And such some of you were; but you are washed, but you are sanctified,
but you are justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the Spirit of our God.
1 Corinthians 6, 1
Protestants of the classical reformed persuasion mistakenly think Catholics have the wrong idea of what it means to be declared just or righteous by God, having differentiated the Biblical concept of sanctification from justification. They see the person who is declared justified by God as merely being synthetically just, but not inherently made righteous by the power of divine grace that is infused into the human soul through the work of the Holy Spirit; justification does not involve a genuine renewal of being and supernatural transformation of the soul that effects interior holiness within the believer. Thus, in accordance with the logic of this Protestant conviction, God declares a person just or righteous even when they are sinful, only because of their faith in the redemptive merits of Christ (sola Christo).
In this branch of Protestantism, the divine perfection that meets God’s standards can never be attained by us in this life, but only in the life of glory that is to come once we have been released from the bonds of the flesh with its warring members. When God declares a person to be righteous or just, therefore, He considers the believer as such only by having come into a right relationship with Him. Justification involves a change of relationship with God, not an ontological change or genuine spiritual renewal in the person. Only by being covered with the extrinsic or “alien righteousness” of Christ by faith in him can believers be declared justified. An intrinsic righteousness of our own by the sanctifying grace of God has no bearing in their justification which is strictly forensic.
However, St. Paul uses the terms justification and sanctification interchangeably indicating a symbiosis between the two. We can better understand how justification and sanctification relate to each other in the apostle’s theology by examining the metaphysics of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He postulated that all created things exist on the principle of four causes: efficient, material, formal, and final. Our concern lies with formal causality since the Council of Trent defines sanctification as “the only formal cause (causa formalis) of justification” in the instrumental application of our redemption. The formal cause of all things consists of the elements of a conception or thing conceived to be what it is or the idea of a formative principle in cooperation with matter. In other words, each thing is composed not only of matter but of form. Form is the principal determination that accounts for something being what it is (oak tree or justification). The substantial form of something accounts for its belonging to the species or category to which it belongs.
Justification (a concept or state) could not substantially be what it is or is supposed to be according to God’s design without its principal determination, namely sanctity. However, neither justification nor sanctification could acquire their forms unless they were determined by the principle of efficient causality, which puts something into effect. In this case, the efficient cause is grace bestowed by God in the forms of both Divine favor and Divine persuasion with practical results. Justification and sanctification are the results of the one Divine initiative, and so they function inter-dependently like two sides of a single coin: redemption. Thus neither state can fruitfully exist on its own in the Divine plan of redemption (final cause).
Unless we are justified, by first receiving the initial grace of forgiveness, our sanctification through regeneration is moot. And unless we are sanctified, we cannot be justified before God when he personally judges the state of our souls. Anyway, in philosophical jargon, the final cause of something is its end or purpose. Justification is a process whose purpose is to free us from all guilt in our relationship with God and whose end is our predestination to glory. Without its principal determinant, the element of sanctity, the process of justification could not accomplish its purpose and achieve its end. Unless our righteousness (not Christ’s alien righteousness) surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:20).
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing;
it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are
what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Ephesians 2, 8-10
In Catholic theology, justification is declarative and forensic in some sense or to some degree to the extent God has decreed to really make us righteous in his sight by the means of His efficacious grace and the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit produced for us strictly by Christ’s redeeming merits. In other words, we are reconciled to God through the initial grace of forgiveness and justification by no natural merit of our own. Our renewal in spirit ultimately rests upon the redemption Christ achieved for all humanity strictly by his just merits in his passion and atoning death on the Cross. Christ alone has merited the gift of our salvation in strict justice by Divine decree. Indeed, the entire human race has fallen from perfect friendship with God. By nature, we are “children of wrath” being descendants of Adam and Eve. Neither our natural faculties and capacities nor the law can save us from Divine justice since we are prone to fall from God’s grace at some point in our lives.
Only God can take the first step in reconciling us to Him and deliver us from our miserable state of sin and death. And so, God sent His Son to free the world from bondage by paying a ransom for us with his blood and making atonement on our behalf. Yet by his passion and death on the Cross, Christ became the principle of grace and human merit that allows us to actively participate in our redemption through self-denial and spiritual sacrifice which involves good works done in charity and grace by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. What God has willed should be brought to fruition with our cooperation and collaboration (subjective redemption). The elect has the privilege to help determine the final destiny of their souls with the help of God’s saving grace in concurrence with what God has decreed and our free will.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when
you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who
is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time,
gratifying the cravings of our flesh, and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest
we were deserving by nature of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God who is rich
in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by
grace you have been saved.
