Justification by Faith: Reformed and Roman Catholic Positions

Written by Pastor Bill Mayk in 2009

Arguably there has been no time since the Counter Reformation with as great an impetus to examine the Protestant and Catholic doctrines of Justification by faith as there is today. Current dialogues between various Protestant groups and Roman Catholics have given rise to calls for unity as well as warnings against departure from the true faith.  While formulating the document, Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium attempts were made to find a common language concerning justification upon which both groups could agree.  However, due to various distortions and misunderstandings factions on both sides have found difficulty with such an attempt.

Nevertheless, it is the view of this writer that the difference between the Roman Catholic and Protestant teachings on justification is more than semantics or mere theological misunderstanding.  Furthermore, the Reformed position of  “justification by faith alone in Christ alone” is not only the proper Biblical teaching on the subject, but it cannot be fully reconciled with the Roman Catholic view of the same doctrine.  This paper will attempt to demonstrate how theology and Biblical interpretation have led to conflicting positions on justification, and that the conclusions of the Roman church and those of the Reformed churches are incompatible with one another.

While approaching the historic debate on justification from the perspective of linguistic theory, Christian Barrigar proposed that semantic differences led to the discord between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation.[1]  If this were the case, a reexamination of the significant church statements, in light of Scriptural evidence, should easily clear up confusion and promote mutual understanding between the major factions.  However, even the Vatican has stated that it cannot reach a consensus affirming that the differences concerning justification are simple matters of language or emphasis.[2]

Nevertheless, the most important question within the focus of language is not how present day Catholics or Protestants define terms such as “faith” and “justification”, but what the various authors of the Bible meant by them.  Without a proper understanding of this issue, Gerhard Forde, a Lutheran Theologian, believes that attempts to find commonality in the doctrine will ultimately obscure the main elements of the teaching.[3]

Therefore it is important to begin this discussion with references from Scripture before examining the official stance of either Catholicism or Reformed Theology.

In Romans 3:21-22, Paul indicates that God’s righteousness, independent of the law, is manifested to those who believe on Jesus Christ.  According to verses 22-24 and 28, it is by faith that God has chosen to justify sinners.  Nevertheless, it is not faith itself that justifies, but faith as it is placed in Christ and His redemptive work.  Paul makes this clear in verse 25 when he writes, “God set (Jesus) forth as a propitiation by His blood through faith.”

It would seem that the justification of God is by grace because it is not obtained by the believer keeping the law, but through placing faith in One that was designated as a redeemer.  Paul explains this further in Romans 4:2-5 where he demonstrates that faith in Christ is accounted to a person as righteousness.  Again, Paul stresses that works do not play a part in justification.  In fact, since justification is of grace, Paul indicates in verse 4 that a person who attempts to be justified by his own works negates grace and consequently forfeits justification.

In summary of these passages, justification is a gracious act of God whereby He reckons or declares a person righteous through faith in Jesus Christ and His redemptive work independent of any works done by the individual.

Any fair appraisal of the Biblical teaching on justification must include a review of James 2:14-26.  On the surface, James 2:24 seems to contradict Romans when it states, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.”  This writer is of the opinion that no contradiction exists between James and Paul.  Actually, a close examination of the surrounding verses will define the meaning of James 2:24 more sharply than it initially appears.

The illustration in verses 15-16, establishes James’ position on faith in the following manner: If a person sees someone in physical need and expresses compassion in words, followed by deeds, then it can be seen that his speech was both helpful and meaningful.  However, without those accompanying deeds, the words accomplish nothing, and the person in need remains destitute.  Hence, the validity of one’s word is established by the actions that follow.

In the same manner, James uses the example of Abraham to demonstrate that true faith is always followed by appropriate action.  God had counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness many years before the sacrifice of Isaac. Therefore, that latter incident could not have been the justifying event in Abraham’s life if James was discussing justification in the same manner that Paul taught it in Romans.   Consequently, when James says, “man is justified by works”, he means that one’s faith is proved or validated by the accompanying deeds.  Therefore, works demonstrate whether or not one’s faith is actually justifying faith.

