Philip Eveson


Not only are there Protestants who assume that Rome has changed its position on justification but representatives from the Roman communion often speak as if there is now no difference between the opposing parties. The fact of the matter is, however, that Rome has not changed on this crucial subject since the Council of Trent’s decrees in the 16th century. A moderate Jesuit theologian, in an interview published in Christianity Today in 1986, said to his evangelical questioner, ‘We do not greatly disagree on the way in which the individual comes to justification: through the grace of Christ accepted in faith.’ When asked to elaborate he replied: ‘The response to Luther was made official at the Council of Trent . . . In its “Decree on Justification”, the council described the process of justification and insisted that it is through faith that one is justified.1

Here lies the confusion in people’s minds over this subject. What is wrong with the Jesuit theologian’s statement? In the first place, though justification is said to be through grace, Christ and faith, the missing factor is the little word ‘alone’. It is this which makes all the difference in the world between the Roman and Protestant positions. Secondly, justification is described as a ‘process’. For Rome justification is a process within the individual, which means that the person is being continually put right with God. This process ends with the final verdict on the day of judgment. The Protestant position is that it is not a process but a judicial act of God outside of the individual in which the person who trusts Christ is pronounced right with God here and now, at the very beginning of the Christian life, correctly anticipating the final verdict. Thirdly, appeal is made to the Council of Trent, whose ‘Decree on Justification’ was specifically drawn up to counter Protestant teaching. That Decree is still the definitive statement on the subject of justification for Roman Catholics.

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent, which sat intermittently from December 1545 to December 1563, was set up to address the glaring abuses in the church and to define doctrine, particularly in the light of Lutheran teachings. It was at Session VI, 13 January 1547, during the first period of the Council’s work, that the decree on justification was finally read out and unanimously adopted. Prior to this, there had been six solid months of debate and discussion of various draft proposals. The leaders of the Council were in no doubt concerning the vital importance of the subject. Cardinal Cervini, who was chairing the proceedings at this time, impressed upon the assembled company the great responsibility resting on them. It was not a subject that the Church had been called on to treat in any detail before and few theologians had written on the subject. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, he stressed, was at the root of most of his ‘errors’ concerning the sacraments, indulgences and purgatory.2 Reporting to Rome the papal legates wrote: ‘The significance of this Council in the theological sphere lies chiefly in the article on justification, in fact this is the most important item the Council has to deal with’.3

Three issues caused the most trouble to the delegates and took up the lion’s share of the time. There was the question over what contribution, if any, a person made in preparation for justification. This involved the complicated doctrine of merit that had evolved during the medieval period. Secondly, it was argued very forcefully by Cardinal Seripando, General of the Augustinian Ordei and supported by about eight other prelates, that the subject of imputed righteousness should be included in the decree. Thirdly, there was the matter of assurance. While all condemned Luther’s view, differences existed between those who allowed for no certainty other than by special revelation and those who saw the sacraments as a basis of certainty.

In the final decree on justification, for the first time in the history of such Councils, positive teaching on the subject is presented. This is set out in sixteen chapters and then follows the customary canons anathematizing the holders of error. Thirty-three errors relating to justification are highlighted and denounced, the highest number of any of the decrees. These canons were not thought of as appendages to the doctrinal chapters. On the contrary, the chapters were meant to be read in the light of the canons. The sixteen doctrinal chapters are divided into three parts corresponding to what they saw as the three stages in the process of justification. A similar order is followed in the canons. Part one (chapters 1-9) is concerned with ‘initial’ justification. Interestingly, the Council looked at the subject from the point of view of an adult unbeliever coming to accept the Christian Faith and covered such topics as original sin and free will, prevenient grace and human cooperation, the nature and causes of justification, faith, merit, and assurance. This ‘initial’ justification is associated with baptism and defined in terms of an alteration of a person’s nature as well as his status.

Part two (chapters 10-13) covers the so-called ‘second’ justification. The concern is with the advance of righteousness in the one who has been justified. Protestants would have placed much of the teaching found here under the heading of sanctification. As it is, a person cooperates with God’s grace towards the final justification of the judgment day by putting to death his fleshly members and presenting them as ‘instruments of righteousness unto sanctification’ and observing the commands of God and the church. The canons lay stress on the necessity and possibility of observing God’s commands, the importance of works as well as faith, while denouncing the gift of perseverance and rash presumption based on the doctrine of predestination.

