American Catholic Truth Society

Debate on Justification (Opening Statement)

By: Peter Pike, Affirming "Sinners are justified only once by grace alone through faith alone"

I would like to start this debate by thanking Kevin Tierney for his interest in discussing such a worthy topic as Justification, as well as realizing the importance of this discussion. Every debate thesis needs to be clearly defined at the beginning, but if ever there was a term that needed defining nearly every time it is used, that term is "justification." The Protestant and the Catholic may use the same word in similar contexts, and may even define "justification" using similar words too-but the meanings could not be more different. In fact, there is virtually no aspect of the definition of justification that both Protestants and Catholics agree on.

For that reason, before I define my own view (the Reformed view) I will need to give a brief summary of the Catholic view, which I'm sure Mr. Tierney will clarify even further for us in his opening statement.

The Catholic View of Justification

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

"Like conversion, justification has two aspects. Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, and so accepts forgiveness and righteousness from on high. Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man. Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ. It is granted us through Baptism. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who justifies us. It has for its goal the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life. It is the most excellent work of God's mercy" [1].

Here we see that justification includes "the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man." As such, justification involves a subjective change in the individual who is justified. That person is himself sanctified and renewed. The sinner is no longer a sinner, but instead actually becomes a righteous person through the process of justification.

One point that must be clarified before we continue is the mistaken Protestant idea that Catholics believe in salvation without the need for grace. However, the issue has never been about grace. Both sides agree that grace is necessary for justification, and therefore salvation, to occur! As the Catechism above makes clear, Catholicism teaches that man turns to God when he is "moved by grace." Therefore, the Catholic, just as the Protestant, will say that man is saved by grace.

The Council of Trent put it the following way. Justification is "a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior" [2]. Furthermore, Trent states that justification is "not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend, that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting" [3].

As you can see, this further reinforces the Catholic position that justification involves a subjective change in the person. Trent shows us that when an unjust man is justified, he moves from being an enemy of God to being a friend of God, and it is on that basis "that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting."

The Council of Trent also discussed how it is that a person can become justified when they said:

It is furthermore declared that in adults the beginning of that justification must proceed from the predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ, that is, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits on their part, they are called; that they who by sin had been cut off from God, may be disposed through His quickening and helping grace to convert themselves to their own justification by freely assenting to and cooperating with that grace; so that, while God touches the heart of man through the illumination of the Holy Ghost, man himself neither does absolutely nothing while receiving that inspiration, since he can also reject it, nor yet is he able by his own free will and without the grace of God to move himself to justice in His sight [4].

The Catholic position according to the Council of Trent is that God moves in a sinner's life and grants grace that the sinner may either accept or reject Him. While this is done "without any merits on their part" it is still necessary that sinners "convert themselves to their own justification" by accepting God's predisposing grace. If the sinner accepts the grace of God, then the sinner is made just before God. However, since the decision depends on the choice of man, justification is not a guaranteed result of the grace of God. Furthermore, it is not a permanent action even when someone accepts grace, because a Christian can still commit a mortal sin and lose the grace of justification. Trent continues by saying: "Those who through sin have forfeited the received grace of justification, can again be justified when, moved by God, they exert themselves to obtain through the sacrament of penance the recovery, by the merits of Christ, of the grace lost" [5]. As a result, for the Catholic justification is something that can be gained and lost repeatedly, depending on the actions of a person.

When we map out how a person is saved in Catholicism, we discover that a sinner is justified by both the grace of God and by the works that a person does or does not do (as sinful actions will result in the losing of justification). The result of this is that Catholicism teaches that faith alone cannot save, but must include also works. In short: faith + works = salvation.

The Protestant View of Justification

In marked contrast to the Catholic view is the historical Protestant view, specifically the Reformed Protestant view. It is unfortunate that I have to make the distinction, but many modern Protestant denominations would actually agree more with the Catholic position on justification than with the Reformers. Let me quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith for the Reformed understanding of justification:

Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God [6].

