realize it, many of their early forefathers did not make this distinction. Martin Bucer, Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, Johannes Oecolampadius, and even Martin Luther himself did not.

For example, we saw earlier how Luther said that our justification is not complete in this life, but that it grows throughout our life and will ultimately be completed at the resurrection of the dead.

The Catholic is on very Biblical ground with his understanding of the righteousness which God gives us at the time of justification. It is not merely a legal righteousness, divorced from all other forms of righteousness. Instead, it is a real, objective righteousness with which God clothes man’s soul while removing his previous, soiled, guilty garment and also planting the seed of true, supernatural, righteous love in his heart. The Christian will still require much growth, but this is the essence of the righteousness he receives at the time he first enters Christ.

D. What we do to receive it: repent, believe, and be baptized

Repent (prevenient grace)

Chapter 6 of the Decree On Justification, goes into more detail about this turning to God, called a “preparation for justification,” and says that in it those who are to be justified understand themselves to be sinners, turn themselves from the fear of God’s judgment, and are raised to hope, trusting that God will help them for Christ’s sake, that they begin to love Him as the fountain of all righteousness, and are moved to hate and detest their sins, and that they finally resolve to be baptized and begin a new life. This takes us to the brink of our initial justification, which is received either when baptism takes place (or before, through the baptism of desire).


This is something with which many Protestants would disagree. For example, most Baptists would be horrified by the claim that the sacrament from which they take their name actually saves us and translates us from being “in Adam” to being “in Christ.” Yet this is precisely what the New Testament says. For it tells us that the way we get into Christ is through baptism. It says,

“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Romans 6:3)


“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)

The Catholic church is thus firmly in line with Scripture when it says that baptism is the means by which we are incorporated into Christ, and thus that baptism is the means through which we receive justification.

And even though most Protestants in this country would buck against this teaching, not all would. Lutherans and Anglicans, and even some Baptists such as George Beasley-Murray and Dale Moody, would agree with it.

E. What we do not do to receive it: earn it or become a Jew

The eighth chapter explains why justification is said to be by faith and grace. It is said to be by faith in the sense that faith is “the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God . . . ” On the other hand, justification is said to be by grace “because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification. For, if by grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the Apostle says, grace is no more grace.”

As a result, Trent teaches that our initial justification, by which we come to and are accepted by God, is not merited by us in any way by anything we do, whether an act of faith or works. It is intrinsically impossible (as we shall see later, in our discussion of Trent’s chapter sixteen) for an unjustified person to merit justification, therefore our justification is not merited by anything we do leading up to it. This makes explicit what was taught in chapter seven: that Christ, not us, is the meritorious cause of our justification.

III. Growing in Righteousness: Progressive Justification

In chapter 10 of the Decree On Justification, Trent teaches that the just man is “renewed day by day” (2Cor. 4:16) and that by “mortifying the members” of the flesh (Col. 3:5) and presenting them as “instruments of justice unto sanctification” (Rom. 6:13, 19) we can “though the observance of the commands of God . . . faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and be further justified . . . ”

Now this sounds very strange to Protestant ears, accustomed as they are to hearing about justification as an event rather than as a process. It sounds quite odd to Protestants to hear about an increase in justification. They generally view justification as an on/off state, not something which admits of degrees. However, one should remember that in the Biblical languages (as well as in Latin), there is no distinction between justification and righteousness. As a result, this could also be translated as an “increase in righteousness.” This is what Trent has in mind. By performing acts of love, we increase in righteousness (that is, justification). We have more of the metaphysical property of righteousness clinging to our souls; to use a luminous analogy, our souls shine more brightly before God when we have performed acts of true, God-given love. Trent is simply teaching that as God sanctifies us, we perform acts of love, and as a result become more righteous.

This is something with which a Protestant should not disagree. Protestants fully admit that a person who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and implanted with God’s love behaves more righteously than an unregenerate reprobate. Trent simply affirms the metaphysical consequence of this difference in behavior, the different level of righteousness clinging to one’s soul.

