Justification: The Catholic Church and the Judaizers in St. Paul’s Letter to the GalatiansDec 17th, 2009 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Steve Hays has claimed that what I recently said about justification is at odds with what Robert Sungenis has said about justification. But, in fact, there is no contradiction between what I have said and what Robert has said on this subject.
What makes this difficult to understand, from a Protestant point of view, is that in Catholic theology there is a distinction between justification and an increase in justification. There is no such distinction in Protestant theologies, and for that reason Protestants not infrequently treat Catholic statements about the increase in justification as though they are about justification itself.
Justification is defined by the Council of Trent as “translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior.” (Trent VI.4)1 Justification takes place through the sacrament of baptism, and then, if a person falls into mortal sin, through the sacrament of penance. At the instant of justification, the person receives sanctifying grace and the theological (supernatural) virtues of faith, hope and charity (agape). This does not mean that these cannot be received prior to the actual reception of the sacrament of baptism. Even then, however, they come through the sacrament, and anticipate its reception.
An increase in justification is not the same thing as justification. An increase in justification is not the translation from a state in which one is deprived of sanctifying grace to a state in which one has sanctifying grace. An increase in justification is an increase in sanctifying grace from a condition in which one already has sanctifying grace. This is what St. Peter means in exhorting believers to grow in grace. (2 Pet 3:18) An increase in justification is not receiving sanctifying grace where there is none, but a movement of growth from grace to more grace, and thus a growth in conformity to the likeness of Christ, by an increase in the capacity of our participation in the divine nature. (2 Pet 1:4)
The reason this distinction between justification and its increase is important for understanding the Catholic doctrine concerning justification is that although a person can and should prepare for justification (Trent VI.6), he cannot merit justification by any works. But, a person who is already justified and in a state of grace, can merit an increase in justification by doing good works out of love (agape) for God. Among these good works are works in keeping with the moral law, done out of love (agape) for God. God rewards our works done in agape by increasing our capacity to participate in His divine nature, and thus by increasing our participation in His agape. He Himself is our reward, and growth in grace is growth in Him, a reward we receive already in this present life, to be multiplied abundantly in the life to come.
Does St. Paul teach that justification is by keeping the ceremonial law? No. Does St. Paul teach that justification is by keeping the moral law? No. According to St. Paul, justification is not by works of the law, and in St. Paul “works of the Law” refers to the whole law under the Old Covenant. That’s what Robert is saying, and I agree with him, and nothing I said contradicts what he said. But, as I will explain below, unless we recognize the difference between the meaning of “works of the Law” as including the ceremonial law, and the New Covenant law that does not include the ceremonial law, we can mistakenly treat St. Paul’s teaching that justification is not by the former as though it also denies increases in justification by means of the latter.
Without sanctifying grace and living faith, we cannot merit heaven; to claim otherwise would be Pelagianism. And that is why we cannot be justified by works. For St. Paul justification is by living faith, and we receive this living faith by hearing (Rom 10:17), and it is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5) through the sacrament of baptism (Rom 6, Col 2). But none of that condemns or denies increases in justification through good works in accordance with the moral law done out of love (agape) for God.
My comment to Jason Engwer (in the quotation Steve cites) is not about justification, but about increases in justification. Jason interprets St. Paul’s condemnation of the Judaizers in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians as evidence that the Catholic doctrine of justification is a false gospel. Jason writes:
The apostle Paul said that one error, the adding of works to the gospel, was sufficient to create a false gospel that doesn’t save. The “only thing” Paul wanted to know from the Galatians was how they received justification (Galatians 3:2). And Evangelicals and Catholics disagree about how justification is received. The difference between justification through faith alone and justification through faith and works is the difference between a true gospel and a false gospel. Catholics can be saved as individuals, but only in spite of their denomination’s false gospel. Catholics can be Christians as individuals, but Catholicism isn’t Christian by apostolic standards.
Jason thinks that the Catholic doctrine is that we are justified by “faith and works.” But that is not true. As I explained above, in Catholic doctrine we are justified not by works, but by living faith, and living faith includes the supernatural virtue [i.e. disposition] of agape. Yet we may increase in justification by works done out of love (agape) for God, according to the order Christ has gratuitously established. In my response to Jason I said:
Jason, is it even possible, in your mind, that you have misinterpreted St. Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatians? You are not making any distinction between the works of the ceremonial law as part of the Old Covenant, and works of the moral law, done in a state of grace in the New Covenant, out of love [agape] for God. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul wasn’t condemning (or even referring to) growth in justification through good works done in a state of grace; he was condemning a return to the Old Covenant by Christians, because that was a rejection of the New Covenant and implicitly a rejection of Jesus as the Messiah who established the New Covenant in which the requirement of those ceremonial laws is done away. If you don’t understand the distinction between the ceremonial law and the moral law, then you have entirely misunderstood Paul’s point in his letter to the Galatians. Then your whole warrant for calling the Church’s teaching a “false gospel” is based on a misinterpretation of Scripture.
