Is Luther's Justification Justifiable?



Not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man . . . None of those things which precede justification - whether faith or works - merit the grace itself of justification.

{Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, Jan. 13, 1547, chapters 7,8}

Justification, according to Catholicism and Trent, is a true eradication of sin. On the other hand it is a supernatural sanctifying and renewal of the inner man. Protestantism's teaching of the merely external imputation of Jesus Christ's justice was rejected by Trent as heretical. Catholicism holds that true faith in Jesus Christ is not saving faith unless it bears fruit in good works, without which spiritual growth is impossible. In this way, good works are necessary for salvation. Such a statement and view makes Protestants uncomfortable. Without denying the importance of good works, Protestantism tends to see them as symptoms of the necessary imputed justification, rather than as necessities in their own right.


Being made holy. The first sanctification takes place at baptism. The second sanctification is a lifelong process in which a person already in the state of grace grows in the possession of grace and in likeness to God by faithfully corresponding with divine inspirations. The third sanctification takes place when a person enters heaven and becomes totally and irrevocably united with God in the beatific vision.

{John Hardon}


The condescension or benevolence shown by God toward the human race; it is also the unmerited, supernatural  gift proceeding from this benevolent disposition. G, therefore, is a totally gratuitous gift on which man has absolutely no claim.

{John Hardon}


Divine reward for the practice of virtue. It is Catholic doctrine that by his good works a person in the state of grace really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God. The meritorious work must be morally good. Merit depends on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting happiness the good works performed by his grace. On account of the infinite distance between Creator and creature, a human being alone cannot make God his or her debtor, if God does not do so by his own free ordinance.

{John Hardon}

The reward given for good works is not won by reason of actions which precede grace, but grace, which is unmerited, precedes actions in order that they may be performed meritoriously.

{Second Council of Orange, 529 A.D.}


An actual sin that destroys sanctifying G and causes the supernatural death of the soul. The transgression of a divine law in a grievous matter with full knowledge and consent.

{John Hardon}


An offense against God which does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace. It is called venial (from venia, pardon) because the soul still has the vital principle that allows a cure from within.

{John Hardon}

Venial sin can result, e.g.,  when one violates a divine law without full consent or knowledge.


1. The deepest split in the history of Christianity originated in a misunderstanding. Even if Protestants and Catholics disagree about the relationship between faith and good works, they both agree that (1) Faith is absolutely necessary for salvation and (2) we are absolutely commanded by God to do good works. Catholicism does not teach that one is saved by good works apart from wholly unmerited grace from God, or apart from faith or the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Rather, the Catholic view is that faith and good works are intrinsically and inevitably intertwined, as St. James clearly states ("faith without works is dead"). A person cannot save himself by his own works (i.e., not preceded by God's grace and supernatural assistance).

This is Catholic dogma and doctrine, and always has been. The doctrine of "works-salvation" often attributed to Catholicism by unknowing Protestants, is a heresy known as Pelagianism, which was never taught or condoned by the Catholic Church and which was officially condemned by it at the above-mentioned 2nd Council of Orange in 529 A.D. St. Augustine had vigorously opposed it over a century earlier, in strict accordance with Catholic Tradition and theology. To continue to accuse Catholics of espousing this heinous error is dishonest and slanderous for anyone who takes the time to research the true Catholic teaching, as plainly stated in Catholic Church documents such as the decrees of the Councils of Trent and Vatican II, Catechisms, etc.

E.g., Trent states unequivocally:

If anyone saith that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

{Canon I on J, January 13, 1547}


For Luther sin is passion, for Catholics sin is in the will - the act of choice. From the Lutheran point of view the conclusion follows that there can be no freedom from sin in this world. Man is born and dies in iniquity. The utmost he can attain is an assurance that this won't be counted against him - that Jesus Chris's redemptive suffering covers all. Hence justice is only imputed - the Lutheran concept which became the center of controversy.

In Catholic teaching, on the other hand, the work of justification is not limited to the act of faith with which it begins. It is carried on by the use of the sacraments, the life of charity and the practice of good works, so that human nature recovers the spiritual life that was lost by sin and man becomes a new creature.

{Christopher Dawson}

3. According to the Bible, grace and sin are total opposites, like light and darkness, or life and death. The Bible knows nothing of a communication of grace without the corresponding expulsion of sin (see 2 Cor 6:14; Col 2:13; 1 Jn 3:14). According to Calvin (Institutes, III, 12,4), all works of man are before God "impurity and dirt."  This is not the view of the Bible, Christian Tradition, reason, or the instinctive moral law within all of us.


In the Catholic doctrine of merit Protestantism sees a belittling of grace and of the merits of Jesus Christ, a favoring of external sanctification through works, base self-interest, and pharisaical self-righteousness.

