The "Evangelical" theory of Justification is typified by the slogan "Justification by Faith Alone". By this is meant that once a person "accepts Jesus as their Lord and Saviour" that (s)he is "put right with God". No subsequent actions of a moral or religious character can add to or modify this condition to the slightest degree. This hypothesis is largely based on the Apostle Paul's account of the story of Abram [Rom 4:1-5].
Luther taught that God declares the sinner to be righteous when he believes the Gospel. The sinner's guilt for past sins (including original sin) is remitted and he is clothed with Christ's righteousness. However, even in Heaven, the Christian is to remain essentially a sinner. His righteousness is no more than an imputation or extrinsic attribution of the righteousness of Jesus: a legal fiction. Intrinsically, and objectively, he is far from righteous.
I next give a number of reactions to the specimen protestant position I have just outlined.
One of the principal points of conflict at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century was the view of human nature held by either side of the discussion. The Reformed side tended to hold a view of human nature which claimed that after the fall, having been created good we became radically corrupted. We are saved by God imputing to us a counter-factual goodness which is not really ours at all, but which is made available for us to put on, by Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross.The protestant might reply: "God is not a liar. The utter depravity of human nature distorts our understanding of Justice. True justice is accessible only to God. Whatever God says is just, is just: just because God says it is just. Hence the imputation of Christ's Righteousness (as also the Substitutionary Atonement) is Truly Just, though it seems to human judgement to be unjust."
The important thing about this for us here is what it means about our moral and spiritual life. It means that all our "goodness" is so much fakery, not real goodness, and God's goodness must be given to us through our being ordered to behave in ways which have nothing to do with our natural inclinations. God may order us to go totally against our natural inclinations, because our natural inclinations have been totally corrupted, and there is no proper analogy between what we think of as good, what we desire, and what really is good, what we should desire.
The sort of life story which this underlying theology asks us to tell about ourselves is one involving a radical conversion: how once I was a sinner (and so behaved in certain ways) but now, very suddenly, I am saved, and I have a completely new life story, one with no real organic continuity with my old life story. One where there is a real rupture. Whoever I was is now dead, and now there is a new "I", someone totally new.
[James Alison: London December 2003]
If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is
inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema. [Trent Session VI Can XI]
To which I would rejoin: then we have no notion of what Justice is and no idea that it is something to be aspired to. This turns the whole matter into the question of avoiding Hell Fire rather than aspiring to the admirable perfection of the Divine. The imputation of righteousness is not mysteriously just: to a normal human analysis it is directly and seriously unjust. No degree of human depravity could make white seem so black!
What use is it to attend Church, believe every article of the creeds of the Oecumenical Councils, read the Bible, and have lots of good feelings? This does constitute something, I would say it was close to the Apostle James' "dead faith", but it is of no value before God. It gains value and power only in action: in prayer leading to penance, almsgiving and other charitable deeds. It is the heart that God judges, not external actions as such: but a good will - if not frustrated by external constraints - must give rise to effects.
The protestant might reply: "justifying faith is not bare intellectual belief or conviction: orthodoxy; but an intuition of the Divine: episteme. It necessarily brings with it an attitude of heart which bears fruit in good works [Lk 8:15]."
To which I would rejoin: then Justification is intrinsically linked to sanctification via charity. This is tantemount to the Catholic doctrine.
If any one saith, that, in every good work, the just sins venially at least, or - which is more intolerable still - mortally, and consequently deserves eteernal punishments; and that for this cause only he is not damned, that God does not impute those works unto damnation; let him be anathema. [Trent Session VI Can XXV]The protestant might reply: "Such a reformation may be possible, even though Luther taught that it wasn't. Whether it is possible or not doesn't matter, it is not involved in Justification."
To which I would rejoin: Luther specifically ruled out this possibility because he wanted to ensure that Justification had no intrinsic character. Once it is allowed that God's grace can and so will reform fallen human nature, there is no need to believe in Justification by Imputation, and the doctrine falls by Occam's Razor.
