Catholics and Justification?

How do Catholics perceive justification differently from Protestants? What about Prevenient Grace?

The Catholic Church teaches that individuals are justified by faith plus good works. They teach that justification is "infused" or a process which can be divided into three stages: (1) an initial justification at conversion; (2) progressive justification (justification plus sanctification); and (3) a final justification at the last day.

However, the Bible teaches that justification is "imputed" (in a moment of time) as opposed to being infused (a process). It is not based upon man's work, but on Christ's, and only his. Individuals are justified by faith apart from works (Rom 3:20-28; 4:1-5; 9:30-32; Gal 2:16; 3:1-14). Once one believes with true faith, they necessarily do good works as a result (Eph 2:8-10; Jas 2:14, 17). In other words, good works follow true justification.

The Roman Catholic Council of Trent and its decree on justification anathematized (condemned) this biblical view.

Let's look very briefly at four issues: (1) Is justification by works? (2) Is justification a process? (3) Justification at Trent, and (4) What is prevenient grace?

Is Justification by Works?

The Bible teaches that man is aboslutely not justified by faith plus works. Martin Luther himself struggled with this truth. The particular passage that gave him problems was Romans 1:17: "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'" What the Holy Spirit taught Luther here enabled him to move from viewing righteousness as active, or as something he had to achieve, to viewing it as passive, or something Christ already achieved on his behalf. Thus, on the truth of sola fide (faith alone) the Reformation was born.

Luther was right, we are justified by faith alone. The apostle Paul taught, "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Rom 3:28). And he goes further: "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Rom 5:4). This is the gospel once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).

The Catholic Church objected to Luther's faith. Quoting James 2:24,"You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone," they thought it disagreed with justification by faith alone. But is James really disagreeing with Paul? Certainly not! All James is saying is that if a person says he has faith but has no evidence of the same through righteous works, then his faith is not genuine and it will not justify him. Paul agrees when he writes that we are saved unto a faith that works(Eph 2:10), not by it. Genuine salvation is entirely of God (Eph 2:8; John 3:1-8), but it ultimately results in a life of good works; a justified person is given an active faith (Gal 5:6). As Charles Spurgeon once said, "We have been clear upon the fact that good works are not the cause of salvation; let us be equally clear upon the truth that they are the necessary fruit of it" (All Round Ministry, Banner of Truth).

James gives us a couple of examples of active faith: Abraham (Jas 2:21-24) and Rahab (Jas 2:25):

(1) The Example of Abraham

Abraham was not justified by his being willing to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:1-19). Hebrews 11:8-10 states:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

By faith Abraham left his homeland and went to the Promised Land, and he was already justified prior to this. Abraham even had the gospel preached to him and he believed (cf. Gal 3:8) prior to those famous words in Genesis 15:6, saying, "And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness." This is evidenced by:

- The Hebrew verbal form (waw perfect) of "believed" in Genesis 15:6. This strongly asserts that Abraham's had an on going belief in the Lord; he kept on believing. This is further confirmed by the use of the aorist tense (a single past tense action) in the LXX.

- His life showing a continual pattern of faith: (a) he left his homeland (Gen 12:1; Acts 7:2), (b) built an altar (Gen 12:8), (c) God's promise (Gen 13:14-18), (d) defeat of the four kings (Gen 14:1-16), and (e) blessed by Melchizedek (Gen 14:17-24).

- Hebrews reveals that Abraham already had saving faith in Hebrews 11:8-10; "By faith . . . By faith . . . "

(2) The Example of Rahab

Rahab was a redeemed prostitute (Josh. 2, 7). She hid the Hebrew spies (Heb 11:31). However she hid the spies, because of her previous faith (Josh 2:9-11).

In these examples faith, not works, is the prerequisite to acceptance by God (Gal 3:6-14). The entire chapter of Hebrews 11 demonstrates what previous faith did: (1) "By faith, Abel offered a better sacrifice . . ." (Heb 11:4), (2) "By faith Noah . . . constructed an ark . . ." (Heb 11:7), (3) "By faith Moses . . . chose to be mistreated with the people of God . . ." (Heb 11:24-25), (4) "By faith the people crossed the Red Sea . . ." (Heb 11:29), and (5) "By faith the walls of Jericho fell down . . ." (Heb 11:30), etc. Resting in the Savior's finished work (Heb 4:9-10; 12:1-2; Gen 2:1-3; 3:15; cf. Psa. 95) enabled the Hall of Heroes to demonstrate an active faith!

