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The Roman Catholic Estimate of the Reformers' Doctrine of Justification

Editors's note: We again cite the two representative Roman Catholic books, The Life of Grace and The Theology of Grace, which give the Roman Catholic estimate of the Reformers' doctrine of justification.


The Life of Grace  by P. Gregory Stevens, O.S.B.

Extrinsic1 Justification. This is the well known doctrine of the extrinsic imputation of justice. Luther sees justification as merely an external imputing by God to man of the grace and goodness of Christ. Man, meanwhile, inwardly remains a sinner predisposed to evil. Justification changes the person's relationship to God, in this thought system, but in a purely extrinsic way. There is no real change in man, no genuine liberation from sin, the flesh, and death. Sin and sinfulness remain in man always, but for the justified God no longer imputes sin, only righteousness. Without any real, inner transformation, man remains corrupt and sinful. The merits of Christ, however, seem to cloak and cover this evil in man. The God of wrath becomes the God of mercy who no longer considers man in any way except as covered with the mantle of Christ. Grace then is not a divine life bestowed on man, nor a healing light or transforming power. Grace is simply the gracious regard of the God of mercy.

Luther believed that grace was thus an imputation, something extrinsic to man which allowed him to remain the sinful child of Adam. Confusing concupiscence and the desire of sin with sinfulness, or more properly with original sin, Luther denied the reality of transforming grace. What the Christian had was an absolutely certain and profound religious experience giving certitude of justification. This was the moment of faith for Luther — not a faith in divine truth and teaching, but a complete commitment of oneself to Christ, an abandonment to the divine mercy. This was likewise the moment of justification; it brought man the absolute assurance of salvation and acceptance by God through Christ.

Assurance of Salvation. Luther, who realized so completely the sinfulness of man, sought the assurance of acceptance before God in spite of sin and evil. In the moment of Lutheran justification, that zenith of religious experience in which man abandons himself in confidence and trust to the divine mercy manifest in Christ, this assurance is given. The justified man has experienced the divine mercy. His faith is a confidence in the salvation of God. Justification is not a reality in him but an extrinsic matter, yet man is possessed of a full confidence in salvation. This supreme religious moment, for Luther, is purely individual. There is no question of entering into a relation with God by an entrance into the mystical body, the Church, for Luther will deny the profound and sacramental reality of the Church in the Catholic sense. What is essential is the individual aware of his incapacity for God, accepting the message of Christ, abandoning himself to Jesus in a unique, trusting act which assures him of his salvation.

Freedom. Man's free will is denied its freedom in this outlook, for man is dominated by God (or by sin) in such a way that it is God alone who acts to save him. The impotence of free will is one aspect of Luther's mode of conceiving the total causality of God. In the process of salvation, God alone acts. He induces no internal change in the creature, and never renders man capable of acting in grace. Paradoxically, this assertion of the powerlessness of freedom leads to an exaltation of individualism. Lutheranism comes to be characterized by a building up of the individual at the expense of the Church. It involves a denial of the Church and its role in salvation as understood throughout Catholic tradition. Thus, Lutheran thought denies the power of freedom, and at the same time attributes salvation to the sole and total causality of God. His action replaces or substitutes itself for that of the creature. In the moment of justification by God, an act entirely unrelated to the Church, man receives an absolute assurance of his salvation directly from God. The individual is emancipated completely, in the Lutheran view, from all creatures in the order of salvation. Lutheranism thus appears to be a champion of individual religious liberty. This liberty can only be seen as ultimately unreal, however, if God's creative presence and immanence to man does not really transform him from within and bestow on him healing grace — the power to act freely and well.

A View of Lutheranism

Lutheranism is a religious system at variance with Catholicity on many points. Basically, it challenges the whole range of Catholic understanding of man's relationship with God. The far-reaching consequences of Luther's teaching called forth the pronouncements of the Council of Trent, in which the Church reaffirmed the Catholic teaching on grace and salvation. The position of the Church was centered around several aspects of Christian doctrine: the Lutheran understanding of original sin and its consequences, implying a total corruption of man's nature and the impotence of his will; the conception of grace and justification as merely external actions of God which do not affect man in his depths nor transform him from within; the Lutheran notion of justifying faith as a moment of confiding abandon to Christ, which gives assurance of salvation.

