Almost every Catholic can you tell you stories about Protestants who tell them they’re damned for believing in works-righteousness, and then tell them they’re bad Catholics when they explain that they don’t believe in works-righteousness. If you’ve been reading the comments on the post from a few days ago, you’ll see that my turn has come up again (although it’s from a non-denominational Christian who doesn’t consider himself Protestant).
There are a few problems here. One, which I’ll hopefully get to tomorrow, is the tendency to conflate Catholics with Pharisees (who believed in salvation by being Jewish, through the working of the Mosaic Law), and both with Pelagians (who believed in salvation by good works, which aren’t the same as “works of the law”). The second is that while Protestants have often heard a whole lot about what Catholics believe on justification, it’s rarely from Catholic sources, and much of it is absolutely false. This isn’t a problem just with justification (yesterday, Mark Shea highlighted to a Protestant website with a letter allegedly from Jerome in 492… even though Jerome had been dead 72 years at this point), but it’s particularly a problem with justification, since most Protestants are aware that’s the thing that originally separated them from Catholicism.
My goal in today’s post is just to provide two actual Catholic documents dealing with justification, so that both sides can be better informed:
The Catechism has a great section on justification. CCC 1991 says that:
Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness (or “justice”) here means the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us.
And CCC 1992 explains:
Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. 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 (Cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1529):
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26).
The section even quotes St. Augustine for the proposition that “the justification of the wicked is a greater work than the creation of heaven and earth,” because “heaven and earth will pass away but the salvation and justification of the elect . . . will not pass away” (see CCC 1994). So by faith – even by faith alone – are we brought into right relationship with God.
But didn’t the Council of Trent declare that view anathema? That, at least, is what I’ve heard from about every Protestant who’s heard this. T27C declares me a heretical Catholic for believing it. Of course, the people who tell me what Trent said… never read Trent. Ahem:
And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.
That’s chapter eight of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. The Coucnil follows the custom of St. Thomas Aquinas, who, out of respect for Paul, refers to him simply as “the Apostle,” and it makes the exact argument Protestants are making: if we can somehow “earn” our justification, it’s not a grace.
When I say the Catholic view is misrepresented and misunderstood, this is what I mean. We’re told Trent derides as heresy a view which it declares as dogma. The chapter before it is much more technical, and involves a ridiculously long run-on sentence, which I’ve broken it up into bullet points. But if you’re interested in the precise mechanics of justification, here’s chapter seven (if you’re not, skip the block quote):
Of this Justification the causes are these:
- the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting;
- while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance;
- but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father;
- the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified;
- lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just, that, to wit, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to every one as He wills, and according to each one’s proper disposition and co-operation.
For, although no one can be just, but he to whom the merits of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet is this done in the said justification of the impious, when by the merit of that same most holy Passion, the charity of God is poured forth, by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those that are justified, and is inherent therein: whence, man, through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives, in the said justification, together with the remission of sins, all these (gifts) infused at once, faith, hope, and charity. For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said, that Faith without works is dead and profitless; and, In Christ Jesus neither circumcision, availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by charity. This faith, Catechumen’s beg of the Church-agreeably to a tradition of the apostles-previously to the sacrament of Baptism; when they beg for the faith which bestows life everlasting, which, without hope and charity, faith cannot bestow: whence also do they immediately hear that word of Christ; If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. Wherefore, when receiving true and Christian justice, they are bidden, immediately on being born again, to preserve it pure and spotless, as the first robe given them through Jesus Christ in lieu of that which Adam, by his disobedience, lost for himself and for us, that so they may bear it before the judgment-seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, and may have life everlasting.
That’s admittedly very technical, but the gist is this: we are justified by faith, through the gratuitous mercy of God, due to the merits of Jesus Christ dying for us on the Cross. We receive this justification through Baptism, the sacrament of faith. And through justification, the Holy Spirit bestows upon us faith, hope, and love, the three things which unite us perfectly to Christ. It’s these two things (hope and charity) which Trent cautions us not to separate faith from. And it’s through this that we’re able to do works which are pleasing to God: not because they’re good works, but because they’re our faith working through charity. It’s us living in the Holy Spirit.
To Protestants who aren’t used to the Catholic view of justification and sanctification, this picture can seem confusing and even contradictory. In hopes of making it clearer, let me use an analogy: God breathed life into Adam when he was just dust. After having life breathed into him, Adam had to cooperate in maintaining that life by eating. Adam’s not alive because he ate: he’s alive because God breathed life into him. You didn’t somehow merit being alive by eating breakfast. But if Adam stops eating, even when he feels the internal call to, he’ll eventually die. So the breath of God is roughly the role that Grace and faith play here, while eating is roughly the role that the expression of faith through love (“good works”) takes. Breath precedes eating, and is necessary for it to be of any worth. But once we’ve come from dust to life in Christ (once He’s breathed His life into us, so to speak), we’re not to reject that internal call to charity, and if we do, it’s damnable: our faith dies, and we die with it. That’s how we can simultaneously affirm that Adam’s life came from the breath of God, and not anything he did, whether eating, or any other thing (cf. Romans 3:28); and at the same time affirm that if Adam doesn’t eat, he’ll be dead (cf. James 2:26).
Protestants are of the view that “if you’re truly alive, you’ll eat,” while Catholics are of the view that “if you don’t eat, you’l die.” The Bible sides with the Catholic view: that there are folks who have faith, but then refuse to act on that faith, killing it. But quite frankly, these two views aren’t very far apart. I’m strongly of the opinion that the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism on justification is one of inches, not miles, when we get past the buzz and actually hear what the other side actually proclaims. But to get to those views, we have to be patient, and seek to understand what the other Christian actually believes.