top of page

The Catholic Doctrine of Justification as explained by the Council of Trent: January 13, 1547


I propose to write an encyclopedia article on the Roman Catholic Doctrine of Justification as articulated by the Council of Trent in 1547. Broken down, I will cover the process of Justification, the formal cause of Justification, the effects of Justification, as well as present the difference between the Roman Catholic and Protestant views of the doctrine.


The sixth session of the Council of Trent, on January 13th, 1547, produced the document, "Decretum de justifactione." The decree was made up of thirty-three canons and sixteen chapters and produced a clear and concise explanation of the Roman Catholic interpretation of justification. The purpose of this paper is to lay out the process, causes, effects and qualities of justification. My main source of information comes from the Catholic Encyclopaedia and the Council of Trent with additional information from the theologian Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993), The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, and Holy Scripture.

The Process of Justification (Process Justificationis)

The Council of Trent begins with the statement that Free will, though weakened by Original Sin, has not been fully vanquished. Nonetheless, the 'children of Adam' were marked with Original Sin and could not remove the chains of Sin, Death and Satan. Neither humanity's innate faculties nor the Jewish laws could accomplish this as well. Humanity can only be redeemed through Jesus Christ, His Passion and Death on the Cross. "If the grace of Redemption merited by Christ is to be appropriated by the individual, he must be regenerated by God … he must be Justified." (1) But what is meant by Justification? Justification means, "A change or transformation in the soul by which man is transformed from the state of original sin, in which as a. child of Adam he was born, to that of grace and Divine Son-ship through Jesus Christ, the second Adam, our Redeemer." (2)

It is through the Baptism of Water that the stain of Original Sin is washed away. This process is a divine gift and requires both human and divine action, though the individual is still able to freely reject the influence of grace. "If any one should say that free will, moved and set in action by God, cannot cooperate by assenting to God 's call, nor dissent if it wish …. Let him be Anathema." (3) With this decree the Council condemned the Protestant idea that the Will in reception of grace remains merely passive.

Steps in the Process of Justification

The first and most important step in the process of Justification is Faith; which Trent describes as "the beginning, foundation and root of all justification." (4.)

Cardinal Francesco Maria Sforza Pallavicini (1607-1667) in his book History of the Council of Trent, published in 1656 & 1657, tells us that the bishops at the Council understood the significance of illuminating St. Paul's explanation of man's justification by faith. When comparing bible and tradition, the Council was able to demonstrate that 'fiduciary faith' was an innovation and that justification was the same as a strong belief in Divine revelation.

Cover of History of the Council of Trent, 1656 & 1657 The next step is genuine sorrow or contriteness for all sin with the resolution to begin a new life. The final step, as noted earlier, is baptism "which frees the individual of sin and makes them a child of God." (5) The same process is offered to those, who through the Sacrament of Penance, which replaces baptism for the adult Christian who wishes to, remain Justified. "It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly Just by the power of his mercy." (6) According to Trent, when we look at the conversion of sinners, it is evident "that faith alone, whether fiduciary or dogmatic, cannot Justify man." (7.) What is demanded is a theological and dogmatic faith "which consists in the firm acceptance of the Divine truths of Revelation, on the authority of God revealing." (8) Saint Paul teaches us that we are saved by faith without the works of the law (Rom 3:28) and he understands that faith is a living faith, active through love (Gal 5:6). Divine adoption and friendship with God can also justify us and is based on perfect love of God or charity. "Only such faith as in active in charity and good works can justify man and this even before the actual reception of baptism or penance, although not without a desire of the sacrament." (9) In this way. heaven is open to all who may not know or recognize the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance. At Trent, "Catholic theologians unanimously hold that the desire to receive these sacraments is implicitly contained in the serious resolve to do all that God has commanded, even if his holy will should not be known in every detail." (10)

The Formal Cause of Justification

Justification is not only the forgiveness of sins, but also the "Sanctification and renovation of the interior man by means of voluntary acceptation of sanctifying grace and other supernatural gifts." (11) According to the teaching of the Council of Trent, "sanctifying grace destroys sin." (12) This being the case, the doctrine of double justice expounded by some Protestant Reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Bucher, as well as individual Catholic theologians, "which taught that the forgiveness of sins was accomplished by the imputed justice of Christ" (13) was repudiated. Also, as a means to counter the Protestant view of "a merely forensic absolution and exterior declaration of righteousness," (14) emphasis was placed upon the fact that humanity is justified by God's righteousness, and nothing else. God makes us all just because He has bestowed upon us His Grace, thereby gifting us with a renewed Soul and a Mark of His Divine Holiness.

