Is Justification by Faith alone Wrong? An inquiry in conversation with a Roman Catholic and a New Testament scholar

justJustification by faith alone is a significant doctrine and arguably the main reason why the Protestant Reformation happened. Yet, this doctrine is minimized in some quarters, obscured in others, and rejected or drastically modified in still others. Perhaps the clearest opponent to this doctrine remains the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (hereafter RCC). All one has to do is read the relevant sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to see how the RCC departs from the Protestant understanding. But rather than jump into the thick of the Catechism, we will instead engage with the thoughts put forth by one formidable Roman Catholic theologian Douglas Farrow. Along the way we will also look at a statement by the widely acclaimed New Testament scholar N.T. Wright.

In a polemical discussion of Luther’s view of justification and sanctification, Farrow writes:

On the Catholic scheme justification precedes, accompanies, and follows sanctification. It both grounds and includes it. Space is opened up by justification for sanctification to take place, as Luther asserts; but in taking place, sanctification contributes to justification, which Luther denies. … Justifying grace is the grace that not only counts the man worthy of his salvation but also makes him worthy. Sanctification is something achieved not after and alongside justification but in and with justification. Justification enables good works to be willed and done well, and good works willed and done well increase justification.[1]

It will be helpful for our purposes to tease this out a bit. Justification, for Farrow, is at the same time grounds and includes sanctification. This language is important. Justification and sanctification rather than being inseparable yet distinct, following the Protestant understanding, are actually interwoven, or, as he has it, sanctification is included in justification. In case we are unclear what he means, he clears this up when he writes that “sanctification contributes to justification,” or, similarly, “good works willed and done well increase justification.”

By arguing in this way, he collapses the very real distinction between justification and sanctification. Sanctification is, as he would have it, built into and part and parcel of justification. Our justification, in other words, is the beginning of our sanctification; our sanctification completes and adds to our justification.

Now, one can see and in some sense admire what Farrow is trying to do. He is concerned, as arguably the RCC always has been, with the importance of growing in love, or, as Farrow puts it, “justification working by sanctification” is the direct result of Paul’s teaching of “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Clearly, he and the RCC in general are onto something. The New Testament is not content with a so-called ‘easy believism’ or cheap grace approach to faith. Yes, true faith, as James 2 teaches us, does not result in antinomianism but rather is shown by our costly pursuit of the risen Christ. But the question arises whether the doctrine of justification by faith alone necessarily undermines the importance of good works for the Christian life.

On the road to explaining the doctrine, it seems Paul anticipates this very objection. In Gal 2:17-21, he writes:

But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

In v. 17, we see the objection: justification by faith implies that “Christ is a servant of sin” (cf. v. 16). His logic in v. 18 can be put this way: Christ died to free us from sin (v. 20) therefore to say that the justification we receive from Christ makes Christ a “servant of sin” goes against the very work of Christ, which, in turn, invalidates Paul’s proclamation of Christ (“if I rebuild what I tore down”). Paul fleshes this out in more detail in Rom 6:1-4 when he writes:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Lest we forget that this is in the context of his teaching on God’s unmerited grace and our justification by faith, we recall the entirety of Rom 5 as well as the preceding chapters of this letter. Paul is deeply concerned throughout the letter to the Galatians and to the Romans to demonstrate that our righteousness comes by faith in Christ alone. Christ is the source of our justification, of our sanctification, indeed, of our right-standing, our righteousness before God. There is neither reconciliation to nor peace with God apart from Christ (cf. Rom 5:1-2, 10-11).

If works of the law cannot justify us before God, as Paul so firmly asserts, than how can sanctification complete justification if by sanctification we mean our growth in love toward God? Put differently, if Paul is adamant that justification is only obtained by faith in Christ, how can it be completed by our works, even if they are works of love?

