The Long and Winding Road of Justification

Oh here lies the great disagreement between Catholics and Protestants. Can we find an agreement on the matter? Will the hardness of our hearts keep us from unity because of this centuries-old disagreement?

One of the great tragedies of this disagreement, I believe, lies in a misunderstanding of the Catholic position on Justification. The irony is that this summer, I was listening to a Lutheran Missouri-Synod podcast called “Issues etc.” episode 2393 ‘Fifth Century Bishop of Hippo, Augustine – Dr. David Maxwell, 8/28/17.‘ The host of “Issues etc.” Todd Wilken asked the guest, what church upholds the closest towards the idea of St. Augustine’s idea of Grace and Justification and without hesitation, Dr. Maxwell answered, “The Modern Catholic Church. The funny part was the reaction of the host Todd Wilken, a usually great radio voice, started to trip over his words because he couldn’t believe Maxwell’s reply.

Naturally, though, Dr. Maxwell’s reply was rooted in the understanding of what Catholics actually believe in regards to Grace and Justification.

Bishop Robert Barron on many Word on Fire podcast episodes reiterates the idea of Gratia Prima:

“I have long been sympathetic with Father Yves Congar’s famous remark that if figures on both sides of the Reformation divide had been a bit more open-minded and open-hearted, there might be a Lutheran order in the Catholic Church today, just as there are Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines…” said Bishop Robert Barron. “If he had limited himself to saying gratia prima, (“Grace first”), Luther might have effected a needed reform within Catholicism.”

In a new book released by The Catholic University of America Press titled The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism the author Thomas Joseph White, OP gives what I believe is the best Catholic understanding of Justification.

The Dominican writes:

“The Catholic Church teaches that justification occurs in a human person by grace alone and not by any natural moral agency or works of self-righteousness. (White, OP cites the Catechism pars. 1987-2005) This is not a subject of contention between Catholic and Protestants, at least so long as the true teaching of the Catholic Church is accurately understood!

By this grace, we are given intimate knowledge of who God is. But integral to this process is also a conversion of heart: that we should love God above all things by grace, renounce all attachment to serious sin

We cannot be “simul justus et peccator” in the words of Luther: simultaneously just and sinners.”


  1. Hey Philip,

    “Will we always be in a disagreement over this?” I believe “we always will,” and these are my reasons.

    For one, many Protestants see all of our works as “self-righteous” works, bc we are tying to “earn our way to heaven.” This never seems to change.

    Many of them, no matter how many times one goes to Scripture to prove it, ever believe “faith and works” go hand in hand. They believe “works” comes as a product of our faith, which is not entirely false, but even though Scripture says “faith without works is dead,” and I cannot ever get anyone to admit our works are going to be the determining factor as if we go to heaven or hell?

    Another is, to many it is all about the Church being the “Whore of Babylon,” the liar, and pagans. For some to admit that we might be “right” on justification, would mean they would have to admit we are right on a few other things as well.

    It is a whole lot easier for those to stay in this “disagreement” “name calling mode,” then to try and understand/learn our true teachings on these things.

    Now question, what does the term “Modern” Catholic Church mean? I have never heard it called that. Compared to “Un-modern” or what? Good post and thanks for sharing. God Bless, SR


    1. You know the odd thing, I think Catholics and Protestants, mainline, disagreement lies more with syntax and language that actual differences, as you say, “They believe “works” comes as a product of our faith.”

      Well, isn’t this actually the Catholic understanding? In fact, I’ve broke the disagreement down to such a basic level to a Lutheran pastor one time that he agreed with everything I was saying until I said, “Well, that’s what Catholics believe…” Of course, he just wouldn’t agree with the conclusion.

      Thomas Joseph White OP discusses this in more detail in his work.

      He writes, “sanctifying grace in our lives can stabilize us in a Christian life of self-gift, of self-offering to God and the service of others, in increasing intensifying charity. It is here, and only here, that Catholic theology speaks of ‘merits’ that are the effects of grace. The notion of ‘merit’ has biblical roots…that we will retain a ‘reward’ or punishment on the basis of our actions…Works of charity are the source of genuine Christian reward and are themselves the ultimate effect of the grace of Christ present in our earthly lives.” (pgs. 202-203)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Exactly! You can get it down to a “basic level,” to a point, then mention the very word, “Catholic,” then it “ALL” becomes a “false-teaching.!”

    I as well, as you have been in conversations where all was going well, and they could see the “point” I was making, according to “Scripture.” Then I would say, “The Church teaches this,” the “Church believes this,” from that moment on, it all went to hell in a hand basket.

    You know Philip honestly and truly, and this has been my experience. Some “hate” the Church so badly, that their “hate” for the Church, will actually override what Scripture plainly says. Even though they will claim, “Sola-Scriptura,” and that if one “does not hold to Scripture only they are hell bound.”

    To justify what they are saying they will either go and give another Scripture which will contradict the one you are giving, (which Scripture does not contradict itself) and/or tell you, “Yeah it says that there but Scripture says this 30 times in the Bible where it only uses that word, 2 times.” ????? Yet, they claim to believe in “every” word spoken in the Bible.

    This is the hypocrisy that gets me! As long as this hypocrisy exist, there will always be the “disagreements.”

    Though I am thankful for one thing in the Reformation, that we can read the Bible in our own language, it has done EXACTLY what the early Church said it would do. Split God’s children through their own interpretation of it.

    I see no way out of that one, until Jesus comes. I love how Thomas White explains it. Thanks for sharing. I learn so much from you Philip. God Bless, SR


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