Shades of Grace

Catholics and Protestants in Conversation

Roman Catholic, Cheap Grace, and Reformed Christian sit in a small country pub, discussing justification. To the surprise of each, “It is of grace” they assert, one by one.

Seeing the suspicions written across the faces of the other two, the Catholic begins, “My catechism reads, ‘Justification comes from the grace of God.’ And by grace we mean generally, ‘favor, the free and underserved help that God gives to us to respond to his call to become children of God, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life’ (Roman Catholic, 418). We all affirm we are ‘justified by his grace as a gift’” (Romans 3:24).

To undermine any misgivings, he quickly adds, “It also states as bright as the sun, ‘[N]o one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion’ (Roman Catholic, 420). Or, to put it more strongly, ‘If any one shall say, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the strength of human nature, or through the teaching of the law, without the divine grace through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema’” (Counsel of Trent, Canon I).

Confused, Cheap Grace turns to Reformed Christian, “Wasn’t one of the pillars of the Reformation Sola gratia — justification by grace alone? But this fellow says he too believes in justification as undeserved favor, free and initiated by God. What exactly did our forefathers mean if Catholics also acknowledge God’s grace justifies?”

How might you answer this question?

By Grace Alone

Talking together at this quaint countryside, the differences at the surface between Cheap Grace, Roman Catholic, and Reformed Christian might seem surprisingly thin. Each uses the same words. Each mentions something about the grace of justification being underserved, the result of divine — not human — initiative. Each will speak of Jesus and his cross at some point and stand aligned in condemning human works apart from grace.

In other words, each will say that God redeems and restores into right relationship with himself by the work of his decisive grace. Each will say, in their own ways, salvation is of the Lord, and join to sing “Amazing Grace.” So what is the difference?

To show the relevance of Sola Gratia, a doctrine rediscovered in the Reformation, consider the contrast between Reformed Christian’s understanding of by grace alone contrasted first with the Roman Catholic’s, and then with that of Cheap Grace.

Catholic Versus Reformed

Over the course of their discussion, Roman Catholic and Reformed Christian discovered they use identical terms but with significantly different meanings.


The first impasse is the meaning of justification itself. When the Catholic catechism states that justification is of grace, he understands it as “not only the remissions of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (1989, emphasis added). Justification, in other words, includes sanctification and regeneration. Indeed, to the Catholic, justification embraces “the whole scope of the Christian life” (The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls, 744).

Justification, in the Roman conception, is an ongoing process, rising and falling, being attained by the grace of the sacraments and possibly lost through a failure of the sinner to persevere in faith and works and the sacraments of the church. Justification, for the Catholic, concerns what God continually does in man.

“Justification, for the Protestant, concerns what God declares over him before he does anything in him.”

Opposed, the Reformed Christian insists that justification is a “legal act, the declaration of the forgiveness of sin and the imputation of righteousness.” In fact, the Catholic counsel of Trent, in response to the Reformation, declared them damned who taught that “men are justified either by the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost [Romans 5:5], and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, by which we are justified, is only the favor of God” (Canon xi). Justification, for the Protestant, concerns what God declares over him, by faith, while the justified is still ungodly (Romans 4:5).


Second, and related, the two disagree about “righteousness.” For the Catholic, justifying righteousness is not Christ’s perfection accredited (that is, imputed) to the sinner’s account. Rather the Catholic means “the rectitude of divine love.” With justification, he says, “faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted to us” (catechism, 1991). And this infusion comes through the sacrament of Baptism: “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith” (1992).

For the Reformers, a different notion of righteousness was reclaimed — a righteousness revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:17). The good news is that sinners — dead in their trespasses, sins, and unrighteousness — can, through faith in Jesus’s perfect life, substitutionary death, and validating resurrection, have their sins forgiven and Jesus’s own perfect righteousness counted as theirs by union with him. As was long prophesied, the Suffering Servant would “make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).

Luther distinguished alien righteousness — Christ’s perfections, outside of us, applied to us legally in justification — and proper righteousness — our own righteousness worked out as a result. Catholic teaching combines the two. Paul, however, makes the contrast clear: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5). Paul staked his life and eternity on “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:8–9) — a righteousness that doesn’t foremost make us just but accounts us just in Christ.

Grace ‘Alone’

All this leads to the fact that for Roman Catholic, justification cannot be by grace alone as Reformed Christians understand it. Catholicism teaches, “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom” (catechism, 1993). Since justification includes the inherent, lived-out righteousness of the believer to keep it, “the formal cause of justification refers both to God and to man” (Doctrine, 743). God enlists humans as partners in justification. “In the end, eternal life is both a grace promised and a reward given for good works and merits” (Doctrine, 744).

