The Doctrine of Justification: The Roman Catholic Position Analyzed in Light of Protestant Theology (Part 3 of 5: The Protestant Position)

The Protestant understanding of the doctrine of justification is undoubtedly very different from that of the Roman Catholic Church. Does this difference matter? Should those during the Reformation have made such a large deal about it? Should Protestants and Catholics today just forget about it all and be friends? Or, should we adopt the mindset of the Reformers and stand for the one true Gospel against any opposing and false gospel? This post stands as the third entry into this series in which I am attempting to articulate and defend the Protestant doctrine of justification over and against the one presented by the Roman Catholic Church.

In the first entry, I introduced the matter as a whole and explained what is at stake, giving some context to the issue (see this post here). Last time, I sought to define and articulate the Roman Catholic teaching on justification—righteousness infused through the sacraments (read it here). In this post, my goal is to define the doctrine of justification as is held my post Protestants—imputed righteousness. Generally speaking, the Protestant doctrine can be defined as follows: “Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which He thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and declares us to be righteous in His sight.”[1] There are a number of elements inherent to this definition that must be discussed.

The first aspect of this doctrine, according to Protestants, concerns the idea that justification is a legal declaration done by God. The verb di,kaiow has a range of meanings; however, a very common sense is “to declare righteous.” This is the case in Luke 7:29 when tax collectors “justified God.” Of course, the tax collectors did not make God righteous, since no man can do that. Instead, they declared God to be righteous. This sense of the verb is used in numerous verses throughout Scripture when it speaks about God declaring Christians to be righteous (Rom 3:20, 26, 28; 5:1; 8:30; 10:4, 10; Gal 2:16; 3:24). This use of the verb is seen clearly in Romans 4:5 which says, “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteous.”

Here, it is clear that God declares the ungodly to be righteous in response to their faith, not according to their good works. The idea is that men are guilty of their sins, but God makes a legal declaration that the sinner is righteous in His sight.[2] J.I. Packer makes this clear when he speaks of justification as “God’s gracious work of bestowing upon guilty sinners a justified justification, acquitting them in the court of heaven without prejudice to his justice as their Judge.”[3] John Stott is, likewise, helpful when he says, “When God justifies sinners, He is not declaring bad people to be good, or saying that they are not sinners after all; He is pronouncing them legally righteous, free from any liability to the broken law, because He Himself in His Son has borne the penalty of their law-breaking.”[4] Some Protestant theologians have called justification forensic, since there is a sense in which this declaration of righteousness has to do with “legal proceedings.”[5]

Another feature in the Protestant view of justification is that God declares man to be just in His sight. This point involves two sub-points. First, this means that the sinner no longer has a penalty to pay for his sin, including past, present, and future sins. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1).” On a similar note, Paul asks, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? (Rom 8:33, 34). This kind of justification clearly forgives sin (Rom 4:6-8; Ps 103:12). However, forgiveness of sin is not enough to earn God’s favor. The second part of this aspect of justification, therefore, demands that the individual move from a point of moral neutrality with God to a state of actual righteousness in His sight. The individual needs the righteousness of God, and it can only be received “through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:22).”

This, however, does not address the question of how God can justly declare the unrighteous man righteous. This dilemma is presented clearly in Proverbs 17:15, which says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.”

God justly declares the unrighteous to be righteous because He imputes the righteousness of Christ to the individual who places his faith in Christ alone. The righteousness won by Jesus through His life and death on the cross is credited to the individual; it is upon this basis by that God can justly justify a sinner. When Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to the unrighteous man, God looks at him and sees Christ’s righteousness. The righteousness of Christ has been given to, and belongs to, the Christian (Rom 5:17).[6] This meritorious work of Christ is the “ground and cause” of the Christian’s justification by which Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to his account. This imputation is in accordance with God’s action throughout the economy of humanity. Adam, as the representative of all mankind, sinned, and thus, imputed sin to all of his descendents; all men were, thus, considered sinners. Christ, on the cross, stood as man’s representative, as man’s sins were imputed to Him, and He was murdered and treated as though He had personally sinned. Likewise, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to those who trust in Him, and they are treated as though they are personally righteous. In each of these imputations, the transfer does not make one personally what he is representatively. The imputed sin of Adam does not make men personally sinners; the corrupted nature is a natural consequence of that sin and a penalty of it. The imputation of man’s sin to Christ does not make Him personally a sinner; instead, He was and is the holy and righteous one. In the same way, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness does not make the Christian personally and intrinsically righteous. Rather, man is counted as righteous solely on the basis of Christ’s representative righteousness.[7]

