Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Reflections on Faith & Works & Initial Justification

[initially posted on 8 May 2002. Revised: 25 February 2003]
[citations will be in green]
[biblical citations will be in purple]

St. Paul opposes self-generated works to justification (i.e., Pelagianism). And he opposes the Jewish works of the law as an end in themselves and guarantor of salvation, to justification. He does not at all ever oppose faith and all good works (i.e., those done in grace, bathed by grace, enabled by grace, etc.) whatever, as if they were not both part and parcel of justification and "working out" one's "salvation."

Initial justification is only the beginning of the process. You can't yet do any work when the thing has just occurred, entirely due to God's grace. Now the question is, "what will you do with this grace you now have, and now being a committed disciple of Jesus?"

Works must follow in either view. Protestants contend that they have nothing to do with salvation and follow from gratification to God for his irrevocable, one-time gift. We say, too, that they can and should be done in gratefulness and love, but that they are also an organic part of faith and justification itself. Either way, the result is or should be the same: the good Christian goes out and does good things. And Jesus, sure enough, is going to mention those "things" prominently at the Judgment. He will be talking orthopraxis and Christian walk, not Christian talk and abstract theology.

In Ephesians 2:8-10, St. Paul uses the word "works" in two senses, in contrast. We are not saved by works (2:9). That is the anti-Pelagian (and the explicit Tridentine) teaching. But then Paul immediately calls us to "good works" in 2:10. The second kind of works is what Catholics are talking about, as "our way of life."

St. Paul opposes works as a means of justification only insofar as they are seen as ends in and of themselves, apart from grace, or in case of the observance of Jewish Law to the exclusion of grace. Jesus did exactly the same, in the same sense. For Him, as for Paul, there were good and bad works, and there were good and bad traditions. But for some Protestants, it seems that both "works" and "tradition" can only be regarded as "dirty words." This is not biblical, and it isn't even logical. No Christian can avoid either entity in some form. So we should seek to avoid false traditions of men and unbiblical traditions, and hypocritical works not done in grace and with love. But we should follow the true apostolic and biblical Tradition and do good works. All orthodox Nicene Christians agree on Grace Alone. Even subsequent works must flow from grace and be done in love of God and neighbor or they are worthless.

One "has" salvation insofar as they are in right relationship with God; in His graces (i.e., not engaged in mortal sin, as in Paul's lists of all the terrible serious sins which will bar one from heaven if unrepented-of). We "work it out" -- according to Paul -- in an attitude of perseverance, so that it is not lost. Hence Paul alludes to his own possible "disqualification" (1 Cor 9:27), the possibility of falling (1 Cor 10:12), falling away from grace (Gal 5:1,4), not having yet obtained the resurrection and "pressing on" for the prize (Phil 3:11-14), departures from the faith (1 Tim 4:1, 5:15, 2 Pet 2:15,20-21), falling away from God, and holding firm to the end (Heb 3:12-14), apostasy and losing the Holy Spirit (Heb 6:4-6).

Paul doesn't think he totally "has" it yet. He keeps working for it, pressing on. If salvation can be lost, and must be vigilantly worked for throughout one's life, then that is a strong support for the Catholic position of ongoing justification/sanctification.

We never deny grace alone as the efficient cause of all good and all salvation. We deny faith alone for anything beyond initial justification because it places faith in isolation without works, contrary to much Scripture. Part of the problem in this discussion is that the two parties don't even agree on definition (faith, justification). So there are constant clarifications which need to be made, especially if the Protestant party knows relatively little about Catholic theology.

The Council of Trent, in its Decree on Justification; Chapter VIII; "In What Manner is it to be Understood that the Impious is Justified by Faith and Gratuitously," states concerning initial justification:

And whereas the Apostle saith that man is justified by faith (can. ix) and freely [Rom 3:22,24], those words are to be understood . . . [as] that we are 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 [Heb 6:6] . . . we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification -- whether faith or works -- merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works; otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace [Rom 6:6].

Certain interpretations of Scripture (with regard to soteriology or any branch of theology) are not allowed because of the bounds of its conception of orthodoxy. But Protestants do this, too. The Protestant can't admit that James 2 is describing an organic relation of faith and works (because that would be fatal to faith alone), so some Protestants have come up with the special pleading that it is referring only to justification "before men" (in my opinion, some of the weakest Protestant exegesis I know of). All systems do this. They exclude certain outcomes by their very nature, and must do so, to avoid being relativist.

