The Catechism on Justification, Part 02

In our first foray into what the CCC teaches us about justification, it gave us the bird’s-eye, wide-angle-lens view of the doctrine. We learned that justification is the work of the Holy Spirit, a work of free grace; we observed that this means the common Protestant idea (that Catholicism is legalistic) is bunk which has been perpetuated for centuries with very little actual investigation by the critics. In today’s episode, we start to delve somewhat deeper; the CCC begins to dive in closer in order to tell us how the Holy Spirit applies His power for the sake of our justification:

Through the power of the Holy Spirit we take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin, and in his Resurrection by being born to a new life; we are members of his Body which is the Church, branches grafted onto the vine which is himself. [§1988]

Perhaps the first thing to notice is that the CCC does not intend to give us a sequence of events. Rather, it is telling us in summary form what happens in our justification.

  1. We take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin. See, for example, Romans 6:3 & 8: “You cannot have forgotten that all of us, when we were baptised into Christ Jesus, were baptised into his death. … if we died with Christ, then we shall live with him too.” (NJB; emphasis added) Paul says that we died with Christ. Now obviously He does not and cannot mean this in the usual literal, chronological sense: the Cross is two millennia past, and people who are not yet born obviously cannot die. The Catechism says that we “take part” in His death. We participate in it in a mysterious way; we share in His death in some sense that defies my ability to explain. We have a part in it, and St. Paul says that we died with Christ. It will not do, I think, to try and say that the Apostle meant this only in some figurative sense, because he goes on to say that if we died with Him, “then we shall live with Him too.” Clearly he does not mean that we live with Christ in any symbolic way, but rather he means it literally; so too then he means — however difficult it is for us to wrap our brains around it — he means that we have died with Christ in something more than merely a symbolic way.
  2. This point is important in how the CCC frames its summary. “We take part in Christ’s passion,” but also in His Resurrection (Romans 6:8 again; see also v. 5: “If we have been joined to him by dying a death like his, so we shall be by a resurrection like his”). We are joined together with Christ not only in His death, but in His Resurrection. By sharing in them both we enjoy the benefits of both.
  3. The CCC describes our union with Christ in the most intimate ways one can imagine: “we are members of His Body;” and “branches grafted onto the vine which is Himself.” What strikes me here, from an apologetic angle, is that the various members of a body or the various branches of a vine have no life in themselves. Take an arm from the body, and the arm dies. Cut a branch from a vine, and the branch dies. It is only by our union with Christ, as members of His Body and as branches of the True Vine, that we have life. It would be just plain silly, then, to suggest that arms attach themselves to shoulders, or that eyes put themselves in sockets, or that ears attach themselves to heads, or that branches graft themselves onto vines. None of these things can happen. Dead things like these do not have life in them so as to unite themselves to the Body, to the Vine. This being the case, it is silly to say that the Catholic Church teaches some means of salvation according to which men can supposedly save themselves. The Catechism teaches no such thing. It doesn’t teach that because we can’t do that. We cannot graft ourselves into the True Vine. We cannot make ourselves a part of Christ’s Body. Only God has the power to accomplish this.

The Catechism on Justification, Part 01

I have spent quite some time reviewing passages of Scripture that present problems for the Protestant doctrine of sola fide. More recently we took a look at what the Council of Trent had to say about the Catholic formulation of sola fide. I think it would be profitable to spend some time looking at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says on the subject of justification. I am choosing the CCC rather than some older source for one reason: readability. The doctrine hasn’t changed, but things are expressed in terms that are (hopefully for us) clearer to the modern reader. The section on justification is a bit lengthy, though, and in order to do it justice my plan, Lord willing, is to write several posts about it. There are different angles, I reckon, from which one could view what the CCC has to say on the topic. I suspect that if anything my comments will be largely apologetical in viewpoint, though I may broaden the scope from time to time too.

With that housekeeping out of the way, let’s take a look at §1987, where the CCC’s discussion of grace and justification begins. Right away we should observe that justification and grace are grouped together here. We saw before that the Council of Trent attributed our justification solely to grace; the connection is reaffirmed in the CCC.

