JUSTIFICATION: DOCTRINE OF COUNCIL OF TRENT
By Father William Most
What is justification? Loosely, it means getting right with God.
But there is an impassable gap between the Catholic and the
Lutheran position after that point. Luther insisted that even
after justification we are totally corrupt and really, have no
free will (). The Catholic teaching is
that justification means the reception of (sanctifying) grace for
the first time. This grace changes us, making us share in the
divine nature( 2 Peter 1. 4) which is far different from being
totally corrupt. It gives us the basic ability to take part in
the face to face vision of God in the next life (1 Cor 13:12). So
the soul becomes even now the temple of the Holy Spirit: 1 Cor
6:19 -could we imagine God joining Himself for eternity to a soul
that is totally corrupt? Rather,"who can stand when He appears?
For He is like the refiner's fire": Mal 3:2).
This is a tremendous thought. When I look at you, I do not take
you into my mind, I take in an image of you. But no image could
let me know what God really is, so there must be no image in the
process (Defined thus by Benedict XII: DS 1000). So it must be
that God joins Himself directly to the human soul or mind,
without even an image in between so that the soul may know HIm
face to face.
2 Peter 1:4 said by this grace we share in the divine nature. So
we are made children of God,"heirs of God, fellow heirs with
Christ - provided that we suffer with Him so that we may be
glorified with Him": Rom 8:17. We notice the condition attached
at the end. We are saved and made holy if and to the extent that
we are members of Christ, and like Him. So we are not saved
alone, we are saved as brothers of Christ, sharing the same
divine nature with Him (2 Pet. 1:4).
Now the child of a Father has a claim to inherit. So we have, by
justification, a claim to inherit from our Father, to inherit a
place in His mansions. But, a merit is simply a claim. So we
could say that having grace is a merit. Yet we gained that first
grace without any merit of our own. We can, however, merit
increases in it (DS 1574), since we then have the dignity of sons
of God. If we keep that grace, we will enter His mansions. But we
could lose it by mortal sin. So Trent defined: If anyone says
that the justification that is received is not kept and even
increased before God by good works... A. S. ." But this
presupposes reception of grace for the firs time without any
merit at all. As to "keeping" justification: All concrete actions
are either good or evil. If we commit evil, mortally, we lose
that grace. If we do not commit mortal sin, then this grace is
We achieve justification by faith. But Luther, without any
checking, simply assumed that faith means confidence that the
merits of Christ apply to me. Then I would be infallibly saved,
for in a ledger for myself, on the credit page I would write
infinity, the merits of Christ; on the debit page, the number for
my sins. Hence no matter how much I have sinned, am sinning, will
sin - all is outbalanced by the infinite merits of Christ. So I
have infallible salvation.
The trouble is that, as we said, Luther made no effort to see
what St. Paul meant by . If we read all of Paul, we find
three things:1)If God speaks a truth, we believe it in our mind;
2) If He make a promise, we are confident in it; 3) If He tells
us to do something, we must do it-- "the obedience of faith" :Rom
1:5. - Even a standard Protestant reference work, , in Supplement, p. 333, describes
Pauline faith just as we have done). But poor Luther did not see
that faith includes obedience to God, and so he wrote: "Be a
sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even
more boldly... . No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even
though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day."
(Weimar ed. vol. 2. p. 372; Letters I, , American
ed. vol. 48, p. 282. Luther in his ; wrote:"If this article [justification by faith] stands, the
church stands;' if it falls, the church falls." Since he did not
know what St. Paul meant by faith, his church never did stand. --
and further, he had no means of knowing which books are part of
Scripture. He tried to say that if a book preaches justification
by faith strongly, it is inspired. He did not notice that most
books of Scripture do not even mention the subject.
Here are the chief texts of the Council of Trent on these
. DS 1532: "... we are said to be
justified gratuitously for this reason, because nothing of those
things that come before justification, whether faith, or works,
earns the grace of justification itself... ."
. DS 1582: "If any one says that the
works of a man who has been justified [has received first grace]
are in such a way the gifts of God that they are not also the
good merits of the one who is justified, or that the one who is
justified does not really merit by good works, which are done by
him through the grace of God and Jesus Christ [does not really
merit] eternal life and the attainment of eternal life itself (if
however he dies in grace) and even an increase in glory, let him
be anathema." COMMENT: They are merit in that they are a claim to
a reward. The claim is established since first grace, unearned,
makes us children of God, who as such have a claim to inherit.
And we are brothers of Christ, who did establish a claim albeit
on the secondary level. After we are made children of God, this
dignity gives a ground for merit of additions to grace.
1. . Examine each
of the three words:
a);Means getting right with God. It makes us
adopted sons (Rom 8. 17) and sharers in the divine nature (2 Pt.
1. 4) and temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 19). That is not a
spatial presence, spirits do not take up space. A spirit is
present wherever he causes an effect. What effect? The
transformation of the soul making it radically capable of the
vision of God in the next life: 1 Cor 13.12.
2) It is itself a gift (Eph 2.8). It includes three things
according to Paul:belief in mind, confidence, obedience.
3): which works? Not just the ceremonial and
dietary works for that could imply that other works can justify
us. But they cannot do that for no man is just before God by his
own power (Rom 3.24:we are justified gratis). Abraham had works
other than those, but they did not earn justification, if they
did, he would have a boast, but not before God.
Final salvation is an :1 Cor 6.9-10. We could not
earn the inheritance, nor need we do it, but we could earn to
lose it:ibid. We are adopted children. But children do not earn
their inheritance, though they could earn to lose it: Rom 6.23.
We get a claim not of ourselves, but inasmuch as we are
brothers/members of Christ, who did earn, and are like Him in all
things, including work of rebalancing the objective order: Rom
8.17. Yet we do have a claim, inasmuch as first grace, unmerited,
makes us children of God, who as such, have a claim to inherit.
2. What of the OT "justifications"? They did not of themselves
give this grace, but promised temporal reward: Probably did not
know eternal reward until time of Antiochus IV. -- And no OT
sacrifice was provided for sins , but only for
3. Why good works? Because faith includes obedience, which calls
for them. Also, out of gratitude to so good a Father who even
gives us by grace an inclination to good works. He, being
Holiness, loves all that is good, and so is pleased with our good
works. But they do not at all earn salvation in primary sense
(Cf. DS 1532 above):if they did, we would have a boast.