What Does the Roman Catholic Church Teach About the Doctrine of Justification?-Part 2

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2002
The Roman Catholic Church maintains that they teach the true biblical doctrine of justification. However, while Rome may have officially condemned salvation by works alone, it has officially endorsed salvation by grace PLUS works. Drs. Ankerberg and Weldon help sort through the confusion this causes.

What Does the Roman Catholic Church Believe About the Doctrine of Justification?

Roman Catholics maintain that “the Catholic Church teaches the true biblical doctrine of justification.”[1] However, we think it is impossible to argue this point successfully because Rome not only rejects the biblical teaching on justification, it adds various forms of works salvation. For example, in Chapter 4, we see that in Roman Catholicism the sacraments are works of human merit which must be mediated through the Church; this constitutes an effective denial of the biblical teaching on justification.

No one denies that Rome officially rejects salvation solely by works; it condemned Pelagianism (salvation by works) at the Synod of Carthage in 418 and semi-Pelagianism at the Council of Orange in 529—and Trent upheld these condemnations.

But that is not the issue. The problem is two-fold. First, Rome may have officially condemned salvation by works alone, but it has also officially endorsed salvation by grace and works. As Trent decreed, “By his good works the justified man really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God.”[2] And, “It is both possible and necessary to keep the law of God.”[3]

Second, historically, the practical effect has been to uphold a doctrine of works salvation in the lives of its people—irrespective of its claim to absolutely honor the grace of God. In essence, throughout Catholic history, grace has been subjugated to Church teaching and institutionalized into a system of works. Indeed, the Catholic Church is known for its stress upon works salvation—eternal life simply cannot be had without meritorious works.

Thus, official condemnations of salvation by works mean little when they are wholly undermined by other official declarations and the basic practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church as a whole.

To illustrate the theme of one hand taking away what the other has offered, it should be emphasized that the Catholic Church has never denied that justification occurs by an act of God’s grace. In fact, Catholic writers often sound perfectly biblical—and this is what leads to confusion.

For example, consider the answer given to the question, “How is the sinner justified?” in Stephen Keenan’s Doctrinal Catechism: “He is justified gratuitously by the pure mercy of God, not on account of his own or any human merit, but purely through the merits of Jesus Christ; for Jesus Christ is our only mediator of redemption, who alone, by his passion and death, has reconciled us to his Father.”[4]

The issue here is not that Catholics teach that “justification occurs by grace.” This is their teaching. The problem is that the Catholic definition and function of “justification” and “grace” are different than what the Bible teaches. For example, the Catholic Church teaches that justification is the infusion of sanctifying grace or supernatural ability which actually works to make a person objectively righteous and pleasing in the eyes of God. If sustained until death, this grace permits one to merit entrance into heaven because of the righteous life he lived: One actually deserves heaven because one’s own goodness, in part, has earned it. This explains why the basis for justification in Catholic theology is not the fact of Christ’s righteousness being reckoned (imputed) to a believer solely by faith. Rather, it is the fact that—through the sacraments—Christ’s righteousness is infused into our very being so that we progressively become more and more righteous. And on that basis—the fact we have actual righteousness now—we are declared “righteous.” Thus, in Catholicism justification occurs primarily by means of the sacraments and good works and not exclusively by personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Because this infusion of sanctifying ability is not merited by anyone, the Church argues it is therefore entirely a free gift of God’s grace. While this is technically correct, in the end, all this really seems to be saying is that God gives the means by which individuals can subsequently help earn their own salvation. In other words, what actually saves us is the works we do after conversion that have been energized by grace. Let’s explain this more fully.

In Catholic theology infused grace is a spiritual power or strength given to the believer which empowers them to perform meritorious works. When believers cooperate with this grace and make good use of it, they gain the power to become just and righteous in themselves. If we have this “grace” (i.e., a power or substance) within us, we can then literally earn our way to heaven. How? By cooperating with the habitual grace within us, we can arrive at a state of actual righteousness. It is at this point only that we are then declared (provisionally) to be “just”—because, in fact, we are (allegedly) objectively righteous. By further cooperating with God’s grace and through performance of individual works of merit, we actually’ increase” our grace and justification. [5] Because “The soul becomes good and holy through the infusion of grace,”[6] as these are consistently increased throughout life, a person hopefully dies in a state of grace. Then he enters purgatory to pay the final penalty for his sins and to await his heavenly reward. In a very real sense, then, Catholic “justification” is simply God’s recognition of divinely empowered human merit or goodness.

