The Catechism on Justification, Part 05

Today we will be considering Catechism sections 1992-1995, which further describe and define justification.

Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life. (Emphasis added)

This section restates what we have already seen: justification is merited for us by Christ, and makes us actually holy before God.

Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent:
> When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight. (Emphasis added)

What is important to note here is that God does not impose salvation on us against our wills. He made us rational beings, which implies intellectual freedom, and He does not stomp all over human nature in order to force us to be saved. The greatness and mystery of Divine Providence is that God works out His purposes without breaking or compromising the natural order He has established. By His grace we are empowered to cooperate with Him in our justification by living holy lives and by freely assenting to the truths He has revealed, and above all by loving Him.

Justification is the most excellent work of God’s love made manifest in Christ Jesus and granted by the Holy Spirit. … (Emphasis added)

Again, justification is given to us. We do not obtain it on our own. It is the gift of God to creatures who do not deserve it and who could never have attained it by their natural powers.

The Holy Spirit is the master of the interior life. By giving birth to the “inner man,” justification entails the sanctification of his whole being. (Emphasis added)

I am pretty sure I have said this before but the radical division between justification and sanctification which the Reformers created was, I believe, a direct consequence of Luther’s scrupulosity. I am no Luther scholar by any means but to my layman’s eyes it seems pretty obvious that Luther could not accept the idea that he was fully reconciled to God by the Sacrament of Confession. He wanted assurance of salvation separated from personal holiness because he could not accept that he was actually forgiven in Confession and restored to God. (This paragraph is subject to revision or removal in the event that I am presented with sufficient reason to realize that my opinion is mistaken.)

But I digress.

The primary things to be learned from this portion of the CCC is that justification and sanctification are one thing, and they are given freely to us by God, and that He empowers us to cooperate with His grace.

The Catechism on Justification, Part 04

In today’s episode we come to a part of the Catechism that teaches us about the effects of justification in our lives. Not only are we reconciled to God but when He receives us He gives us gifts, not unlike the father of the Prodigal Son. Here’s what CCC §§1990-1991 says:

Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God’s merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals.

Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness (or “justice”) here means the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us. (Emphasis in original)

So reconciliation is of course a principal benefit we receive, but we receive other gifts as well. As a loving Father God gives us blessings we need in order to help us be loving children in return.

  • We receive the gifts of faith, hope, and charity. In Catholic understanding these are the theological virtues. In brief, we are not able in and of ourselves to exercise these virtues because they are God’s gifts to us. We are not able to exercise faith apart from these gifts, nor hope, nor love of God and neighbor.
  • We receive the gift of obedience. God empowers us to obey Him. As with the theological virtues, we cannot obey God by our own strength, and so God gives that strength to us.

We will see more about this topic in a future post, but for now suffice it to say that having been given such amazing gifts, we have the concomitant responsibility to exercise them. We must exercise the virtues of faith, hope, and love; we must strive to obey God. He enables us to do these things, but then we must do them.

The Catechism on Justification, Part 03

In this episode of our continuing series on justification as explained in the CCC we come to §1989:

The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”

We saw in part 1 that justification is the work of the grace of the Holy Spirit. In part 2 the CCC begins to explain what that justification is and means. Now things begin to become more specific. The first work of the Spirit in our justification is conversion, in which (as the CCC says) He brings about justification in us following the pattern of Gospel’s announcement by Jesus. Again we see that it is God’s work, not ours. “Man turns toward God and away from sin”—that is to say, he repents—having been moved by the grace of God. Without that movement of grace, there is no repentance, no conversion, no justification. In repenting, says the Catechism, man accepts God’s forgiveness and is made righteous.

Here we see that according to Catholic teaching sanctification is a part of justification, not something separate and distinct. We need to be forgiven, but we must also be holy, and God makes us holy as part of our justification. Does that mean we are morally perfect, that we will never sin again? Not at all. But we are freed from sin’s power and made clean before God. This is a point of substantial difference with many Protestants. I think there are biographical reasons that explain Luther’s mistaken partitioning of the two, but since I am no historian I will have to bypass that discussion. What is relevant is the impact of the division on how one thinks about justification: if it is distinct from being made holy, then one need not be distressed that his sins after justification have cut him off from God. In short: it seems to me that the value in the division is that it affords the opportunity for an assurance of salvation that the Church has never taught. St. Bellarmine is reported to have said that their doctrine of assurance was the Protestants’ worst error.

