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Protestante Digital

Andrew Messmer

Catholic and Protestants Systems of Salvation and the Potential for Reconciliation

I have attempted to demonstrate that the Catholic and Protestant systems of salvation are mutually exclusive, and that ecumenical dialogue must take seriously the distance that the word “alone” puts between them.

FEATURES AUTOR 185/Andrew_Messmer 16 DE OCTUBRE DE 2017 10:00 h
Photo: Aaron Burden (Unsplash).


Since the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants have been divided over certain key issues, one of which is the doctrine of justification.1

As will be explained below, the Catholic teaching on justification forms part of a large and coherent system of beliefs and practices that include the sacraments, Purgatory, assurance of one’s salvation, and the treasury of merit.´

Since the Protestants critiqued the very foundation of this system, they were also critiquing all of the other doctrines that depended on it.

The purpose of this essay is threefold: first, to explain the Catholic system of salvation; second, to explain the Protestant system of salvation; third, to offer some observations regarding the differences between the two systems as well as the possibility for reconciliation.


Justification in the Roman Catholic System2

The fundamental, overarching concept to be grasped in understanding the Catholic system of salvation is that God makes the sinner righteous by incrementally increasing his or her righteousness over a process of time.3

The Latin term justificari (“to justify”) was what early Christian writers created to translate the Hebrew term tsadak and the Greek term dikaioo.4

Augustine understood this term to come from the combination of the Latin words justum (“just” or “righteous”) and facere (“to make”), and due to his enormous influence in Christendom “to make righteous” became the common understanding of the term for the Latin-speaking Western Church for the next thousand years.5

With the definition of “justification” being understood as a process (“to make righteous”), subsequent Latin-based theology slowly developed the relationship between justification and the Church’s sacraments in such a way that the Church mediated the process of justification through the sacramental system.6

As the Council of Trent stated the matter, the sacraments complete the doctrine of justification since they are the means by which “all true justness either begins, or once received gains strength, or if lost is restored”.7

The following is a sketch of how the Catholic understanding of justification works out.8

The sinner begins the process of being made righteous through the sacrament of baptism9 which is completed through the sacrament of confirmation10 (administered at the age of reason) and continues the process through good works and the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist.11

This process can be inhibited by committing venial sins and undone entirely by committing mortal sins,12 the reality of which makes assurance of one’s salvation practically impossible.13

When one does commit sin, it is necessary to be restored via the sacrament of penance, the “second plank after shipwreck”, by which the sinner makes restitution for the offence.14

Venial sins can be absolved through verbal confession whereas mortal sins are accompanied by acts of self-affliction such as fasts, prayers, almsgiving, and additional works of devotion.15

For most people, the process of being made righteous is not completed at the moment of death (at which time the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is administered16), and therefore it continues after death in the place known as Purgatory where the sinner is further purged of sinful inclinations towards venial sins until he or she achieves a perfect state of righteousness and consequently may enter into God’s presence.17

For some people, however, the process of being made righteous through good works and the sacramental system is completed before the moment of death, and therefore all of their subsequent righteous deeds done on earth are considered as works of supererogation (i.e., above and beyond what was required) and thus are placed at the disposal of others to help them attain a righteous state more quickly.18

To state the matter differently, these saints’ post-perfection good works may be shared with the many average Catholics who lack full righteousness. The collection of these works of supererogation is referred to as the treasury of merit, which the Catholic Church dispenses at its will, especially through indulgences.

In summary, it may be said that in the Catholic system of salvation, justification is a process that includes the entirety of one’s life, and it is only at the end of this process that one is truly justified.19

To state the matter in Protestant terminology, the Catholic system of justification includes sanctification.20 Faith (what Protestants often think of as justification proper) is, according to the Catholic Church, “the first stage of human salvation”.21


Justification in the Protestant System22

In contrast to the Catholic system, the fundamental, overarching concept to be grasped in understanding the Protestant system of salvation is that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to the sinner by faith the moment one repents of one’s sins and places one’s faith in Christ.23

This understanding of justification is based to no small degree on the rediscovery of the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek terms underlying the Latin term justificare: as texts such as Gen 15.6 and Rom 4.1-8 demonstrate, the idea is not “to make righteous” but rather “to reckon/impute righteousness”.24

Indeed, the cluster of words that Paul uses in the opening verses of Rom 4 to speak of Abraham’s experience and demonstrates that what Paul had in mind was a singular, punctilliar action in which God’s righteousness was credited to Abraham. Nothing is said about a process of being made righteous, much less being made so through sacraments.25

