By William Webster

Few doctrines have generated as much controversy as the doctrine of justification. It was the major conflict between Paul and the Judaizers and precipitated the great controversy between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. The doctrine of justification has been an ongoing source of division between Rome and Protestantism ever since.  

Today, there are many voices clamoring for dialogue and a reassessment of this division from within both communions, all in the name of unity. Some Evangelicals are suggesting that the Reformers misunderstood the teachings of Paul. Others insist that the differences that divide the two communions are only a matter of semantics, insisting that Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are agreed in their teachings on salvation but with different emphases. Is it possible that either or both of these positions are true? In order to answer that question, it is essential that we understand what the Bible teaches on this subject.

The Biblical Teaching of Justification

There are two major passages of Scripture that are foundational to an understanding of justification. The first is Romans 3:24-26:

Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:24-26).

This passage makes clear that the atonement of Christ took place to vindicate the righteousness of God so that He might be found just while mercifully justifying sinners. The forgiveness and justification of sinners must be compatible with God’s justice and righteousness because he is holy (1 John 1:5); it must be consistent with and a fulfillment of the law because the law is an expression of God’s holiness.

The law demands death for transgression and perfect obedience in order to receive God’s acceptance (Gal. 3:10; Ezek. 18:4; Rom. 6:23). The sad reality is that we have all transgressed God’s law and abide under its condemnation (Rom. 3:19-20). We are all sinners and unrighteousness (Rom. 3:10-12, 23). So the question is: How can unjust sinners stand before a God who is infinitely holy and just? How can he forgive, accept, and deliver us from condemnation when we have transgressed that law and consequently do not possess perfect righteousness?

The great message of the gospel is that God is able to do this through the person and work of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Understanding the work of Christ, then, is key to understanding the meaning of justification. This brings us to the second major passage found in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians:

For as many as are the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Gal. 3:10–13).

Here we see that Christ undertook the work of atonement to deal with the penalty of a transgressed law. In so doing, he became both a curse and propitiation. What does that mean?

Curse and Propitiation

The scriptures tell us that Christ became a curse for us. Our sin was imputed to him (1 Pet. 2:24; Is. 53:6; Gal. 1:4; Rom. 8:32; Eph. 5:2). He then became a propitiation, suffering the wrath of God against our sin by giving his own life in death to satisfy the demands of the law (Rom 3:26). On the cross Christ bore the full penalty of the law—the curse of the law (he hung on a tree in death)—because the law demands death for transgression. Christ fulfilled this demand as our substitute.

If we truly understand the nature of Christ’s atonement, then we will understand justification because justification is directly related to the atonement in scripture: “Having now been justified by His blood we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Rom. 5:9). To be justified by Christ’s blood is to be justified by his death which is his work of atonement.

The New Testament teaches that his atonement is once–for–all (Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27, 9:25-26, 10:10). This means that it is a finished and complete work. Jesus himself said, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). The atonement cannot be repeated or somehow perpetuated through time.

This once–for–all aspect of the work of Christ applies to Jesus’ death, the offering of his body and his sacrifice (Heb. 9:25–26; 10:10). Just as Christ cannot die again, neither can his body be offered again or his sacrifice be continued for sin (Heb. 10:18). The result then, of this one sacrifice, is a sufficient and finished atonement. Christ’s atonement has completely removed the guilt of our sin and its condemnation because he paid the penalty in full.

So then, the sins of those who are in Christ have been cancelled out, obliterated (Col. 2:13-14), abolished, removed and put away (Heb. 9:26, 10:4; Rev. 1:5). As Psalm 103:12 states: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). Christ’s resurrection is God’s verdict that his atonement has fully satisfied his justice and that men can be fully delivered from all condemnation and judgment (Rom. 4:25).

The Atonement and Justification

The atonement of Christ is not an on–going process. It was a once–for–all, non–repeatable and finished work. This means then that justification likewise is not a process but is a once–for–all, non–repeatable, finished work. It is an eternal state of forgiveness and acceptance with God. Because the atonement was forensic (legal) in nature, justification is also a forensic work. When a man is justified, all legal claims against him have been satisfied and he is forgiven. He is imputed with the righteousness of Christ and declared righteous before God. The New Testament teaches that, in justification, we possess the righteousness of God and through this righteousness we are given an eternal forgiveness and acceptance before him (Rom. 3:21; Phil 3:8-9).