The Reformed view of justification is that man is completely passive in his salvation. He is saved when God pardons his sin and accepts him as righteous, which is his justification. This is done "not for anything wrought in them"-that is, there is no subjective change in the individual. Furthermore, this justification comes apart from anything "done by them." It is based solely on the work of Christ alone. The Westminster Confession of Faith takes pain to point out that not even faith is a meritorious act, for it is not faith itself that is imputed as righteousness, but it is the "obedience and satisfaction of Christ" that is imputed to the one who has faith. And even that faith "they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God."

Here you can see the two sides summarized and you should now be able to grasp the issues we will need to discuss in this debate. Is justification a "once for all" action whereby a sinner is imputed "the obedience and satisfaction of Christ", or does Justification "[conform] us to the righteousness of God" such that we are subjectively righteous until we sin again, at which point justification is lost? Does justification make a sinner permanently in right standing with God because he has been legally declared righteous before God, or does justification require sinners to "exert themselves to obtain through the sacrament of penance the recovery…of the grace lost"? Is justification distinct from sanctification, or are they both the same thing?

Since there is so much disagreement on the vital points in this issue, we must turn to the only source of Truth that Catholics and Protestants can agree on: the Holy Scriptures. Before delving deep into the subject, let me provide just the basic framework of the Protestant understanding of justification, with Scriptural support.

Original Sin

Original Sin is once concept that both Reformed Protestants and Catholics agree on in principle. That is, both accept that Original Sin has separated all who are born from God. The idea finds its roots in several Old Testament passages, one of which is Psalm 51:5-"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." David is the author of this passage, and here he proclaims the truth that Christians must accept if they are to consider themselves Biblical believers: we are born in sin. That sin is not referring to David's mother at all, but to David himself.

While this passage, and several others, allude to Original Sin, it was Paul who gave us the framework in its clearest sense. In Romans 5 we read the following words: "For as through the one man's disobedience [Adam's sin] the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One [Christ] the many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:19). In short, we are all made sinners through the sin of Adam.

Total Depravity

The result of Original Sin is that all men are born sinners, and are therefore depraved. The Calvinist talks of man being "totally depraved" but this does not refer to a sinner being as evil as possible. Rather, it means that the totality of a person is evil, including spiritually, emotionally, and physically. This depravity is a result of the fact of Original Sin, but each person is responsible for his own sin, and his own sin only.

The passages that refer to the depravity of man are innumerable. For just a sample listing, observe the following passages. "There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one" (Romans 3:10-12). "This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed" (John 3:18-19). "Jesus answered them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin'" (John 8:14). "…The LORD said to Himself, 'I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done'" (Genesis 8:21).

Here we see that man is depraved from his youngest possible actions. Every intent of a man's heart is evil from youth. There is no one who does good. And everyone who sins is a slave to sin. These are all things that are true and must be taken into account.

Since we know that God is a just God, then the question obviously arises-How can anyone be saved from this condition? Catholicism, as well as most mainstream Protestant denominations today, has an answer for this-God provides equal grace to all men, and it is up to the person who receives that grace to decide whether or not he wants to accept Christ. That is, God tosses out a life-line and whoever wants to grab hold of it can be saved.

The Reformers saw it differently, and that is because (I believe) the Bible teaches differently on this issue. While an argument can be made that predestination has nothing to do with the doctrine of justification, the historical Protestant definition of justification cannot be understood without an understanding of predestination; for as Paul wrote: "These whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified" (Romans 8:30).


John chapter six is a passage that deals with the unconditional election of God's people. It is unconditional in the sense that God's election (or choosing) of a people to be saved has nothing to do with those people themselves, but rather upon God and what God wants. As we read in John 6:37, "All that the Father gives Me [Jesus] will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out." People try to get around the thrust of this passage, but it couldn't be clearer: ALL whom the Father gives to Jesus WILL come to Him. This is exactly what Jesus says in John 6:44-"No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day."

