Protestant vs Catholic Comparison

I compare and contrast the Protestant and Catholic doctrines concerning justification.

I have documented what the Council of Trenthas to say concerning the topic of justification from a Catholic perspective.


Stages of Justification

Protestant Topics

Side Effects

Catholic Topics

Philosophical Analysis

Temporal Punishment


What is Justification?



Underlying Assumptions



General Topics

Confusion of Terms

Justification for Non-Christians

Stages of Justification

Both Protestants and Catholics have stages of justification. To facilitate comparison I include two Protestant positions.




Original Sin We are totally depraved with complete moral corruption and don't have free will. We are mortally wounded by sin but still have free will and can choose to obey God. Although bound by original sin which weakens our free will, we can do works that are truly good. However, we can not merit the grace of justification by works or by faith.  
God calls God electssome to salvation. Christ died only for the elect. The elect can not reject God's irresistible grace. God chooses those whom he foreknew would believe. God calls all. Christ died for all and his death made salvation possible. The Spirit convicts all, but only some respond while others resist the call. Excited and assisted by divine grace, our free will is moved and aroused by God. We require the prevenient [anticipating or preceding] calling of the Holy Spirit. Without any merits existing on our part, we are called.
Man receives Righteousness is imputed via a forensic (legal) justification in which we are legally declared righteous.Our sins are pardoned and we are born again. Similar to Calvinist with an emphasis on a personal decision to accept Jesus in faith. Initial justification (regeneration) by baptism.The grace of God is poured (infused) into us which makes us righteous and able to perform good works.
Until death Sanctification. A living faith results in good works (working  from salvation) and an assurance of salvation. All the elect persevere. Similar to Calvinist except that we can lose our salvation. Progressive justification (growth in righteousness) through
  1. the sacraments (Eucharistand Confession)
  2. prayer, meditation, and a devotional life
  3. works of charity
Justification is lost by mortal sin.It is possible and necessary to obey the law of God and of the church.
After death Heaven.At judgment the believer stands secure before God. Heaven is not a reward based on works but our works are judged to determine our status in heaven Similar to Calvinist. Final judgment for all.
  • Heaven for the redeemed— some after a period of purgation (purgatory).
  • Hellfor the others including those with unconfessed mortal sin.

What is Justification?

The term justification is used by both Protestants and Catholics when referring to the general topic of salvation and redemption.

For Protestants the term is limited in meaning to the instant when a person is saved or born again.

For Catholics the term is used in a much wider sense and encompasses the lifelong aspects of our life with God and includes such topics as redemption, salvation, and God's judgment.

Both Protestants and Catholics agree that there are no deeds that we do before becoming justified which earn us God's grace of justification. It might surprise Protestants to learn that they share this view with Catholics since anti-Catholicsoften mistakenly portray Catholicism as being based on salvation by works.

What is Justification? - Protestant

Protestants typically teach that we are justified by having our sins pardoned in a legal sense. Our sins are coveredbut there is no internal removal of our sins or of our sin nature. God merely sees the righteousness of Christ instead of seeing us as the depraved sinners that we really are.

In this perspective good works are not necessary at all in the process of justification because we are justified by faith only (sola fide).Yet most Protestants would agree that a person who lives a life of sin probably never had saving faith to begin with (or they have lost it).

What is Justification? - Catholic

In the Catholic view, justification is the change or the transformation of a soul which is transferred from the state of original sin to the state of God's grace and divine sonship. In initial justification at baptism we truly become just and are not merely called just in a legal sense as in Protestantism. The process of justification results in both (1) the remission of sins, and (2) the infusion of the supernatural gifts of faith, hope and charity. (But note that the process of justification begins even before baptism with prevenient grace.  (Council of Trent, Chaps. 5 & 6)

God's offer of grace (salvation) is a gift and our justification comes to us through God's grace alone by (1) our faith and (2) our works done in love and charity inspired by the Holy Spirit. The sinner cooperates with God's grace.

Each person's level of cooperation with God can be different with the effect that we will each be infused with differing amount of God's grace. We are able to reject God's grace yet we cannot do anything to merit justification other than receive His free gift

In addition to initial justification at baptism, justification can increase over the course of our lives as we practice various spiritual disciplines and participate in the sacraments of the church and in Christian charity.

It is important to note that the Catholic Church teaches that we can't be justified by our works of the law and that justification is through Christ and His work on our behalf. Protestant anti-Catholicscommonly misrepresent the Catholic teaching.

