There has been much misunderstanding regarding the Catholic and Protestant views of how a person is justified by and before God. In the interest of ecumenical dialogue, the similarities between the beliefs of both sides are worth exploring further.
First, it is useful to get the typical caricatures out of the way. Protestants sometimes characterize Catholics as being saved by faith and works, which is interpreted as works-righteousness; that is to say that Protestants interpret Catholics as saying that they are saved by what they do to earn God’s favor. In return, Catholics sometimes characterize Protestants as being saved by an intellectual faith, apart from any works; that is to say that they interpret Protestants as saying that they are saved by a mere knowledge of Christ.
Neither characterization is wholly accurate and therefore does a disservice to ecumenical understanding by both sides.
To explore this, it is helpful to look at what each side means by “justification.”
Protestants (focusing particularly on Lutheranism) view justification as the actual one-time event when God declares a sinner to be righteous before him. After this happens, then the term “sanctification” is normally used to refer to the subsequent life of the Christian and God’s actions upon that person to make him actually be righteous. In Lutheran parlance, a sinner is justified by God’s grace for the sake of Christ and then God works through and in that person (i.e. God sanctifies him) to increasingly conform him to the image of Christ; this conformation will be completed and perfected at the resurrection.
Catholics tend to view justification as combining both the Protestant conception of “justification” as well as “sanctification.” That is to say, God justifies a person by His grace for the sake of Christ and this act of justification is not simply a one-time event, but rather a process by which a person is increasingly drawn to God and conformed to Christ. Whatever good a person does is due to the grace which God infuses within a person such that a person’s “works” are ultimately due to God’s grace. Catholics refer to merits in a similar sense, as merits are ultimately due to God’s grace: “You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts” (from the Catholic Catechism and the Roman Missal).
Thus, when Catholics say that a person is saved by “faith and works,” they are attributing both items to God’s grace. They do not mean that a person earns God’s favor due to his works, but rather that a person does good works and is drawn closer to God because he has God’s favor upon/within him. Seen in this light, it is not so much different from the Protestant view that God first justifies a person and then works in him through the process of sanctification and that “good works flow from faith,” just as good fruit naturally is produced by a healthy vine (cf. John 15:5ff).
A few passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church are pertinent here:
1988 Through the power of the Holy Spirit we take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin, and in his Resurrection by being born to a new life; we are members of his Body which is the Church, branches grafted onto the vine which is himself [emphasis added]
1989 The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man. [emphasis added]
1990 Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God’s merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals. [emphasis added]
1991 Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness (or “justice”) here means the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us. [emphasis added]
1992 Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life. [emphasis added]
Compare the preceding with Martin Luther’s explanation on the Second and Third Articles of the Creed in the Small Catechism:
[Second Article] – I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true. [emphasis added]
[Third Article] – I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true. [emphasis added]
In the above examples, Christ and the work of God in saving us are emphasized. In addition, this saving act makes us the people of God so that we may live with Him. Salvation in this broader sense is neither a one-time act, nor is it a result of anything we have done; it all rests upon God’s initiative and actions through Christ our Savior.
This article is not meant to be exhaustive; it does not, for example, delve into the nuances of forensic justification or infused grace. Instead, the aim is to make a few connections between Catholic and Protestant (Lutheran, in particular) belief for purposes of ecumenical discussion. To say that Catholics believe that a person is justified by “works” and that Protestants believe that a person is justified by an intellectual faith misses the depth of both views. Both sides believe that God makes a person righteous due to Christ and that God works in a person to actually make them righteous. However, the definitions of the terms are slightly different as is the emphasis (Catholics tend to emphasize the on-going aspect of grace, while Protestants normally emphasize the one-time conversion due to grace). This causes misunderstandings on both sides and needless straw-man arguments. Before having a discussion it is helpful to look at what the other side is actually saying so that the discussion can begin there.
(Image: Crucifixion with Mary, St John and the Magdalene. By Pieter Lastman – http://adlib.catharijneconvent.nl/dispatcher.aspx?action=search&search=creator=%27Lastman,%20Pieter%27&database=ChoiceCollect, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60644508)