The Righteousness of God

Because of God’s holiness men need a righteousness that will truly justify them before God and this righteousness must be a perfect fulfillment of God’s law. The wonderful news of the gospel is that when a man is united to Jesus Christ he is given that righteousness as a gift (Rom. 3:26). What is this righteousness?  As it relates to justification, the word describes the work of Christ, his perfect life of obedience and atonement. As Paul described it: “and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:9). This is the basis for man’s justification. The following are the essential characteristics of the righteousness that justifies:

  • It is a righteousness that comes from God (Phil. 3:9).

  • It is an objective, completed righteousness (Phil. 3:9; Rom. 4:6).

  • It is a righteousness accomplished outside of and apart from man (Rom. 3:21).

  • It is a gift (Rom. 3:26; 5:15-17).

  • It is given apart from works (Rom. 4:5-6; 10:1-4).

  • It is imputed (Rom. 4:6).

  • It is given to the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).

  • It is received by faith (Phil. 3:9; Rom. 4:5).

  • It is the person and obedience of Christ in his work of atonement (Rom. 3:21, 24-26; 5:18-19).

  • It is given as a result of union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:30).

The righteousness that God requires as a fulfillment of his law is provided as a gift in his Son Jesus Christ who is described as “the Lord our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6). The righteousness of God is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:30), and it is his life and obedience which is the righteousness that justifies, not that of the believer (Rom. 5:19). It is important to note that this righteousness is not limited to Christ’s work of atonement but includes his entire life of obedience. Christ fulfilled the law as man’s substitute positively by living a perfect life of obedience. He also paid the penalty for our sin. His work on the cross is the ultimate culmination of a life lived in submission and obedience (Phil. 2:8).

 Paul said that this righteousness is given as a gift by faith to the ungodly apart from works (Rom. 4:5). If this righteousness is given apart from works to the ungodly, then it must be independent of human works. It is a completed righteousness that is given and received.  

Justification is a forensic (legal) term which deals with acquittal from the claims of the law. It is based on the atonement of Christ and is a declaration of righteousness based on the imputation of the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 4:6). This actually constitutes (makes) a man righteous judicially before God because this righteousness is a real righteousness (Rom. 5:19). Therefore, justification does not mean to “make righteous” morally, but to declare one righteous legally. It has to do with a man’s legal status before God the holy Judge. It means to be acquitted from guilt, set free from condemnation and fully accepted by God.

This is not to say that in salvation God does not also make a man morally righteous. He most certainly does that, but that is the work of sanctification which is distinct from the work of justification. These are not interchangeable terms or concepts. They are two distinct aspects of the one overall work of salvation. One has to do with my legal state before God and the other with my moral state.

Just as man’s sin was imputed to Christ, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the true believer. Imputation is essential to the doctrine of justification. Historically, the concept of imputed righteousness has been mocked by the Roman Catholic Church. She calls it a “legal fiction.” But the imputation of righteousness is the explicit teaching of scripture (Rom. 4:5-6). In justification there is a real righteousness and a real imputation, just as in the atonement the imputation of man’s sin to Christ was a real imputation and his death a real death. Justification is not a legal fiction (2 Cor. 5:21).

Grace and Faith

To understand imputed righteousness is to understand the biblical meaning of grace and faith. Grace is the means by which everything necessary for man to receive forgiveness, deliverance from condemnation, and eternal acceptance is provided as a gift by God. It is not a work achieved or merited by man in any way. It is accomplished by Christ alone. It is his righteousness alone. Therefore from a biblical standpoint, grace alone means by Christ alone, received by faith alone and not by works. As Paul put it: “If it is by grace it is no longer on the basis of works otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6).

Therefore, the idea that justification could be obtained by works must be repudiated and replaced by a faith that trusts in and exclusively relies on the person of Christ and his work of atonement for salvation. This and this alone is what the Bible describes as saving faith (Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5-6). This is the Reformation truth of sola fide or faith alone, another way of stating Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.”

The Place of Works

Salvation is more than justification. God not only delivers a man from the guilt of sin and condemnation but also from the nature and power of sin. A justified man is also regenerated, converted, adopted, sanctified and glorified. A justified man is a sanctified man (Jas. 2:14-21; Titus 2:11-14; 1 Jn. 2:3-6; 1 Cor. 1:30).

True saving faith is always demonstrated by works—works of love and holiness: “Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas. 2:18). According to Romans 4:2, Abraham was justified by faith apart from works, but his faith was demonstrated or evidenced by his works. His faith bore the fruit of love for God. In that sense his works justified (vindicated) his faith. Faith alone justifies (Rom. 3:28), but the faith that justifies will always give evidence of its existence, bearing fruit in holiness of life (Rom. 6:1-6). Works of righteousness do not merit justification and salvation, but they do give evidence of it. The Bible teaches nothing of justification without sanctification. If there is no fruit, says James, the professed faith is dead and will not save (Jas. 2:17, 20, 26).


