“God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us,” according to St. Augustine (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1847). This quotation from…
“God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us,” according to St. Augustine (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1847).
This quotation from Augustine has been used by the Catholic Church to express the fact that salvation demands consent because God never forces himself on someone against his will. This fact relates to the whole problem of justification, which is an effect of sanctifying grace in the soul of the Christian. Another way of putting this is that by grace God works in us.
Catholics are often accused of teaching justification by human works. This is a Pelagian position. Pelagius maintained that grace only allowed a person to do more easily what he could do by his own power. He reduced original sin to bad example. Martin Luther reacted against what he thought the position of the Church was on this subject by making reference to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. St. Paul maintains, in a famous text used by Luther, “Man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28, RSV). Protestants generally maintain that when the word “concupiscence” is used in Scripture, it is what is usually termed actual sin. In other words, what for Catholics is a tendency to sin is the act of sin, which is inescapable. As a result, justified man is still totally depraved as far as his works are concerned and God only considered him just or righteous. In the margin next to the text from Romans 3 he refers to, Luther added “sola,” or “faith alone.” From the context evident in Romans 3, it is clear that Paul is speaking of things such as circumcision, and not good works, which do not cause grace but result from grace received. So faith must be completed by charity to be truly a virtue.
Light can be shed on this problem if one first defines what is meant by justification or righteousness. First, it has nothing to do with the virtue of justice. Justification refers rather to what Aristotle called “metaphorical justice.” It is not about human works, but about the human soul and the interior order in its powers. The virtue of justice is in the will and has to do with a disposition to give rights to others. Justification refers to a rightness of order within the person himself. It is not a disposition, but an ordering of the intellect, the will and the emotions within themselves, because they are ordered toward the true ultimate end of man. In this inner ordering or righteousness, the emotions are subject to the intellect and will, and the intellect and will are subject to God. Adam was created in this state before the sin. For everyone after the sin, justification involves a change not just from being without justice but from being in a state contrary to righteousness. Man, after sin, suffers from concupiscence, which means that he has lost inner ordering, and hence all his powers go their own way. He experiences darkness in the intellect, rebelliousness in the will and does not really enjoy being virtuous in the emotions.
Justification is a movement from the state of sinfulness involving forgiveness of sins to a state of being in grace. Justification thus includes two conditions in the time after the original sin: (1) the forgiveness of sins and (2) the divine indwelling of the Trinity, without which there could be no forgiveness of sins. This is what conversion means.
“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 inner man’” (Catechism, No. 1989).
Justification cannot just be an overlooking of sin on the part of the offended party, as Luther tended to suggest. It must truly involve the presence of habitual or sanctifying grace in the soul. Sin is an offense against God, and sin can only truly be forgiven when the mind of the offended party has been reconciled with the offender, or when we are at peace with God. God can only be at peace with us because of our natural capacity for Him when His love creates a new form in us, which is union with His own divine nature. This peace with God is sanctifying grace. Forgiveness of sins must be the presence of the divine form of God’s own life in us. “[God] gave himself to us though his Spirit. By the participation of the Spirit, we become communicants in the divine nature. . . . For this reason, those in whom the Spirit dwells are divinized” (Catechism, No. 1988).
In a person who has attained the age of reason, there must be a movement of free choice to experience justification and the presence of grace. John 6:45 says, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” Learning entails an act of free choice, because in order to learn one must consent to what the teacher is explaining. The movement of free choice would not be necessary for someone who did not have the possibility of freely choosing, such as infants and the insane. They can be justified by baptism. Their catechesis and consent occur after they have reached the age of reason and are to a justification already experienced.
Justification is a movement of free choice, which is twofold: the renunciation of sin and the movement of faith to God. There are four aspects of this movement of free choice: (1) the infusion of grace from God the mover; (2) the movement of free choice to God from the one moved; (3) the movement of free choice rejecting sin, which is also moved by God; and (4) the forgiveness of sins itself, which is the termination of the movement of justification. This can be seen in the questions asked at baptism:
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
A Moral Change
Since God is an infinite agent who brings about justification, He does not depend on a long preparation. As in all natural changes, there is a gradual change from one condition to another. This can be the case with justification.
The apostles had three years of instruction from Christ; St. Augustine had about 30. But God does not have to bring about such a change over time. He can bring it about in an instant as is witnessed in the most famous conversion in the history of the Church, the conversion of St. Paul. This is a moral change and God is not limited by the lack of malleability of the matter, in this case the free choice of the soul. He can dispose it to choose for Him in an instant.