Since not all are saved, the question must be asked-why aren't some saved? The answer, like so many others in Scripture, is found in the same text. In John 6:64-65, Jesus Himself answers this question. "'But there are some of you who do not believe.' For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, 'For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.'"

So it is clear that the one who is saved is the one who is enabled by the Father to come to Christ. It is also clear that some will not believe because it has not been granted them from the Father. Furthermore, we know that everyone who is given to the Son by the Father will be raised up on the last day. The conclusions are obvious: the Father elects those whom the Son will save, and the Father does not elect everyone.

We see this once more in Romans 9. There we read the following words:

"For He says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.' So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires" (Romans 9:14-18).

Paul then immediately answers all objections to this doctrine by refuting them for us:

"You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?' On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, 'Why did you make me like this,' will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did this so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory" (Romans 9:19-23).

This passage could not be clearer. Salvation is completely of God. It is totally dependent upon God. God is the mover, the Savior, and the only one who does anything above.

Summary So Far

Man is born depraved due to Original Sin. He can do nothing pleasing to God, and in fact is a slave to sin. The Father, in His mercy, grants some to the Son for salvation, while others are vessels of wrath, prepared beforehand for destruction. God, therefore, is the only one doing anything. Man is completely passive in his own salvation.

But while this is the bare-bones aspect of salvation, we must dig deep into the system by which we are saved. Man is saved through justification, which is the topic of this debate. In order for justification to be biblically consistent, it must conform to the ideas that we saw above. Neither the Roman Catholic system, nor the system of belief of many mainstream Evangelicals today, is harmonic with the Scripture already presented.

In order to demonstrate that the historical Protestant version is Scriptural, and therefore correct, I will here demonstrate that justification is a legal action, that it is based on the work of Christ, that our own works cannot merit grace, that justification is applied through faith alone, and that even this faith is a gift from God.

The Legal Aspect of Justification

Words in foreign languages will sometimes have various nuances that cannot be easily translated. Such is the case when dealing with Justification. The Greek term (dikaios) translated as "justification" is also translated as "righteousness." Since two different words are used in English, some nuances of a verse can become hidden in the translation depending on which word the translator chooses to use.

Dikaios can refer to both a moral quality (such as when it is translated as "righteousness") and a legal term (which is the idea normally associated with the translation of "justification"). It is my intention to demonstrate that when Paul was using the term in passages referring to salvation, he was using the term in its legal sense, not in the moral sense of the word. This is an important distinction, because if the term is being used in a legal sense, then the act of justification does not depend on any subjective change in the individual, but is instead a legal declaration whereby God declares a sinner to be just.

Before we look at Paul, it is wise to look at the Old Testament to see the historical background Paul would be using. Let us start with Exodus 23:7. This verse states: "Keep far form a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or the righteous, for I will not acquit the guilty" (all passages, unless specifically indicated, are from the NASB). This passage is clearly legal-"keep far from a false charge"-and you can see the term "righteous" in the passage-"do not kill the innocent or the righteous." In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word used for "righteous" is dikaion. But even more importantly, the word translated as "acquit" in "for I will not acquit the guilty" is the Greek word dikaioseis. In other words, the passage is saying, "Do not kill the innocent or the righteous, for I will not justify the guilty."

As Dr. James White points out in his book, The God Who Justifies, "Obviously, this does not mean 'those who are sinlessly perfect' but rather those who are innocent or righteous in the eyes of the law. This is a legal, not a moral, description" [7].

Another interesting Old Testament passage is Deuteronomy 25:1. "If there is a dispute between men and they go to court…they judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked…." The forensic, or legal, aspect of this text is obvious. This passage refers to both a court and judges in that court. Again, the Greek term translated both "justify" and "righteous" in this passage is dikaios. Literally, the passage would read that judges "justify the just and condemn the condemned."