The next element of the Protestant doctrine of justification suggests that justification is given to man wholly by the grace of God and is not in any way owing to merit. Scripture speaks to this issue with clarity. First, it is quite clear that God does not justify a sinner on the basis of the individual’s character or worth. In fact, no man is worthy, and his character is flawed. The psalmist wrote, “No one living is righteous before you (Ps 143:2; cf. Rom 3:10).” Still, “All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one (Ps 14:30).” Secondly, no man can merit favor with God on the basis of his personal accomplishments or social standing. Paul had reasons to boast in his flesh; he was of the tribe of Benjamin and “a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil 3:4, 5).”

His impressive credentials were, in the end, worthless as the basis for acceptance with God. Thirdly, God does not justify on the basis of works of the law. Paul explains that only perfect compliance to the requirements of the law could warrant the crediting of righteousness (Rom 2:13). No man can keep the law in its entirety (Rom 10:5), and so, no man can be justified on the basis his works. In fact, all who rely on observing the law are under a curse (Gal 3:10). Instead of sinners being justified by keeping the law, Paul affirmed that men are justified due to Christ’s satisfaction of God’s moral law. In short, the Biblical ground of justification is “thoroughly Christological rather than anthropological.”[8] Again, while all men “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift (Rom 3:23, 24).” Because man is helpless, and unable to keep the law, he is completely unable to earn favor with God. If man is to be reconciled to God, then God must provide salvation to man through His grace. Paul explains this clearly: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast (Eph 2:8, 9).” Grace is, therefore, put in utter contrast to works or merit as the basis by which man is justified.[9]

Finally, the Protestant doctrine of justification teaches that God justifies man through faith in Christ alone. Faith precedes justification; this is made clear when Paul says, “We have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified (Gal 2:16).” Also, Christ is “to be received by faith,” and God “justifies him who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:25, 26).” Again, Paul says, “We are justified by faith (Rom 5:1).” Faith is not considered to be an activity that earns man merit or favor with God; rather, men are saved through the means of faith because of the merits of Christ’s work (Rom 5:17-19).

The reason God chose to demand faith to be the means by which men are saved has to do with the fact that faith is “the one attitude of heart that is the exact opposite of depending on ourselves.”[10] Paul explains this when he says, “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants (Rom 4:16).” It is on this point that Martin Luther and the Reformers were adamant in their insistence that men are saved through faith alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast (Eph 2:8, 9).” John Stott explains this point well: “Unless human works, merits, cooperation and contributions are ruthlessly excluded, and Christ’s sin-bearing death in its solitary glory as the only ground of our justification, boasting cannot be excluded.”[11] Therefore, human works, merits, cooperation and contributions must be excluded if one is to be justified. This same scheme is repeated throughout the New Testament (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:16; 3:11; 5:4).

In the next two posts, I intend to offer a critique of the Roman Catholic position and then respond to some of its common objections. For now, I hope you are beginning to grasp the overall difference that exists between these two positions. Moreover, I hope you are coming to the realization that these two positions stand in complete opposition to one another.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1994), 723.

[2] Ibid., 723.

[3] J.I. Packer, “Justification: The Biblical Basis and Its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism,” in The Great Acquittal, ed. Gavin Reid (London: Collins, 1980), 16.

[4] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 187.

[5] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 724.

[6] Ibid., 726.

[7] James Petigru Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2006), 399-400.

[8] Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997), 368-69.

[9] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 729.

[10] Ibid., 730.

[11] Stott, The Cross of Christ, 188.

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