This writer realizes that his interpretation of these passages does not resolve the issues pertaining to justification.  For example, in a debate with Walter Martin, Fr. Mitchell Pacwa maintained that the second chapter of James is basic to the Catholic denial of imputed righteousness based on faith alone.[4]   He attributed the reason to the Council of Trent where the Catholic Church attempted to reconcile Romans with James by declaring that faith begins the process of justification whereas works complete it.[5]

Reformed theologian, Anthony Hoekema suggests that the works spoken of by Paul are works of the law by which a person attempts to justify himself.  Contrary to that, James is speaking of works that demonstrate the genuineness of one’s justification.[6]  Consequently, where Trent sees works as combining with faith to complete the process of justification, Protestants view them as evidence that one has actually been justified or declared righteous by God.

One of the discrepancies between Reformed Protestants and Catholics is over the definition of Biblical terms.  A closer examination of some of these words is necessary before proceeding with a comparison between the two views of justification.  As was previously mentioned, a proper understanding of justification must be built upon the various Biblical terms as used by the writers of Scripture.  However, since a word acquires significance as various groups agree upon its meaning, a discussion concerning terminology would be incomplete without investigating the usage within the opposing camps.[7]

The first definition to be examined is that of faith.  The Greek word for faith is πίστις (pistis) which when written in the verb form (I believe) is πιστεύω (pisteuo).  According to Zerwick and Grosvenor, πιστεύω (pisteuo) “connotes confidence.”[8]  In Thayer’s Lexicon this verb is defined as “to think to be true; to be persuaded of; place confidence in.”  He proceeds to define the noun πίστις (pistis), as “conviction of the truth of anything, belief; a conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things.”[9]

Throughout its history, the Roman Catholic Church has wrestled with various explanations of faith.  Thomas Aquinas believed that faith is a virtue, infused in man that enlightens the intellect “to know certain supernatural things.”[10]  In agreement with this opinion, the Council of Trent declared faith to be the beginning and gratuitous foundation of justification.[11]  Accordingly, it seems proper to summarize the Catholic view of faith as the attainment of supernatural knowledge by a work of God through which a person begins the process of justification.

In response to the Catholic view, the Heidelberg Catechism defined true faith as follows:

Q.21 “What is True Faith?”

A. “It is not only a certain knowledge by which I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a whole hearted trust which the Holy Spirit creates in me through the Gospel, that, not only to others, but to me also God has given the forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, out of sheer grace solely for the sake of Christ’s saving work.”[12]

It would seem that both Catholic and Reformed see faith as originating with God and requiring the possession of certain knowledge.  However, the view as articulated in the Catechism also entails a trust or firm confidence that the saving work of Christ and the accompanying benefits belong specifically to the believer.  Therefore, while both views contain similarities, the Reformed view, as articulated in the catechism, tends to place a greater focus on the personal realization of Christ’s work in the life of the individual believer.

The second definition to be examined is grace.  According to the Greek-English lexicon by Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, the Greek word χάρις (Charis) is normally translated as grace or favor.  It is defined as “that which one grants to another” or “ the action of one who volunteers to do something to which he is not bound.”[13]

Within Roman Catholicism, the Scholastics tended to define grace as a “supernatural quality or power wrought in man.”[14]  The Catholic Church further divides grace into “actual grace” and “sanctifying grace.”  The former enables man to come to God; the latter assists him in freely completing his union with God.[15]

In contrast to these definitions, Reformed theologians have described grace as “the unmerited kindness of God”[16] or as “love freely shown towards guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit.  It is God showing mercy to persons who deserve only severity.”[17]

The difference between these two views is that the Catholic position sees grace as a divinely given power enabling man to perform a necessary action.  However, the reformed definition views grace as an attribute of God motivating Him to perform a compassionate act on behalf of man.  The latter position seems more in keeping with the definition of χάρις (charis) as previously noted.