The Council of Trent

Catholic doctrine on these questions, formulated in opposition to Lutheranism, was presented in full at the Council of Trent, as it had been previously by Pope Leo X in the Bull "Exsurge Domine" of June 15, 1520. The teaching of Trent centers on two points of fundamental importance for the understanding of the Catholic doctrine on grace. First of all, justification is a real and profound transformation of man, a genuine gift of sanctification to him. It can in no way be reduced to something purely external. Second, man is not deprived of freedom, but cooperates through grace in justification and the process of salvation. Justification is not solely the action of God, in other words, but a process in which man participates. We may follow the order of the Council in expressing these doctrines.
The reality of the effects of original sin is that "all men had lost innocence in the sin of Adam" (D793; TCT557); this means that all are "born without justice." (D795; TCT55O) That does not, however, connote a total corruption of men, for "their free will, though weakened and unsteady, was by no means destroyed." (Ibid.) Sinful man is estranged from God and unable to attain salvation except through Christ, for it is only in Christ that we "might secure justice and that all might receive the adoption of sons." (D794; TCT558)

We may note the Council's insistence on a genuine securing of justice by man, thus stressing the reality of the divine gift of grace. This redemption by Christ, the only means of salvation for man, comprises a genuine transformation. "So, likewise, they (men) would never have been justified except through rebirth in Christ, for this rebirth bestows on them, through the merit of his passion, the grace by which they are justified." (D795; TCT559) These solemn declarations reaffirm Catholic faith in opposition to Lutheranism, as well as to any revived Pelagian spirit (cf. D8llf; TCT575f.) Man cannot save himself but is saved only in the transforming grace of Christ. A brief definition is then proposed: "Justification is a passing from the state in which man is born a son of the first Adam, to the state of grace and adoption as sons (Rom 8,15) of God through the Second Adam, Jesus Christ our Savior." (D796; TCT56OJ The Council immediately adds that this transformation demands baptism or at least the desire of baptism, thus affirming in the very heart of the work of salvation the basic principle of sacramentality.

Human Cooperation

In direct opposition to the Reformation theology of the sole agency of God, the Council solemnly proclaims the need for the adult to cooperate with grace by his free will. Although man "could not take one step toward justice in God's sight" without grace, he responds to the divine initiative by "freely consenting to it and cooperating with that grace." (D797; TCT561) It is clear, then, that divine action and grace do not destroy man's action or render it unnecessary. The Council solemnly condemns the real inertness of man in Lutheran thought: "If anyone says that the free will of man, moved and awakened by God, in no way cooperates with the awakening call of God by an assent by which man disposes and prepares himself to receive the grace of justification; or says that man cannot dissent, if he wishes, but like an object without life, does nothing at all and is merely passive; let him be anathema." (D814; TCT578; cf. D815f; TCT579f.)

Man is redeemed only in Christ's grace. God's initiative is always asserted, but it is not an initiative which takes away man's response; rather, the reality of God's gracious call and bestowal of grace demands the reality of man's deep, personal, and free cooperation. It is essential to see that Catholic doctrine, unlike the extremes of Pelagianism and Lutheranism, never sets up an either/or understanding of the reality of God's grace and man's cooperation. The very assertion for the Catholic of the primacy of God's mercy and grace is completed by the affirmation of man's cooperation and genuine human activity in the work of salvation.

The necessity and even the psychology of man's cooperation are expressed in a long passage which is a cogent summary of traditional Catholic teaching. God's summons of man to salvation is not man's work, but the free initiative of God; to it man assents, or from it he turns away. For the man who gives his free assent there is a passage from faith — not a mere confidence in the Lutheran sense but an assent to divine revelation — through sorrow and repentance for sin, to hope in God's mercy. On the basis of an initial love and in a spirit of sorrow for evil done, man seeks baptism and desires to begin a "new life" in Christ. (D797f; TCT561f) Clearly the reality of grace demands the reality of man's cooperation. The latter in no way minimizes but properly exalts the love and mercy of God. From his first step to God to the last moment of life, man truly acts in the order of salvation, under grace. This description of coming to justification may be compared with the earlier affirmations, in the same divine tradition, of the councils that opposed Pelagianism. The Council of Trent, after this statement, comes to one of its most celebrated definitions.


