Justification by Faith

Author: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, M.A., S.T.L.


Rev. Brian W. Harrison, M.A., S.T.L.

St. Paul very often expresses his doctrine regarding grace and salvation in terms of "justification by faith," and not by "works," or "works of the law." Protestant Christians often place great emphasis on these words, but without understanding them correctly, in the light of Catholic Tradition. Let us consider some key passages from St. Paul's writings:

Rom 3:27-28: "So what becomes of our boasts? There is no room for them. What sort of law excludes them? The sort of law that tells us what to do? On the contrary, it is the law of faith, since, as we see it, a man is justified by faith and not by doing something the law tells him to do."

Rom 5:1: "So far then we have seen that, through our Lord Jesus Christ, by faith we are judged righteous and at peace with God."

Rom 5:9: "Having died to make us righteous, is it likely that He would not fail to save us from God's anger?"

Gal 2:16: "We had to become believers in Christ Jesus no less than you had, and now we hold that faith in Christ rather than fidelity to the Law is what justifies us, and that no one can be justified by keeping the Law."

Gal 3:11: "The law will not justify anyone in the sight of God, because we are told: "the righteous man finds life through faith.."

This is the same doctrine as that of Jesus himself, who rebuked the Pharisee who boasted before God of his good works. The Lord taught that the humble publican who simply prayed for God's mercy was "justified," rather than the Pharisee (Lk 18:9-14).

What is this justification? To be justified means being made righteous, just, holy, and acceptable before God. In other words, the term "justification," in these and other similar New Testament passages, means what Catholics more commonly describe as the change from the "state of sin" to the "state of grace." And the doctrine being taught by Jesus and St. Paul in the above passages is that when we are in the state of sin, and alienated from God, nothing we can do ourselves—none of our "good deeds" or "works"—can earn or merit justification. Receiving the grace of God and the forgiveness of our sins is never a "prize" or "reward" which we deserve because of any supposedly virtuous deeds which we have previously carried out. The reception of grace and justification is always a free and completely unmerited gift. The very word "grace" comes from a Greek word meaning "favour" or "gift."

What does St. Paul mean in telling us that this "justification" comes through faith, or by faith? It is clear that by "faith" the Apostle does not mean any kind of belief whatever: St. James teaches that even the demons have a certain kind of faith or belief, but it certainly does not bring them the grace of God. He says, "you believe in the one God—that is creditable enough, but the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear" (James 2:19). It is very clear from many Scriptural passages that the kind of faith we need for justification is a repentant faith (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; Rom 2:4; 1 Cor 7:9-10 etc.). Sorrow for sin and the sincere desire to change are what is missing from the "faith" which even demons and wicked people can have. This repentant faith which leads to justification includes hope in God's mercy, and is itself possible only when the sinner receives actual grace which enables him to turn in contrition towards God's mercy.

Finally, St. Paul's teaching regarding justification by faith rather than by works must not be taken in isolation from other Biblical passages which clearly speak of the sacramental aspect of justification. St. Paul certainly does not regard Baptism as one of the human "works of the law" which cannot justify us; rather it is a "work" of God Himself, which completes the process of justification for one who has never previously been baptized. St. Paul teaches that in Baptism we participate in Christ's death, that this, we receive through this sacrament the grace that Jesus won on the Cross by his death on the Cross; and this enables us to live the new life of his resurrection (Rom 6:3-4). Paul, on one occasion, recalled his own conversion and the role Baptism played in it: Ananias, he recalls, exhorted him shortly after he came to believe in Jesus, saying, "And now why delay? It is time you were baptized and had your sins washed away while invoking his name" (Acts 22:16). St. Peter speaks of "the baptism which saves you now, and which is not the washing off of physical dirt but a pledge made to God from a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pt 3:22. See also Jn 3:5; Mk 16:16). For those who fall from grace because of grave sin after Baptism, the sacrament of Penance is necessary (Jn 20:22-23). Even though one who believes and is perfectly contrite for his or her sins receives the grace of justification in that moment, even before receiving the appropriate sacrament, this grace is only provisional, and is granted only in view of the anticipated sacrament: a sinner who had no intention of receiving that sacrament even while knowing that Christ had commanded it would clearly be lacking in either faith or repentance, and so would not be justified. Moreover, those who believe and repent, but are less than perfectly contrite for their sins, are not justified until the moment they receive the sacrament, which imparts the further grace which they need. (We are talking about the justification of adults here: infant baptism brings in other considerations.)

