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The Soteriology of the Council of Trent
W. G. T. Shedd

The Tridentine theory makes inward holiness in conjunction with the merits of Christ the ground of justification. It founds human salvation upon two corner-stones. The doctors of Trent construct their exact and formal definition of justification out of that one element of error which, we have seen, somewhat vitiated the soteriology of Augustine. The unintentional confounding of the distinction between justification and sanctification, which appears occasionally in the Patristic writers, becomes a deliberate and emphatic identification, in the scheme of the Papal Church.

The Anselmic and Protestant soteriologies mean by the term "justification," that divine act, instantaneous and complete, by which sin is pardoned. If we distinguish the entire work of redemption into two parts, a negative and a positive, justification in the Pauline and in the Reformed signification would include the former and would include nothing more. Justification is the negative acquittal from condemnation, and not in the least the positive infusion of righteousness, or production of holiness. This positive element, the Reformers were careful to teach, invariably accompanies the negative; but they were equally careful to teach that it is not identical with it. The forgiveness of sin is distinct and different from the sanctification of the heart. It is an antecedent which is always followed, indeed, by its consequent; but this does not render the consequent a substitute for the antecedent, or one and the same thing with it.1

But the Council of Trent resolved justification into sanctification, and in the place of a gratuitous justification and remission of sins through the expiation of the Redeemer, substituted the most subtle form of the doctrine of justification by works that has yet appeared, or that can appear. For the doctors of Trent do not teach, in their canonical statements, that man is justified and accepted at the bar of justice by his external acts of obedience to the moral or the ecclesiastical law. This is, indeed, the doctrine that prevails in the common practice of the Papal Church, but it is not the form in which it appears in the Tridentine canons. According to these, man is justified by an inward and spiritual act which is denominated (editors: called) the act of faith; by a truly divine and holy habit or principle infused by the gracious working of the Holy Spirit.

The ground of the sinner's justification (ed.: according to Trent) is thus a divine and gracious one. God works in the sinful soul to will and to do, and by making it inherently just, justifies it. And all this is accomplished through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ; so that, in justification there is a combination of the objective work of Christ with the subjective character of the believer. This statement is the more subtle, because it distinctly refers the infused grace or holiness to God as the author, and thereby seems to preclude the notion of self-righteousness. But it is fundamentally erroneous, because this infused righteousness, or holiness of heart, upon which remission of sins rests in part, is not piaculor (propitiatory). It has in it nothing of the nature of a satisfaction to justice.2 So far forth, therefore, as infused grace in the heart is made a ground and procuring cause of the pardon of sin, the judicial aspects and relations of sin are overlooked, and man is received into the Divine favor without any true and proper expiation of his guilt. The Papal theory of justification, consequently, stands upon the same level in the last analysis with the Socinian, or with any theory that denies the necessity of a satisfaction of justice.3

The following extracts from the Canones of the Council of Trent enunciate the Roman Catholic soteriology.

"Justification is not the mere remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renovation of the inward man through the voluntary reception of grace and gifts of grace; whereby an unjust man becomes just, the enemy a friend, so that he may be an heir according to the hope of eternal life ... The only formal cause of justification is the justice (justitia) of God, not that by which he himself is just, but that by which he makes us just, — that namely by which we are gratuitously renewed by him in the spirit of our minds, and are not only reputed, but really are and are denominated just, receiving justice into ourselves each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Spirit imparts to each as He pleases, and, also, according to each one's own disposition and cooperation . . .

When the Apostle asserts that man is justified by faith and gratuitously, his language is to be understood in that sense which the constant agreement of the Catholic Church has affixed to it; in such a manner, namely, as that we are said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification (i.e. of all virtue), without which it is impossible to please God (Heb. xi. 6). And we are said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace itself of justification."4

These citations from the Canons of the Council of Trent are sufficient to show that the theologians there assembled regarded justification as a renewing and sanctifying act on the part of God, and not a declarative one. It is not that Divine act whereby sin is pardoned, but whereby sin is purged.

