Justification and the Sacraments


The Roman Catholic Church teaches that justification is a cooperative work between God and man. It explicitly condemns the truth of the imputed righteousness of Christ himself as the basis for justification. But scripture teaches that man is justified by the righteousness of God (Rom. 3-5; 10:1-4; Phil 3:8-10). This righteousness is specifically described as being the righteousness of Christ himself in his perfect life and work of atonement (Rom. 5:9, 16-19). It further teaches that just as man’s sin was imputed to Christ so his righteousness (the righteousness of God) is imputed as a gift to those who come to Christ in faith (Rom. 4:1-6) which secures an eternal justification for that individual. Scripture teaches therefore that justification is not based upon any works of man but solely upon the work and merit of Christ (Rom. 3:28; 4:1-6; Eph. 2:8-9; Gal. 2:16; Tit. 3:5-6). The Church of Rome, however, teaches that justification is the result of grace infused in the soul of man which enables an individual to do works of righteousness which then become the basis of one’s justification. The biblical phrase, the righteousness of God, is interpreted by Rome to mean, not the righteousness of Christ himself, but what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the rectitude of Divine love (Paragraph 1992). The righteousness of God is love infused into the soul of man with faith by which a man lives a life pleasing to God which then justifies him before God. In Roman Catholic theology, what Christ merited on the cross was not a full and complete salvation but grace which is given as a gift by which a person cooperates with God to achieve and merit justification by personal works. Justification is not a declaration of righteousness based upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ but a declaration of the believer’s righteousness before the judgment seat of God based on an infusion of grace in a believer’s life. This means that justification is not grounded exclusively in the work of Christ but also in the works and merits of the individual. The Reformation and biblical teaching of grace alone, by Christ alone, by faith alone is explicitly condemned by the Church of Rome and it states that apart from the repudiation of the Reformation gospel and adherence to its teachings on justification and salvation that one does not possess saving faith or justification. These thoughts are clearly expressed by Roman Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott and the Council of Trent in the following statements:

Ludwig Ott

According to the teaching of the Council of Trent, sanctifying grace is the sole formal cause of justification…This means that the infusion of sanctifying grace effects the eradication of sin as well as inner sanctification. With this the Council rejects the doctrine of double justice which was expounded by some Reformers (Calvin, Martin Butzer), and also by individual Catholic theologians (Girolamo Seripando, Gasparo Contrarini, Albert Pighius, Johannes Gropper), which taught that the forgiveness of sins was accomplished by the imputed justice of Christ, positive sanctification, however, by a righteousness inhering in the soul.

According to the teaching of the Council of Trent, faith is ‘the beginning of human salvation, the basis and the root of all justice…As far as the content of justifying faith is concerned, the so–called fiducial faith does not suffice. What is demanded is theological or dogmatic faith…which consists in the firm acceptance of the Divine truths of Revelation, on the authority of God Revealing…According to the testimony of Holy Writ, faith and indeed dogmatic faith, is the indispensable prerequisite for the achieving of eternal salvation.

When St. Paul teaches that we are saved by faith without the works of the Law (Rom. 3:28)…he understands by faith, living faith, active through love (Gal. 5:6); by works of the law he means the works of the law of the Old Testament, for example, circumcision; by justification, the inner purification and sanctification of the non-Christian sinner by the acceptance of the Christian Faith. When St. James, in apparent contradiction to this, teaches that we are justified by works, not merely by faith (James 2:24)…he understands by faith, dead faith (James 2:17; Mt. 7:21); by works, the good works proceeding from Christian Faith; by justification, the declaration of the righteousness of the Christian before the judgment seat of God.

The Council of Trent teaches that for the justified eternal life is both a gift or grace promised by God and a reward for his works and merits (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1974), Book Four, Section 2, Chapter I.17, p. 251; Chapter I.18.2-3, p.252-254; Chapter 3.2, p. 264).

The Council of Trent

Chapter IV: By which words a description of the Justification of the impious is indicated—as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour. And this translation, since the promulgation of the the Gospel, can not be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written: unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he can not enter into the Kingdom of God.

Chapter V: The Synod furthermore declares, that, in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from his vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through his quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly inactive while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in his sight.