The Protestant Reformers affirmed the biblical teaching of imputed righteousness for justification as well as the necessity for regeneration and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for sanctification, but without confusing the terms. They consistently taught that justification is by faith alone but by a faith evidenced by and which necessitated works of sanctification. The Reformers never implied that one could be justified and go on living in sin. The emphasis of the Reformation was upon a twofold understanding of righteousness, the imputed righteousness of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which makes possible the living out of the righteousness of sanctification. The sinner is declared righteous (justification) and made righteous (sanctification) in salvation.


Therefore, although the Reformation teaching of faith alone (sola fide) repudiates the notion that works are necessary for justification, it does not reject the biblical place of works. The Reformers unanimously insisted on the necessity for works of sanctification.

The Results of Justification

Justification is an eternal declaration by God which happens the moment an individual is united to Christ. The sinner is translated out of a state of sin and enmity with God into a state of forgiveness and righteousness and acceptance with him. He is reconciled to and has peace with God (Rom. 5:1), and is set free from all judgment and condemnation (Rom. 8:1; John 10:27-29).

Because justification is solely dependent on the life and work of Christ, it is perfect, complete and eternal in nature. Christ imparts eternal life (John 3:16), his work accomplishes an eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12) and provides an eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:15; 1 Pet. 1:4). Once a man is justified, therefore, he cannot lose that grace. The scriptures speak with certainty about assurance of eternal salvation. Jesus states that those who trust in and follow him will never perish (John 10:27-29; Rom. 8:1; John 5:24). Justification is a declaration of righteousness from the Judge of the universe, a state of forgiveness and acceptance with God which is as perfect and eternal as Christ’s own standing. It cannot be improved upon and it cannot be lost (Rom. 8:33–39).

That is the biblical position. What is the Roman Catholic teaching?

The Roman Catholic Position On Justification

Roman Catholic theology does not embrace justification as presented by scripture and the Protestant Reformers. The Roman Church does teach that we are justified by grace through faith on account of Christ. Some have been misled by this, concluding that Rome and Evangelicals agree on the essentials of the gospel and should therefore put aside their differences and unite. What is missing in this statement on justification, however, is the word alone. By omitting this little word, the Roman Church redefines the biblical meaning of grace, faith and justification thereby undermining and invalidating the teaching of scripture.

The Roman View of the Work of Christ

Rome teaches that Christ made an atonement for sin, meriting the grace by which a person is justified, but that the work of Christ is not the exclusive cause of an individual’s justification and salvation. Roman Catholic theologian, Ludwig Ott, states:  “Christ’s redemptive activity finds its apogee in the death of sacrifice on the cross. On this account it is by excellence but not exclusively the efficient cause of our redemption. . .”^[1]^  According to the Church of Rome, Christ did not accomplish a full, finished and completed salvation in his work of atonement. His death on the cross merited grace which is then channeled to the individual through the Roman Catholic Church and its sacraments.

Grace then is not the activity of God in Christ purchasing and accomplishing salvation and eternal life and applying this to man as a gift. Nor is it a completed work, but rather, a supernatural quality, infused into the soul of man through the sacraments, enabling him to do works of expiation and righteousness. These works then become the basis of justification. In Roman theology justification is a process based on works. Justification and sanctification are essentially the same work. The Council of Trent decreed:  “Justification…is not the remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man.”^[2]^

The Sacraments

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that she is the mediator between Christ and the individual and that there is no salvation apart from participation in the Roman sacraments mediated through her priesthood. These sacraments are the only means of obtaining saving grace. The Council of Trent stated:  “If any one saith that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation…and that without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain from God, through faith alone, the grace of justification…let him be anathema.”^[3]^

According to Rome, there are three main sacraments necessary for justification and ultimate salvation. They are baptism, penance, and the eucharist/mass. Through baptism, an individual is brought into a state of regeneration and sanctifying grace. The guilt and punishment for original sin and for all sins committed up to the point of baptism are forgiven in the sacrament of baptism. However, sins committed after baptism must be dealt with through the sacraments of penance and the mass. This is especially true for mortal sin which is said to kill the spiritual life in the soul and cause the loss of sanctifying grace and, therefore, of justification. In order to regain the state of grace the individual must participate in the sacraments and perform works of penance. As Ott stated, the atonement of Christ is not the exclusive cause of man’s redemption. Man must supplement the work of Christ for sins committed after baptism by partially atoning and expiating his own sin through penance. Trent states that no one can be justified apart from the sacrament of penance (the confession of sin to a priest, receiving his absolution and performing the required penance): “If any one saith that he who has fallen after baptism…is able to recover the justice which he has lost…by faith alone without the sacrament of Penance…let him be anathema.”^[4]^

