Summary of Roman Catholic Justification

So, just what was it about Roman Catholic teaching that moved an Augustinian monk to take on the establishment on October 31, 1517? What was it that caused the Pope to add to Luther this threat to excommuncate him (photo at right)? Their addiction to adding unbiblical things to biblical doctrines of grace, faith and the work of Christ. Here’s an excerpt from R. C. Sproul’s book, What is Reformed Theology, which summarizes Rome’s doctrine of justification, its extension to the issue of indulgences, and Luther’s objections thereto (pages 63-66).

How then are we made righteous? The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is complex. Let us summarize this view. Justification begins with baptism, the “instrumental cause” of justification. By this sacrament the grace of Christ’s righteousness is infused into the soul. The baptized person is cleansed of original sin and is now in a state of grace. The person must cooperate with and assent to the infused grace in order to become righteous. The grace justification is not permanaent. It may be lost through the commission of mortal sin.
Rome distinguishes between mortal and venial sin. Venial sin is real sin but is less serious. Mortal sin is called mortal because it kills the justifying grace in the soul. Mortal sin destroys grace but not faith. A person can retain true faith and still not be justified.
When a person commits mortal sin and loses the grace of justification received in baptism, he or she can be restored to a state of justification by the sacrament of penance. This sacrament is described by Rome as “the second plank of justification for those who have made shipwreck of their souls.” The sinner confesses his sin to a priest, makes an act of contrition, receives priestly absolution, and then performs “works of satisfaction” to be restored to a state of grace.
These works of satisfaction lay behind much of the controversy in the sixteenth century. The works of satisfaction procure for the penitent congruous merit (meritum de congruo). Congruous merit is not condign merit (meritum de condigno), merit so worthy that a just God is obligated to reward it. Congruous merit is rooted in grace and is not so virtuous as to impose an obligation on God. It is instead “congruous” or “fitting” for God to reward this kind of merit.
Martin Luther strongly rejected the concept of congruous merit:
These arguments of the Scholastics about the merit of congruence and of worthiness (de merito congrui et condigni) are nothing but vain fig,ments and dreamy speculations of idle folk about worthless stuff. Yet they form the foundation of the papacy, and on them it rests to this very day. For this is what every monk imagines: by observing the sacred rules of my order I can earn the grace of congruence, but by the works I do after I have received this grace I can accumulate a merit so great that it will not only be enough to bring me to eternal life but enough to sell and give it to others ( Luther, What Luther Says, 2:921).
Luther’s vehemence on this point must be understood against the backdrop of the Reformation struggle. It is fair to say that the whole firestorm was ignited by an aspect of the sacrament of penance. The indulgence controversy that provoked Luthers’ famous Ninety-five Theses focused on the concept of works of satisfaction, a concept integral to penance. One work of satisfaction a penitent may perform is the giving of alms. To be sure, alms must be given in a proper spirit to be effective.

In the sixteenth century Rome embarked on a huge building project involving St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope made special indulgences available to those who gave alms to support this work. The pope has the “power of the keys,” which includes the power to grant indulgences for people who are in purgatory because they lack sufficient merit to enter heaven. The pope can draw on the treasury of merit and apply it to the needs of those in purgatory. This treasury includes merit amassed there by the saints. The saints acquired not only sufficient merit to gain entrance into heaven, but also a surplus for others who had not. This excess or surplus merit is achieved by performing works of supererogation, works that are above and beyond the call of duty, such as martyrdom.
Johann Tetzel scandalized Luther by his crass method (unauthorized by Rome) of peddling indulgences. Tetzel marketed indulgences with the ditty, “Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” He gave peasants the impression that one could purchase salvation for departed friends and relatives simply by giving alms, with or without the spirit of penitence. At this point in his life Luther himself was keenly interested in these indulgences. he expressed remorse that his parents were still alive, preventing him from insuring their entrance into heaven by securing indulgences for them. Instead he gave alms in behalf of his grandparents.

When Luther raised questions about Tetzel’s methods, he began to reevaluate the entire system of indulgences, including the sacrament 0f penance itself. He attacked the whole system, paying special attention to the concept of performing works of merit of any kind, whether congruous or condign. He insisted that the only merit that can avail for the sinner’s justification is the merit of Christ.
Rome agreed that the merit of Christ is necessary for salvation. Likewise Rome insisted on the necessity of grace and faith for justification. Often the difference between the Roman view of justification and the Protestant view is misstated. Some say Rome believes in justification by merit and Protestants believe in justification by grace. Rome believes in justification by works, while Protestants believe in justification by faith. Rome believes in justification by the church, while Protestants believe in justification by Christ. To state the differences this way is to radically distort the issue and to be guilty of gross slander against Rome.
The Roman Catholic church believes that grace, faith, and Chrsit are all necessary for the sinner’s justification. They are necessary conditions, but not sufficient conditions. While grace is necessary for justification, it is not enough. Merit (at least congruous merit) must be added to grace.
Rome declares that faith is necessary for justification. Faith is called the foundation (fundamentum) and the (root) of justification. Works must be added to faith, however, for justification to occur.
Likewise the righteousness of Chrsit is necessary for justification. This righteousness must be infused into the soul sacramentally. The sinner must cooperate with and assent to this infused righteousness, so that real righteousness becomes inherent in the person before he can be justified.
Missing from the Roman Catholic formula for justification is the crucial word alone. It is not an exaggeration to say that the eye of the Reformation tornado was this one little word. The Reformers insisted that justification is by grce alone (sola gratia), by faith alone (sola fide), and through Christ alone (soli Christo).