Thus, whereas in the Catholic system the sinner is made righteous through a process that begins with baptism and ends with the completion of Purgatory, in the Protestant system the sinner is counted or reckoned as righteous at the moment one repents and believes.26

It is within this cluster of ideas of faith, imputation, and forgiveness that Protestants insist that sinners are justified by faith alone.27

John Calvin defined justification as follows:

A man is said to be justified in the sight of God when in the judgment of God he is deemed righteous, and is accepted on account of his righteousness;.…Thus we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favour as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.28

After citing texts such as Rom 3.26; 8.33-34; Gal 3.8, Calvin then adds:

To justify, therefore, is nothing else than to acquit from the charge of guilt, as if innocence were proved. Hence, when God justifies us through the intercession of Christ, he does not acquit us on a proof of our own innocence, but by an imputation of righteousness, so that though not righteous in ourselves, we are deemed righteous in Christ.29

Thus the Church is not the mediator of righteousness through the sacramental system as the Catholic Church understands it to be, but rather God Himself directly justifies the sinner by imputing Christ’s righteousness to the sinner through the Holy Spirit.

According to the Protestant system, the sinner does not need to be made righteous in order to be considered as such by God since Jesus Christ offers His righteousness to the sinner through repentance and faith.30

In the Protestant system, there is an eschatological element to justification in which the believer is assured of God’s final verdict of “justified” in the present, thereby bringing assurance of one’s salvation.

That is to say, by faith the believer has Christ’s righteousness imputed to him or her once and for all and thereby is assured of God’s final favor even though he or she continues to be imperfect.

This irony of assurance of one’s salvation in the face of one’s knowledge of one’s sin has been captured well by John Calvin, “But herein is the wondrous method of justification, that, clothed with the righteousness of Christ, they dread not the judgment of which they are worthy; and while they justly condemn themselves, are yet deemed righteous out of themselves”.31

Thus, there is nothing else for the sinner to do than to look to Christ in faith for salvation—Protestantism is radically Christocentric.

As Martin Luther has stated the matter, “He is not just who does much, but rather who, without work, believes much in Christ”; and again, “The Law says, ‘Do this’, and it is never done; grace says ‘Believe in this’, and everything is already done”.32

Christ unites Himself to the believer through the Holy Spirit, thereby giving to the believer the accompanying benefits of the imputation of His righteousness and the renewal of spiritual life (among other benefits).

This Christocentric understanding of salvation completely nullifies both Purgatory and other saints’ post-perfection righteous deeds (i.e., the treasury of merit).33

As for the role of good works, Protestants stress that regeneration (what modern Christians mean by sanctification) is imparted to the believer along with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but that it is nevertheless distinct from it.34 John Calvin writes the following of the union between justification and regeneration, as well as their distinction, using the sun to illustrate his point:

The answer is very easy: as Christ cannot be divided into parts, so the two things, justification and sanctification, which we perceive to be united together in him are inseparable. Whomsoever, therefore, God receives into his favour, he presents with the Spirit of adoption, whose agency forms them anew into his image. But if the brightness of the sun cannot be separated from its heat, are we therefore to say, that the earth is warmed by light and illumined by heat?35

Elsewhere Calvin makes the same point, but he does so in more “typical” fashion by explaining the necessary relationship between justification and regeneration in terms of union with Christ:

Would ye then obtain justification in Christ? You must previously possess Christ. But you cannot possess him without being made a partaker of his sanctification: for Christ cannot be divided. Since the Lord, therefore, does not grant us the enjoyment of these blessings without bestowing himself, he bestows both at once, but never the one without the other. Thus it appears how true it is that we are justified not without, and yet not by works, since in the participation of Christ, by which we are justified, is contained not less sanctification than justification.36

As for the sacraments, they are not means by which we increase our righteousness but rather are God’s gifts to us so as to nourish and strengthen our faith in Him.37 The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are what initiate us into (baptism) and propel along (Lord’s Supper) the Christian life.


The signers of the JDDJ, in Wittenberg, last year. / WCRC


Thoughts on Reconciliation

The above discussion has attempted to explain briefly the Catholic and Protestant systems of salvation. The differences between these two systems has been noted throughout the essay, but here I would like to highlight more directly the implications of these differences as well as discuss the possibility of reconciliation between the two traditions.

If salvation is a process of being made righteous, then the sacramental system, Purgatory, lack of assurance of one’s salvation, and the treasury of merit are all necessary byproducts of this system.