One should also know that it is only in connection with this kind of justification, not in the sense that he came to God and had his sins forgiven but, in the sense that he had done a righteous act and as a result increased in righteousness. It is this kind of justification—progressive, not initial justification—that James is talking about when he cites the example of Abraham.

Chapter 11 develops a corollary of the teaching in chapter 10. If we progress in righteousness as we obey the commandments, then a corollary to this is that it is possible, in a very real sense, to obey the commandments. This does not mean we never sin (indeed, this chapter of Trent mentions the daily or venial sins that we continue to commit, and future sections deal with mortal sins), but it does mean that it is possible to keep the commandments in a substantive sense, through the grace which God gives us and the love he pours into our hearts, and we may in this sense, increase in righteousness (justification).

Although Trent does not quote this passage, we know of the possibility of substantively keeping the commandments because the Apostle Paul tells us, “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” (1Cor. 10:13)

IV. Returning to Righteousness: Re-justification

Chapters 12 through 15 deal with the possibility of losing and regaining one’s salvation. The regaining of it involves a subsequent, re-justification through which one returns to a state of righteousness.

First, chapter 12 echoes a theme similar to that dealt with in chapter 9. Here we are told that, without special revelation, one should not claim to know with infallible certitude that one is among those predestined for eternal life. The reason, of course, is that none of the sources of faith single us out by name and tell us that we are for certain among those God has chosen for himself. Instead, we must infer our predestination from the evidence with which we have been presented and, since human reason is fallible, we cannot know with infallible certainty of faith”—what Trent calls “the certainty of faith”—that we are among the predestined. As mentioned before, many people think they are among the predestined but in fact they are not. Apart from special revelation, we have no infallible way of knowing that we are not among that group.

Chapter 13 draws out a corollary to chapter 12. Since only those who persevere to the end are those predestined for life, if one cannot know with infallible certainty that one is predestined then one also cannot know with infallible certainty that one has the gift of final perseverance, which is the point of chapter 12.

Chapter 14 affirms that it is possible to regain justification after having lost it through mortal sin (see below). The normal method by which this is done is through the sacrament of penance, which is taught in Jesus’ words to the disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23) The possibility of restoration is also taught in passages of Scripture such as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), where one starts as son, departs and lives a life of sin (which is described by the father as death, cf. Luke 15:32) and then returns to the father to be re-accepted (described by the father as being alive again, cf. Luke 15:32), and it is taught by many other passages of Scripture (for example, “Return unto me and I will return unto you”).

Chapter 15 establishes the conditions under which one may lose one’s justification (that is, one must commit mortal sin). A good catalogue of mortal sins, explicitly identified as those which result in damnation, is found in 1st Corinthians, where Paul says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1Cor. 6:9-10). And the real possibility of a Christian committing mortal sin is indicated in numerous places, such as John 15:2, 6, 10, Rom. 11:17-24.


Chapter nine brings to a close the discussion of our initial justification, and makes the very simple point that a person is not saved simply because he thinks he is. Furthermore, no one is required to believe with absolute certitude that they are forgiven in order to be forgiven. You do not have to screw yourself up into an absolute, unflinching certainty of your salvation in order to be in a state of salvation. In fact, this chapter teaches, no one should presume to claim to believe, “with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he” is in a state of grace.

This last point is often misunderstood by Protestants because they are very big on teaching that we can have an assurance of our salvation. This is true: we can have assurance that we are in a state of grace. However, what Trent is forbidding is the presumption to know “with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error,” that this is the case. As Trent indicates, “The certainty of faith,” is a technical term which, is defined as not being subject to the possibility of error whatsoever.

