Just for Catholics


Faith and Works in Justification

John Martignoni v Joe Mizzi


Bio of John Martignoni

Born Catholic. Saved by Baptism (1 Ptr 3:20-21) as an infant. Teaches Catholic and non-Catholic alike, using the Bible, that the Catholic Faith is the faith of the Bible; the faith of the Apostles; the faith of the early Christians. Prays that we all may be one (John 17:20-21).

Website: Bible Christian Society

Bio of Joe Mizzi

A former Roman Catholic; lives in Malta of Acts 28:1; a paediatrician. Converted to Christ when he was convinced that salvation is by grace through faith, not of works. Desires to share the gospel of grace with all people, especially with Catholics whom he knows and loves dearly.

Website: Just for Catholics


The debate begins with John giving evidence that Joe misrepresents the Catholic teaching on justification and works; whereas Joe starts by answering John's question on salvation. This is followed by rebuttals and final conclusions. A maximum of 600 words are allowed for each person per round. The debate is published on both John’s and Joe’s websites.

The Debate

Round One John substantiates allegation Joe answers question on salvation
Round Two John's rebuttal Joe's rebuttal
Round Three John's conclusion Joe's conclusion



Round 1 Martignoni - John substantiates his allegation that Joe misrepresents Catholic teaching. "From your [Joe's] website: ‘So then, what is required for a person to be justified at the end, that is, to be accounted to have fully satisfied divine law, and therefore to merit eternal life? Trent answers: THEIR GOOD WORKS! Their good works fully satisfy the divine law. Their works merit eternal life.’ Again, you mis-characterize Catholic teaching. Our good works, in and of themselves, do not ‘fully satisfy the divine law.’ Our works, in and of themselves, do not ‘merit eternal life.’ Both characterizations of Catholic teaching are false."

To show that Dr. Mizzi has misrepresented Catholic teaching on salvation, I wish to start by quoting his website:

“So then, what is required for a person to be justified at the end [according to Catholic teaching], that is, to be accounted to have fully satisfied divine law, and therefore to merit eternal life? Trent answers: THEIR GOOD WORKS!”

I have read through the Council of Trent’s “Decree on Justification,” and nowhere do I find it saying what Dr. Mizzi claims it says. So, first I would ask him to give me the exact quotes that he uses to come to the conclusion he has stated on his website. Where does the Council of Trent say that men are accounted as having fully satisfied divine law by “THEIR GOOD WORKS!”?

Next, I will give the actual words of the Council of Trent regarding justification (as found in: “The Sources of Catholic Dogma,” by Denzinger):

“...so unless [men] were born again in Christ, they never would be justified, since in that new birth through the merit of His passion, the grace whereby they are made just, is bestowed upon them.” (Denzinger, p. 249)

“...man himself receiving that inspiration [of the Holy Spirit] does nothing at all inasmuch as he can indeed reject it, nor on the other hand can he, of his own free will, without the grace of God, move himself to justice before Him.” (Denzinger, p. 250)

“...the meritorious cause [of man’s justification] is His most beloved only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who...merited justification for us by His most holy passion on the wood of the Cross, and made satisfaction for us to God the Father...” (Denzinger, p. 251)

“...no one can be just but he to whom the merits of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated...” (Denzinger, p. 251)

“...we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because ‘faith is the beginning of human salvation,’ the foundation and root of all justification, ‘without which it is impossible to please God’ [Heb 11:6] and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and are, therefore, said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace itself of justification; for, ‘if it is a grace, it is not now by reason of works...’” (Denzinger, p. 252)

“Canon 1: If anyone shall say that man can be justified before God by his own works which are done either by his own natural powers, or through the teaching of the Law, and without divine grace through Christ Jesus: let him be anathema.” (Denzinger, p.258)

Again, Dr. Mizzi has misrepresented the Catholic Faith by giving visitors to his website the impression that the Church teaches that our works, in and of themselves, “merit eternal life.” That our works, in and of themselves, “fully satisfy divine law.” Yet, I have shown that the Council of Trent, which he claimed as the source for his misrepresentations, clearly teaches that we can do nothing pleasing to God in and of ourselves. That without the merits of Jesus’ death on the cross, we are lost.

Dr. Mizzi’s position on justification is actually very close to the Catholic position on justification. The difference is that he believes we cannot “merit” anything. But, instead of focusing on that aspect of our differences on his website, he has instead distorted the whole of Catholic teaching in this area by claiming Trent teaches we are saved by our good works...period! The quotes above show that he is indeed distorting Catholic teaching.