Part three (chapters 14-16) deals with the subject of falling from the grace of justification through ‘mortal’ (i.e. ‘deadly’) as opposed to ‘venial’ (i.e. ‘light’, ‘everyday’) sin and being restored again through the sacrament of penance. The closing words of the final chapter stress that not to ‘faithfully and firmly’ accept the Council’s teaching on justification means that a person ‘cannot be justified’. The canons underline this with their list of anathemas. In other words, anyone who embraces the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone is condemned to everlasting hell.4

The decrees of the Council were confirmed by the Pope in 1564. Since that time the Roman church has not officially considered the question of justification. It was not even dealt with by Vatican II. In 1566, shortly after Trent, the first definitive Roman Catechism appeared. The second authoritative Roman Catechism was published in 1992 with an English translation best-seller in 1994.5 This recent document shows beyond all doubt that official Roman teaching on the subject of justification has not changed in the slightest since the 16th century.

The New Roman Catechism

Before we set out Rome’s teaching on justification from the new Catechism, a few cautionary words are in order. It is noticeable that there are many quotations and references from the Bible. In this the Catechism follows the trend set by Trent in its decree on justification. This may lead the unwary to think that the teaching presented is biblical, but in reality the Bible is being used to support a theology that is unbiblical.

Again, as with Trent so in the Catechism, there are some statements with which Protestants can wholeheartedly agree. Certain expressions are found which can make Rome’s position sound right and appealing to evangelicals. James Buchanan in his important work on the doctrine of justification felt it necessary, even in the middle of the nineteenth century, to give a warning not to be taken in by some of the well-guarded and cautious statements in the Trent decree. Trent, it must be remembered, was concerned to condemn Pelagianism as well as to counteract the teachings of Luther. The Pelagian heresy taught that human beings had the capacity to save themselves. The Fall did not make them powerless to act. They could raise themselves up and achieve salvation by their own good works. Trent therefore rightly spoke of the powerless state of human beings as a result of the Fall, of the need for the grace of God and the merits of Jesus Christ. All this, however, was effectively ‘neutralized by other erroneous principles’, so the result was ‘an amalgam of some truth mixed with much error.’6

The same caution needs to be applied to the recent Catechism. It must be admitted that at a time when Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians are reinterpreting and denying basic Christian truths the Catechism strongly defends such essential elements of the gospel as the divinity of Jesus Christ, his virgin birth, his bodily resurrection and ascension, the future judgment, heaven and hell and the doctrine of the Trinity. One reviewer claims that ‘there are excellent reasons for thinking that this document reflects the public defeat of more liberal trends within Roman Catholicism.’7 When it comes to the subject of justification it stands, like Trent, against the Pelagian heresy. Take this statement for instance: ‘Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.’ They also quote with approval this statement of Augustine: ‘the justification of the wicked is a greater work than the creation of heaven and earth, because “heaven and earth will pass away but the salvation and justification of the elect . . . will not pass away.”8 The evangelical can warm to such words and yet, as will be shown below, other statements appear which are contrary to biblical truth and nullify the gospel of God’s justifying grace.

What then is Rome’s up-to-date teaching on justification?

1 According to Rome, justification is an activity of the Holy Spirit in which the sinner’s inner being is changed. The Catechism article on grace and justification quotes Trent: ‘Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man’ and the article goes on to emphasise that it ‘entails the sanctification of his whole being’.9 Justification, we are told has two aspects: there is the initial response to the grace of God in turning away from sin and receiving the forgiveness which God offers; and at the same time there is ‘the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ’. In reference to forgiveness, justification ‘detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin.’ As for the acceptance of ‘righteousness’ (or ‘justice’) this is said to mean ‘the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us’.10 It is thus made abundantly clear that justification is used in an unbiblical way to mean regeneration, renewal and sanctification in addition to the forgiveness of sins. Rather than justification referring exclusively to a change in the status of a sinner it has become a word which particularly draws attention to a change in the sinner’s inner state. In the Catechism’s article on Baptism this same point is made that ‘The Most Holy Trinity gives the baptized sanctifying grace the grace of justification’, which involves three elements: 1) it enables them to believe in God, 2) it gives them ‘the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit’ and 3) it allows them ‘to grow in goodness through the moral virtues.’11 That is not justification according to the Bible. Justification itself does not do anything in us. It is a judicial act of God outside of ourselves and concerns our status before God. By so confusing justification with regeneration and sanctification the door is open for a religion of salvation by good works.