Perhaps a review would be helpful at this point. In Catholicism, justification is an internal renovation and empowering of man—both a regeneration and sanctification. It comes through an infusion of God’s grace and it means that man himself, in his own being, is made just or pleasing to God.

In essence, justification is the gracious act of God whereby an individual, in cooperation with God, makes himself righteous. Another way of saying this is that in Catholic theology justification is the work of grace within a man to make him internally and externally holy. As Keating argues:

… the Bible shows that justification is a rebirth. It is a generation of a supernatural life in a former sinner (Jn. 3:5; Titus 3:5), a thorough inner renewal (Eph. 4:23), and a real sanctification (1 Cor. 6:11). The soul itself becomes beautiful and holy. It is not just an ugly soul hidden under a beautiful cloak [a reference to the Protestant view]. Because it is beautiful and holy, it can be admitted to heaven where nothing unclean is allowed.[7]

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines justification in the following manner, “Primarily and simply justification is the possession of sanctifying grace. …We are justified by Christ…and by good works,…”[8] Thus, as Ott says, “eternal blessedness in heaven is the reward for good works performed on this earth….”[9]

But in essence, Catholicism has confused justification with sanctification and regeneration.[10] As Catholic P. Gregory Stevens writes in The Life of Grace, “First of all, justification is a real and profound transformation of man [regeneration], a genuine gift of sanctification to him.”[11] But this is wrong because justification (Romans 3:28-4:6; Philippians 3:9), regeneration (John 3:6-7; 6:63; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15) and sanctification (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Peter 3:18) are three distinct and separate biblical doctrines. To confuse them is to distort the very essence of biblical salvation.

Stevens proceeds to quote the Council of Trent noting that Trent specifically repudiated the Reformation position of justification as imputed righteousness: “the heart of Catholic teaching is contained in this passage. First of all comes the assertion that “justification is not only the remission of sins, but sanctification and renovation of the interior man through the voluntary reception of grace and the gifts, whereby man becomes just instead of unjust….”[12]

The Bible, however, teaches that justification is God’s work of grace in Christ. It is not God’s work of grace in man to actually make him righteous, which is sanctification. Again biblically, justification is God’s judicial declaration that because of a man’s faith in Christ, God has now declared him perfectly righteous irrespective of his personal righteousness or sanctification.

Because Catholicism denies the biblical teaching on justification, it opposes the very heart of the Christian Gospel: by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone. As we proceed with our discussion of the Catholic view of justification, this will become more evident.


  1. Karl Keating, What Catholics Really Believe—Setting the Record Straight (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1992), p. 101, emphasis added.
  2. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), p. 264, emphasis added.
  3. Peter Toon, Foundations for Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1983), p. 84, from Norman Geisler, pre-publication manuscript.
  4. As cited in Robert D. Brimsmead, ed., “The Basic Doctrine of Justification by Faith,” Present Truth: Special Issue—Justification by Faith, nd, p. 7. Available from P.O. Box 1311, Fallbrook, CA 92028.
  5. Catholics do not like the term “quantitative grace,” but it is difficult to deny such a concept in their theology; cf., R. C. Sproul, “Systematic Theology,” trans. of cassette tape, nd., npp., p. 6.
  6. Karl Keating in “The Salvation Debate,” March 11, 1989 held at Simon Greenleaf University, Santa Ana, CA (with Dr. Rod Rosenbladt).
  7. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” By “Bible Christians” (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 168.
  8. Robert Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, rev. and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), p. 319.
  9. Ott, p. 264, emphasis added.
  10. H. J. Schroeder, (translator), The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978), 7th Session. Canon 1, 51 cf., pp. 29-46.
  11. Cited in Brimsmead, ed., p. 8.
  12. Ibid.



Read Part 3


  1. Christopher Ray on May 7, 2017 at 1:20 am

    Behold I live, yet not I but God who lives in me,

    It is by submission and subjection to Almighty God continually that one is justified. Yet ultimately when we submit ourselves and subject ourselves to God it is no longer us as an individual who lives bit Jesus (God) who lives in us. The “works” are God working not us. Just like there was work Jesus had to do to fulfill the Old Testament there is work Jesus does even to this day to fulfill the New Testament.

    I am Roman Catholic and because of Jesus Christ I am in communion with His Church and I am justified by Christ working through me. Glory be to The Father and to The Son and to the Holy Spirit not me.

    God knocks I open the door the rest is in His hands.

Leave a Comment