Do Catholics Affirm Justification by Faith Alone?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the most remarkable lectures I ever heard at an apologetics conference was a Friday morning session with Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College.  Kreeft is a highly respected Catholic scholar who has taught at BC for many years and written more than 60 books.

Kreeft’s lecture focused on his desire to see Roman Catholics and Evangelicals move toward unity, certainly a worthy goal as long as we’re not compromising any essential doctrines.  But what I wasn’t expecting to hear was his statement that Catholics now agree that justification is by faith alone.  Yes, you read that right.

Kreeft explained that in 1999 the Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation jointly issued a declaration on the doctrine of justification, the central issue of the Reformation.  In 2006, the World Methodist Council also voted to affirm this declaration.

In this declaration, the Catholic Church agreed that justification is by faith alone and it withdrew the condemnations of the Council of Trent toward those Protestants that affirmed justification by faith alone.  Kreeft explained that the Council of Trent was condemning the idea that works are not part of the totality of salvation, which is composed of justification, sanctification, and glorification.  Luther, on the other hand, was specifically speaking of justification, not sanctification and glorification, when he said works were not involved in salvation.  So the Council of Trent misunderstood Luther, according to Kreeft.  It took 400 years to figure this out, but better late than never.

During Q&A, Kreeft was quick to add that there are many other areas of disagreement that need to be discussed among Catholics and Protestants, but he believed that if Catholics and Protestants can come to agreement on the doctrine of justification, which was the defining controversy of the Reformation, then there is hope to come to agreement on other issues as well.

I have read the declaration and I believe Kreeft’s interpretation of it is indeed correct.  I invite all who are interested in this issue to read the declaration.  It is not that long and can be read by someone who is moderately familiar with theological terminology.  Also, to preempt fruitless discussion, I would ask that folks not comment or jump to any conclusions about this issue until you have read the declaration yourself.  I am very curious to hear reactions from both Catholics and Protestants alike.

  • While it’s true that justification by faith alone was important to Luther, it’s important to note that the doctrine of justification had nothing to do with Luther’s split from Rome. The papal bull excommunicating Luther listed 41 issues, and justification by faith was not among them.

    Thus, I don’t believe it’s accurate to say that justification by faith alone was “the defining controversy of the Reformation.” The authority of the pope and the infallibility of church councils was the defining controversy of the Reformation (the pope was not yet infallible at that time–good grief, RC tradition is ridiculous).

  • Bill Pratt

    Thanks for the comment. Every time I hear Reformed Christians talk about the Reformation, they always say that the defining issue was justification. You are correct that there were other important issues as well, which are still separating Protestants and RC’s, but at least some progress has been made. We should celebrate every victory, wouldn’t you say?

  • Thanks for the kind response. I don’t mean to be difficult, but as far as celebrating victory, it depends on the victory?

    Some unifying between Reformed and Catholic? Hmm. Hard to say that’s bad.

    My hope, though, is one thing. That the Gospel message of being sold out to Christ would be preached. That those who believe that Gospel would be together, and that those who don’t believe that Gospel would feel themselves outside and not Christians.

    While we lower the Gospel to a mere prayer or to performing church rituals, it’s hard for me to rejoice. I’m looking for a strong, clear distinction to be made between those called by God to leave their own lives to enter his, and those who merely agree that Jesus was who he said he was. The latter is not enough.

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Paul,
    That is what is exciting about this declaration. Evangelicals have been complaining for centuries that RC’s believe in a false gospel because justification is accomplished through faith and works. Commenters on this very blog have quoted the Council of Trent where it says that anyone who believes works are not part of salvation are condemned. But here we have the Catholic Church officially agreeing with what the Reformation taught about justification! Again, I think this is astounding, but I look around and find very little joy from Protestants that RC’s have issued this declaration.

    Why? I don’t get it. It almost seems like we Protestants won’t be happy unless we have somebody to fight.

  • Lol. I’m not a Protestant. I use the term sometimes, but I’m as “out” of Protestantism as I am out of Roman Catholicism.

    2 Tim. 2:19 says the sure foundation of God is that God knows who are his and that those who name Christ should depart from iniquity.

    I’m not very concerned about agreeing on doctrine–even on justification. I’m concerned about being in fellowship with justified people, one in Spirit because we’re obeying Christ together. You can tell who’s justified by their love and righteousness quite apart from their understanding of justification (1 Jn. 3:7 and 4:7).

    So I’ll be excited if RC’s and Protestants unite around the righteousness produced by grace (Tit. 2:11-14). If they unite around a doctrine of justification, I’ll be hopeful that good fruit will come … but not excited until I see it.

