Love and The Christian’s Justification II: A Brief Look at Trent

Though the previous post did not directly mention it, as soon as one discusses justification, it is almost certain that a few matters of history and doctrine will come to light: justification by faith, and justification by faith and works. Generally, it is thought that Martin Luther (as well as Protestantism as a whole) and the Catholic position completely disagree—Luther is pro-faith, and Catholicism pro-faith-and-works, or in some minds just pro-works. However, if one looks at the texts of the Catholic Council of Trent, it appears that the general accepted understanding of this soteriological matter may be inaccurate. For-instance, the Council declares: “If anyone says that a person can be justified before God by his own works…apart from divine grace through Jesus Christ: let him be anathema”.[1] I think that most Protestants would appreciate such a statement. Both the Catholic and the Protestant can agree that salvation occurs only through the gratuity of God. It is through grace that man has and receives eternal life. No one can earn salvation—that is heresy. However, and as we will examine further throughout this series, where a much greater distinction exists between the Catholic and Protestant doctrine is in the understanding of grace itself.

Let us now take a look at Trent and see how the document identifies justification. In Chapter 7 of Session 6 of the Council, the document reads: “Justification consists not only in the forgiveness of sins but also in the sanctification and renewal of the inward being by a willing acceptance [emphasis added] of the grace and gifts…[so] that he is an heir in hope of eternal life (Tt 3, 7)”. Justification consists in a “renewal…by a willing acceptance of the grace and gifts” of God. The “renewal of the inward being” implies a sort of mysticism or elevation of oneself into God’s realm, a process that has its source in man’s “yes” to Jesus Christ. Justification also runs parallel with sanctification, becoming holy and blessed (see previous post) in God’s eyes. Communion with God, as shown by Jesus’ consistent “yes” to the Father’s will, must consist in the opening of oneself to God. So long as we knock, the door will be answerd (cf. Lk 11:9). Because justification is linked with sanctification and interior renewal, it entails a process of ascending into God—we could say theosis. However it must be emphasized that something real within the human person happens in this process of sanctification and renewal: in Jesus Christ holiness is actually possible for man. Grace and love are stronger than sin and death!

Moreover, God does not, by His grace, take control of His disciples and treat them as pawns on a chess board. It is clear in the Gospel accounts that His disciples were not always ‘on par’ (e.g., Peter’s denial). God gave man a will, and His grace never treats it robotically. Hence the Council’s position that justification includes a “willing acceptance” of God’s grace that leads toward the process of interior renewal; for true internal renewal cannot be accomplished by man’s doing alone, but requires the grace and love of His Creator. I think that it would be benefical to parallel grace with authentic freedom, that is, an authentic capability and inclination—which increases according to the freedom of the subject—to love.[2]

Ultimately a theology of repentence is being developed: justification is linked to one’s life-long journey of the self’s total orientation toward God. To repent is to completely re-orient one’s life. I think that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger thus put it excellently, then, when he defined faith as “an existential attitude… [and] the direction of life”.[3] It is not an acknowledgement of a fact. The faith of the Christian is the direction of his life. Belief in Christ is much different than, for-instance, believing in the sphericity of the earth; belief in Christ is such that it requires a new way of being: “The way we may be sure that we know him [Jesus Christ] is to keep his commandments…whoever claims to abide in him ought to live just as he lived” (1 Jn 2: 3,5).

The document reads later: “no one can be just unless the merits of the passion of our lord Jesus Christ are communicated to him”.[4] True repentence, and true Christian living cannot be created from within by one’s own doing; contrarily, the true life requires an open heart of acceptance so that the grace of God may touch man’s heart and renew him. Only through the merits of the Crucified’s love can man experience liberation and life, and so find the true path into God. Moreover, God gave out of love so that we may, in turn, participate in love—He gives that we may give. Now, the pinnacle of divine gifts is the Son, who in Christ is charity incarnate. He is the way into God: thus, to be charity is of paramount importance in being Christian and in any dialogue about justification. In other words, because the Word became flesh, the flesh (us) can (and must) become Word in our being, and therefore, journeying through the piercings of Christ Crucified, ascend into the Heavenly Kingdom.

[1] Council of Trent, Session 6; Canons concerning justification, n. 1 (Note: All references to the Council of Trent in this series are taken from Session 6. Future quotations will reference their chapter or canon number—unless sufficient information is given in the context of the paragraph.)

[2] “Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love” (CCC 2000).

