Recently, I sent my article on Catholics and justification by faith to my friend Riley Fraas to get his take on it (he is a Presbyterian, as I was formerly). I have always found Riley to be a civil and thoughtful commentator on various issues. He posted a response to my article on his blog. Not surprisingly, his response was very clear and helpful. I've recently written up a response to his response, and it is pasted below. The form of the conversation has allowed a lot of very central issues and questions between Catholics and Protestants on the issue of justification to be brought out, as you can see below, so I think the conversation has been very productive.
For a fuller biblical and philosophical argument for a Catholic (Augustinian) view of justification over against at least a certain reading of the Protestant view, see here. For a couple more articles that hit at some of the central questions also discussed in this post (particularly about how Protestants and Catholics view the role of imputation and impartation of righteousness in justification), see here and here. (This post also touches briefly on questions of Semipelagianism, monergism, etc., so for an article on the Catholic view of predestination, efficacious grace, etc., see here.)
Thanks for your thoughts on my article, Riley. As usual, your thoughts have a clarity that is too often lacking in these kinds of discussions and which makes for a much more productive conversation.
Let me first reply very briefly to your brief points:
1 and 2. What the moral law of God requires is obedience. As all the moral law is summed up in “love God and love your neighbor,” obedience ultimately means “loving God supremely and one’s neighbor as oneself.” In terms of its essence, this does not admit of degrees. One either loves God supremely or one does not in any particular act of will. Therefore, any act of will which is characterized by supreme love of God is pleasing to God and acceptable to him, warranting his favor. It is true that the lives of the regenerate are not entirely free from sin in this life, but the presence of remaining sin does not negate the pleasure God takes in genuine acts of righteousness.
However, it does indeed remain true that we are not yet perfect. We have not yet seen in our own lives the final and full victory of the regenerate heart over all remaining sinful tendencies and actions, though in a truly regenerate heart righteousness has the dominion and the upper hand. Because we are not yet perfect, we are not yet fit for the full communion with God. The regenerate are in this life the true friends of God, pleasing to him, but not yet perfectly pleasing to him. This is why we must continue on the path of sanctification until, by God’s grace, perfection is reached. When that happens, we will be fully fit to dwell with God in the fullness of our salvation.
3 and 4. Here, as well as in 1 and 2, we see a serious error Protestants are often drawn into by certain problematic tendencies in common Protestant formulations of justification. The error is in thinking that God cannot be pleased with a life in which there has ever been any sin. In your view, it seems that even after, by grace, we become morally perfect, free of all sin and loving God with full and perfect hearts, having rejected and put to death and obtained final victory over all sin and temptation, because our record attests that we had even one sin sometime in our past, the whole of our life is deemed by God “a stench in his nostrils” and forever worthy only of God’s displeasure expressed in the judgment of hell and never of God’s favor expressed in his rewards. But this view of things is both unbiblical and morally absurd. It paints a picture of God as unconcerned with our actual moral condition, equating an eternally unregenerate God-hater with a person who, by grace, has turned to God and attained a state of perfect love to him, making these two morally equal in his sight when it is obvious that they are truly infinitely different. There is an infinite difference between a person who never repents and remains a God-hater for all eternity and a person who has been a sinner, but has turned from sin to repentance and has struggled through the process of sanctification to eventually arrive at a state of perfect and full and eternal love to God. This latter person’s moral character could not but be pleasing to God, who cannot but love his own moral image reflected in it just as he cannot but hate the moral evil of those who continue in inveterate enmity against him. It is a fundamental moral fact that God must love love to himself and must hate hatred to himself, and it follows from this that a moral character full of hatred to God cannot be regarded by him as morally equal to a character full of love to him, but that rather these two characters must be seen by him as infinitely diverse.
It is one of the fundamental errors of the Protestant doctrine of justification (at least as it is often understood) that it presents God as unconcerned by our actual moral condition. It pictures the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, considered as distinct from our regeneration and sanctification, as making us fully morally acceptable to him, as if our regeneration and sanctification are of no moral import to him and we could be fully acceptable to him apart from any question of our inward moral state. It declares that our sanctification is morally worthless to God because of one sin in our past, as if the moral beauty of a perfectly sanctified being is without any real beauty in the sight of God and does not call from him attestations of favor. The Catholic view, on the other hand, articulated (I would argue) in the Bible and by St. Augustine and his followers, holds that God is concerned with our inward moral character, and so justifies us not merely by imputing righteousness to us but also by changing us within to conform our inward state to the standards of his moral law. We are indeed justified by the righteousness of Christ alone, and this is a free gift to us, but this process necessarily involves the application of that righteousness to us inwardly as it is applied to us in our regeneration and sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit.