    I commend your great attitude, though. I like it.

  • Well, there’s a rub in the matter. The fine-print lies in the semantics of the word “faith”. What does it include/entail? Protestants and Catholics negotiated that “faith” in this context must be something that entails works of love. Saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. It isn’t difficult to calculate that “faith AND works” (former RC position) and “faith THAT works” end up in the same place. It’s really just a matter of rhetorics. Rome didn’t have to move a bit and didn’t actually change her position at all. Faith that develops works of love is ultimately 100% compatible with the more plain creed that faith requires works of love in order to be sufficient for salvation.

    The Roman Catholic Church didn’t make any concession to the protestants here at all! Anyone who thinks so, hasn’t understood the semantics of “faith”. The new, common agreement on “Sola Fide” is nothing else than “Faith alone that isn’t alone”. Many a protestant has been deluded, it seems.

    -a helmet

  • Bill Pratt

    A Helmet,
    Thanks for the comment. I want to understand your position. Are you saying that a purely intellectual faith without love of Christ justifies a person?


  • John

    The issue (understanding) of justification is indeed quite a central point in the history Protestant / Roman Catholic split nearly 500 years ago. I quote from the Compendium to the Catechism of Catholic Church #422 for a greater clarification of the Roman Catholic teaching (a great read by the way):

    “Justification is the most excellent work of God’s love. It is the merciful and freely-given act of God which takes away our sins and makes us just and holy in our whole being. It is brought about by the means of the grace of the Holy Spirit which has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ and given to us in Baptism. Justification is the beginning of the free response of man, that is, faith in Christ and of cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit”.

    A couple points to draw out:
    1. Justification is solely a work of God.
    2. Justification is a freely given gift of God merited by the Passion of Christ, not because we deserve it.
    3. This justification makes us holy, that is, brings us into the presence or / relationship with Christ (from whom all holiness derives).
    4. We receive this gift in Baptism.
    5. Once justificed we can begin to collaborate freely with this grace (e.g., live the life of goods works – charity – in faith and hope that we are building his kingdom).

    I don’t think there is much there that a Protestant might disagree with (except maybe the part about Baptism). For all the talk about it on both sides of the fence if this hasn’t been “discovered” until now it just reveals the hardness and stubbornness of the human heart.

    The Roman Catholic Church is also going through similar dialogues with the Orthodox Churches at this time with similar results and “a-ha” moments.

    Unification is, I believe, of the utmost importance. It must not be compromised, of course, but let’s face it; how many have walked away from Christ throughout the centuries due to our collective selfishness? I doubt that when Christ prayed in the garden hours before his death “that they all may be one” he intended for the obvious divisions in HIS church. Pope Benedict has reminded us that unification is a gift and, just like justification, it too, is also unmerited. Keep up the good work.

  • I don’t see a contradiction there. Iron tower personalities (intellectuals) aren’t less loving than “practical” people. We don’t appreciate this rational, thinking personality type enough and consider them “cold” or head-oriented. Intellectualism can be a form of love also.

  • Bill Pratt

    Thanks, John. There are many different views of baptism within Protestantism, so the issue of baptism does not separate Catholic from Protestant, but Protestant from Protestant. I think the key issue is that justification, as you mentioned, is by faith alone through God’s grace alone, meaning that good works on the part of an individual do not justify a person. Good works are performed after justification as a part of the sanctification process. These good works determine our heavenly rewards.

    Maybe these things take timte to sink in, as the Catechism you quote from was released in 2000, I believe, and the declaration was released in 1999. Perhaps 500 years of disagreement over this issue cannot be forgotten in as little as 10 years. In any case, I will continue to point this out as often as I can. Eventually it will take root.

  • Bill Pratt

    Sorry. I didn’t mean intellectual as a really smart person in academia. I meant intellectual as in “with the intellect only.” A person is composed of intellect, will, and emotions. What I’m asking is whether you believe that faith entails only the use of the intellect and does not require the use of a person’s will and emotions (love would fall under these latter two categories). Maybe another way to ask the question is this: what exactly does faith consist of?

  • Can I suggest that the heavenly rewards for good works after justification include eternal life and whether we go to heaven at all?

    I can’t imagine how it could be said any more clearly than Paul says it in Gal. 5:19-21 and 6:7-10. Nor are those the only such verses; there are literally dozens of them.