The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism.

What has the power to justify us? Only one answer is given: “the grace of the Holy Spirit.” We do not, we cannot justify ourselves before God. Nothing we do or say or think or believe justifies us. God does it. God must do it, or it cannot be done at all: for starters, we are sinners and cannot reconcile ourselves to Him when we stand condemned. On top of that, no natural power is sufficient to attain to a supernatural goal. Our powers are suited to the natural world. They cannot and will never be sufficient to lift us above nature to God’s presence, which is obviously supernatural.

From an apologetics point of view the most obvious thing to note here is that there are many Protestants who have a mistaken notion of what the Church teaches about justification. Most of what they hear said is just that: hearsay. The presumption is made that the Catholic Church is legalistic because so-and-so said it, and he’s an expert…but far more often than not, our so-and-so expert has not actually read anything published by the Catholic Church; rather, he is only parroting what he heard someone else say. And so on. And so on. And so on. I can assure you that this was most certainly my experience as a Protestant, even at my conservative Presbyterian alma mater. Catholic views were critiqued in the courses I took as part of my biblical studies degree, but they were never actually examined from primary sources (like, for example, the CCC). The inevitable result was the perpetuation of mistakes and errors that are centuries old and which remain unquestioned throughout most corners of the Protestant world. I hope this series of posts will help to clear the air of all that smog, and contribute to our mutual pursuit of the truth.

The needless mistake of total depravity

Calvinists believe in a doctrine they name total depravity, according to which they claim:

From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions. [From the Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. VI; emphasis added]

More than one part of Scripture contradicts this erroneous doctrine. We shall be considering a number of them. First up is Psalm 106:3:

How blessed are those who keep to what is just, whose conduct is always upright! (NJB)

If the Reformed were right, the set of people identified by this verse is empty, which makes it pointless. We may as well say, “How blessed are…uh…well, never mind.” No legal fiction of mere imputation of righteousness will overcome the force of this verse. The Reformed say everyone necessarily sins; the Bible makes it clear that it is at least possible not to sin.

The Reformed are wrong on this score. They did not have to be. If they had broadened their hermeneutical horizons beyond the poetic hyperbole of a couple Psalms quoted in Romans, they might have got the right answer. Their mistake was unnecessary. If we are not free to do choose to do good or evil we cannot justly be held accountable for our sins, because we would then only be doing what is natural for us. Even worse, if it is natural for us to sin then either Jesus also had a sin nature or he was not genuinely human but rather something else similar to but different from us. This, of course, is ludicrous, and it is part of the reason why so-called total depravity is erroneous.

What they fear, evidently, is the Pelagian error that a man can merit salvation apart from grace. Their claim that the Catholic Church teaches something like this is another mistake. In point of fact even if Adam had not sinned he would still have needed grace in order to attain to heaven. Why? Because heaven is supernatural. That means (among other things) that it is above and beyond our powers entirely. We always need grace in order to see God, even if we have not sinned. To say otherwise—to suggest that if Adam had not sinned he would have merited heaven apart from grace—that is the Pelagian error. The Catholic Church has always taught otherwise, the fictions perpetuated by her adversaries notwithstanding.

God’s will for you, in two quotations

Christians of every stripe (and especially Protestants, and I do not mean this as a criticism at all) want to know God’s will for their lives, so that they can do it. This is a perfectly rational question for those who love God, but the answer to the question is often (dare I say normally) pretty hard to see when it comes to everyday life questions. Here are a couple takes on the subject from two great men, and from completely different angles.

Our first sage is unsurprisingly this blog’s eponym, St. Thomas Aquinas. In this passage from the Summa Theologiae he responds to the objection that we cannot know God’s will in every case (and therefore do not need to seek to do His will at all):

We can know in a general way what God wills. For we know that whatever God wills, He wills it under the aspect of good. Consequently whoever wills a thing under any aspect of good, has a will conformed to the Divine will, as to the reason of the thing willed. But we know not what God wills in particular: and in this respect we are not bound to conform our will to the Divine will. (ST I-II q.19 a.10 ad 1; emphasis added)

So by the Common Doctor’s reckoning, we do not know God’s will concerning specifics (presuming here that it is not an obvious question related to keeping the Ten Commandments or something like that), and so we are not bound to try to do something that is impossible for us. God does not normally reveal His specific will to us, so it is sufficient that our reason for doing the thing must be conformed to the good as best we can tell.