Like Paul, James believed in an active faith. However, they both also believed in being justified by faith alone (Eph 2:8; Jas 1:18). Though James 2 emphasizes the ongoing evidence of salvation by works, James 1:18 agrees with the other authors of Scripture that salvation is by grace through faith alone (1 Pet 1:23; cf. John 1:13; 6:44, 65; Eph 2:8-10; 1 Pet 1:3, etc.).

Faith is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith. (Martin Luther as cited by Roland Bainton, in Here I Stand).

Is Justification a Process?

Justification is not a process like progressive sanctification. Rather, when one comes to faith in Christ, it is a complete and finished act of God's grace alone. It is a legal or forensic declaration. When a person comes to faith in Christ, God pardons the believer of all his sins (past, present, and future) and accepts the now believing sinner as righteous in his sight. God makes this legal declaration the moment a sinner puts his trust in Christ (Rom 3:21-26; 5:16; 2 Cor 5:21). As such, justification happens in a moment of time and is a one-time, finished act of God alone.

While good works are evidence of genuine justification, a person is not saved by these ongoing works. God justifies the believer solely on the basis of the passive and active obedience of his Son alone<. This includes Christ's perfect obedience and sacrifice for sin; that is, Christ's lifelong passive obedience (his penalty-bearing work) and his lifelong active obedience (his will of God-obeying work) culminate in Calvary. Christ's perfect and complete righteousness is the only ground on which God declares a sinner righteous (Rom 5:18-19; Gal 3:13; Eph 1:7; Phil 2:8). Thus a person is not justified by their own works. They are justified only on the basis of Christ's perfect work on their behalf. This righteousness is imputed (moment of time), not infused (a process) to the believer.

Think of this as a justification accounting ledger that contains debits and credits. There is an exchange when (1) God takes all the sinner's debits (sin/unrighteousness) and places them on Christ's ledger (2 Cor 5:21). And (2) God takes all Christ's credits (righteousness) and places them on the believer's account (1 Cor 1:30).

So, a Great Exchange takes place (Heb 2:3)! Believers are justified through faith. However, faith adds nothing to what Christ has done for a sinner in justification. Faith is merely an empty hand receiving the righteousness of Christ offered in the gospel (Rom 4:4-5; Phil 3:9).

Faith is chosen by God to be the receiver of salvation, because it does not pretend to create salvation, nor to help in it, but it is content humbly to receive it. Faith is the tongue that begs pardon, the hand which receives it, and the eye which sees it; but it is not the price which buys it. Faith never makes herself her own plea, she rests all her argument upon the blood of Christ. She becomes a good servant to bring the riches of the Lord Jesus to the soul, because she acknowledges whence she drew them, and owns that grace alone entrusted her with them. (C.H. Spurgeon, "All of Grace")

On the other hand, progressive sanctification is a grace that comes after justification in the order of salvation, or ordo salutis (see "What is the Ordo Salutis" below), and sanctification is distinct from justification. Progressive sanctification is an ongoing work in all saints' lives, not a one-time finished work of God. While justification is the work of God alone (monergistic), a saint cooperates with God in sanctification (synergistic). The Holy Spirit is the continuous agent of sanctification (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; 17:17, etc.). He works within the saint to subdue sinful impulses and produce fruits of righteousness (Rom 8:13; 2 Cor 3:17-18; Gal 5:22). As such, sanctification is God's continual renewing and transforming of a saint's whole being. It is important to note, while the two graces of justification and sanctification are related, they must be distinguished from one another.

What was Trent's Justification doctrine?