Having got this far in our consideration of things, it might be worth the reader’s time to review my series of posts on sola fide. With the backdrop of the Catholic view of justification those posts take on more color. They are not merely about the incongruities between what Protestants say about justification and what the Bible teaches. They also highlight and emphasize that justification and sanctification go together. Being made holy interiorly is part and parcel of what it means to be justified by God. This is why what we do matters. If we sin grievously after being justified, we obliterate the holiness that God infuses into us. Our justification is turned upside down and we become His enemies once again. The assurance that Protestants seek by separating justification and sanctification does not hold together. We are made holy when we are justified, and with God’s grace we may retain and even grow in that holiness. But that is a subject for some other post. :-)

The Accidental Catholic

[Note: this is essentially the same article that I wrote for Called to Communion in 2011. I thought it might be helpful to post here too, at least as a backup copy. I have made a few alterations to chronological references, as well as correcting a typo and making a few other small editorial modifications.]

A gentleman going by the name “MarkS” posted a comment on Bryan Cross’s article about St Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitory. Mark wrote (in part):

As I have tried to sort out different theological issues over the years, I find multiple, often contradictory, opinions about the truths of the faith coming from people who are highly trained in theology and the Bible. Often, these people also appear to demonstrate a love for Christ and the fruit of the Spirit. But, the HS obviously does not lead people to contradictory positions. So if God’s means for providing the perspicuous truth are the Scriptures, the Spirit, and tradition, then it appears that the only ways a person cannot know the truth are that he is not adequately educated or he lacks the Spirit. (I deliberately left out the church as a means of conveying the truth because if the church is marked teaching the truth then one must first know the truth in order to identify the church). But, I see no reason to believe that either of these are true about men, for example, like Keith Mathison and Francis Pieper. This makes their disagreement over an issue like baptism all the more frustrating to me.

Mark’s comments here struck a chord with me, because it was this exact issue that forced me out of Protestantism. When the enormity of this problem finally hit home it was epiphanic in its force for me. I knew almost instantly that I could no longer remain a Protestant (at the time, I also said that there was no way that I would ever become a Catholic). I started writing a reply to Mark on the day his comment appeared, but I decided against posting it because I feared my reply would be off-topic for the Commonitory article’s comment box. This turns out to have been fortuitous, because I have the privilege of saying something in reply to Mark today.

Although I was baptized in the Lutheran church, Sunday worship was a rarity for us until my early teens when my mother experienced something of a spiritual awakening (she considered it her conversion) that bore fruit in her becoming a faithful member of a Free Methodist congregation. She started taking my brother and me with her to worship every week (although I think that “dragging us” probably more honestly characterizes my interest at the time). Her prayers for me were eventually answered a few years later when I embraced the Christian faith myself. In the interval a cross-country move meant that we needed a new church home, and the encouragement of a friend of mine led us to the PCA, whose doctrine I gladly received as reflecting scriptural truth.

In the course of time I evinced an interest in considering the pastorate, and my pastor encouraged me to think about attending Covenant College. I accepted his counsel, and though my enthusiasm for the ministry waned, I graduated with a degree in Biblical Studies. My great interests when I left Covenant were in biblical languages, covenant theology, and presuppositional apologetics. Subsequently I attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia for a year before getting married—something that proved to be the end of my educational career. Although friends would from time to time encourage me to finish my schooling, the best course of action seemed to lay elsewhere for me: I didn’t know for sure whether I ought to be a college professor, but I knew for a fact that I already had a calling to be a faithful husband and father. So I contented myself with serving as an adult Sunday School teacher on a regular basis and reading. And reading. And reading some more.

I won’t presume to say whether I deserved it or not, but I acquired a reputation with those who knew me as a well-informed layman. I read a lot (did I mention that?), and I earnestly tried to integrate what I read with what I believed the Bible to teach. I wasn’t content merely to know what I believed; I wanted to understand it as well as I could, and I wanted to be able to explain the truth to others as well.