These passages clearly show that the judges are making a pronouncement as to whether or not someone is righteous or unrighteous. Their judgments do not change the individuals-they were whatever they were before going in. That is, the unjust man was unjust before the judges pronounced him unjust. Therefore, the pronouncement does not cause any change in the person.

This is especially clear from Isaiah 5:23, which says: "Who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the rights of the ones who are in the right!" Here we see that wicked people are "justified" by judges for a bribe. This justification does not subjectively change the wicked into righteous people; rather, they are merely seen as being righteous under the eyes of the law. Justification, therefore, definitely carries with it a legal sense of the word throughout the entire Old Testament.

Paul was certainly influenced by the Old Testament, and also the Septuagint, as he would sometimes quote passages based on the Septuagint wording rather than the Hebrew texts. It is no surprise to see that Paul considers justification, as it relates to salvation, to be a legal term. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Romans 8, where we read:

"…and these whom He predestined, he also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us" (Romans 8:30-34).

We see the clear use of legal terminology when Paul asks, "Who will bring a charge against God's elect?" The term for "charge" has been widely documented in secular Greek texts as being used in accusations in legal proceedings. The natural context is to think of the legal courts. Who brings a charge against the Elect? The question is phrased in such a way as to demand a negative response: no one. Why? "God is the one who justifies."

Imbedded in this text, however, we also see how it is that God justifies people. It is "Christ Jesus…who also intercedes for us." That intercession (also a legal term referring to an appeal for another person) is the basis of our justification.

The Work of Christ

This brings us to our second point: Justification is based on the work of Christ. It is imperative that we look back to the Old Testament in order to fully understand what Christ's intercession accomplished. It is a passage that clearly speaks on the issue of Justification. I am speaking of Isaiah 53:11-12:

As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors.

That this passage carries with it the legal sense is clearly seen by the context here, as Christ "interceded for the transgressors" (intercession is, naturally, a legal term). Furthermore, we see that the Messiah "will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities." That is, Christ takes on the iniquities of sinners. Thus, "He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors." This results in the fact that God "will see it and be satisfied." That is, Christ's intercession for transgressors, His bearing their iniquities, satisfies God's judgment. It is therefore on the basis of Christ's work in interceding for sinners that God finds sinners acceptable in His sight. This view was seen earlier in Romans 8, when Paul writes: "Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us" (Romans 8:34).

Man's Works Cannot Merit Justification

Because it is Christ's work that God views, not man's work, it is obvious that nothing man does can merit justification in any way. This point is most easily proven by a simple look at Romans 4:1-8. Here we find the following passage of Scripture:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD will not take into account."

First we see that if someone is justified by works, that person has something to boast about. Even so, this boasting cannot occur before God. This is important to point out because many people try to get off the hook by saying that if we do "so little" for our faith, then we cannot boast before God. But it is not boasting before God that Paul is concerned with-it is the ability to boast at all in the first place!

Paul then uses a passage from the Old Testament to drive his point home (we will look at this passage in more detail as the debate unfolds). Abraham believed God, and his faith was credited (imputed) as righteousness. Paul immediately says, "Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor (literally "as grace"), but as what is due." Given this context, the implication is that it was a favor that the faith Abraham had was credited to Him as righteousness. That is, it is an act of grace that Abraham did not deserve. This act of grace occurs totally apart from works, because it is "the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, [whose] faith is credited as righteousness."

Even if you do not understand Greek, you will learn a striking fact from seeing the Greek text from the beginning of Romans 4:4 and 4:5. I have transliterated it below:

Romans 4:4
To the one working
To de ergazomeno

Romans 4:5
To the one not working but believing
To de me ergazomeno pisteuonti

These passages are clearly contrasting the same point. First, the one who works does not have his wage credited as a favor (literally: kata charin-"according to grace") but as a debt. Second, the one who is not working, but believing, has his faith credited as righteousness. The only difference between the way the two passages is the word "not." The only conclusion we can draw is that faith and works are polar opposites: "To the one who does not work, but believes…"

This thought is actually demonstrated by Paul earlier in the book of Romans when he writes the following:

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith…. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one." (Romans 3:21-25a, 27-30).