It should also be noted, that within the one made Righteous rests 'Sanctifying (or Habitual) Grace'. Habitual or Sanctifying Grace is a "supernatural quality that dwells in the human soul, by which a person share in the divine nature, becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit, a friend of God, his adopted child, an heir to the glory of heaven, and able to perform actions meriting eternal life." (15) The soul receives sanctity in imitation of God's own holiness. Justification entails an "interior sanctity and renewal of the spirit, its formal cause can only be created grace." (16) According to the Council of Trent "sanctifying grace is not merely a formal cause, but "the only formal cause" of our justification. " (17)

The Council of Trent presented four other causes of justification: the glory of God and of Christ as the final cause, the mercy of God as the efficient cause, the passion of Christ as the meritorious cause, and the reception of the Sacraments as the instrumental cause.

Each cause holds a proper place of honour. Here the Catholic doctrine on justification stands out as a reasonable, consistent and harmonious system.

Conclusion: The Effects of Justification

There are two elements of Active Justification, Forgiveness of Sin and Sanctification, which reinforce the elements of Habitual Justification, freedom from Sin and Holiness. Freedom from Sin and Sanctity are affected by a single act of God. "For just as light dispels darkness, so the infusion of sanctifying grace ep ipso dispels from the soul mortal sin. "


We now know that in having Sanctifying Grace, we also have the whole essence of the state of Justification with all its formal effects; that is we are freed from sin by means of sanctity. According to the Council, this concept of Justification forms an essential element of Catholicism. Plus there are additional benefits, those being: "beauty of the soul, friendship with God and Divine adoption." (19) The Council of Trent teaches that for the Justified, 'Eternal Life' is both a Gift and Grace promised by God and a reward for His works and merits. "With Justification, faith, hope and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us." (20)

Justification continues to speak to many Catholics. It explains that though we are given Grace, and we are also understood to be working at our relationship with God. We are truly Justified by our faith, which manifests itself in our acts of love and charity for others, as well as our obedience to the Will of God.

Even in a Post-modern, oft perceived Post-Christian world, as we minister to increasingly fragmented communities, the "only thing that counts is faith working through love." (Gal 5.6) This is, naturally, the Christian purpose. We are Justified, made right with God, when we live out our true faith in Jesus Christ and we are justified when we express our faith through our acts of love for one another.



(1) Catholic Encyclopedia, Justification, page · 1

(2) The Council of Trent, LC., Chapter iv

(3) IBID, Chapter iv

(4) IBID, Chapter vii

(5) Catholic Encyclopedia, page 6

(6) Catechism of the Catholic Church, page 482

(7) Trent, LC., Canon xii

(8) Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ott, Ludwig, page 251

(9) Trent, Session vi, Chapter iv, xiv

(10) Catholic Encyclopedia, page 6

(11) Trent, LC. , Chapter vii

(12) Fundamentals, page 252

(13) IBID, page 254

(14) Catholic Encyclopedia, page 6

(15) The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism #1074

(16) Fundamentals, page 251

(17) Catholic Encyclopedia, page 6

(18) Trent, Session vi, Canon xi

(19) Catholic Encyclopedia, page 8

(20) Catechism of the Catholic Church, page 482

(21) Saint Paul's letter to the Galatians, Chapter 5, verse 6b

Original Paper submitted as a course requirement for D.Min. 8526 (1) - Ministry in the Light of Contemporary Theology - to Dr. Johnathan R. Wilson - Acadia Divinity College - Published on May 26th, 2006 (Revised on August 16th, 2023)

© Dr. Charles Warner 2023

14 views0 comments
bottom of page