As can be seen above, the Catholic Church's doctrine of justification is incorrect. Their view is opposed by Scripture. However, in an attempt to counter the beliefs of the Reformers such as Luther, the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent (1544-1563). There canons and the damnation (anathemas) contained in them were produced and have never been repealed, and the topic of justification was only one of the many addressed. And since we don't have the luxury here of writing a multi-volume book on the topic, for the sake of brevity here are only a few of the canons and chapters contained in the Catholic decree on justification:

Assertion = Very brief summary of the Roman Catholic Church at Trent
Response = Very brief response from the Bible

Assertion: Decree on Justification: Chapter 1 states that man has a free will: adversely limited by the fall, but not fully extinguished.

Response: Man is totally depraved. Man is dead in trespasses and sin. He inherited Adam's sin nature. He is slave to sin. Man does not have a free-will in the Catholic sense of the phrase, but free-agency. Man always acts according to his nature. See "Calvinism and Matthew 11:28?" below. Scripture alone asserts: Eccl 9:3; Jer 17:9; 13:23; John 8:34; Rom 3:23; 5:12-21; 6:6, 16-17, 19-20; 7:14; Eph 2:1-3; Gal 4:8-9; 2 Tim 2:25-26; Tit 3:3; 2 Pet 2:19.

Assertion: Decree on Justification: Chapter 2 states that Christ died for the sins of the whole human race (universal atonement).

Response: The atonement is limited. It was for the sheep, not the goats; the wheat, not the tares. Christ died for his invisible church, not every member of humanity. See "Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4, 6?," "Calvinism and Titus 2:11?," and "Calvinism and 1 John 2:2?" below. Scripture alone asserts: Matt 13:24-30; 25:31-46; John 10:15-18, 27-29; Rom 5:8-10; 8:28-39; Gal 2:20; 3:13-14; 4:4-5; Eph 1:3-14; 5:25; 1 Pet 1:20; 1 John 4:9-10; Rev 5:9-10; 7:9.

Assertion: Decree on Justification: Chapters 6, 7 add to justification the requirement that a person must be baptized.

Response: Justification is the act of God alone. In justification there is no requirement for a person to do anything; including baptism. Baptism is not a means of salvation. The thief on the Cross was not baptized and yet went to be with Jesus in Paradise. See "Noah, Baptism, and Hell - 1 Peter 3:18-22" and "Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2?" below. Scripture alone asserts: Luke 23:43; Rom 3:27-28; 11:5-6; Eph 2:8-10; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 3:5-7.

Assertion: Decree on Justification: Chapter 7 combines justification and sanctification believing that faith, hope, and charity are also infused in this justification.

Response: Imputation (a moment in time), not infusion (a process), is biblical. In the grace of justification, Christ's righteousness is credited to the ledger of those who believe and God takes a believer's sins and places them on Christ's account. In this Great Exchange, a Christian stands justified before God, not because of their own righteousness, but because of a perfect righteousness outside of themselves; that of Christ alone, by faith alone. Christ's righteous cannot be improved upon. Progressive Sanctification is a ongoing grace of God that occurs after justification. The Holy Spirt and the believer cooperate together to subdue sinful impulses and produce fruits of righteousness in the believer. While sanctification should not be separated from the grace of justification, it does need to be distinguished from it. Scripture alone asserts: Justification - Dan 9:7; Jer 23:6; Rom 3:20-28; 4:1-5; 9:30-32; Gal 2:16; 3:1-14; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 10:14. Sanctification - John 17:16-17; 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 1:6; 1 Thess 4:3; 5:23; 1 Pet 1:15; 2 Pet 3:18; Heb 10:10; 1 John 1:8-10.

Assertion: According to Decree on Justification: Chapters 7, 10, 11, initial justification may be increased through mortification, observing God's commandments and works.

Response: Justification is a one-time act of God. Christ took upon himself the elect's sin and imputed to them Christ's righteousness. God imputed to believers Christ's righteousness. Christ's righteousness is perfect and complete and cannot be improved upon. Mortification is the believer's position in Christ in justification; whereas present mortification of sin (or practice) is a sanctification issue. Scripture alone asserts: Justification - Dan 9:7; Jer 23:6; Rom 3:20-28; 4:1-5; 9:30-32; Gal 2:16; 3:1-14; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 10:14. Mortification - Rom 6:1-14; 7:4, 6; Gal 2:19; 6:14; Col 2:20; 3:3; 1 Pet 2:24.