Here we see that justification is "a gift by His grace." As we saw in Romans 4, works can never be credited "as grace" for they are credited as what is due. This is Paul's conclusion when he writes, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."

Justification is by Faith Apart From Works

That works have no part in justification becomes even more apparent when we continue in Romans 4. We read:

"For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants…." (Romans 4:13-16a).

First, it is important to point out that the promise referred to in the above passage is the same one that Abraham believed and had righteousness imputed to him for. That promise was based on faith for a simple reason: "In order that it may be in accordance with grace." Remember, we have already seen that grace is diametrically opposed to works. But this passage also points out a very important theological point. If it is obeying the Law (that is, works) that brings about justification, then "faith is made void and the promise is nullified" (Romans 4:14). Not only is it the case that works destroy grace, but works also destroy faith and nullify the promise, because the promise is based on faith, not by works.

We see this demonstrated further on in Romans 11 when Paul writes, "In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God's gracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace" (Romans 11:5-6). Grace and works cannot both be valid. It is either one or the other for, "if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works."

Faith Is A Gift From God

The final blow to the issue comes from the very nature of saving faith. Faith itself is a gift of God. As Paul writes in the book of Ephesians:

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8,9).

Salvation is completely and totally dependent upon God. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Christ is the "author and perfecter of our faith." Acts 13:48 says, "as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed" and chapter 16:14 further tells us that God opened Lydia's heart "to respond to the things spoken by Paul." Thus, faith is not manufactured by man himself, but is also an act of grace given to men by God.

God Does All The Work In Salvation

As such, man is completely passive in his own salvation. All of the work is done by God. Perhaps the most beautiful illustration of this comes from Titus 3:4-7.

"But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ Our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life."

Here we see the Trinity in action. The Spirit is poured upon us by the Father through Jesus Christ. But it must be noted that all the work is done by God. "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy." This statement is key as it removes all possibilities of man doing anything in his salvation. Dr. White points out:

The first item that strikes the mind is the use of the aorist regarding the work of salvation. "He saved us" is past tense, looking back upon the work of God. Next, the subject of the verb is God. He did the saving. "Us" is the direct object of the verb. Also striking from the Greek text is the fact that Paul places the phrase "not by works which we did in righteousness" at the beginning, giving it prominence. "He saved us" comes well into the verse. He rushes to deny any ground for salvation outside of the mercy of God, most specifically, "works done in righteousness." In point of fact, he denies the possibility of a mixture by positing the two as opposites: the use of "alla" introduces a strong contrast, "not by this, but instead by this." Since the text has God doing the action of saving, the denial of the role of human actions, even though done in "righteousness," is remarkable [8].

Summary So Far

To summarize everything so far for the Protestant view of justification, you have seen that justification is a term that is legal in its usage, that it is forensic in nature and does not cause a subjective change in a person who is declared justified, that God justifies us based on the work of Christ, that man's works cannot merit justification, that justification is by faith apart from works, and that even faith is a gift from God. The result is such that salvation is completely by the work of God, and man's role in salvation is completely passive.

This conclusion fits exactly with what we previously saw as the overall plan of redemption. The important focus is the fact that man does nothing in his salvation. It is all of God. The clearest and most concise Biblical summary of the Gospel, in my opinion, can be found in the first ten verses of the second chapter of Ephesians. There we read the following:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging in the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Let me stop there for a moment. Here you can see that we are all born depraved sinners. As Paul put it, we all "were by nature children of wrath." This is the state that all people start from-children of wrath. But Paul also makes a distinction between "us" and "them." That is, Paul is not speaking of what God did for everyone, but only of what God did for those who are saved.

