The Roman Catholic view on justification

Justification is a divine act where God declares the sinner to be innocent of his sins.  It is a legal action in that God declares the sinner righteous--as though he has satisfied the Law of God.  This justification is based entirely on the sacrifice of Christ by His shed blood: " . . . having now been justified by His blood . . . " (Rom. 5:9).1 Justification is a gift of grace (Rom. 3:24; Titus 3:7) that comes through faith (Rom. 3:28; 5:1).2 Christians receive Jesus (John 1:12) and put their faith-filled trust in what Jesus did on the cross (Isaiah 53:12; 1 Pet. 2:24) and in so doing are justified by God.  The Bible states that justification is not by works (Rom. 3:20, 28; 4:5; Eph. 2:8-9) because our righteous deeds are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6).  Therefore, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Those who are justified are saved and salvation is a free gift (Rom. 6:23)--something we cannot earn (Eph. 2:1-10).  However, Roman Catholic doctrine denies justification by faith alone and says:

  • "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, according to Catholic theology means excommunication, "the exclusion of a sinner from the society of the faithful."  The Greek word anathema is also translated as "accursed" (Rom. 9:3; Gal. 1:8-9, NASB & KJV), "eternally condemned" (Gal. 1:8-9, NIV), and "cursed" (Rom. 9:3, NIV),.  We can see that Roman Catholic theology pronounces a curse of excommunication, of being outside the camp of Christ if you believe that you are saved by grace through faith alone in Jesus.

Does the Roman Catholic Church specifically state that we are "saved by grace and works"?  Not that I am aware of and neither do the above Catholic Canons state such a thing.  But, when the Roman Catholic Church negates justification by faith alone, it necessarily implies that we must do something for justification; for if it is not by faith alone, then it must be by faith and something.

At this point, many Catholics appeal to James 2:24 which says, "You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone." But the context of James is speaking of dead faith as opposed to living, saving faith.  James states that if you "say" you have faith but have no works (James 2:14), that faith cannot save you because it is a dead faith (v. 17).  In other words, mere intellectual acknowledgment of Christ is a dead faith that produces no regeneration and no change in a person's life.  This faith does not justify.  Rather, it is only that real and believing faith in Christ that results in justification.  When someone is truly justified, he is truly saved and regenerate.  Therefore, we see the results of true saving faith as they are manifested in the changed life of the one justified by faith alone.  Real faith produces good works, but it isn't these works that save you.  Good works are the effect of salvation--not the cause of it in any way--and they certainly do not help anyone keep their salvation. For more on this, please see Are you justified by Faith (Romans) or works (James)?

Protestant theology, as a whole, appeals to the Bible alone for spiritual truth and maintains that justification is not by works in any way but is by grace through faith in Christ and His sacrifice alone.  After all, the Bible says "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace." (Rom. 11:6).  Furthermore, the Bible says:

  • "Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3:20).
  • "being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;" (Rom. 3:24).
  • "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." (Rom. 3:28).
  • "For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." (Rom. 4:3).
  • "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness," (Rom. 4:5).
  • "For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith." (Rom. 4:13).
  • "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ," (Rom. 5:1).
  • "Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him." (Rom. 5:9).
  • "that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved;" (Rom. 10:9).
  • "so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." (Gal. 3:14).
  • "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God;" (Eph. 2:8).

I am bewildered when I read Catholic theology that denies justification by faith alone and requires human effort in addition to God's grace to be saved.  Of course, Catholicism denies that it is works that save us--and rightly so.  But, it contradicts itself when it teaches that certain things must be done by people in order to be justified and to keep that justification.  Whether or not Catholicism calls these works acts of faith or not is immaterial.  The label doesn't change the substance.  We are either saved by grace through faith alone, or we are not.

Of the acts to be performed by Catholics for justification, baptism is the first requirement  Please consider these quotes:

  • ". . Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, so that 'we too might walk in newness of life,'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 977).
  • "Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ. It is granted us through Baptism. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who justifies us. It has for its goal the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life. It is the most excellent work of God's mercy," (CCC, par. 2020).

I do not see the Bible saying anywhere that we are justified by baptism.  Yes, there are verses that can be interpreted that way; but if they were, then they would contradict the clear teaching of Rom. 3:20, 28; 4:3; 5:1; Eph. 2:8 which says salvation by grace through faith--not grace through faith and baptism.  For a discussion of this subject please see Is Baptism necessary for salvation?

However, according to Roman Catholicism, even faith and baptism aren't sufficient in themselves for you to be saved.  It says that baptism is only the first sacrament of forgiveness.  Good works, according to Roman Catholicism, are also required and are rewarded with going to heaven:

"We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will.  In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere 'to the end' and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God's eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ," (CCC, par. 1821).

The above quote clearly states that heaven is the "eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ."  Catholic theology asserts that works are a predecessor to justification in direct contradiction to God's word which states " . . . that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." (Rom. 3:28).  What are the deeds of the Law?  Anything we do in hopes of getting or maintaining our righteousness before God.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), par. 2010 it says,

"Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification."