11 responses

  1. 2 Corinthians 11:1-5 reads:
    “I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles.”

    I believe Paul’s words apply well to the state of the gospel in which Luther found them in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church.

  2. The Actors in the Play of Redemption:

    The Pope- the Pied Piper
    Roman Church- The Harlot

    Me- Wormfood saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, for his glory alone.


  3. Gage,

    The Director cast me as Wormfood #2. I didn’t even have to audition, he said I was born for this part!



  4. Head

    tail between, aah, well,

    Brother Martin said the Papacy was the institution of the Anti-Christ, didn’t he or was he just peeved at Leo?

    I wonder what Saint Bernard thought?


  5. Well, Anti-Christ in the sense that the institution forbade the preaching of the true gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to the Word alone to God’s glory alone.

    Consider this quote from

    “Luther came to think of the pope as the Antichrist because, first, of what the general tradition was about where to find the Antichrist. The Antichrist was someone subverting the Church from within. That was the expectation popularly. And when he saw the papal office and read the histories and saw it subverting the gospel as he understood it, he became convinced that that was the proof that the papal office was the office of the Antichrist, trying to destroy God’s church from within.”

    St. Bernard said “Woof-woof!” (tee hee hee)

    Initially, Luther thought highly of Pope Leo, and his ninety five theses were intended in part to help Leo prevent abuse of indulgences on the part of those who worked for Leo. And, according to the 2003 movie (just because I haven’t read the book), Luther dedicated his commentary on the 95 theses to Pope Leo. I’m not sure how he felt about him after “Ex Surge Domine” got circulated. Are you aware of that document?

    As for me, I’m amil. But I’m no expert on amil antichrists but I tend to read Kim Riddlebarger’s writings on amillennialism ( when I want to learn something about it. What I’ve learned from him is that Revelation is symbolic primarily of pagan Rome and Nero’s persecution of Christian’s, and secondarily serves as kind of a template for all intervening episodes throughout church history in which the state (the beast) and false religions (the false prophet) team up under the leadership of the Dragon to forbid Christians to preach the gospel or worship Christ, and generally attempt to coerce them to listen to the False Prophet and worship the Beast. The Holy Spirit restrains the evil of these “anti-christs” until his restraining work is finished, at which time some sort of scenario in which some final, capital A Antichrist appears or some facsimile thereof, and the whole world turns on the whole church once and for all.

    How about you?

  6. I just don’t know How, but I believe it is about you too!

  7. Now you’re starting to sound like a dispensationalist! 🙂

    Does your cryptic response mean you believe the idea of Antichrist is “about me too”? Or do I suffer from a martyr complex?

  8. I believe if you were as honest as I am about my FLESH, you would quickly agree that you need look no further than your bathroom mirror to see the ANTI-CHRIST.

    I might be a bit more down to earth but:::>MY FLESH WARS AGAINST THE SPIRIT


    But HEY, if being the tail means ME makes it to Heaven,

    well then I’d rather be a tail than a HOT DOG!

    I just don’t know if living now is better than when Brother Martin was brewing beer? hmmmmm

    But hey, he did burp a lot!

    I guess when we get to Heaven we might find the Apostles spending a lot of time talking to Brother Martin? or NOT?


  9. Remember, Luther was no dispensationalist… (for that matter neither was Paul or the Westminster Authors… sorry I digress)- But the point is- don’t apologize for Luther. When he said the Pope is the Anti-Christ and so did early Westminster- they are not thinking of the Left Behind/Hal Lindsey/Jack Van Impe type of Anti-Christ.

    Luther has a very famous sermon on
    1 John 2:18 “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.”

    Those who oppose the gospel according to Luther are Anathema (Gal.1) and thus are Anti-Christ!


    Lay aside the dispensationalism (baggage) Pilgrim, it’s a burden on your historical theology and exposition!

  10. Gage,

    I had no intention of apologizing for Luther, simply clarifying for one whom I am assuming may be a dispensationalist. You know, here in America, it’s statistically likely. Thanks for your reinforced emphasis.

  11. Good point on the stats… I can’t get away from it on Christian TV.

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