There are several stages of justification:

  1. Initial justification — At baptism.
  2. Progressive justification — Throughout our lives.
  3. Ultimate justification (eventual justification, final justification) — At death we are judged by God who determines whether he will allow us into heaven. We may be rejected if we have committed mortal sin or have not been baptized. We will not know for sure whether we have eternal life until judgment at death.

Aspects of Justification:

  1. The emphasis is on (1) the renovation of the interior man, and (2) our regeneration and re-creation. Justification is not a mere covering of our sins.
  2. Progressive justification: (1) Justification increases, (2) there is a growth in righteousness, and (3) justification is perfected through charity and the Sacraments.
  3. We are adopted into God's family which requires obedience. This is analogous to a child who must obey his earthly parents. But a wayward child may reject his or her family and ultimately be disinherited.
  4. We are saved by a faith that works. God requires good works as a condition for ultimate justification. We must be obedient to the law of God and of the church. Works are necessary to preserve and increase righteousness.
  5. Sanctifying grace: The state or habit of justification is the continued possession of a quality inherent in the soul.
  6. The sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation) is needed for mortal sin.
  7. Not all will persevere, which is the same as saying that not all are of the elect. It is both possible and necessary to obey the law of God and of the church. We receive spiritual strength and the increase in righteousness through (2) the Sacraments of Eucharist and Confession (Reconciliation), and (2) spiritual acts of charity and penance. God requires good works as a condition for ultimate justification.

Underlying Assumptions

Protestants and Catholics have different views about (1) the nature of original sin, and (2) the process of justification. Yet both agree that justification is a result of God's grace and that we participate in some way.

However, the most significant assumptions affecting justification concern (1) the nature of the church,and (2) the nature of God's revelation to man. These are the issues which provided the impetus for the Protestant Reformation.

Within Protestantism itself there are various views regarding man's free will, election, predestination, the role of good works, the nature of sin, and other key doctrines. Protestants typically make light of these differences but they are not so minor after all. These differing views undermine the validity of the Protestant Reformation by demonstrating that Protestantism is a ship without a rudder in its ability to determine the truth about (1) God and man, and (2) God's revelation of truth. See Sola Scriptura.

Underlying Assumptions - Protestant

These assumptions provide the philosophical foundation of some Protestant systems of theology but are rarely discussed or considered by non-theologians:

Underlying Assumptions - Catholic

The following assumptions provide the basis for Catholic doctrine:

Confusion of Terms

It is often difficult to discuss the topic of justification because many of the key terms are used with different meanings. I have catalogued the various uses of the key terms.

Terms used differently by Protestants and Catholics:



Justification The born-again event

Forensic (legal) imputation of Christ's righteousness. Our sin nature is merely covered overbut not removed. Our sinful acts are not counted against us (similar to Catholic venial sins).

Some denominations view baptism as necessary

Has phases:

Phase 1 — Baptism (corresponds to Protestant justification)
Phase 2 — Spiritual growth (corresponds to Protestant sanctification)
Phase 3 — God judges at death. Factors considered: baptism, unconfessed mortal sin, a life of faith, love of God and neighbor, good deeds.
Phase 4 — Purgatory for temporal punishment. Heaven after that.
Sanctification After being saved, living a holy life with good deeds

Made holy

Requires good works
Phase 2 of justification
  1. Justification can increase.
  2. We can lose our justification by mortal sin.
Sin Sin nature (original sin) — remains until death

Sinful actions — continue until death but God overlooks them (In Martin Luther's words, God winks at sin)
Original sin — It has two aspects:
  1. Loss of the grace of original holiness and justice (which Baptism restores)
  2. Corruption of human nature (concupiscence)
Original sin leads to sinful actions, a loss of fellowship with God, a weakened will to do good, and death.

Concupiscence — The inclination to sin. Baptism does not remove concupiscence.

Sinful actions — Only the action (in thought, word, or deed) results in judgment. Concupiscence and temptation must be resisted.

Types of sinful actions:
  1. Mortal sin — Results in loss of justification and loss of heaven. Mortal sins committed after baptism must be confessed to restore justification.
  2. Venial sin — Displeasing to God but don't lead to loss of justification.
Faith A heart-faith which results in good deeds.

Some Protestants accept the notion of easy-believism in which no works are necessary at all.
There are many aspects of faith.