If, however, salvation is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner by faith alone, then the sacramental system, Purgatory, lack of assurance of one’s salvation, and the treasury of merit are all either done away with entirely or drastically redefined.

The Catholic and Protestant teachings on justification are not merely isolated doctrines but rather imply entire systems that are the logical outworkings of their respective fundamental principles.

Thus we are not talking about two different views of the (isolated and abstract) doctrine of justification, but rather two entirely different systems of justification.38

The Protestant view of justification may be described as sola fide (itself closely connected to sola gratia), and it is fundamentally incompatible with the Catholic view of “faith working through love”.39

Perhaps a provocative, albeit reductionistic, way of stating the issue would be to say that Protestants express their understanding of justification in terms of the solas whereas Catholics do so in terms of the sacraments; Protestants go to Christology whereas Catholics go to ecclesiology; both would go to Pneumatology but they would dispute how the Spirit applies Christ’s saving work to the individual.

Over the last fifty years, and with increasing pressure leading up to this year’s symbolic celebration of the Protestant Reformation, there has been increasing dialogue between the two traditions regarding whether or not unity may be possible.

In 1999, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification stated that both the Lutheran World Federation and Roman Catholic Churches were able to “articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ”, and since then it has been signed also by the World Methodist Communion and the World Communion of Reformed Churches, with rumors that the Anglican Church will sign it within the year.40

However, if the Joint Declaration is interpreted in light of the arguments made in this essay, then it seems necessary that both sides should also be able to state that they have reached a “common understanding” of the sacramental system, Purgatory, assurance of one’s salvation (or lack thereof), and the treasury of merit.

Yet which tradition is claiming this? Has the Catholic Church surrendered its claim to mediate God’s grace through the sacraments, or do Protestants now believe in Purgatory? And how many hymns must be struck from Protestant hymnals which speak of the blessings of being assured of one’s salvation?41

The fact that neither Catholics nor Protestants are speaking this way makes it difficult to deny that neither side involved in the ecumenical dialogue understands the full implications of what they claim to have achieved.

It appears that many on both sides think that one little word, “alone”, is all that separates the two traditions, and thus can (easily) be overcome through dialogue and mutual understanding. But if there is anything that we can learn from the Church of the fourth century it is this: little things matter!

Arius and his followers said that Christ was homoiousios with the Father while the orthodox insisted that He was homoousios with the Father.

One letter made all the difference, not just between their respective (isolated and abstract) doctrines of the deity of Christ, but between two entire systems of worship, liturgy, and other related issues.

It is the same with Protestant–Catholic dialogue with respect to the doctrine of justification: one word carries with it enormous implications—entire systems are affected by it.

In conclusion, I have attempted to demonstrate that the Catholic and Protestant systems of salvation are mutually exclusive, and that ecumenical dialogue must take seriously the distance that the word “alone” puts between them. Personally, I am not against dialogue between the two systems, and I believe that it is right and good that such dialogue exists.

What I find troubling, however, is that certain Christians are claiming “unity” when no real unity exists. It seems to me to be a “unity” that is superficial and that has not taken seriously the implications that I have tried to show throughout this essay.

Perhaps Catholics and Protestants can achieve reconciliation at one level or another, but it will not be through claiming to have reached a “common understanding” on the doctrine of justification.

For that to happen, one of the two sides will have to change its beliefs so radically that it will no longer be what it once was. There simply does not appear to be any middle ground on this issue. May the Lord give His Church wisdom in moving ahead.42

1 Thus other issues which divide Catholics and Protestants, such as the Pope, mariology, apostolic succession, number of sacraments, prayers for the dead, transubstantiation, etc., will not be treated here since these issues are more closely connected with to the issue of authority (sola Scriptura vs. Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium).

2 Citations refer to the following works: Council of Trent (1545-1564; hereafter Trent), the First Vatican Council (1869-1870; hereafter Vatican1), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994; hereafter Catechism). Translations from the Councils come from Norman Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. (Sheed & Ward Limited, 1990); translations from the Catechism come from Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1994). The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) has not been included since the Catechism includes, systematizes, and expands upon its major teachings.

3 Trent 6 Just 7, 10; Catechism §1989.

4 That is, justificari is a post-Classical Latin word that originated with Christians in the early centuries of the Church (McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 3rd ed. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 47).

