Monday, October 29, 2018

The Council of Trent and Justification

The Council of Trent meeting in Santa Maria Maggiore Church
The Council of Trent was held by the Roman Catholic Church between 1545 and 1563 in response to the Protestant Reformation. Its sixth session was dedicated to the topic of justification. In the proclamation that resulted from this session, which you can read here, the Council of Trent sought to counter the Protestant ideas of the bondage of the will, forensic justification, sola fide, assurance of salvation, and the perseverance of the saints. The council still asserted the necessity of grace and faith for justification. They still asserted that we were unjust in Adam and only justified by being “born again in Christ.”[1] Yet, they denied that justification is only the remission of sins, but argued that it is “also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts…”[2] Thus, one can grow in one’s justification, voluntarily contributing to it.

The council taught that God does not merely reckon us to be just, but properly calls us just because we are just, each according to our measure.[3] It taught that our justification is not dependent upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, but rather upon our righteousness which we are enabled to exercise because of the grace of Christ given to us. It taught that we can only be just by the charity of God being inherent in our hearts.[4]

Thus, Trent’s concept of the way of salvation is dependent upon living righteously. Justification depends upon it. Mortal sins in the future can cause one to fall from justification. Only the sacrament of penance, administered by the institutional church, can restore one to justification. This is described as being “again justified.”[5] Even then, the satisfaction of temporal punishment is needed. With this emphasis, it is no surprise that there is little or no place for the believer to be assured of his salvation or perseverance. Despite the council’s emphasis on God’s grace, its theology points man to a focus on self and performance for salvation.

A classic statement of the Protestant view can be found in the Westminster Larger Catechism:
"Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone."[6] 
Clear biblical support for such a definition can be found in passages like Romans 3-4. "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Rom. 3:28). Because the Protestant view teaches that justification depends upon the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us, it can give confidence to the believer that his status is secure in Christ. Justification is distinct from sanctification (our renewal in righteousness), although both are given to every believer in Christ. Good works necessarily accompany faith but do not contribute to justification, being motivated by love and gratitude.

[2] Chapter 7.
[3] Chapter 7.
[4] Chapter 7.
[5] Chapter 14.

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