Please note: this is not an excuse to do things that we know are evil because we intend good from them. The end does not ever justify the means! It does however mean that the better we know God’s general will, and the better we know Him, the better we are able to love Him and the better we will discern the good that pleases Him. And this seems like a pleasant place to turn our attention to our second author, Thomas Merton, who prayed this:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude; emphasis added)

See how nicely this dovetails with what Aquinas said above? And Merton is exactly right: we do not really know ourselves, so it is really absurd for us to think that we know exactly what God wants us to do at every turn in the road. But when we want to please God, He is pleased with us, and if we seek to please Him in all things, then we may with Merton pray that He will guide us and trust Him to do so.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. (§837)

Charity is love of God and love of our neighbor out of love for God. Is it not perfectly reasonable to say that a man who does not love God will not be saved? Of faith, hope, and charity St. Paul says that the greatest is charity. We are not saved without faith, to be sure, but how can we be saved without love for God? Is that not just plain ridiculous? And since Jesus says (John 14:15) that if we love Him we will keep His commandments, and since the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor, is it not equally ridiculous to say that the man who hates his neighbor will still go to heaven? Because he shows that he does not love Jesus by that hatred of his neighbor.

Another absurdity comes to us from the Baltimore Catechism:

305 Q. Is prayer necessary to salvation? A. Prayer is necessary to salvation, and without it no one having the use of reason can be saved. (Source)

Again, if we love God, will we not talk to Him? How crazy is it to suggest that I love someone that I refuse to speak with? How do we show we love God by failing to pray?

Loving God and praying to Him are necessary for our salvation. To say otherwise (as some folks might) is nonsense.

Catholic Sola Fide

Catholic Sola Fide

Throughout my series of posts laying out scriptural difficulties with sola fide, I have tried to be careful to frame it as the Protestant view of sola fide. There are two reasons for this. First, it is rather more famously associated with Protestantism, but more importantly because there is a Catholic view of sola fide as well. So it is not that the Protestant holds to a doctrine that is purely mythic but rather that he holds to an erroneous view of it. In this post my aim is to sketch the Catholic view, therewith concluding (for the most part, I reckon) this series.

Perhaps some Protestants will be surprised that the Catholic view of the doctrine is taught by the Council of Trent, which many of them consider a den of villainy. They do so wrongly. :-) In the Council’s Decree on Justification the eighth chapter is devoted to justification by faith:

But whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith, and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we be therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons; but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, then is it no more by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle saith, grace is no more grace. (emphasis in original)

In other words: God gives us the grace of faith, and does so freely (not because we in any way merit it), and by that faith we are justified “because faith is … the root of all justification;” we can neither merit the grace by which we have exercised faith nor merit justification itself in any way whatsoever. This construction is consistent with chapter VII of Trent, which enumerates the causes of our justification: none of them are in any way a consequence of human merit. But this is not all.

Not only have Protestants misrepresented Trent (and the Catholic Church)’s teaching on justification, but they have redefined the crucial term of faith itself, so that it represents a fiduciary sort of trust in God. On the other hand the Church has always taught that faith is “belief in God and … all that He has revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief” (CCC §1842). Of course one must trust God because He is infinitely trustworthy, but that is not the primary sense of faith as the Church has always taught. This is an issue that the Council of Trent addresses in chapter IX of the Decree on Justification:

[It is] not to be said that sins are forgiven, or have been forgiven, to any one who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of his sins, and rests on that alone … But neither is this to be asserted,—that it behoves them who are truly justified, without any doubting whatever, to settle within themselves that they are justified, and that no one is absolved from sins and justified, but he who for certain believes that he is absolved and justified; and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone; as though whosoever believeth not this, doubts respecting the promises of God, and the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ. … [N]o one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to mistake, that he has obtained the grace of God.

