Why is the fundamental difference of the conception of grace between Catholics and Protestants crucial to understand?

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Catholic and Protestant reformers of the 16th century disagree about man’s justification, namely, how grace, the gift of God won by Jesus’ sacrifice, works on the human soul[1]. Protestants believe grace covers up but does not remove sin. Luther sees “human nature or soul as dung-covered snow, so grace covers up our ugliness.” Catholics believe God imparts grace which changes us at our core to a beautiful soul. As a result, it changes our orientation of how we act as we function from a place of purity, truth, and beauty.

Protestant Grace

Protestants think of grace as an attribute of God rather than a gift from God. Lutheran theologian Doctor Pelikan teaches that grace is “not something in man which wins God’s goodwill, but something in God which makes man pleasing to Him.” Grace signifies God’s determination to love, forgive, and save His children; however little they deserve it[2].

Grace works extrinsically on humans, it does not cleanse human nature from within. Luther taught that original sin remained after baptism. The justified soul is a “snow-covered pile of dung[3].” Grace simply acts as a cloak to cover our corrupt nature and makes us acceptable to God, though underneath he remains depraved.

Catholic Grace

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Catholics notion of grace is supremely different from Protestants. This influences our understanding of who God is and His interaction with Man. Grace is a beam of light from God which penetrates our souls. Jesus is the sacrament, “because He gave his life to save mankind. His humanity is the outward sign of his Divinity[4]. It is through Jesus humanity that the life of the Father and the Holy Spirit come to us as grace through the sacraments[5]. Jesus died so He could impart grace which changes our soul fundamentally to a beautiful soul which disposes us to carry out good works.

God’s grace helps us understand His benevolence and power. God would not be all powerful if He does not have the ability to effect change upon our souls, or worse, if He has the power to but chooses otherwise[6]. Grace derives from the Latin gratia, which means “a gift freely given.” Father Hardon says of grace: “Grace is a gratuitous, supernatural gift that God, of His benevolence, bestows on creatures for their salvation.” The Catechism adds that “grace is the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. Grace includes the gifts the Spirit which enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Church[7].

There are different types of graces the Spirit gives us. Sanctifying grace unites us to God and makes us holy. Sanctifying grace belongs to the whole soul, mind, will, and affections[8]. Sanctifying grace is associated with Baptism, penance, and anointing of the sick. Sanctifying grace is increased when we receive the sacrament in a state of grace.

Habitual grace is the constant supernatural quality of soul which sanctifies a person. Father Hardon defines actual grace as a “temporary supernatural intervention by God to enlighten the mind or strengthen the will to perform supernatural actions that lead to heaven. Actual grace is a “transient divine assistance.” It disposes us to receive the infused virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) for the first time or when we lose them through mortal sin. Actual grace can stimulate repentance, make us fear punishment, and instill confidence in God’s mercy[9]. Actual grace is given in all sacraments at its reception or it may rest latent until needed. A distinct sacramental grace is imparted by each sacrament when we receive the sacrament from a disposition of fruitfulness.

Efficacious grace is actual grace given by God, to produce divinely intended act if we cooperate with this grace. Sufficient grace is the same as efficacious grace but happens when we are not open and frustrate the divinely intended act. The grace remains sufficient for us to perform some beneficial act, but not as God fully intended it to be.

Catholics and Protestant notions of grace can be better understood in the context of the justification and sanctification.

Protestant Justification

For Protestants, justification is when we believe in Christ, after being moved by God’s grace (John 6:44) and without merit (Ephesians 2:8). For Luther, justification is God’s gift, appropriated by faith: “through grace and mercy, God justifies us through faith[10].” Justification happens in the Baptism of Regeneration when someone acknowledges their sinfulness,[11] and experiences for the first time, genuine faith, and are “born again” (John 3:3)[12].

People become God’s children because Christ’s righteousness is forensically imputed to them[13]. Both Luther and Calvin believe baptism erases original sin, i.e. it remains with baptized persons but is no longer imputed on them[14]. First, justification involves a “forensic declaration that the Christian is righteous.” Second, there is a “deliberate distinction” between the forensic activity of justification and the internal process of sanctification. Sinners are not guilty at conversion (justified) and grow in holiness through a process (sanctification)[15]. Third, “justifying righteousness” is alien[16].

Protestants believe sin prohibits people from meriting grace. For Luther, 1 John 5:16-17 means that believers in Christ commit venial sins while non-believers commit mortal sins[17]. According to Calvin, mortal sins are committed by those predestined by God to hell[18]. Human righteousness is unworthy of God’s favor so we cannot rely on human merit. It is only the perfection of Christ’s righteousness that is acceptable before God, a righteousness given to sinners as a gift[19].

Catholic Justification

Catholics responded to Protestant arguments by convening the Council of Trent and concluded with the Decree on Justification (1547)[20]. The ideology of a sinner being justified solely as a matter of imputation is rejected. Justification is a man becoming, and not being reputed as, righteous.