There are many uses of the word faith in the Bible.
Baptism Some believe that we are saved by baptism

Some believe that baptism is merely a symbol and an act of obedience demonstrating our faith
Original sin is removed by baptism. This is phase one of justification

Terms with a similar meaning for Protestants and Catholics:

Atonement The vicarious (substitutionary) and efficacious (producing the desired effect) death of Christ for human sin.
Propitiation The satisfaction of God's justice and righteousness through Christ's atonement.

Terms used by both Protestants and Catholics but with important differences and nuances of meaning:



Impute To reckon sin or righteousness to another's account. N/A
Calling God draws men to himself. In Calvin's view the call of God is irresistible as man has no free will. God planned how he would redeem fallen man. He calls people back to himself and they can accept or reject his call.
Adoption In faith we are adopted into the personal family of God. A nice benefit of salvation. The goal and essence of salvation. Salvation is a family event.
Sanctification Set apart to God's purposes, growth in relationship, and holiness toward God. Eternal security. Phase II of justification
Perseverance Continuation in faith until death. In Calvinism, those called WILL persevere. Believers must persevere in faith. The sacraments of the church assist and we should continually ask God to assist us.
Election / predestination Chosen by God for salvation (1) The plan of redemption. (2) A person must cooperate.
  • Collective body of believers
  • Joined visibly in worship
  • Joined in union with Christ and each other
  • The visible institution established by Christ
  • The mystical body of Christ

Terms that are significant only for some Protestants:

Depravity The spiritual condition of man before God (Calvinism). This total depravity requires God to call the elect to salvation via irresistible grace since man's nature is too depraved for him to have anything other than a passive role.

Justification for Non-Christians

It is natural to ask the question of whether non-Christians can be justified. Certainly liberal Christianity and Universalism teaches justification for all, but I am not considering those heretical views here.

Among Protestants there are divided opinions. Many Protestants suspect that non-Christians can somehow be saved but typically Protestant theology doesn't address this issue. Some Protestants secretly believe that non-Christians can be saved but don't like to discuss it because the idea is not supported by Protestant theology and mainstream Protestant fundamentalist teaching.

Catholicism provides guidance about the topic. Salvation is possible for anyone who has sincerely responded to God's call and who would have accepted the gospel if it had been presented to them in a clear and believable manner. Original sin is removed by baptism, and within the desire to receive baptism is implicitly contained in a serious resolve to do all that God has commanded, even if His holy will is not fully understood. But still there is no guarantee that a non-Christian will be saved as they will still be judged by God just as Christians are.

Side Effects - Protestant

There are side-effects of Protestant theology and teaching that are not usually discussed or considered by Protestants. I discuss these at length so that Protestants will consider the implications of their doctrines, beliefs, and theology.

  1. All the just possess the same degree of righteousness and sanctity. Since all believers possess saving faith they are all equally saints and they are all equally righteous and holy from God's perspective. Thus there is no possibility of certain individuals being models and examples of superlative holiness. But, of course, Protestants have many such individuals who they honor with special regard even though their theology doesn't provide for such a thing.
  2. Charity and good works do not affect our relations with God. But the contradictory view that works have something to do with salvation is also believed. These opposing views are both simultaneously held: (1) good works play no part in our salvation, and (2) saving faith necessarily results in good works.
  3. Salvation is (1) by works, and (2) by keeping the law. This requires some explanation because it is not immediately obvious.
    • The premise of Protestantism is that God judges fallen humanity based on our inability to keep His commandments. This is also the significance of the Old Testament commandments: Thus, the Israelites were saved by obeying the commandments.
    • But, alas, we can't obey God's commandments perfectly. But Jesus could and did on our behalf. When we are born again, God imputes Jesus' righteousness to us. Now it is as if we did the works ourselves.

    Thus, we are saved by works (not our own, but Christ's).