The Calvinist can't admit that the believer can fall away, despite many crystal-clear biblical indications of just that. If I am shown that the Bible repeatedly contradicts the Catholic Church and supports some form of Protestantism, then I will convert back to Protestantism, just as I converted to Catholicism. I follow truth wherever it leads me. Fortunately, without exception in eleven years of Catholic apologetics, I have always found that the Bible spectacularly supported the Catholic position and equally strongly refuted opposing ones, so I haven't been faced with any such dilemma. Nothing upholds my faith as a Catholic more than Bible study.

Calvinists respond that scriptural indications of "falling away" are always merely hypothetical, never actual. I find that an astonishingly weak thesis. Besides, this can't be sustained from the above texts. Galatians 5:4 is a description of actuality, not of a theoretical or a potentiality:

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

It is the same in 1 Tim 4:1, 1 Tim 5:15, and 2 Pet 2:15:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times, some will depart from the faith . . .

For some have already strayed after Satan.


This is clearly referring to believers, because right before it, Paul writes, ". . . give the enemy no occasion to revile us [i.e., Christians]."

Forsaking the right way they have gone astray; they have followed the way of Balaam . . .

God knows who the elect are; we do not. So we strive, with Paul, to make sure we are qualified in the end. Since Scripture teaches that justification is ongoing, who will be saved can only be determined at death, by God, not at an altar in an emotional haze, by a person who tries to work up a bogus assurance based on subjective emotion and mis-application of a select few Bible passages.

Works are not excluded from the business of justification. So, accordingly, Abraham was justified in Gen 12, by both faith and obedience (Heb 11:8: "By faith Abraham obeyed . . . "). In Gen 15:6, he believed God's promise that he would have many descendants. This was meritorious, and so he was justified again, according to Paul. So the writer of Hebrews says he was justified by obedient works in Gen 12; Paul says he was justified by further faith in Gen 15, and James says he was justified by works in Gen 22.

Conclusion (i.e., assuming both the laws of logic and the inspiration of the Scriptures): justification is ongoing and involves both faith and works. Protestantism (in the Reformed variety, anyway) denies both. Therefore, Protestants who deny the biblical teaching on this need to re-evaluate their position.

Let's examine Hebrews 10 and 11, as an example of the biblical theology of justification. The context is justifying faith:

Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised. (Heb 10:35-36)

Note the free and easy coexistence of promise and endurance, and works -- "do" -- precisely as in the Catholic view.

. . . my righteous one shall live by faith . . . (10:38)

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls. (10:39)

Again, we see the possibility of falling away, but also the hope of persevering faith and obedience unto salvation, as in Catholicism; one doesn't simply "have" faith; they have to "live" by it. Then the writer goes on to give examples of saving faith, in the famous chapter 11, detailing the heroes of the faith. He speaks of "assurance" in 11:1. In 11:2, he states,

For by it the men of old received divine approval.

Is that not justification? What else would it be?

In 11:4, Abel did a work, in faith ("acceptable sacrifice") "through which he received approval as righteous." This is justification, but not at all excluding a work, exactly as James describes Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac. If it is not justification, then how could he receive divine approval? From his own work only? No, it is faith and works together, which is the biblical position. In v. 5, Enoch had faith, and "was attested as having pleased God" (justification again). In 11:6, it states, "without faith it is impossible to please him" (saving faith; justification again). In 11:7, Noah had faith, and this was an active faith; he built the ark. Is this faith alone? Nope.

Once again it is faith and works together, because it describes the faith and the building and says, "By this he . . . became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith." Then we come to Abraham's faith in 11:8, but of course, if we are to accept your scenario, this isn't saving faith, even though it is surrounded by repeated instances of that. Note that it doesn't say that Abraham was justified specifically when he believed God for descendants. It simply mentions all of his different exercisings of faith.

Both justification and salvation are processes:

. . . work out your salvation in fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13; cf. Eph 2:8-10)

Works are not solely "ours" if they are meritorious; they are grace-produced works of God working in and through us (Phil 2:13, cf. 2 Cor 3:5, Eph 2:10; see more below).

