Create a clean heart in me, O God:
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy face;
and take not thy holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation,
and strengthen me with a perfect spirit.
Psalm 50, 12-14
You should put away the old self of your former way of life,
corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit
of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in
righteousness and holiness of truth.
Ephesians 4, 22-24
In the traditional Catholic doctrine of infused righteousness and justification by faith and good works done in charity and grace, God takes into account an actual transformation within us. He acknowledges the removal of our old apparel in exchange for the clothes that resemble Christ’s clothing. The faithful take an active and morally responsible part in their justification by willingly collaborating with the Holy Spirit and cooperating with divine grace. Human free will has a vital and decisive role to play in their salvation.
Since ancient times, Catholics have believed that they have an active life in grace by allowing it to help them renew their minds and hearts as to be righteous as Christ is righteous in his shared humanity. How well they try to renounce their old self or overcome sinful habits and live a new life in Christ determines how they justly stand before God. A person is either intrinsically righteous or unrighteous depending on how well they respond to the gift of divine grace and collaborate with the Holy Spirit in keeping God’s commandments.
If we are reckoned as righteous by God, it is because God has made us so by the regenerative power and influence of His efficacious grace. Since apostolic time, the Catholic Church has taught that justification is not only the remission of sins and the removal of guilt but also the sanctification and renewal of a person. It is an on-going process of growing in holiness that involves our willing detachment from habitual sin and thereby the state of guilt. Justification comprises the purification of one’s soul by the removal of the stain of sin achieved by a sincere act of contrition and a firm desire for amendment. The grace of sanctification is essentially the divine quality of the human soul. Thus, justification includes both reconciliation and healing through the restorative power of the Holy Spirit, who has made us communicants in the divine nature and personally justified by His sanctifying grace.
It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses;
your sins I remember no more.
Isaiah 43, 25
When God “blots out” (exalipho) our transgressions and “washes” (apolouo) us from our iniquities and “cleanses” (katharitzo) us from our sins, an inner change of heart and contrite spirit are required (Ps. 51:1-2; Acts 3:19; 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Jn. 1:7, 9). God reckons us holy and just in his sight by removing the sins that stain our souls because of our change of heart in a true spirit of conversion and repentance by the prompting of the Holy Spirit and his gifts of grace. Our sins are not simply overlooked and covered up by the merits of Christ and the imputation of his righteousness to our account before God. On the contrary, the righteousness of Christ is “communicated to us” by the infused grace that transforms our nature and renders us just and pleasing to God. The righteousness that God sees intrinsic of us is qualitatively Christ-like, although we can never attain to the personal level of our Lord’s righteousness in his divinity.
And although the initial grace of forgiveness and justification is a grace that only Christ can formally merit for us, we can “merit for ourselves and for others an increase in sanctification” to complete our justification and bring about its realization on a personal level in our relationship with God as we “grow in grace and charity” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church: Justification and Grace). Thus, by the infusion of God’s grace into our souls, we are not just declared righteous, but actually “made” righteous as divine grace effects a genuine change of heart and an ontological change in our being (Rom. 5:17, 19).
But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any
righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of
rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus
Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in the hope of
Titus 3, 4-7
Putting on the new self begins by having faith in God and his promises. As a starting point, our knowledge and love of God are essential requisites for us to welcome the Holy Spirit in our lives and allow Him to produce for us everything that pertains to living a life in faith and devotion to God so that the hope of eternal life with Him can be realized. By allowing the Holy Spirit to transform our fallen human nature, we come “to share in the divine nature” after having “escaped” from the snare of our “evil desires” in a “corrupt world.” For this very reason, we must “make every effort” to ‘supplement our faith with virtue, virtue with the divine gift of knowledge, knowledge with self-control (temperance and moderation), and self-control with endurance.” Only then can our devotion to God translate into being devoted to the interests of others with an affection that is raised to the height of unconditional love which takes perseverance in faith.
The infused virtues of faith, hope, and charity which are manifested by how we conduct our lives in the Spirit bear fruit (merit) that lasts to eternal life in and through the merits of our Lord and Saviour. We who are baptized members of Christ’s body united with the Head mustn’t slumber or be idle in our knowledge of the Lord who has taught us how to live a life in grace as adopted children of God. We shall “never stumble” if we “make our call to election firm” through the perseverance of faith. Those who do stumble gravely risk being barred from “entering God’s heavenly kingdom” (1 Pet 1:3-11).