Here I was pointing out that St. Paul’s condemnation of the teaching of the Judaizers was not for believing that works done in agape (in accordance with the moral law under the New Covenant) increase our justification, but for believing that the keeping of the ceremonial law, and thus returning to the Old Covenant (and a keeping of the whole law) is necessary for justification. Jason mistakenly construes Catholic doctrine as falling under St. Paul’s condemnation of the Judaizers in Galatia. Jason does this by glossing two important differences between the Catholic doctrine of justification and the Judaizers’ doctrine of salvation.
First, the Judaizers were rejecting the New Covenant, in which we are justified by sanctifying grace and [living] faith in Christ, received through the sacrament of baptism instituted by Christ. But the Catholic Church affirms the New Covenant. In fact the Catholic Church is the New Israel, the Israel of the New Covenant. (cf. Gal 6:16) The Catholic Church teaches that we are justified by [living] faith in Christ, a faith that we receive as a gift from God, along with sanctifying grace, in the sacrament of baptism instituted by Christ. Jason’s assumption that St. Paul’s condemnation of the Judaizers’ doctrine applies to Catholic doctrine overlooks the role of the Covenants in the Galatian account. Jason thinks that St. Paul’s concern in his letter to the Galatians is simply excluding works of any sort from justification. It is true that St. Paul recognizes that works cannot justify. But St. Paul’s primary concern for the Galatian believers is that they remain within the New Covenant, and thus remain united to Christ. By adding the requirement of the ceremonial law they were returning to the Old Covenant, and thus nullifying the New Covenant and the sacrifice of Christ, the long-awaited Messiah and Savior. (cf. Gal 5:1ff) The Catholic Church rejects the requirement of returning to the Old Covenant for justification or salvation. From the Catholic point of view, adding the requirements of the ceremonial law would be nothing less than apostasy from the New Covenant established by the blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. So in this respect, the Catholic Church does not fall under St. Paul’s condemnation of the doctrine of the Judaizers.
Second, according to Jason, the Catholic doctrine is that we are justified by “faith and works.” But that is not an accurate explanation of the Catholic doctrine of justification. In Catholic theology we can and should do things to prepare for baptism. But those things are not meritorious, and they do not justify. So it would be erroneous to claim that the Catholic belief that we ought to prepare for our baptism entails that in Catholic theology justification is by “faith and works.” In Catholic theology, none of our works can justify us. Good works done out of agape for God have a role only in the increase in our justification. Jason’s claim that Catholic theology falls under St. Paul’s condemnation of the doctrine of Judaizers is based on a false conflation of justification and increases in justification. St. Paul’s condemnation of justification by “works of the Law” is not about increases in justification through good works done in a state of grace under the New Covenant. St. Paul rules out justification by works, but so does the Catholic Church. (Cf. Trent VI.1) In none of his writings, including his letter to the Galatians, does St. Paul teach that good works done in a state of grace under the New Covenant do not increase justification. Growing in grace does not mean sinning more, so as to show forth God’s forgiveness more fully. Growth in grace means growing in conformity to Christ, because grace, in Catholic theology, is a participation in the divine nature.2 (2 Pet 1:4) My point here is not to demonstrate from Scripture that good works done out of love (agape) for God merit an increase in justification. My point here is to show that claiming that the Catholic Church teaches that we are justified by “faith and works” is false, because such a claim mistakenly conflates increases in justification with justification. A role for works in the increase of justification does not entail that there is a role for works in justification.3
So for both of these reasons, it is not true that the Catholic doctrine of justification falls under St. Paul’s condemnation of the Judaizers in Galatia. And likewise, as I have shown, what I have said is fully in agreement with Robert’s point that “works of the Law” for St. Paul are not limited to the ceremonial law.
- This is the definition of justification I use in this post. [↩]
- St. Paul clearly admonishes the Galatian believers to keep the law by loving their neighbor as themselves (Gal 5:14), walking by the Spirit (Gal 5:25), and fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal 6:2) by bearing one another’s burdens. He teaches that those who sow to the Spirit will reap eternal life, (Gal 6:8) saying, “let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary.” (Gal 6:9) [↩]
- In Romans 4 St. Paul refers to Genesis 15 when Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness. It is reasonable to believe that this was an increase in justification, because Abraham seems already to have had faith in Genesis 12. And the same can be said of James 2:24 and its reference to Genesis 22. [↩]