Catholics & Justification by Faith Alone: Any Common Ground?

Catholics & Justification by Faith Alone: Any Common Ground? October 12, 2015

Is There a Sense in Which Catholics Can Accept “Faith Alone” and/or  Imputed Justification (with Proper Biblical Qualifications)?


Conversion of St. Paul (1767) by  Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié (1735-1784) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

The following is an excerpt from my book, Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” — Chapter One.

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Many Protestants (and Catholics) are unaware that the Council of Trent does not absolutely rule out all notions whatever of justification by faith alone or even of imputation of God’s righteousness. It condemns only extreme versions of these notions. For example:

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 co-operate in order to the 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.

We observe, then, that Canon 9 anathematized not faith alone (in the sense of initial justification) per se, but a minimalist, absolute position on faith alone that excludes further necessary cooperation, or “outworking” of the same faith. The term “faith alone” is carefully qualified and defined, but it is not itself rejected (the key phrase being “in such wise as to mean”).

Another way of looking at this is to say that Canon 9 doesn’t absolutely forbid imputed justification, either, as an aspect of justification, but rather, only the notion that justification consists solely of imputation. The next canon makes it clear that there is indeed a proper sense of imputed justification or “extrinsic” or “declarative” or “external” righteousness:

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.

Again, what is asserted is the denial of a minimalist view. The first clause espouses initial imputed, external justification (“the justice of Christ, whereby He merited for us”). But the second clause condemns the legalistic extreme of making this alone the cause of justification, as if there is no cooperation required (assuming the person proceeds on with his life after initial justification). Imputation is present (and indeed necessary) but not sufficient unto salvation, in and of itself. The next canon reiterates:

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 favour of God; let him be anathema.

We are initially justified by “the justice of Christ” and “grace,” but we are not justified by a “sole imputation.” Imputation is, thus, a truth of Catholic soteriology, but it is not the “whole ball of wax” of salvation. In this sense, and this one alone, Catholics deny imputed justification and justification by faith alone. Canons 1-3, in their condemnation of Pelagianism and salvation by works, assert essentially the same notion from a different vantage-point: the initial grace and justification comes from God, and God alone.

Moreover, it is made clear elsewhere in this section of Tridentine decrees, that justification by faith is also a Catholic concept, and that even justification by faith alone is properly applied to the stage of initial justification:

Chapter VIII. (In what manner it is to be understood, that the impious is justified by faith, and gratuitously).

And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.

Even the cause of the human faith, that brings about justification, is God’s grace: so that there is not the slightest hint or trace of Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism (yet Catholics, for some reason, are falsely accused of these heresies to this day). Chapter 5 concurs (“the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ” / “disposed through His quickening and assisting grace” / “God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost”).

Initial imputation and justification by faith alone in the first stages of justification are reiterated elsewhere in the same section:

Chapter VII. (What the justification of the impious is, and what are the causes thereof.)

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 . . .

. . . 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 alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just . . .

. . . 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 . . .

Chapter X.
 (On the increase of Justification received.)

Having, therefore, been thus justified, and made the friends and domestics of God, . . . 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, . . .


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