Council of Trent on Justification: A Summary

I found this the other day.

It’s my summary of the Council of Trent’s decree on Justification from 1547. I wrote it back when I was doing a lot of thinking about justification. The topic came up in the third-part of my conversion story, A Problem, A New Perspective and A Girl in Pyjamas, and also in the follow-up (or should that by fall-out?) from it: What About the Thief on the Cross? and What About Ephesians 2:8-9?

It’s funny but after 450 years, it’s still the clearest statement on the Catholic teaching of justification. I mean, I guess if it’s works… (and all Catholic justification works, folks!)

I wanted to keep as much of actual language of the decree – because it’s pretty and Scripturally rich – while also condensing and clarifying it so poor little me could understand it. I’ve also kept the structure, including each article, but added some headings, and a painting or two because that’s just what I do.

You can read the actual thing here.


Whereas there is, at this time, not without the shipwreck of many souls, and grievous detriment to the unity of the Church, a certain erroneous doctrine disseminated touching Justification“, the Council of Trent has expounded “the true and sound doctrine touching the said Justification; which (doctrine) the sun of justice, Christ Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, taught, which the apostles transmitted, and which the Catholic Church, the Holy Ghost reminding her thereof, has always retained.”

What is Justification?

1. All people, having lost their innocence through the sin of Adam, have become children of wrath, “servants of sin and under the power of the devil and of death.” From this state, neither the Gentiles through nature nor the Jews through the law of Moses can be freed. Nonetheless, although their free will was weakened, it was “by no means extinguished in them.”

2. “Whence it came to pass that the Heavenly Father, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, when that blessed fullness of the time was come, sent unto men, Jesus Christ, His own Son” to redeem both Jews and Gentiles that “all men might receive the adoption of sons.” He is the propitiation, “through faith in his blood, for our sins, and not for our sins only, but also for those of the whole world.”

3. But although He died for all, only those who are born again in Christ are justified because “in that new birth, there is bestowed upon them, through the merit of His passion, the grace whereby they are made just.”

4. Justification is a “translation” [transfer/transition] from being a child of Adam to being a son of God, “through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour.” This translation cannot occur without the act of – or at least the desire for – baptism.

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)

Peter Paul Rubens, Adam and Eve, c. 1597

Peter Paul Rubens, Adam and Eve, c. 1597

How does Justification Happen?

5. In adults, justification derives from God’s prevenient grace where, “without any merits existing on their parts, they are called” so that they may be disposed or inclined to turn to God, “freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace“. This call can be rejected but without prevenient grace, it cannot be accepted.

6. Having become so disposed, the preparation for Justification is when, “excited and assisted by divine grace“, they have faith and move towards God, “by turning themselves from the fear of divine justice… to consider the mercy of God, are raised unto hope“, trusting that God will be gracious to them for Christ’s sake and “they begin to love Him as the fountain of all justice;” and are therefore moved to detest and repent of their sins and finally, to receive baptism and begin a new life in Christ.

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 3:38)

7. What follows is Justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man“. It has several “causes” or reasons:

  • Justification is forthe glory of God and of Jesus Christ and [for] life everlasting” [the final cause]
  • Justification is brought about by “a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance” [the efficient cause]
  • Justification is enabled by “His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father” [the meritorious cause]
  • Justification is put into effect by “the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified” [the instrumental cause]
  • Justification itself is “the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just” [the formal cause]

The justified are not simply “reputed” or reckoned as just but “are truly called, and are, just” because they have receive justice within themselves. This occurs because, by the merit of Christ’s passion and death, “the charity of God is poured forth, by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those that are justified.” Hence “man, through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives” together with the remission of sins, the gifts of faith, hope and charity. “For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body.”

For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:26)

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6)

Pietro Perugino, Pala di Sant Agostino (Baptism of Christ), 1512-1523

Pietro Perugino, Pala di Sant Agostino (Baptism of Christ), 1512-1523

Faith, Sin and Justification

8. This Justification is by faith because “faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons” and by grace because “none of those things which precede justification – whether faith or works – merit the grace itself of justification.”

