What Does the Roman Catholic Church Teach About the Doctrine of Justification?-Part 3

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2002
Many Catholics and Protestants today would have us believe that there are only minor differences between the doctrine of justification as taught by the Reformers and that taught by the Council of Trent and modern Catholics. But that just isn’t so, as the authors point out in this article.

Are the Disagreements over Justification only Minor Differences?

Many Catholics and Protestants today would have us believe that there are really only relatively minor differences between the doctrine of justification as taught by the Reformers and that taught by the Council of Trent and modern Roman Catholics.

A good illustration of the complexity—and differences—between the Catholic and Protestant view of justification is illustrated in the 1964 text by Hans Kung, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. In part, Kung attempts to outline the alleged similarities between Catholic and Reformed theology on the subject of justification. The book cover asks, “If, then, there is so much that is ‘Protestant’ in Catholic teachings, are Catholics really divided in their faith from Evangelical tradition?”

But the Catholic and Protestant views on justification can never be reconciled until one group gives up its own beliefs and adopts the other view. Karl Barth himself in “A Letter to the Author” included in the book makes the following perceptive comments:

Of course, the problem is whether what you have presented here really represents the teaching of your Church. This you will have to take up and fight out with biblical, historical, and dogmatic experts among your coreligionists. I don’t have to assure you that I am keenly interested in discovering what reception your book will find among them…. The negative conclusion of your critique is this…. I have been guilty of a thoroughgoing misunderstanding and, consequently, of a thoroughgoing injustice regarding the teaching of your Church, especially that of the Fathers of Trent…. [Nevertheless] How do you explain the fact that all this [alleged compatibility between Protestantism and Catholicism] could remain hidden so long, and from so many, both outside and inside the Church? And now for my own salvation, may I just whisper a question (a very confidential question, but one not liable to detract from your book in the mind of any serious reader): Did you yourself discover all this before you so carefully read my Church Dogmatics or was it while you were reading it afterward?[1]

In other words, if Rome and the Reformers were really saying pretty much the same thing about justification, why all the papal bulls against the Reformers? Why the Counter-Reformation, Trent, and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)?

If Catholics really do accept justification by faith alone, and thus aren’t teaching salvation by works, how is it that even former “Evangelicals” who have been in Catholicism for 25 years or more freely comment that “9 out of 10 Catholics” don’t understand the basic Catholic doctrine of salvation by grace, let alone the biblical concept? Rather, they believe their good works alone will take them to heaven and accept “a whole other religion” than that found in biblical Christianity.

In essence, the decrees of the Council of Trent on justification remain the standard of Roman Catholic theology—and these decrees have never been modified, altered or rescinded by Rome. This is why Karl Keating maintains that the view of Trent on justification are not only true Catholic doctrine, but that they are true biblical doctrine as well.[2]

Again, we stress that the Roman Catholic Church has never repudiated the official decrees of the Council of Trent; in fact, it continues to uphold them and cite them repeatedly in defense of its teachings as accurate representations of official Catholic doctrine.

The purpose of the Council of Trent (1545-1564) was not only a restatement of Catholic doctrine but principally a reply to the “heresies” of the Reformation begun by the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther. After meditation on Romans 1:16-17, this works-tormented Catholic monk had realized the true nature of biblical justification: “There upon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors to paradise. The whole of Scripture took on new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in great love.”[3]

What kind of theology did Luther respond to? Those who read the sixth session of Trent on justification can see that as a whole its pronouncements were clearly contrary to Scripture.

Trent decreed that whoever does not “faithfully and firmly accept, this Catholic doctrine on justification… cannot be justified…”.[4]

Indeed, an anathema or curse of God is pronounced on all who reject the decrees of the Council.

Thus, in the section “Canons Concerning Justification,” we read e.g.:

Canon 9: If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification… let him be anathema.[5]
Canon 11: If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost and remains in them [i.e., the Catholic view of infused justification], or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.[6]
Canon 12: If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing more than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.[7]

Not surprisingly, Trent also decreed that good works increase our justification. For example:

Canon 24: If anyone says that the justice received [i.e., justification] is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.[8]

The Council closed with:

Canon 33: If anyone says that the Catholic doctrine of justification as set forth by the Holy Council and the present decree, derogates in some respect from the glory of God or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ… let him be anathema.[9]

In other words, what the Catholic church then taught—in opposition to the Protestant Reformation—and continues to teach as official doctrine today, is that God Himself is opposed to all who reject its teaching on justification.

As the standard Lutheran authority on the decrees of Trent, Martin Chemnitz, remarks concerning these decrees:

They deny that the justification of a sinner is solely the remission of sins. And they pronounce many anathemas if anyone says that men are righteous before God through the righteousness of Christ, or that men are justified solely through imputation of the righteousness of Christ…. They affirm that the justification of the ungodly before God to life eternal is not solely the remission of sins but also the sanctification of the inner man.[10]

Chemnitz correctly observes the consistent teaching of the Scripture concerning justification “is condemned with many dreadful curses by the Council of Trent,” [11] and he proceeds to note the semantic and hermeneutical subterfuge characteristically employed by Rome’s theologians: “The craftiness with which the architects of these decrees have disguised the matter itself with a certain show of right, in order that they might not at once be detected by the more inexperienced, is worthy of observation.”[12]


  1. Hans Kung, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), pp. xx-xxi.
  2. Karl Keating in “The Salvation Debate,” March 11, 1989 held at Simon Greenleaf University, Santa Ana, CA (with Dr. Rod Rosenbladt).
  3. R. H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abington, 1965), p. 65, from Geisler, prepublication manuscript.
  4. H. J. Schroeder, (translator), The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978), 7th Session. Canon 1, p. 42.
  5. Ibid., p. 43.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p. 45.
  9. Ibid., p. 46
  10. Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1971), Part 1, pp. 514-55.
  11. Ibid., p. 515.
  12. Ibid., cf. pp. 515-518.



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