There came a time when being a presuppositionalist inspired a goal: to discover unbiblical presuppositions that I held, and to root them out. This wasn’t something that I tried to do in one day, or in a week or even a month; for a variety of reasons (the exigencies of work and family, to say nothing of my own weaknesses in the art—if that is the right word—of introspection) it was a long-term project that I pursued when I could. I couldn’t have imagined it at the time, but this earnest desire to think biblically—to think Christianly—would prove to be the first step on my road to the Catholic Church.

The second step was my departure from the PCA in association with a cross-country move, which led us to a Reformed Episcopal Church parish. In retrospect I think that this was an important step for us, because it constituted a move away from my Presbyterian comfort zone. I had no intention at all of forsaking Reformed theology, but I was introduced to a wider world, so to speak, than the fairly insular Presbyterian communities I had always known and loved. I was introduced to conservative Anglican theological perspectives and began reading the Church Fathers. I was particularly affected by St. Ignatius’ remarks on the centrality of the bishop to the life and structure of the Church (something that has been discussed at Called to Communion here), and remember being both surprised by this fact and struck by how different his view was from what I had always believed.

The most critical event, though, occurred in early 2004. A friend mentioned that a gentleman named [Thomas Howard]( would be speaking nearby. I knew nothing about him, so I looked him up in the encyclopedia. I found an interview of him conducted by Frank Schaeffer (Eastern Orthodox by that time). It inspired the following thoughts in an email to friends (redacted somewhat for the sake of brevity, and to preserve the privacy of one friend whose name is mentioned):

What — or who — is the final authority for the Church? For the Christian? I suppose I’ve made it pretty clear here many times what my view is: The Bible is the final authority, because it is God’s Word.

If we are going to say – if I am going to say – that the Bible is the final authority, what does the Bible say? How do we know what the Bible says? Who is going to tell me what the Bible says? My answer, and/or the Protestant answer, and the Roman Catholic answer, are different.

The Protestant basically decides for himself what the Bible says. Now that is very coarsely put: he may accept what he is taught by others, and he doesn’t just make it up out of whole cloth (well – normally he doesn’t), and he may (as my college Doctrine textbook said we ought to do) treat the opinions represented by 2000 years of church history and theology with utmost respect in arriving at his conclusions, and he may use all the right hermeneutical tools to try to understand what the Bible says, and all good Protestants will say that they submit or try to submit to the instruction of the Holy Spirit while reading the Bible, and blah blah blah…

And yet the Protestant still makes up his mind for himself.It’s not hard to see, and it has been said many times before and by better minds than mine, that this is the root cause of the umpteen thousand different Protestant denominations in the world. And if I remember correctly Rome predicted this sort of thing as the inevitable consequence of individual believers being declared free to decide for themselves what the Bible says — what the truth is.

It’s not hard to see the validity in criticisms of Protestantism, which has become so disgracefully splintered thanks to elevation of the individual as the one who decides what The Truth is.

And as for me? Well, I suppose I’d wind up getting slapped with the criticisms leveled against the Protestants.

I don’t think even the Westminster Confession—surely a high-water mark for Protestant Theology—entirely escapes the force of the problem. It says: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined; and in whose sentence we are to rest; can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (I:10).

Okay, that sounds good. But how do we know what He says?

Elsewhere in the same chapter they say: “Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word” (I:6).

Okay, sounds good. So how do we explain the fact that godly men differ about things?

Jimmy-Joe and I differ about at least one of the sacraments — surely not a thing we may describe as adiophora. So has one of us not benefited from “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God”? Which one of us? Or, if someone decides that both he and I (or either one of us) are obviously not blessed with the Holy Spirit’s illuminating power at all, fine: that merely forces us to ask the same about men like, say, Luther and Calvin, or Owen and Wesley, or Spurgeon and Hodge.

How can men of unquestionable godliness arrive at different conclusions about what the Bible says on fundamental issues like the sacraments, if what the Westminster Confession says about illumination by the Spirit is true? Is the answer that the Spirit doesn’t illumine everyone in the same way and to the same degree?

But if that is the case, then it seems to pretty much demolish what the Confession says, and we’re back to asking the same ol’ question, put slightly differently this time: On question X, who has been more illumined by the Holy Spirit, so that we know who is right?