From the point of view of the manner of working, the greatest work of God is creation, because God brings something into existence from nothing. But creation is completed in the categories of time. Justification consists in God raising a created soul to the categories and experience of eternity. Justification finishes in the nature of God himself. For this reason, one justified soul from the point of view of the work itself is greater than the whole created universe put together. “The good of grace in one is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas.
No One Merits Justification
Justification is miraculous if one looks at it from the point of view of human power to bring it about. The Pelagians taught that man could merit justification by his own power. All grace did was allow man to do what he could have done by his own power but in an easier way. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is no active power in man by which he can attain grace. Every work, which can be done by God alone, is miraculous in this sense.
Sometimes the manner in which justification is carried out is beyond the customary order and, in that sense, is miraculous. An analogy would be when a sick man recovers his health instantaneously completely beyond the skill of art or nature. St. Paul’s justification was like this, but not the other apostles.
But for something to be completely miraculous there can be no passive potential in the nature of the thing for the particular action. For example, there is no power in asses to prophesy, or in the wind and the sea to be calmed by the word of a man, or a body to rise from the dead by the work of a man. Yet, Balaam’s ass prophesied and Jesus calmed the wind and sea by His word and raised the dead. This is not the case with grace. There is a natural capacity in man for God and therefore for grace because of the presence of the intellect. “The soul is naturally capable of grace,” taught Thomas Aquinas.
“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” said St. Augustine.
The one thing which must be crystal clear is that no one merits justification by works. Man can prepare himself to receive the justification of grace by allowing God to move his free will, but this is not a human motion in origin. It is only a human motion in effect. The primary cause is God.
St. Thomas Aquinas and Justification
Justification taken passively implies a movement towards justice, as heating implies a movement towards heat. But since justice, by its nature, implies a certain rectitude of order, it may be taken in two ways: first, inasmuch as it implies a right order in man’s act, and thus justice is placed amongst the virtues — either as particular justice, which directs a man’s acts by regulating them in relation to his fellowman — or as legal justice, which directs a man’s acts by regulating them in their relation to the common good of society.…
Secondly, justice is so-called inasmuch as it implies a certain rectitude of order in the interior disposition of a man, in so far as what is highest in man is subject to God, and the inferior powers of the soul are subject to the superior, i.e. to the reason; and this disposition the Philosopher calls “justice metaphorically speaking” (“Ethic.” v, 11). Now this justice may be in man in two ways: first, by simple generation, which is from privation to form; and thus justification may belong even to such as are not in sin, when they receive this justice from God, as Adam is said to have received original justice. Secondly, this justice may be brought about in man by a movement from one contrary to the other, and thus justification implies a transmutation from the state of injustice to the aforesaid state of justice. And it is thus we are now speaking of the justification of the ungodly, according to the Apostle (Rom 4:5): “But to him that worketh not, yet believeth in Him that justifieth the ungodly,” etc. And because movement is named after its term “whereto” rather than from its term “whence,” the transmutation whereby anyone is changed by the remission of sins from the state of ungodliness to the state of justice, borrows its name from its term “whereto,” and is called “justification of the ungodly.”
— Summa Theologiae, Question 113 (“Of the Effects of Grace”)
Stretching out across the altar wall of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo’s magnificent fresco “The Last Judgment.” Homilies about Judgment Day are rare these days, so even Catholic visitors…
Stretching out across the altar wall of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo’s magnificent fresco “The Last Judgment.” Homilies about Judgment Day are rare these days, so even Catholic visitors to the chapel may sometimes puzzle over the arresting images of the fresco — not to mention the scriptural passages that inspired the work.
In particular, Catholics often wonder why the Church teaches that human beings undergo two judgments: one at the death of the individual, and one at the end of the world. Why would divine justice require a second judgment?
To answer that question, we must understand more fully what takes place in each judgment.
The Church affirms that one day each of us will be called to account for our life, with Christ as our judge. That moment arrives at death. “It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27).
Death puts an end to the time the individual has been granted for embracing God’s grace or rejecting it. The person’s decision for or against God is ratified, so to speak, by God himself. This first, individual judgment is known as the particular judgment. The soul of the deceased, without its body, goes to hell or to heaven, and for those who are heaven-bound the journey may involve the cleansing preparation process called purgatory (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1022).
What is left, then, for God’s justice to accomplish? Just as the time of reckoning arrives at last for the individual, so it does for the world as a whole. This future day will bring the end of the present age with what the Church calls the general judgment. On that day, as the Creed proclaims, Christ “will return in glory to judge the living and the dead” (see Mt 25:31-46; Rv 20:11-13).