As St. Augustine says,

God works in man many good things to which man does not contribute; but man does not work any good things apart from God since it is from God man receives the power to do the good things he does. (Contra. Duas Ep. Pel. II 9:21)

You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts. (En. in Ps. 102:7)


The Council of Trent proclaims that:

Finally, the one formal cause [of justification] is the justness of God: not that by which he himself is just, but that by which he makes us just and endowed with which we are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and are not merely considered to be just but we are truly named and are just. (Decree on Justification 7)

Jesus Christ himself continually imparts strength to those justified, as the head to the members and the vine to the branches, and this strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without it they would be wholly unable to do anything meritorious and pleasing to God. (Decree on Justification 16)

The Catholic conception of the relationship of faith and works is based on inconvenient verses such as these:

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Rom 2:13)

What? What are those works (and even the law) doing in there, before justification (scratching head; trying to rid myself of remnant Protestant axioms)?

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. (1 Cor 15:10)

. . . always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58)

. . . faith working through love. (Gal 5:6)

. . . But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified . . . (1 Cor 6:11)

Now, if justification, for the believer, is strictly a past, one-time event, then why does Paul also place sanctification in the past? Is it, too, a one-time event, or is it ongoing? If justification is strictly past, then why not sanctification, in this verse? Protestants, of course, believe that is ongoing. But here, Paul makes a very strong statement, associating those two things and also baptism with salvation. Salvation -- like justification -- is also presented as occurring in the past, present, and future, in the Bible:

Past: but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us. (2 Tim 1:9)

Present: For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18)

Present: work out your salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil 2:12)

Future: . . . we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:10)

The Judaizing Christians wanted to add observance of the Law in all its aspects to the Christian faith. If it is obligatory, then it must have some relation to salvation.

. . . Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? . . . Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:2,5; cf. 3:10)

. . . a man is not justified by works of the law . . . by works of the law shall no one be justified. (Gal 2:16)

Paul, on the other hand, is saying that "no man is justified before God by the law" (Gal 3:11). He is specifically talking about observance of the law, over against faith, as a means of salvation; not some supposed antipathy to works. Circumcision was precisely part of the levitical law. Some Protestants try to claim that Galatians 5:4 is talking about works, generally. It is not: "You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law . . . "

I have never observed a Saturday sabbath, or the clean vs. unclean meats rule (Acts 10:13-15, 15:28-29). I wasn't required to be circumcised to be a Catholic (5:3,6; 6:12-15). My Church doesn't teach this. Etc. That's what Paul is opposing. He has no objection to works, and holds them (as does Jesus) in close connection to faith, and as a basis for judgment, if they aren't present (Rom 2:5-13, 1 Cor 3:13, 2 Cor 5:10, Gal 6:7-9). Also:

. . . obedience of faith . . . (Rom 1:5; 16:25)

. . . obedient from the heart (Rom 6:17)

. . . obeyed the gospel (Rom 10:16; 2 Thess 1:8)

. . . obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7; cf. Heb 11:8)

It is eisegesis to come in and claim that Paul is talking about works, period, when the text explicitly states otherwise. The Galatians were Gentiles, but infiltrated by Judaizers. So Paul spoke about the law and "works of the law" because that was at issue. The key is to see if discussion of the "law" enters into it. Otherwise, when Paul is contrasting "works" and faith, he means self-generated human works, which cannot save (which is the Catholic position as much as the Protestant one, contra Pelagianism).

Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer states:

Now more than ever, it is clear that Rome never intended to devaluate the significance of faith and God's sovereign grace . . . Is it not, then, a grievous misconception to interpret Roman Catholic teaching as Pelagian? . . . The Council of Trent confessed grace as the 'first factor' of the way of salvation, and this is no less than any reformer has done. The differences touch only the manner in which this grace relates itself to the sinner and to the means which grace uses to achieve her purpose . . . The differences arise as soon as the next stop is approached. The conflict opens around the doctrine of infused grace and that of imputation . . . Though it is difficult to characterize this relationship between faith and works precisely, we may speak of works as giving form to faith . . . The tree, according to Jesus, is known by its fruit (Matt 12:33), and faith is known by its works.

In Paul, as elsewhere, we are impressed by an unambiguous eschatological perspective of the judgment which shall be according to works . . . The relation between final judgment and works is here [Rom 2:6-8] unmistakably intimate. There is a final divorce between obedience and disobedience . . . The question is the more insistent in view of other utterances of Paul [cites Gal 6:7-9, 2 Cor 5:10, Col 3:23-25, 1 Cor 3:13, 4:5] . . . We can hardly say that such ideas form a subordinate line, a secondary and rather unimportant element of Paul's message. Quite the contrary. The utmost earnestness of the judgment and the appeal to man to consider his daily responsibility before the Lord of life sound clarionlike through his whole witness. It is not to be denied that for Paul, too, the works and affairs of man play a role in the final drama of God's judgment.


