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Justification Sola Fide

At the close of the last liturgical year, Pope Benedict XVI made a startling proclamation: “Luther’s expression sola fide is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love” (Wednesday Audience, Nov. 19, 2008). At first, this statement might seem to collide with Trent: “If anyone says that the godless are justified by faith alone . . . let him be anathema” (Trent, VI, canon 9). Again, “For faith, unless hope and charity are added thereto, neither unites one perfectly with Christ nor makes one a living member of his body” (Trent, VI, ch. 7).

There are differences of expression, emphasis, and insight here. But do the differences constitute contradictions? Heavens no!

Catholic Doctrine

Let’s begin by establishing the bedrock: defined Catholic dogma. Then we will consider the unique insights and contributions of our Holy Father.

Justification is a mystery which cannot be exhaustively understood. We can only approach a mystery in receptive, vigorous wonder: “Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex 3:5, RSV). Still, we can gather some understanding of this mystery. We can speak about what happens in justification; we can speak about who causes justification and through what means; and we can speak about the basis for justification. Let us start with a brief description touching on all these points.

Justification involves the free forgiveness of sins and the re-creation of the sinner through the infusion of justifying grace, otherwise known as sanctifying grace. This infusion makes us God’s truly just friends and adopted sons (CCC 1266, 1999, 2000, and 2010; Compendium of the Catechism 263 and 423). God alone causes justification, working through the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation. The basis for justification—the grounds on account of which God justifies—are the merits of Jesus Christ. Let us now explore these elements in greater detail.

Justification as Forgiveness of Sin

The personal sins forgiven in justification differ from person to person, but when we speak of “justification,” the sins forgiven must include mortal sin and original sin. When someone already in the state of grace is forgiven only venial sins, the subject is not, strictly speaking, justification (the first moment of Christian spiritual life) but rather ongoing sanctification (sometimes called “second justification”).

What is original sin?

Original sin is what we inherit from Adam: We are all conceived in a state of alienation from God (Ps 51, Eph 2:3). We are deprived of sanctifying grace, which made us radiant like angels. Stripped of our royal robe, we inherit the rebellious state Adam chose. Also, we are ravaged interiorly by this loss, so we find acts of supernatural virtue impossible, acts of natural virtue difficult, and, often enough, acts of vice attractive. This is not all.

Upon birth, those begotten of Adam (except the Mother of God) also bear the stain of guilt before God, which cries out for eternal punishment. Since sin entails guilt before God; only God can remit sin. Indeed, only the one who is offended can re-establish a violated relationship. No matter how much I try to win back the friend I have wronged, I must await his free forgiveness. How much more is this the case with God!

What of mortal sin? An act of mortal sin is an offense of infinite proportion because instead of cleaving to God as I am commanded (Dt 6:4ff), I choose another god. Whether money, fame, pleasure, or vain knowledge, it is not the living God. Against such sin, the wrath of God flares up (Rom 1:18). Yet, God does not consume the sinner immediately; he is slow to anger and rich in mercy (Rom 2:4, Eph 2:4). Often, he gently asks the shivering soul cloaked by shame, “Where are you?” (Gn 3:9).

God can call dead bones to life (Ez 37)and he does not quench the smoldering wick (Is 42:3). Yet, God’s mercy does not come cheap. Preachers of “mercy” who do not call to mind the divine wrath misread Paul. In the face of God’s justice, one cannot but confess, “No man can ransom himself” (Ps 49:7).

Behold fallen man: Interiorly destitute of divine life, frequently inclined towards evil, soiled with guilt. The result: “No human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law” (Rom 3:20). There is no human sinner who can make himself just. This is bad news but true. What doctor ever healed before a proper diagnosis? God, wanting man’s cooperation, shares with him this diagnosis, that he might come freely to the Light of life (Jn 3:20f), drawn by the Father (Jn 6:44). God is not only just but merciful. As he created us without our assistance, so he redeemed us without the cooperation of sinners, putting forth his Son as an expiation for sin (Rom 3:24ff). The sole human person cooperating in our redemption was Mary. An expiation is a sacrifice lovingly offered in atonement. Our expiation is the self-offering of the Son made flesh. Instead of condemning us sinful humans, he became one of us yet without sin (Heb 2:14-17, 4:15). This Redemption is radical. Such a gift can only be received; it cannot be earned, though its acceptance through faith is an act of freewill.