    Yes, our initial justification–our deliverance from past sins and our deliverance from “the law of sin and death” described in Romans 7–can only happen by faith apart from works. But once that justification has happened, and we are “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works,” the Scriptures say repeatedly that those good works are required, and Christians are warned repeatedly that not producing those good works–by the Spirit–will result in death (Rom. 8:12-13, for example) as contrasted with eternal life (Rom. 2:5-8; Gal. 6:8-9).

  • Ray A

    Hello all,

    Perhaps I’m oversimplifying a bit, so I apologize in advance.

    My understanding of Biblical salvation is:
    0) All men are sinners, are deserving and headed for hell, due to original sin, and our actual sin.
    1) God justifies the sinner by imputing to him the righteousness of Christ; applying Christ’s work on the cross to the sinner’s account and erasing our sins.
    2) The sinner receive this gift of justification by faith through grace, and not our own works/merit. While receiving justification the sinner repents.

    3) Once 1) and 2) are completed (same instantaneous event) the sinner is saved from the wrath of God and is guaranteed heaven.

    4) Love of Christ and others, and good works will follow as evidence of 1) and 2). This is sanctification, a life long process.

    I believe RC does not agree with these statements. My understanding of RC doctrine
    1) Baptism is required for initial justification
    2) Good works + sacrements are required beyond that and may only guarantee a spot in purgatory.
    3) No one can be assured of heaven (most will need purgatory)

    So assuming I’m right [and that is a big one :-)], these are quite different plans of salvation.
    Not trying to be devisive, but want to point out that salvation is central and key, i.e, questions of:
    -how do I get to heaven?
    -how can I be sure?
    are of utmost importance. If one does not know how to be sure of of salvation, he may be be led astray. According to the Bible the divide between heaven and hell is so huge that we can not afford to be unsure.

    Quoting John MacArthur:
    “This issue is not a trivial one. In fact, how could any issue be more important? The gospel that is presented to unbelievers has eternal ramifications. If it is the true gospel, it can direct men and women into the everlasting kingdom. If it is a corrupted message, it can give unsaved people false hope while consigning them to eternal damnation. This is not merely a matter for theologians to discuss and debate and speculate about. This is an issue that every single pastor and lay person must understand in order that the gospel may be rightly proclaimed to all the nations.”

    There is only one true gospel!
    However, adjacent to this narrow gate, are 2 counterfits:
    a) Salvation by works
    b) Easy-believism

    The link below does an excellent job spelling out the true gospel, while avoding a) and b).

    To Christ Alone Be the Glory

  • Bernard

    On the issue of The Council of Trent and its meaning regarding the Gospel, and specifically Justification.

    A common starting point for misunderstanding has been to regard it as a complete tretise on the subject. The Catholic Church already had documents on the subject, probably the most comprehensive is the Cannons of the Council of Orange AD 529. The Catholic Church was not trying to change its previous understanding one iota, it was tryin g to clarify certain issues.

    Understanding a document like the Council of Trent’s proclaomations on Justification is rather like trying to understand Paul’s letters. Often Paul gives us an answer without restating the question he is being asked. What is vital is to ask – What questions was Trent answering?

    Today we can be pretty certain. Rather than nailing a final answer on What is Justification? down, the Council of Trent clearly spells out positions which are incompatible with real faith.

    Notions of getting to heaven by our own works are ruled out. Notions of getting to heaven by a combination of human and divine effort are ruled out. Now that might shock some Catholics, but their is a veery strong Council of Orange and Thomist undercurrent to Trent. Every desire, we have, every inclination, every ability to do good, or even wish to do good, is only in us because God has placed it in us.

    Other positions are ruled out. On Assurance of Salvation: confidence based on ‘faith’ without a changed life is ruled out. Two modern false teachings are clearly ruled out here. One is ‘Easy Believism’, the other is preching that ‘you know you are saved when you know you are saved’ – the preaching of assurance of salvation as salvation.

  • Bill Pratt

    Interesing comments. Thank you for moving the dialogue along and providing some new perspective. How do you read the declaration on justification? Do you agree with Dr. Kreeft’s analysis?

  • MJ

    I believe salvation by grace. Though I do not know many details about the various christian denominations, I feel RC beliefs are weired. I do not have any grudge against them and I would love all of them to find the truth. I don’t know if it makes sense here but I really wanted to share this myth which one of my RC friends told me. She said, children who die young will reach heaven if they agree to sacrifice their little fingure as a “ticket to heaven”. I couldn’t help laughing but she was serious and she said it was a belief among RC people. There are many such myths. A declaration alone will not help, people should be interesting in finding the truth for themselves.

