Justification: Lutheran and Roman Catholic

A while back I was contacted by a man who was curious about the difference between the Roman Church and the Lutheran Church. Initially I sent him a copy of my brother Rolf’s short essay on justification but the man wanted something more specific. Believing that it is always a good thing to review what we believe especially in contrast to others I have decided to share part of that exchange with you. 

Dear Pastor Preus,


Hello, I contacted you a while back asking about justification. You had sent me an essay and I thank you for that. I am still struggling with what the differences are between Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of how we are saved. Can you help me shed some light on the differences? At times they seem far apart and at times seem very similar.




Name withheld

Dear Name Withheld,

I commend you for your tenacity. You‘re like the Canaanite woman crying after Jesus for mercy even though she qualified neither by merit nor by pedigree. I, distracted by other matters, have ignored you far too long and will now make right that apparent indifference.

According to the Lutherans, justification is not a process by which God works a change in someone. God actually does work a great many changes in the minds and hearts of his people but that is not justification. It is often called Sanctification or Christian Renewal or the change of heart or even sometimes reptentence. But Lutherans do not typically use the word “Justify” to describe the changes God works in us.   

Rather justification is a verdict. It is a courtroom term. It refers to the action of God outside of us by which he speaks his favor upon us and considers us righteous or acceptable in his eyes. Justification is a work of God by which God says, in effect, that we are acceptable to him.

How can God do this? How can he account us righteous, consider us favorable and call us holy in his eyes when we are so obviously without righteousness, without favor and without any intrinsic holiness? We are in fact guilty.

He justifies us, simply, by counting to our credit the innocence, blessedness and righteousness of Jesus. So, the holy life of Christ – He obeyed his parents, he showed mercy to others, he submitted to the harsh will of his father, he never complained, He prayed without ceasing, He is a lamb without spot or blemish, like us in every way except without sin – this holy life is counted to your credit. Further your guilt is counted against Jesus. He bore your sins in his body to the cross. The punishment you deserved was placed upon him; He is counted guilty with your sin.

This happy exchange – He is counted guilty with your sin and you are counted innocent or righteous with his holiness – is really “justification” in a broad, general, historic and objective sense.

Then God takes this verdict of justification which was accomplished by Jesus on the cross and he speaks it upon you. When your pastor absolves you God is speaking righteousness upon you. When you were baptized He was speaking you righteous for Christ’s sake. When you receive the Lord’s Supper He is declaring you righteous through the gifts of Body and Blood. Whenever you hear the good news of Christ God is speaking the righteousness of Jesus upon you.

The gospel and sacraments which God uses to speak you righteous He also employs to create faith in your heart. Faith is the receptive instrument of justification. Faith receives the verdict. It simply takes and holds what God is speaking upon you. So when the Bible says that we are justified by faith it does not mean that we are justified by what faith does or by the charity which always flows from faith. Rather, “we are justified by faith” means that faith holds on the word of the gospel of Jesus which says that He died for you and speaks upon you the blessings of His death.

My understanding of the Roman view is this: It postulates that justification may be a verdict but it is a verdict spoken upon us only when we have actually become an innocent and righteous person. Justification is based upon your faith and upon the charity it produces in you. It is not the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus upon you as the Lutherans assert. As such, in the Roman system justification does not assume the central and dominant place in their thinking and in their faith that it does in Lutheranism. Further, in the Roman system you can never be certain of your justification because it is based on the changes in you which, even though worked by the Holy Spirit, are never complete.

In the Lutheran view you can be 100% positive that you stand before the throne of God and enjoy his favor because Christ’s innocence is counted to your credit. In the Roman view you can never by certain of God’s favor because it is not based 100% on the merits and worthiness of Jesus but upon the change which God works in you. There is doubt in the Roman view. There is certainty in the Lutheran view.  

The chief criticism of the Lutheran view by the Romanists is that people will take advantage of God’s gift. If you tell people that they are justified and enjoy the favor of God without any merit or worthiness then they will continue to offend against God with the facile explanation that they are forgiven anyway and God will bring them to heaven because of Jesus even though they lead disgusting and indifferent lives.

To this the Lutherans reply:

  1. Yes, forgiveness and justification (which are really pretty much the same) always involve a risk. Whenever God forgives He risks that we will go out and do the same sin again. In fact that’s what the people of God often did in the bible. You risk the same when you forgive. But God risks it, not because he is convinced that we will begin to “fly right” but because He accepts Jesus and honors the death and word of Jesus.
  2. The same Word of God which speaks God’s righteousness upon us also works in our hearts “to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Our justification is based solely upon the word of God and not upon any subsequent change in us but that change is nonetheless worked by God. We are saved by faith alone but faith is never alone.
  3. The good news that we are accepted by God without any worthiness in us is a far greater incentive to good works than the constant admonishment that we must continue to strive so as to gain his favor. Earthly children behave better for parents whose love is obvious and unconditional than children who are uncertain of their parents’ unconditional acceptance. So with the Kingdom of Heaven. God produces works in us more effectively if he convinces us that these works do not save us or even contribute in any way to our salvation.  


The Canaanite woman was accepted by Jesus. Why? Was it her tenacity which saved her? No, although certainly she was persistent. Was it her devotion to her daughter that saved her? No, although a more devoted mother you will not find. Was it her plaintive prayers that saved her? No, although she is a model for the Christian prayer-life. The woman said to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy upon me.” She knew that Jesus was the promised shepherd (like David) who would lay down his life for the sheep. She knew that He would atone for her sins through his death. (The word “mercy” means “propitiate” which means to take away anger through a sacrifice). She knew that His word accomplishes what it says and she took him at his word. Through faith she was holding on to Jesus – His work through the cross and His word of pardon and acceptance.

So that, in a nutshell, is the difference between Lutheranism and Romanism. The difference at times may seem and even sound minimal. But they are truly vast and worthy a great and profound discussion. Although slow to answer I am not disinterested. If you want to follow up with more queries please do so and be patient with me.

In Christ,

Klemet Preus

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