[3] Faith and the Future (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 35

[4] Chap 7

10 thoughts on “Love and The Christian’s Justification II: A Brief Look at Trent”

  1. Brother, Rome does assert that people earn their salvation. Rome holds that in baptism God infuses a principle of grace into the individual which, should he cooperate, enables him to do works which satisfy the law and merit heaven. Of course, the Bible speaks against precisely this repeatedly.

    The Pharisees believed their works were enabled by God’s grace! Consider Lk 18:9-14. The man credited God with enabling him to do righteous works, but was not justified! No, the true gospel is far more beautiful than this, turning the wisdom of man on its head. You’re saved not by your own grace-enabled righteous works, but solely because of the work of another. (Rom. 5:18-19) Paul is crystal clear: “If by grace, it is no longer by works, or grace would no longer be grace.”(Rom. 11:6)

    Straight question: What in blue blazes do you think Paul is talking about when he speaks of justification by faith apart from works? (Rom. 3:28, Gal. 2:16 etc.) He’s not just talking about Jewish ceremonies, but works of the law written on the heart of the gentiles, arousing sin in the natural man, and including moral law.

    I can explain the legitimate role of works in the Christian life, but there are huge swaths of the NT that the RC paradigm simply cannot explain or deal with honestly. Merely quoting verses does not legitimate a view. Every false religion on the planet does this. It’s one thing to sprinkle your pitch with isolated verses, as Trent does, and another to actually follow the lines of argumentation in scripture.

    Lastly, I caution you not to conflate justification and sanctification. They are deeply linked, but quite distinct. It’s one thing to be declared fully acceptable by God on the basis of Christ’s work, and another to be conformed to Christ in conduct. Rome confuses these, redefining justification and basing it on our sanctification, and this is her chief and most tragic error.

    1. Josh,

      I am sorry that I do not have a lot of time to adequately respond. I am really hoping to do a post (probably another series) on scripture. I think that a lot of our disagreements stem from a very different hermeneutic of scripture.

      As far as what you said: In of your past comments you said that Jesus Christ brought redemption, that He really saves us! He’s not just an ethical genius, like many unfortunately see him as only that. In that redemption, Jesus Christ opened up the true life for man–becoming close with God is actually and genuinely possible. In Christ, man can really encounter and participate within God.

      What I want to stress is that this really happens. More of this will unfold itself in the third post. At Baptism, man is hatched into the Body of Christ. Man begins to “repent”, that is, to fundamentally reorient the direction of his life–which takes great grace from God. Ultimately, justification is not a mere declaration of a person’s righteousness, but a legitimate purification of man. God does not treat one as justified, unless they are justified–He cannot lie to Himself or to His creation. But He can offer Himself to us, and by that offering we really “may have eternal life” (cf Jn 6:40).

      Again, I think that a lot of this will unfold in the future posts. I do very much disagree with you that Trent and the Church does not sprinkle verses to create doctrine. This is just not the case.

      Also: In Mt 19, to the question “What good must I do to gain eternal life?”, Jesus gives the answer: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (19:18). Then, shortly after, Jesus adds to that: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor…Then come, follow me” (21). Now, being perfect is demanded by all Christians (cf. Mt 5:48). Here, Christ tells us that being perfect is, in the first place, adhering to the Commandments. Yet, he seems to really enlighten that by teaching that true perfection lies in a complete abandonment of oneself to others, and in following Jesus Christ. It is a way of life. Hence the closeness of justification and sanctification.

      Lastly, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54). I read Rom 3:28 (and 1 Cor 13:2). I also read James, who blatantly seems to contradict Romans 3:28–if you compare them as separate, unrelated texts. Again, this is why I think where we are really struggling in this dialogue is at the source of truth.

      Well, more on all of this…especially in the next couple of posts.
      Peace and grace, brother!

      1. Brother, the word for justify does not mean to make righteous, but to pronounce or declare righteous. I beg you to consult a semantic study on this.

        And it’s the only meaning that makes sense. It’s not those who become righteous who are justified. God justifies the wicked! (Romans 4:5) And this justification becomes the true and only basis for holiness. “By one sacrifice has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Heb. 10:14) How do you understand having peace with God because one has been (past) justified by faith? (Rom. 5:1)

        God is not lying when he declares a believer righteous. It’s based on the supreme reality of union with Christ. One with him, he takes our guilt and wrath and we receive righteousness freely.

        Why does Paul compare Adam and Christ in Romans 5? Each acts as a covenant head on behalf of others. You didn’t eat of the tree but are regarded as a sinner because you are “in Adam.” So too, one is regarded as righteous and attains life because he is “in Christ.”

