Swimming the Tiber 8: Justification by Faith

Ah, yes, the war of faith and works! That great debate between St. Paul and St. James! Where even the apostles disagree, surely we will find no common ground!

I hope this is not the case. It may be said that more ink has been spilled on this topic than almost any other since All Hallows’ Eve in the year of our Lord 1517. As you well know from this very series, we have now recently had the 499th anniversary of that day, and from the time of Luther up to now, in nearly half a millennium, Protestants have declared again and again the fallen nature of the Catholic Church on this doctrine: that Catholics believe they are saved by works, a sure-fire recipe for damnation.

A lot of Scripture deals with this question directly, and there is always a danger in this discussion that it will devolve into fruitless proof-texting back and forth until we run out of Bible pages and have come no closer to an understanding of each other. But my view of this false dichotomy came much earlier than my conversion to Catholicism: when I really began to study the Scriptures, the truth of the matter became clear to me.

My goal, then, is to communicate what I believe: that St. Paul and St. James do not disagree and, in fact, share in a common understanding that permeates the Scriptures. Let me first put forward this notion logically, and then I will point out how Scripture supports (and does not oppose) it.

We know (and do not doubt) that our salvation is by God’s grace above all else. The main point of contention between Catholics and Protestants is how that salvation enters our lives. Soteriology (the study of salvation) is often broken into subgroups, especially justification and sanctification. Justification is the legal declaration by God that we are freed from sin and preserved for righteousness. Sanctification is the actual process of making us holy (“sanctification” is from Latin sanctus, meaning “holy”), that is, righteous (so that we are not only freed from sin, but free of sin, meaning we are not only absolved of wrongdoing, but also never do it again).

Sanctification is a discussion for another time. The crucial matter in the question of faith vs. works is justification.

Now, we all know that justification is by God’s grace. Without His grace (that is, without the atonement accomplished through Christ on the cross), justification is impossible, regardless of what else is true about ourselves or our circumstances. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1987-2005, and pretty much any Protestant declaration of faith.) But how do we cooperate with that justification? Why isn’t it just freely given to everyone?

Well, if you’re Calvinist, it’s because some people are elect and some people aren’t; just get used to it. For the rest of us, though, the question usually comes down to faith. (Faith is, of course, a gift of God from His grace, so it’s not quite that easy to untangle, but let’s try to stay focused on the issue at hand.) It is our faith which differentiates us as recipients of God’s grace; through faith, we accept the gift and we are justified. Simple as that. Right?

But what does it mean to accept the gift? What does it mean to have faith? Is it merely an intellectual assent? How can any reasonable Christian assert that Christ is Lord and then indulge in everything Christ has commanded us not to do? Is he really our Lord if we do not obey him? Have we really accepted his gift if we do not follow his commands? Can a person offer intellectual assent at the existence and authority of a commanding officer, but refuse to obey the orders given by that officer? Perhaps, you say, if the officer is corrupt or has given bad orders, but do we say this of Christ’s commands? That they are bad orders from a corrupt official, to be disobeyed? Of course not.

This is where Protestants and Catholics fail to communicate. Because most Protestants that I know say that when justification occurs, our hearts are changed, and we are made new–but as long as we are in this world, we struggle against it. So we sin and fall short while we wait to be sanctified, but we have to keep getting back up, striving to become what God wants us to be.

And the Catholic Church says that when justification occurs, when we accept that grace, our hearts are changed (we are “converted,” literally turned together toward the doctrines of Christ), and we are set on a new path–but as long as we are in this world, we struggle against it. So we sin and we fall short, but we keep getting back up, being converted anew to God’s way, striving to become what God wants us to be.

So… why do we disagree about this, again?

(Before I continue, you may want to review the Scripture supporting this position. See the footnotes about that.)

Let’s face it: the number of Protestants who actually advocate “sinning boldly” is all but negligible. Even Luther, from whom we get that phrase, sincerely believed that genuine faith produced good works; the phrase “sin boldly,” or “let your sins be strong,” actually meant that I should not pretend that I am not a sinner, but freely admit it, and let God’s grace save me from that sin (by producing in me faith, which produces good works).

So when people object to Catholicism’s “salvation by works,” to what are they actually objecting? I think that most people who complain about this have long since twisted the truth (or had it twisted for them), and they don’t know what they’re talking about–but I’m a firm believer that most misunderstandings started with an incomplete understanding somewhere along the line. In this case, I think the Protestant objection to Catholic “works” comes down to two things:

  1. The Catholic Church “forces” its members to do certain things, and that’s Bad. Whereas for Protestants, being good and going to church are important and advocated, for Catholics, missing Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (!!) are sins. And you know what? I work hard, I try, and sometimes, I just can’t get to church–what’s the big deal?

    Well, think about it like this. If God is our Father and Christ is the King and the Church is his Bride, that makes the Church, mystically, our mother. And it is a mother’s duty to raise her children in the faith, in order to save their souls. So when the Church tells us to stop sinning and go to Mass, is it really any different from when I tell my son to stop hitting his brother and share the toys? It’s about moral development in an immoral world. It’s about raising Christian people, whether they’re 5 or 65. All Christians call bad behavior “sin.” Why should the Church, which has the God-given authority to bind and loose sins (see Matthew 16:19; 18:18), not do the same?

    So when we don’t do as the Church tells us we should, we have committed a sin. And that means we have to repair the relationship between us and the Church and God. Which brings us to point number 2.

  2. Catholics don’t believe in the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints.” The phrase you have probably heard more often is “once saved, always saved.” This is a very common Protestant doctrine, and the theological term for it is the perseverance of the saints, though that term is most often associated with Calvinism.

    Perseverance of the saints is intrinsically linked to two other doctrines, and usually, if you hold one of these, you hold perseverance of the saints (even if you don’t hold both).