But that the doctrine of gratuitous remission of sin upon the sole ground of Christ's satisfaction was thrown out of the Tridentine theory of justification, is yet more apparent from the anathematizing clauses which were added to explain and guard the so-called catholic faith:

"If any one shall say that the sinner is justified by faith alone, in the sense that nothing else is required which may cooperate towards the attainment of the grace of justification, and that the sinner does not need to be prepared and disposed (for the reception of the grace of justification), by the motion of his own will: let him be accursed . . If any one shall say, that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ, or by the sole remission of sin, to the exclusion of that grace and charity which is shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, and which inheres in them, or shall say that the grace whereby we are justified is merely and only the favor of God: let him be accursed. If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing but confidence in the divine mercy remitting sin on account of Christ, or that this faith is the sole thing by which we are justified: let him be accursed."5

It will be perceived from these extracts, that the Tridentine theologian regarded "justification" as prospective and not retrospective, in its essential nature. It is not the forgiveness of "sins that are past," but the cure and prevention of sins that are present and future. The element of guilt is lost sight of, and the piacular (propitiatory) work of Christ is lost sight of with it; and the whole work of redemption is interpreted to be merely a method of purification. Thus the Tridentine theory implies, logically, that sin is not guilt, but only disease and pollution. Furthermore, according to the Papal theory, justification is not instantaneous but successive. It is not a single and complete act upon the part of God, but a gradual process in the soul of man. For it is founded upon that inward holiness or love which has been infused by divine grace. But this advances from one degree to another, never being perfect in this life, and never standing still. The consciousness of being justified before God, even if it could rest upon such an imperfect foundation at all, must fluctuate with all the changes in the internal experience. And as matter of fact, the Council of Trent declares that a man cannot be certain of being justified, and condemns those who affirm such certainty in the following terms: "Although it is necessary to believe that no sin is, or ever has been, remitted except gratuitously by the Divine mercy on account of Christ, yet no one who affirms with confidence and certainty (jactat) that his sins are remitted, and who rests in this confidence alone, is to be assured of remission." According to the Papal soteriology, the assurance of the remission of sins, and of acceptance at the bar of God, must rest upon the degree of holiness that has been infused, and not simply and solely upon Christ's oblation for sin. Hence it cannot in this life attain to certainty, because the inward holiness never in this life attains to perfection. Justification is not instantaneous and complete, but gradual and incomplete, because the infused righteousness out of which it issues is imperfect. This is distinctly taught in the tenth chapter of the "decree" concerning Justification.

"Therefore being thus justified, and made friends of God and members of his household, and going from strength to strength, they are renewed, as the Apostle teaches, day by day: that is to say, by mortifying their fleshly members, and yielding them as instruments of righteousness unto sanctification, through the observance of the commands of God and the church, their righteousness itself being accepted through the grace of Christ, and their faith cooperating with their good works, they grow (in holiness), and are justified more and more. This increase of justification (justitiae), the Holy Church seeks when she prays: 'Give unto us, O Lord, increase of faith, hope, and charity.' "

By these positions of the Council of Trent, the effect of justification is substituted for the cause. That inward holiness which succeeds (follows) the forgiveness of sins is made to take the place of the atoning death and the imputed righteousness of the Redeemer. The ground of justification is thus a personal and subjective one. It is, consequently, imperfect and incomplete, and must be supplemented by greater measures of holiness and attainments in piety, and also by the external penances and good works required by the Church.

"If any one shall assert," says the 24th Canon concerning Justification, "that the righteousness received (in justification) is not preserved and also increased before God by good works; but that good works are only the fruit and signs of a justification already attained, and not the cause of an increase of justification: let him be accursed."

1 The Westminster Confession thus states the distinction between justification and sanctification, "Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification, his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued; the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection." Larger Catechism, Q. 77.)
2 Then what is the fault of the church of Rome? Not that she requireth works at their hands which will be saved; but that she attributeth unto works a power of satisfying God for sin." Hooker; On Justification, Works 11.538.
3 In this respect, Romanism and Rationalism are two extremes that meet, See the views of Sartorius on "the affinity of Romanism and Rationalism," in Bibliotheca Sacra, Jan. 1851.
4 Canones Concilli Tridentini; De Justificatione, vii. viii.
5 Canones Concilli Tridentini: De Justificatione, ix. xi xii.