The Roman Catholic church teaches that an individual is justified at baptism:
“The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1987
“Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1992
Furthermore, Rome teaches that individuals are not justified by faith alone:
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.” – Council of Trent, 6th Session, Canon IX
But before we begin, what is the definition of justification? According to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, justification is the “remission of sin and absolution from guilt and punishment; or an act of free grace by which God pardons the sinner and accepts him as righteous, on account of the atonement of Christ.”
So according to the Scripture, when is a person justified? Is it after being baptized in water? Consider the following:
“Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” – Romans 3:22-25 KJV
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” – Romans 3:28 KJV
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” – Romans 4:2-5 KJV
“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” – Romans 5:1-2 KJV
“Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” – Romans 5:9 KJV
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” – Galatians 2:16 KJV
“But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.” – Galatians 3:11 KJV
Does the Scripture teach that justification comes in water baptism? Clearly the answer is no. How are we justified? Through faith in the blood atonement of Jesus Christ.
Rome is quick to point out James 2:24:
“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” – James 2:24 KJV
This is used to substantiate the claim that believers are not justified by faith alone. At the first glance of James 2:24, it seems that this piece of Scripture flies in the face of all of Paul’s writings that teach justification by faith alone. As with any biblical text, responsible biblical exegesis requires that we look at the context:
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” – James 2:14-24 KJV
When looking at the context, what is James saying? Notice how he begins with “though a man say he hath faith.” Sure a man can say he has faith, but if nothing changes in his life is his faith alive? It is true that faith without works is dead. Why? True, saving faith results in regeneration, being “born again” (John 3:7). We are made a new creature in Christ (Galatians 6:15). However it is important to understand that works are the result of salvation, not the cause. So James’ statement that a man is justified by works, and not by faith, is true. It is true in the sense that works are a necessary fruit of regeneration/salvation.
I’d like to add that James makes another great point. He says, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” His point is that a superficial knowledge or acknowledgement of Christ will not save a person, as the devil himself acknowledges Christ. But true, saving faith is more than a mere acknowledgement or knowledge of Christ. It is the placing of complete trust in Christ’s finished work on the cross.