A friend of yours who is a Roman Catholic asks you the following question: “When I hear descriptions of the Reformation, I usually hear that the distinctive feature of Lutheran theology is that we are justified by grace alone. But my church also teaches that we are justified by grace alone. So is there any real difference between us on this part?”
To be clear the Reformation distinction is more nuanced than just saying we are justified by grace alone. The distinction is that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and that we know all of this by Scripture alone. The Calvinist reformers typically add that all of this is to the glory of God alone. The word alone is spoken in all of these prepositional phrases to stress that our individual works, or merits, are completely void in our salvation. Grace does not involve our works. Faith is not our work. Christ’s work alone is where our faith clings for salvation.
This is not what Rome means when Roman Catholics speak of being saved by grace alone. For Rome, our works are still involved in our justification.
To demonstrate this point directly, one can look at the Council of Trent’s Cannons on Justification:
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 9).
“If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema” (Canon 14).
Anathema is a very strong word. It means accursed or eternally condemned.
Such statements reject the Reformation teaching that justification is completely void of our works. A rewording of Canon 9 from the negative stance to the positive would state that “something else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that this is in every way necessary.” To my knowledge Rome never states directly that we are justified by grace and works, but such statements push one to such a conclusion. To demonstrate in more detail how Rome teaches that our works are involved in justification, one only needs to look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on this doctrine:
“Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man” (CCC, par. 2019).
“No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods” (CCC, par. 2027)
In the first quote from the CCC, it is plainly stated that justification includes not just the remission of sins, but also sanctification and the renewal of the inner man. This definition of justification points us not to the work of Christ alone for our justification, but instead it turns us inward on ourselves. How am I doing? Am I progressing enough in sanctification? Am I experiencing this inner renewal day by day? When we are honest with ourselves and uphold the full instruction of God’s commands and demands for us, such an inner turn for our justification can only lead to despair. Since in Rome’s definition of justification, the work of Christ alone and his righteousness are not the sole means by which we are justified, we lose all assurance, confidence, and certainty of salvation. The second quote I provided from the CCC details this further with the clear words that “we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life.” Merit by definition involves my works, and according to Rome, I am even capable of working to merit the graces necessary for the eternal life of others too!
These graces that I can merit are found in the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. Concerning the graces of these sacraments, the CCC states:
“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (CCC, par. 1131).
Here the CCC stresses that to receive the graces proper to each sacrament one must receive them with the required dispositions – this again involves our merit, our work.
In Reformation theology, justification is the work of God alone. Our work, or merit, or required disposition, is not a qualifier for our justification at all. In Reformation theology, justification is instantaneous – at the moment of faith – a person is declared justified, declared righteous in God’s sight on account of Christ’s righteousness, though we are still sinful. Sanctification in Reformation theology, unlike in Roman Catholic theology, is distinct from justification; in Reformation theology, it is not part of justification, but in Roman Catholic theology it is, as was previously quoted from the CCC. Sanctification is a process, a life-long process of becoming less and less sinful, more and more like Christ and his image of perfect righteousness. This process is not always a constant upward motion of increased holiness. There are dips and valleys in this life-long process of sanctification, which is in Reformation theology is viewed as the process of becoming what we were already declared to be in justification. This process is never complete this side of heaven.
This proper distinction of justification and sanctification in Reformation theology gives the person who has received God’s grace through faith the assurance and confidence that his or her sins are forgiven, because on account of Christ’s innocent, bitter suffering and death, that person is truly forgiven – instantly at the moment of faith. In Roman Catholic theology, because there is no proper distinction between justification and sanctification, one cannot look to Christ’s saving work through his death and resurrection alone. The person must look at their process of growing in holiness as the gauge of their justification. Since the person will always have sin in his or her life and since God alone is the true judge of righteousness, the Roman Catholic who believes the doctrines of the papacy will have no assurance, no comfort, and no confidence of his or her eternal salvation. This wreckage to our certainty of salvation is what inserting our work into justification always produces.