  • Bill Pratt

    I read the link you provided. It mostly deals with easy-believism, which I think RC’s do not uphold. I think they would agree with most everything in that article. The bigger question is what is the role of works. There is a specific section on the role of works in the declaration.

    Here is a passage I think we would agree with:

    When Catholics affirm the “meritorious” character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven (emphasis mine) is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.

    Here the word “reward” is in heaven, so clearly heaven itself is not a reward. But then we get the next passage:

    When [Lutherans] view the good works of Christians as the fruits and signs of justification and not as one’s own “merits”, they nevertheless also understand eternal life in accord with the New Testament as unmerited “reward” in the sense of the fulfillment of God’s promise to the believer.

    Here “rewards” is in quotations and speaks of eternal life. It seems like the main thrust is toward rewards not including eternal life, but that Catholics want Lutherans to understand that they sometimes use the word “reward” to indicate eternal life, but it still cannot be earned by good works.

    If you take that view, then Catholics are agreeing that good works do not merit entrance into heaven.


  • Bill, thank you for the link and post. I will point out two aspects of this dialogue that I find significant. Primarily, it is important to remember that the Lutherans do not represent many of the other Protestant flavours; indeed, not even all branches of Lutheranism accept this declaration.

    Secondarily, as I understand the issue, the key distinction is still intact, though each side acknowledges this distinction to no longer be a cause of misunderstanding or grounds for “doctrinal condemnation”. In paragraph 4.3, the distinction is clearly laid out:

    Lutheran Perspective: “In the doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” a distinction but not a separation is made between justification itself and the renewal of one’s way of life that necessarily follows from justification and without which faith does not exist.”

    Catholic Perspective: “The justification of sinners is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous by justifying grace, which makes us children of God.”

    The Reformed tradition views justification as a legal declaration of righteousness (leading to a life of pursued actual righteousness), whereas the Catholic tradition teaches that justification is the imputation of actual righteousness. When we are justified through faith and because of Christ’s righteousness, we are made actually righteous. This is what most Protestants find offensive.

    I am happy for this dialogue and others between Catholics and Protestants. Ever since the second Vatican Council, the Church has made great strides toward unity and understanding. It is, I think, a sign of ecclesiastical maturity that various branches of Christianity are now coming to terms with their theological roots, and that the root is willing to accept (in some cases, at least) the nuances of its branches.

  • John

    Chris raises a key point, one that has large ramifications.

    This is the distinction between a legal declaration and imputed righteousness. I think he is right when he states that this is what most Protestants find offensive. The question is this: why is this offensive? I can’t speak for all Protestants, but it seems that the answer lies in the nuance as to who gets the credit.

    The arguement goes something like this (pardon the analogy). If God puts “money” into my “account” then it’s no longer His, it’s mine. It’s no longer Christ’s all sufficient sacrifice which justifies me. It’s somehow something of which I own. Now something can’t be owned by both God and me at the same time and we know it’s His sacrifice alone, therefore, it can’t possible be mine too. I hope that’s not too confusing. Protestants argue that Catholics “assume ownership” of something which properly belongs to Him.

    I can understand that point, but it has consequences. It relegates our relationship with God to strictly the legal domain. That would be true if Christ did not elevate us to a higher domain, that of divine sonship. This is what the New Covenant is really all about. This is what offended the Pharisees so much.

    The first 2 words of the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father) summarizes this point perfectly. If He is our father then we are, without doubt, his children (albeit adopted, not begotten) but his children nonetheless. I have a son. He is adopted. He is not my biological son, but make no mistake about it: he is my son. How, if not biological? Through relationship.

    Sometimes we say we believe that we are God’s children, but have we really internalized what that means? Do we understand the full ramifications of that kind of promise? The is the Catholic position in full. Yes, God will judge me, so did my earthly father when I was a child in order to properly rebuke me for my own good. But did judge me in the legal sense or the paternal sense? What’s the difference? Mercy and compassion. Think about how you judge your own chidlren. Some people would argue that the legal sense is harsher, but I say that a father demands more of his son that a judge does of the accused.

    No, I am not worthy, but yes I am his son and He is my Father who art in heaven. Christ came to earth to reveal that to me and I am so very grateful.

  • Bill Pratt

    Thanks for the response. You make some interesting points. My take on this situation is that most Protestants I know believe the reformation was about how a person gets to heaven. Protestants believe that a person is in when he places his faith in Christ, at that moment. Catholics believe (according to Protestants) that a person is only in after they place their faith in Christ and perform works of righteousness over the rest of their lives. At no point, under the Catholic system, can a person know that they are in during this life because maybe they did not perform enough good works.