Assertion: According to Decree on Justification: Chapter 11; Canons 9, 29, justification by faith alone is a false doctrine.

Response: Justification by faith alone is a true doctrine. See explanations above. Scripture alone asserts: Dan 9:7; Jer 23:6; Rom 3:20-28; 4:1-5; 9:30-32; Gal 2:16; 3:1-14; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 10:14.

Assertion: Decree on Justification: Chapters 11, 13, 15; Canons 16, 17, 23, 27, 28 states that individuals can fall away from grace and justification, through mortal sin.

Response: Justification is the sole act of God alone. Man cannot lose what belongs to God's declaration and decree. A person cannot be declared guilty of what God has already decreed him not guilty of, as this would make God a liar. See "Calvinism and Revelation 3:5?" below. Scripture alone asserts: God is Faithful - Num 23:19; Psa 119:89-91; Isa 14:26-27; 46:9-10; Dan 4:35; 2 Tim 2:13; Tit 1:2; 3:7; Heb 6:18. Perseverance of the Saints - Psa 103:17; John 6:35-40; 10:25-29; Rom 8:28-39; 1 Cor 1:4-9; 2 Cor 4:13-14; Eph 1:13-14; Phil 1:6; 3:20-21; Col 3:3-4; 1 Thess 5:23-24; 1 Pet 1:3-5; 1 John 2:19; 5:4; Jude 1:24-25.

Assertion: Decree on Justification: Chapter 14 asserts that if one falls away from grace that they can be restored through penance.

Response: Justification is an eternal decree and therefore can't be lost. Penance, an act that takes place after confession of sin and not taught within Scripture, is not necessary to be restored to the Lord. Though a true Christian may temporarily fall from grace they will never fall fully and completely away. Christ's righteous cannot be improved upon. See "Praying the Rosary?," "What is the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?" and "What is the Immaculate Conception?" below. Scripture alone asserts: Justification - Dan 9:7; Jer 23:6; Rom 3:20-28; 4:1-5; 9:30-32; Gal 2:16; 3:1-14; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 10:14 1 John 1:9-10. Sanctification - John 17:16-17; 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 1:6; 1 Thess 4:3; 5:23; 1 Pet 1:15; 2 Pet 3:18; Heb 10:10; 1 John 1:8-10. Perseverance of the Saints - Psa 103:17; John 6:35-40; 10:25-29; Rom 8:28-39; 1 Cor 1:4-9; 2 Cor 4:13-14; Eph 1:13-14; Phil 1:6; 3:20-21; Col 3:3-4; 1 Thess 5:23-24; 1 Pet 1:3-5; 1 John 2:19; 5:4; Jude 1:24-25.

Assertion: According to Canons 4, 22, man must cooperate with God's grace in order to receive an increase in justification.

Response: Man cooperates in sanctification, not in justification. Justification is a one-time act of God alone. Christ took upon himself the elect's sin and imputed to them Christ's righteousness. Christ's righteousness is perfect and complete and cannot be improved upon. Scripture alone asserts: Dan 9:7; Jer 23:6; Rom 3:21-26; 5:16; 1 Cor 1:30-31; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 10:14.

Assertion: According to Canon 11 imputed justification is false.

Response: WSC 33 says, "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone." Scripture alone asserts: Rom 3:24; 4:6-8, 11; 5:19; 2 Cor 5:19, 21; Gal 2:16; Phil 3:9.

Assertion: Canon 21 asserts that in justification a person must not only trust Jesus, but also obey Jesus too.

Response: Justification is an act of God alone. Obedience is the work of sanctification, not justification. While obedience will follow all those that are justified, it remains a work of the grace of sanctification, not justification. Scripture alone asserts: Justification - Rom 3:20-28; 4:1-5; 9:30-32; Gal 2:16; 3:1-14; Sanctification - John 17:16-17; 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 1:6; 1 Thess 4:3; 5:23; 1 Pet 1:15; 2 Pet 3:18; Heb 10:10; 1 John 1:8-10.

What is Prevenient Grace?

