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I am currently studying Church Dogmatics over the summer and answering questions put by my teacher on different subjects important to theology. This is the sixteenth of a series of post I will publish from these studies and writings.

Justification – According to Luther and the Catholics

The difference between the classic Catholic view on justification, here represented by the Council of Trent, and Luther’s view on the same can be organize in four categories: the nature of justification, of justifying righteousness and of justifying faith, and the assurance of salvation.

The Nature of Justification

While the traditional view, established by Trent as it was handed down from Augustine, held justification as an event that declared man righteous AND the process that made him factually righteous, i.e. both an outer and inner change, Luther separated the latter from justification and called it sanctification. For Luther, justification is only a status established by God, in His mercy, not an actual freedom for man.

The Nature of Justifying Righteousness

Luther saw nothing in man that could make him fit to receive God’s righteousness. Christ’s righteousness that justifies sinners is thus something that remains always with Christ, never actually touching man. God’s righteousness is His mercy, and His benevolence is that He considers a man of faith righteous. And whatever God considers to be so is in fact so. Trent agreed as far as that the righteousness is God’s, but held that it is in fact bestowed upon man, and something in man must receive it. Thus, to Trent,  justification, when received, is a power that makes man righteous in reality, not only in status, and thus enables him to act righteous. And without that righteous action, man cannot be said to be truly righteous. Thus the main difference between Luther and the Catholics were that Luther called to believing sinners Christians, while the Catholics refused to accept them as such.

The Nature of Justifying Faith

Because of the difference of meaning put in the word “justification“, as noted above, Trent, all the while almost agreeing with Luther, condemned his way of speaking of justification by faith alone. Trent thought the notion terrible that faith was enough all the way to God, and no turning away from sin was necessary. But this was not what Luther said. The fact that Christian life begins with faith, and that faith makes one justified in the sense hopeful, and that justification brings about righteous actions and not the other way around, was not something that Trent disagreed with. Thus, Luther and Trent basically concur on the nature of justifying faith.

The Assurance of Salvation

Luther, and the other reformers, held that salvation rested upon the promises given by God and therefore unfaith in His steadfastness made salvation impossible. Trent seems to misunderstand this to mean that the reformers thought that the faith, i.e. human conviction, was the salvating factor. They held that no man can for sure know if he has received God’s grace.


It seems that a lot of the disagreement on justification between Luther and the Catholics came out of a difference in their definition of the word “justification“. The only thing Luther actually changed was the location of the righteousness of God. Putting God in charge of all good actions and considering man completely incapable of the same, Luther gave complete credit to God for the Christian life. While the Catholics gave credit to God for the power to do good works, they still thought man ought to do something by the power given to him in order to be a good Christian. This is what I can deduct from my course-books anyway, and if it is not correct and offends someone, please let me know.

Photo by Shawn van Daele from http://www.shawnvandaele.com/portfolio/

Photo by Shawn van Daele from http://www.shawnvandaele.com/portfolio/

Henriksen, Jan-Olav: Guds virkelighet: Kristen dogmatikk (God’s Reality: Christian Dogmatics), Oslo: Luther Forlag 1994, pages 192-95.
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology – An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell 2011, pages 360-65.

Please stay tuned for subsequent parts!