Do Protestant-Catholic differences about justification still matter?

As part of the Firm Foundations course, I recently recorded a session on justification. The Firm Foundations course is based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which is a Reformed (Protestant) statement of faith. Some of you may know that the key doctrine of the Reformation – where the Protestant churches broke away from the Roman Catholic church – was justification. In a nutshell, the Protestants believed that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone – we do not contribute any good works. The Roman Catholics believed that we did contribute good works. More on that in a moment.

Anyway, all that happened 500 years ago and a lot a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. A few years back, Raniero Cantalamessa – a Roman Catholic preacher – came to speak to a Church of England event I was at. He gave a sermon which was very much about grace, in fact he didn’t say anything which I couldn’t agree with or wouldn’t say myself.

So, is the debate over? Can Protestants and Catholics be united again?

I fear that the debate is not over yet. Someone commented on the YouTube video from a Catholic perspective and disagreed with me. They asked a number of questions of the Protestant view of justification.

What I am going to do in this post is consider the Catholic view of justification, then briefly respond to their questions, and then step back and consider the wider implications of justification when it comes to our holiness.

The Catholic view of justification

Let me quote first of all from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God’s merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals.

Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness (or “justice”) here means the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us.

Catechism of the Catholic Church,, Justification

The Roman Catholic view is that justification is not only a declaration that we are righteous, but actually makes us intrinsically righteous. The Catechism quotes the Council of Trent: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”

So, justification encompasses sanctification as well: we are forgiven and made righteous at the same time.

This is in contrast to the Protestant view of justification, which sees justification and sanctification as two separate things. Justification is being declared righteous by God, whereas sanctification is our day-by-day growth in love, obedience and holiness.

We don’t have time to go through all the relevant Bible verses here, although I have been trying to explain in the Firm Foundations course – last week I looked at justification, next week we will be looking at sanctification. But I hope that this helps to set up the different approaches and gives context to what I say below.

Responding to questions

I don’t always respond to questions left on Understand the Bible videos (much of the time it’s because they’re not worth responding to). But in this instance, I think it is worthwhile: I hope that this will be of interest not just to the person who asked them but anyone looking into the doctrine of justification.

Q1: Can sins be transferred?

You believe that through faith alone you get Christ’ righteousness imputed/counted on you and your sins (past, present and future) imputed/counted on Christ. How do you reconcile it with what Ezekiel 18:20 says (ESV): “The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”? Does this verse say both righteousness and wickedness are NOT transferrable from person to person?

Ezekiel 18:20 is saying that children cannot count on their parents being righteous. Each person lives or dies for their own sin or righteousness. This verse is saying that we must all face God and give an account for ourselves, not for anyone else.

This verse cannot be saying that righteousness / wickedness are not transferrable at all. If it were, that would lead to at least two massive problems: (1) we would all be liable for the punishment of our own sins because Christ could do nothing to help; (2) it flies in the face of other parts of scripture where God does seem to transfer sin, notably Isaiah 53:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:5-6

If wickedness and righteousness cannot be transferred in any sense at all, then what was the point of the cross? How could my sins be nailed to Christ on the cross (Colossians 2:14)?

I would add that I do not believe our sins are ‘transferred’ onto Jesus in the way that I can copy a computer file from one place to another – i.e. from one random place to another. Rather, it is accomplished by our union with Christ. Since we are united to Christ by faith (to quote Paul’s favourite phrase to describe believers – “in Christ”), we die with him and rise with him (Romans 6:5-7). However, this process of dying and rising again will not be completed till the new creation, which is why Paul goes on to say , “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus”. If we were made perfect already, why would Paul need to say that? Why, in fact, would we still sin?… more on that later.

Q2: Both justified and sinners

You believe that by imputation you are counted as righteous while you remain unrighteous – in Latin “simul iustus et peccator”. How do you reconcile it with what Ezekiel 33:12 says (ESV): “the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins.”?

‘Simul iustus et peccator’ was a phrase coined by Martin Luther to describe how we were at the same time both justified and sinners.

Let me quote the whole of the verse from Ezekiel to put it in context:

“Therefore, son of man, say to your people, ‘If someone who is righteous disobeys, that person’s former righteousness will count for nothing. And if someone who is wicked repents, that person’s former wickedness will not bring condemnation. The righteous person who sins will not be allowed to live even though they were formerly righteous.’

Ezekiel 33:12, NIV

This is in the context of a prophet saying to God’s people that they must turn from wickedness and continue to turn from it. Their repentance must be genuine and lifelong. This is echoed in New Testament passages such as Hebrews 10:26-31. (Which is probably more relevant for justification as it is actually addressed to Christians…)

Q3: Is God an abomination?

You believe that God will let you enter heaven while you remain sinner. God “won’t be able” to see your sins being hidden under the righteousness of Christ imputed on you. In the same way God punished Christ for our sins on the cross because He “won’t be” able to see His sinlessness being hidden under your accumulated sins (past, present and future) imputed on Him. In contrast Prov. 17:15 says (ESV): ““He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” Does your belief make God do what Scripture refers as abomination?

If justifying the wicked makes God an abomination, then God is an abomination because that is exactly what scripture says. Romans 4:5, “However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” God “justifies the ungodly”. It is their faith which is credited as righteousness. If this makes God an abomination, take it up with the apostle Paul, not me.

And, to be honest, isn’t the problem one which faces us whichever view of justification one takes? All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We all deserve the sentence of death and hell – the wages of sin is death. If God forgives us, then isn’t that in some sense justifying the wicked – whether you believe in imputed or infused righteousness? It seems to me both the Protestant and Catholic understandings could fall foul of that.