We are saved by Christ alone, not because we have confidence in the notion that we are saved. Such confidence can and does waver for many godly folk; are they lost, then saved, lost, and saved or lost again just because of this? How does this not reduce one’s salvation to a human exercise in the maintenance of confidence? And where in Scripture am I told that I personally am or am not one of God’s elect?

In short: there is a biblical, Catholic sense in which we are justified by faith alone. The Protestant version isn’t it.

No sola fide at the last judgment

Come Judgment Day we will be judged according to what we have done. This is perfectly in keeping with Jesus’s declaration, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).

I saw the dead, great and small alike, standing in front of his throne while the books lay open.  And another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged from what was written in the books, as their deeds deserved. The sea gave up all the dead who were in it; Death and Hades were emptied of the dead that were in them; and every one was judged as his deeds deserved. Then Death and Hades were hurled into the burning lake. This burning lake is the second death; and anybody whose name could not be found written in the book of life was hurled into the burning lake. (Revelation 20:12-15, NJB; emphasis added)

We will be judged according to our works. Faith is not mentioned here at all. What is interesting is that there appear to be two groups of people before the Throne: those whose names are written in the Book of Life and everyone else. If our names are not written in the Book of Life, we are hurled into the lake of fire. It appears from this that it’s just understood that we stand condemned if we are not in that great Book: our deeds will not have measured up. It seems that there is more going on here, though. It seems pretty clear that everyone’s deeds will be judged. That includes Christians.

We cannot rely on mere faith nor on mere deeds. We must love God and keep His commandments.

Unspoiled Religion

We are drawing near (at least for now) to the end of my series of posts addressing problems and difficulties with the Protestant doctrine of sola fide.

Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world. (James 1:27, NJB)

If sola fide were true as Protestants define it, one would expect that there would be some mention here of faith. There isn’t. Instead, the apostle’s concern is with how Christians ought to behave as the defining characteristic of Christianity. As always I hasten to add that this does not mean faith is irrelevant: we have too much evidence showing that it is necessary to say that. But we also have far too much evidence to say that the Protestant formulation of sola fide is correct.

How to see God

The letter to the Hebrews has this to say about seeing God.

Seek peace with all people, and the holiness without which no one can ever see the Lord. (12:14, NJB)

Without holiness no one can ever see God. This contradicts the Protestant view of sola fide, according to which one is justified by faith alone (and thereby goes to heaven). Of course, the previous chapter of Hebrews is famously devoted to the value and necessity of faith, and I do not mean to deny that, but there is a holiness which Christians (the addressees of the letter) must seek and without which they will not see God. The Protestant’s sola fide is insufficient; we must also live holy lives. Bear in mind: he is addressing Christians. Hence on the Protestant view there is nothing left to be done…and yet Hebrews says otherwise.

Hear and obey

Here is yet another occasion where the Lord’s discussion of our salvation omits any mention of the Protestant’s sola fide view:

If any one hears my sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me. (John 12:47-50, RSV2CE)

I am not exactly sure how one could read sola fide into this passage, since it deals expressly with obedience to Christ’s commandments (and consequently the Father’s). Jesus expects us to keep His commands if we are His people. We see the same themes in another passage in St. John’s gospel:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. … He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. … He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. (John 14:15, 21, 24, RSV2CE; emphasis added).

I am almost certainly repeating myself, but how credible is it to say that one who does not love God will be saved? But if we do not obey Him, then we do not love Him. There is no way around it: our love for our Savior is demonstrated by what we do. There is more at work here than mere sola fide.

It is also worth observing that once again we see the Reformed idea of “total depravity” is left in ruins by the words of our Lord: if there is literally no one who does good at all, then there can be no one who loves Jesus, and there is obviously a population of zero in heaven (outside of God Himself and His holy angels). Obedience is not a dirty word, and it is not irrational to suppose that God would give us commands the observance of which show our love for Him.