This authentic, Biblical doctrine of justification, held constantly in the Catholic Church from the most ancient times, was summed up by the Council of Trent, which gave us the authentic interpretation of St. Paul's doctrine of "justification by faith":

But, when the Apostle says that man is justified "by faith" and "freely" (Rom 3:22-24), these words must be understood in that sense in which the uninterrupted consent of the Catholic Church has held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6) and to come to the fellowship of his sons; and are, therefore, said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace itself of justification; for, 'if it is a grace, it is not now by reason of works; otherwise (as the same Apostle says) grace is no more grace' (Rom 11:6). (Denziger-Schonmetzer 1532.)

Justification by Works—St. James

At first sight what we have said so far seems to be contradicted by the teaching of St. James, who says:

Do realise, you senseless man that faith without good deeds is useless. You sure know that Abraham our father was justified by his deed, because he offered his son Isaac on the altar? There you see it: faith and deeds were working together; his faith became perfect by what he did. This is what scripture really means when it says: 'Abraham put his faith in God, and this was counted as making him justified; and that is why he was called the friend of God.' You see now that it is by doing something good, and not only by believing, that a man is justified" (James 2:20-24).

Thus, St. Paul says justification is by faith, not by works; St. James says we are justified by works as well as by faith. Is this not a contradiction? Not if we recognize that St. James is using the word "Justification" in a slightly different sense to that in which St. Paul uses it. Put very simply, Paul uses "justification" to mean to change from being "bad" in God's sight (state of sin) to being "good" (state of grace). James, however, uses the same word to mean being kept good—and becoming even better—in God's sight. (This ambiguity in the idea of being "made just" is paralleled in everyday language by that of being "made healthy." If we say, "Good food makes us healthy," this can mean both that good food changes us from being sick to being healthy, and also that it keeps us healthy, and can make us even healthier. So what James is teaching is that having been initially justified by faith, we must persevere in good works as well as in faith, in order to grow or increase in "justice"—that is, in holiness or righteousness. The example he uses of Abraham helps us to understand his point. Abraham was first justified by faith, when he came to believe God's call and promise (Gen 15:6). Afterwards, he was justified still further by the "work"—the obedient act—of being prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac at god's command (Gen 22).

Protestants often quote St. James selectively, stressing that, yes, indeed, "faith without works is dead," and maintaining that, if a person doesn't produce good works, this shows that he doesn't have the kind of faith which justifies, merely that "dead faith" which even the evil spirits have. But they still insist, in flat contradiction with verse 24, that faith alone" is what actually justifies—that good works are merely an effect, and in no sense at all a cause, of our justification. Other Protestants adopt the exegetically quite desperate ploy of arguing that James 2:24 speaks of justification "before men," and not "before God," as if the Apostle were merely affirming that good works make us appear just and righteous in the estimation of those people who know us. The context clearly rules out this totally gratuitous hypotheses, which is motivated merely by the need to reconcile James with a mistaken interpretation of Paul. Small wonder that Luther—more radically but perhaps more consistently—dismissed James scornfully as "an epistle of straw" and tended to ignore its contradiction with his own doctrine.

There are a great many other Biblical passages that make it clear that, after we are freely forgiven and justified by faith and grace, one must then persevere in good works if we are to retain that grace and attain final salvation. "Faith alone" is no longer sufficient in this latter stage of our spiritual journey, for "faith without works is dead" (James 2:26) St. Paul himself, shortly before he writes to the Romans about "justification by faith, apart form the works of the Law," says: "It is not listening to the Law but keeping it that will make people holy in the sight of God" (Rome 2:13). Also:

Phil 2:12-13: "So then, my dear friends,...work for your salvation 'in fear and trembling.’ It is God, for his own living purpose, who puts both the will and the action into you." (There we have the Catholic doctrine in a nutshell: good works carried out in the state of grace are necessary for our salvation and are meritorious in God's sight, because they are simultaneously his works as well as our works.)