I would say your problem is with the Bible, not with the Protestant understanding of justification.

Q4: Are we made righteous?

You believe that through faith (in Christ) alone you are counted as righteous, but not made righteous. In contrast Scripture says in Rom. 5:19 that through Christ we are made righteous. Who is right?

I believe that we are currently counted righteous only on the basis of faith, through Christ Jesus. When the Lord returns, we will then – and only then – be righteous as he is. how does this fit with scripture? Once again, let me quote the whole verse here:

For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Romans 5:19

Note the ‘will be made’. This verb is future tense. This has not happened yet, but it will. We will only achieve the righteousness for which we were designed and appointed when the Lord Jesus returns. See also 1 John 3:2 – “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

Interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21

2 Cor. 5:21 is the mostly cited verse to support double imputation but it does NOT. First the verse says we become the righteousness of God, while according to imputation you do not become righteous but are only counted as righteous based on external righteousness of Christ while you remain unrighteous. Second, the verse also says Christ who knew no sin to be sin. According to imputation your sins are imputed on Christ which makes Christ counted as sinner while remaining sinless. Imputation does not make Christ sin as the verse says.

In Hebrew the same ONE word, חַטָּאָת (Strong H2398) is used for sin (Gen. 18:20, Exod. 34:9 etc.) and sin offering (Lev. 4:8, 16:3, 5 etc.). According to Leviticus 16 once a year the High Priest chose one of two goats as sin offering (= sin) to atone the sins of all Israelites (Lev. 16:8-9). That goat will be killed (Lev. 16:15) and its blood sprinkled upon the mercy seat. The sins of all Israelites were imputed on the second goat, which was not killed but released in the wilderness. In the New Covenant Christ is the High Priest (Heb. 4:14, 9:11) and He offered Himself as sin offering (= sin, Heb. 9:12). While He did die to atone our sins, our sins are NOT imputed on Him, just like the sins of all Israelites are not imputed on the first goat in Lev. 16:8-9. Therefore 2 Cor. 5:21 talks about atonement Christ made and because what He did, we can become the righteousness of God– we become partakers of divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

I will confess that I don’t follow the logic here. This bit in particular: “While He did die to atone our sins, our sins are NOT imputed on Him, just like the sins of all Israelites are not imputed on the first goat in Lev. 16:8-9.” Firstly, does this not directly contradict Isaiah 53, as well as other passages such as Colossians 2:14 and 1 Peter 2:24. Secondly, I don’t think we can draw such a sharp distinction between the two goats (the one which was sacrificed, and the scapegoat). The point is that the goat was dying as a substitute instead of the people, and because of that sacrifice their sins could be taken away. You have to see the action of the two goats together, they were not doing two separate things.

The concept of substitution is very clear elsewhere in scripture, notable in the Passover. The blood of the lamb was shed, and that saved the people. Paul says explicitly that Christ is our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). Christ died instead of us. If that doesn’t at least strongly suggest the idea of substitution – Christ dying in our place, punished for our sins – then I don’t know what will.

But this concept of exchange is present in other places in the New Testament as well, for example Romans 13:14: “Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh”. Clothe yourselves with Christ – put off your sin and put on Christ. It doesn’t say that you are righteous inside already, rather that we all need to clothe ourselves with Christ and his righteousness.

Similarly, Paul says in Philippians 3:8-9, “I consider them garbage, 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 on the basis of faith.” This doesn’t explicitly say that it is Christ’s righteousness that we are clothed with, but I think it makes complete sense that this should be what Paul is referring to.

The point we have to keep circling back to is, what makes most logical sense of the big picture? How do we fit together Christ’s death and our righteousness? This is something which I believe the Catholic view does not do full justice to. I believe the view I have been trying to outline above does a much better job of logically fitting the Biblical data together.

Which brings me to the final thing.

What is at stake?

What’s at stake here is the whole of the Christian life – how we live life in obedience to God.

The Catholic view seems to be that we are saved by God making us righteous in the here and now. That God somehow infuses us with righteousness and makes us able to obey God right now. We start out as sinners, not deserving salvation, but then once we turn to Christ we maintain it by our good works.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel very ‘holy’, in fact I think in my Christian life over the last few years I have known the depths of my sinfulness in a way that I never had before. As Charles Wesley put it in his hymn “Jesus lover of my soul”, “False and full of sin I am, thou art full of truth and grace.” Mercifully, I believe that I am clothed with Christ’s righteousness, and because of that I can have confidence in drawing near to God and seeking the help of the Holy Spirit to walk in his ways.

I suggest that anyone who thinks they are maintaining their salvation by their good works is utterly deluded. I don’t think they really understand what a good work actually is, or the depth of the sinfulness of their own hearts. In fact I think this view would tend to Pharisaism, the view which Jesus comes down heavily on in the gospels.

The long and the short of it is, if we want to live life as Christians in the way that God has marked out for us, we need justification by faith alone. This is why I wrote my book, Confused by Grace. In this book I examine the teaching of the Bible, especially Galatians, to show how grace is the engine room of the Christian life and teaches us to live godly lives.

Protestants don’t get it all right

I’d just like to finish by saying that I think Protestants get it wrong a lot of the time too. I’ve written about this on my personal blog, for example Do evangelicals still believe in grace? I also think many churches do a very poor job at teaching these things, and an even worse job at living them out in practice. Again, this is why I felt the need to write my book!

Now 500 years have passed since the Reformation, perhaps now is the time for us all to go back to the Bible and see what the Spirit has to say to us? Perhaps we can find common ground if we set aside centuries old ‘gotchas’ and try to understand the logic of the scriptures together.

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