We can know with the certainty of faith that, if we do what Jesus says to do in order to be justified (i.e., repent, believe, etc.), we will be in a state of grace, but since it nowhere says in the Bible, “Jimmy Akin has done what is necessary to be justified,” I cannot know with the certainty of faith that I have done what is required. By examining myself, I can have very good reason to think that I have done so, and can thus have very great confidence in the fact that I am justified. But I always have to infer my justification, and since the human process of inference is fallible, I cannot know with infallible certainty that I am justified.

This point is borne out by the fact that many people think they are justified who are in fact not. They think they have fulfilled the conditions for justification, but in reality they have not. The point is that, apart from a special revelation from God, I have no infallible means of knowing that I am not one of these people, and so even though I can have very great assurance of my justification, I cannot have infallible, no-possibility-of-error, certainty of faith that I am justified.

This is something that thoughtful Protestants admit, even though it often rubs against the grain of a lot of Protestant rhetoric.

This concludes Trent’s discussion of our initial justification. The Council now turns its attention to our the progressive justification which takes place once we have been justified. This is discussed in chapters nine and ten.

V. Finishing in Righteousness: Final Justification

This deals with the possibility of falling from and subsequently regaining justification, which leaves us with chapter 16, which deals with the subject of merit and rewards, which implicitly deals with the subject of our final justification on the Last Day. The subject of merit is an extremely difficult one to discuss because Protestants have an extreme hang-up about the word merit and read into it all kinds of meanings which it does not have in Catholic theology. For this reason, it is advisable to begin by selecting a couple of typical quotes from well-respected Catholic theologians on what the idea of merit does not mean. First, consider the statements of Michael Schmaus,

“In this connection, it must be remembered that man cannot make any valid claim on God. Since the ‘reward’ given by God always infinitely exceeds what is due man, the word ‘merit’ can only be used analogously. Because of God’s transcendence and the resultant inequality between God and man, merit in the strict sense of the word cannot occur in the relationship between God and man.”

“We would not dare to hope that God would reward the actions of the justified man if he had not promised it; our hope is based on his word. At the same time, the reward is a grace . . . . What is meant [by merit and reward] is not an extrinsic, material repayment for the pain and trouble endured in the accomplishment of good works; it is rather the intrinsic fruit of the action itself.”

“All of this does not, of course, mean that like all good things, the promise of a reward from God cannot be misunderstood and misused. There is a danger that the ill-instructed Christian may hope to gather merit as a basis for bargaining with God, to use his good works as a kind of pledge which God must at once redeem. Needless to say, notions of this sort are very far from the meaning of the scriptural texts and the Church’s teaching” . . . . [That God rewards our merits] “rests on his free decision: he has promised that he will do so, and he keeps his word. Except for this divine promise, no one could flatter himself that his good works would have such an effect.”

Now consider the words of Ludwig Ott,

“Merit is dependent on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting bliss the good works performed by His grace. On account of the infinite distance between Creator and creature, man cannot of himself make God his debtor, if God does not do so by His own free ordinance. That God has made such an ordinance, is clearly from His promise of eternal reward . . . . St. Augustine says: ‘The Lord has made Himself a debtor, not by receiving, but by promising. Man cannot say to Him, ‘give back what thou hast received’ but only, ‘Give what thou has promised'” (Enarr. in Ps. 83, 15).

One can see from these quotations that Catholicism does not teach that merit would be possible apart from God’s promise to reward our acts of love. In fact, the idea of merit and reward are two sides of the same coin in Catholic theology. A proper definition of a merit would simply be “a good action which God has promised to reward.” Since Protestants themselves believe that God will reward our acts of love, Protestants themselves believe in the idea of merit as the term is here defined. They believe that we do good acts, and that God has promised to give rewards for these acts, therefore they believe in merits; they simply do not use the term to describe them.