        Look at 2 Corinth. 5:21 “God made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” When Christ was “made sin” for us, do you think that he actually became sinful? No, but he was counted guilty that we might be counted righteous!

        This is the gospel, brother. Lose this and you lose everything.

        Surely Christ is not saying the man might actually attain life by following the commandments. That this is impossible is only the upshot of the entire Bible. (Gal. 2:16) It’s a calculated response to lead to a conclusion. What must you do to gain life? Easy, love God with all your being. Oh, think you’ve done that? Ok, lets test it out. Give up your idol of wealth and follow me.

        And I agree with your comment from John 6. But look at it in context (28-47). He is using eating and drinking as a metaphor for faith. Got to run. Blessings.

  2. Josh,

    “Brother, the word for justify does not mean to make righteous, but to pronounce or declare righteous. I beg you to consult a semantic study on this.”

    Not necessarily true. The Greek sense of justify is fairly broad, it does include both (or more) senses. That’s why a dictionary will not settle this theological debate. Even so, does God declare an untruth? Or does the declaration of God have the power to make righteous?

    If you’re interested you may want to check out They’re hosting a very similar debate right now, and your input could be productive.


    1. True, it’s not as simple as cracking open a lexicon. But a study of usage is very instructive.

      That this amounts to God declaring an untruth – I don’t see you saying this when God doesn’t credit your sins to you! (Rom. 4:8) But the exact same word and concept is in play when he credits righteousness to him who believes! (Rom. 4:2-5)

      It’s as real as the reality of the believer’s Union with Christ (of which Paul says marriage is a shadowy type). In marriage what is theirs becomes covenantally yours. So too, united to Christ I take possession of perfect righteousness as my own.

      It’s not just a single word. A multitude of biblical motifs converge and find resolution in this truth. The case is frankly overwhelming. To ignore this just to maintain fealty to the Roman Pontiff is very sad to me. Smacks of Pharisee-esque willful blindness.

      Do you really think the good news is that God infuses a principle into your soul through a ritual so that with discipline and the right observances you develop into a really swell guy that merits eternity? Ha! This is not the gospel, but every man-made religion since the dawn of time! The gospel is that God gives sinners what they could never merit at the infinite cost of the death of the eternal Son. Only clothed in Christ and his righteousness is man fit for immortality.

      This declaration of plenary pardon and acceptance is then the basis for sanctification, which necessarily follows. Yet, the resultant works of man are never the ground of his claim to God and life. To get this wrong is to destroy the entire system of scripture and turn its glory into banal platitudes and conventional morality dressed up in sugary rhetoric.

      But with Paul my hope is “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 3:9

  3. Short Comment: The Catholic believes that when God declares it happens. When God said “let there be light” light actually came to pass. So for a Catholic when one is declared righteous they are actually made so. So, for a Catholic, justification is not just a legal decree and righteousness is not just imputed to the believer, it is infused. For us the mere declaration is efficacious. I agree wtih Shawn that the word can mean both and does not need to be limited to just a mere declaration.

    1. Friend, you’ve got this exactly backwards. The irony! I’m the one saying God’s declaration really clothes you in the righteousness of Christ and makes you an heir of life. You’re saying God puts a wee spark of virtue in your heart and by discipline and masses you fan this into qualities and works making you fit for eternity. (This after you’ve made satisfaction for your own sins by penance and burned off remaining impurities by suffering in purgatory.)

      But, not so! Scripture says the believer has peace with God because he has been justified. (Rom. 5:1) You don’t believe what you just said – that when God declares you justified, you are then experientially righteous (as we will be perfectly in the age to come). I’ve met a lot of Catholics and none struck me as flawlessly righteous in practice. I’m not either, which is why I’m glad Christ saves sinners! Your view is neither true to scripture or experience.

      The Bible speaks about us as simultaneously growing in holiness and perfect in Christ, dead to the law-sin complex and translated to the realm of grace. Your view functionally leaves people under the covenant of the law and gives little if any peace. Brother, if salvation is based on a spark of infused righteousness that waxes or wanes according to your effort, there really are going to be a lot of people suffering for millennia in your purgatory. Throw out imputed righteousness and you are in a very bad place. But there is a better way.

      Take it from your first pope:

      All of them received honor and greatness, not through themselves or their own deeds or right things they did, but through his will. And we, therefore, who by his will have been called in Jesus Christ, are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight of 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. – Clement of Rome

      1. Josh,

        When God declares us righteous, then something real happens. What he declares, is. So, a declaration made my God is both a declaration and thereby an act. And the act of justification is intimately tied to sanctification.