2 Trent condemned the Reformers’ position that the sinner was declared righteous on the basis of a righteousness outside of himself — what Luther called ‘the alien’ righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer. The Catechism does not enter into debate, or present opposing views. It does not refer to imputed righteousness. Neither is there any reference to justification being a divine judicial act declaring the sinner to be righteous in God’s sight. It merely reiterates the position set out at Trent. Justifying righteousness is ‘the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ’ which is understood as the righteousness of divine love. It is a righteousness that ‘makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy’. Though it speaks of God’s righteousness coming through faith in Jesus Christ, there is no belief in the merits of Christ’s perfect righteousness being reckoned to the believer. ‘Clothed in his righteousness divine’ is not something about which Rome can sing. As a result, it leads to the position where the believer’s justification does not rest solely on the sufficiency of Christ’s work. The door is left ajar for human activity to be thought important and necessary in order to be fully right with God.

3 The Catechism keeps very close to Trent in describing the place of faith in connection with justification. God’s grace and man’s free will are seen as cooperating. Faith is ‘an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth’.12 The Holy Spirit precedes and preserves this assent and perfects the initial free response with ‘charity’. Faith is not seen as personal reliance on Christ and what he has done. Indeed, in line with what has already been said about Rome’s understanding of justification, the faith of assent when supernaturally supplemented with ‘charity’ is an indication of the inner change which justification initially makes. ‘With justification,’ as was quoted earlier, ‘faith, hope and charity are poured into our hearts.’ This is so different from the Reformers’ biblical understanding of faith. Archbishop Cranmer’s Homily of Salvation published in 1547 makes it clear that faith is not seen as a virtue within ourselves: ‘. . . although we have faith, hope, charity, repentance, dread and fear of God, within us; and do never so many works thereunto; yet we must renounce the merit of all our said virtues . . .’13

4 The real means by which justification is obtained, is not, as we have seen, through trust in Jesus Christ but through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is described as ‘the sacrament of faith’. Faith, as understood by Rome, has a place, but it is through the sacrament of Baptism that justification is granted.14 It ‘is conferred in baptism’. Baptism ‘conforms us to the righteousness of God’. The Catechism teaches that ‘through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justifies and sanctifies.’15 This shows the indispensable involvement of the church in the justification of sinners. Even in the initial stages of Rome’s view of justification, human activity through the church sacraments is strongly in evidence. This is not all.

5 The so-called ‘Sacrament of Penance’ is also associated with justification. It is instituted above all ‘for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace.. .It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification.’ ‘Grave sin’ is ‘mortal’ or ‘deadly’ sin for it places a person back where he was before baptism, in danger of eternal punishment. The Catechism, like Trent, continues to refer to Penance as ‘the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.’16

The Catechism teaches that there are two essential elements to this ‘sacrament’: there is man’s action, through the work of the Spirit, of contrition, confession, and satisfaction; there is also God’s action through the Church. By the Church is meant the Roman bishops and priests: they act on behalf of God and Christ in forgiving sins and determining ‘the manner of satisfaction’. Penance thus involves going to Rome’s priests to repent, confess and to receive forgiveness and to be told what one has to do in order to expiate sin. In order to regain full spiritual health the repentant sinner must do ‘something more to make amends’ for his sins. Such satisfaction for sins can consist of prayers, sacrifices, works of mercy, voluntary self-denial, etc.17 All this unbiblical teaching arises from a wrong view of justification. This is the position that Luther was in before he had his eyes opened to the truth of justification. He could not get assurance that he had done enough to be right with God. Again, this understanding of justification places the person in absolute dependence on the Church. The Catechism is clear on the matter: ‘Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.’18

6 It is under the heading of Penance that the Catechism also deals with other non-biblical subjects such as indulgences, purgatory, and the treasury of merit.19 On the subject of merit, the summary statement reads: ‘No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and others all the graces needed to attain eternal life . . .’20 Any spare merit we may attain goes into the treasury of merit. This treasury is made up first and foremost of the prayers and good works of Mary which are ‘truly immense, unfathomable and even pristine in their value before God’. Also contained there are the prayers and good works of the saints.21 For the Reformers the good works of believers are never spoken of as meritorious. They refer to them as the fruit and signs of justification. John Calvin in his commentary on the words in 1 Corinthians 1:13, ‘Was Paul crucified for you?’ shows how the verse ‘wrecks the wicked invention of the Papists, which they use to try to bolster up their system of indulgences’ and speaks of the treasury of merit as ‘that counterfeit treasury of the Church, which, they teach, is dispensed by indulgences’. With devastating logic he argues that ‘they make the martyrs partners with Christ in winning our salvation’. 22

Everyday or ‘venial’ sins, so Rome teaches, are not like ‘mortal’ or ‘deadly’ sins; they are not as serious and do not bring eternal punishment. Though they are forgiven, the Catechism says it is still necessary to be purified from these sins through temporal punishment. This punishment may be here on earth or after death in purgatory. An indulgence is said to free a person in part or wholly from temporal punishment depending on whether it is a plenary or partial indulgence. ‘An indulgence is obtained through the Church who intervenes in favour of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins.’ ‘Since the faithful departed now being purified (i.e. in purgatory) are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.’23 This is Rome’s official teaching at the end of the twentieth century. Though the Catechism pays lip service to the merits of Christ’s death,24 it is clear that neither a sufficient nor complete satisfaction for sins has been made on the cross.