  4. There is no connection between morals and salvation. We are not saved because of our obedience to the moral law nor is it necessary to follow a moral law after being saved. Since believers' good works are sufficient to demonstrate that they had saving faith, morality has no impact on salvation.
  5. Believers are rewarded in judgment for their works done in the name of Christ. This judgment will determine what status they have in heaven. It is common to hear preachers talk about some people being janitors in heaven while others are princes. This idea is degrading to the dignity of humans and of human work in assuming that some kinds of work are inferior to others.
  6. There is the assumption that the avoidance of sin is work. Many Protestants accuse Catholics of performing works by their efforts to avoid committing mortal sin. But how is it that NOT doing something is a work? Work is active. Thus, many Protestants misunderstand the role of works and they think that Catholics must work to be saved. Actually Catholics believe they must refrain from mortal sin or they will lose their salvation. But not doing something can hardly be considered as working; rather, it is non-working. Catholics work in the context of being in the family of God and of working from love of God and neighbor.
  7. Faith must result in good works or it is not saving faith. But if faith and works are connected so closely, then how can they at the same time be so separate and distinct? Martin Luther and the other Protestant Reformers were emphatic that there is no connection between work and faith. This is the basis of sola fide (faith only).
  8. When a person performs good works it implies that they are already saved since non-believers cannot do good works at all. This is a result of the doctrine of total depravity; that man cannot please God at all until after salvation. As a result non-believers are simply incapable of performing good works. This leads to the odd result that we cannot distinguish the goodness of a work by the effects of the work itself because it depends on whether or not the person performing the work is saved. Thus, the identical work is sometimes a good work and sometimes an evil work. If a non-Christian helps the poor, for example, it might in reality be an evil work.
  9. According to the Bible, there are other things necessary for salvation besides faith alone. For example, to be saved (1) you must confess it with your mouth (which is a work) (Romans 10:9), (2) you must be baptized (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21), and (3) you must work (1 Peter 1:17, Romans 2:5,6).
  10. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, believed that we are saved by baptism. Some Protestant denominations of our day still hold to this view.
  11. There exists in "man side by side two hostile brothers; one is just and one is unjust; one is a saint and one is a sinner" (Catholic Encyclopedia). This is because we never truly become just; rather, God merely covers our sin.But how can this be if (1) grace and justification, and (2) sin, are mutually exclusive? A side effect of this view is that a person who is saved and has the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can be evil and wicked. In the Catholic view mortal sin after baptism results in the loss of justifying grace. When someone chooses to become evil by performing evil deeds they lose their saving grace.
  12. Protestant doctrine lays the foundation for the separation of religion and morality. Some early Protestant denominations, such as the Puritans, emphasized holy living, but in general, the importance of good works and morality is something of an afterthought in Protestant theology and this has historically had the effect on society of allowing lower moral standards to become the norm.
  13. What a person believes has no bearing on individual salvation since we are saved by faith and not belief. A saved person can hold to all kinds of erroneous doctrinal views. This would not necessarily be a problem except that Protestants are so concerned with right belief, yet Protestant doctrine has a noticeable gap in this area.
  14. Since good works imply that a person is already saved there is a contradiction regarding apparent good works performed by unbelievers. Protestants must claim that these works which appear to be good are not really good after all.
  15. Since we are saved by faith, which includes the attitude of the mind and the heart, it seems odd that our behavior should not be involved as well. Thus, Protestantism artificially separates our inward self from our external active self. Humans are not considered to be an integrated whole and the physical side of our human nature is considered as less significant (since it has no impact on our salvation, which is the most important aspect of life). This is a subtle form of the ancient Gnostic heresy which claims that spirit is good and matter is bad.
  16. It is common for Protestants to believe that faith is an "act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life" (Quote from But the fact that faith can be considered as an act demonstrates the problem with sola fide (faith only). In sola fide, faith is NOT an act at all, but merely a condition of the spirit, will, and mind. But yet Protestants commonly speak of getting saved, of receiving Christ, and of repenting of your sins which are all active. For example, (1) committing sin requires action and therefore repenting from sin is also active; (2) the phrase get saved refers to an action and getting saved requires doing something.

Philosophical Analysis - Catholic

Causes of Justification:

There are three necessary things for the justification of the ungodly:

  1. The infusion of grace (the motion of the mover, which is God).
  2. The movement of free will (the movement of the moved) in two directions:

    (1) Towards God by faith
    (2) Away from sin

  3. The remission of sins (consummation of the movement).

Two things that can never exist simultaneously in the soul:

(1) Sanctifying grace
(2) Sin (original and mortal)

Grace and sin exclude each other. We cannot have them both at the same time.

Temporal Punishment - Catholic

There is such a thing as temporal punishment which is not necessarily remitted when God forgives us the sins we commit after baptism; however, as a result of baptism for the first time there is no temporal punishment for any of the sins committed previously. This temporal punishment does not result in a loss of salvation for those who are otherwise justified.

There can still be temporal punishment and guilt for sins committed after a person is justified.

We must pay the temporal punishment for sins we commit. This occurs (1) while in this life, and (2) after death in purgatory.