The final term to be examined is that of justification.  While both Protestants and Catholics agree that justification pertains to one’s righteous standing before God, they differ in their assessment as to how that is accomplished.  According to Rome, man is prepared for justification with the help of actual grace.[18]  Catholicism teaches that this disposition toward righteousness occurs through cooperation between man’s will and the grace that assists him to move toward God.[19]  Consequently, although grace is present, man cannot reach this state apart from his own efforts.  However, once he is disposed toward righteousness, justification follows by means of the infusion of justifying grace.[20]  According to the Catholic position, justification “is not only the remission of sin but also sanctification, and the renewal of the interior man by the voluntary reception of grace and gifts.”[21]  This has led Charles Hodge to make the assessment that the Roman view of justification consists of a divine act whereby a sinner is made “subjectively holy.”[22]  Man is not only forgiven of his sins, but has undergone the removal of the nature of sin from his soul.”[23]

Since the person being justified is holy, he must perform works that merit ongoing justification.[24]  Commonly referred to as works of meritum de condigno, these works are freely produced, by an individual, with the help of sanctifying grace.[25]  This helps to explain Cardinal Newman’s position that justification cannot actually be accomplished without the meritorious obedience of the individual.[26]  Normally these works are classified as faith, love, service, and endurance.[27]  This seems to indicate that once man begins the process by faith, he is required to complete his justification through the performance of meritorious works.

Although the Council of Trent emphatically declared that the ultimate meritorious cause of justification is the work of Christ on the cross, it seems to have entangled itself in a theological contradiction by further insisting that sanctification, and its accompanying work of love, is necessary for justification.

In summary of the Roman position, justification is a process, begun in faith, whereby man is pardoned for sin, infused with righteousness and sanctification, and expected to maintain the process through good works; all by the grace of God through the merits of Christ.

Contrary to the Catholic view of justification, the Reformed position generally agrees with the definition as articulated by Calvin.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin sees justification as encompassing the forgiveness of sin, acceptance by God, and the imputation of righteousness.[28]  Accordingly, the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith clearly refuted the doctrine of infused righteousness in chapter XI of that document.[29]  Rather than seeing justification as including sanctifying grace through which an individual cooperates with God, the Puritans denounced any merit on the part of man and considered the obedience and satisfaction of Christ to be the sole basis of a right standing before God.  By His death, Christ purchased pardon for the elect, and by His sinless life He kept the law on behalf of those that appropriate these benefits by faith.  In this view, justification is a forensic or judicial act whereby God declares a person righteous on the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone[30] through the instrumentality of faith.[31]

Various Scriptural references indicate the propriety of this position.  In the law concerning judges, Deuteronomy 25:1 instructs rulers to “justify the righteous and condemn the wicked.”  John Murray points out that the function of the judge was neither to make a person righteous or wicked but to pronounce a declaration of guilt or innocence.[32]  Another insightful passage is Romans 8:33, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.”  The best sense of this text is that Paul is contrasting the justification of God with a verbal accusation against the elect.

John Stott summarized the Reformed position well in the following quote from his book The Cross of Christ, “When God justifies sinners, He is not declaring bad people to be good … He is pronouncing them legally righteous, free from any liability to the broken law, because He Himself in His Son has borne the penalty of their law-breaking.”[33]

After reviewing the data, this writer maintains the opinion that the Reformed position of “justification by faith alone, in Christ alone” does the most justice to the Biblical terminology and Scriptural references involved.  Not only does the Catholic view combine faith with baptism and penance as the instrumental causes of justification[34], but their position on grace is also distorted.  By proposing that grace is an infused power, they have changed it from the undeserved kindness of God, to a tool through which man merits justification.  Furthermore, their confusion of justification and sanctification has ensured a denial of justification by faith in the context of the third and fourth chapters of Romans.[35]