Prevenient grace is mentioned in the Trent decree on justification (Chapter 5, Canon 3). Prevenient means "coming before." It is understood to be grace that precedes or comes before salvation. Prevenient grace essentially states that God has graciously restored to all humanity the freedom of will that was lost in the fall of Adam. Therefore prevenient grace provides all people with the opportunity to choose or reject Christ.

The doctrine of prevenient grace is not found in Scripture. Fallen man is not able or willing to believe in Christ apart from the regenerating grace of God (Rom 3:10-18). The fact that all fallen men without exception are "naturally" unable to respond positively to the gospel is clearly seen in Romans 8:7-8. Though the gospel is offered to all, the unregenerate hearer is hostile to God; does not submit to God's law; cannot submit to God's law; cannot please God. So, the unregenerate man is both unwilling and unable to come to Christ on his own. A work must first be done in the unregenerate, and this work is biblically called regeneration (John 3:1-8).

Prevenient grace gives something man may boast about (cf. Eph 2:8-9; 1 Cor 1:30) and opposes Scripture. Moreover, it undermines the sovereignty of God in salvation (Rom 8:28-30; cf. John 1:13; Rom 9:16).

Supporters of prevenient grace appeal to universal atonement (Tit 2:11) and God's desire for all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), but these references are easily addressed. (See "Calvinism and Titus 2:11" and "Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4" below.) Moreover, those that endorse the doctrine of prevenient grace essentially use the following four scriptural texts (or ones similar to them) to state their case:

John 1:9

Those who affirm the false doctrine of prevenient grace often refer to John 1:9 for support. John writes, "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (John 1:9 NRSV). Catholics believe this John 1:9 "illumination" overcomes the darkness for all mankind (panta anthropon) left by Adam's Fall (Gen. 3). It does not guarantee salvation (John 1:11), but gives everyone in the world an equal opportunity to be saved.

However, John 1:9 does not refer to prevenient grace. In context, the word "light" (Greek, photizei) refers to Christ (John 12:46). But the "true light" does not refer to illumination; rather it uncovers what is in the darkness. John 1:10 reveals that some "did not recognize him" and John 1:11 "his own did not receive him." But others are "born of God" (John 1:13), through faith alone (John 1:12). John 3:19-21 confirms this understanding of the text. Some don't come to the light least their deeds are exposed. Others that have received this light welcome it. D.A. Carson writes:

What is at stake, rather, is the objective revelation, the 'light,' that comes into the world with the incarnation of the Word, the invasion of the 'true light.' It shines on every man, and divides the race: those who hate the light respond as the world does (John 1:10): they flee lest their deeds should be exposed by this light (John 3:19-21). But some receive this revelation (John 1:12-13), and thereby testify that their deeds have been done through God (John 3:21). In John's Gospel it is repeatedly the case that the light shines on all, and forces a distinction (e.g. John 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:39-41). (The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991).

John 12:32

Appeal is made to John 12:32: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." Those who affirm prevenient grace assume "all people" is to be interpreted as being in accordance with "every person in the world." However, in the greater context of John 12:20-36 we observe that Christ is speaking of "all kinds of men"; that is, both Jews and Greeks. Also John 6:35-37 uses the same word for "draw" (Greek, helkuo) as John 12:32 does. This helps clarify who the "all" are, as the drawing is selective. Indeed "drawing" does not make salvation a mere possibility for all, but effectual for some (God's elect). And all those that are "drawn" are, in fact, "justified" (John 6:44, 65).

Romans 2:4

Appeal is made to the fact that God is "kind." Romans 2:4 reads: "Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" Those who espouse prevenient grace state that God is "kind" to everyone and therefore everyone is given an equal opportunity at salvation. But the text says people should repent, not that they have the moral ability to repent. Like faith, repentance is a gift of God (2 Tim 2:24-26; Eph 2:8-10). It is not something that can be earned, but it is something that is given by God alone. Faith is the flipside of repentance and both come during regeneration of the sinner. If one of these has been given to someone, so has the other.