In addition to Penance, the Church teaches the necessity for the mass as expiation for sins committed after baptism. The mass is the re–sacrifice of Jesus Christ as a propitiation for sin. It is declared by Trent to be a propitiatory sacrifice and necessary for salvation:

In this divine sacrifice…that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross…This sacrifice is truly propitiatory…If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; or that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice…and that it ought not to be offered for the living and dead for sins, pains, satisfactions and other necessities: let him be anathema.^[5]^

According to Rome, then, the offering of Christ in sacrifice is not finished but continues and is perpetuated through time. Such teaching contradicts scripture. The word of God teaches that Christ has made a complete propitiation for sin through his once–for–all sacrifice of atonement. It is finished. As we have seen, Scripture teaches that Christ’s sacrifice, the offering of his body and his death were once–for–all and cannot be repeated.  Since Christ cannot die again there is no more sacrifice for sin and therefore the mass cannot be the same sacrifice as Calvary. Nor can it be propitiatory.

In addition to expiation through personal penance and the mass, the Roman Catholic Church also teaches that venial sin can be expiated through the sufferings of purgatory after one dies and through indulgences.

Through its doctrines of confession and penance, the mass, purgatory and indulgences the Church of Rome adds sacramental and moral works to the work of Christ. Justification and salvation are not through Christ alone but are instead a cooperative effort between Christ and man. Thus, while affirming the biblical doctrines of justification and grace, Rome’s interpretation of what these doctrines mean actually undermines their biblical meaning. When scripture says that justification is by grace on account of Christ it means on account of Christ exclusively, completely apart from the works of man or sacraments.

The Roman Teaching of the Righteousness of God

Roman theology equates the righteousness of God in justification with the righteousness of man in sanctification. This view is a fundamental contradiction of the biblical teaching that the righteousness of God in justification is the righteousness of Christ himself in his life of obedience and work of atonement. The Council of Trent explicitly condemned the biblical teaching of the imputed righteousness of Christ himself for justification: “If any one saith, that men are just without the justice of Christ, whereby he merited for us to be justified; or that it is by that justice itself that they are formally just, let him be anathema.”^[6]^


Trent taught that the righteousness which justifies is the work of the regenerated believer cooperating with the grace that Christ merited. So justification is equated with regeneration and sanctification, thereby making human works the basis for justification which in turn merit eternal life:

If any one saith, that the good works of the one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified…and does not truly merit increase in grace, eternal life, and the attainment of eternal life, if so be, that he depart in grace, and an increase in glory, let him be anathema.^[7]^

Therefore, justification is not by grace alone (in the biblical sense) or on account of Christ alone (in the biblical sense). Therefore it is not by faith alone (in the biblical sense). By defining justifying grace as the righteousness of sanctification, Roman Catholicism misrepresents the biblical meaning of grace with respect to justification. Justification is not the biblical once–for–all declaration of righteousness based upon the imputed righteousness of Christ, but a process that is dependent upon the righteousness of man produced through infused grace.

Some have suggested that Rome’s emphasis on sanctification was born out of concern for maintaining the necessity for moral transformation against the Reformation emphasis on imputed righteousness and legal declaration. This is not true. First of all, the Reformers never taught justification apart from sanctification. Secondly, Rome officially condemned the teaching of justification based on the imputed righteousness of Christ. These are not two emphases of the same gospel. They are two completely different gospels, one of grace, the other of works.


The gospel according to Rome rejects the idea that to have saving faith it is sufficient to trust in Christ alone for justification and salvation. While the Church of Rome affirms the necessity for faith in the justification of adults, her definition of faith is radically different from that of the scriptures and the teaching of the Protestant Church. To a Roman Catholic, justifying faith is called dogmatic faith, which has to do with the doctrinal content of the faith necessary to be believed for salvation. It means giving an intellectual assent to everything the Church teaches. In order to be saved, then, an individual must believe and hold to every doctrine dogmatically defined by the Roman Catholic Church. This includes not only the teaching of the Creed, the sacraments and justification but also the doctrines related to the Papacy (papal rule and infallibility), Mary (immaculate conception and assumption), the canon of scripture and purgatory. Vatican I states that to reject anything officially taught by the Roman Church is to reject saving faith and to forfeit both justification and eternal life:

Further, all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment, or by her ordinary and universal magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed. And since, without faith, it is impossible to please God, and to attain to the fellowship of his children, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will any one obtain eternal life unless he shall have persevered in faith unto the end.^[8]^

Where are the peculiar teachings of Rome, such as the assumption of Mary and papal infallibility, found in Scripture? Where are we told that it is necessary to believe in these teachings to experience salvation? Such teachings are not only absent from scripture but from the teaching of the Church historically. Neither of these doctrines was taught in the early Church.

