Justification: Are Catholics More Biblical?

I have spent much time describing the views of the Reformed Protestants and Roman Catholics according to official theological statements and works by influential theologians. But where humans can be wrong, the Word of God never fails. Any theological debate must be rooted in the message of sacred Scripture. 

Reformed Protestant Support

We will first consider the Reformed interpretation. I have selected a series of quotations which I believe provide the strongest case for their related positions of imputed righteousness, justification by faith, and penal substitution (here including the penalty of sin being removed in Christ):

  • Isa. 53:5, 10-11 — Penal Substitution
  • Rom. 1:16-17 — Imputed Righteousness, Justification by Faith
  • Rom. 4:2-8 — Imputed Righteousness
  • Rom. 5:12-21 — Imputed Righteousness
  • 2 Cor. 5:21 — Imputed Righteousness, Penal Substitution
  • Gal. 2:15-21 — Justification by Faith
  • Heb. 10:11-18 — Penal Substitution

I will not cover all of these passages but provide them here for you to examine. I would first like to get to the heart of the Reformed Protestant case, which can be found in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Near the beginning of the book, Paul makes the following statement:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)

Here we see Paul’s most concise definition of the gospel, which he declares is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” He then speaks of both the righteousness of God and the righteousness of man. The gospel, he says, reveals God’s righteousness “from faith to faith”. And how shall a righteous man live? By faith.

These verses were famously important for Martin Luther in his move toward a different understanding of soteriology, because he interpreted them to mean that a person is made righteous by faith alone. Moving on to chapter four of the same book, we find the following:

“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven,

And whose sins have been covered.

Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account’” (Romans 4:2-8).

This may be the most important passage used to make the argument for imputed righteousness. Paul uses Abraham as an example of someone who was justified not as “one who works” but rather “one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly.” The phrasing is similar to a monetary transaction. Righteousness was not Abraham’s “wage” or his “due”. Rather, it was “credited” to him on account of his faith. Paul goes further, stressing that this righteousness was credited “apart from works” and that the sin of such a man is “forgiven”, “covered,” and not “taken into account.” It was to this notion of a transaction that the Protestant Reformers returned time and again.

The Reformed also draw heavily upon the next chapter of Romans, which serves as the primary basis for their doctrine of federal headship—that both Adam and Christ serve as covenant heads, representing those who are in their respective covenants. Those covenants were eventually labelled the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. Here is the relevant passage in Romans:

“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:12-19).

This is the only place where the word “imputed” appears in the New Testament. Because of Adam’s law breaking, the Apostle Paul says that “death spread to all men, because all sinned.” In fact, the orthodox Church (not to be confused with the Orthodox Church) has consistently confirmed throughout history that all sinned in Adam and are born with original sin. This was one of the points Augustine of Hippo argued against Pelagius. But Paul also speaks of a second man who passed on something to many: Jesus Christ.

What does Christ give? An “abundance of grace” and “gift of righteousness” that is “resulting in justification”. Paul calls it a “free gift” that allows those in Christ to “reign in life”. Moreover, he identifies the righteous obedience of Christ as the source of justification, writing that “through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” and “through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous”. This suggests, according to the Reformed Protestant, that Adam imputed sin but Christ imputes righteousness. Indeed, they go further and state that in a person’s union with Christ, the righteousness of the Son of God is imputed to them even as their own sin is imputed to Christ, who bore it upon the cross. Here the following verse is often cited: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Furthermore, the Reformed argue that justification is not something that can be lost, but a firm declaration of eternal salvation. It is therefore not something that must be maintained through the avoidance of sin and pursuance of good works. Such a system, they say, is the Law of which Paul spoke to Peter.

“We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Galatians 2:15-21).

This is a very important point for Reformed Protestants: Christ did not come to grant us a do-over. We are not still attempting to be justified by works. We are not having our slate cleared in baptism that we might seek to follow the Law again, this time with the help of the Spirit. While Protestants certainly hold that there are multiple uses of God’s Law—and that the third use motivates us to sanctification out of gratitude for grace—they believe firmly that the maintenance of justification by works is an attempt to be justified by works and thus a return to the Law. If we cannot follow the Law perfectly, as Reformed Protestants argue, then someone else must fulfill the Law and credit that righteousness to us—namely, Jesus Christ.

A Catholic might respond to this argument with the following points:

  • The revelation of the righteousness of God in the gospel does not imply that we are justified by this righteousness alone.
  • A righteous person living by faith does not imply that their faith is not accompanied by works.
  • The righteousness of Christ makes us righteous and results in justification, but this is accomplished through sanctification.
  • When Paul speaks of “the Law,” he often means the Mosaic Law, not the eternal and universally applicable commands of God.

Roman Catholic Support

We must now consider the chief portions of Scripture that might be used to support the concepts of infused grace, individual righteousness (as opposed to imputed or alien righteousness), and baptismal regeneration, all of which are key components of Catholic soteriology. I present the following non-exhaustive list of what I personally feel are the most compelling passages. Again, I will not cover them all in detail here, but provide them for your reference:

  • Jn. 14:21, 15:10 — Individual Righteousness
  • Acts 2:38 — Baptismal Regeneration
  • Rom. 6:4 — Baptismal Regeneration
  • 1 Cor. 7:19 — Individual Righteousness
  • 1 Cor. 12:13 —  Baptismal Regeneration
  • Gal. 3:27 — Baptismal Regeneration
  • Heb. 12:14-15 — Infused Grace, Individual Righteousness
  • Heb. 6:4-6 — Infused Grace
  • Jas. 2:14-17, 26 — Individual Righteousness
  • 1 Pt. 3:21 — Baptismal Regeneration
  • 1 Jn. 2:3-6 — Individual Righteousness

The most basic point Roman Catholics make is that the Bible says we must be righteous in order to live eternally. See, for example, Christ’s words to his disciples at the Last Supper. “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” (John 14:21) Again, he said to them, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” (John 15:10) Here abiding in the love of God is clearly dependent on or at the very least linked to following God’s commands.