Ephesians 2, 1-4
Hence, what lies at the root of the disagreement between Protestants and Catholics is not the question of whether the justification of a person is declarative or creative, nor whether justification is a single event or an ongoing process in the life of an individual. It is more a question of how they differ in perceiving justification as naturally forensic. In Protestant theology, God does not declare a person just by effecting a genuine change in their nature, and so their justification is exclusively restricted to the legal sphere. In Catholicism, however, the forensic nature of justification is not so absolute. There is more thought given to how God declares a person just or righteous than there is on the Divine declaration itself. Both Divine action and human response have a role in the justification process.
Meanwhile, faithful Catholics have never believed that an individual can reckon himself as righteous by appealing to his natural moral works outside the influence of divine grace. Still, God’s declaration of righteousness is seen as something more than a simple decree. By going a step further, Catholics see it as an effect in that whatever God declares to be, it is what it is produced to really be. A person can be declared just because they have been made intrinsically just by the sanctifying grace of God. They are a new creation in Christ who actually “conform” to the divine image by renouncing their old natural self (2 Cor. 5:17). The righteousness credited to them is not a fictional one, since it is produced by God with the individual’s willing cooperation. By God’s merciful standard, they have relatively reached a level of divine perfection in their finite humanity that is pleasing and just in His sight.
1 Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, [b]weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies [e]through His Spirit who dwells in you. 12 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you [f]must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God… 16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.
Romans 8, 1-17
In Romans 3:28, St. Paul says, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” What Paul means is that we aren’t justified by observing the external ceremonies of the Old Covenant such as circumcision, kosher, and ritual washings after having made contact with unclean things. On the other hand, St. James would add that good works done in charity and grace are necessary for our salvation, since it is by our faith in Christ and devotion to him that we are made just or righteous by fulfilling the spirit of the moral law. Having faith in Christ is primary, since it is by having faith in him that we receive the Holy Spirit who justifies us by making us able to do with a renewed interior disposition what is pleasing and just and fulfill the moral requirements of God’s law.
Once we have been made just by grace through faith in Christ, we must follow the Spirit and live holy lives. The Holy Spirit enables us to live our lives pleasing to God but not without our cooperation and steadfastness in faith. St. Paul makes it clear in Romans 8:1-17 that the “just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” provided we “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” We are given the chance to choose eternal life with God or eternal separation from God, “for if [we] walk according to the flesh, [we] will die (the second death), but if by the Spirit [we] put to death the deeds of the body, [we] will live.” The apostle adds in V.16 that it’s the Spirit Himself who is bearing witness to our spirit that we are children of God. We who choose to live by the flesh and disobey God are hostile to Him, while we who choose to live by the Spirit are sons and daughters of our heavenly Father, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified in Him.” We must overcome our selfish desires regardless of how painful it might be if we hope to be reckoned as just and worthy of inheriting our eternal reward.
Therefore, as we have borne the image of the earthly,
let us bear also the image of the heavenly.
1 Corinthians 15, 49
Hence, we are justified by faith and not external works of the Old Dispensation because it is through faith in Christ and our love for him that we receive the Holy Spirit who enters our lives and enables and empowers us to do what is just in God’s sight. We shall be judged for the works that the Spirit has enabled us to do by giving us the strength to put the deeds of the body to death. Faith in Christ grants us the Holy Spirit to work in our lives so that we fulfill the moral law (love of God and neighbor) and be truly pleasing to God and judged worthy of being with Him eternally.
St. Paul tells us that we must cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God (2 Cor 7:1). The state of holiness must do with our internal being, originating from God who is the giver of sanctifying grace by the activity of the Holy Spirit. This holiness isn’t merely a fabrication or a synthetic justification because of the stain of original sin and its effects on our human nature. Concupiscence constantly plagues us, but it isn’t a sin. The truth is that, despite our sinful inclinations, Christ himself is in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord’s indwelling brings about an internal transformation that renders us just and pleasing to God provided that we do not receive His grace in vain (2 Cor 3:15). God is hard at work in us, and He is so powerful, He can actually transform us by re-creating us and renewing our nature through His Holy Spirit (Phil 2:13).