The fundamental difference is due to the “formal cause[21]. For the Council of Trent, the formal cause of justification is the justness of God. He makes us just[22]at Baptism by infusing into our souls, His divine grace, which purifies the soul. This grace in our souls is the formal cause of justification and means of sanctification[23]. In Justification, our righteousness comes from God and by infusion, it becomes part of us so we become righteous[24].  We enter heaven based on what Christ did on the cross and what He has done in us[25].

Justification is “the process when humans — moved by grace — turn towards God and away from sin, to accept God’s forgiveness and righteousness[26].”  We are justified (saved by grace) through faith (Ephesians 2:8) and sanctification (2 Thessalonians 2:13)[27]. Father John Hardon shares three stages of justification. First, an initial justification at conversion; second, a progressive justification as a person grows in righteousness; and lastly, a final justification on judgment day. There could also be a loss of justification, and re-justification when a believer returns to the faith[28].

Initial Justification: Baptism

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Justification is conferred during Baptism[29]. Baptism is operative in the “first” justification since grace to overcome original sin is “mediated” to us through Baptism. In Baptism, a person is made into a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17)[30]. Justification is “the change from a person, born as a child of the first Adam, into a state of grace as the children of God through the Second Adam, Jesus[31].”

According to Father Hardon, “the first sanctification takes place at Baptism. The love of God is infused by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The grace of the Holy Spirit justifies us, to cleanse us from our sins and communicate ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:22)[32]. The Holy Trinity begins to dwell in souls and we become pleasing to God”.

God infuses sanctifying grace into our souls at Baptism. Sanctifying grace is God’s gratuitous gift of His divine life. The Catechism refers to Romans 8:14-17 when it states, “our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help God gives to respond to His call as partakers of eternal life.” Although we are united to God before our Baptism in a natural manner by His essence, presence, and power; sanctifying grace increases this union to participation in the divine life for, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16)[33].

Baptism is a sacrament of regeneration (Titus 3:5). We are born again (John 3:3-5; Romans 6:3-4) as sons of God[34] and all past sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16) and their punishment[35], as well as original sin are forgiven once we receive sanctifying grace[36].  However, our concupiscence (sinful inclinations) remains, which brings us to the need for a sacramental life.

Progressive Justification: Sacraments

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The Second Vatican Council reaffirms that “in baptism, we become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature[37]. We are made holy.  By God’s gift, we must complete this holiness we received” (Lumen Gentium, #40)[38]. Holiness is cultivated through a sacramental life which sanctifies us.

Sanctification is an integral part of justification[39]. Justified persons undergo a process of sanctification where grace penetrates their souls[40]. When a person is justified, concupiscence remains. As we mature during the sanctification process, concupiscence lessens while the love — experiential righteousness — grows[41].

Catholics believe sin corrupts nature, but grace perfects nature. Aquinas believed humankind is unable to attain salvation except by God’s grace because we are fallen creatures[42]. We fall short by committing mortal and venial sins (1 John 5:16-17). Mortal sins involve breaking grave matter (listed in the Ten Commandments), with full knowledge and consent[43][44]. As such, we need the sacraments. God’s righteousness begun (infused) in baptism and continued (perfected) through the Eucharist and penance. Justification is “increased” by the sacraments as these were what God used to mediate grace to man[45]. The “process” of justification happens when righteousness is internally “infused” through the sacraments, a process expressed in moral virtues and good works as the condition for man’s final absolution on judgment day[46].

Final Justification: Judgement Day

Justification is necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16; John 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21)[47]. As the Catechism elucidates, “Moved by the Holy Spirit, we merit for ourselves and for others, all the graces needed to attain eternal life” (CCC 2027)[48]. Through Christ, we are made righteous (Romans 5:19), and the righteous shall have eternal life (Matthew 25:46). This third justification happens when one enters heaven without mortal sin. They are united with God in the beatific vision[49]. Catholics thus believe in a lifelong justification and only at the end can anybody be said to be ‘saved.[50]

An understanding of justification influences how Catholics and Protestants live out their faith, particularly in the domain of good works.

Protestants: Faith Alone

In the doctrine of sola fide, Protestants are justified (saved by grace) through faith alone[51]. Luther remarks that “good works do not make a man good, but a good man doeth good works[52].” A person’s actions are worth nothing towards their justification since they come from a sinful source.  Good works, however, are necessary for the salvation of already justified people because they demonstrate the fruits of their justified state[53].

Catholics: Faith and Good Works

Catholics, however, believe they are saved through faith and good works. Saint James (James 2:14) wrote, “My brothers, what good is it to profess faith without practicing it? Such faith has no power to save one, has it?” Luther responded that it is a “perfect straw-epistle” compared to the writings of Saint Paul, who emphasized the need for faith[54].

Catholics are not justified by good works without God’s grace[55]. When Christ was asked about inheriting eternal life, His answer was to obey the Commandments (Mark 10:19).

