Sola Gratia, Solo Christo:
The Roman Catholic Doctrine of Justification
Richard A. White
An essay submitted to Dr. Harold O.J. Brown
In partial fulfillment of the requirement for Historical Theology: The Atonement
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Deerfield, Illinois
The doctrine of justification was, as John Calvin stated, the “hinge of the reformation.” James Buchanan provides us with the classic “reformed” definition: “Justification is a legal, or forensic, term, and is used in Scripture to denote the acceptance of any one as righteous in the sight of God.” Understood in this way, justification is purely extrinsic to the sinner, inasmuch as he is justified solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness graciously imputed to him. The sinner does not become righteous himself, but because he trusts in Christ’s work for him, he is considered innocent by God the judge. In this way, works contribute nothing to justification; it is by faith alone.
In contrast is the Roman Catholic position, which sadly, few evangelicals even bother to consider, let alone understand. In many cases, the issue is naively boiled down to justification by faith, on the one hand (evangelicalism), versus justification by works, on the other hand (Roman Catholicism). This crass caricature has little basis in reality, and hampers the cause for theological truth and Christian unity. In this essay then, I will summarize the Roman Catholic teaching on justification. To accomplish this task, I will consider the Council of Trent’s “Decree Concerning Justification,” the most even-handed and representative Church pronouncement on the issue to date. I will also consider a wide array of Catholic authors, both past and present.
The Roman Catholic Teaching
Our study of the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification begins, as the Council of Trent suggests, with a discussion of original sin. The Council states:
The holy council declares first, that for a correct and clear understanding of the doctrine of justification, it is necessary that each one recognize and confess that… all men had lost innocence in the prevarication of Adam, having become unclean, and, as the Apostle says, by nature children of wrath. (Sess. VI, Chap. I)
Adam’s sin involved the loss of his supernatural status as a son of God. The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, therefore, is concerned essentially with “the restoration of that justice which Adam possessed prior to his sin, and which he loses by his sin.” The Council of Trent itself summarizes the justification of the sinner as “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.” (Sess. VI, Chap. IV)
As an outcast estranged from God’s family, the sinner can do nothing to merit justification; he is dead in sin and in need of God’s grace. The sola gratia then, is an integral aspect of the Catholic doctrine of justification, and is clearly affirmed by Trent, “…we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification.” (Sess. VI, Chap. VIII) It is impossible for man, as a sinner, to contribute anything to his justification; it is purely gratuitous.
Grace then, enables individuals to have faith, repent, and be baptized. Trent states:
Now, they (the adults) are disposed to that justice when, aroused and aided by divine grace, receiving faith by hearing, they are moved freely toward God, believing to be true what has been divinely revealed and promised…and they begin to love Him as the fountain of all justice, and on that account are moved against sin by a certain hatred and detestation, that is, by that repentance that must be performed before baptism; finally…they resolve to receive baptism, to begin a new life and to keep the commandments of God. (Sess. VI, Chap. VI)
In this process, the sacrament of baptism is the instrumental cause (Sess. VI, Chap. VII) of justification. In baptism, the sinner is endowed with new qualities, and passes from a state of enmity towards God to a state of grace; he is adopted into God’s family as a son. In short, justification in the Catholic view is the gift of divine sonship, lost in original sin, and regained in Christ.
Justification understood in this way involves both the imputation of sonship and the infusion of Christ’s grace. These two aspects are inseparable, for as God imputes family standing to the sinner, the sinner does in fact become a member of the family; sonship is no legal fiction. God effectuates what He declares. Hence, when God declares the sinner righteous, it is more than a mere legal declaration. It is a creative and transformative action whereby God takes someone and breathes into Him that Spirit of sonship which cries, “Abba!” “Father!” Gratuitous, therefore, means more than the receipt of divine favor. What God imparts in the gift of grace is Himself, nothing less, and this life-giving divine gift is a metaphysical, ontological communication of Christ’s sonship.