Moral inability is a biblical doctrine. Repentance requires one to turn from sin and keep perfectly the law (Gal 3:10; Rom 1:18-3:20) which is holy, just, and good (Rom 7:12). Yet no one, save Jesus, has the moral ability to obey God on his own as we all inherited Adam's sin nature (Rom 5:12-21). Moreover, Jesus invites all people to come to him in order that they may have life (Matt 11:28-30; John 5:40). However, as already seen above, no one can come to him unless they are drawn by the Father (John 6:44). And only those to whom the Father and Son reveal themselves will come to know him (Matt 11:25-27).

So, in this context, prevenient grace is not biblical.

Romans 8:29-30

Others in the prevenient grace camp turn to Romans 8:29-30 for support. They base their doctrine of prevenient grace and election on the claim of God's foreknowledge; that is, since God knows what man is going to do, God, from all eternity, elects them accordingly. But the question is, where does the apostle Paul mention free will or faith in the text? Romans 8:29 emphasizes "whom" God foreknows, not "what" he foreknows. What is particularly interesting here is the Greek word proginosko. It means "foreknowledge" or to have knowledge beforehand (Rom 8:29; cf. Rom 11:2) and is a compound word made up of pro ("before") and ginosko ("to know"). In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) ginosko is used for the Hebrew word "yada" to say Adam "knew" his wife Eve and she bore a son (Gen 4:1; cf. Gen 4:17, 25, etc.). Foreknowledge here is speaking of a close personal relationship — a "who," not a "what." It speaks of fore-love!

In addition, in Romans 8:29-30 we observe what God does, not man! Man's faith and free will aren't even mentioned. Moreover, we see the golden chain of grace where one link leads to the next: Foreknew --> Predestination --> Calling --> Justification --> Glorification. Because the objects of each of these links are the redeemed in Christ, all these foreknown by God will ultimately be glorified. All the verbs in Romans 8:30, including "glorified" (edoxasen), are in the aorist tense (a single past tense action). Through the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), Paul is so sure of what God's foreknowing, predestining, calling and justifying entail that glorification, though in linear time is at the Second Coming, he speaks of if as already happening. Paul is saying that the event is absolutely certain and that from the standpoint of God's decree, this has already happened. Regarding this Douglas Moo in The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans Publishing) writes:

Most interpreters conclude, probably rightly, that Paul is looking at the believer's glorification from the standpoint of God, who has already decreed that it should take place. While not yet experienced, the divine decision to glorify those who have been justified has already been made; the issue has been settled. Here Paul touches on the ultimate source of the assurance that Christians enjoy, and with it he brings to a triumphant climax his celebration of the "no condemnation" [Rom 8:1] that applies to every person in Christ.

So Paul is so sure of glorification that he pictures saints already seated with Christ (Eph 2:5-6 - aorist tense - as if the seating has already occurred). Therefore in context, Romans 8:29-30 reveals the definiteness (fore-knew = fore-loved = fore-ordained) of the glorification of God's elect. Prevenient grace, however, merely speaks of an opportunity to be saved. Again, prevenient grace is not consistent with Scripture.

Prevenient grace also claims that God knows when the gospel will be successful and when it will not be. While this is true, it presents a significant problem for Catholics. If God is omniscient — knowing all aspects of the human heart and what means of persuasion will bring each person to faith (which he does) — then we must ask why in Matthew 12:20-24 the Holy Spirit stopped short of giving everyone an equal opportunity to be saved:

Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."

Salvation is about the all-knowing God fore-knowing, fore-loving, fore-ordaining, predestining, electing, calling, justifying, and ultimately glorifying his people. It's not about equal opportunity. God doesn't need to be vindicated as if he has done something wrong (Gen 18:25). He is holy, just, and good (Rom 7:12). By this very definition, God can't make a mistake (Num 23:19; Psa 145:3, 17; 147:5; Rom 8:28; 1 John 1:5; cf. Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 1:19) and will do as he wills in all the earth (Isa 46:9-10).

A Summary

In a theological article in The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Richard Pratt writes this regarding "Justification and Merit: Why Does God Count Me as Righteous?"

One of the distinctive slogans of the Reformation was "Justification by Faith Alone," meaning that God counts believers as righteous (i.e., he justifies them) by means of their faith, not by means of their works. This idea should be clearly distinguished from the error that God counts believers as righteous on the basis of their faith (i.e., because they have faith). Believers do not earn righteousness by doing good works or by having faith; they are counted as if they were righteous on the basis of Christ's righteousness reckoned to them through the vehicle of faith.