5 Augustine, De spiritu et littera 26.45; cf. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 20, 46-47, 59.

6 As Catechism 1127, 1129 state the matter, “the sacraments confer the grace that they signify” and therefore are “necessary for salvation”. The importance that the role of the sacraments plays in the Catholic Church can be demonstrated by the fact that the bulk of Trent was dedicated to the seven sacraments (whereas from the Protestant side focus was placed on the solas). As for the Church’s authority over the sacraments, Catechism 168-169, 181 state that faith itself is mediated by the Church (“precedes, engenders, supports, and nourishes”), for which she is called “our mother” (“The Church…is the place where we know the Holy Spirit”; Catechism 688; cf. §737). The Church even has “authority over the administration of the sacraments” (Trent 21 Comm. 2).

7 Trent 7 Intro. Similarly Catechism 947 says, “Therefore, the riches of Christ are communicated to all the members, through the sacraments” (quoting Thomas Aquinas, Symb., 10; cf. §2014) and §1069 says, “Through the liturgy Christ, our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church.”

8 In what follows I have arranged the sacraments chronologically as Catholics would experience them. The Catechism organizes the seven sacraments topically (but cf. §1692): the three sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist), restoration (penance and anointing of the sick), and service (holy orders and marriage).

9 Catechism §403, 1250. Infant baptism serves the specific purpose of undoing the original sin (that is, a “state” as opposed to an “act”) inherited from Adam. Vatican1 accepts the Trent’s definition of original sin (Session 2) and the Catechism specifically condemns the Protestant understanding of original sin (i.e., total depravity) at 405-406: it places Pelagius on one extreme, the Reformers on the other, and the Catholic Church in the middle.

10 Catechism §1285-1321.

11 Trent 6 Just 7, 10, 13, 16; Canon 24; Catechism §1212, 1257, 1266, 1275, 1992, 2017. The sacrament of the Eucharist is the most important sacrament in Catholic theology, called “the sacrament of sacraments” (Trent 13 Euch. 3-5; Catechism 893, 950, 1068, 1118, 1169, 1211, 1330, 1374). The Holy Spirit uses especially the Eucharist to present the mystery of Christ to Christians (Catechism 37). Although baptism is what begins the process, the Catechism speaks frequently of the triad of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist as the sacraments of Christian initiation (cf. 1212, 1233, 1275, 1285, 1298, 1306, 1322, 1525, 1533).

12 Venial sins: Trent 6 Just 11; Catechism 1420, 1855, 1862-1863; mortal sins: Trent 6 Just 14-15; Catechism 1420, 1472, 1855-1861. It should be noted, however, that only “grace”, and not “faith”, is lost by mortal sins; the lapsed individual remains a believer and only loses “faith” through apostasy (Trent 6 Just 15). Nevertheless, if a mortal sin is not forgiven through the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, then it to can result in eternal damnation (Catechism §1496, 1861).

13 Trent 6 Just 9, 12-13. According to Trent, the only way someone could be assured of one’s salvation would be by direct divine revelation (Trent 6 Just 12); this seems to have been modified in Catechism §2005 where we can have a “guarantee that grace is at work in us”. Apparently some people in the 16th cent. had such uneasy consciences about their sins that they left such great sums of money to celebrate masses for their souls that the churches could not perform them (Trent 25 Dec. Ref. 4)!

14 Trent 6 Just 14; 14 Pen. 1; Catechism §1446, 1459-1460. Trent 14 Intro notes the “close connection” between justification and penance. It is important to note that penance does not satisfy eternal punishment but rather temporal punishment, which may be continued into Purgatory (Trent 6 Just 14). It is for this reason that penance includes a penalty (i.e., suffering) of some type (Trent 14 Pen. 2; 8-9; Catechism §980). Thus Purgatory is seen as an extension of penance. In keeping with the general teaching that God mediates His grace through the Church, it is the Pope and the Church that has power, among other things, to absolve sins (Catechism §553; cf. §827).

15 Venial sins: Trent 14 Pen 5-6; Canon 6, 9; mortal sins: Trent 14 Pen 8-9; Canon 12-14. In general, cf. Catechism §1434-1439.

16 Catechism §1499-1532. This sacrament is available any time someone’s health is jeopardized, but it is especially associated with life-threatening illnesses.

17 Trent 6 Just. Canon 30; 22 Mass 2; 25 Purg., citing Council of Florence 6; Catechism §1030-1032. Those in Purgatory are aided in their progress through prayers, alms, works of penance, and the Mass (Trent 25 Purg.; Catechism §1032). The Church has the power to release people from part or all of Purgatory through a partial or plenary indulgence (Vatican1 Session 2; Catechism §1471-1479, 1498). Partial or plenary indulgences may be obtained both for those living and those deceased (Catechism §1478-1479). The Eastern Orthodox Church does not practice indulgences (; accessed 18 Sept., 2017).