Consequently, when Reformed and Roman Catholic signers of Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium affirm that “we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ” they cannot mean the same thing and stay true to the beliefs of either Scripture or their traditions.  The differences in this doctrine between Catholics and Reformed Christians go much deeper than simple semantics. The president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky, R. Albert Mohler Jr., correctly observed that “Justification by faith alone, if genuinely affirmed by Catholics and evangelicals, would require repudiation of baptismal regeneration, purgatory, indulgences, and many other issues presently affirmed by Roman Catholic doctrine.”[36]

To demonstrate the correctness of Dr. Mohler’s statement, and Roman Catholicism’s denial of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, one need only review the official Catholic statements concerning the visitation of Mary in Fatima, Portugal in 1917.  After warnings of impending doom and visions of hell, “Mary” admonished the faithful to “offer sacrifices to atone for our sins.”[37] Finally, the faithful are encouraged to wear the holy scapular because, “Whoever dies clothed in this shall never suffer eternal fire.”[38]  Such an example is not mentioned in order to make an unfair accusation against Catholicism.  Rather, it is further evidence that the dissimilarities between the Catholic and Protestant views of justification are more than semantic differences.

In conclusion, this writer submits that the Reformed position is not only correct in its assertion that the doctrine of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone is the viewpoint taught in Scripture but that it cannot be reconciled with the position held by the Church of Rome.  Due to a misunderstanding of the book of James, and an incorrect theological definition of grace, the Roman Church has confused justification with sanctification and merged faith with works to the point where justification by faith alone is unrecognizable to most of its members.

William Mayk Copyright © 2009 This article may be reproduced without textual changes


  • Barrigar, Christian. “Linguistic Theory and Ecumenical Convergence: The Case of Justification.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 32, no.1 (1995): 1-12.
  • Berkhof, Louis. The History of Christian Doctrines. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1937. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2 vol. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.
  • Flannery, Austin. Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, rev. ed.  Northport: Costello Publishing, 1975.
  • Forde, Gerhard, “Justification By Faith Alone. The Article By Which the Church Stands or Falls?” Dialogue: A Journal of Theology 27, (Fall 1998): 260-266.
  • Fintan, Walker G. Our Lady of Fatima’s Peace Plan from Heaven. St. Meinrad: Abby Press, 1975.
  • Goodwin, Robert. Selected Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.
  • Hodge, Charles. Justification by Faith Alone. Hobbs: The Trinity Foundation, 1995.
  • Hoekema, Anthony. Saved By Grace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989.
  • Luther, Martin. Table-Talk. Philadelphia: Lutheran Board of Publication, 1868.
  • Machen, J. Gresham. What is Faith? Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991.
  • McWilliams, David B. “Christ Alone!,” Modern Reformation 8, no.5 (September/October 1999): 5-8.
  • McIlraith, Donal A.  “For the Fine Linen is the Righteous Works of the Saints: Works and Wife in Revelation 19:8.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 61, no.3 (1999): 512-529.
  • Miller, Allen O., trans., The Heidelberg Catechism. Cleveland: United Church Press, 1962.
  • Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1955.
  • Newman, John Henry. Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification. Westminster: Christian Classics, 1966.
  • Olin, John C., ed., A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966.
  • Packer, J. I. Knowing God. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1973.
  • Pacwa, Mitchell and Martin, Walter, “Justification by Faith: A Catholic-Protestant Dialogue.” Christian Research Journal, (Winter/Spring 1987): 24-27.
  • Pegis, Anton C. Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas. New York: Random House, 1945.
  • Randy Frame, “Evangelicals, Catholics Issue Salvation Accord,” Christianity Today 42, no.1 (1998): 61-63.
  • Simpson, Victor (1998, June 27) Vatican Agrees to a Compromise with Lutherans about Salvation. Philadelphia Inquirer, sec. A 14.
  • Stott, John. The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1986.
  • Wells, David F. No Place for Truth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993.
  • Westminster Standards, The. Suwanee: Great Commission Publications, 1995.

[1]      Christian Barrigar, “Linguistic Theory And Ecumenical Convergence: The Case of Justification.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 32, no. 1 (1995): 5-7.

