Justification is sometimes viewed as the theological fault line between Catholicism and Protestantism.  In Lutheran and Reformed doctrine, righteousness is imputed to the inherently ungodly, by grace, through faith and that “faith alone suffices for justification, and that consequently the observance of the moral law is not necessary.”  Righteousness is credited to the sinner’s account through faith alone, apart from works. Luther saw God as a judge who makes a legal declaration about our righteousness, but who does not heal and transform us in any way, nor call us to a life of deepening holiness. For Luther, the original sin of our first parents injured human nature so badly that we are “totally depraved,” and incapable of doing any good at all and so our personal choices do not affect our salvation one way or another.  If Calvin and Luther were right, then the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is reduced to simply a desired ideal that we are incapable of obtaining. Rather, Jesus taught that our personal choices do impact our eternal salvation by proclaiming that the gate that leads to life is “narrow” and the road “hard” (Matt. 7:13-14), and that every one of his disciples must pick up their cross and carry it (Matt. 10:37-39, 16:24-26).

For Catholics, then, the doctrine of justification is not as simple as having a succinct formula such as “by grace alone through faith alone.”  This does not mean that the question of how we are justified cannot be answered, but it is considered a more complex question that can be answered in different ways.  It would be similar to asking the question “how can one have a good marriage?”  There are many ways one could answer this question and all could be correct.  For instance, a Catholic may answer that “we are saved by God’s grace alone” and would be correct considering that God’s grace is the sole agent which brings about our salvation.  Salvation is impossible for man alone and was brought about by the redeeming work of Christ and therefore it is solely by God’s grace alone that we are saved.  However, this cannot be to the exclusion of faith because it is through faith in Christ that God’s redeeming grace works in us.  A Catholic may then answer that “we are saved by faith alone” and would be correct considering that faith holds a certain primacy in its causal effect as it is through our faith in Christ that God’s grace is allowed to grow and strengthen us and enable us to perform good works.  However, this cannot be to the exclusion of good works for if one does not act on that faith, then that faith is dead (James 2:24) and as Christ Himself said “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father” (Matt 7:21).  A Catholic may also answer that “it is through baptism that we are saved” and this would be in accordance with Scripture; “this water prefigured baptism, which now saves you,” (1 Peter 3:21).  These various interchangeable ways of answering the question reflects Scripture, which also gives various answers.  For example; “repent and be baptized..” (Acts 2:38) “he who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matt 10:22) we are “justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Rom 3:28) and “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)

Catholics and Protestants agree that God’s grace is fundamental and indispensable to our eternal salvation as Christians. And that initial justification—i.e., when we first come into relationship with Jesus Christ—is a completely unwarranted divine gift.  Even our first inclination towards God is a result of God’s grace calling us (John 6:44, 6:65).  However, Catholics, Orthodox, and Methodists distinguish between initial justification and final justification.  Our initial justification is the grace that God first extends to us without any action or faith of our own prompting, but is rather wholly unwarranted.  However, it is how we respond to that grace that determines our ongoing justification.  For example, a father may give his son money to put into the collection basket.  The son then has a choice of what to do with that money; put it in the basket or try to keep it.  If he decides to put it in the basket, then the father may reward his obedience with some kind of praise.  The son did nothing to earn the money in the first place; it was credited to him by the father for a purpose.  Because the son fulfilled that purpose with obedience, the father then praised him.  Through our initial justification -that moment God calls us to follow him- God gives us the grace to have faith and trust in Him, but God also obligates us to abide in him (John 14:15) and grow progressively in holiness (see Matt. 5:43-48). We must act on that faith, otherwise it is just lip service.  This progressive growth after initial justification is known as ongoing justification or sanctification. In ongoing justification or sanctification, we continue to grow in holiness by acting upon the faith given us through grace by performing works of love and charity.  This is not “works righteousness” or “salvation by works” as the Church’s teaching is sometimes caricatured. The belief that works alone can save was propagated in the 400’s by the heretic Pelagius, which the Catholic Church expressly condemned.  The Church teaches that works apart from grace cannot contribute to our salvation because even our good works only have “merit” because they are rooted in and aided by Christ’s love (CCC 2006–16). St. Augustine, an ardent opponent of Pelagius, taught that “God created us without us. But he did not will to save us without us.”

Thus, in Catholic doctrine, one is saved by Christ’s grace alone, which is poured out into one’s soul at baptism and transforms the soul from the state of sin and enmity with God to that of grace and divine sonship, whereby the Holy Spirit infuses the gifts of faith, hope and charity into the soul. One must persevere in that state of grace, full of faith, hope and love, and act upon it by showing love and charity to others throughout one’s life.  It is only in consistently responding to God’s grace that we are capable of acting upon our faith.  It is through an act of faith that we receive the sacraments, which in turn provide grace in order to aid us in growing in holiness.  It is only in holiness that we are even capable of entering heaven (Revelation 21:27).  Our final salvation is thus the result of a lifetime of God’s grace transforming us and aiding us in becoming perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect and thus enabling us to obtain eternal life.  For more, see Sanctification and Purgatory.

The Historical Development of the Doctrine:

Bible Verses:

2 Corinthians 7:1

“purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit and strive for perfect holiness out of fear of God.”