Why is Christ returning to earth? To bring human history to a just conclusion, so that, as the Creed continues, “His kingdom will have no end.” Divine justice in its fullness requires that this world’s wrongs be made right. It demands a definitive end to the power of evil. So the outcome of Christ’s return is the termination of human evildoing on earth, when hell and its human allies will be utterly vanquished, and God will be “all in all” (see 1 Cor 15:23-28).
But there’s much more. At death, the body and soul of the individual are separated. At Christ’s return, before the general judgment, the souls of the dead will be reunited with the bodies they had in their life on earth (see Jn 5:28-29; 1 Cor 15:12-23,51-57). Because of this general resurrection, the bodies of the blessed will be able to take part in the joys of heaven, while the bodies of the damned will have to endure their share of the torments of hell.
Once souls and bodies are joined again, Christ, our judge, will call all people to account in the most public of judgments. “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops” (Lk 12:2-3), Jesus warned. When the Lord comes again, St. Paul declared, “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts” (1 Cor 4:5).
Why Must It Be Public?
Why must this reckoning be public? When we confess all the details of our lives before Christ and the rest of the human race, and when others do the same in our presence, we will all be forced to recognize and admit the full effects on others of what we have done and what we have failed to do. Justice requires such recognition and admission.
Yet mercy plays a role here as well. To face the truth and confess it, drinking the cup of shame all the way to its dregs before a watching world, will be a painful reckoning. But for the friends of God, it can serve as part of the purging process necessary to prepare them for heaven.
At the same time, on that day God’s friends will find it easier to forgive. As the full picture of their lives is unveiled, they will finally come to appreciate the struggles of those who offended them: the burdens they had to carry, the wounds they suffered from the sins of others and the limitations placed on them by circumstances hidden to view.
Another important consequence of this public judgment is that it will reveal to everyone the love and wisdom of God’s providence in all things. How many times in this life, when adversity tests us, are we tempted to wonder whether God really cares for us, or whether He truly knows what He’s doing? In the Last Judgment, we will be able to see all the factors in God’s determinations, all the aspects of His plan.
On that day we will be able to say to Him: “At last I understand; Your dealings with me finally make sense to me. When bad things happened, I needed faith to trust that You had not abandoned me. But now my faith has become sight.”
Justice demands that divine Providence be vindicated. The general judgment provides such vindication.
Justice and Truth
When Christ came to earth the first time, an essential aspect of His mission was revelation — to show us the truth about God, ourselves and our world. His mission is not complete, then, until the truth is fully revealed to every human being and fully acknowledged by every human being and every angel, fallen or unfallen, as well.
In this present life, throughout human history, those who have rejected God and His truth typically resist admitting their errors and deceit. But on that last day, they will have no choice but to do so.
“We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,” insisted St. Paul, quoting the prophet Isaiah: “‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall give praise [or confess] to God.’ So [then] each of us shall give an account of himself [to God]” (Rom 14:10-12).
To praise God is to speak the truth about who He is, to declare His wonderful attributes. To confess (an alternate translation) means literally to agree with, to “say the same thing as,” God. Both translations point to the same reality: In the end, every one of us will have to recognize God as the Almighty Lord of all things; every one of us will have to concede the truth about God, ourselves and our world — whether we like it or not.
This, too, is a part of justice. We owe it to ourselves and others to think and say what corresponds to reality.
Consider how many people throughout history have been terribly wronged, but the wrongdoing has been covered up or denied. They wait for Judgment Day because they want the truth to be told, to be shouted from one end of the cosmos to another.
And so they should. Could God be truly just if, in the end, He allowed the terrible truth to remain hidden forever and permitted the world to maintain its malicious lies?
Those who have done wrong may go to hell adamantly refusing God’s forgiveness. But before they go to their damnation, they will be required to admit to God and to the world the truth about their wrongdoing. The general judgment must happen because truth must triumph.
The general judgment will be a day of divine wrath revealed against wickedness. On that day, the friends of God as well as those who have made themselves His enemies will have ample cause to tremble.
Nevertheless, it will also be a day of joyous celebration for those who love justice, who love truth and who love the Lord Jesus. We, too, should look to the day when the divine Judge will return to set the world aright. Longing for His appearance, we can join the ancient Christians in their fervent prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rv 22:20).
