Roman Catholic or Protestant?
As someone who comes from a family who was predominantly involved in the Roman Catholic Church, I do not believe that I ever fully understood the doctrine of justification as taught by the Catholic Church and clarified in the council of Trent. But now searching deeper to understand more formally why the Reformers espoused a different view (that I now hold to) compared to the Roman Catholic view. I find the Roman Catholic view is not necessarily a blasphemous heretical stance, rather it seems like both sides are defining their terms differently and talking past one another; therefore to be able to properly address the issues at hand I will attempt to break down the view piece by piece as I explain why I disagree with the Roman Catholic view of justification or at least the way they are defining their terms.
While steps forward to find common ground on the doctrine of justification have been taken with the Joint Declaration Of Justification, we still have a long way to go before we can truly put what is keeping the Protestants and Roman Catholics divided on the topic of how we are justified to God and what it means to be justified to God.
According to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of justification is “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’ and through Baptism… ‘Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.’”.
While these words may seem mostly good and fine this remains one of the main key differences that divide the Roman Catholic faith from most orthodox Protestant churches. Based on the way justification is defined in Roman Catholic theology, it shows that while we are saved by faith in the passion work of Jesus Christ, by this faith and act of baptism we are fully cleansed from sin and thereby also in a state of perfect sanctification (or pure holiness). The reason that I believe the terms of justification and sanctification should not be conflated, is that if one’s sins are fully washed away so that the person appears white as snow before God than that person is truly justified before the Lord. But if we are going to espouse that this justification fully sanctifies a person than what are we to do when we fall short? When we sin? In the Roman Catholic perspective based on the sins, you’ve committed then you have lost your place in the state of grace and must then perform works of indulgences and penance to return to this state. In other words, if these two doctrinal categories of justification and sanctification are conflated, then all of humanity is utterly lost if one must be sanctified before they can be truly justified before the eyes of God. If this is true then the good news of the Roman Catholic gospel is not one of security, but of continual angst to be sure that you are continuing to work enough to be truly holy thereby allowing you to be in a constant state of grace. This is the logical conclusion if the Roman Catholic view of justification is the truth and the implications thereof.
The Bible seems to explicitly show a distinction between the doctrines of justification and sanctification though. Here are a few verses on the topic of justification that show exactly what the doctrine of justification should entail and how it is to be understood. This topic of justification is not the complete purification of man, but rather the remission of sins and being placed in right standing before God, not by our own righteousness, but the righteousness of Jesus Christ who lived a life of perfect holiness and obedience to God and the death that the rest of mankind deserves as sinners. This is not the process of sanctification, but the first step on the path of sanctification.
“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:23-26 (ESV)
“But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Romans 4:23-25 (ESV)
“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” Romans 5:15-16 (ESV)
Sanctification on the other hand can be also shown in the verses of Scripture, to help us see how different these doctrines are. That while being related and linked, they still need to be distinct in the way that they are understood. Sanctification is a growing in holiness after one is justified or as Paul says often “slaves of righteousness”. This is not synonymous with the way God sees men as sinless once they place true faith in Jesus Christ, as justification states. Sanctification is the process following after initial faith because now we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who continues to conform us more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. This is done through conviction of sin (since no one lives sinlessly even post-conversion) and the continual building of godly character and fruit of the Spirit. The verses below will help illustrate my point.
“I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification… But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” Romans 6:19,22 (ESV)
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7 (ESV)
I will stress this point because I do not want to be misunderstood, I do not believe that justification is synonymous entirely with what salvation entails. What I mean by that is, those who place their faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation will be justified before God’s eyes, the fruit of that justification will then result in a continual growing in holiness, character, good works, and becoming more like Christ, and ultimately those who have true faith will be glorified with the Son and receive eternal life. These are all interconnected in Christian soteriology, and yet remain distinct in that neither one of them is the other, yet all of it is salvation through Jesus Christ, to God the Father, and by the Holy Spirit. If you think about it the doctrine of salvation is heavily influenced and founded in the concept of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
All this to say that the Roman Catholic view of justification is founded on a misunderstanding of what being justified entails and the operation of God within the act of justifying sinners through faith in the Son. They say for God to retain his character of justice, that the sinner must be made truly righteous. Otherwise, God is calling evil people innocent with no grounds to do so. I say that justification must be forensic, judicial, and declarative so that the righteousness of Jesus Christ and his innocent blood shed for humanity is what covers and washes the sin of those who place their faith in them. At that moment have they been made perfectly holy? I would say “No” because we still continue to sin; this does not disqualify us from salvation, but it shows our own human weakness and our ultimate need for God in all things. In the truest sense of the word holy and to be worthy of justification with the Roman Catholic logic the person must be truly perfect in sanctification so as to prevent them from sinning, just as God’s sinlessness is a result of his perfect holiness. So then, sanctification is a process after being justified rather than being fully justified because we are made fully and perfectly holy.