How does anyone merit for himself the undeserved kindness of God's grace?  Grace is by definition unmerited favor.  To me, this is an utterly false teaching that you can earn grace from God through works or rituals.  So how does the Catholic church get around this apparent dilemma that grace is unmerited, but it is obtained through our merits?  It states that . . .

"Sanctifying grace is the gratuitous gift of his life that God makes to us; it is infused by the Holy Spirit into the soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it" (CCC, par. 2023).

This is the crux of the problem.  Roman Catholic theology asserts that God's grace is granted through baptism and infused into a person by the Holy Spirit.  This then enables him or her to do good works which then are rewarded with heaven.  Basically, this is no different from the theology of the cults which maintain that justification is by grace through faith and your works whether it be baptism, going to "the true church," keeping certain laws, receiving the sacraments, or anything else you are required to do.  In response, I turn to God's word at Gal.3:1-3:

"You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?  3Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?"

Does not the above scripture clearly state that receiving God's Spirit is by faith and not by what we do?  Does it not teach us that we cannot perfect our salvation by the works we do in the flesh?  To receive Jesus (John 1:12 ) means to become the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) which means a person is saved--justified.  Is this salvation something we attained through our effort?  Of course not!   Is it something we maintain through our effort?  Not at all.  It is given to Christians by God and assured by God because it rests in what God has done and not in anything we have done--that is why salvation is by faith and not works.  If it did rest in any way in our works, then our salvation could not be secure; and we would end up trying to be good enough to get to heaven.  That only leads to bondage to the Law, and the result is a lack of assurance of salvation--a constant worry that you are not good enough and a repeated subjection to the Church's teachings and requirements about what you must do to be saved.  The only natural effect of such a teaching would be that you can lose your salvation over and over again and that you must perform the necessary requirements of the Catholic church to stay saved.

Catholic Theology teaches that you maintain your justification

Because the Catholic view of justification is a cooperative effort between God and man, this justification can be lost and regained by man's failure to maintain sufficient grace through meritorious works.  Now I must admit that within Protestant churches there are different opinions on this very matter of eternal security.  Some believe salvation can be lost, while others do not.  I am not here attempting to address this issue.  Rather, I seek to point out that Roman Catholicism teaches that works are necessary for this "re-attainment" of justification.  This is how . . .

According to Catholic theology, penance is a sacrament where a person, through a Catholic priest (CCC, par. 987), receives forgiveness of the sins committed after baptism.  The penitent person must confess his sins to a priest.  The priest pronounces absolution and imposes acts of Penance to be performed.

"Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as 'the second plank (of salvation) after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace," (CCC, par. 1446).

The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. i) declared regarding Penance:

"As a means of regaining grace and justice, penance was at all times necessary for those who had defiled their souls with any mortal sin. . . ."

Acts of penance vary, but some of them are prayer, saying the rosary, reading the scripture, saying a number of "Our Father's" or "Hail Mary's" prayers, doing good works, fasting, and other such things.  Is it by doing these acts of penance that the Catholic is able to regain his justified state before God?  I am astounded to think that they are taught to believe that by their works of penance justification is regained.  In essence, it is earning one's salvation.  Think about it.  If you do not have it and you get it by saying prayers, fasting, and/or doing good works, then you are guilty of "works' righteousness" salvation which is condemned by the Bible.  "Works' Righteousness" means that a person is trying to attain or keep his position with God based upon his works.  It is a false teaching.

I confess my sins to God.  He forgives me (1 John 1:9).  I do not need a Catholic priest to be my mediator of forgiveness.  I need the true mediator and High Priest, Jesus.  He alone is my mediator (1 Tim. 2:5).  He has all authority in heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18) to forgive my sins and intercede for me.  He finished the work on the cross (John 19:30), so that I do not need to perform any work in order to gain, maintain, or even regain my salvation.  That is why the Bible teaches that we are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1) apart from works (Rom. 3:28).

To say that we can add to the finished work of Christ on the cross is to say that what He did was not sufficient to save us.  May this never be!  We are saved by grace through faith--not grace through faith and our works.  If it were, then grace would not be grace.

"But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace." (Rom. 11:6).

Relationship, not Ritual

Salvation is a free gift from God given to us by His awesome Grace and is based upon the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  Christians receive this by faith because faith is all we have left since my works are excluded, by God, as having anything to do with attaining salvation.

God desires fellowship with His people (1 Cor. 1:9)--not rituals and works' righteousness that cannot save us.

May God receive all the glory due Him because of His grace.


  • 1. The phrase "having now been" is in the aorist, passive, participle in the Greek.  This signifies a past action that is completed in the past and continues in the present.  In other words, Paul is saying that the Christians have been justified and still are.
  • 2. All Bible quotes are from the NASB.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.