We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which [God’s] Providence led everything towards its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God’s justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by His creatures and that God’s love is stronger than death.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1040
The Son of Man
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
— Matthew 25:31-34
Of course, every benefit was secured at the cross in the sense that we, who were dead in our sins (see Col 2:13), are restored to life spiritually. However, evangelicals…
Of course, every benefit was secured at the cross in the sense that we, who were dead in our sins (see Col 2:13), are restored to life spiritually.
However, evangelicals are most concerned about the question of grace, and how grace is received and applied. Many evangelicals are suspicious that Catholics think that grace is only applied or “received” when we do certain “works.” This is not our teaching.
The grace of forgiveness of sin is offered freely to all who will seek it from Jesus. And while saving grace does summon us to works prepared for us by God (see Eph 2:10), our works are the result of grace, not the cause of it.
Where evangelicals struggle in understanding grace is that they have a very juridical sense of what took place on the cross and how it is applied to us. To them, at least those who hold that classical Protestant view, justification and salvation are merely imputed. That is to say, they are legally declared of us, but do not actually change who we are. Martin Luther spoke of the righteousness we receive as a justitia aliena (“an alien justice”).
We are not actually made just, we are only said to be just, because Jesus took the punishment we deserved, and He paid the price. But the justice we receive is “alien” because it belongs to Jesus and does not really make us just. To them, the Blood of Jesus “covers” our sin, but we are still wretched and depraved. So we are declared innocent and have innocence legally imputed to us by Jesus, but classical Protestantism still considers us depraved. Our depravity is only covered. Some in classical Protestantism have used the image that we are a dunghill, covered with snow. In Jesus, the Father overlooks our sin, as if we were covered with snow, or covered with the Blood of Jesus, but underneath we are still sinful, still a dunghill.
The Catholic theology of grace, however, sees grace as truly transforming us. Our sin is not merely covered, it is actually taken away, and we are really made holy. It is true that we tend to slip back into sin, but confession, holy Communion and living the life of faith are graces that assist us to become what we truly are, holy and righteous in God’s sight (see Eph 1:4). We actually are those who are to share the glorious freedom and nature of the Children of God (1 Jn 3:2).
Finally, then, at the cross we are saved from the deadly effect of sin. But more than saved, we are sanctified. And this sanctification is more than some mere legal imputation, it is an actual transforming work of grace that is begun in us and will be brought to completion (see Phil 1:6) so that we might become the very “holiness” of God (Lk 1:75; 1 Thes 3:13; 4:7; 2 Cor 7:1). These blessings reach us by grace working through faith, and cause us to walk uprightly in righteous deeds prepared for us by God (Eph 2:10).
Rev. Msgr. Charles E. Pope is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
A short biblical passage supplied by St. Peter in Acts helps us understand more about how to get to heaven. Having heard a sermon that he preached on Pentecost, many…
A short biblical passage supplied by St. Peter in Acts helps us understand more about how to get to heaven. Having heard a sermon that he preached on Pentecost, many were struck to the heart and asked what they should do. Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
But this is not to be understood as a ritualistic observance we fulfill on one day, but is meant to usher in a whole renewal of the human person. And thus we should look at all three things that Peter indicates in some more detail.
The word translated as “repent” is metanoia, which means more than to clean up our act. It means to come to a whole new mind, rooted in what God teaches and reveals, with new priorities and the ability to make better decisions.
To be baptized is not only to be cleansed of our sins, but also to see our old self put to death and for Christ to come alive in us. Baptism ushers in the beginnings of a lifelong healing process that must continue by God’s grace. Baptism also points to all the sacraments of the Church. Having been brought to new life, we must also be fed by the Eucharist and by God’s word, we must see the wounds of sins healed in confession, we must be strengthened for a mission by confirmation. Baptism also makes us a member of the Body of Christ. And thus, we are called to walk with all the members of Christ’s body — the Church. St. Peter also speaks of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. And thus we are taught that our dignity is to be swept up into the life, love and wisdom of God. We are called to be sanctified by the Spirit, to see sins put to death and many virtues come alive.
As can be seen, there are many dimensions to the work of God in saving us. Thus, we are to walk in a loving covenant relationship with the Lord. We are to do this in fellowship with his Church, through the grace of the sacraments, obedience to the Word of God and prayer (see Acts 2:42).
“Are you saved?” That’s a question often heard from well-meaning Christians who want to help others know Jesus Christ. As Catholics whose faith is centered in Him, we can appreciate…
“Are you saved?” That’s a question often heard from well-meaning Christians who want to help others know Jesus Christ. As Catholics whose faith is centered in Him, we can appreciate their good intentions and admire their willingness to talk about God.