(Faith and Justification [Studies in Dogmatics], tr. Lewis B. Smedes, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1954, 13, 109, 103-105)

Protestants often claim that Catholics are restricted by the infallibility that the Catholic Church claims, as if this makes every Catholic intolerably dogmatic in a way that Protestants aren't. But Catholics can allow for a theoretical, epistemological possibility that Catholicism is wrong. We believe in faith that it is the one true Church that Christ established, the fullness of Christianity, and infallible and indefectible. Paul makes a similar hypothetical argument concerning something he himself doesn't believe, in 1 Cor 15:12-19, concerning the resurrection of the dead. At the end of it he makes his proclamation of faith (15:20). That is no inconsistency.

Addendum: Catholic Soteriological Terminology and Fine Distinctions

Another Catholic asked:

He understands you as saying that (1) Catholics believe in "faith alone" in initial justification only; (2) Abraham's justification in Gn 15:6 is subsequent justification; and (3) Abraham was justified because of "faith" in Gn 15:6. Thus, a contradiction appears. Now, I understand that you'll go back to him with Gn 15:6 does not exclude works, etc.

Precisely. It is only an apparent contradiction. It might perhaps be thought of as a "paradox," as occur in many complex areas of theology.

But my issue is: why even admit that we believe in justification by faith alone at our initial justification?

I don't claim to know all the ins and outs of this subject (it's not one of my strongest points, and I think it is ultimately one for the theologians), but I was trying to argue (according to my usual emphasis with Protestants) that initial justification is not at all by works in the sense that it is not the equivalent of Pelagianism, according to Trent's Decree on Justification, ch. 8. We can do nothing to earn it. And in initial justification, I argued, there is no time to do any work; it is a gift purely of grace, initiated by God. Works had nothing to do with it, as the Decree says. So saying it is "alone" at that point is not the same as saying that we believe in "faith alone" (sola fide) as a principle (though I agree it might not be wise to use the phrase at all, due to possible misunderstanding).

The Catholic can speak of faith in isolation in one individual instance (say, e.g., I could sit here and have great faith that my allergies might possibly be healed, and that would be meritorious, because it is acknowledging God's power), as opposed to a principle known as "faith alone" which the Protestants hold and we deny. We can be justified either by works done in faith, or faith (as Abraham appeared to be in Gen 15), but always understood in the sense that we never separate works from faith as the Protestants do, with the former never having anything to do with salvation, and relegated to a distinct category of sanctification.

Fernand Prat, S.J., a renowned biblical exegete and theologian, wrote:

Let us now return to Paul's own declarations. That of the Epistle to the Romans is the simplest: 'Man is justified by faith without the works of the Law.' The requirement of the argument as well as the order of the sentence makes the emphasis fall on the last words of the statement which resolves itself into two propositions: 'Man is justified without the works of the Law, independently of them' -- the principal proposition; 'Man is justified by faith' -- an incidental proposition. It will be remarked that the Apostle here is not concerned with the part which works play after justification. They they are then necessary appears from his system of morals, and that they increase the justice already acquired follows from his principles; but in the controversy with the Judaizers the debate turns chiefly on FIRST justification -- namely, on the passage from the state of sin to that of grace. The works of the Law are neither the cause nor the essential condition, nor even, in themselves, the occasion of it; and according to the most elementary principles of the Pauline theology one could say as much of natural works done before justification, and with more reason. But note well that St. Paul does not say that faith is the only disposition required, and we know by other passages that it must be accompanied by two complementary sentiments: repentance for the past and acceptance of the divine will for the future.

The second text is: 'Man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.' By making St. Paul say that man is not justified by works alone, but by works joined to faith, we get a meaning diametrically opposed to his doctrine and exactly what he fought against in the case of the Judaizers. The essentially complex phrase must be resolved thus: 'Man is not justified by the works of the Law; he is justified only by the faith of jesus Christ.' Whether the faith of jesus Christ is the faith of which he is the author, or the faith of which he is the object -- faith in himself, his person, and his preaching -- matters little; in either case it is the sum total of the Christian revelation, the Gospel as opposed to the Mosaic Law. We remark as before, that it is a question of works anterior tom justification, and that the absolute necessity of faith does not exclude the other dispositions required.