This internal renovation is essential. For individuals are both imputed with Adam’s guilt and infused with his corrupt nature; they are declared sinful, and at the same time, they really are sinful. Hence, justified persons are both imputed with Christ’s righteousness and infused with His life; they are declared righteous because, in virtue of Christ’s indwelling life and holiness, they really are righteous. The remission of sins is possible because the grace of Christ is infused into the person, making him a child of God. By virtue of this new filial relationship, the individual is no longer subject to the wrath of God.
God’s judgment then, is directed towards a child in the second Adam, and not a rebel criminal in the first Adam. This helps explain why justified persons need not be perfect themselves; they are justified by virtue of their new relationship to God as sons. The judgment is taking place then with regard to Christ’s grace alive in the individual, at whatever degree of growth; the indwelling grace of Christ justifies sinners.
In this study, we have referred to God’s grace in several different ways. First of all, the supernatural enlightenment of the understanding, enabling people to shun evil and do good, is called “actual grace”. An initial act of faith, for example is a result of “actual grace.” We have also seen that “grace is an inward gift communicated by God to the soul, in virtue of which man is made holy and pleasing to God, a child of God, and heir of heaven.” This abiding quality in the soul is called “habitual” or “sanctifying grace.” As long as the individual retains this grace, he remains justified. Now this grace is nothing less than the presence of God in the soul. For as we have seen, grace is an abundant provision, an ontological substance, and not just a subjective attitude of favor.
The justified person continually seeks to obtain this grace. The Council of Trent states:
Having, therefore, been justified and made the friends and domestics of God…they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified, as it is written: He that is just, let him be justified still. (Sess. VI, Chap. X)
Understood in this way, it is clear that justification is a process, and not merely a once and for all act. The sinner is reborn as a son of God. After the birth process, however, the Father expects for that life to be nurtured, to be cultivated by the son. In other words, the Father has not simply given sonship as a welfare check; He has given life that is to be lived out. The inheritance of salvation is then the natural culmination of lifelong growth in filial dependence, obedience, and maturity, all of which require the subsequent cooperation of the regenerated person with God’s operating grace.
“Sanctifying grace” is precisely the means by which the children of God “grow up,” so to speak. We have seen how this grace is infused in individuals through baptism when they are first justified, incorporating them into God’s family. Simply put, the rest of the sacraments(especially the Eucharist) are covenantal dispensers of divine grace,  whereby the children of God receive spiritual food to help them further mature in the family. Inasmuch as the justified person continually seeks to obtain this grace through the sacraments and by doing good works, justification is indeed by works. The sola fide then, is not a part of Catholic doctrine.
One effect of “sanctifying grace” is the power of merit, i.e., the capacity to win heaven as a reward. Now, if grace is gratuitous (as its name indicates), and merit is an effect of grace, then merit too is gratuitous. But how is this so? As a plethora of biblical passages indicate, there is a direct connection between works performed and an individual’s future standing in heaven. Simply put, this is God’s free promise to the justified person to reward his actions when that person obeys His commands. When God rewards meritorious works, therefore, He is simply crowning His own achievements in the justified person as a result of the Holy Spirit working in him. As Augustine states, “When He rewards man He rewards only His own gifts.”
Summary and Conclusion
Due to the limitations of time and space, I must draw this study to a close. To summarize, we saw that the original justice, or the divine sonship, of Adam was lost through original sin. Justification, in the Catholic sense, is the restoration of that sonship through the second Adam, Jesus Christ; sinners are reborn through baptism as sons of God. In this process, justification is purely gratuitous. The Holy Spirit works in the sinner, effectuating in him an orientation towards faith and good works. Through baptism, he is imputed standing in God’s family and infused with Christ’s grace.
Justification then, involves both the legal remission and the actual removal of sin. The forgiveness of sins is possible precisely because the justified person stands in a new relationship to God as a son. Because the grace of Christ is in him, original sin is blotted out, actual sins are remitted, and grace is continually imparted to overcome concupiscence. The justified person continually seeks to obtain “sanctifying grace” through the sacraments (which in the case of adults, we are useless without real faith) and by doing good works. In this sense, individuals are justified by works as well as faith, but always by grace alone and Christ alone. Justification is a process, therefore, whereby higher standing is progressively conferred upon children growing up.