        Paul himself indicates that a real transformation happens, too. For-instance, in Romans 6, Paul is talking about being freed from sin in an existential, experiential way–not just a forensic/declaratory way. Verse 7 reads in most translations: “For he who has died is freed from sin”. In this passage, Paul

        is at pains to stress the fact that we have made a decisive break with sin that must be reflected in our behavior: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2). “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness” (6:12-13).

        The context here is what Protestants call sanctification, the process of being made holy. Sanctification is the sense in which we are said to be “freed from sin” in this passage. Yet in the Greek text, what is actually said is “he who has died has been justified from sin.” The term in Greek (dikaioo) is the word for being justified, yet the context indicates sanctification, which is why every standard translation renders the word “freed” rather than “justified.” This shows that, in Paul’s mind, justification involves a real transformation, a real, experiential freeing from sin, not just a change of legal status. And it shows that, the way he uses terms, there is not…[a] rigid wall between justification and sanctification.


        After all, the Great Apostle then writes: “But now that you have been freed from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit that you have leads to sanctification, and its end is eternal life.” (6:22). Being a “slave for God”, moreover, requires obedience to God. Hence, again, the importance of a lifestyle–one that is obedient to following Jesus Christ. In other words: love.

        And I think that Romans 5:1 is an incredibly beautiful verse: that through Jesus Christ we have access to authentic peace, and to redemption, too–hope in the glory of God, for it in hope we were saved (cf. Rom 8:24).

        You spoke of union with Christ. Doesn’t this by its very nature necessitate a union of wills? And that seems to imply sanctification.

        Again, stay tuned, as I think the next posts will clarify a lot of our dialogue thus far. Grace and peace to you!

        1. “Grace: What It Is and What It Does”

        1. Brother, beware the danger of half-truths. Some denigrate justification by faith, branding it a fictional proclamation and saying the man himself is left to remain corrupt. But, this is a straw-man, proceeding from the under-informed or under-truthful.

          No one says man remains what he was, or that holiness is optional. The Bible clearly teaches man is reborn and undergoes a kind of resurrection. Made spiritually “alive to God,” he enjoys the existential reality of being a son of God. Yet, these are not freestanding realities but aspects of what it means to be in Christ and righteous in him.

          All agree when God makes a declaration something real happens. But what? Surely man is not made perfectly righteous in heart and conduct when he receives salvation, or ever in this life. The dilemma? Man must have all guilt removed and be perfectly righteous to enter eternal life. So, we need a Savior, someone who can take our guilt and give us perfect righteousness.

          Jason’s right. We believe the Bible clearly reveals “imputed righteousness,” that God accounts to believers a righteousness that is not intrinsically theirs. As our guilt was born by Christ, we are accounted perfectly righteous in him alone.

          The RC paradigm does not teach this. Rather it posits an “infused righteousness,” that through the sacraments come influences allowing us, through works and ritual, to become inherently righteous, in our own persons, and so merit heaven.

          The Bible repudiates this at every turn. Read Romans carefully and you will find all ethical admonitions are made on the basis of what has been done for us in Christ. Does the beauty of this not seem infinitely greater than all alternatives? Anyone can promulgate a system of human righteousness through rites and works, and every religion in the world basically has. But the gospel alone declares a righteousness from God, to his glory alone, confounding human wisdom.

  4. One quick exegetical point: Romans 6:7 speaks of our death to sin through Christ as the motive and means of our pursuit of sanctification. But what does this mean? Is he saying, don’t you know that everyone who is justified / righteous is so because he has stopped doing what is sinful? No, that would be silly. What he is saying is far more profound and beautiful.

    The Bible speaks about the believer dying to sin through the death of Christ to serve in a new way. (Rom. 7:1-6) Read the NT and you will find that the power behind sin is the law (1 Corinth 15:56-57) – the moral code that says “Do this and you will live. Do it not and you will die. Follow this code to find life, or else be cursed and lose your status.”

    No, to be truly set from the power of sin we can no longer be under the law as a covenant whereby we either stand of fall before God. Yet, I contend that what Rome does is keep men functionally under the law, making their righteousness finally dependant upon works and performance.

    However, there is a better way. We must be translated into the realm of grace where righteousness and sonship are ours as a free gift. Only then is the power of sin decisively broken and are we free to live as loving servants of our Savior-God. Try reading Romans 6 from this vantage point and see if it does not ring true.

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