Apco 20:11-12: "Then I saw a great white throne and the One who was sitting on it. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing in front of his throne...and other books opened which were the record of what they had done in their lives, by which the deed were judged." (See also the parable of the Last Judgement, the "sheep" and the "goats" who are judged according to their works—Mt 25.).

Jn 14:15: "If you love me you will keep my commandments."

1 Jn 2:3-4: "We can be sure that we know God only be keeping his commandments. Anyone who says, 'I know him,' and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, refusing to admit the truth."

The Error Of The Protestant Reformers

The Catholic and Biblical doctrine of justification set out above was generally accepted by all Christians for 1500 years. In recent centuries, however, a very serious misunderstanding of this doctrine has been the rood cause of tragic divisions, and of the formation of hundreds other small ecclesial communities and denominations outside the original Church of Jesus Christ—the Catholic Church. Some of these groups militantly attack the Catholic Church for its supposedly "unbiblical" doctrine of justification.

Instead of relying on 1500 years of Christian tradition in order to interpret correctly St. Paul's letters (which, according to the waning of his fellow-apostle Peter, are sometimes "difficult to understand" and can be dangerously misinterpreted—2 Pt 3:16), Luther, Calvin and other Protestant Reformers relied on their own personal skills in Biblical interpretation, and fell into serious error.

The Catholic Church understands the Bible as teaching that, since the eternal salvation of a Christian depends on his perseverance in both faith and good works until the end of his life, none of us can in this life be completely sure that he will eventually reach the eternal happiness of Heaven. There is a possibility that we will fall into grave (mortal) sin, and lose our soul forever. So we must remain "calm but vigilant, because your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat" (1 Pt 5:8). St. Paul warns against presumption: "The man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall" (1 Cor 10:12), and makes it clear that he himself has to make constant spiritual efforts: "for, having been an announcer myself, I should not want to be disqualified" (l Cor 9:27). St. Paul also explicitly warns believers against "passing premature judgement" regarding their own spiritual status before God. He continues, "Leave that until the Lord comes: he will light up all that is hidden in the dark and reveal the secret intentions of men's hearts. Then will be the time for each one to have whatever praise he deserves from God" (1 Cor 4:5). Our Protestant brethren often tend to minimize or explain away such passages as these, placing selective emphasis on other passages where St. Paul shows great confidence in gaining his eternal crown of glory (e.g., 2 Tim 4:8; Rom 8:38-39). A balanced appraisal of all the relevant passages brings to light the Catholic doctrine: we should have great trust and confidence in the grace and mercy of God, who wishes us to be saved; but at the same time we must avoid the presumption of prematurely claiming and absolute certainty of our own personal salvation.

Luther and Calvin found this element of uncertainty about their own salvation difficult to live with, and they imagined that they found in St. Paul's teaching about "justification by faith apart from works" the promise of that certainty which they longed for. As we have seen, St. Paul meant only that when we are in the state of sin, our own works do not in any way cause or merit our becoming justified. But the Reformers thought he also meant that good works in no way contribute to our remaining justified, and thus attaining eternal salvation.

Most of the small groups, which even in these ecumenical times, remain hostile to the Catholic Church tend to follow Calvin's teaching in many respects: they hold that once we are "born again" or converted to the state of grace (justification), it is impossible for us to fall form that grace by our sins and so finally lose our salvation. They insist on the principle, "Once saved, always saved." The preachers and members of these churches describe themselves as "saved" by their "faith in Jesus as personal Saviour," and tell us that they are absolutely sure they will go to Heaven when they die.

Sometimes this is because they think that any sins they may commit in the future, no matter how grave, will simply be overlooked by God because of their faith in Jesus' saving merits. In other words, they hold that, provided we maintain our confidence in Jesus as Saviour , we do not lose God's grace and favour even in the act of committing a grave sin? Other evangelical Christians, realising that this belief is blatantly unbiblical, consider themselves as no longer capable of committing any grave sins. Such people like to quote Matthew 7:18, where Our Lord teaches that "a sound tree cannot bear bad fruit nor a rotten tree good fruit." They infer from this that authentic Christian believers—including themselves—are simply incapable of producing the "bad fruits" of evildoing. They forget that Jesus never gave any guarantee that every "sound tree" is always going to remain sound. Just as good trees can eventually go rotten and bear bad fruit, good Christians can succumb to temptation and commit grave sins. And in doing so they fall from grace and place their souls in peril. Protestants also like to quote Jesus' works in John 5:24: "Whoever hears my word, and believes in him who sent me, has eternal life and does not come to judgement, but has passed from death to life." But the expression "eternal life" is used here, as in some other passages, to mean "the life of God within us," or in other words, the gift of sanctifying grace. God's life, in which we participate by grace, is of course eternal in itself; but Our Lord does not imply here that we can never possibly alienate ourselves from that divine life by our own sins. It is taken for granted here that our "not coming to judgement" (in the sense of "condemnation") is dependent on our remaining in the grace we have received.