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:6)

9. It is not necessary to be certain of your justification to be justified. Indeed, no one can be certain of their justification. For while no one ought doubt the mercy of God, the work of Christ or the efficacy of the Sacraments, “no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.”

10. Having been justified, “they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day; that is, by mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified.”

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

11. All who have been justified are to observe the commandments of God and are able to do so because God “commands not impossibilities.” For those who are sons of God love Christ and those who love Christ keep His commandments. All who have been justified, “at times fall into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial.” In these they do not lose their justification, for God does not forsake those “who have been once justified by His grace, unless he be first forsaken by them.”

Therefore, no one ought to “flatter himself, … fancying that by faith alone he is made an heir, and will obtain the inheritance, even though he suffer not with Christ, that so he may be also glorified with him.”

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:8-9)

It is false that the justified sins, whether venially or mortally, in every good work. It is also false they sin when, along with aiming to glorify God, they also “have in view also the eternal reward, in order to excite their sloth and to encourage themselves to run” the good race.

“Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall; so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:10-11)

12. No one should presume that they are certainly one of the elect.

Hendrick Terbrugghen, The Crucifixion With The Virgin And St. John, 1625 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Hendrick Terbrugghen, The Crucifixion With The Virgin And St. John, 1625 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Justification and Future Judgment

13. Only those who persevere to the end will be saved and only God can enable one to persevere. For God “as he has begun the good work, so will he perfect it, working (in them) to will and to accomplish. Nevertheless, let those who think themselves to stand, take heed lest they fall, and, with fear and trembling work out their salvation, in labours, in watchings, in almsdeeds, in prayers and oblations, in fastings and chastity: for, knowing that they are born again unto a hope of glory, but not as yet unto glory, they ought to fear for the combat which yet remains with the flesh, with the world, with the devil, wherein they cannot be victorious, unless they be with God’s grace.”

“So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13)

14. Those who fall into mortal sin after baptism, and thus lose the grace of justification, can be justified again through the sacrament of Penance, “to the recovery, by the merit of Christ, of the grace lost.” Like in baptism, this requires a “contrite and humble heart”; but unlike in baptism, also requires “satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers, and the other pious exercises of a spiritual life.” This is not “for the eternal punishment – which is, together with the guilt, remitted – but for the temporal punishment… to those who, ungrateful to the grace of God which they have received, have grieved the Holy Spirit, and have not feared to violate the temple of God.”

“Bear fruits that befit repentance” (Luke 3:7-8)

15. Justification can be lost not only by apostacy, “whereby even faith itself is lost,” but also by mortal sins even where faith remains. This adheres to “the divine law, which excludes from the kingdom of God not only the unbelieving, but the faithful also (who are) fornicators, adulterers, effeminate, liers with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, railers, extortioners, and all others who commit deadly sins.”

16. The end of justification is eternal life, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Jesus Christ, and as a reward which is according to the promise of God Himself.” Christ continually infuses His righteousness into the justified, “as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches.” This justice always “precedes and accompanies and follows their good works” and without it, their works could not “be pleasing or meritorious.” In this it may be said that “nothing further is wanting to the justified to prevent their being accounted to have… fully satisfied the divine law… and to have truly merited eternal life.”

“[W]hoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

The righteousness that is in us is ours because it is inherent in us but at the same time, it is not ours but God’s because it is from God, through the merit of Christ. And although, “in the Sacred Writings, so much is attributed to good works… nethertheless God forbid that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself, and not in the Lord” because even their merits are His gifts and come by His grace.

Annibale Carracci, Christ in Glory, 1598 (Palazzo Pitti, Florence)

Annibale Carracci, Christ in Glory, 1598 (Palazzo Pitti, Florence)


6 responses to “Council of Trent on Justification: A Summary

    • I know! They are quite something. I’m always delighted with how holistic the approach is, and how it’s always so drenched in scripture and praise for God. 🙂

  1. I’ll never forget the first time I read some of the Tridentine documents and thought: “wow, this is absolutely nothing like the caricature I had always been presented with…”

    • I was just thinking that! The contrast between myth and reality is staggering. I love the overwhelming love for God that is in the documents, they never miss an opportunity to be all “GOD IS AWESOME!!!” Plus, it’s so clear and reasonable and utterly consistent. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s