Round 1 Mizzi - Joe answers question on salvation: "Is whether or not we have faith, God's sole criteria for judging us worthy of salvation?"

John, your question is designed to re-word my belief in ‘salvation by faith alone’, and you expect me to answer ‘yes’. I cannot! Your question reflects a serious misunderstanding of the Protestant doctrine of ‘faith alone’. You confuse the biblical doctrine of justification by faith with the eternal foe of the gospel – antinomianism. There are heretics (not least in evangelical circles) who say: ‘I believe in Jesus for salvation; I will go to heaven whether or not I do good works.’ Sadly they are deceived with a false gospel. It does not take some gross sin to keep someone out of heaven -- it is enough to do nothing. Christ calls such a person ‘wicked and lazy’. The last words he will ever hear from the mouth of Christ are horrible: ‘Cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew 25:14-30).

What then do we mean by ‘faith alone’? Simply this: ‘to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness’ (Romans 4:5). God justifies him who ‘believes’ and ‘does not work’! That is what ‘alone’ implies. The sinner relies by faith in Christ for justification and not on account of his works. I turn to God and say, ‘Lord God, I am not worthy of salvation. I am a guilty; I deserve wrath and hell. Please do not judge me according to my sins. Have mercy on me. I have no confidence in myself; I do not present my merits. By faith I rely on Jesus Christ your Son. Cover me with his righteousness, cleanse me with his blood.’ ‘Faith alone’ is a complete and exclusive dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ for justification.

What is the place for good works in the Christian experience? Christians are eager to do good works because God has already declared us just. He freed us from sin; we now have the liberty to live for God who loved us so much!

In Ephesians 2:8-10, the Bible teaches that we are not saved because of our good deeds (‘not of works, lest anyone should boast’). But that is only half the story. The same passage also teaches that we are saved for a very specific purpose, namely, to do good works (‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works’). Works are not the cause, but rather the result (the purpose, the fruit) of salvation. Thus good works must always accompany true faith; if they are absent there is neither living faith nor salvation.

Believers will not stand before God to be decided whether he will be ‘justified’ (declared just) or ‘condemned’ (declared guilty). ‘Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1). ‘Having been justified’ - God has already declared every believer ‘justified’. We ‘shall not come into judgment’ (John 5:24).

So why should we stand before the judgment seat of Christ at all? Principally to be rewarded for our deeds. On that Day we will not be charged before a criminal court; rather it is our graduation day! ‘Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work’ (Revelation 22:12).

I am motivated by God’s love to do the works that please him that I may become more and more like his Son. I do not perform works to merit justification – for justification is God’s gratuitous gift, purchased for us with the infinite price of the blood of Jesus, and received by faith alone.


Round 2 Martignoni - Rebuttal

Well, I would never want to be so impertinent as to tell a man he doesn't believe what he says he believes. So, if my question to Dr. Mizzi about the criteria for salvation is based on a misunderstanding of what Dr. Mizzi believes in regards to the doctrine of Sola Fide...salvation by faith alone...then I apologize. I give him his belief as he defines it. I challenge him to do the same towards Catholics.

The problem is, though, that while Dr. Mizzi claims his interpretation of "salvation by faith alone" is THE accurate understanding of the doctrine, I deal with many Protestants who would disagree 100% with his assertion regarding the definition of "salvation by faith alone." These people say that works have no role in salvation whatsoever. And, all of these folks point to the Bible as the sole source of their beliefs and claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

So, I hope Dr. Mizzi will understand the nature of my confusion regarding his belief on the doctrine of Sola Fide. Now, he will undoubtedly claim that all Protestants (or anyone else for that matter) who disagree with him are, of course, wrong. Just as these other Protestants would tell me he is wrong. So, my question is, who do I, as a Catholic, turn to for a definitive ruling on the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide, when different Protestants tell me different things, and they all point to the Bible as the source for their beliefs?

Dr. Mizzi will not only use the Bible, though, he will also use history - which is a legitimate and logical thing to do. I believe Dr. Mizzi will claim that his understanding of this doctrine of Sola Fide represents the "historical Protestant doctrine on Justification." But, exactly where does one go to find out the "historical Protestant doctrine on Justification?" And, who exactly is it that decided the "historical Protestant doctrine on Justification?" There aren't any Protestant church councils one can point to for authentic Protestant teaching. There isn't a Protestant catechism.

Could we say that the beliefs of Martin Luther and John Calvin represent the "historical Protestant doctrine on Justification?" That would make sense, wouldn't it? The beliefs on Justification of the two main founders of Protestantism would indeed represent the "historical Protestant doctrine on Justification," right?