Of course, modern Protestants feel the term “merit” should not be used to describe such actions, since in the Protestant mind the term has very legalistic overtones and connotes the idea of earning something before God through force of effort which then places God in our debt so that he owes us salvation. However, this is not the Catholic teaching. As the passages we quoted above indicate, Catholics do not believe that our toil and efforts place any kind of claim on God. The benefit he gives us always infinitely exceeds the amount of effort we expend, and the only kind of claim we have on him whatsoever is based on his free promise to reward us when we do acts of love. All our rewards are given by the overflowing bounty of God, which is why Catholics teach that rewards are both a merit and a grace at the same time. They are a grace in the sense that apart from the promise of God we would have no claim on them, but in what sense, a Protestant might ask, can we say that they have been merited if they have not been strictly earned?

In this sense: When a Catholic says that something has been merited, he means that the human action in some sense makes it “fitting” that the reward be bestowed. But one action may make another action “fitting” in one of two ways.

First, one action may make another fitting because there is some similarity between the two actions. For example, if I act generously toward others then that makes it fitting that others act generously toward me. There is a correspondence between the qualities of the two actions. In the most general terms, if a person does something good then that makes it fitting that something good happen to him.

Second, one action may make another fitting if it fulfills the conditions on which the second act is promised. For example, if someone promises to give me a million dollars for wearing a blue shirt to work one day, then if I wear a blue shirt my action makes it fitting that the other person give me the million dollars, not because wearing the blue shirt somehow earned the million dollars, but in the sense that I have fulfilled the conditions the other person laid out in his promise. It is fitting for him to keep his word, and since I have fulfilled his conditions, my action makes it fitting that he give me what he promised.

In Catholic theology, these two kinds of fittingness play a very important role in the concept of merit. An action is said to be an example of congruent merit if it has the first kind of fittingness but not the second (that is, if it makes the reward fitting because of their similarity of quality, but not on the basis of a promise). An action is said to be an example of condign merit if it has both kinds of fittingness (that is, if it both makes the reward fitting because of their similarity of quality and because of a divine promise). To put it another way, a person congruently merits that something good happen to them if they do something good but there is no promise in view, and a person merits something condignly if they do something good and there is a promise attached to that action. It is the latter form of merit which the Council of Trent is concerned with when it discusses merit, but neither one of these forms implies that the reward given is not an act of grace on God’s part.

For example, consider two human analogies: Suppose that a criminal comes before a judge and begs for mercy, expresses true, genuine sorrow for what he has done. In this case, the judge has not promised to forgive penitent criminals (so condign merit is not in view), and the judge would be perfectly fair to punish the criminal to the full extent of the law. But if the judge chooses to forgive the man then the man’s sorrow over his crimes makes it fitting that he be forgiven, whereas if he were not sorry it would not be fitting in this way. As a result, the man may be said to have congruently merited the forgiveness he received for, even though he had no title to it and no promise of it, there was still a congruence between the quality of his act (penitence) and the quality of the response (forgiveness).

On the other hand, to give an example of condign merit among humans, suppose that someone promised to give me a million dollars if I do them a small favor. In this case, even though there is a vast disparity between the thing promised and the condition on the promise, there is still a kind of correspondence between the two things, because they are both good (all things being equal, doing someone a favor and receiving a million dollars are both good things). However, since there is a promise involved in this case, it is also fitting that I get the million dollars if I fulfill the conditions on the promise. This does not mean that the giving of a million dollars is not an obvious act of grace —I have not done anything which actually earns the million dollars—but it is nonetheless fitting.

As a result, the term “to merit” in Catholic theology simply means “to make fitting.” It does not mean to earn by force of effort or anything like that. In the strict sense, the only person who can merit anything is Christ; we are only capable of meriting in the limited, analogous, relative sense outlined above.