The protestant might reply: "Faith was just as necessary under the Mosaic Dispensation as that of Christ. Abraham was justified by faith [Rom 4:1-12], and so would be anyone else who pleased God before Jesus' resurrection. The faith that justifies would always be implicitly directed towards Jesus, the redeeming Messiah of God."
To which I would rejoin: as long as the manner in which faith justified Abraham is understood as requiring "completion by works" [Jas 2:22], then this is agreed.
The protestant might reply: "Granted, faith is not meritorious. It does not deserve God's Justifying response. God has simply enacted positive law to the effect that when the sinner believes the Gospel, then Christ's righteousness is imputed to him."
To which I would rejoin: this contradicts what St James says. If such "positive divine law" existed, then faith alone would save a man. Neither is this what you have agreed to already. If "justifying faith" is an episteme of the Divine and so involves caritas, then it is meritorious: because it amounts to a participation in the Divine Nature. It is the first term of a series that leads to the complete sanitization and divinization of human nature.
To which I would rejoin: this contradicts the frequent, explicit and consistent teaching of Jesus [e.g. Mk 3:35; 9:41; 10:21,29-30; 14:6 Lk 6:35; 10:25-28; 12:42-44; 14:12-14].
If any one saith, that the just ought not, for their good works done in God, to expect and hope for an eternal recompense from God, through His mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ, if so be that they persevere to the end in well doing and in keeping the divine commandments; let him be anathema. [Trent Session VI Can XXVI]
A (wo)man is accepted by God and pleasing to Him on three counts.
Original sin is not at all the same as concupiscence: the disorder of the will and general inclination towards short-term gratification that is characteristic of (wo)mankind since the fall. This moral weakness is caused by a (wo)man living out of his/her proper context: God. If only the sinner had epistome of the good: the beatific vision, they would do justice. On the other hand, they would not then be able to "merit"; because their actions would be constrained by this knowledge of God. It is because it was God's intention that (Wo)Man should have free-will and so merit His love that God allowed the first humans to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and then sent them away from His direct presence in the Garden of Objective Epistome into the World of Subjective Doxa, where they could make mistakes, learn, merit, grow and mature.
This disposition, or preparation, is followed by Justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting. [Trent Session VI : Ch 7]The central difficulty in the Protestant account: that God cannot tolerate sin, is overcome by realizing that the eventual effect of living in God's veiled presence is to be perfectly conformed to His nature. It is in anticipation of this eventual sanitization that God accepts, here and now, the imperfect believer as His friend: on the basis of mutual trust [Rom 4:5]. If the process of sanctification is not completed on death, then it will be fulfilled in Purgatory, the threshold of Heaven, before the soul enters into full communion with God in the Episteme of the Beatific Vision. The indwelling Spirit is an advance or down-payment [Rom 4:3] on the eventual inheritance of glory. The gift of grace is made in pre-view of the believer's destiny: which itself can only come about by the flowering of charity in the soul of the redeemed.
"....The Catholic understanding, as set out by the Council of Trent, whose ardent fan I am, is that the word 'desire', which the apostle Paul sometimes uses in such a way as to give the impression that he considered it a purely negative thing, has never been considered by the Church to be a purely negative thing, to be sin in the strict sense of the word. It is in fact an entirely good thing which is, in the case of all of us, very seriously disordered, so that the way we find it in us is as something which comes from sin and inclines us towards sin, but which is nevertheless capable of being gradually transformed and ordered by grace so that we are brought to a flourishing starting from where we are. This means that in the Catholic understanding grace perfects nature, takes something which, while good, is severely damaged, and transforms it starting from where it is, whereas in the 'radical corruption' account I gave you, grace cannot transform nature, because nature has become instrinsically corrupt. Grace has to abolish the old nature and start again.