The New Testament states time and again that believers are saved on the basis of Christ's work on their behalf, not on the basis of their own merit (Rom 3:22-24; 5:10-11, 15-21; 8:1-4; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 2:20-21; 3:27-29; 1 Pet 3:18). Paul said, "I consider everything a loss . . . that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" (Phil 3:8-9). Paul also clearly explained that justification is entirely of grace received through faith (Rom 3:25-30; 4:1-5:2; Gal 2:16; 3:8-14, 24), referring to the example of Abraham, whom God counted as righteous by means of his faith (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:1-25; Gal 3:8-14). Paul also appealed to David's voice in Psalm 32:1-2 (Rom 4:6-8) as further Old Testament proof that God has always considered his people righteous by means of their faith, not by means of their works.

The idea that good works are not required to earn righteousness has not gone unchallenged. For example, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that God counts believers as righteous at least partly on the basis of the good works they perform after they come to faith. Some forms of Arminianism likewise insist that even those who are forgiven on the basis of Christ's atoning death may yet go to hell if they do not continue in faith and good works, in cooperation with the grace of God.

This subject becomes confusing for many believers because traditions like Roman Catholicism and Arminianism appeal to Scriptures that seem to contradict Paul's teaching. Whereas Paul wrote, "A man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Rom 3:28), James said, "A person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (Jas 2:24). Moreover, James also appealed to Abraham's example.

This apparent discrepancy is easily harmonized, however, by noting that "justify" (Greek, dikaioo) may mean either "count as righteous" (see Rom 4:5) or "prove right" (see Luke 7:35). Paul consistently referred to Abraham's faith as exercised in Genesis 15:1-6, a passage that recounts the time when God first promised Abraham a son-long before his son Isaac was born. In the Genesis 15 account, "justify" means "count as righteous": "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). James, however, recalled an episode (recorded in Genesis 22) that took place after Isaac had been born and had grown into young adulthood (Jas 2:21). In the Genesis 22 account, "justify" means "proved right," as indicated by the fact that God was testing Abraham (Gen. 22:1) and that Abraham's justification consisted in his passing the test: "Now I know that you fear God" (Gen 22:12). James agreed with Paul that Abraham was initially counted as righteous when he believed God's promise (Jas 2:22-23), but he added that Abraham's later obedience proved the earnestness of his earlier faith.

What came from the Council of Trent is a document of man. But we should remember what Peter and the apostles said: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

Related Topics:

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What is the Immaculate Conception?
Praying the Rosary?
Is Purgatory Biblical?
Is Catholic Penance Biblical?
The Catholic Bible?
Apocrypha Accounts?
Transubstantiation vs. Consubstantiation vs. Memorialism vs Reformed?
Hahn's Hersey: The Four Cups?
Pre-Apostolic Succession ???
Melchizedek and Catholic Apostolic Succession?
What are the three types of Merit?
The Sign of the Cross?
Can Catholics be Saved?
Are all Protestants going to Hell (Catholic Dogma)?
Was Peter the First Pope?
Who is the One True Church?
Do you agree with what the Roman Catholic teaches?
What is the ordo salutis?
Noah, Baptism, and Hell - 1 Peter 3:18-22
Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2?
Calvinism and Joshua 24:15?
Calvinism and Psalms 69:28?
Calvinism and Isaiah 55:1-3?
Calvinism and Ezekiel 18:32; 33:11?
Calvinism and Matthew 11:28?
Calvinism and Matthew 13?
Calvinism and Matthew 23:37?
Calvinism and John 3:16?
Calvinism and John 6:33?
Calvinism and Acts 7:51?
Calvinism and 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 19?
Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4, 6?
Calvinism and 1 Timothy 4:10?
Calvinism and Titus 2:11?
Calvinism and Hebrews 2:10?
Calvinism and 2 Peter 2:1?
Calvinism and 2 Peter 3:9?
Calvinism and 1 John 2:2?
Calvinism and Revelation 3:5?
Theological Flowerbeds - D.A.I.S.Y. vs. T.U.L.I.P.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).