[2]      Victor Simpson, (1998, June 27) Vatican Agrees to a Compromise with Lutherans about Salvation. Philadelphia Inquirer, sec. A p.14.

[3]      Forde, Gerhard, “Justification By Faith Alone. The Article By Which the Church Stands or Falls?” Dialogue: A Journal of Theology 27, Fall (1998): 262.

[4]      Pacwa, Mitchell and Martin, Walter, “Justification by Faith: A Catholic-Protestant Dialogue.” Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring (1987): 25.

[5]      Ibid., 26

[6]      Anthony Hoekema, Saved By Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989), 161-162.

[7]      Christian Barrigar, “Linguistic Theory And Ecumenical Convergence: The Case of Justification.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 32, no. 1 (1995): 3-5.

[8]      [8] Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor. A Grammatical Analysis of the New Testament (Rome: E.P.I.B., 1993), 467.

[9]      Joseph Thayer. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 511-512.

[10]     Robert Goodwin, trans., Selected Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), 102.

[11]     “we are … said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and 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.” Quoted from A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto edited by John C. Olin (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966), 121.

[12]     Heidelberg Catechism, Q.21 (Cleveland: United Church Press, 1962), 27.

[13]     Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian literature. 2nd ed., (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 877.

[14]     Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1937), 211.

[15]     Buescher, G. N., “Justification, Disposition For,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967

[16]     Charles Hodge, Justification by Faith Alone (Hobbs: The Trinity Foundation, 1995), 31.

[17]     J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1973), 120.

[18]     Buescher, G. N., “Justification, Disposition For,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967

[19]     “Now, they [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, especially that the sinner is justified by God by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; and when understanding themselves to be sinners, they, by turning themselves from the fear of divine justice, by which they are salutarily aroused, to consider the mercy of God, are raised to hope, trusting that God will be propitious to them for Christ’s sake; 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, when they resolve to receive baptism, to begin a new life and to keep the commandments of God.” Quoted from A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto edited by John C. Olin (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966), 118.

[20]     P. De Letter, “Justification,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967

[21]     John C. Olin, ed., A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966), 119.

[22]     Charles Hodge, Justification by Faith Alone (Hobbs: The Trinity Foundation, 1995), 45.

[23]     Ibid., 45.

[24]     Pacwa, Mitchell and Martin, Walter, “Justification by Faith: A Catholic-Protestant Dialogue.” Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring (1987): 25-27.

[25]     Finger, T.N., “Merit,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1984

[26]     John Henry Newman. Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification. (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1966), 39.

[27]     Donal A. McIlraith, “For the Fine Linen is the Righteous Works of the Saints: Works and Wife in Revelation 19:8.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 61, no.3 (1999): 516.

[28]     John Calvin. Institutes of Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX, Book III:XI:4.,(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 728-729.

[29]     “Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.” Quoted from The Westminster Standards, (Suwanee: Great Commission Books, 1995), 14.

[30]     Charles Hodge, Justification by Faith Alone (Hobbs: The Trinity Foundation, 1995), 45-53.

[31]     Ibid., 119.

[32]     John Murray. Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1955), 119-120.

[33]     John Stott. The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1986), 190.

[34]     P. De Letter, “Justification,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967

[35]     Pacwa, Mitchell and Martin, Walter, “Justification by Faith: A Catholic-Protestant Dialogue.” Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring (1987): 27.

[36]      Randy Frame, “Evangelicals, Catholics Issue Salvation Accord,” Christianity Today 42, no.1 (1998): 61-63.

[37]      Walker G. Fintan. Our Lady of Fatima’s Peace Plan from Heaven (St. Meinrad: Abby Press, 1975), 23.

[38]      Ibid., 26.

Bill Mayk
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About Bill Mayk

Bill is the founding pastor of Grace & Peace Presbyterian Church (PCA) Prior to beginning this church planting work in the Pottstown area, Bill served as a hospice chaplain and a missionary to Mexico and Jordan. Bill earned his MDiv from Biblical Theological Seminary.