{Ludwig Ott}

These are all false perceptions of Catholic teaching, based on misunderstanding, sheer ignorance, or the unfortunate Protestant tendency of "dichotomizing" many theological ideas or practices into mutually-contradictory categories, when in fact there is no need to do so, as in the present case (e.g., faith vs. works; Jesus Christ's perfect merit vs. our relative merits always derived from His; justification vs. sanctification; grace vs. free will; etc.).

5. Many Protestants have approached the Catholic view in their explanations of faith, justification, good works, sanctification and other related topics. C.S. Lewis pondered why Christians seem to emphasize either good works or faith to the exclusion of the other, and concluded, "It does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary . . . If what you call your 'faith' in Jesus Christ does not involve taking the slightest notice of what He says, then it is not faith at all." A.W. Tozer commented, "The promise of pardon and cleansing is always associated in the Scriptures with the command to repent . . . Apart from obedience, there can be no salvation." Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought that "Good works then are ordained for the sake of salvation, but they are in the end those which God himself works within us. They are his gift, but it is our task to walk in them at every moment of our lives." And John Wesley stated, "I allow, not only faith, but likewise holiness or universal obedience, to be the ordinary condition of final salvation . . . Do not say, 'I can do nothing'. If so, you know nothing of Jesus Christ; you have no faith . . . You must work together with Him, or He will cease working."


1. Infused Justification (Not Just a Legal Declaration)

2 Sam 12:13        Is 44:22             1 Cor 6:11
1 Chron 21:8       Ezek 37:23           Heb 1:3
Ps 32:5            Jn 1:29              1 Pet 1:2
   51:2,7-10       Acts 3:19            1 Jn 1:7-9 (cf. Mt
   103:12          Rom 2:13               8:3; 11:5; Lk
Is 43:25               5:12-19 (17-19)      7:22)

2. Sanctification Included in Justification

Mt 5:20            1 Cor 6:11          Gal 6:15
   7:16-20         2 Cor 3:18          Heb 12:10,14
Rom 5:17-19              5:17          1 Pet 1:2
    12:20                7:1

3. God's Necessary Preceding and Enabling Grace

Jn 6:28            1 Cor 15:10         Phil 2:13
1 Cor 3:9          Eph 2:8-10

4. Works (Along With Faith) Necessary For Salvation

Mt 7:16-27 (21,24,26)   Acts 26:20     Phil 3:10-14
   16:27                Rom 2:5-13     1 Tim 6:18
   25:31-46 (35-36)     1 Cor 3:8-9    Titus 3:5-8
Lk 18:18-25 (18,22)           15:58    Heb 6:10
Jn 6:27-29              Gal 6:7-9

5. Faith and Works Two Sides of the Same Coin

Jn 6:27-29         1 Cor 15:10         Heb 5:9
Acts 10:35         Gal 5:6                 10:23-24
Rom 1:5            Eph 2:8-10          Jas 1:21-27
     2:13           Phil 2:12-13            2:14-26
    6:17           1 Thess 1:3         1 Pet 1:2
    10:16          2 Thess 1:8,11      2 Pet 1:10
    15:18-19       Titus 1:16
    16:25-26             3:5-8

6. Differential Reward / Merit

Mt 16:27           1 Cor 3:8           1 Tim 6:19
Lk 14:13-14              15:58         1 Pet 1:17
Rom 2:5-6          Gal 6:9             Rev 22:12

7. Salvation As a Process (Not A One-Time Event)

Jn 6:27-29         1 Tim 6:18-19       Heb 10:36
Phil 2:12-13       Heb 6:9-12          2 Pet 1:10

8. Salvation Can Be Lost / No "Eternal Security"

1 Cor 9:27         1 Tim 1:19-20       Heb 10:26,29,39
      10:12              4:1               12:14-15
Gal 4:9                  5:15          2 Pet 2:15,20-21
    5:1,4          Heb 3:12-14         Rev 2:4-5
Col 1:22-23            6:4-6

9. Baptismal Regeneration

Jn 3:5             1 Cor 6:11          Titus 3:5
Acts 2:38          Gal 3:27            1 Pet 3:21


1. Matthew 7:21   "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven."

2. John 6:28   "Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?"

3. Romans 2:13  "(For not the hearers of the law {are} just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified."

4. Romans 5:19   "For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous."

5. 1 Corinthians 6:11   "And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God."

6. Ephesians 2:8-10   "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: {it is} the gift of God: (9) Not of works, lest any man should boast. (10) For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."

7. Philippians 2:12-13   "Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (13) For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of {his} good pleasure."

8. Titus 3:5   "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; (6) Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; (7) That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (8) {This is} a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works . . ."

9. Hebrews 3:12-14  "Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. (13) But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. (14) For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end."  (cf. Heb 6:4-6)

10. James 1:22   "But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves."

11. James 2:14,17-18,21-22,24   "What {doth it} profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? . . . (17) Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (18) Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works . . . (21) Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? (22) Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? . . . (24) Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only."

12. 1 Peter 1:2   "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ . . ."

13. 1 John 1:9   "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us {our} sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

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Written by Dave Armstrong in 1994. Uploaded on 22 August 2001.