Finally, we saw that one of the benefits of being in a state of grace is the ability to merit the reward of heaven. God is a faithful father, promising to reward the good works of justified persons. In doing so, He crowns his own achievements, for even the most pious saint is ever dependent on God’s grace.
As I stated in the introduction, a critical evaluation of the Catholic view is beyond the scope of this study. Yet, I think a few brief comments are in order. First of all, this study has forced me to abandon some false notions I have had for some time now, including my belief that Roman Catholic doctrine and the sola gratia are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the stereotypical picture of Catholicism (among evangelicals) is that of a legalistic system unconcerned with saving faith in Christ. While this may be true sometimes in practice, it has no place in the actual teaching of the Catholic Church.
Secondly, I find appealing the way in which Roman Catholics explain justification through the covenant family idea, without ignoring the imputative legal aspect. In fact the imputative aspect is naturally explained within the framework of the covenant family. In the natural realm, a father imputes family standing to his new born son, not on the basis of any works done on the son’s part, but because of the seed of sonship alive in the son as a result of the father. In the same way, God the Father declares us to be heirs in His supernatural family. But just as the birth process in the natural realm, God expects His children to grow up, and, He is glorified in raising them up in His likeness, making them stronger and wiser. The inheritance of eternal life, therefore, is the reward of filial obedience and maturity. This in essence, is the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. The strongest case for the Catholic view is made by those who explain justification in this way, and yet, paradoxically, many Catholics themselves seem unaware of the covenant family paradigm.
On the negative side, I still, as a Calvinist, affirm the notion of the perserverance of the saints. Yet, it is clear that in the Catholic view, the threat of losing one’s salvation and falling out of a state of grace is very real. I must confess, however, that this misgiving is made without really having made an effort to understand the Catholics on this point. Indeed, the Catholic doctrine of grace is very complex; I have only scratched the surface in this essay. Further study on this important issue, I think, would prove fruitful for evangelicals.
Boehl, Edward. The Reformed Doctrine of Justification. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1946.
Bouyer, Louis. The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1956.
Buchanan, James. The Doctrine of Justification. London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961.
Cuskelly, E.J. God’s Gracious Design: A New Look at Catholic Doctrine. Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1965.
Cuttaz, Cannon F. Our Life of Grace. Chicago, Illinois: Fides Publishers Association, 1958.
Dubarle, A.M. The Biblical Doctrine of Original Sin. New York: Herder and Herder, 1964.
Fransen, Peter. The New Life of Grace. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1969.
Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald. Grace. St. Louis B. Herder Book Co., 1952.
Gleason, Robert W. Grace. New York: Sheed & Ward, Inc., 1962.
Jedin, Hubert. Papal Legate at the Council of Trent: Cardinal Seripando. St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1947.
Kung, Hans. Grace: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. New York, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964.
Mersch, Emile. The Theology of the Mystical Body. St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1951.
Newman, John Henry. Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification. London, Oxford, and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1874.
O’Neil, Colman E. Meeting Christ in the Sacraments. Staten Island, New York: Alba House, 1964.
Scheeben, Matthias Joseph. The Mysteries of Christianity. St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1946.
Schmaus, Michael. Justification and the Last Things. Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1977.
Wilmers, W. Handbook of the Christian Religion. New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1921.
Bourke, Myles M. “St. Paul and the Justification of Abraham.” Bible today 10 (February 1964): 643-649.
Brinsmead, Robert. “Further Observations on the Order of Justification and Regeneration.” Present Truth 5/6 (September 1976):17.
Crowley, Patrick. “Justification by Faith in St. Paul.” Scripture 18/44 (October 1966):97-111.
Hill, William J. “Justification in Catholic Theology Today.” The Thomist 30/3 (July 1966): 205-227.
McCue, James F. “Ecumenical Reflection on Justification.” The Ecumenist 18/4 (May-June 1980):49-53.
Moeller, Charles. “Grace and Justification.” Lumen Vitae 19 (1964): 219-230.