[emphasis added]

So I was asking the same question in 2004 that Mark asked in 2011. And it hit me soon after writing that email that the problem is insoluble. On the Protestant’s terms, and given that Protestants disagree with each other about things that even they say are not matters of indifference, there is no way that I know of to preserve any certainty whatsoever about the Bible’s teaching.

Why? Consider the two (or possibly three) appeals made by Protestants to justify their statements as to what the Bible teaches.

  1. The appeal to exegesis: This is by far the most common resort among at least non-charismatic Protestants. But it goes almost without saying that exegesis doesn’t settle all the questions. There are brilliant scholars on practically every side of practically every disputed question. Is Calvin or Luther right about the Eucharist? Is Spurgeon wrong about Baptism? It would be one thing if we could reasonably say that Protestant differences do not extend to questions of essential or important doctrines. But we surely can’t say that. It seems both unjust and ad hoc to say that the reason “the other guys” get it wrong is because they are lousy scholars. Cannot “the other guys” say the same thing? Of course they can. And they do. Consequently it seems the inescapable conclusion must be that mere exegesis simply cannot bear the weight that is placed upon it by Protestants. Exegesis cannot answer all questions concerning important or even essential doctrines. It seems worthwhile to point out a related problem. The appeal to exegesis eventually has the practical effect of creating a government of the academics, so that the Church depends upon scholars for her knowledge of revealed truth. But there is neither historical nor scriptural warrant for such a thing. This is not to say that there is no place for exegesis, of course, but rather that it is unwarranted for the scholar to be the arbiter of revealed truth.

  2. The appeal to the Holy Spirit: It is not unusual for Protestants to say that the Holy Spirit guides their interpretation of the Bible, at least in regard to essentials or important things. But this appeal runs up against the same problem as the appeal to exegesis: Baptists and Presbyterians and Lutherans may all make the same appeal. But God does not lie, and He is not the author of confusion. Consequently it cannot be the case that He has illumined the credobaptists and the paedobaptists, or the Lutheran view of the Eucharist and the Presbyterian view. One way to resolve that conflict is to deny that the Spirit has guided “the other guys” (and as we shall see this has been done), but “the other guys” can of course make the same claim about us. Stalemate. Hence as with the appeal to exegesis it is clear that the appeal to the illumination of the Holy Spirit cannot answer all questions concerning important or even essential doctrines.

  3. The appeal to tradition: Some Protestants will occasionally appeal to the authority of some tradition or other as corroboration for their views. Among the Reformed this often takes the form of appeals to the Westminster standards. But in the long run this bare appeal does not resolve the problems related to how we know what the Bible teaches. In the first place, the centrality of the doctrine of sola scriptura means that Protestants who disagree with some tradition feel no obligation to accept it: they simply say, “that is a human tradition that contradicts the Bible.” Secondly, there are a variety of theological traditions among Protestants, of course. So how do we know that we should accept the Reformed or the Lutheran or the Baptist one? Appeals to exegesis or to the guidance of the Spirit run up against the problems we’ve pointed out above. So on the Protestant’s terms that there is no principled way to identify the authentic tradition.

For these reasons, then, it seems that Protestantism cannot offer certainty about the Faith. The very best that could be hoped for is some sort of consensual agreement among them that this and not that are taught in the Bible. But of course the question then arises: which consensus? The Baptist one, or the Presbyterian-Lutheran-Anglican one? The Federal Vision one, or the PCA General Assembly one? And on what principled basis shall we choose?

Well…I think it is clear that no principled basis is possible on Protestantism’s terms, and that is why I broke with it in 2004.

One alternative could be sought in the primacy of the individual conscience. But not even Luther, who rather famously made such a claim (“Here I stand”), could remain consistent with it in the long run:

Luther believed that if Scripture were studied with the aid of all linguistic and critical tools, its sense would become absolutely plain, and no honest and competent inquirer would fail to miss the meaning, because the Holy Spirit would guide him to the true sense. If there were actually divergent interpretations, one would have to be wrong, and the Spirit lacking in the case of him who erred (Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, p. 215).

So who is lacking the Spirit? And to say that about one’s theological adversaries is tantamount to saying that they’re probably not even Christian, because who but a non-believer would be lacking the Spirit’s guidance? This kind of thinking is why we sometimes see suggestions that “the other guy” is wrong either because he is ignorant or stupid (and consequently his exegesis is wrong), or that he is wicked (because his disagreement shows that he lacks the Spirit’s guidance and therefore can’t be a Christian).