By being in communion with God, we receive prevenient grace which enables us to follow the Commandments (John 15:1-5).  Although we do not deserve merit from good works because our ability to do so comes from God’s grace, God rewards us for our good works (Proverbs 13:13, Psalms 18:20, 2 John 8, Revelation 22:12 etc.).  His rewards are gifts or graces and eternal life (John 5:28-29, Romans 2:6-7)[56]. As our merits are grace, we can merit them for ourselves and others, another grace (John 1:16)[57][58]. However, we must be in a state of sanctifying grace for our good works to earn merit towards eternal life. While in mortal sin, our good works do not earn us eternal life, but actual graces that motivates us to repent[59].


Catholics and Protestants conception of grace affects how they understand God, themselves, and their relationship with others. The Protestant view is justification equals justification by faith, while the Catholic position is justification equals justification by faith, and works, including the sacraments[60]. Catholics believe one’s acceptance into heaven is not simply in one’s righteous status but in sanctification, i.e. the renovation of one’s soul by the Holy Spirit[61]. After a person has been justified, their works are meritorious and God accepts them as faithful.” Though merit does not initiate justification, it completes it[62].


[1] https://aleteia.org/2013/03/12/what-is-the-difference-between-the-catholic-and-protestant-understandings-of-grace/

[2] https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-3-the-catholic-protestant-differences/

[3] https://aleteia.org/2013/03/12/what-is-the-difference-between-the-catholic-and-protestant-understandings-of-grace/



[6] Week 4 lecture notes




[10] Cited by R. H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abington, 1978), 65.

[11] Luther: The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, page 30

[12] https://aleteia.org/2013/03/12/what-is-the-difference-between-the-catholic-and-protestant-understandings-of-grace/

[13] Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo, The Unfinished Reformation

[14] Council of Trent: Canon 5 of the Decrees on Original Sin

[15] Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo, The Unfinished ReformationThe unfinished reformation

[16] Alister McGrath, “Forerunners of the Reformation? A Critical Examination of the Evidence for Precursors of the Reformation Doctrines of Justification,” Harvard Theological Review 75 (1982)

[17] Luther: Lectures on Galatians Luther’s Works, Vol. 27, page 76

[18] Calvin Commentary on 1 John, available at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom45.v.vi.v.html

[19] http://www.chriscastaldo.com/2016/10/05/justification-the-basic-difference-between-catholics-protestants/#_ftn8

[20] http://www.chriscastaldo.com/2016/10/05/justification-the-basic-difference-between-catholics-protestants/

[21] Justification by Faith, 72; John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, 3rd ed. (London: Rivingtons, 1874),

[22] Tanner, Decrees, 673.

[23] Peter Toon, Evangelical Theology, 1833-1856: A Response to Tractarianism (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1979

[24] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1991

[25] Council of Trent: Decrees on Justification, Chapter VII

[26] http://reasonablecatholicism.com/resources/Justification/The%20Catholic%20Understanding%20of%20Justification.pdf

[27] Council of Trent: Decrees on Justification, Chapter VIII

[28] https://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/JUSTIF.HTM

[29] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1992

[30] https://aleteia.org/2013/03/12/what-is-the-difference-between-the-catholic-and-protestant-understandings-of-grace/

[31] Denzinger 1524

[32] https://aleteia.org/2013/03/12/what-is-the-difference-between-the-catholic-and-protestant-understandings-of-grace/

[33] http://reasonablecatholicism.com/resources/Justification/The%20Catholic%20Understanding%20of%20Justification.pdf

[34] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1265

[35] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1263

[36] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1266

[37] https://aleteia.org/2013/03/12/what-is-the-difference-between-the-catholic-and-protestant-understandings-of-grace/

[38] https://aleteia.org/2013/03/12/what-is-the-difference-between-the-catholic-and-protestant-understandings-of-grace/

[39] Council of Trent: Decrees on Justification, Chapter VII

[40] http://reasonablecatholicism.com/resources/Justification/The%20Catholic%20Understanding%20of%20Justification.pdf

[41] https://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/JUSTIF.HTM

[42] See, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae. 2, 4, in The Basic Writings of Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1944), 1079

[43] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1857

[44] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1858

[45] http://www.equip.org/article/justification-the-catholic-protestant-argument-over-justification/

[46] Chapter seven of the Decree on Justification explains “What the justification of the sinner is and what are its causes.” Tanner, Decrees, 673.

[47] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1257

[48] Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo, The Unfinished Reformation

[49] http://www.equip.org/article/justification-the-catholic-protestant-argument-over-justification/

[50] http://www.ukapologetics.net/10/justification.htm

[51] Berkhof: Systematic Theology, page 513

[52] https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-3-the-catholic-protestant-differences/

[53] Luther: The Disputation Concerning Justification(underlined emphasis added) Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, page 165

[54] https://aleteia.org/2013/03/12/what-is-the-difference-between-the-catholic-and-protestant-understandings-of-grace/

[55] Council of Trent: Canon I of the Decrees on Justification

[56] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2009

[57] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2010, 2007, 2008

[58] https://vivacatholic.wordpress.com/223-2/

[59] http://reasonablecatholicism.com/resources/Justification/The%20Catholic%20Understanding%20of%20Justification.pdf

[60] http://www.ukapologetics.net/10/justification.htm

[61] Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo, The Unfinished Reformation

[62] Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo, The Unfinished Reformation

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