5. Trent did not adopt any Semipelagian viewpoint. The affirmations of Trent are fully consistent with the affirmations of the Second Council of Orange. Both Orange and Trent continue to represent authentic and official Church teaching. For more on this, see these articles:
6. If “justification by faith alone” means “we are fully morally acceptable to God by means of imputed righteousness without any input from imparted righteousness,” then yes, the Catholic view rejects this idea. However, if we mean simply that all our righteousness comes from God through the sacrifice of merits of Christ alone, so that it is all entirely a free gift and none of it comes from us originally, and so we must look to Christ alone to receive it and not try to produce it ourselves by our own works, then Catholics wholeheartedly endorse this sentiment as central to their own system.
7. An imputed righteousness considered as making us fully right with God without any reference to any internal change is indeed a legal fiction, because righteousness is not the sort of thing that exists as an external commodity but can be nothing else ultimately than an inward disposition. “Righteousness” simply means, ultimately, “supreme love to God.” Therefore, one cannot be said to be righteous unless one has supreme love to God, and anyone who does have this must be said to be righteous. To declare a person righteous without regard to internal moral character would be in essence to commit a legal fiction–unless we so distort moral reality as to imagine God to be morally unmoved by supreme love to himself or supreme hatred to himself in the heart of a creature. We would have to deny the very essence of what righteousness is to hold such a view.
Interestingly, you add that “what is external is made internal in time.” But in your view, the external is never made internal, because even when we are perfected our inward righteousness is of no moral value to God because of even one sin on our past record and because God is fully morally satisfied by mere imputation without respect for internal change.
8. Your concept of sanctification as necessary to make us “fit” to dwell with God contradicts your overall doctrine of justification. How does sanctification make us “fit” to dwell with God? Surely it is because a character of enmity against God is morally abhorrent to him and deserves to be cast from his presence, while an inward character of supreme love to God cannot but be morally pleasing to him and so is justly fit to dwell in his presence. But admit this, and you deny your own doctrine of justification, for that doctrine depends on denying that God is morally concerned with our inward state. If a fully justified person with Christ’s imputed righteousness can be yet only fit to be cast from the presence of God on account of his inward moral imperfection being a “stench to God’s nostrils,” then surely such a person cannot be deemed to be fully morally right with God. He needs something other than imputation; he also needs inward sanctification, and without that sanctification his justification–that is, his being made fully right and morally acceptable to God–is incomplete. If, on the other hand, you affirm that he is fully right and acceptable to God solely by imputation without regard to his inward state–his justification being constituted solely by imputation–then you can no longer ascribe any moral unfitness to the unsanctified state per se or affirm that there would be any moral reason for an unsanctified person, per his unsanctification, to be cast from the presence of God. Either imputation, by itself, makes us fully morally acceptable to God, or it does not. If it does, then sanctification serves no moral purpose. If it doesn’t, then sanctification is a necessary part of the process of being made fully morally acceptable to God–in Augustinian language, it is part of the process of justification.
Related to this, the Bible presents eternal life as a reward for our own love to God expressed in our good works. There is no way around this. The language of Scripture is clear. We are to be condemned or rewarded according to our works. We are to receive according to what we have done in the body. Etc. This language is incompatible with the idea that even the righteousness of the sanctified deserves nothing but hell. If that is so, then the final judgment is a sham, for we must picture God as deciding that in a truly just judgment the sanctified person deserves hell, but giving him heaven anyway in disregard to the actual merits of his moral condition or his own works. But how is this to render judgment “according to our works”? This is rather a rendering of judgment “in spite of our works”! In the Catholic view, there is no problem here, for by God’s gift the righteous become truly righteous, and God treats them according to what he has truly made them to be. Although we are all by nature sinners, and have all sinned in various ways, yet by grace the righteous have overcome sin and turned to God. Their record shows a life that contains sin, but also a life in which virtue eventually overcame sin and in which the person turned finally and fully eventually to God. As Ezekiel said, when a person who was a sinner turns to God, his former sin will not be remembered. Why? Because he has put it to death and become a different person through grace. When God judges our record, he judges the whole of it, including not just how we started but how we ended up.