(The Theology of St. Paul, tr. by John L. Stoddard, Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1952, vol. 1 of 2, 175-176, emphasis added in one place: "FIRST")

(Fernand Prat. S.J. was a Professor of Scripture. He was one of the first consultants to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and editor of the Etudes Bibliques. He helped to prepare many of the decisions regarding Modernism, leading up to its condemnation in 1907, and was involved in the planning of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome)

Note that his phrase "first justification" is precisely synonymous with "initial justification." Whatever phrase the Protestants use, in my Roget's Thesaurus, "first" is listed as a synonym of "initial" and "initial" is listed as a synonym for "first." As long as Catholics explain what we mean by it, I don't see anything wrong with using the term "initial justification."

We're no more bound (i.e., not absolutely, with no exceptions whatever) to the exact terminology of Trent than we are bound to the exact terminology of Holy Scripture ("Trinity" and "Hypostatic Union" immediately come to mind). Both the words and the doctrines develop all the time, and the situations we find ourselves in demand fresh approaches, without yielding one bit on any point of orthodoxy. St. Paul said "I have become all things to all people, so that by any means I may save some."

St. Paul cited pagan poets and philosophers on Mars Hill, in Athens, in order to make a connection with his hearers. He took what they knew and proceeded to build upon the truth that was in them, up to Christian theology and the gospel. He even utilized an idol of sorts as an illustration of a point and a witnessing tool: the altar "to an unknown god." All this despite there being nothing in the official decrees of the Council of Jerusalem just two chapters earlier giving Paul warrant to use such shocking language . . .

I submit that the same applies with Protestants. I grant that if the phrases "faith alone" and "grace alone" are used at all, that they must immediately be defined in a Catholic manner, with the contrast sharply emphasized. But the general principle of finding common ground in both doctrine and language, insofar as possible without any compromise, is a very biblical and conciliar one. E.g., the Decree on Ecumenism from Vatican II:

9. We must become familiar with the outlook of our separated brethren. Study is absolutely required for this, and it should be pursued in fidelity to the truth and with a spirit of good will . . . In this way, too, we will better understand the outlook of our separated brethren and more aptly PRESENT our own belief.

11. The MANNER and ORDER in which Catholic belief is EXPRESSED should in no way become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its genuine and certain meaning. At the same time, Catholic belief must be EXPLAINED more profoundly and precisely, in such a way and in such TERMS that our separated brethren can also really UNDERSTAND it.


Note that the Council didn't say,

The language of Catholic belief from the Council of Trent must be explained more
profoundly and precisely, whether or not it is in terms our separated brethren can understand.
Likewise, in the statement in Lumen Gentium, 67, referring to Mariology:

Let them carefully refrain from whatever might by WORD or deed lead the separated brethren or any others whatsoever into error about the true doctrine of the Church.

I think it is wise to choose our words very carefully, depending on who we are talking to at the moment, and to exercise a considerable amount of flexibility, because people aren't simply walking dictionaries or lexicons, and 1563 (like 1611, or even 1870) is not 2002.

Protestants, of course, deny that justification is a process at all, so "initial justification" can hardly be a "Protestant term." And since it is a process in Catholicism, and can be repeated, applying "initial justification" as a description of the chronologically first instance (a non-technical term) not only should not be controversial; it is simply common sense, and not contrary to Trent at all, as far as I can see. Trent teaches the concept in the above sense; it just doesn't have the exact term, which is no big deal. Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., uses similar terminology:

Adults are justified FOR THE FIRST TIME either by personal faith, sorrow for sin and baptism, or by the perfect love of God, which is at least an implicit baptism of desire.

(Modern Catholic Dictionary, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1980, "Justification, Theology of," 302, emphasis added)

Also, Vatican I would appear to refer to a justifying faith without works, in some fashion:

Wherefore faith itself, even when it does not work by charity [Gal 5:6], is in itself a gift of God, and the act of faith is a work pertaining to salvation, by which man yields voluntary obedience to God Himself, by assenting to and cooperating with His grace, which he is able to resist (can. v).

(Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, ch. III, "Of Faith")

The article on the Councils of Orange in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910), mentions "Operation of grace in initial justification or baptism." (vol. 11, 267)

No comments: