Justification is one of the most important questions facing Catholics and Protestants alike. Today, I’ve invited a guest blogger, Matthew Rensch (a seminarian for the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont) to explore an aspect of justification that you might not have considered. I’ll let Rensch take it from here:
St. Paul reports that when he went to Corinth to preach the Gospel, he experienced fear and trembling in the face of such a great task, the task preaching the good news of justification. Nothing less than the fate of their souls hung in the balance. In much the same spirit of trembling I write to you today, hoping to propose anew the good news of justification. Specifically, I propose for your consideration that justification, rightly understood, resonates with the desire of the human heart to be truly good and approved as such.
Let me give an example of this desire: when I was in college, we students were solicitous to earn an employable GPA. Distinct from our practical motive, however, which looked to the objective letter grade and no further, was another criterion. This complementary criterion was based on the marked diversity between professors’ grading. Some professors were demanding; others were pushovers. This (hardly unique) situation gave rise to the curious result the same letter grade given by two different professors had very different import. In fact, the grade that I was most pleased to receive during my college days was not an A but rather an A minus. The professor who rewarded me with that grade was one of, if not the, most demanding grader at the school. As such, his A- represented a much higher degree of competency than many another’s A.
This experience of mine is one simple manifestation of the significant truth that human beings have a desire to be approved—but not with simply any approval. We are not satisfied merely with being called good. The A of a pushover professor does not content us. Passing a flimsy standard gives no reward; we desire to be truly good. We desire to measure up to a real, firm standard. When one receives that precious A- from the exacting professor, it rewards the student who knows that his work earned every point of the grade.
The desire for real approval extends not merely to our grades and our accomplishments but to our qualities and very person as well. Our most profound desire, and deepest fulfillment, occurs when one who knows us well approves us for who we are. In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Maudie Atkinson attempts to convince Atticus Finch’s children of Atticus’ worth by listing his ability in checkers and the Jew’s Harp. It does not do much good. Much later, she voices her definitive approval for Atticus. It is not in virtue of any of his talents, but for his character. She says to his children, “I simply want to tell you that there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them.” And shortly thereafter, “We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.” This is the type of approval for which our hearts pine: the approval that recognizes the strength and goodness of character.
Our longing for our very person to be approved is perhaps clearer when its lack is felt. The disappointment never fails to be acute and bitter whenever an approval fails to affirm who we are. An example of this is the disappointment that one feels when he thought a friendship was developing, only to realize that his supposed friend was interested more in a business partnership, or his expertise on some subject, or his other friends, his position, etc. The affirmation we receive from business partners or associates is well and good, but the core desire is for approval from our closest friends and family—because they know us best. Their approval of us is not as a clever businessman, or an intelligent student, but much closer to home—an approval of our strength of character, our uprightness, our person.
Now at this point some readers might suspect, not without legitimate cause, that this desire for real approval stems from nothing other than the capital sin—pride. Is it not clear, one might ask, that one looking for praise and approval is motivated by pride? He would not be alone in his concern. C. S. Lewis recounts that he too was skeptical when he first grappled with the idea of the desire for approval. He thought that evil might lurk in desire for “approval or (I might say) ‘appreciation’ by God” (Weight of Glory). But he began to reconsider the topic more carefully when he realized that Christian writers as varied as Milton, Johnson, and Aquinas all treat of this desire in positive terms. Finally, he adjusted his view when he saw that this idea comes from the very pages of the bible. For example, in one of the parables on stewardship, the faithful servants hear their God say to them, “Well done, my good and faithful servants” (Mt 25:23). And again a few verses later the sheep, separated from the goats, receive the accolade: “Come, O blessed of my Father” (Mt 25:34). The joy to be praised by God himself! Lewis concludes his reflection by ecstatically suggesting that we “shall actually survive that [final] examination, shall find approval, shall please God . . . [and] be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.”
In this roundabout way we have arrived at the theme of justification and how it ought to be understood. There are two understandings to be distinguished. The Catholic one emphasizes a real transformation of the saved person. A differing view offers an image of justification using descriptions such as simul iustus et peccator, snow covered dung-heap, forensic justification. Only the idea of justification which includes a real transformation of the sinner into a son of God provides an adequate foundation for the fulfillment of the human desire to be really good and to be approved of as such. If I’m right that this desire is fundamental to the human heart, then the second option of justification cannot but fail to satiate our hearts. It remains profoundly dissatisfying. For if, when God says, “well done, my good and faithful servant” he is looking not at me but at the Word that conceals my real self, or if God’s eyes at that moment do not gaze into mine with approval but rather turn away to approve something else, or if God’s words correspond not to a real worthiness in me but to something extrinsic, then my heart cannot but break for disappointment. And if this is the beginning of the existence that I will live for all eternity, then surely I have gained entrance into a meaningless heaven. For there He will never know the real me, and we will never gaze face to face with the joyous familiarity of lovers.