Now, as you can tell, this means that any story of salvation told by Catholics is of rather a different sort from the one I outlined to you earlier. It means that because our nature is not radically corrupt, just accidentally corrupt, and because grace perfects our nature, and because grace meets us starting from where we are, so what salvation looks like is our undergoing a process of divinely initiated transformation, together, in and as Church."
[James Alison: London December 2003]
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.Faith is not meritorious. Faith is a conviction that certain things are true and trustworthy, based on - but not fully established by - a rational analysis of evidence provided by sources that one has come to accept, for good reason, as authoritative. Clearly, such a disposition towards the Gospel is excellent, appropriate, and necessary [Rom 4:5] but hardly adequate! It is completed by a loving co-operation with God's grace [Jas 2:22]. Faith is given life in good works. It is necessary to believe that love is possible before love can be accepted, and the love then still has to be accepted and responded to. Nevertheless, to emphasize the belief and acceptance: (wo)man's part in the affair, rather than that what is accepted: love, God's part; is to overplay (wo)man's role in the process, which is in reality entirely negative! Although (wo)men are free and able to reject God's vocation to friendship, they do nothing meritorious in accepting it. Anyone can damn themselves, but one's only contribution to justification is to not reject the unmerited promptings of grace.
[Trent Session VI Ch 7]
...the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: "Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you", we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; "Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted", we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God. [Trent Session VI, Ch 5]Justification and Sanctification are thus inseparable in the Catholic account of the affair. Justification is in fact by Sanctification. It is a process, not an instantaneous event: though it has a start, of course. It involves a life of "good works", ranging from acts of piety and devotion to acts of charity for neighbour. Justification without good works is impossible: not because one somehow proceeds from the other, but because they are one and the same thing seen from differing perspectives. Just as good works flow from the promptings of grace, so they nurture the life of faith in the soul: bringing forth an increase in that very life. Good works are meritorious: justification is advanced by charity and piety - and all the other virtues. The fruits of Holy Spirit are the works of the Spirit, and the work of Holy Spirit is our sanctification.
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. [Trent Session VI Ch 7]Good works are not meritorious because our poor human actions of themselves deserve God's reward [Rom 4:4]. Nothing a (wo)man can do could obligate God! Good works are only meritorious because they spring from God HimSelves. They bring an increase of grace because they exercise our spiritual muscles. It is a staggering thought that God invests simple human acts of kindness and consideration with supernatural worth, but this is entirely in keeping with the doctrine of the Incarnation.
If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema. [Trent Session VI Can XXIV]
Many Christians - especially "Liberal" Catholics as well as Evangelicals - like to think that it is impossible thaat they could ever commit a sin which cuts them off from their intimate communion with God. Some, like Julian of Norwich, being of a generally sensitive disposition, may be excused. Others, I fear, simply fool themselves. Christians sometimes do the most horrid things, with varying degrees of intent. I myself have ostracized a friend when he did something that I didn't approve of - I later learned to regret this and was blessed by God with the opportunity to seek and gain forgiveness for this serious sin from my one-time friend. On another occasion, I invaded someone's privacy, so betraying a trust invested in me. Once more, I repented and was able to seek and gain forgiveness from and reconciliation with the offended party. We have no basis for asserting that serious sin makes no difference to our fellowship with God. On His part, God is always willing and waiting to forgive: but we are presumptuous if we assume that the Divine Presence remains with us should we knowingly commit serious sins such as anger, sloth, conceit, deceit, betrayal, lust or greed.
Evangelicals tend to insist that all sins are equally bad and reject the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin. The slightest failing in a non-Christian merits eternal punishment in Hell. The most severe and premeditated crime committed by a Christian is forgiven before the event and of no eternal consequence. This seems to me to be both bizarre and to be without scriptural basis.
In practice, I find that most protestants act and talk informally as
if this is what they believe. Only when stimulated to respond in slogans
and half remembered formularies does Luther's doctrine start to appear.
I sincerely hope that soon the barriers of distrust and the inherited suspicions
of four hundred years will be done away with and this, the central issue
of the "Reformation" be disposed of once and for all.