Chapter VI: Now they (adults) are disposed unto the said justice, when, excited and assisted by divine grace, conceiving faith by hearing, they are freely moved towards God, believing those things to be true which God has revealed and promised—and this especially, that God justifies the impious by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; and when, understanding themselves to be sinners, they, by turning themselves, from the fear of divine justice whereby they are profitably agitated, to consider the mercy of God, are raised unto hope, confiding that God will be propitious to them for Christ’s sake; and they begin to love him as the fountain of all justice; and are therefore moved against sins by a certain hatred and detestation, to wit, by that penitence which must be performed before baptism: lastly, when they purpose to receive baptism, to begin a new life, and to keep the commandments of God. Concerning this disposition it is written: He that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and is a rewarder to them that seek him; and, Be of good faith, son, thy sins are forgiven thee; and, The fear of the Lord driveth out sin; and, Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost; and, Going, therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; finally, Prepare your hearts unto the Lord.

Chapter VII: This disposition, or preparation, is followed by Justification itself, which is not the remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, so that he may be an heir according to the hope of life everlasting. Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is his most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by his most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby he himself is just, but that whereby he maketh us just, that, to wit, with which we, being endowed by him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to everyone as he wills, and according to each one’s proper disposition and co-operation. For, although no one can be just, but he to whom the merits of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet is this done in the said justification of the impious, when by the merit of that same most holy Passion, the charity of God is poured forth by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those that are justified, and is inherent therein: whence, man, through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives, in the said justification, together with the remission of sins, all these (gifts) infused at once, faith, hope, and charity.

For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of his body. For which reason it is most truly said, that faith without works is dead and profitless; and, In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by charity. This faith, Catechumens beg of the Church—agreeably to a tradition of the apostles—previously to the sacrament of Baptism; when they beg for the faith which bestows life everlasting, which, without hope and charity, faith can not bestow: whence also do they immediately hear that word of Christ: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. Wherefore, when receiving true and Christian justice, they are bidden, immediately on being born again, to preserve it pure and spotless, as the first robe given them through Jesus Christ in lieu of that which Adam, by his disobedience, lost for himself and for us, that so they may bear it before the judgment-seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, and may have life eternal.

Chapter X: Having, therefore, been thus justified, and made the friends and domestics of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the apostle says, day by day; that is, by mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified, as it is written: He that is just, let him be justified still; and again, Be not afraid to be justified even to death; and also, Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. And this increase of justification holy Church begs, when she prays, ‘Give unto us, O Lord, increase of faith, hope, and charity.

Chapter XIV: As regards those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace of Justification, they may be again justified, when, God exciting them, through the sacrament of Penance they shall have attained to the recovery, by the merit of Christ, of the grace lost: for this manner of Justification is of the fallen the reparation: which the holy Fathers have aptly called a second plank after the shipwreck of grace lost. For, on behalf of those who fall into sins after baptism, Christ Jesus instituted the sacrament of Penance, when he said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. Whence it is to be taught, that the penitence of a Christian, after his fall, is very different from that at (his) baptism; and that therein are included not obnly a cessation from sins, and a detestation thereof, or, a contrite and humble heart, but also the sacramental confession of the said sins, – at least in desire, and to made in its season, – and sacerdotal absolution; and likewise satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers, and the other pious exercises of the spiritual life; not indeed for the eternal punishment—which is, together with the guilt, remitted, either by the sacrament, or by desire of the sacrament—but for the temporal punishment, which, as the sacred writings teach, is not always wholly remitted, as is done in baptism, to those who, ungrateful to the grace of God which they have received, have grieved the Holy Spirit, and have not feared to violate the temple of God. Concerning which penitence is written: Be mindful whence thou art fallen; do penance, and do the first works. And again: The sorrow that is according to God worketh penance steadfast unto salvation. And again: Do penance, and bring forth fruits worthy of penance.

Chapter XV: In opposition also to the subtle wits of certain men, who, by pleasing speeches and good words, seduce the hearts of the innocent, it is to be maintained, that the received grace of Justification is lost, not only by infidelity whereby even faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin whatever, though faith be not lost; thus defending the doctrine of the divine law, which excludes from the kingdom of God not only the unbelieving, but the faithful also (who are) fornicators, adulterers, effiminate, liers with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, railers, extortioners, and all others who commit deadly sins; from which, with the help of divine grace, they can refrain, and on account of which they are separated from the grace of Christ.