    One is the idea of irresistible grace. “Irresistible grace” is the notion that God chooses the elect (cf. Matthew 24; Mark 13; Romans 11:7-8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 2 Peter 1:10) and we have no say in the matter. Who could resist the grace of the Almighty God, anyway? And if grace is irresistible, then there is no way to escape it, no matter our sins.

    The second is the idea of total depravity. “Total depravity” is the notion that we are completely incapable of genuine righteousness without God’s grace. It frequently (though not necessarily always) maintains that, even after receiving God’s grace, we necessarily cannot stop sinning until after this life has passed (that is, complete and thorough sanctification is impossible on earth). If we cannot be wholly purified from sin–that is, if we are incapable of becoming sinless regardless of God’s grace–then any denial of salvation because of sin refutes the idea of salvation altogether. Since God says that He has, does, and will save us, we must not be able to “lose” our salvation.

    The Catholic Church doesn’t teach either of these doctrines. First, Catholicism is a champion of free will. See Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1730-1748; consider especially Sirach 15:14 (recall that the Book of Sirach is canonical); John 8:31-38; Romans 8:21; 2 Corinthians 3:17; and Galatians 5. (This is not, I will admit, a thorough refutation of the doctrines of predestination, but let it serve as a primer; I may return to it sometime later.)

    In the second place, the Catholic Church teaches that God’s omnipotence exceeds our fallenness. To be sanctified in this life is beyond difficult, but nothing is impossible with God (cf. Luke 1:37). We are, in fact, called to sanctification by Christ and the Church: cf. Matthew 5:48; Romans 6:15-23; 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 13:5-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17; Hebrews 6:1-2; 7:11-28; 10:1-14; 11:39-40; James 1:22-27.

    Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.

    Lumen Gentium (The Light of Nations), paragraph 11.

    And how do we achieve this sanctification? Several of these verses indicate it, and the Catholic Church affirms it: Virtue is like a habit, or a muscle. Only by repetitive use does it improve. In common parlance, we call this repetition “work,” and whether our work is material or spiritual, it contributes to our holiness, provided we do all work in right communion with Christ (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2427).

    But of course, we admit that complete sanctification is, at best, very unlikely. Are the rest of us damned? Of course not. The Catholic Church teaches that, after death, we are purified by God’s grace and sanctified unto holiness, that we may enter into his Presence. (I can limit myself to just a few tangents each post, don’t worry; there’s a whole post dedicated to Purgatory coming up later.) Nevertheless, we know that some can lose their place by God’s side, though the Church has never insisted on the damnation of any particular soul (unlike her assertions of the salvation of particular individuals, whom we call the saints).

    How do we know that some can know Christ, have faith in Christ, and still fall away? Scripture is pretty adamant about it.

    Listen! Behold, the [one] sowing came out [in order] to sow. And it happened in the sowing [that], [the seed] which fell upon the road, also the winged [things] came and wolfed it down.1 And another fell upon the rocky [places] where [it] did not have much earth, and [it] sprang up [and] out straightaway on account of not having a depth of earth; and when the sun sprang up, [the seed] was scorched, and on account of not having a root, [it] dried up. And another fell into the thorns, and the thorns mounted up and pressed it closely, and [it] did not give fruit. And another fell into the earth, the beautiful [earth], and [it] was giving fruit, mounting up and increasing, and [it] was bearing [fruit] in thirty and in sixty and in a hundred. … And these are the [ones] sowed upon the rocky [places], who, whenever [they] hear the word, [they] seize it straightaway with joy, and [they] do not have a root in themselves, but [they] are temporary; then, with pressure or persecution having come about [on a particular occasion], [they] stumble on account of the word.

    – Mark 4:3-8, 16-17, my translation; cf. Matthew 13:3-8, 20-21; Luke 8:5-8, 13

    Not every [one] saying to me, “Lord, lord,” will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the [one] doing the will of my father, [who is] the [one] in the heavens. Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, lord, were [we] not prophets in your name, and did [we] not throw out demons in your name, and did [we] not do many powers in your name?” And then [I] will say the same [thing] to [each of] them, that, “And [I] never knew you; go away from me, [you ones] working at lawlessness.”

    – Matthew 7:21-23, my translation

    Wherefore, having sent forth the word of the beginning of Christ, let us bear [down] upon the perfection, not again throwing down a foundation of a repentance from dead works, and of faith upon God, of a teaching of baptisms, and of an application of hands, and of a resurrection of [the] dead, and of an eternal judgment. And [we] will do this [thing] especially if God yields [it to us]. For [it is] an impossible [thing] [to renew] the [ones] once having been illuminated, and having tasted of the gift, the heavenly [gift], and having become partakers of a holy spirit, having tasted both a beautiful saying of God and powers of a destined age, and having fallen aside, to renew [them] unto repentance, [with them] crucifying for themselves the son of God and making a spectacle [of him]. For earth, the [earth] having drunk the rain coming many times upon it, and having begotten a well-arranged plant for those on account of whom [it] is also cultivated, [the earth] partakes of a blessing from God; but the [earth] carrying out thorns and thistles [is] counterfeit and near [to] curses, of which the end is burning.

    – Hebrews 6:1-8, my translation

    Translation Footnotes:
    1 Idiomatic reflection of the actual verb. Whereas we say “eat up,” the Greeks said “eat down.” “Devoured it” is an acceptable translation also.

    Though these passages, too, can be debated endlessly, I think they are clear: seek perfection, as your heavenly Father is perfect, and do not hold back, but run the race as if to win (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Hebrews 12:1-2). Do this out of love for God, but at the very least, do it out of fear of hell, where the wicked and the lawless are burned, no matter how many times they may say, “Lord, lord.”

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