Catholicism vs Protestantism on Faith + Works: What’s the Difference?

faith works

I wrote a POST earlier, describing the main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. And what I said essentially, was that justification was the doctrine that distinguished the Reformers from the Catholicism of their day. And it really isn’t different nowadays.

What I want to consider in this post, is how justification in either position deals with “works”, or state differently, how works are connected to a believer’s justification.

Catholics commonly say that justification, or final salvation, comes through faith and works. Now, to a Protestant, this rubs against the core of the solas. Justification, even final justification, is by faith alone! 

OK… But, why do Catholics argue this? Is Catholicism a dry religion, where you earn God’s love? Well, not quite. Let’s review the Catholic understanding of justification quickly to understand:

For Catholics, justification is not merely declarative. Or legal. Justification does involve a status change; but there is an added element. Justification, in the Catholic scheme, is an infusion of Christ’s righteousness within the believer; what I mean is that in salvation, Jesus’ righteousness is actually infused into the believer by union with him; that by faith / sacraments, the believer contains actual, “ontological”, “corporeal” righteousness from Jesus. And this righteousness grows in the believer as they cooperate with God in the sacraments, and live out that righteousness.

What all of this means is that final justification is dependent on the believer’s cooperation with this gift of Christ’s righteousness. And through cooperation, Christ’s life increases in the believer, enabling them to be “actually righteous”. As they partake more and more in the corporeal life of Christ, in union with him, they grow to become more and more “justified”, or “saintly”. This is why Catholics say that final justification is by faith and works. Faith is the initial thing which gives the gift of righteousness; but, because Christ’s righteousness is by nature ontological, the believer must cooperate and grow in that righteousness. In other words, Catholics view justification and sanctification (growth in justification) as one big thing.

Catholic Peter Kreeft says,

Catholic theology teaches that justification and sanctification, faith and works, are not separated, as Luther thought. Rather, “ ‘[j]ustification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man’ 6 ” (CCC 1989) (source, pg 126)

Catholic Taylor Marshall says,

As a Catholic, I understand [justification to be] juridical [or legal] AND transformative. A sinner “becomes righteous” [actually, or ontologically] and this is why the Greek word was rightly translated as iustificatio—“making just.”

I’m saying that a legal, declarative change is not merely what God does for us. Salvation involves a union with Christ to the sinner and that union transforms the sinner into a new creation.

I was not merely “declared righteous” through faith, rather I “became righteous,” because Christ washed away my original sin and my personal sins so that I was a new creation. Grace filled my soul and the Holy Spirit came upon me (source)

That being said, it’s not quite fair to call Catholicism “works-based”, as many Protestants do. But, because of their sort of “corporeal” understanding of Christ’s righteousness, meaning that it is infused in the believer, and because that believer must cooperate with that righteousness, there is a reality to the claim that salvation is by a sort of “working faith”. The Catholic Catechism even has a theology of “merit”, whereby the believer, cooperating with Christ’s infused righteousness, “merits” eternal life. Granted, it’s not by the believer’s own righteousness. It is by Christ’s righteousness.

So, Catholics see faith and works as one big thing, whereby justification is a gradual process (sanctification) as the believer cooperates with the grace of God.

Now, how does this contrast with Protestant theology?

In the Protestant scheme, justification is not the ontological infusion of righteousness. Rather, it is the legal imputation of righteousness. Now this might seem like a small change, but it’s actually important, as I said in my last post. Rather than righteousness being actually infused, righteousness is accredited to the believer; and the believer is righteous not by cooperation with that righteousness, but solely on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. The righteousness that is the believer’s, is only their’s because Christ himself is righteous. In other words, God accredits the believer with the perfect account of Jesus, and they are thereby legally righteous in a complete sense. Nothing lacks. Justification then, is a once-for-all declaration. It is a finished, closed reality. And the believer doesn’t need to grow in righteousness for final salvation, because the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed / accredited, is complete already.

That being said, how do good works come into play in the Protestant scheme? Do they come into play at all. Why, yes!

What a Protestant would say is that good works are necessarily involved, but only insofar as they blossom, or grow out of that once-for-all justification. In other words, good works are a fruit, a confirmation or justification, not part of justification. Protestants want to be careful to separate “justification” and “sanctification”. They see them as separate realities.

Justification is a closed reality. And sanctification is proof that one has experienced that reality. Good works mean that God has already justified that person. And a person who has good works has been justified.

OK, got it. But why is that true?

The reason is because justification, while being a legal reality, leads to and causes ontological realities. What does that mean? What I mean, is that once God declares a sinner “righteous”, he doesn’t just stop there! He also forgives, regenerates, and indwells that person. And what is regeneration, but God creating new life within that person? And when the Spirit indwells the believer, what can happen but a change in lifestyle? 

In other words, justification is but the start of many changes within the believer. And if the believer has spiritual fruit, or obedience to God, what can it mean but that they have been justified? So someone who claims to have a living faith proves it by living out new-creation realities. As RC Sproul says, “true faith will absolutely and necessarily yield the fruits of obedience and the works of righteousness” (source). That sounds awfully Catholic! Well, OK. We aren’t saying that good works aren’t important. Catholics and Protestants agree, they are.

We just disagree about why they are important.

So while Catholics say that justification and sanctification are one process, Protestants say that justification is one thing, and that sanctification necessarily follows, but is not that same one thing. These are small differences, but as you can hopefully see, they diverge as the believer attempts to live out their spiritual life. While I believe that Catholics and Protestants can call one another “brothers”, they do have some important differences.