God is not distant making impersonal, external declarations about us like a judge in a courtroom towards a defendant who needs to be bailed out by someone who can pay his debt for him without asking for anything in return. The view that God merely declares us righteous by covering us up with Christ’s external righteousness, while pretending not to notice our inherent unrighteousness, denigrates the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, who continues the work of the resurrected Christ for our justification infusing His sanctifying grace into our souls and thereby changing our interior being notwithstanding the bumps along the road to heaven because of our wounded nature. The gist of Romans 5:19 is that there isn’t just a change of relational status between God and us, but an objective transformation of our human nature however gradual the process may be. God does not just declare us righteous but makes us righteous by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was real light (Gen 1:3). What God declares to be is an objective reality.
So, “if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7). Jesus did not come into the world only to make atonement for sin but also to produce the sanctifying grace it takes for us to live holy lives and be righteous as he is righteous in his sacred humanity by applying his righteousness in our lives daily in cooperation with his saving grace and in collaboration with the Holy Spirit (1 Jn 3:7). We are called to actively participate in the removal of guilt and forgiveness of our sins as to be just in God’s sight. This is what God has declared should be if we hope to be saved in and through the merits of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Early Sacred Tradition
“So likewise men, if they do truly progress by faith towards better things, and receive the Spirit
of God, and bring forth the fruit thereof, shall be spiritual, as being planted in the paradise of
God. But if they cast out the Spirit, and remain in their former condition, desirous of being of
the flesh rather than of the Spirit, then it is very justly said with regard to men of this stamp,
‘That flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God… …For when men sleep, the enemy
sows the material of tares; and for this cause did the Lord command His disciples to be on the
watch. And again, those persons who are not bringing forth the fruits of righteousness, and
are, as it were, covered over and lost among brambles, if they use diligence, and receive the
word of God as a graft, arrive at the pristine nature of man–that which was created after the
image and likeness of God.”
St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5:10,1
“You are mistaken, and are deceived, whosoever you are, that think yourself rich in this world.
Listen to the voice of your Lord in the Apocalypse, rebuking men of your stamp with
righteous reproaches: ‘Thou sayest,’ says He, ‘I am rich, and increased with goods, and have
need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind,
and naked. I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white
raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness may not appear in
thee; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see.’ You therefore, who are rich
and wealthy, buy for yourself of Christ gold tried by fire; that you may be pure gold, with your
filth burnt out as if by fire, if you are purged by almsgiving and righteous works. Buy for
yourself white raiment, that you who had been naked according to Adam, and were before
frightful and unseemly, may be clothed with the white garment of Christ. And you who are a
wealthy and rich matron in Christ’s Church, anoint your eyes, not with the collyrium of the
devil, but with Christ’s eye-salve, that you may be able to attain to see God, by deserving well
of God, both by good works and character.”
St. Cyprian, On Works and Alms,14
“He from the essence of the Father, nor is the Son again Son
according to essence, but in consequence of virtue,
as we who are called sons by grace.”
St. Athanasius, Defense of the Nicene Creed, 22
“You see indeed, then, how the strength of the Lord is cooperative in human endeavors,
so that no one can build without the Lord, no one can preserve without the Lord, no one
can build without the Lord, no one can preserve without the Lord, no one can undertake
anything without the Lord.”
St. Ambrose, Commentary on Luke, 2:84
” ‘To declare His righteousness.’ What is declaring of righteousness? Like declaring of His
riches, not only for Him to be rich Himself, but also to make others rich, or of life, not only that
He is Himself living, but also that He makes the dead to live; and of His power, not only that
He is Himself powerful, but also that He makes the feeble powerful. So also is the declaring
of His righteousness not only that He is Himself righteous, but that He doth also make them
that are filled with the putrefying sores ‘asapentas’ of sin suddenly righteous.”
St. John Chrysostom, Romans, Homily Vll: 24, 25
“All His saints, also, imitate Christ in the pursuit of righteousness; whence the
same apostle, whom we have already quoted, says: ‘Be ye imitators of me, as I am also of
Christ.’ But besides this imitation, His grace works within us our illumination and justification,
by that operation concerning which the same preacher of His [name] says: ‘Neither is he that
planteth anything, nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase.’ For by this grace
He engrafts into His body even baptized infants, who certainly have not yet become able to
imitate any one. As therefore He, in whom all are made alive, besides offering Himself as an
example of righteousness to those who imitate Him, gives also to those who believe on Him the
hidden grace of His Spirit, which He secretly infuses even into infants…”
St. Augustine, On the merits and forgiveness of sins, 1:9
For I tell you, that unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes
and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5, 20