Justification as Re-creation

We have covered the first aspect of justification, the forgiveness of sins, together with the Redemption in Christ and the prevenient love of God. The second aspect—inseparable from the first—is the infusion of sanctifying grace and the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) by which the human person becomes God’s acceptable child, his loving friend, an heir of eternal life (Jn 15:15, Rom 8:14-17, Gal 4:7).

As Catholic faith teaches, forgiveness is not isolated from this re-creation (Gal 6:15) but comes hand in hand with it (Trent, VI, ch. 7 and canons 10-11). It would be unintelligible for God to forgive the godless and call him godly if he remains godless in reality. Rather, God forgives the sins of the godless whom he makes godly (Eph 2:1-5), obedient from the heart (Rom 6:17). There is an internal difference of great magnitude between the unjustified and the justified. Whereas the former “[do] not submit to God’s law” (Rom 8:7), the latter do, for they are made lovers of God, and whoever loves God keeps his commandments (Jn 14:15) and no one who does not keep his commandments loves God (Jn 14:21). God alone replaces the heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Ez 36:26ff). This surgery is divinely wrought, not a work of human effort (Eph 2:8-10).

The foregoing remarks show us that on at least three counts our Redemption is not by works of law. First, no one can exact forgiveness, much less divine forgiveness. Second, no one can bring down grace, no matter how much he tries. Third, a rotten tree—which is what man is when born—cannot bear (supernaturally) good fruit. Similarly, justification, which is dependent on Christ’s redemptive act, is a free gift and not a work of law (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:9) nor a product of human willing (Jn 1:13).

Pope Benedict’s Remarks

We are now in a position to read properly Pope Benedict’s teachings.

First, Pope Benedict states there are several reasons that we cannot merit heaven. Most obviously, our Redemption by the blood of Christ is a pure gift. Moreover, and in some sense more astoundingly, heaven is a communion with God who is love (1 Jn 4:8), and a relationship of love is initiated by a free gift. If such a relationship is with the infinite, all holy God, how much more is this initiative free! So, too, any merit depends on God’s promise, though God’s promise does not exclude all merit. Finally, the reward of the just exceeds actual merit, as divine mercy tempers divine justice (Wis 11:23, Rom 8:18). Pope Benedict has these reasons and others in mind in his statement. He does not intend to deny Trent’s teaching. He does, however, put this teaching in context—in the context of personal love. We are dealing, after all, with a love story, with a Father who sent his only Son out of love for the godless.

Second, there is a reason that Pope Benedict teaches that faith alone suffices and that it always comes with charity. He means, by “true faith,” a living faith. Now, living faith by dogmatic definition includes charity, for divine faith without hope and charity does not avail (1 Cor 13:2, 1 Jn 3:14). Charity is not first a “work.” It is first of all a divine gift of love that comes down from the Father (Jas 1:17) through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). It is by this gift of divine love that faith can realize itself in good works (Gal 5:6). Pope Benedict teaches this very thing: Charity is the soul or form of faith (Audience, Nov. 19).

Calling to mind charity as a gift, an infused virtue (not first a work), supports the truth of James’ analogy: Works are to faith as the soul is to the body (Jas 2:26). James’ Epistle would devolve into moralism and contradict Paul (see Rom 10:1-4; Phil 3:8ff; Audience Nov. 26), if it meant that merely human works are added to a dead faith to resuscitate a dead corpse. Not at all! It is living faith that realizes itself through good works, that produces good works. But I might not have opportunity to perform a work, to “realize” this living faith. Am I not saved, if I die in such circumstances? No, I am saved! Therefore, having formed faith is sufficient for salvation. This is what Pope Benedict means. Further, as he also expressly states, living faith itself will surely die if it is not expressed in concrete works, if I am capable of action and the opportunity presents itself.

Third, good works testify to justification, for they are signs of a justification already received. They are signs of gratitude for the gift already given, promised in earnest. Luther said the same thing, as did St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic saints.