"But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)" (Ephesians 2:4-5).

The key thing to note here is that God regenerated us (made us alive) "even when we were dead in our transgressions." That means that God did not wait for us to do anything on our part, but instead took the initiative Himself and made us alive with Christ. For this reason it is said, "by grace you have been saved." But there is more!

"and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:6-7).

God didn't only merely make us alive with Christ and leave us to our own devices. No! He made us alive "and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places." When God raised us to life, He went the whole way. There is no gaining and losing justification-when you are saved, you are lifted up and seated with Christ. This is not because of anything you have done, because it is so "He might show the surpassing riches of his grace."

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them" (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Here we see the finale. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works. There is a distinct difference drawn here! Salvation has nothing to do with works, and everything to do with grace! Works only come into play after we are saved. "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for [or unto] good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them." It is once we are seated with Christ in the heavenly realms that works come into play, and then they are a result of our salvation, not a cause of it.

This may perhaps be best illustrated by lightning and thunder. Thunder is a result of lightning. Thunder must follow lightning, but thunder never causes lightning. Lightning causes thunder, and thunder follows. In the same way, works are a result of salvation, but works do not cause salvation. Salvation causes works, and works follow.

This is why James writes: "For just as the body without the head is dead, so also faith without works is dead." Works are a fundamental aspect of faith. Faith that does not produce works is a dead faith-it does not save anyone. But always, always, we must keep the order in our minds and not confuse them. While the Catholic says, "Faith + works = salvation" the Protestant says, "No. Faith = salvation + works." This is why it was said that we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Other things accompany faith, and the author of Hebrews makes this clear in Hebrews 6:9-"But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way."

So What Does It All Mean?

If you've read this far it shows that you have a great dedication or else too much free time on your hands! Or, more likely, it shows that you, too, have an understanding of the importance of this issue. So much more is riding on this than just ecumenicalism. There was a reason that Martin Luther referred to justification as "articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae-the article of faith that decides whether the church is standing or falling" [9]. Justification is nothing less than the very heart of the Gospel.

There was a time when people felt secure enough to proclaim this truth: what you believe about justification is what you believe about the Gospel! Now, in an effort to offend as few people as possible, any such statements are delegated to the roles of the theological madmen. I am such a madman, however; and let me loudly say that the Catholic idea of justification (and all the Protestant denominations that essentially agree with the Catholic view) is not a saving Gospel. This is not to say that all Catholics are damned, for I have met some Catholics who understand this issue and actually agree with the Reformed position, although why they remain in the Catholic Church is beyond me.

Any Gospel that does not have God doing all the work and man merely passively receiving salvation is not a Gospel of grace, but is instead one of works. It does not matter if the result is so magnificent compared to such trivial labor as faith-any work done by humans at all destroys grace. Grace can only be grace when it is received with the empty hand of faith-the empty hand that does not even bring its delusions of self-creation with it. The faith that saves is the faith that realizes our utter dependence upon Christ for everything, including our very faith. As the man with a demon-possessed child told Christ so long ago, "I do believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24).

This is the only valid faith. Then, after this, comes the works; works that testify to our faith, but in no way cause it. This is the true Gospel.

A Quick Objection Answered

Since I still have a little space left to write, let me "pre-empt" some of the arguments that you may hear from Mr. Tierney. I do not know for certain where he will come from, so I will be sticking to the basic Roman Catholic arguments I have heard so far.

The most common argument is, of course, James chapter two. Many Catholics will say, "The Bible only speaks of 'faith alone' once, and that's in James 2:24, where it says, 'You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.'" But this surface level reading of the text does no justice to the words of James!

The first problem that the Catholic apologist runs into is the fact that words must be defined by their author in the context they are written in. James and Paul are not speaking in the same way, or else we'd have a direct contradiction between James 2:24 and Romans 3:28. The context immediately must be established.