Indeed, St. Augustine advises us that it is not enough we should be formally declared justified strictly on the merits of Christ’s righteousness. What is required of us to inherit the kingdom of heaven and be reckoned as just in God’s sight is the righteousness of our own that is wrought by divine grace made available to us through our Lord’s meritorious work in his humanity. Unless we co-operate with God in His dispensation of grace and bear fruit that lasts to eternal life, our faith in Christ’s merits shall do us no good. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. But only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven will enter” (Mt. 7:21). And so, God declares us to be inherently righteous and just in His sight because of His work completed in us with our collaboration.
Saving faith is an active faith on our part. Belief and knowledge are not enough to render us just. Doing good works in charity and grace completes our faith making it beneficial to our souls. Our spiritual sacrifices and charitable acts of self-denial, whereby we substitute our selfish desires for what God wills and subdue our inordinate love of self for the sake of God’s love and goodness, confer merit on us because they are the result of His grace. God declares us just because that is how he has intended to truly make us, provided we are responsive in a genuine spirit of conversion and invite the Holy Spirit to work in us.
You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have
fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness
for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any
value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Galatians 5, 4-6
For us to have a correct understanding of faith as something active and instrumental in our salvation, we must see how divine grace operates in our lives and saves us with our cooperation. Faith is the starting point in the process of our justification before God. Faith takes a concrete form as we act on the wisdom and knowledge we have received, having placed our trust in God and hope in His promise. These two theological virtues, faith and hope, enable us to open ourselves to God’s grace for our minds and hearts to be constantly renewed, as we become a new creation in Christ by living virtuous lives. Dying to oneself and to the ruling spirit of this world by casting off the old self requires a genuine conversion of the heart with the help of divine grace that makes the righteousness we possess our very own characteristic and thereby pleasing to God.
We are not passive spectators in the work of the Holy Spirit within us, so the idea of the imputed alien righteousness of Christ to our account in Reformed Protestant theology makes absolutely no sense. Sacred Scripture does reveal that a genuine ontological transformation of our human nature is necessary for us to be reckoned as just in God’s sight. A true spirit of charity – our love of God and neighbor – must inform our faith to make it alive and complete. It is love or charity, through which faith works, that renders it justifiable and profitable for our souls since this infused virtue animates the heart in the believer who has opened himself to the Holy Spirit and the influence of divine grace in faith.
St. Paul advises the Jewish Christians in Galatia that it is the indwelling Holy Spirit who justifies us rather than the external observances of the ceremonial Mosaic law. Sanctifying grace does save us by being the essential means for us to be internally just in and through the merits of Christ who is the living source of all grace. What Christ has achieved for us by his just merits doesn’t eradicate God’s immutable word: Through love and faithfulness, sin is atoned for (Proverbs 16, 6).
Since we have been created in God’s image, despite our fallen human nature, we cannot be just in His sight while being unholy in soul and body. God gives us the grace to be holy and just in His sight as He is holy and just, albeit His absolute perfection. We cannot partake in the divine nature as adopted sons and daughters of God unless the state of our souls and the conduct of our lives reflect the divine image that we have been created in. The Greek verb “to justify” (dikaioo) which Paul uses so often means by its -oo stem that God sees us as intrinsically righteous when He declares we are just. Our justification involves an objective change in our nature, not just a relational change in status. What God declares to be just is as real as the light He created at the beginning of time by His efficacious decree (Gen 1:3; Jn 8:12). God creates nothing fictional or synthetic by His Word in the Holy Spirit.
May you be filled with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and
understanding to live in a manner worthy of the Lord, so as to be fully pleasing, in every
good work bearing fruit (merit) and growing in the knowledge of God, strengthened with
every power, in accord with his glorious might, for all endurance and patience, with joy
giving thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy
ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the
kingdom of his beloved Son.
Colossians 1, 9-13
St. Paul clearly intends to tell the Colossians that the righteousness required for their justification before God is one that must be intrinsic of the believer by the efficacy of God’s grace produced for all by Christ alone. There is absolutely no indication that the righteousness they must hold to their credit is one totally alien and extrinsic of themselves. If this were the case, there would be no point for the apostle to exhort the community to “clothe themselves with love and a new self.” It would have made more sense for him to assure them that the filthy garments of their old selves have been covered by the clean and spotless garment of the unblemished Lamb and leave it at that without any further specifications on what it takes for a person to be inherently righteous and reckoned as just in God’s sight.