7 Because it is possible to lose one’s justification, there can be no assurance of salvation. Post-baptismal sins can either bring about a loss of justification altogether, and expose people to the danger of hell, or they can at least make it necessary to do something extra to make amends in this life and after death to pass through the fires of purgatory before reaching heaven. It is not at all surprising then that the Catechism has nothing to say about assurance or certainty of salvation. It does refer to the hope of obtaining the joy of heaven, which is ‘God’s eternal reward for good works accomplished with the grace of Christ’.25 Again, in this it is being true to Trent. While the Reformers rested in the promises of God for salvation, Trent criticised their ‘ungodly’ confidence. It attacked what it saw as a cock-sure attitude, an all too common criticism still made by those who have no understanding of the gospel. If assurance is understood as being based on one’s own effort in cooperation with God through the church’s administrations there would be no ground for confidence. The gospel revealed in the Bible, as the Reformers saw so clearly, indicates that assurance of one’s justified state does not mean confidence in one’s personal faith and one’s activity in doing what the church requires, but that it is a complete dependence on the grace and activity of God in Christ.

In summing up the present position of Rome on this crucial subject it is important to stress that there has been no shift whatsoever from the definitive statement made at Trent. The Roman Catholic view of justification involves two main stages: an initial activity which includes the sacrament of baptism and then a process throughout life which includes the ‘sacrament of penance’ and after death in the fires of purgatory. In the end the Roman position is a reliance on oneself and the clergy of the Roman Church. Though justification is said to be by God’s grace it is also by human activity. Though it is through Christ’s merit it also involves human merit. It is administered by the Roman Church first through baptism and can be renewed again through penance. Though Rome’s doctrine of justification is meant to bring glory to God in reality it bolsters human pride and glorifies the Roman system.


  1. ‘America’s Catholics: What They believe - Catholic Doctrine According to Jesuit Theologian Avery Dulles’, Christianity Today, 7th November 1986, pp. 26-27.
  2. J. Waterworth, The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Dolman, 1848. p. ci.
  3. H. Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent, Vol. 2, Nelson, 1961, p. 171.
  4. For a critique of Trent on justification cf. P. H. Eveson ‘The Council of Trent and Modern views of Justification’ in Building on a Sure Foundation, Westminster Conference Papers, 1994, pp. 35-42. Also McGrath, lustitia Dei, Vol.2, pp. 54-97.
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Geoffrey Chapman (Cassell imprint), 1994.
  6. J. Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, Banner of Truth reprint, 1961, p. 155f.
  7. A. E. McGrath, ‘Do we still need the Reformation?’ in Christianity Today, 12th December, 1994, p. 29.
  8. Catechism, pp. 433-434.
  9. ibid. pp. 432, 434.
  10. ibid. p.433.
  11. ibid. pp. 286-287.
  12. ibid. p. 39.
  13. ‘The Homily of Salvation’ in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, Parker Society, Cambridge, 1846, PP. 128-134.
  14. Catechism, p. 286.
  15. ibid. p.280.
  16. ibid. p. 325.
  17. ibid. p. 328.
  18. ibid. p. 325.
  19. ibid. pp. 33 1-333.
  20. ibid. p. 439.
  21. ibid. p. 332.
  22. Calvin’s Commentaries, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, trans. J. W. Fraser, eds. D. W. & T. F. Torrance, Eerdmans/St Andrews Press, 1960, p. 29.
  23. Catechism, p. 331, 333.
  24. ibid. p. 433: ‘Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.’


A native of Wrexham, Philip Eveson obtained his initial degree in Biblical Studies at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. From there he was awarded a scholarship to read Theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He later gained his MTh in Hebrew and Aramaic Studies at King's College, London and is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research. After a year at the Presbyterian Theological College, Aberystwyth, he served churches in South Wales before moving to London, where he has been Minister of Kensit Evangelical Church for the past twenty-three years. Since its inception in 1977, he has been Resident Tutor and Lecturer in Biblical Languages and Exegesis at the London Theological Seminary. Philip has also preached and lectured in the Far East and Ghana, is Chairman of the Red Sea Mission Team British Home Council and a Director of Go Teach. He is married to Jennifer and they have one daughter.

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