When we look at Romans, the book is a systematic defense of the Gospel. Paul starts in Romans 1 by demonstrating that the truth of God is plainly revealed to all men so that no man has an excuse for not believing. He goes on in the second chapter to demonstrate that both Jew and Gentile alike are sinners. Then, in chapter three, he discusses the systematic way in which sinner can be saved-the detailed schematics. In short, Romans is a handbook for theology. It is the Gospel plan made simple.

James, on the other hand, is exhorting believers to do good works. This section in James 2 has no radical break from the beginning of the book, nor does it shift in chapter three. James is speaking to Christians about how Christians should be living.

What is James' point in James 2? It is simply that faith without works is a dead faith. That is all, plain and simple. What must be understood is that James is not just looking at faith in general, but a dead faith-one that is not backed by works! When he writes, "What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?" he is referring specifically to dead faith.

In this passage, we also come to the secondary meaning of the term "justify." Justification does not always carry with it its legal definition. In fact, sometimes it means a demonstration of something, such as when we say, "Justify your position on abortion." We know that we are not legally declaring something righteous, but we are instead "proving" something to be so when we justify our position on something.

James uses justification the same way in James 2. So when we read, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?" (James 2:21) we know that the justification is referring to the demonstration of his faith. But I am not the only person who thinks this! Consider the following quote:

The hardest term to translate here is dikaioun, primarily because of its frequent use by Paul in contexts opposing righteousness by faith and "works of the law" …. The precise meaning in each case must be determined by context, not some general theological concept. Given the previous statements demanding the demonstration of faith, the translation here as "shown to be righteous" seems appropriate (see Hort, 63, "appear to be righteous in God's sight," and Marty, 104, "God sanctions his righteousness")…. It is in this light that the present translation renders the Greek as "shown to be righteous" (2:21, 24), for the entire line of argument here has involved demonstration: "show me your faith apart from deeds, and by my deeds I will show you may faith (2:18)" [10].

Some have argued that this cannot be a demonstration since only Abraham saw it. While this ignores Isaac, it also ignores the countless millions of people who have since read Genesis and found faith demonstrated by Abraham. Furthermore, while it is possible contextually for James to be referring to a demonstration of Abraham's righteousness, it is nowhere possible for Paul to have been speaking of justification in anything other than the legal sense of the word, as stated above. If Scripture is to be kept unbroken and not pitted against itself in a contradiction, the Catholic understanding of James 2 must be rejected. There is no way Paul could have been speaking differently than the historical Protestant position claims, and since we have provided a possible interpretation of James that does not require us to abandon either Paul or the rest of the body of Scriptural evidence, we are left to interpret Scripture with Scripture and say that James cannot be speaking of the same type of justification as Paul is.

I am sure that Mr. Tierney will have more to say about James 2 in his opening statement or in his rebuttal, so I will let this matter drop for now. Suffice it to say that the historical Reformed Protestant position is both consistent with itself and consistent with Scripture. While there are a few passages that seem to hint, at first glance, at meanings opposite of the Reformed views, any meaningful exegesis of the text will prove that there are no counter-arguments against the Reformed position on the several positive texts that I can put forth, and there are several interpretations that are at least possible, if not likely, for the "tricky" verses that I can posit. I therefore submit that the Biblical Christian must accept the Reformed doctrine of justification or else abandon the term "Biblical" in his title.

End Notes

[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2018-2020.
[2] Taken from
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XI paragraph 1.
[7] White, James. The God Who Justifies (Bethany House, 2000), 77 (emphasis his).
[8] Ibid, 367-368 (emphasis his).
[9] quoted by Packer, J.I. in James Buchanan's The Doctrine of Justification (Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), vii.
[10] Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Doubleday, 1995), 242, 248 (emphasis his).

Peter Pike

Go to Index of Justification Debate