Chapter XVI: And, for this cause, life eternal is to be proposed to those working well unto the end, and hoping in God through Jesus Christ, and as a reward which is according to the promise of God himself, to be faithfully rendered to their good works and merits. For this is that crown of justice which the apostle declared was, after his fight and course, laid up for him, to be rendered to him by the just Judge, and not only to him, but alas to all that love his coming. For, whereas Jesus Christ himself continually infuses his virtue into the said justified—as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches—and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works, which without it could not in any wise be pleasing and meritorious before God—we must believe that nothing further is wanting to the justified, to prevent their being accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained also in its (due) time, if so be, however, that they depart in grace: seeing that Christ, our Saviour, saith: If any one shall drink of the water that I will give him, he shall not thirst forever; but it shall become in him a fountain of water springing up unto life everlasting.

After this Catholic doctrine on justification, which whosoever does not faithfully and firmly accept cannot be justified, it seemed good to the holy council to add these canons, that all may know not only what they must hold and follow, but what to avoid and shun:

Canon I: If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ: let him be anathema.

Canon III: If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspirtaion of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him: let him be anathema.

Canon VII. If any one saith, that all works done before Justification, in whatsoever way they be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God; that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more greviously he sins, let him be anathema.

Canon IX. If any one saith that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to 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.

Canon X. If any one saith, that men are just without the justice of Christ, whereby he merited for us to be justified; or that it is by that justice itself that they are formally just: let him be anathema.

Canon XI. If any one saith, 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 is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified is only the favor of God: let him be anathema.

Canon XXIV. If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema.

Canon XXVI. If anyone saith that the just ought not for the good works done in God, to expect and hope for an eternal reward from God through His mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ, if by doing well and keeping the commandments they persevere to the end, let him be anathema.

Canon XXIX. If any one saith, that he who has fallen after baptism is not able by the grace of God to rise again; or, that he is able indeed to recover the justice which he has lost, but by faith alone without the sacrament of Penance, contrary to what the holy Roman and universal Church—instructed by Christ and his Apostles—has hitherto professed, observed, and taught: let him be anathema.

Canon XXX. If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance into the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him): let him be anathema

Canon XXXI. If anyone says that the one justified sins when he performs good works with a view to an eternal reward, let him be anathema.

Canon XXXII. If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life— if so be, however, that he depart in grace,—and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1919 ed.), Decree on Justification, Chapters V, VI, VII, X, XIV, XV, XVI).

The Sacraments And Justification:

For the completion of the salutary doctrine on Justification…it hath seemed suitable to treat of the most holy Sacraments of the Church, through which all true justice either begins, or being begun is increased, or being lost is repaired. With this view, in order to destroy the errors and to extirpate the heresies which have appeared in these our days on the subject of the said most holy sacraments, as well as those which have been revived from the heresies of old by our Fathers, as also those newly invented, and which are exceedingly prejudicial to the purity of the Catholic Church and to the salvation of souls, the sacred and holy, ecumenical and general Synod of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein, adhering to the doctrine of the holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consent of other councils and of the Fathers, has thought it fit that these present canons be established and decreed…

Canon I. If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by Jesus Christ, our Lord; or, that there are more, or less, than seven, to wit, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order and Matrimony; or even that any of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament, let him be anathema.

Canon IV. If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain from God, through faith alone, the grace of justification, though all [the sacraments] are not indeed necessary for each individual, let him be anathema.

Canon VI. If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify; or, that they do not confer that grace on those who do not place an obstacles thereunto; as though they were merely outward signs of grace or justice received through faith, and certain marks of the Christian profession, whereby believers are distinguished amongst men from unbelievers, let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1919 ed.), Seventh Session, Decree on the Sacraments, Foreword, pp. 118-119).

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. ‘Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.’

Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Christ. Righteousness (or ‘justice’) here means the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us…Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy (Cathechism of the Catholic Church (New Hope: Urbi et Orbi, 1994), Paragraphs 1989, 1991-1992, p. 482).