In a clear, religiously profound statement the Council defines the inner nature and structure of justification. It does so in direct opposition to the extrinsecist position of Reformation theology. The heart of Catholic teaching is contained in this passage. First of all comes the assertion that "justification is not only the remission of sins, but sanctification and renovation of the interior man through the voluntary reception of grace and the gifts, whereby man becomes just instead of unjust, a friend instead of an enemy, that he may be an heir in the hope of life everlasting." The Council then details the causes of this inner transformation: its goal and purpose is God's glory; it is brought about by God through the merits of our Redeemer, and communicated to man in faith and baptism.

Trent's Idea of Grace

As part of the Lutheran views of salvation, of the corruption of medieval thought, the Council states:

    The unique formal cause is the justice of God, not the justice by which he is himself just, but the justice by which he makes us just, namely, the justice which we hove as a gift from him and by which we are renewed in the spirit of our mind. Not only are we considered just, but we are truly said to be just, and we are just, each one of us receiving within himself his own justice, according as the measure of the Holy Spirit imparts to each one as he wishes, and according to the disposition and cooperation of each. (D7g9; TCT563)
In the solemn words of a condemnation, the Council rejects the notion that this grace is "through the imputation of Christ's justice alone" (D821; TCT585; cf. D82a; TCT584.) Without giving a detailed theological explanation of formal causality, the Council affirms that the inner structure of the justification of man is not something identical with God or Christ, but is a gift bestowed by God in Christ by which man is made just; it is something proper to man transformed in Christ.

The whole Catholic theology of grace as a created reality, distinct from God himself, and bestowed upon man as something personal to him is here stated by the Council. Furthermore, this justice within man inheres within him as a permanent principle: "The charity of God is poured forth by the Holy Spirit into the hearts of those who are justified and inheres in them." (D800; TCT564) Again, in the words of a definitive condemnation: "If anyone says that men are justified . . .excluding grace and charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit and inheres in them. . . let him be anathema." (D821; TCT585) What theology calls "sanctifying grace" is here determined and defined as opposite to the Lutheran teaching of a kind of justification which does not inwardly transform man but remains extrinsic to him. The Church solemnly affirms the inner reality of grace as a principle inhering within each individual who is sanctified by God. It is the very reality of God's action that implies the reality within man which is grace and justice.

Grace and Sin. This justification involves negatively the remission of sins. Positively it means transformation into a new life in Christ. "Whence in the very act of being justified, at the same time that his sins are remitted, a man receives through Jesus Christ, to whom he is joined, the infused gifts of faith, hope and charity." (D800; TCT564) In other words, justification is both a destruction of sin and a union with Christ which effects the communication of a life expressed in the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. This latter point is developed by the Council to contradict the Lutheran position of justification through trustful faith alone: "For faith without hope and charity neither perfectly unites a man with Christ nor makes him a living member of his body." (Ibid.)


Faith is, indeed, the beginning and the continuing foundation of new life in Christ, but it is the faith of the Church and not Luther's absolute confidence in personal salvation. This point is expressly made by the Council, which states that, "no one can know with the certitude of faith admitting no error, that he has obtained God's grace" (D802; TCT566); or again: "If anyone says that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he believes with certainty that he is absolved and justified ... let him be anathema." (D824; TCT588; cf. D823; TCT587.) The Council thus solemnly excludes the Lutheran error of absolute faith in one's personal salvation, thereby rejecting both the individualism of this view and, specifically, the attempt to base justification on the inner subjective certitude of a private religious experience. The Council here does not condemn a reasoned and reasonable estimation of one's personal state of grace but wishes to make two central points. The first is to deny the founding of a hope of salvation on the subjective experience of the individual and his feelings: the self-assertion of Lutheran "interior religion" is condemned. Second, the Council, with Sacred Scripture, centers the Christian's hope and assurance not in man's personal states but in the divine efficacy of Christ's redemption and sacraments: "For no devout man should entertain doubts about God's mercy, Christ's merits, and the power and efficacy of the sacraments." fD802; TCT586) It might be said that in the latter connection the Church is reaffirming the words of St. Paul: "For in hope were we saved" (Rom 8,24), thereby establishing the faith and hope of the Christian in God and Christ, and not in man and his experiences no matter how profound or religious.