Of course, more must be said—and the pope says more: “Salvation received in Christ needs to be preserved and witnessed to” (Nov. 26). This is what Trent teaches (Trent, VI, canon 24). Moreover, the pope indicates a progressive growth in communion with Christ, a progressive conformity to his life (Nov. 19). Since communion with Christ is established through faith and constitutes the essence of our “being justified,” the pope is teaching here another truth of Catholic faith—that, once justified, the Christian can surrender to God and so be increasingly sanctified unto eternal life (Rom 6:15-23). In purgatory, those who die with imperfect charity are thoroughly sanctified (see Spe Salvi, 45ff).

Finally, we must heed something not yet mentioned—the pope’s focus on the final judgment: “This idea of the Last Judgment must illumine us in our daily lives” (Nov. 26). What is the basis upon which we will be judged? The “sole criterion is love” (Nov. 19; see also, Nov. 26). Hence, “At the end of this Gospel [Mt 25], we can say: love alone, charity alone” (Nov. 19). Here, the pope is showing his deeply Augustinian character (see Augustine, De Trinitate, XV:18:32).

Love of God and neighbor is a matter of life and death (Dt 30; John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 12), for even though a person has divine faith as a free commitment to Christ, if he has not charity—and the deeds of charity where need requires and capacity exists—he cannot be saved (Mt 7:22ff; Jn 15:2; 1 Cor 6:9-11; Gal 5:19-21; Jas 2:17; Veritatis Splendor, 68).

A Matter of Focus

Pope Benedict covers vast swaths of the faith in a few delicate brush strokes, without contradicting previous teaching. More importantly, he draws our attention to things one might not see in Trent—which was focused on combating errors—but which must be seen.

Above all, Benedict focuses our hearts on our Redeemer. He does so in at least two senses. First, he recasts the Church’s presentation of the nature of justification. Justification is not some impersonal event of forgiveness and re-creation. It is not an abstract thing. It is a real mystery, a mystery that takes place in the encounter between the sinner and Christ. Picture the sinful woman, weeping over Christ’s feet. He says to her, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.” This is the mystery of justification, which buoys up weak sinners, uplifts depressed hearts, gives sight to the blind, fills the soul with joy and glory, and makes us eager to do good in response to the infinite kindness of God. This is no abstract doctrine but a concrete event.

Many ecumenical difficulties fade away when we think of the event in these terms. Nothing of Catholic doctrine can ever be compromised. But our presentation of it must be faithful to the reality; thus, it must be recast ever anew so that heavy burdens may be lifted and hearts may rejoice.

The second way Benedict focuses our eyes on the face of our Redeemer is this: Looking into Jesus’ eyes, the true believer, which is the lover, must desire to ignore his own merits in order to pursue the upward call (Phil 3:13ff). He only cares for Christ. Indeed, he loves Christ for Christ’s sake so much that he is willing to delay seeing those sacred eyes in order to serve his neighbor (Phil 1:21-24). He may even be willing to surrender any title to an inheritance for the sake of the lost whom God calls (Ex 32:32, Rom 9:3). By calling attention to this deep love, Benedict indicates, indirectly, a lofty aim that one finds especially in the early Luther. Luther spoke of this deep love, this willingness to be forsaken, for love of God.

Now, regarding this deep love, sobriety is important, as the magisterium always has reminded the “enthusiasts” and “quietists.” The willingness to surrender must be rooted in love of and desire for God, not indifference. In the end, there is one thing that remains needful (Lk 10:42)—union with God. Truly, this union is “far better” than any service we can offer God (Phil 1:23). Work—even the redemptive work itself—is for the communion of persons. Benedict emphasizes communion over labor.

At this point, we see why Benedict stresses faith before he stresses love. First, it is a biblical mode of expression. One must understand this mode of expression in consonance with the truth of Scripture, which Trent adumbrates. Thus, this faith includes the divine gift of charity. But second, faith is stressed because we must keep Jesus before our eyes. Through faith, we encounter the goodness of God; through faith we are blessed and receive gifts. Through the love God pours into our hearts—out of his own infinite love—we are enabled to respond with our whole hearts. So, the word “faith” certainly calls to mind a gift from above, whereas, in common discourse, “love” often calls to mind a work or response, not a divine gift.