Before we move forward, it would be helpful to briefly bring into the picture N.T. Wright’s construal of justification since he is a foil for the traditional Protestant view found within the Protestant camp. He writes:

Paul’s vision in Romans 1—8, then, has as its framework the all-important narrative about a future judgment according to the fullness of the life that has been led, emphasizing the fact that those ‘in Christ’ will face ‘no condemnation’ on that final day (2.1–16; 8.1–11, 31–9). The reason Paul gives for this is, as so often, the cross and the spirit (8.3–4): in the Messiah, and by the spirit, the life in question will have been the life of spirit-led obedience, adoption, suffering, prayer and ultimately glory (8.5–8, 12–17, 18–27, 28–30). This is not something other than ‘Paul’s doctrine of justification’.[2]

Though there is considerable more nuance in Wright’s position vis-à-vis Farrow’s, there is significant overlap. For instance, justification, for Wright, finally (eschatologically) includes “the life of spirit-led obedience”; that is to say, this Spirit wrought obedience (or, using Farrow’s categories, sanctification) is the final ground of our justification. Truly, with Wright, we can agree that the Spirit has a significant hand in our sanctification, but is it correct to say that this obedience is the final cause of our justification? We contend contra Wright and in turn Farrow that such an assertion undermines the very notion of justification as taught by the apostle Paul. G. C. Berkouwer, a Dutch Reformed theologian who was conversant with Catholic teaching, helpfully writes:

If we would keep this center [the cross of Christ], as well as the softer and harder lines flowing from it, in true perspective, we must be thoroughly aware that in shifting from justification to sanctification we are not withdrawing from the sphere of faith. We are not here concerned with a transition from theory to practice. It is not as if we should proceed from a faith in justification to the realities of sanctification; for we might as truly speak of the reality of justification and our faith in sanctification.[3]

Notice what Berkouwer is saying. Both justification and sanctification are by faith, namely, faith in Christ. It is not that justification is a legal fiction and sanctification is the real stuff of life, rather, it is by faith in Christ that we receive both our justification and sanctification. Farrow makes it plain that he rejects the notion of sola fide for, as he would have it, we are justified by faith and are sanctified by our love of God. But where does this leave us? What happens when our love falters or we are weighed down by our sin? If sanctification completes are justification, what does this say about our standing before a just and holy God?

This brings us to the deeply troubling problem underlying Farrow and Wright’s construal of justification. By arguing that sanctification completes our justification, and in turn by separating sanctification from faith, we are left with a salvation with man at the center rather than God. Perhaps we start with Christ but how do we end? We are urged to look to ourselves, to our love for God, to evidence of Spirit wrought obedience in order to (finally) receive justification before a holy and just God. And, in turn, we are, even if subtly, asked to displace Christ as the center of our salvation.

But is that in fact what the Bible teaches? Does the Bible actually encourage us to look to ourselves in order to grow in our relationship with God? The answer is an emphatic no. We are invited to look to Christ, again and again. We look to Christ for our justification, our adoption, our sanctification, indeed, for the entirety of our salvation (1 Cor 1:30). Does this mean we ignore our sin and act as if it doesn’t matter? No, but is the solution to our sin ourselves or is it Christ? If we follow Farrow and Wright, the answer is the former, no matter how couched in language of grace or the Spirit their accounts may be. This only breeds pride for progress or despair for failure. We must be reminded though that pride and despair are not of faith but the fruit of unbelief. Paul states emphatically and repeatedly that “by works of the law no one will be justified” but only “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16). And it is to Jesus that we continually look to with trust and, as we walk with him, we become more like him and truly grow in our love for God and man (Rom 8:29; Matt 22:37-40). As the author of Hebrews reminds us, we share in Christ by faith (Heb 3:14); it is in him that we find the sum total of our salvation (Heb 12:2; 1 Cor 1:30). So, let us be careful to uphold both the inseparability and distinction between justification and sanctification in order to keep Christ at the center of our faith.


[1] Theological Negotiations (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 78-79.

[2] Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 2:941. Italics original.

[3] Faith and Sanctification, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 20.

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