Lutherans and Catholics of modern times created a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in which they write,

By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works. (article 15)

“For Roman Catholic, justification cannot be by grace alone as Reformed Christians understand it.”

But what is meant “by grace alone”? Leonardo De Chirco writes, “For the Catholic Church, ‘by grace alone’ means that grace is intrinsically, constitutionally, and necessarily linked to the sacrament, to the church that administers it, and then to the works implemented by it.” Still in line with Trent, “grace is necessarily sacramental and seen inside a synergistic, dynamic process of salvation” (Doctrine, 752–753).

This is not “by grace alone” as Luther understood it. Justification, as Carl Trueman summarizes, places “the believer’s salvation outside himself, in the action of God. The very fact that justification for Luther is a declaration of God, a word that comes from the outside, underscores and intensifies the idea that salvation is all of grace” (Grace Alone, 124).

Reformed Christians, then and now, insist that justification by grace alone allows no talk of merit. Christ allows no sidekicks. The Catholic view entails divine grace that is undeserved assistance to get those “capable of God” going, and stands by through the sacraments of the church to help collaborate in salvation. The Reformed understands it as the decisive gifting of perfect righteousness once and for all to those hopelessly condemned in sin. God becomes 100% for us on the sole basis of Christ’s righteousness. Then, once he is for us (fully justified), we grow, by the Spirit, in our own lived-out righteousness. The Catholic view necessitates the undeserved help of God in salvation; the Reformed view, the unilateral acquittal and divine pronouncement of “Righteous!” at the first instant of being joined to Christ by faith.

Reformed Versus Cheap Grace

“I knew it,” Cheap Grace interrupts, relieved. “Justification is all of grace — grace alone — now until the end! No matter how I live, no matter what sins I still fall into, the good news of the gospel states that God sees Jesus when he looks at me. Justified by grace alone!”

“This is the problem with Protestant theology,” complains Roman Catholic. “It does not take obedience and sin seriously. Does Paul not charge us to ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12)? Justification is no license to continue sinning without consequence.”

It was in response to this that Reformed Christian and Cheap Grace began to realize deep distinctions between them. After some time, Reformed Christian began calling him “Cheap Grace,” a name first coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer said, “means the justification of sin without justification of the sinner. . . [it is] grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (Cost of Discipleship, 43, 45). Cheap Grace plans to have heaven without holiness, the salvation without sanctification, forgiveness of sin without forsaking of sin. He speaks of justification ‘by grace alone’ as a deer’s head mounts motionless upon the wall. It is but the carcass of orthodoxy.

Reformed Christian understood the grace of justification always brings the Holy Spirit and transformation. The same grace that redeems us, also “trains us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). The grace that justifies — manifest in and inseparable from the Person of God’s grace, Jesus Christ — also sanctifies us. It is grace to be acquitted and reckoned as holy, and grace also to grow in holiness.

To Luther, as the other Reformers, justifying grace was costly grace.

It was grace, for it was like water on parched ground, comfort in tribulation, freedom from the bondage of a self-chosen way, and forgiveness of all [Luther’s] sins. And it was costly, for, so far from dispensing him from good works, it meant that he must take the call to discipleship more seriously than ever before. It was grace because it cost so much, and it cost so much because it was grace. That was the secret of the gospel of the Reformation — the justification of the sinner. (Cost of Discipleship, 49)

Costly grace, Reformed Christian insisted to Cheap Grace, is “costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner” (Ibid., 45).

Amazing Grace

Threats to God’s grace in justifying sinners arrive from two fronts.

On the Roman side, we have a new Galatian heresy; the unmaking of grace through accompanied meritorious good works. But the masterpiece of Golgotha has as its caption: Do Not Touch. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). Ours it is only to receive the blood-painted frame as it is — by grace alone, as a gift.

On the other side, Cheap Grace brings us to the broken elevator of presumption. “This mighty lifter named Grace,” we are told, “is mighty enough to bring us to heaven.” Yet, it is not strong enough to lift us one floor above the world, the flesh, and the devil. James calls the contraption The Grace and Faith of Demons. It might borrow language of alien righteousness, but it applies it as cheap perfume to mask a still rotting corpse.

The Reformers knew the grace of God in justification to be costly, purchased by Christ on the cross, and arriving as first a justifying proclamation, and then consequently as a transforming power, through the Spirit, in sanctification.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8–10)

The grace of justification — received by the instrument of faith alone — never remains alone in the person justified. This grace of our Lord Jesus Christ acquits us in heaven’s court, and trains us to live holy lives on earth. Grace loves living for Jesus — for Jesus is the perfect manifestation of the grace of God. This gospel grace of God — the kind that washes over us divine commendation and divine life — as opposed to its perversions, is worthy of the name, “Amazing.”