By Dr. Herbert Samworth

This is Part 3 of a series that explores the ECT – Evangelicals and Catholics Together – and its basic tenets. Click here to read Part 1 on the “Origins of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Click here for Part 2 on “ECT and the Doctrine of Justification.”

In our last article we defined the biblical doctrine of justification by faith…

Moving Cause of Salvation – God’s compassion and love for lost sinners
Meritorious Cause of Salvation – Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross
Instrumental Cause of Salvation – faith alone in Christ alone
Formal Cause of Salvation – imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner and the imputation of the sinner’s guilt to Christ

As a result, God declares the person to be just or righteous solely for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and received by faith alone.

The doctrine of justification has long been a dividing point between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The participants in the dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals Together (ECT) recognized that agreement on this doctrine was vital:

…That statement, commonly referred to as ECT noted a growing “convergence and cooperation” between Evangelicals and Catholics in many public tasks, and affirmed agreement in basic articles of the Christian faith while also underscoring the continuing existence of important differences… At a meeting in the fall of 1996, it was determined that further progress depended upon firm agreement on the meaning of salvation, and especially the doctrine of justification (italics ours). [1]

The second document produced by ECT, entitled The Gift of Salvation, is an attempt to reach agreement on these differences. Dr. Timothy George, one of the Evangelical signers of the document, is enthusiastic about the results:

We rejoice that our Roman Catholic interlocutors have been able to agree with us that the doctrine of justification set forth in this document agrees with what the Reformers meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide). [2]

This paper will evaluate The Gift of Salvation by what we outlined as the doctrine of justification in the last article. We will do this by comparing the statements of the ECT document with the four causes of justification enumerated above. These causes, taken together, give us the Evangelical doctrine of justification by faith. It is impossible to subtract or modify any one cause without the entire doctrine being changed.

Let us first note the moving cause of justification. Gratefully, we can find nothing with which to disagree in this section of the statement. The document speaks of the purpose of man’s creation to enjoy fellowship with God. But sin has changed this and a strong case is made for the inability of man to rectify the situation. Note the following words:

As members of the fallen human race, we come into the world estranged from God and in a state of rebellion. This original sin is compounded by our personal acts of sinfulness. The catastrophic consequences of sin are such that we are powerless to restore the ruptured bonds of union with God. Only in the light of what God has done to restore our fellowship with him do we see the full enormity of our loss…”God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” [3]

The statement is equally clear that the meritorious cause of justification is the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross for sinners. Note again the following words:

Always it is clear that the work of redemption has been accomplished by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. (Galatians 3:13) [4]

It is in the following words of The Gift of Salvation that we see a shift from the teaching regarding the nature of justification. One of the charges brought against the Church of Rome is that she has confused the doctrine of justification with the doctrine of sanctification. Some of the benefits of salvation listed in the document including restoration, adoption, and heirs of the Kingdom apply to the doctrine of sanctification more than they do to the doctrine of justification.

There is also little that can be disagreed with regarding the fact that the instrumental cause of justification is by faith. After quoting Ephesians 2:8 the document reads:

By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving work for us in Christ. By our response of faith to Christ, we enter into the blessings promised by the Gospel. Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide). (Italics ours) [5]

The words in italics above make a stupendous claim. Taking them at face value, they declare that agreement on the doctrine of justification has been reached between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals and both parties declare their assent to justification by faith alone. What had separated Catholics and Evangelicals for nearly five hundred years has now been reconciled if the above statement is true.

However, lest we become too sanguine regarding this agreement, the actual state of affairs presents a more sobering view. Professor George sounds a cautionary note:

This, we believe, is a major step forward, but it still does not resolve all the differences between our two traditions on this crucial matter. [6]

What are some of the differences that need to be resolved? After giving salutary warnings against distortion of the doctrine that could lead to antinomianism and easy believism, Dr. George addressed concerns that Evangelicals have regarding teachings of the Roman Catholic Church relative to the doctrine of justification:

For the Reformers, justification was the criterion by which they evaluated the piety and teaching of the medieval church. This led them to call into question purgatory, relics, indulgences, the excesses of Marian devotion, and the invocation of the saints – issues that still divide Catholics and evangelicals today. These and many other matters that are not even broached in this document, such as the role of the papacy and Scripture and tradition, are “necessarily interrelated” with what we have affirmed here together. [7]

If what has been set forth in the document The Gift of Salvation agrees with what the Reformers meant by justification by faith alone, why are there so many issues remaining to be resolved?