    This declaration seems to deny the second view. My reading of it is that when a person places their faith in Christ, they are justified and they are going to heaven. Performing good works does not get you into heaven. Works, as the declaration says, is about rewards in heaven, not the reward of heaven (see section 4.7 of the declaration).

    This is a pretty big deal, and seems to nullify the Protestant complaint.

    Do you see it that way?

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Chris,
    This paragraph from 4.3 seems to me to meet the demands of Protestants. Am I missing something?

    We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God’s gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.

  • Bill Pratt

    One more item from the Lutheran side:

    Insofar as the Catholic doctrine stresses that grace is personal and linked with the Word, that renewal certainly nothing but a response effected by God’s word itself, and that the renewal of the human being does not contribute to justification, and is certainly not a contribution to which a person could make any appeal before God, our objection longer applies” (VELKD 89,12-21).

  • Listening to Catholic lectures, finding unity with the Catholic church… you’re well on your way to Rome 🙂 One thing I’ve learned in my transition to Catholicism is how similar the doctrines are to many mainstream Protestant denominational teachings. As a Protestant (born and raised), I had many “disagreements” with the Catholic Church that were due entirely to my ignorance of Catholic teaching. With more and more of my “disagreements” being resolved over the past 3 years, I find less reasons not to jump ship.

    Having said that, I will point out one ramification of that distinction I mentioned earlier. Catholics teach that a soul may live perfectly sinless on earth; the reformed tradition soundly rejects this claim. The basis for the Catholic teaching is in the idea that a soul, being justified by faith in Christ’s sufficient sacrifice, is made actually clean and sinless. The soul, therefore, may continue to be clean and sinless, though most of us, like children, are prone to dirty ourselves and would then be in need of further cleansing (confession, absolution, penance, etc.).

  • Marco

    Bill, do you have a link to Kreeft’s original comments?

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Marco,
    His comments are recorded on CD from the apologetics conference. You can purchase it at this site. Scroll down to number 23 and you’ll see it.

  • Darcy

    Hi Bill!

    Not sure if you’d be curious to see more new perspectives, but may I suggest you read something I’ve read about this topic some years ago?

    God bless!


  • Mark

    Bill, you have repeated your question a few times- what is this faith that justifies?

    I think this is what the Catholic teaching is. A faith is justifying only if it is a ‘living faith’, which means only if it is a faith informed by agape (agape is a supernatural virtue infused in the soul by God). Agape is what makes the faith a living faith, and therefore makes the faith justifying- and so agape is simultaneous with justification.

    Agape is a disposition in the soul, and it will necessarily lead to works, but a disposition is not the same as works. So one can have a living faith (which includes agape, by definition of a ‘living fiath’) which is the only type of faith that justifies- and not have done any works yet. Catholicism believes that infants- who through Baptism have had the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity infused into their souls by God- who die before doing any works can still go to Heaven.

    You are justified by faith alone (‘living faith’ alone, which at least includes agape), without merit on your part (though perhaps it’s correct to say that merit is involved i.e. merits of Christ), apart from works (though works will necessarily follow).

    I must admit, I do not fully understand the totality of the Catholic doctrine on justification. I am still learning my faith, so I admit that it’s possible I made a mistake somewhere above. Also remember, I am only talking about about initial justification, not the whole of salvation.

    I am Catholic, and so if anything I have said is not in line with Catholic Church teaching, I did not mean to and I repeal it. I submit my judgment to the Church established by Christ, and do not consider myself a teaching authority. I’m a student.

    Also, there is a website that has wonderful articles on issues which Catholics and protestants disagree about, and here are two articles which deal with your question,

  • Chavoux

    Hi Bill,

    If this were truly the official catholic view, I would rejoice as well. Unfortunately, while I have met individual Catholics who accepted being saved by grace alone through faith alone, I have never seen that taught in any official catholic catechism or official papal pronouncement. Keep in mind that the pope is still the only one who can give an “inerrant” teaching on matters of faith in the Roman Catholic Church. So in short, the reason for not rejoicing yet, at least in my case, is a deep-seated scepticism that this is truly the official Roman Catholic viewpoint. More-over, even the work of sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit, allowing God to change us progressively, rather than anything I do or could brag about.

  • My understanding is that the declaration linked to in the blog post is as “official” as you can get. The pope and cardinals would have never allowed this declaration to go through without agreeing with its contents.

    I actually see things the opposite to how you see them. I think that Catholic leadership agrees with justification by faith alone, but many of the laypeople haven’t gotten the memo. They lag behind what the leadership believes.