What Does the Roman Catholic Church Teach About the Doctrine of Justification?-Part 4

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2002
The authors suggest that the Council of Trent established one of the most subtle forms of justification by works ever devised. It is so subtle, in fact, that Catholics encourage Protestants to read the decrees of Trent to “prove” that Catholicism does not teach salvation by works.

The information we have seen so far leads us to the conclusion that the Council of Trent establishes one of the most subtle forms of justification by works ever devised. This subtlety may explain why some Catholics actively encourage Protestants to read the decrees of Trent—to “prove” that Catholicism does not teach a form of salvation by works. But if Catholics think that Trent teaches what the Reformation taught on justification, they aren’t reading very carefully. We do indeed think that every Protestant should read these decrees carefully and then determine whether or not the gospel of grace has been rejected.

In fact, because Roman Catholic teaching denies that justification is the past and completed declaration of God the Judge by which He pronounces a sinner righteous, it thoroughly undermines a believer’s certainty of salvation. If “to justify” means to make a person righteous, a person is left to his own subjective condition as the basis of his acceptance before God. This explains why Catholic justification fluctuates in the life of a believer. It is not a completed act of God. Rather, it is based on the grace-empowered works of sinful people for its maintenance. Thus, it can hardly provide any sense of security of salvation.

Since the Catholic Church teaches that justification can be lost by mortal sin, a person can only know he retains his justification if he is certain he has not committed mortal sin. But in Catholic teaching, such knowledge is problematic. Mortal sin is not always clearly defined[1] and so certain knowledge of having committed such a sin is not possible. Here is what Keating says:

Mortal sin is much more prevalent than we suspect,… For a sin to be mortal three requirements must be met. First, it must involve a serious matter. Second, there must be sufficient reflection on its seriousness. And third, there must be full consent in the committing of it. What is a serious matter? Many sins listed in the Ten Commandments or contrary to Scripture or the moral teachings of the Church could qualify: murder, envy, abortion, artificial birth control, thievery, adultery, sodomy, fornication—to list only some of the serious sins….”[2]

But to die in a state of mortal sin is to go straight to hell:

What is the difference between mortal and venial sins? Mortal sins are the sins of great offense that can send the soul directly to hell. If you die in a state of unconfessed mortal sin, according to Roman Catholic theology, you go immediately to hell, since you have not confessed that sin, received absolution, or said an act of contrition prior to your death…. According to the Roman Catholic doctrine, you must assume that one has passed from spiritual death to life and back again to death if one commits a mortal sin. Even if you admit (as Catholics will not) that you can be “saved” right now, they maintain that should you commit sin, you could be lost; that is, if you died in a state of mortal sin.[3]

This is why Roman Catholicism teaches that it is not possible for a person’s faith to give confidence that one’s sins are forgiven. “As far as the content of justifying faith is concerned, the so-called fiducial faith [the faith, as personal trust in Christ, that gives confidence once sins are forgiven] does not suffice.”[4]

In essence, all this is why Catholic theological texts continue to cite Trent as authoritative and continue to reject the biblical teaching on justification by faith alone. Therefore, to say agreement now exists between Lutherans or Evangelicals on the one hand and Catholics on the other is premature, to say the least. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma asserts, “It would be incompatible with the veracity and the sanctity of God that he should declare the sinner to be justified, if he remains in reality sinful.”[5] But again, this is the very essence of what the Bible teaches: it is the sinner himself (the one who remains sinful—1 John 1:8-10)—who is declared righteous (Romans 5:6-11).

Perhaps nothing reveals the strong emphasis upon works salvation in the Catholicconcept of justification more clearly than an examination of the order of salvation itself:

  1. Baptism and Regeneration—In Roman Catholicism, the first step in salvation is baptism which forgives original sin and produces regeneration. Baptism makes it possible for a person to cooperate with God’s saving grace which is why it is considered essential to salvation. It does not automatically save, but it makes salvation possible because of regeneration. This enables a person to have faith which he may then exercise in good works. In effect, he begins the process of justification.
  2. Justification—After becoming truly righteous, the person is declared righteous or “justified” by God as long as he does not forsake his justification through mortal sin. In other words, Catholic theology teaches that there are many people who are spiritually reborn who are not justified.
  3. The Sacraments—However, because justification can be lost through the commission of mortal sin, the sacrament of penance is instituted by which a person may regain justification. (Again, mortal sins are so evil that they are believed to destroy the sanctifying grace that is present in the soul of the individual Catholic. In essence, they destroy salvation and require penance so that one may be “rejustified.”) It is almost as if the person is regenerated a second time, but it is perhaps more accurate to say this involves a second justification.[6]

Thus, it is not incorrect to say that justification is a lifelong process that occurs primarily by means of the individual Catholic participating in the sacraments and performance of good works:

Infused into the very essence of the soul, sanctifying grace is a certain supernatural quality granted by God, without which we are not sanctified or assured justification and salvation…. Sanctifying grace is lost through mortal sin; it is increased through good acts done for and through God, and particularly through the reception of the sacraments.[7]

Thus, in addition to penance, other sacraments help retain justification/salvation in the life of the believer—and these clearly constitute works of individual merit.

What all this means is that in the end, salvation is a function of God’s grace, individual faith and works, and the Roman Catholic system of sacraments. This is why the Church has traditionally taught that there is only one true Church—Rome—and that those outside of the Church cannot be saved.

In conclusion, the Roman Catholic Church has always taught and continues to teach that the biblical doctrine of justification is false. Although it maintains that it defends the biblical teaching on justification, a study of biblical teaching itself refutes this assertion.

Of course, this is not to say that Protestantism has no problems at this point. Liberal Protestantism also rejects the forensic nature of justification by faith. And even some Evangelicals are no longer such staunch supporters of this teaching.

One of the great modern popular defenders of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is theologian James I. Packer. In such works as God’s Words, The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, and Evangelical Affirmations he has consistently upheld biblical teaching. In the latter book, Packer discusses the importance of the doctrine of justification, noting that even Evangelicals have recently been amiss in defending this cardinal truth.

Conservative Evangelicalism has in recent years tended to stop short at proclaiming present forgiveness of sins and a personal relationship with Jesus, as modern Roman Catholicism also does, and to neglect the larger implications about the believer’s relationship with God that the doctrine of justification carries. Recently the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission was given the topic of justification by faith to explore; they… came up with a report… in which the key issues of the Reformation debate, namely the formal cause of justification and the content of Christian assurance, were ignored entirely; and few noticed the omission.[8]

Packer proceeds to note that current theological speculation over universalism by some Evangelicals would virtually destroy the doctrine of justification by faith as the Reformers understood it and thus, “I make no apology for arguing polemically against them.”[9]

We agree. No apology whatever should be made for arguing against those who undermine the biblical teaching on justification.



  1. Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, revised and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), p. 402.
  2. Karl Keating, What Catholics Really Believe—Setting the Record Straight (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1992), pp. 66-67.
  3. Walter Martin, The Roman Catholic Church in History (Livingston, NJ: Christian Research Institute, Inc., 1960), pp. 64-65.
  4. Ibid., p. 253.
  5. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), p. 251.
  6. R. C. Sproul, “The Sacraments of Rome,” trans. of tape, nd., npp., pp. 2, 9-10.
  7. Broderick, ed., pp. 541.
  8. J. I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation” in Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry, Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids, MI: Academic Books, 1990), pp. 126- 127.
  9. Ibid., p. 127.



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