The Roman Catholic Teaching on Grace And Merit

Ludwig Ott

The God–Man Jesus Christ, by His vicarious atonement and His merit in the Redemption, achieved the reconciliation of humanity with God in principle and objectively. The Objective Redemption must be accepted by each man so that thereby he may bring to fruition in himself the subjective Redemption. The act of the application of the fruits of the Redemption to the individual man is called Justification…or Sanctification…The fruit of the Redemption is called grace…In the working-out of man’s Subjective Redemption, God supports man, not merely by an inner principle, grace, but also by an outward principle, the efficacy of the Church in its doctrine, its guidance of men and its work of dispensing the grace of Christ through the Sacraments.

Habitual grace is a constant supernatural quality of the soul which sanctifies man intrinsically and makes him just and pleasing to God. According to the teaching of the Council of Trent, ‘no one can be just to whom the merits of Christ’s Passion have not been communicated.’…It is a fundamental doctrine of St. Paul that salvation can be acquired only by the grace merited by Christ.

As God’s grace is the presupposition and foundation of (supernatural) good works, by which man merits eternal life, so salutary works are, at the same time gifts of God and meritorious acts of man…By his good works the justified man really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God…A just man merits for himself through each good work an increase in sanctifying grace, eternal life (if he dies in a state of grace) and an increase of heavenly glory (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1974), Book Four, Part I, p.219; 3.5, p. 222; Book III, Part 2, Chapter 2.III.11.3, p. 190; Book IV, Section 2, Chapter 3.23.2, 3.25.1, pp. 264, 267).

The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism

1074. What is habitual or sanctifying grace?

Habitual or sanctifying grace is a supernatural quality that dwells in the human soul, by which a person shares in the divine nature, becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit, a friend of God, his adopted child, an heir to the glory of heaven, and able to perform actions meriting eternal life(John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism(Garden City: Image, 1981).

The Council Of Trent

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 XXXII. If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified…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 above statements leave no room for doubt as to the oficial position of the Church of Rome on the issue of works and merit. Man’s works are necessary as an addendum to the work of Christ for maintaining a state of justification before God and for meriting eternal life. Such teaching is clearly antithetical to the biblical meaning of grace and justification and is a distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While the Roman Catholic Church teaches that in the initial expersince of justification at baptism there are no works of the individual involved (what is termed initial justification), this is not true in the ongoing experience of the person. This is because justification is not a finished work in Roman Catholic theology but an ongoing process equated with the works of sanctification. Therefore Rome teaches that works are necessary for salvation and are meritorius for the attaining of eternal life. In the Introduction, mention was made of the misrepresentation of Roman Catholic teaching in the ECT documents to make the Church of Rome appear virtually evangelical in its teaching. Those comments bear repeating here. In the ECT 2 document, the signers make the following statements regarding justification:

Justification is central to the scriptural account of salvation, and its meaning has been much debated between Protestants and Catholics. We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift, conferred through the Father’s sheer graciousness, out of love that He bears us in His Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification. Jesus was ‘put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Rom 4:25). In justification, God, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer his rebellious enemies but his forgiven friends, and by virtue of his declaration it is so.

Such a statement is a complete contradiction to the official teaching of Rome on justification. Rome would agree with this statement with respect to initial justification but certainly not for an understanding of its overall concept. Rome has officially condemned the statement as it stands in the ECT 2 document. But the signers of the document would lead us to believe that Roman Catholicism agrees withthis statement. It does not. Its position has been clearly defined in its councils and catechisms. To state that justification is based solely on the righteousness of Christ is a misrepresentation of the teaching of Rome. The Evangelical Church affirms this statement in the sense that it is Christ’s righteousness alone imputed to the individual which justifies him eternally before God and which eliminates the necessity for any works whatsoever for the attaining of justification. The Church of Rome has officially condemned this teaching. While it teaches that Christ’s righteousness alone merited the grace which is imparted to a believing sinner, it is not the righteousness of Christ himslef alone, imputed to the believer, that justifies but the works of the individual in cooperation with that grace. The signers of the ECT Documents are misleading people by carefully avoiding a full disclosure of what the Roman Catholic Church actaully means by the terms it uses.