Catholics teach that faith is necessary for salvation, but not a mere mental assent. True faith is a way of life that shows itself in righteous actions, a tree fed by God’s Spirit that bears much fruit. As evidence, they point first to the Epistle of James:

“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-17, 26).

A spirit that is dead does not truly love Christ or follow His commandments, while a spirit that has been made alive by sanctifying grace increases in its love of God and sanctification. The suggestion that faith alone saves without any need for following God’s commands is, for Roman Catholics, a form of antinomianism, the rejection of God’s Law (Greek: antí=against, nómos=law). It would be unthinkable for one truly alive in Christ to disregard his commands. Yes, venial sins may occur, but mortal sin is antithetical to sanctifying grace, requiring one to move through confession, penance, and absolution before receiving that grace again. In the words of James, if a person’s faith does not show itself in acts of righteousness, “Can that faith save him?”

It is essential, the Catholic insists, not only for one to be initially justified, but to continue in sanctification. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). This means that after being infused with grace, a person must continue in cooperation with that grace by the power of the Spirit. As the same author says in the following sentence, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled…” (v. 15) It was also this author who wrote these words:

“For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6).

This is one of a handful of passages in the New Testament that contain language about a person in Christ falling away, coming short of grace, failing to abide in Him, etc. (For another example, see John 15:1-10). Roman Catholics contend that these are references to those who, after being infused with sanctifying grace, commit mortal sin and are severed from the grace of God.

Catholics do acknowledge that the Mosaic Law of the Old Covenant has passed away with its ritual requirements, but teach that there is an eternal moral law that still binds us all, whether Christian or not. Thus, the Apostle Paul could say, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19). Grace does not grant us license to sin.

As Paul again told the Romans, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2) Yet, positing an imputed righteousness of Christ (which Catholics deny is taught in scripture) seems to remove the need for following God’s Law, since a person will be justified whether they follow it or not. Justification for the Roman Catholic is about becoming personally just, not simply being declared so. John made a stark declaration in his first epistle that is relevant here. “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him…” (1 John 2:4)

And how can a person be joined to Christ and receive sanctifying grace? Through the sacrament of baptism. This is the means God has ordained for granting the Holy Spirit.[1] Consider what the Apostle Peter preached on the day of Pentecost. “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:38) Likewise, Paul wrote, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Galatians 3:27) This is why Peter could write in his first epistle that “baptism now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21)

Catholics take these passages at face value: when scripture says that baptism saves you, it means it. Baptism really does confer forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit, joining a person to Christ. One must then continue in sanctification: this is what justification is all about. This does not mean that an individual does anything under their own power and without the assistance of God’s grace, nor does it mean that the sovereignty of God is not upheld through eternal predestination. But Christ cannot live alongside Beelzebub in the human heart: he must be master of all. Only the one who forsakes sin and clings to Christ, having been perfected in God, is fit for heaven, being holy as God is holy.

A Reformed Protestant might respond to this argument with the following points:

  • God may command that which cannot be done by sinful man, so though the standard for justification is perfect righteousness, our own righteousness can never meet the mark.
  • An individual’s good works serve as evidence of saving faith but are not the basis for a person being declared just. They justify one’s faith before men rather than justifying that person before God.
  • When scripture speaks of people falling away, they were not really in Christ but only seemed to be.
  • Scripture speaks of the Holy Spirit being granted prior to baptism (as with Cornelius) or not being received by someone after baptism (as with Simon Magus).
  • If any good work is required for justification, including the sacrament of baptism, it is a return to the Law rather than a continuance in the gospel.

In addition to those parts of scripture I have already mentioned, there are three passages which seem very important to the debate but which I felt could conceivably be used by either group, so I did not assign them to either. I include a summary here:

  • Matthew 5:17-20
    • Roman Catholics: It is still necessary to follow God’s commands and be righteous.
    • Reformed Protestants: Christ fulfilled the whole Law on our behalf.
  • Galatians 5:2-6
    • Roman Catholics: The Mosaic Law means nothing, but faith working through love does mean something.
    • Reformed Protestants: Justification by Law is opposed to justification by grace through faith.
  • Ephesians 2:4-9
    • Roman Catholics: We were created to do good works.
    • Reformed Protestants: Salvation is by grace through faith, not by works.

We've spent much time sketching the Reformed and Roman Catholic positions... but how do we know which is right? And why does this debate even matter in the first place? These are important questions, and we will turn to them in our next post.

Previous Articles in This Series:

  1. "Infusion and Imputation: An Introduction"
  2. "Justification: The Roman Catholic View"
  3. "Justification: The Reformed Protestant View"

Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.

Related Links

Podcast: "Reformed Road Leads to Rome?"

"Francis Turretin on Justification" by Guy Waters

"Christian Assurance: Rome and Thomas Goodwin" by Ian Hamilton

Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner

Free Justification: The Glorification of Christ in the Justification of a Sinnerby Steve Fernandez

Justification in Church History, with Michael Horton, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan [ Audio Disc | MP3 Disc | Download ]


[1] Again, as I noted earlier in this series, many Roman Catholics believe that certain unbaptized persons, particularly infants, may have still have a path to salvation.