Even so, we may have trouble understanding what their question is really all about. What exactly do people mean when they talk of being already “saved”?
Most often, Christians with this query view salvation as a past event that took place when they made a confession of faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. This act of faith, they believe, now guarantees them a place in heaven, no matter what they may do for the rest of their lives. They will never have to face the punishment of hell for their sins.
A Mistaken Notion
The teaching of the Catholic Church helps us understand that this is actually a mistaken notion of salvation. Jesus Christ came to give us much more than a kind of eternal fire insurance policy. Salvation in the fullest sense is an ongoing process that won’t be complete until after we die. And in the meantime, it’s still possible to turn away again from God.
When someone asks us, then, whether we’re “saved,” perhaps the best short answer is this: “Well, I’m doing what the apostle Paul tells us to do in the Bible: I’m ‘working out’ my salvation day by day” (see Phil 2:12).
If we want to follow up on that statement, we can assure the inquirer that we do in fact have faith in Jesus Christ, that we recognize Him as our Savior and Lord, and that our goal is to be counted one day among the saints in heaven.
But why end the discussion there? If you want to take it a step farther, try this approach. Say: “Now I have a question for you: We both know that Jesus saves us from sin. But what are we saved for?”
This query shifts the focus of the conversation. Exploring the answer together can help the other person grasp more fully and accurately what it actually means to be saved.
What Is Salvation?
According to the Catholic understanding of salvation, rooted in Scripture, we aren’t just saved from sin. We’re saved for eternal life with God.
Why did God create us in the first place? He made us in certain ways like himself, able to think and choose, so we could be sons and daughters who live in friendship with Him. God created us for himself, for nothing less than to know, love, serve and enjoy Him — now and forever.
Through sin, however, we’ve rebelled against God and rejected His friendship. As a result, His likeness in us has been marred, and we’ve separated ourselves from Him. Since He’s the Source of all that’s good, such separation can lead only to misery in both this life and the next.
Because God loved us so much, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from such a terrible fate. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus offer us, through the forgiveness of our sins, escape from eternal punishment.
But that’s not all. He also reconciles us to God, opening the door to a full restoration of our friendship with Him.
In this way, Jesus begins the process of a complete renewal of God’s likeness in us, a healing of the brokenness that comes from sin. So salvation isn’t just a way to avoid hell, nor is it just a past event.
On the contrary: Salvation, in its fullness, is God’s new creation. To save us, He remakes us in His likeness — a lifelong process requiring our cooperation — so that we can once again think and love as He thinks and loves. This process finds its completion only in heaven, where eternal life is enjoyed in perfect harmony with Him.
Those who are joined there with God forever, in the deepest possible communion of love, will achieve their greatest destiny. They will fulfill their deepest longing. They will become what they were made to be.
Consider this analogy.
We’re like the survivors of a shipwreck in a storm out in the middle of the ocean. We’ve been rescued from drowning and welcomed onboard the ship we call the Church. That ship is now taking us to a safe harbor — our home in heaven with God.
But we’re not home yet.
You could say, then, that we’ve been “saved” in the sense of being rescued and taken aboard a safe vessel. But we can’t really speak of being “saved” in the full sense until we reach our destination. We must humbly admit that we haven’t yet arrived at final perfection.
Meanwhile, we also must recognize the sobering possibility that — God forbid — we could choose someday to jump overboard again.
Salvation isn’t guaranteed just because of something we’ve done in the past. We continue to have a free will, which is part of God’s likeness in us. So we still have the ability to turn away from God again.
It’s a chilling possibility. But it shouldn’t make us perpetually worried that we’ll be damned despite our best efforts to grow in grace. We can be confident that God desires our salvation, and He’s faithful to help us. If we’re tempted to forsake Him, He’ll grant us the power to resist that temptation.
Even so, the choice is still ours.
In fact, we make choices every day that draw us closer to God or lead us farther away from Him. That’s why simply believing in Jesus isn’t enough. Friendship with God, like friendship of any kind, is more than just getting acquainted. It involves making a series of choices to love, over the long term, so that a committed relationship grows.
Faith is useless, then, without good works. God must have our active cooperation, because both our mind and our will — the full likeness of God — must be renewed if we’re to be saved in the end.
If you talk over these points with Christian friends who ask whether you’re saved, you could open up for them a whole new way of thinking. What if the conversation ends after your first reply? Even then, the time you’ve spent thinking about what salvation really means can deepen your faith and bring you closer to God.