And again:

Luther came to feel that the Holy Spirit was responsible not onlyfor the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed but even for the Augsburg Confession. If the dissenter appealed to his conscience the reply was that conscience as such has no claims but only a right conscience. … Only the correct conscience therefore is to be respected (ibid.; emphasis in original).

Indeed. But who has the ‘correct conscience’?

Bainton’s observations are consistent with the remarks of historian H. Daniel-Rops:

For three centuries Protestantism has been unable to escape the dilemma: either the freedom of the Spirit which leads to anarchy, or else the acceptance of an orthodoxy which in substance is contrary to the spirit of the Reformation. (Our Brothers in Christ, p. 188)

The appeal to the primacy of the individual’s conscience certainly has Reformation precedence, but it is flatly inconsistent with the attempt to arrive at an objective Rule of Faith.

All of this being the case, I submit that it is unreasonable to say that certainty about the content of revealed truth is possible on these terms, because they inevitably reduce down to subjectivism. And when I realized this, I knew that my days as a Protestant were over. And though I had no intention on that day of becoming Catholic, it was only a matter of time before I knew that I would have to at least consider the Catholic Church’s claims concerning herself. The rest is history.

So what do the steps I mentioned at the beginning of this article have to do with this conclusion? Well, not a whole lot. But they constituted the framework within which I eventually arrived at it. At no time did I seek to question the Reformed Faith, nor was I dissatisfied with it. I was simply seeking the truth, and the Truth turned out to be rather different than I expected. I remember thinking at the time something very similar to what Bryan Cross wrote here (Warning: that link is to the giant “Solo Scriptura” thread; I will quote the relevant portion momentarily). I had set for myself the goal of rooting out unbiblical presuppositions from my thinking, and it occurred to me in 2004 that with its emphasis upon the primacy of the individual conscience Protestantism in one sense amounted to a baptism of Renaissance Humanism: man makes himself the judge of Scripture, and its truth is reduced to what he can understand in it for himself. Years later Bryan Cross would say, in the comment I just linked:

Protestantism is the daughter of Renaissance Humanism and the midwife of Enlightenment philosophy. In that time especially, men began to place their own reason above the divine authority of the Church.

Well, my goal was to think biblically, but I certainly didn’t expect to discover this as an unbiblical presupposition that I needed to remove!

And what about St Ignatius? Well, I came to wonder just how probable it could be that he—a likely student of St John himself—could have got ecclesiology wrong?

My path out of Protestantism can be reduced down to a single question. If I believe ‘X’ about doctrine ‘A’ (which cannot be a matter of indifference) and the Church (however you define it—I don’t think it matters at this point) teaches ‘Y’ about it such that X and Y are mutually exclusive, who is right? This one question demanded that I address the presuppositional question (“Do I really have standing to judge for myself what Scripture’s truth is?”), the historical question (“Is it really credible to think that the Church ‘blew it’ by the start of the second century?”), and obviously the authority questions I discussed in email with my friends.

If I say that I am right, I have to ask how it is possible that the Church could be wrong. If the Church could be wrong, then we are left with ecclesial deism: I am forced to conclude that God does not preserve the Church (however it is defined) from error. But if that is the case there is likewise no reason to suppose that I have been preserved from error. Consequently there is no principled reason to suppose that I am right rather than the Church. But if this is the case, then there appears to be no way that I can know what God has revealed, and Protestantism’s claims about how we know revealed truth do not work. Consequently they are false.

So I think that this is a fair question to put to the Reformers. If the Catholic Church can be wrong in what she teaches, why should we accept what Luther and Calvin said instead?

99 sheep

Luke 15 offers us a striking illustration of how mistaken the Reformed doctrine of total depravity is. In verses 4-6 the Lord Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, which concludes with this observation about how things are in the real world:

In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance. (Luke 15:7, NJB)

If the Reformed doctrine of total depravity was true then this declaration of The Lord becomes pointless and incoherent, because there would be no ninety-nine upright people. At all. The equivalent statement, if the Reformed were right about this, would be “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over a group of people who do not really exist.” Heck, on the Reformed view we don’t even get the one repentant sinner!

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.