But, that would present a problem to Dr. Mizzi. If the beliefs of Martin Luther and John Calvin can be said to represent the "historical Protestant doctrine on Justification," then why does he believe in some historical Protestant doctrines, but not others? For example, both Martin Luther and John Calvin believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, yet Dr. Mizzi does not.

So, if the beliefs of Martin Luther and John Calvin can be said to represent historical Protestant doctrine, then Dr. Mizzi is, in a sense, talking out of both sides of his mouth. He believes historical Protestant doctrine in one area (because it fits with his beliefs), but he doesn't believe historical Protestant doctrine in another area (because it doesn't fit with his beliefs).

So, Dr. Mizzi, please tell us how you know what historical Protestant doctrine is? Is it the teaching of Luther and Calvin? If it is, then why don't you believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, like they did? If it's not, then what is it?

Round 2 Mizzi - Rebuttal

John you have demonstrated that the Council of Trent 'clearly teaches that we can do nothing pleasing to God in and of ourselves.' I fully agree. Catholicism opposes the Pelagian heresy that we can merit eternal life by our natural ability.

Now if I wrote that the Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by our works 'in and of themselves', or if I taught that 'Trent teaches we are saved by our good works... period!', then I would have indeed misrepresented the Catholic position. But I wrote nothing of the sort! Not even did I give the impression that Catholicism teaches salvation by works 'in and of themselves', as I will presently show by asking you to read my words in context.

I quote at length from my article to which you referred (emphasis added). Trent's decree on Justification can be read online (different translation).

In other words, Rome teaches that God helps man to do good works and hence to fully satisfy the Law. Only then is a person qualified to enter heaven. The Council of Trent elaborates this idea in chapter 16:

"For, whereas Jesus Christ Himself continually infuses his virtue into the said justified, - as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches, - and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works, which without it could not in any wise be pleasing and meritorious before God, - we must believe that nothing further is wanting to the justified, to prevent their being accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained also in its (due) time, if so be, however, that they depart in grace..."

To be fair, we should acknowledge that a great emphasis is placed on Jesus Christ and the grace of God. Good works do not originate in man's natural ability but can only be performed through Jesus Christ. Yet, it is also true that these works do not cease to be the good works of the Christian; personal works give him the right to heaven.

So then, what is required for a person to be justified at the end, that is, to be accounted to have fully satisfied divine law, and therefore to merit eternal life? Trent answers: THEIR GOOD WORKS! Their good works fully satisfy the divine law. Their works merit eternal life.

John, did I really state or imply that Catholicism teaches salvation by works 'in and of themselves'? Did I not clarify that good works are done by God's help; that Catholicism emphasizes God's grace; that the works are performed through Jesus Christ? Did I not specifically refuse the false idea that Catholicism teaches that our works originate in our natural ability?

John, your allegation is false. You have falsely accused me of the very thing that I took pains to refute!

Moreover my assertion on the Catholic teaching on justification (that personal good works satisfy divine law and merit eternal life) is correct; it is deduced from Trent chapter 16 quoted above. For notwithstanding the grace of God and the merits of Jesus Christ, ultimately, your personal works are in a very real sense your own. Canon 32 places a curse on your head if you deny that your good works are not your own good merits.

Lord willing, next week we'll compare the Catholic doctrine with the evangelical message of justification by faith apart from our merits.


Round 3 Martignoni - Conclusion

I disagree strongly when Joe says that his website does not even give the “impression” that Catholicism teaches salvation by works “in and of themselves.” I got that impression, as have others.

One gets that impression because he states that we believe our “personal works” give us the “right” to Heaven. That is not even a wrong impression, that is a flat out MISREPRESENTATION. Where does the Council of Trent teach that? It doesn’t. So, Joe, please remove that FALSE STATEMENT from your site.

One also gets that impression when he states: “So then, what is required for a person to be justified at the end...Trent answers: THEIR GOOD WORKS.” Why don’t you instead say: “Trent answers: JESUS’ DEATH ON THE CROSS (Decree on Justification - chapter 7), FAITH (chapter 8), BEING BORN AGAIN (chapter 3), AND GOOD WORKS (chapter 10)?” Why do you just say “GOOD WORKS” ALONE and LEAVE OUT all the rest? You’re not trying to create an impression of Catholic teaching as a “works alone” salvation? Then include the full answer from Trent.

