The difference between the Roman Catholic view and the Reformed view on justification is shown in stark relief when one considers the following statement:
By grace, God reckons Christ's righteousness to us.
To the Reformed, this statement is the gospel. We are acceptable to God because Christ's righteousness is credited or imputed to us, not because we actually become righteous. To the Roman Catholic Church, as is made clear in the Council of Trent, the same statement is viewed as a legal fiction, one that impugns God's character. To Rome, God is not deceitful, declaring the unjust as just. God declares the just to be just.
There is a modern trend to discount the importance of the differing views on justification. To say, in effect, that the Reformation was much ado about nothing. But once you see that what one side views as the gospel, the other side views as worthy of excommunication (see the articles on justification in the Council of Trent) you should be dissuaded of the notion that the differences are trivial.
Catholicism does not teach salvation by works. Rome agrees with the Reformed that the righteousness of Christ is required for justification. The difference is that in Rome's view, our Lord's righteousness is sacramentally infused into the sinner—which is to say that by grace (not by works—no need to slander the RCC) the sinner actually becomes just (or righteous). In this way the "legal fiction" is avoided. In Rome's view, the just are justified. In the Reformed view, regenerated man is declared justified while still a sinner.
It should be clear from the Atonement that imputation does not constitute a legal fiction. On the cross, our sin was imputed to Christ. Our sin was not infused into Christ—that would make Christ actually sinful, and His death would have accomplished nothing. In a like manner, His righteousness is imputed to us. It is not a legal fiction, because in both cases the one who gets the short end of the stick (Christ) (a) possessed a perfect righteousness and (b) voluntarily agreed to the imputation.
In the table below, I list some of the similarities and differences between the Reformed and Roman Catholic views on justification.
|Reformed View||Roman Catholic View|
|Instrumental Cause||Faith (alone)||Baptism|
|Just and sinner simultaneously?||Yes||No|
|Become just through one's own power?||No||No|
|Process or Forensic?||Forensic: We are declared just||Process: We actually become just.|
|Analytic or Synthetic?||Synthetic: Our faith PLUS Christ’s righteousness credited (imputed) to us||Analytic: Just men are justified—they become just by faith and grace through sacramental infusion|
For the Reformed, a saved person will undergo a process of sanctification, but will never arrive at a point where he could be justified by his inherent righteousness, even though that inherent righteousness is not really of himself but is the result of the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. For the Reformed, the basis of justification always rests on the imputed righteousness of Christ.
One criticism of the Reformed view of justification is that it is a change in status only. That is, God declares you to be justified, but you are still the same person after the declaration. Technically this is true, but it is not the complete story.
In Reformed theology, there are three steps that occur in logical if not actually temporal order: regeneration, faith, and justification. Both coming-to-faith and justification are reserved for those whom God regenerates. With that in mind, it is clear that a justified man is radically different from his former, unregenerated self. Furthermore, the process of sanctification inevitably begins. There is no room in Reformed theology where one can sneak in the perversion of antinomianism.
There are many passages on justification in scripture. Let us examine two of the more important.
9 Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, "FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS."
10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; (Rom 4:9-10)
Here is one of the proof texts of justification by faith alone. For before he was circumcised, before any good works, righteousness was credited (imputed) to Abraham for one reason and one reason only: faith. Sola fide.
Another important passage comes from James:
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
This passage is important to answer the common slander of Reformed theology, already discussed, that the Reformed view is inherently antinomian, given that imputed righteousness in and of itself demands no change in a person's life. James makes it clear that God only justifies regenerated men, and such men will produce fruit. A person who never bears fruit is not regenerate and hence not saved, even if he, like the demons, intellectually believes.
The Reformed mantra of "Justification by Faith Alone" is really a shorthand for "Justification by a Saving Faith Alone", and is perfectly consistent with the teaching of James.