Declared Righteous: Rome vs. the Reformation

by R.C. Sproul, with comments

We recently posted (in a forum) a short excerpt from R.C. Sproul's excellent new commentary on Romans (St. Andrew's Expositional Commentary) regarding the difference between the Reformation and the RCC view of justification. I had forgotten how much I liked R.C. Sproul and after reading through this commentary I remembered how good his communication skills are. After posting his excerpt (which follows) a person considering Roman Catholicism responded, which I also followed up with a response. Hope you find this helpful.


R.C. Sproul quote:

Rome set forth their doctrine -- and still does -- that God will never declare a person just until that person actually, under divine scrutiny, is found to be just...when God looks at us, he will not say that we are just until he sees that we really are just.

Rome teaches that we cannot be just without grace, that we will never become just without faith, and that we will never become just without the assistance of Christ. We need faith, we need grace, and we need Jesus. We need the righteousness of Christ infused or poured into our soul, but you must cooperate with that grace to such a degree that we will in fact become righteous. If we die with any impurity in our soul, thereby lacking complete righteousness, we will not go to heaven. If no mortal sin is present in our life, we will go to purgatory, which is the place of purging. The point of the purging is to get rid of the dross so that we become completely pure. It may take three years or three million years, but the object of purgatory is to make us righteous so that we can be admitted into God's heaven.

Part of the reason for this belief, that justification is rooted in an inherent righteousness in the sinner, comes from something unfortunate in church history. In the early centuries, when the Greek language passed away from the central attention of the church fathers and Latin became the dominant language, many scholars read only the Latin Bible, not the Greek bible, and they borrowed the Roman or Latin word for justification, iustificare, from which we get the English work justification. The Latin verb ficare means "to make" or "to shape" or "to do." Isutus means "righteousness" or "justice," so iustificare literally means "to make righteous," which we believe is what happens in sanctification, not in justification.

The Greek word that we are dealing with here in the Romans text is the word dikaioo, dikaiosune, which does not mean "to make righteous" but rather "to declare righteous." In the Roman Catholic view, God will never pronounce a person just or righteous until, by the help of God's grace and Christ, that person actually becomes righteous. [But] If God were to judge us tonight, what would he find? Would he find sin in our lives? Could he possibly declare us just if he considers only the righteousness that he finds in us today? Remember what the Apostle Paul said: "By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight" (3:20). That is precisely why the ground for our justification cannot be found in us or in any righteousness inherent in our souls. That is why we need so desperately what Luther called a iustia alienum, an alien righteousness, a righteousness that comes from outside ourselves. Luther called this righteousness extranos, outside or apart from us.

In simple terms, this means that the only righteousness sufficient for us to stand before the judgment of God is the righteousness of Christ.

Excerpt from Romans (St. Andrew's Expositional Commentary) by R.C. Sproul


Response from visitor considering Roman Cathoicism:

I love R.C Sproul, even though I am now going Catholic. I love how he always gives the proper Catholic teaching. The sad part about it though, is that he is discounting the Catholic form of justification for a legal argument made my Luther and Calvin, and he is presupposing that when Paul says "By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight" that Paul is talking about the moral natural law of God, and not the Jewish ceremonial laws that he is combating in the early Church.

Sungenis a former Westminster graduate who is now a Catholic, wrote a very detailed book on "Not by faith alone" and he has tried to get Sproul to have a genuine and honest open conversation about it, and Sproul does not want to do it. I am not saying it is because Sproul isn't right, but I believe that for someone like me, who is leaning Catholic, it would be very helpful to hear one of my heroes R.C Sproul address this book that is pretty in depth.


My Response:

_____, if you don't mind I would like to comment on something you posted: You said, "...he [Sproul] is presupposing that when Paul says "By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight" that Paul is talking about the moral natural law of God, and not the Jewish ceremonial laws that he is combating in the early Church."

If we look at the context of the whole epistle as to how Paul is using the term Law, it becomes immediately apparent that his warning not to circumcise also encompasses a much broader warning not to trust in anything other than Christ alone, whether it be circumcision or anything else. The specific context of Romans 1-3 (out of which you quote), however, focuses in on a list of humanity's sins which constitute the breaking of the moral law of God, and Paul finishes his argument that all men are under sin by saying, "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." SO the law does not show our moral ability but our moral inability. And Christ came to set us free from such bondage (Gal 4: 1-7; 21-31). to ceremonial laws like circumcision precisely because practicing it would then require us to obey the entire moral law perfectly. Consider what Paul says about this in Galatians: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law." Gal 5:1,2

Notice, Paul tells the Galatians that if they trust in circumsicion, they will also have to obey the whole law (which includes the moral law) perfectly, if the want to save themselves. Likewise Later in Gal 6 he says, "even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."

So Paul makes it plain here that those who keep the ceremonial law cannot keep the whole law so it is useless. So we cannot make obedience to the law into a Savior. His only boast is Christ alone. They were also boasting in their converts. Rememeber Paul attached an anathema at the beginning of the epistle to those who reject this understanding, so I would encourage you to consider VERY seriously your next step. I pray the Lord bless you and open your heart and eyes to the true Gospel.

It is true that many Protestants may misrepresent RCC by saying that they believe in a salvation apart from grace. We understand that both Roman Catholics (and Arminians for that matter) would denounce any belief which says you can be saved without the grace of God. However, it is important to note that the Reformers never claimed Rome believed you can be saved apart from grace. That wasn't the debate. The debate at the time of the Reformation was never, even for a moment, about the NECESSITY of grace, it was always about the sufficiency of grace. And frankly that remains the issue today - and is the central debate in the church. Is Christ sufficient to save us to the uttermost? Is Christ's work enough? In RCC theology, if you either have to attain or maintain your own just standing before God, then what Christ did for us (in his life and death) was not sufficient in itself to redeem was not enough. It may have been necessary, but it was not sufficient. Christ, in this case, is no longer a Savior, but simply one who helps us save ourselves. Such is the position RCC has placed themselves in.


Response from visitor considering Roman Cathoicism:

I agree. This is clearly where the debate should be. I am tired of talking to people who claim that grace is not taught in the RCC, so thanks for honestly defining the RCC.