We believe almost the same thing about faith and works with the following exception: Catholics believe good works do indeed merit an INCREASE in justification, AFTER we are justified; whereas, you do not. Why not focus on that? Why state it the way you have if your intent is not to mislead?

We can merit an increase in justification, because after we are justified gratuitously by God, we are then members of the Body of Christ. Before justification, we cannot merit anything. But, after justification, we can merit an increase. Does Christ merit? Of course He does. If the Head merits, does not the body also merit? Of course it does. It would be foolish to say that the Head merits but the hand or the foot does not.

2 Cor 3:18, “And we all...are being changed from one degree of glory to another...” So, we can increase in justification...in glory. But, do we merit anything in this increase in glory?

Heb 13:16, “Do not neglect to do good...for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” How can our sacrifices be “pleasing to God,” if we don’t merit anything? Shouldn’t it say that Jesus’ sacrifice is the only sacrifice pleasing to God?

Heb 13:20-21, “Now may the God of peace...equip you with everything good that YOU may do His will, working in YOU that which is pleasing in His sight...” We can merit because it is Christ working through us. Christ is crowning His own merits manifested in us.

Heb 10:35, “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.”

Matt 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when men revile you...Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven.”

1 Cor 3:14, “If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.”

There are many other passages that speak of a reward for what we do. How can we receive a reward for our works, if our works do not merit anything? A reward is something given in return for something we do.

Matt 25:14-30...the two good servants increase what their Master has given them, and they merit a reward for it. The bad servant does not, and he is cast into the outer darkness.

As members of the Body of Christ, we can merit and do merit increases in grace, after our justification...just as the Church and the Bible teach. By producing good fruit (John 15:1-6) we, the branches, abide in Christ and merit, by Christ the vine working through us, increases in grace. Very biblical. Very Catholic.

Round 3 Mizzi - Conclusion

John I accept your apology. Your misunderstanding of sola fide gives me great hope. You are not opposing the biblical gospel but the antinomian pseudo-gospel. In this fight, I am on your side. Moreover, I am hopeful that one day you will understand and receive the evangelical message for your salvation.

Your rebuttal deviates from our subject, Justification, to the field of epistemology. Important as that is, we must keep to our topic. I will not attempt to give a full answer; suffice it to say that the historic Protestant doctrine is recorded in the historical confessions (Thirty-nine Articles; Belgic, Augsburg, 1689 Baptist, Westminster, etc). Protestants do not agree on everything (do you?), but it is gloriously true that God granted us perfect agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as the Protestant confessions testify.

Back to our subject. I must emphasize that sola fide is not:

Faith à Justification minus Works

That’s antinomianism, making works unnecessary or optional in the Christian experience. Heretical!

Sola fide includes works as a necessary aspect of God’s salvivic purpose. Sola fide is:

Faith à Justification plus Works

We believe that a person is justified by faith alone, apart from the merits of personal works, on account of the righteousness and blood of Jesus. We come to God empty-handed, without merits, and appeal for mercy and grace, asking God to give us what we do not deserve. By faith we rely on Jesus Christ alone for our justification, being convinced that his sacrifice on the cross is sufficient to cleanse us from all sin.

Now God’s purpose is not only our liberation from guilt and condemnation; he also determined that his people should be zealous for good works. The same faith that justifies, uniting us to Christ, also results in a godly and holy life. Good works follow justification – as one historic Protestant confession states: good works ‘do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.’

Yet we do not dream on relying on those works for our justification. For justification we believe in Christ – in Christ alone!

How does this compare with the Catholic doctrine? Catholicism also has works as a necessary factor in the formula, but there is a fundamental difference. Catholicism teaches:

Faith plus Works à Justification

Faith is important; Catholicism does not teach justification by works alone. Yet faith is insufficient to secure a right standing before God according to Catholic teaching. The merits of personal works performed throughout the Catholic’s life, must be added so that at the end he will be accounted to have fully satisfied the divine law and merited eternal life. I hope you can appreciate the difference between the Catholic and evangelical message.

Good works, like a kiss, could be the sign of opposite things. Good works are the Christian’s kiss of love and gratitude to the Saviour. But good works could also be a Judas kiss betraying the grace of Christ. For pretending to believe in Jesus, many religious people will not completely trust in him for justification, but work and toil to merit what God gives freely for Christ’s sake alone.

John I appeal to you, and to the readers of this debate, to examine your deepest motives. Do I trust completely in Jesus Christ alone for my justification? Is there concrete evidence in my life, good works, that my faith is real? And finally, am I doing works out of love for Christ, or for the purpose of meriting justification?

11 - 22 November 2006