18 Catechism §1474-1477. To be more precise, the Church’s treasury of good works consists of Christ’s merits, the prayers and good works of Mary, and the prayers and good works of all the saints (Catechism §1477). Here just one aspect is being highlighted. Needless to say, these individuals do not pass through Purgatory.

19 Trent 6 Just 7; Catechism §1989, 2001, 2019.

20 It is just on this point that Calvin critiques Augustine’s understanding of justification: “Even the sentiment of Augustine, or at least his mode of expressing it, cannot be entirely approved of. For although he is admirable in stripping man of all merit of righteousness, and transferring the whole praise of it to God, yet he classes the grace by which we are regenerated to newness of life under the head of sanctification” (Institutes 3.11.14).

21 Trent 6 Just 8; cf. 6 Just 10; 6 Canon 24, 32.

22 Citations refer to the following works: Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518; hereafter Heid. Disp.) and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559/1560; hereafter Institutes). I have checked Luther’s English translations with the Latin version, but have used the following source for this essay: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church: German-Latin-English (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921). I have checked Calvin’s English translations with the Latin and French versions, but have used the following source for this essay: Calvin’s Institutes (Grand Rapids, MI: Associated Publishers and Authors Inc., n.d.).

23 A closely related issue to justification is that of original sin and the freedom of the will. The Catholic Church teaches that humans are born in original sin (the opposite of the original justice and holiness that Adam had in the Garden) but that (infant) baptism washes it away. Additionally, taking their view from the ancient tripartite division of man into reason, will, and bodily senses, they view humans as corrupted in bodily senses but only weakened in intellect and will (Catechism 405-406, 417 [but cf. 734]; cf. Trent 6 Just 1; Institutes 2.2.1-9). It is the intellect and will that can seek God if one so chooses. Thus beginning in the 12th cent. it was typical to speak of preparing one’s self to receive justifying grace, which gave rise to the popular expression “God does not deny grace to the person who does what is in him” (Lat: facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam; cf. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 107-116), along with its accompanying debate over whether “does what is in him” (Lat: facere quod in se est) was seen as strictly meritorious (Lat: meritum de condigno) or as strictly non-meritorious but reckoned by God as so (Lat: meritum de congruo). The Franciscans were the main exponents of the meritum de congruo view, and they were by far the largest group present at the Council of Trent when the issue of justification was being debated and articulated (cf. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 320). Martin Luther attacks “does what is in him” theology in Thesis 16 of the Heid. Disp. (Lat: faciendo quod est in se) and Calvin appears to attack meritum de congruo (i.e., Trent, Franciscan) in Institutes 3.17.3, where he accuses the “Sophists” (FR: “les Sophistes de Sorbonne”) of attaching merit to works, however his language is different (Lat: “non intrinseca…sed ex pacti ratione: quia Dominus liberalitate sua tanti aestimavit”). Notice that Martin Luther in his Heid. Disp., Thesis 13 says that the freedom of the will (Lat: liberum arbitrium) exists in name only (Lat: res est de solo titulo), which is exactly what Trent 6 Canon 5 anathematizes (Lat: liberum artibrium; rem esse de solo titulo). Catechism §2006-2011 appears to approve of meritum de congruo for initial justification and meritum de condigno for further sanctification, with God’s grace always being the initiator (cf. 2025-2027).


25 This idea of “forensic” (i.e., alien) justification apparently originated with the Catholic (and anti-Luther!) scholar Erasmus. In his 1516 bilingual Latin-Greek New Testament, he modified the Vulgate text in the opening verses of Rom 4 by consistently translating as imputare instead of reputare (Novum instrumentum omne [Basil, 1516], s.v. Rom 4). In his Annotationes he connected imputare with acceptilatio, which was understood as the purely verbal remission of a debt without payment (Annotationes [Basil, 1522], s.v. Rom 4). Erasmus continued to hold this view at least in his 1522, 1527, and 1541 editions (the editions I have been able to check). For discussion, cf. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 239.

26 Rom. 3.21-26; 4.5; 10.5-13; 2 Cor 5.19-21; Gal 3.7-29; Eph. 2.8-9; Phil. 3.4-9.

27 Cf. Calvin, Institutes 3.11.19 for his reply to criticisms against faith alone, which is based on Rom 3.21, 24, 28 were Paul juxtaposes faith and works in such a way that they are mutually exclusive.