What Did Luther Teach?

A question nonetheless remains: Did Luther teach that infused charity is the form of justifying faith? Well, Luther’s work is complicated, not reducible to a formula (see B. Lohse). On the one hand, Luther lauds the glorious union of Christ and the soul: “[This righteousness of Christ] flows and gushes forth from Christ” (Luther’s Works, 27:222, 1992 ed.).

Notwithstanding, Luther rejects the idea that at the baptismal moment of justification a man becomes truly just interiorly (LW 32:229). For Luther, the believer is always totally righteous and totally sinful. Hence, despite the beginnings of sanctification, justification itself must be simply a declaration of forgiveness and an “imputation” of righteousness (LW 26:223-236, 1963 ed.). He must, therefore, reject Catholic teaching. Luther declares, “If love is the form of faith, then I am immediately obliged to say that love is the most important and the largest part of the Christian religion. And thus I lose Christ” (LW 26:270). Luther even resorts to a curse: “Let that expression ‘faith formed’ be damned!” (LW 26:273, see also LW 27:38; on this curse, see Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics, 104-11).

There is no question, many of the points Luther made were on the money. Among these are the following: Some members of the Church were corrupt; God’s grace is totally free (Eph 2); sin still lies in wait even for the just person (Rom 7); Christ is presently a high priest interceding for sinners (Heb 4-5); good deeds are expressions of gratitude for salvation, etc.

Still, Luther—and the Formula of Concord after him—excludes charity from the justifying role of faith. Luther consequently deflates the dramatic tension that constitutes our “time of decision for love” on earth (Phil 2:12ff; 2 Tm 4:7-8). Catholics cannot accept these teachings of Luther, which contradict the Gospel (Rom 1:16ff) as Catholic faith reads it.

Despite every effort at ecumenical reconciliation, a difficulty remains; an important obstacle must be overcome. As Benedicts shows, Catholic terminology is flexible. It is the reality of the mystery that must be upheld. Provided that justifying faith (Rom 3:28) is understood as a compact expression for faith, hope, and charity, Catholics do profess that faith alone justifies (1 Cor 13:13; on a history of the reception of Romans pertinent to this point, see Thomas Scheck, Origen and the History of Justification).

Above all, our eyes should fall on Jesus Christ. May these papal audiences be as oil upon the head, running down the beard (Ps 133:1ff), so that Catholics may humbly profess the fullness of the faith they do not own, so “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).


Pope Benedict and Trent

Pope Benedict teaches, “Paul is primarily concerned to show that faith in Christ is necessary and sufficient” (Audience, Nov. 26). Someone familiar with traditional apologetics might ask, “Doesn’t St. James teach that faith without works is dead (Jas 2:26) and does not justify (Jas 2:24)”? The Holy Father knows these verses well: “James accentuates the consequential relations between faith and works” (Nov. 26). That is, “Faith that is active in love testifies to the freely given gift of justification in Christ” (Nov. 26). Compare these statements with Trent: “If anyone says that . . . [good] works themselves are solely fruits and signs of justification received, and not also a cause of its increase, let him be anathema” (Trent, VI, canon 24).

Finally, Benedict underscores “the insignificance of our actions and of our deeds to achieve salvation” (Nov. 26). Elsewhere, he states, “We cannot—to use the classical expression—‘merit’ Heaven through our works” (Spe Salvi, 35). If we turn to Trent, we hear,

If anyone says that the good works of the justified man are gifts of God in such a way that they are not also the good merits of the justified himself, or that the justified person, by the good works he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ (whose living member he is), does not truly merit an increase in grace, eternal life, the attainment of eternal life itself (if he dies in grace), and even an increase in glory, let him be anathema. (Trent, VI, canon 32)

It is of first importance to stress the continuity of the faith. As Paul VI indicated and as Pope Benedict XVI indicates, the Second Vatican Council, as all post-conciliar teaching, must be read according to a hermeneutic of continuity. That hermeneutic demands as its bedrock a solid knowledge of Tradition and as its lifeblood a suppleness grounded in attention to the real, to what the rule of faith tells us.

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