Thus, we have been called to actively participate in our redemption and have a real share in the divine life by the sanctifying grace of God. Christ is “in” us, and through his Spirit, he works in and through us who truly believe and hope in him by exercising our faith in charity and grace leading a life of holiness. Our Lord does not merely shelter us from God’s justice by diverting His entire attention away from us wretched sinners to only him who is supposedly taking all the credit on our helpless and totally depraved behalf. What Christ alone has merited for us is the grace that only he can produce by his passion, death, and resurrection. What righteous believers can merit for themselves or for others is an increase in sanctification and charity in and through Christ’s redeeming merits.
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is,
sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.
For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life
appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.
In his Letter to the Colossians 3:1-17, St. Paul elaborates on what it means to put on the new self. It requires all baptized Christians to set their minds on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God and not on things that are on the earth. Clothing ourselves involves being dead to this world and alive in Christ in whom our lives are hidden by our not being children of this world. Only by dying to self can Christ’s glory be revealed to us after we depart from this life. To avoid the condemning justice of God we must strip off our old self by collaborating with the Holy Spirit and His gifts of grace. Casting off our old self means renouncing our sinful ways and putting to death whatever in us is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, and greed which is idolatry, (etc.). We must smash all the idols in our lives that come between God and us by ridding ourselves of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from our mouths.
In exchange for our old clothing, as God’s chosen ones, we must clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We must bear with one another and … forgive each other – by being patient and merciful. Just as the Lord has forgiven us, so we also must forgive. Above all, we should clothe ourselves with love. The peace of Christ must rule in our hearts. Clothing ourselves with the new self means letting the word of Christ dwell in us. Finally, we mustn’t forget to thank and praise God the Father for having blessed us with all His gifts of grace so that we may be revealed with Christ in glory now that our Lord has been revealed in our lives on earth.
Early Sacred Tradition
“Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things that
pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together
with all drunkenness, seeking after change, all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and
execrable pride … Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us
clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from
whispering and evil-speaking, being justified by our works, and not our words.”
St. [Pope]Clement of Rome,
Epistle to the Corinthians 30
“And since many saints participate in the Holy Spirit, He cannot therefore be understood to
be a body, which being divided into corporeal parts, is partaken of by each one of the saints;
but He is manifestly a sanctifying power, in which all are said to have a share who have
deserved to be sanctified by His grace.”
Origen, First Principles, I:I,3
“He was made man that we might be made God.”
St. Athanasius, Incarnation 54
“All indeed depends on God, but not so that our free-will is hindered. ‘If then it depend on
God,’ (one says), ‘why does He blame us?’ On this account I said, ‘so that our free-will is no
hindered.’ It depends then on us, and on Him For we must first choose the good; and then He
leads us to His own. He does not anticipate our choice, lest our free-will should be outraged.
But when we have chosen, then great is the assistance he brings to us…For it is ours to choose
and to wish; but God’s to complete and to bring to an end. Since therefore the greater part is
of Him, he says all is of Him, speaking according to the custom of men. For so we ourselves
also do. I mean for instance: we see a house well built, and we say the whole is the Architect’s
[doing], and yet certainly it is not all his, but the workmen’s also, and the owner’s, who supplies
the materials, and many others’, but nevertheless since he contributed the greatest share, we
call the whole his. So then [it is] in this case also.”
St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Hebrews, 12:3
“Thus, it is necessary for a man that he should be not only justified when unrighteous by the
grace of God, that is be changed from unholiness to righteousness, when he is requited with
good for his evil; but that even after he has been justified by his faith, grace should accompany
him on his way lest he fall. On this account it is written concerning the Church herself in
Canticles: ‘Who is this who commeth up in white raiment, leaning upon her kinsman?’ Made
white is she who alone could not be made white. And by whom has she been made white except
by Him who says by the prophet, ‘Though your sins be as purple as scarlet, I will make them
white as snow.’ At the time, then, that she was made white, she deserved nothing good; but now
that she is made white, she walketh well; but it is only by her continuing ever to lean upon Him
by whom she was made white. Wherefore, Jesus Himself, on whom she leans that was made
white, said to His disciples, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’ ”
On Grace and Free Will, 6:13
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.
Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand,
and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 15, 14-16