28 Institutes 3.11.2; Calvin elsewhere defines justification at 3.17.8. It is interesting to note that Catholic theology can sound very Protestant at times; cf. Catechism 1987, “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’ and through Baptism” (quoting Rom 3.22; cf. §2018).

29 Institutes 3.11.3.

30 Calvin offered the following texts which clearly speak of “reckoning” something to someone independent of reality: 1 Kgs 1.21; Lk 7.29, 35; 16.15; 18.14 (Institutes 3.11.3).

31 Institutes 3.11.11.

32 Heid. Disp., Theses 25-26 (WA 1:354). Catholics often misunderstand, or intentionally caricature, Protestant teaching on this topic, as Trent 6 Just 11 demonstrates (cf. also, for example, Trent 6 Canon 20).

33 For example, if one would like to attempt to reinterpret Purgatory meaning and purpose, it could be seen as placed in this life where the Christian is molded into the image of Christ, the rewards of which are to be enjoyed forever in eternity. However, it should be noted that at least some Protestants still argue for traditional Purgatory; cf. Jerry Walls, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). The Eastern Orthodox Church holds to a form of Purgatory that is devoid of any connotation of punishment (; accessed 18 Sept., 2017).

34 Martin Luther’s Thesis 25 of the Heid. Disp. was: “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ” and he explained it as follows: “For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith. [cites Rom 1.7; 10.0] Therefore I wish to have the words “without work” understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow”. It is difficult to see how Trent 6 Canon 24 is not a direct response to Luther on this point: “If anyone says that justice once received is neither preserved nor increased in the sight of God by good works, but that the works themselves are no more than the effects and signs of the justification obtained, and not also a cause of its increase: let him be anathema”.

35 Institutes 3.11.6. Calvin claims that Paul bears witness to the “distinction” (discrimen) between justification and regeneration by comparing Rom 7.24 and Rom 8.33, 35 (Institutes 3.11.11). Interestingly, Catechism §689 uses similar language to refer to the relationship between the Son and the Spirit: “When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath. In their joint mission, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct but inseparable.” Why cannot the same union and distinction be applied to justification and regeneration/sanctification?

36 Institutes 3.16.1. This conceptual distinction between justification and regeneration/sanctification lies at the heart of the difference between the Catholic and Protestant systems of salvation (McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 60, 209-210, 215).

37 This view is specifically anathematized in Trent 7 Sacr. Gen. Canon 5 (cf. Canon 6).

38 The “system” way of understanding Catholicism has also been articulated by Leonardo De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003) and Gregg Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

39 From the Catholic perspective, this incompatibility used to touch soteriology (Trent) but now only touches ecclesiology (Catechism). According to Catechism, non-Catholic Christians have “a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church” and are true members of the body of Christ (§818, 838); they are recognized as “ecclesial communities” although not as “churches” (Catechism §1400). From the Protestant perspective, this incompatibility has almost always been considered as “another gospel” and therefore anathematized (Gal 1.6-9).

40 Preamble §5. However, cf. the Vatican’s response to the Joint Declaration: Carl Braaten, et al., “Symposium on the Vatican’s Official Response to the Joint Declaration on Justification,” Pro Ecclesia 7 no. 4 (1998): 398-470. Although the Catholic Church appears, at least in some respects, to be more “evangelical” in its doctrine (ex., Catechism §1987-1995), it should be remembered that Trent made itself perpetually valid for succeeding generations (Trent 25 Dec. Ref. 2, 21). How can Protestants and Catholics be reconciled if Trent’s numerous and explicit condemnations of fundamental Protestant doctrines are still valid?

41 If this essay were to have treated the issue of authority (sola Scriptura vs. Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium) the distance between the two traditions would appear even greater. After all, Catechism §1400 states that because the “ecclesial communities” (not churches proper) that are “derived from the Reformation” do not share a common understanding of the Eucharist and cannot claim apostolic succession, “It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church”. It is incredible to note that this statement from Catechism was made in 1994, and yet the Lutherans and Catholics celebrated a united Eucharist in 2016. What had changed within these 20 years?

42 I would like to thank Leonardo De Chirico for reading a rough draft of this essay and for offering valuable comments and encouragement to publish it.




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If the churches involved in dialogue make a public declaration on 31 October that they are in agreement on the essentials of the Christian faith we had better ask "Who moved?" As well as that we should ask our church leaders where they stand lest we belong to any denomination that has moved away from the truth of the gospel as set down in the Bible. (Galatians 1:6-10)

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