From a Roman Catholic perspective, the concept of saving faith is far removed from the biblical teaching of commitment to and simple trust in Christ alone for salvation. The Roman Catholic Church has distorted the gospel of grace. She has fallen into the same error of legalism (a sacerdotal/sacramental/works salvation) addressed by Paul in his letter to the Galatian Churches. In that letter Paul dealt with the heresy of the Judaizers, who attempted to add the Jewish ceremonial law to faith in Christ as a basis for salvation. Temple worship and the ceremonial law included circumcision, an altar, daily sacrifices, a laver of water, priests, a high priest, special priestly and high priestly vestments and robes, candles, incense and shewbread. In the routine religious life of the average Jew there were feast days, prayers, fasts, adherence to the tradition of the elders and certain dietary restrictions. All of this was included in the Judaizers’ teaching on salvation. It was Jesus plus the Jewish system.

How does this compare to Roman Catholicism? The doctrines of salvation embraced by Rome are, in principle, identical to the Judaizers. The Roman Church teaches that salvation is achieved by believing that Jesus is the Son of God who died for sin, and by being baptized, being a part of the Roman Catholic Church, striving to keep the Ten Commandments and partaking of the sacramental system (which involves ongoing sacrifices, altars, priests, a high priest, along with the exercises of prayers, fasts, almsgiving, penances and, until recently, adherence to certain dietary regulations). The chart below demonstrates the parallels between Roman Catholicism and the Judaizers:

| | |
| ​1. Belief in Jesus as Messiah | ​1. Belief in Jesus as Messiah |
| | |
| and Son  of God | and Son of God |
| | |
| ​2. Circumcision         | ​2. Baptism |
| | |
| ​3. Become a Jew | ​3. Become a Roman Catholic |
| | |
| ​4. Sacrificial System         | ​4. Sacrificial System |
| | |
| ​5. Priests  | ​5. Priests |
| | |
| ​6. High Priests | ​6. High Priests |
| | |
| ​7. Altars | ​7. Altars |
| | |
| ​8. Feast Days | ​8. Feast Days |
| | |
| ​9.  Laver of Water | ​9. Font of Holy Water |
| | |
| ​10. Dietary Regulations | ​10. Dietary Regulations  (Until |
| | Recently) |
| ​11. Candles   | |
| | ​11. Candles |
| ​12. Incense | |
| | ​12. Incense |
| ​13.  Shew Bread | |
| | ​13.  Shew Bread |
| ​14.  Keep the Ten | |
| | ​14.  Keep the Ten |
|        Commandments | |
| |        Commandments |
| ​15. Traditions of the Elders       | |
|     | ​15. Traditions of the Fathers |

These parallels make clear that the Roman Catholic teaching on salvation is essentially the same as that preached by the Judaizers. Paul warned the Galatian believers that if they embraced this false gospel they would actually desert Christ (Gal. 1:6). Those evangelicals who would promote spiritual cohabitation with the Church of Rome need to heed the warning of Paul. He saw no basis for unity with the Judaizers even though they professed faith in Christ. Likewise, there is no basis for unity with the Church of Rome today. If evangelicals jettison the Reformation gospel distinctives for unity with Rome they will, in fact, deny Christ.

William  Webster is founder and director of Christian Resources, a non-profit teaching, apologetics, and publishing ministry dealing with issues related to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Gospel, church history, and the Christian life.  Their website is

[1] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1974), 185, 190.

[2] The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1910), Decree on Justification, Chapter VII, Canons X, XXXII.

[3] Ibid., Canon IV.

[4] Ibid., Decree on Justification, Chapter XIV, Canon XXIX.

[5] Ibid., Doctrine on the Sacrifice of the Mass, Chapter II, Canon III.

[6] Ibid., Decree on Justification, Chapter VII, Canons X, XXXII.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York:Harper, 1877), Volume II, On Faith, Chapter III, pp. 244-245.