Growth In Grace

Further indication of the reality of the inner gift of grace is the declaration of the Council that man may grow in justice. We are therefore to admit degrees of justification which vary according to the gift of God and man's dispositions and cooperation with grace. The justified man can advance "from virtue to virtue, renewed day by day" by good works; "the justified increase in the very justice they have received through the grace of Christ, and are justified the more." (D803; TCT567) Indeed, the good works of the justified man are not mere signs of his religious conversion. Being done in grace, they are themselves the causes of an increase in the degree and reality of man's sanctification. (D834; TCT598) The whole moral life of the Christian is the expression of the inner life of grace. Doing what is good is made possible by the power of grace. Although venial sin cannot be fully avoided, the justified man is capable of pursuing a life of goodness. The power to do so comes from grace. Besides the root power there is the inner drive of the life of grace, which naturally expresses itself in good action. So true is this that the Council affirms: "God 'does not abandon' those who have been justified by his grace, 'unless they abandon him first.' " (D804; TCT568)

From its genesis at the beginning of man's life to its consummation at the end, the work of man's salvation is inseparably the gratuitous gift of God and the free cooperation of man. Having affirmed this of man's preparation for justification, of the moment of justification itself, and of the whole life of the justified man, the Council also affirms this truth with regard to man's perseverance to the last moment of life. "If anyone says that without God's special help it is possible for a justified man to persevere in the justice he has received, or says that with God's special help it is impossible, let him be anathema." (D832; TCT596; cf. D806; TCT57O.) The consummation of man's life in the act of death — the final and decisive moment of earthly existence — is an act of salvation and justice in virtue of the grace of God. In a sense, the whole life of grace prepares for this crucial moment. In it the justified man turns to God to consecrate his life to him by dying in Christ. This moment is one of cooperation with the divine liberality. It is at the same time a moment of man's cooperation with divine love. .


Man had been set free from God by Pelagianism to work out his own salvation on his own strength, independently of any genuine and healing internal grace. The heresy denied essential teaching on the reality of original sin and its effects, and considered sinful man as capable of all goodness necessary for salvation; it was, in brief, a naturalistic denial of the need for grace. It rested on a false conception of man and his freedom, as if he were emancipated from God. The role of God and his grace in the order of salvation was minimized. Justification, good works, and merit were seen as the results of man's sole agency. Man, basically, was the agent in human salvation. The agency or causality of God and grace was denied.

From this point of view, Lutheranism represents the opposite extreme. The reality of original sin and its effects were maximized; man's nature and capacity for action in the order of salvation were denied or considered impotent. This radical incapacity of man was made up for by the sole agency of God, who is active in the process of justification without causing in man the reality of healing and elevating grace. This was a supernaturalism which was derogatory both to the reality of God's action and to human causality and freedom. God's action by grace is appreciated fully only when we profess, with the Council of Trent, that his grace is so real and so genuinely efficacious that it is able to transform sinful man into justified man through remission from sin and the bestowal of an interior gift.

The Council of Trent likewise denied the epistemological dimension of the Lutheran affirmation of God's agency; that is to say, Luther's understanding of God's action in justification was such as to reverberate in human consciousness by an absolute inner certitude of personal salvation. Denying the basis for this view of God's action, the Council likewise denied its translation into the sphere of conscious knowledge: that is, its epistemological dimension. The certitude and hope of the Christian are to rest in Gad and in the power of his works. By thus relating grace and justification to the works and sacraments of the Church, the Council denied the isolated individualism of Lutheran salvation, and reaffirmed salvation's sacramental and ecclesial character. Grace comes to man through Christ in the Church, that is in the power of the Spirit and in the sacraments of faith. Grace makes man therefore a living member of Christ in his mystical body.

The agency of either man or God as the sole one in man's salvation, i.e., the either or position of the extremes of Pelagianism and Lutheranism is thus denied by the Church. Catholic doctrine assents to the reality and to the absolute primacy and sovereignty of God's grace. In that very assertion it simultaneously affirms the reality of man's free cooperation, made possible by the totally gratuitous gift of healing and elevating grace — pp.54-61, 64, 65.