A supposed guarantee of instant and permanently assured salvation can seem very attractive, and many Catholics—especially those who place the quest for spiritual "experience" ahead of the quest for doctrinal truth—have been enticed away from their own Church by this presumptuous and illusory promise, especially since the Protestant brethren who teach this false doctrine are often sincere, zealous and devout people. But in the very letter to the Galatians, which is one of the favourite Biblical books of Protestants, St. Paul contradicts their idea that once we are justified or converted we can never possibly fall away from grace and end in eternal perdition. The Apostle says that those Christians who insist on reviving the Old Testament practices of circumcision and other ancient Jewish ritual laws, as though they were still necessary for salvation, "have separated yourselves from Christ and have fallen from grace " (Gal5:2-4). He also urges these already-converted Christians to "live according to the Spirit," and to guard against falling into sexual immorality, violence, envy, drunkenness and other grave sins. Paul warns them that "those who behave like this will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal 5:19-21). The clear and natural sense of such Pauline teaching is the perennial Catholic doctrine that Christian believers can indeed fall from grace and lose their souls if they do not continue to be on their guard against the wiles of the Evil One. No wonder fifteen centuries went by without anyone interpreting St. Paul's writings in the Protestant sense.

Let us summarize the key points made in this brief study: Catholic Doctrine:

1. As sinners we receive justification (grace and forgiveness for our sins) as a free gift, because of Christ's merits, not because our own good works (or our faith) deserve or "earn" this acquisition of righteousness in any way.

2. God's revelation tells us how he wants us to acquire this free gist: a trusting, repentant faith in Jesus Christ, together with either baptism or (for those who have fallen into mortal sin after Baptism) the sacrament of Penance.

3. Once we are in the state of grace, our good works carried out by God's grace not only become necessary in order for us to remain justified; they now also become truly pleasing to God, and merit a reward in Heaven (Mt. 5:12; 10:41; Lk 12:21), because they share in the love and merits of Christ who now dwells in our souls by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is what St. James means in saying that we are "justified by works" as well as by faith…

4. It is always possible to fall from this state of grace, by our grace (mortal) sins of commission or omission. For that reason, we cannot in this life claim any absolute certainty that we will die in the state of grace and reach Heaven. We should trust confidently in God's grace and mercy, but at the same time be aware of our sinful weakness, which can endanger our salvation, and strive to overcome it with God's help. As St. Peter tells us, "Brothers, you have been called and chosen: work all the harder to justify it. If you do all these things there is no danger that you will ever fall away" (2 Pt 1:10).

Protestant Errors: Practically all Protestants would agree with no. 1 above. However, many of them, especially those who proselytize most zealously amongst Catholics, fall into serious error by denying one or more of the following points (nos. 2, 3 and 4). Often they deny all three. The root cause of these errors is the longing to fee completely free from the fear of Hell, and to know with total certainty that we are safe—"saved" with no possibility of eternal loss. Realizing that because of our weak, sinful nature this kind of certainty is impossible if our final salvation depends in any way on us, the Reformers sought a doctrine which would make our final entry into Heaven completely independent of any actions, decisions, deeds, or works, of our own. Luther revealed his a priori attitude on one occasion: "My doctrine of salvation must be true," he declared, "because I ascribe all to God, and nothing to man"! This was the prejudice underlying the Reformers' exegesis of the Bible: and so they read into the letters of St. Paul what they wanted to find there, failing to appreciate that, in the words of St. Augustine, God created us without our cooperation, but He will not save us without it.

Direct all correspondence to: Living Tradition, Sedes Sapientiae Study Center, Via Concordia, 1, 00183 Rome, Italy.