Hebrews 12:14

“strive for that sanctity without which no one will see the Lord”

1 Thess. 4:3-7

“It is God’s will that you should be holy; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you”

Phil. 2:12

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work”

Church Father Quotes:

Clement of Rome

“And we, therefore…are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning.” –First Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 32:4

“We should clothe ourselves with concord, being humble, self-controlled, far removed from all gossiping and slandering, and justified by our deeds, not by words.” –First Letter to the Corinthians 30:3

“It was obedience which led [Abraham] to quit his country, his kindred, and his father’s house, so that, by leaving a paltry country, a mean kindred, and an insignificant house, he might inherit God’s promises.” – First Letter to the Corinthians ch. 10:2

“Because of [Abraham’s] faith and hospitality a son was granted to him in his old age.” -First Letter to the Corinthians ch. 10:7

“We must, then, be eager to do good; for everything comes from Him. For he warns us: ‘See, the Lord is coming. He is bringing his reward with him, to pay each one according to his work.’” –First Letter to the Corinthians ch. 34:2,3

Ignatius of Antioch (AD 35-107)

“Let your baptism be ever your shield, your faith a helmet, your charity a spear, your patience a panoply. Let your works be deposits, so that you may receive the sum that is due you” –Letter to St. Polycarp, 6

Therefore, let us not be ungrateful for His kindness. For if He were to reward us according to our works, we would cease to be.” –Epistle to the Magnesians, Ch. 5

“Those who profess to be Christ’s will be recognized by their actions. For what matters is not a momentary act of professing, but being persistently motivated by faith.” –The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians, ch. 14:2

Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69-156)

“knowing that ‘you are saved by grace, not because of works’ (Eph. 2:5,9,9), namely, by the will of God through Jesus Christ” –Letter to the Philippians ch. 1:3

Justin Martyr (AD 100-165)

“Those who are found not living as he taught should know that they are not really Christians, even if his teachings are on their lips, for he said that not those who merely profess but those who also do the works will be saved (cf. Matt. 13:42, 43; 7:15,16,19).”  –The First Apology of Justin, ch.16

“Each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions.” –The First Apology of Justin, ch. 7

“The matters of our religion lie in works, not in words.” –Hortatory Address to the Greeks, ch. 35

Athenagoras (2nd Century AD)

But since we are persuaded that we must give an account of all our life here to God who made us and the world, we adopt a temperate, generous, despised way of life. For we think that, even if we lose our lives, we shall suffer here no evil to be compared with the reward we shall receive from the great Judge for a gentle, generous, and modest life.” A Plea Regarding Christians by Athenagoras, ch.12

Irenaeus (AD 130-200)

“But to the righteous and holy, and those who have kept his commandments and have remained in his love…he will by his grace give life incorrupt, and will clothe them with eternal glory.” –Against Heresies ch.10:1

No one, indeed while placed out of reach of our Lord’s benefits, has power to procure for himself the means of salvation. So the more we receive His grace, the more we should love Him.” –Against Heresies, Bk. IV, ch. XIII

Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215)

We have discovered faith to be the first movement towards salvation. After faith, fear, hope, and repentance (accompanied by temperance and patience) lead us to love and knowledge.”  –The Stromata, Bk. II, ch. VI

Theophilus (approx. AD 180)

“To those who by patient continuance in well-doing seek immortality, He will give eternal life everlasting life.” –Theophilus to Autolycus, Bk. I, ch. XIII

For man drew death upon himself by disobeying. So, by obeying the will of God, he who wants to can procure for himself life everlasting.”  –Bk. II, ch. XXVII

Origin (AD 184-254)

“It is those who not only believe, but also enter upon the life that Jesus taught.” –Against Celcus, Bk. III, ch. XXVIII

Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258)

“How can a man say that he believes in Christ, if he does not do what Christ commanded him to do? From where will he attain the reward of faith, if he will not keep the faith of the commandment? … He will make no advancement in his walk toward salvation, for he does not keep the truth of the way of salvation.” –The Treatises of Cyprian, Treatise I, ch. II

Lactantius (AD 240-320)

“Labors that are endured and overcome all the way up until death, cannot fail to obtain a reward….And this reward can be nothing else but immortality.” –The Divine Institutes, Bk. III, ch. XII

“The spirit must earn immortality by the works of righteousness.” –Bk. IV, ch. XXV

Basil the Great (AD 329-379)

“He who would obey the gospel must first be purged of all defilement of the flesh and the spirit that so he may be acceptable to God in the good works of holiness.” –The Morals, 2, 1

“Mere renouncement of sin is not sufficient for the salvation of penitents, but fruits worthy of penance are also required of them.” –The Morals, 1, 3

Ambrose of Milan (AD 340-397)

God chose that man should seek salvation by faith rather than by works, lest anyone should glory in his deeds and thereby incur sin.” –In Ps. 43 Enarr. 14

John Chrysostom (AD 347-407)

“And why did [God] choose us? ‘That we should be holy and blameless before him.’ So that you may not suppose, when you hear that he chose us, that faith alone is sufficient, he goes on to refer to manner of life. This, he says, is the reason and the purpose of his choice—that we should be holy and blameless… Being holy is a matter of sharing in faith; being blameless is a matter of living an irreproachable life.” –Homilies on Ephesians, 1, 1-2

St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)

“Without love faith can indeed exist, but can be of no avail”  –De Trin. XV 18, 32

“How speedily are the prayers of people who do good works heard! For it is precisely in fasting, alms, deeds and prayer that our righteousness in this life consists.” –In Ps. 42 Enarr. I, 8

“We do the works, but God works in us the doing of the works.” –De Dono Perseverentiae, 13, 33

Non-Catholic Quotes:

Alistair McGrath, Protestant Scholar 

“The first centuries of the western theological tradition appear to be characterized by a ‘works-righteousness’ approach to justification . . . The Protestant understanding of the nature of justification thus represents a theological novum.” –Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 34,215