The Theology of Grace
by Jean Daujat

Luther and Calvin saw clearly, as against the Pelagians, that of ourselves we are incapable of any good, any merit: that left to our own strength we are irremediably sinners — fundamental truths expressed by the Church in her Lenten liturgy. But the two so-called reformers asserted these truths only to fall into another and equally serious heresy. They claimed that grace is only a forgiveness and a juridical title to salvation, granted to man though he remains a sinner; so that it does not transform us or render us really good and holy. In connection with sanctifying grace, we explained this erroneous teaching, but we must return to it in connection with actual grace for if the Catholic faith teaches that without grace we cannot merit and perform works that are supernaturally good, at the same time it teaches that grace does enable us to merit and to carry out such works. We really and truly merit, but our merits are the result of the grace in us, and are therefore given us by God. Therefore in the Preface of All Saints (used in some places) the Church prays: "O God, who in crowning their merits dost crown thy own gifts." Grace is not something external to us but something within us, causing us to act supernaturally or divinely. All the texts from Holy Scripture, from tradition and the Magisterium of the Church which have been already cited emphasize that it is grace alone that makes us act aright, and that it really and truly makes us act that way. As our Lord says: "I have chosen you and appointed you (or rendered you such) that you should go and bring forth fruit", St. Paul tells us that God chose us in Christ from the beginning of the world, that we might be holy and spotless in his sight, whilst in his treatise on Nature and Grace, St. Augustine writes that God heals us not only to blot out our sins, but also to enable us to sin no more.

The heresies of Luther and Calvin were explicitly condemned by the Council of Trent in passages already quoted, and of which we repeat the principal: "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and interior renovation of the man who is willing to accept God's grace and gifts; so that from being unjust or evil he may become just." "God justifies us and thus, having received this justice from him, we are spiritually and inwardly renewed and consequently are not merely considered and treated as just, but really deserve to be called so, and are truly just." The same Council condemned as heretical the teaching that: "Men are justified either simply by having the justice of Christ imputed to the m, or by the remission of their sins, but without grace and love being infused into their souls by the Holy Spirit." Finally, the condemnation of Baius defined that man, "being renewed by the Holy Spirit, is able in consequence to live a good life" . . .
To put it another way: this gift of God is the gift of an interior sanctity, that really sanctifies man in his inmost being, and not the gift of accomplishing an exterior work, which would not change the man inwardly. We repeat, therefore, that sanctifying grace is infinitely more than a miracle, a prophecy or a vision.

It is important to be clear about this matter in order to avoid the heresies of Luther and Calvin and a certain number of others following their lead, which have denied the presence in us of a quality bestowed by Gad that really makes us holy. Either they reduce grace to a juridical title, an attribution of something, like the designation of a man who is making a will; or else it is considered merely as the performance of external works, such as the keeping of a set of rules and commandments. The Council of Trent declared heretical the statement that: "Men are justified either by the imputation of the justice of Christ alone, or through the remission of sins alone, without that grace and charity which is infused in their souls by the Holy Spirit and inheres in them"; and against this heresy it says explicitly:

Justification is not only the remission of sins but also the sanctification and interior renovation of the man, who willingly accepts grace and the gifts of God, in such wise that an unjust or evil man becomes just, and passes from the enmity to the friendship of God, to become an heir in hope of eternal life. Here are the causes of this justification: its final cause that is, its object, is the glory of God and of Christ, and for us life eternal; its efficient cause is God's mercy, which freely cleanses and sanctifies2 us by filling us with the promised Holy Spirit, by whom we inherit eternal life3; its meritorious cause is the only-begotten and beloved Son of the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, who when we were yet sinners, at enmity with God4 merited for us the justice, or the friendship of God, and made atonement for us in the sight of the Father through his passion on the cross, by reason of the "exceeding charity" wherewith he loved us. The instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith without which no man can be justified. Finally, the unique, formal cause of this justification is divine justice, not inasmuch as God himself is just but in that he renders us just and so, receiving from him this justice, we are immediately spiritually renewed, and consequently are not only considered and treated as just, but truly merit to be called so and to be really so.

1 "extrinsic": in the context of the theology of grace, this is a view of God's action which does not see that God really acts with in man, his action remains outside of or extrinsic to him. Nothing happens within man, he is not actually changed, in this view of his justification. God merely considers man justified without acting in him. Catholic theology would hold that in justification God enters into man and changes him from within by communicating the new life of grace.
2 1Cor 5. 11.
3 Eph. 1. 13.
4 Rom. 5.10.