Excerpt from Justification by Faith: An Examination of the Biblical Doctrine of Salvation
“Although Roman Catholic doctrine sounds very evangelical at times, a close look at their teachings regarding salvation reveals a clear but clever denial of the biblical doctrine of justification. Gerstner writes: “Romanists many times fool Protestants by their claim to teach ‘by grace alone’ (sola gratia). And they sometimes fool themselves when they are more evangelical than a Romanist can honestly be. Romanists are saved by their works which come from grace, according to their teaching. It is not the grace but the works which come from it that save them!”57 Virtually anyone can say “I am saved by grace” or “I am saved solely by Christ.” One must look at the fine print to understand what lies behind these statements. An orthodox Protestant and a good Roman Catholic mean two completely different things when they confess Christ.
Before going into detail, a brief statement of the difference between Romanism and the biblical view of justification is in order. The Bible teaches that justification is a legal declaration of God in heaven regarding the sinner who believes on earth. Justification is objective. The Romanist confounds the doctrine of justification with sanctification. “The Tridentine theory makes inward holiness in conjunction with the merits of Christ the ground of justification. It founds human salvation upon two corner-stones.... The unintentional confounding of the distinction between justification and sanctification, which appears occasionally in the Patristic writers, becomes a deliberate and unemphatic identification, in the scheme of the Papal church.”58
The Bible teaches that God accepts men solely on the merits of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-4:8; Phil. 3:8-9). Men are declared righteous because their guilt is imputed to Christ on the cross, and Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed to the believer’s account. Romanism teaches that grace is infused into man and that people are justified only after becoming righteous. Justification is subjective; it is the internal renovation and renewing of man. Men are justified because of what the Holy Spirit does in them. “Justification means that man himself is made just—made pleasing to God in his own person.... A devout Catholic may say: ‘Righteousness by faith means that I cannot save myself, but by faith I can receive God’s transforming grace. His grace can change my heart, and by His grace in my heart I can be acceptable in His sight....’ The focal point of Catholic theology is God’s work of grace within human experience.”59
The Scriptures teach that justification is an instantaneous act of God. It is whole, never repeated, eternal and perfect, not piecemeal or gradual (Jn. 5:25; Lk. 18:13, 14; 23:43; Rom. 4:5; 5:1; 8:3-8). Romanism teaches that justification is a gradual process which may not even be completed in this life. It usually is completed by the tortures of purgatory.60 The Bible teaches that sinners are saved solely because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. Papal doctrine affirms that justification is a cooperative effort between God and man. Man must cooperate with inward grace until he achieves justification. The Roman Catholic believes that good works contribute to his salvation. However, he would argue that since these good works flow from inward grace, that ultimately he is saved by grace and not by works.
Romanism is the most clever attempt of man to take a religion of human merit, works-righteousness and personal achievement and dress it with the terminology of grace. Romanism teaches “the most subtle form of the doctrine of justification by works that has yet appeared, or that can appear. For the doctrines of Trent do not teach, in their canonical statements, that man is justified and accepted at the bar of justice by his law. This is, indeed, the doctrine that prevails in the common practice of the papal church, but it is not the form in which it appears in the Tridentine canons. According to these, man is justified by an inward and spiritual act which is denominated the act of faith; by a truly divine and holy habit or principle infused by the gracious working of the Holy Spirit. The ground of the sinner’s justification is thus a divine and gracious one. God works in the sinful soul to will and to do, and by making it inherently just justifies it. And all this is accomplished through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ; so that, in justification there is a combination of the objective work of Christ with the subjective character of the believer.”61 Protestants who are not aware of these subtleties are often tongue-tied in debates with knowledgeable Roman Catholics, because Romanists insist they do not believe in salvation by works-righteousness. They simply assert that God is the author of infused grace and inherent righteousness. For them “Christ alone” is not enough. Jesus, according to their statements of faith, did not perfectly satisfy God’s justice by His life and death. Romanism is in reality a cleverly disguised form of humanism.”