The answer to this question lies with the differences regarding what we have termed the formal cause of justification (what actually justifies the sinner). The formal cause of justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner. God declares the sinner to be righteous because the righteousness of Christ has been imputed, or put, to his account. Luther called this imputed righteousness of Christ an alien righteousness because its origin was from outside of the individual. The individual contributed nothing to this justifying righteousness; it was Christ’s righteousness alone. The instrumental means of receiving Christ’s righteousness was by faith. It was an adequate means because faith looked to Christ alone. This brought together two Reformation statements: Christ alone (solus Christus) and faith alone (sola fide).

The failure of The Gift of Salvation is that it does not address directly the issue of imputation of Christ’s righteousness. It is possible to believe in the moving cause of justification (the love of God for lost sinners), the meritorious cause of justification (the work of Christ on the cross) and the instrumental cause of justification (faith) and still come short of what the Scriptures teach concerning the nature of justification. It is critical to state accurately the basis of the sinner’s acceptance before God. Is it the sinner’s own righteousness, the imputed righteousness of Christ, or a combination of the two?

The ECT document excludes the person’s own righteousness as the basis of the sinner’s acceptance before God. This is the clear teaching of Scripture. See Ephesians 2:8-9. Such teaching was also condemned at the Synod of Orange in AD 529.

However, there is a subtle nuance connected with this topic. Because of the Roman Catholic Church’s view of the sacraments, it teaches that the sacrament of baptism infuses the righteousness of Christ into the person. As the person co-operates with this infused righteousness it increases until the point in time when the person becomes righteous and is accepted by God. This is the reason for the charge that the Roman Catholic Church combines the doctrines of justification and sanctification.

It is over the question as to whether the righteousness of Christ in justification is imputed or infused that the differences emerge. Evangelicals do not deny that there is an infused righteousness in sanctification. However, the question under discussion refers to justification, a person’s legal standing, and not sanctification, a person’s moral condition. The Gift of Salvation does not make a clear distinction between an imputed and infused righteousness. As a result, the door is left open to the individual’s own righteousness contributing to his justification. This is a denial of the Scripture’s teaching that it was Christ’s righteousness alone that formed the basis of the person’s justification.

Professor George gives us insight into the reason for the vagueness of the statement. He mentions various issues that remain matters of debate between Catholics and Evangelicals. They include indulgences, relics, purgatory, etc. It is our reasoned opinion that if the parties had been speaking of an imputed righteousness for justification, there would have been no reason for these things to remain as matters of debate. The reason for this is simple. If the righteousness of Christ had been imputed to us, there would be no need of any additional assistance from indulgences, relics, or cleansing in Purgatory because of the sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness.

The tragedy of the document, The Gift of Salvation, is that it is ambiguous where it needs to be explicit: whether the righteousness of Christ for justification is imputed or infused. Because this vital distinction regarding the formal cause of justification is not stated clearly, we must disagree with the claim that the statement agrees with what the Reformers meant by faith alone (sola fide). If the parties wish to make good on their claim that the document agrees with the teaching of the Reformers, let them state unequivocally that the formal cause of a sinner’s justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (solus Christus) and the instrumental cause is faith alone (sola fide).


[1] Editors’ Introduction, “The Gift of Salvation,” First Things, January 1998, n.p.

[2] Timothy George, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A New Initiative,” Christianity Today, December,1997, p. 35.

[3] “The Gift of Salvation,” op. cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Timothy George, op. cit.

[7] Ibid.titled The Gift of Salvation.