Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Father William Most Collection

Justification: Doctrine of Council of Trent

[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]

What is justification? Loosely, it means getting right with God. But there is an impassable gap between the Catholic and the Lutheran position after that point. Luther insisted that even after justification we are totally corrupt and really, have no free will (The Bondage of the Will). The Catholic teaching is that justification means the reception of (sanctifying) grace for the first time. This grace changes us, making us share in the divine nature( 2 Peter 1. 4) which is far different from being totally corrupt. It gives us the basic ability to take part in the face to face vision of God in the next life (1 Cor 13:12). So the soul becomes even now the temple of the Holy Spirit: 1 Cor 6:19 -could we imagine God joining Himself for eternity to a soul that is totally corrupt? Rather, "who can stand when He appears? For He is like the refiner's fire": Mal 3:2).

This is a tremendous thought. When I look at you, I do not take you into my mind, I take in an image of you. But no image could let me know what God really is, so there must be no image in the process (Defined thus by Benedict XII: DS 1000). So it must be that God joins Himself directly to the human soul or mind, without even an image in between so that the soul may know Him face to face.

2 Peter 1:4 said by this grace we share in the divine nature. So we are made children of God, "heirs of God, fellow heirs with Christ - provided that we suffer with Him so that we may be glorified with Him": Rom 8:17. We notice the condition attached at the end. We are saved and made holy if and to the extent that we are members of Christ, and like Him. So we are not saved alone, we are saved as brothers of Christ, sharing the same divine nature with Him (2 Pet. 1:4).

Now the child of a Father has a claim to inherit. So we have, by justification, a claim to inherit from our Father, to inherit a place in His mansions. But, a merit is simply a claim. So we could say that having grace is a merit. Yet we gained that first grace without any merit of our own. We can, however, merit increases in it (DS 1574), since we then have the dignity of sons of God. If we keep that grace, we will enter His mansions. But we could lose it by mortal sin. So Trent defined: If anyone says that the justification that is received is not kept and even increased before God by good works... A. S." But this presupposes reception of grace for the firs time without any merit at all. As to "keeping" justification: All concrete actions are either good or evil. If we commit evil, mortally, we lose that grace. If we do not commit mortal sin, then this grace is kept.

We achieve justification by faith. But Luther, without any checking, simply assumed that faith means confidence that the merits of Christ apply to me. Then I would be infallibly saved, for in a ledger for myself, on the credit page I would write infinity, the merits of Christ; on the debit page, the number for my sins. Hence no matter how much I have sinned, am sinning, will sin - all is outweighed by the infinite merits of Christ. So I have infallible salvation.

The trouble is that, as we said, Luther made no effort to see what St. Paul meant by faith. If we read all of Paul, we find three things:1) If God speaks a truth, we believe it in our mind; 2) If He make a promise, we are confident in it; 3) If He tells us to do something, we must do it-- "the obedience of faith" :Rom 1:5. - Even a standard Protestant reference work, Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, in Supplement, p. 333, describes Pauline faith just as we have done). But poor Luther did not see that faith includes obedience to God, and so he wrote: "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.… No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day." (Weimar ed. vol. 2. p. 372; Letters I, Luther's Works, American ed. vol. 48, p. 282. Luther in his Exposition on the Psalms 130. 4; wrote: "If this article [justification by faith] stands, the church stands;' if it falls, the church falls." Since he did not know what St. Paul meant by faith, his church never did stand. -- and further, he had no means of knowing which books are part of Scripture. He tried to say that if a book preaches justification by faith strongly, it is inspired. He did not notice that most books of Scripture do not even mention the subject.

Here are the chief texts of the Council of Trent on these matters:

First Stage

Capitulum 8 on justification. DS 1532: "... we are said to be justified gratuitously for this reason, because nothing of those things that come before justification, whether faith, or works, earns the grace of justification itself... ."

Second Stage

Canon 32 on Justification. DS 1582: "If any one says that the works of a man who has been justified [has received first grace] are in such a way the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of the one who is justified, or that the one who is justified does not really merit by good works, which are done by him through the grace of God and Jesus Christ [does not really merit] eternal life and the attainment of eternal life itself (if however he dies in grace) and even an increase in glory, let him be anathema." COMMENT: They are merit in that they are a claim to a reward. The claim is established since first grace, unearned, makes us children of God, who as such have a claim to inherit. And we are brothers of Christ, who did establish a claim albeit on the secondary level. After we are made children of God, this dignity gives a ground for merit of additions to grace.


1. There is justification by faith, without works. Examine each of the three words:

a) Justification: Means getting right with God. It makes us adopted sons (Rom 8. 17) and sharers in the divine nature (2 Pt. 1. 4) and temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 19). That is not a spatial presence, spirits do not take up space. A spirit is present wherever he causes an effect. What effect? The transformation of the soul making it radically capable of the vision of God in the next life: 1 Cor 13.12.

b) Faith: It is itself a gift (Eph 2.8). It includes three things according to Paul: belief in mind, confidence, obedience.

c) Without works: which works? Not just the ceremonial and dietary works for that could imply that other works can justify us. But they cannot do that for no man is just before God by his own power (Rom 3.24:we are justified gratis). Abraham had works other than those, but they did not earn justification, if they did, he would have a boast, but not before God.

Final salvation is an inheritance:1 Cor 6.9-10. We could not earn the inheritance, nor need we do it, but we could earn to lose it: ibid. We are adopted children. But children do not earn their inheritance, though they could earn to lose it: Rom 6.23. We get a claim not of ourselves, but inasmuch as we are brothers/members of Christ, who did earn, and are like Him in all things, including work of rebalancing the objective order: Rom 8.17. Yet we do have a claim, inasmuch as first grace, unmerited, makes us children of God, who as such, have a claim to inherit.

2. What of the OT "justifications"? They did not of themselves give this grace, but promised temporal reward: Probably did not know eternal reward until time of Antiochus IV. -- And no OT sacrifice was provided for sins be yad ramah, but only for sheggagah.

3. Why good works? Because faith includes obedience, which calls for them. Also, out of gratitude to so good a Father who even gives us by grace an inclination to good works. He, being Holiness, loves all that is good, and so is pleased with our good works. But they do not at all earn salvation in primary sense (Cf. DS 1532 above):if they did, we would have a boast.



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