Given this understanding of merit, there is no reason that a Protestant needs to object to the doctrine of merit. In fact, some Protestants have been willing to use the term. For example, to quote the definite Protestant work answering the Council of Trent, the Lutheran Martin Chemnitz says,

“For this we understand that how pleasing to the heavenly Father is that obedience of His children which they begin under the leading of the Holy Spirit in this life, while they are under this corruptible burden of the flesh, that He wants to adorn it out of grace and mercy for His Son’s sake with spiritual and temporal rewards which it does not merit by its own worthiness. And in this sense also our own people [Protestants] do not shrink back from the word ‘merit,’ as it was used also by the fathers [in the early Church]. For the rewards are promised by grace and mercy; nevertheless, they are not given to the idle or to those who do evil but to those who labor in the vineyard of the Lord. And so the word ‘merit’ is used in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Wuerttemberg Confession, and in other writings of our men. In this way and in this sense, we set forth the statements of Scripture in our churches about the rewards of good works.”

And Chemnitz is not the only Protestant capable of using the word “merit” when it is properly understood. In private conversations, a staunch Presbyterian teaching elder once agreed with me (long before I considered becoming Catholic) that the term “merit,” properly understood, could be rightly applied to idea of heavenly rewards. In fact, given the Catholic understanding merits, (good actions that God has promised to reward), it is necessary to say that heavenly rewards are given in response to merits.

Therefore, Protestants and Catholics need not fight over whether there are such things as merits. And they need not fight over the term “merit” (remember Paul’s command in 2Tim. 2:14 to avoid quarrels about terminology). They also need not fight about which phase of justification the idea of merit applies to since Catholics admit that merit is impossible before one is initially justified and since the primary time merits are going to be rewarded is in the Last Day, at our final justification.

The only thing Protestants and Catholics might fight about is what specific things God has promised to reward. One point of potential conflict on this issue is the Catholic claim, stated in Trent’s sixteenth chapter, that eternal life can itself be merited by our acts of love. Remember the sense of the word “merit” that is being used here: Trent is not claiming that we can by force of effort earn eternal life on the Last Day; it is simply claiming that God has promised to reward our acts of love by giving us eternal life when we stand before him.

This is something Scripture teaches quite clearly. For example, in Romans 2:6-7 the Apostle Paul states, that God “‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” (NIV). We can cut out the terms “glory” and “honor” since these deal with things other than eternal life, but look at what Paul says, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek . . . immortality, he will give eternal life.” There is therefore a sense in which we seek after immortality by persistence in doing good, and it is a sense which will be rewarded, because in response for persistence in doing good God gives eternal life on the Last Day. As a result, God has promised to give eternal life in response to good works, or persistence in doing good.

The same truth is taught elsewhere in Scripture. For example, St. James says, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been proved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12) Here God has promised to give a crown of life (a symbol for eternal life) to those who love him. Therefore, God has promised to give eternal life in response to love. Of course, God himself gives us the love, but this does not change the fact that eternal life is promised in response to it.

Similarly, in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the sheep are given eternal life (Matt. 25:46) because they performed acts of love (25:35-40). There are therefore abundant grounds in Scripture for saying that God has promised eternal life in response to acts of love/good works. The teaching of Trent’s sixteenth chapter is thus vindicated upon an examination of Scripture.

Trent also issues some very forceful warnings about how the doctrine of merit it to be understood. For example, it states, “Christ Jesus Himself, as the head into the members and the vine into the branches, continually infuses strength into those justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing or meritorious before God.” Trent thus teaches that merit is only possible because of the strength Christ gives us, which is part of the process of doing acts of love from beginning to end.

Trent also forbids anyone to boast in himself rather than in the Lord, saying,

“[F]ar be it that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself and not in the Lord, whose bounty toward all amen is so great that He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their merits. And since in many things we all offend, each one of us ought to have before his eyes not only the mercy and goodness but also the severity and judgment [of God]; neither ought anyone to judge himself, even though he be not conscious of anything; because the whole life is to be examined and judged not by the judgment of man but of God, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts and then shall every man have praise from God . . . ”

Therefore, Trent very forcefully exhorts us not to become self-confident or glory or trust in ourselves, but only in the Lord.

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