Larger Catechism, #70 [pt. 3]

70.       Q. What is justification?

A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners,[286] in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight;[287] not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them,[288] but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them,[289] and received by faith alone.[290]


Without Works

This glorious blessing comes to believers “not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them.” Paul says that we are “justified by his grace” (Titus 3:7) and that God saved us “not by works of righteousness which we have done” (Titus 3:5). None of these blessings come to us on the basis of the change that we undergo or on the basis of the works that we perform. The two phrases are critical. When the divines say that it is “not for any thing wrought in them,” they are saying that we not declared righteous because of something done in us (wrought in them). Our growth in holiness, devotion to Christ, deepening love to Christ, etc. are not the reasons for God to accept us righteous in His sight. Furthermore, it also is not dependent on the obedience we offer to God (whatever that may be).

This is entirely opposed to the Roman Catholic doctrine as set forth in their  Council of Trent. Ch. VII[1] says that the cause of justification is that God “maketh us just, that, to wit, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to every one as He wills, and according to each one’s proper disposition and cooperation.”

Notice, God “maketh” us just. We are not “only reputed” to be just before God “but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us…” Justification therefore is in fact based upon what is wrought in us and done by us. In the end, justification is not truly an act of grace and mercy but one of justice, as something that God must do. The divines also curiously cite Eph. 1:7. At first glance, it is not immediately apparent how this verse applies: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…” Yet, the general point of the verse is critical, our full redemption is “according to the riches of his grace” and not according to the riches of our own inherent righteousness. Justification is an act of grace purchased by the redemption of Jesus Christ.


We have already developed some of these points in our exposition above. Yet a few more points can be gleaned from the following: “but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them.” If it isn’t our own works and on the basis of something wrought in us, then on what basis can God declare us righteous in His sight? It is that question this phrase answers. The LC explains whose righteousness is imputed to us. This phrase in the LC is often labeled as active and passive obedience of Christ. Christ’s perfect obedience refers to His obedience unto the Father in everything. In particular, it is His obedience to the Law of God. The passive obedience refers to the sufferings he willingly underwent. Of these things, we have dealt with in LC #38 & 39. He fully fulfilled all the laws requirements and satisfied God in His suffering (to satisfy divine justice). This point is summarily stated in Rom. 5:19 —“through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

That full righteousness is imputed to us. It is His righteousness in our account, we are declared righteous. Wesleyans deny this.  They say, “Christ’s death is a substitute for our punishment but not for our holiness.”[2]  That is, they take the passive obedience of Christ and dispense with the active obedience. This takes us no further than Roman Catholicism. The papists all knew our sins were washed away (again and again, etc.) but could not account for the righteousness (except for what we do). Interestingly, they says our righteousness is our faith, that is, our act of faith is considered to be the righteousness which in turn makes the act of man the basis of our standing before God.[3] Paul says, “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (thn e˙k qeouv dikaiosu/nhn e˙pi« thØv pi÷stei)” (Phil. 3:8, 9). It is a righteousness that comes from God that comes to us (not our own) —one is from God and the other from the law — “e˙k qeouv indicates that the sourceof this righteousness is God himself. It stands in sharp contrast to e˙k no/mou: Paul viewed the two as mutually exclusive.”[4]

Sola Fide

The last and most important phrase deals with the means of justification: “and received by faith alone.” All that has been said is received by faith alone. It is not faith in addition to something else (baptism, penance, immersion, etc.). The sola is critical here.

Catholics insist that it is not by faith alone. The title of the book is Not By Faith Alone.[5] It is argued that the Bible says explicitly the opposite in James 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” They have a point; the Bible does not say explicitly that a man is justified by faith alone! How do we deal with this?

First of all, a word about Paul and James. I have written the following before: James “is not arguing against works righteousness; he is condemning the absence of righteousness. Paul’s concern is soteriological while James is ethical. Paul is concerned with the way of salvation through faith in Christ while James is concerned with the way of life in salvation. Paul wrote against “works righteousness” while James combated a “lack of righteousness.””[6]

Secondly, though the explicit phrase “faith alone” is not used in reference to justification, we must not assume therefore it is a wrong phrase. The phrase conveys the substance of Biblical teaching. When Paul says that a man is justified by faith without works, what are we to make of it? Rom. 3:28 says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Again, in Rom. 4:5 Paul says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” In Gal. 2:16 Paul says—  “so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” In all these verses, Paul is pitting a singular act of faith against works of the law. Yes, he did not say “faith alone” but did he need to say it in view of the contrast? Was he saying, “We are justified by faith plus a few other things we do and yet it is apart from the works of the law?” That point just doesn’t need to be stated.

We have to state it because the point of the verse is undermined by sinful innovations. In those who oppose sola fide, they always make it faith plus something else (plus what God does in us, plus what acts we perform, plus this or that ritual act, etc.).

Catholics — Trent On Justification

Here are just a few extracts to give you a taste of the RC teaching on this matter. The up to date edition of J. Neuner and J. Dupuis’s work does not change any of this. Lastly, most modern Catholics (laity) are unaware of their own doctrinal foundations and views. Their personal affirmations and denials do not often represent their “church’s” teaching.[7]

CANON I. — If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema. [N.B. — Papists do not deny that God’s grace is necessary; they are not Pelagians. They are semi-Pelagians and therefore God’s grace is not the sole efficient cause of our salvation.]

CANON XI. — If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema. [N. B. — Papists deny that Christ’s righteousness imputed to us is the sole basis of our justification. They require inherent grace working in us; grace coupled with human effort (cooperation) are both needed in order to be justified. Grace begins it (for the papists) and human effort adds to it (works inspired by grace our labors still play a cooperative role in justification).]

CANON XII. — If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema. [N. B. — Man is not justified by faith alone for the papist. Here, the papists are very clear in denouncing the Protestant doctrine of sola fide. The evangelical believer is condemned in relying solely on Christ, for believing that he is justified by faith alone.]

[1] Decree on Justification, Sixth Session (Denzinger, §799).

[2]Wynkoop, Foundation of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology, 110.

[3] I develop this in my essay “Arminianism Exposed.”

[4] Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: a Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 397.

[5] Robert A. Sungenis, Not By Faith Alone: The Biblical Evidence for the Catholic Doctrine of Justification (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing Company, 1997).

[6] See my essay “James vs. Paul?” (below)

[7] J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, eds., The Christian Faith (New York: Alba House, 2001), 793ff.

Leave a Reply