There is one more thing that is necessary to add: Catholics and Protestants can fully and wholeheartedly agree that our salvation, our justification, is nothing other than a gift of God’s free grace in Christ. We contribute nothing to it that is not a product of God’s grace through the sacrifice and merits of Christ. Considered in terms of our own deserving as fallen creatures, we can deserve only hell. If God were to give us according to our own merits as fallen creatures, in response to what we ourselves have produced in the moral sphere, we would all be doomed to eternal perdition. It is only through the righteousness of Christ received as a free gift that we can be friends of God and worthy of his favor. The utter graciousness of justification is not in the least impaired by the fact that that gift necessarily involves not just an external imputation but also an internal impartation. As an analogy, imagine a person who goes to buy groceries but finds he has no money. He is doomed to failure. But a friend, out of sheer graciousness, gives him the necessary money. He goes into the store and buys what he needs. Surely his groceries have come to him as a gift of pure grace, not earned by him in any way. We do not need to devalue the value of the money he used to buy the groceries in order to maintain the pure graciousness of the gift. We do not need to say that the money wasn’t really sufficient, that the cashier simply gave the groceries to him without requiring him to pay for it. The money was fully sufficient, but it was a gift. Similarly, we do not need to say that we are justified by God’s setting aside his moral requirements with regard to our moral condition and allowing that which is a “stink to his nostrils” into his presence by means of overlooking it because of some external declaration. Rather, we can say that God does not merely overlook but actually removes the stink, making us truly pleasing to him–and that all of this is nothing other than a gift of pure grace through the sacrifice and merits of Jesus Christ.
ADDENDUM 11/25/16: Riley has posted a response to my response on his blog. Here is my new response to that:
Thanks, Riley! A few thoughts:
1. Part of our problem, I think, is that we seem to be operating on the basis of two different paradigms for understanding what “righteousness” is. I define righteousness as “love to God above all other things, as the Supreme Good.” You seem to define it as “a perfect record of keeping all the commands of God.” In your view, therefore, anyone who has ever committed a sin can never be righteous, which is why we need an external, imputed righteousness. In my view, we become righteous through sanctification, because the Spirit moves us from not loving God as the Supreme Good to doing so. In your view, it would seem, the regenerate never actually do any good works more than the unregenerate, since there is no such thing as “righteousness” without a perfect record. (it is difficult, then, to see the point of regeneration or sanctification, since God regards morally both unregenerate and regenerate the same.)
I would submit that you cannot prove your paradigm from Scripture. I believe I can prove my paradigm from reason, Scripture, and the Tradition of the Catholic Church. My overall case can be found here – http://freethoughtforchrist.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-augustinian-and-protestant.html
Part of the difficulty in Scriptural interpretation will involve interpreting the various forms of language used in Scripture relating to justification. As an example, let me quote another article of mine (http://freethoughtforchrist.blogspot.com/2016/06/is-gods-work-in-us-nothing-but-filthy.html):
“This Protestant viewpoint is also defective philosophically. It depends on confusion regarding how the “legal” relates to the “real.” The biblical texts alluded to above do make reference to the idea of God having some kind of record of our deeds and using this to judge us. But what is the point of referring to a record of our deeds? The point of the record is that it testifies to what we are. It is not the deeds themselves, as isolated events, that draws God’s wrath (or pleasure). It is the good or bad will manifested in them. God looks at our deeds as an outward testimony to the kind of person we are. If he judges us to be evil and worthy of eternal damnation, he does not punish our deeds, but he punishes us. So our deeds are not, in themselves, the ultimate point. It is what we are, our inward moral condition, that is the ultimate point. An innocent person can be killed by another person or by a tornado. In the latter case, the event is a tragedy, but there is no moral blame involved. Why? Because there is no evil will involved, no heart set in opposition to God and manifesting itself by means of the intentional killing of a human being. In the former case, there is. It is not the outward event that carries the moral quality, but the inward will manifested by the outward act and event.”
According to the Bible, the commands that sum up the moral law of God are the commands to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Therefore, Paul says that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). I would argue (and do so more in the above-cited articles, particularly the first one) that the Bible presents the picture that what Christ’s sacrifice did for us is not give us a merely external righteousness because we could never become righteous ourselves in any other way, but it makes us righteous internally and so enables us to fulfill the law. Romans 8:3-4: “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” That is why, in the end, we will be rewarded according to our works.
(This article by Catholic writer Bryan Cross makes a similar argument, arguing that Protestants sometimes tend to read their own paradigm into the biblical texts and reject the Catholic view without adequate, non-question-begging biblical proof, because they do not consider alternative paradigms adequately. They assume their interpretation of biblical language [such as the language of the law court, of judgment according to deeds, etc.] without really showing that the biblical texts require or are best understood in light of their Protestant interpretations. http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2012/08/imputation-and-paradigms-a-reply-to-nicholas-batzig/)
2. However, I think there may be a way to reconcile our two positions. I would grant that, considering our own personal merit, we cannot be said to be able to contribute anything to free us from our debt of sin or to merit eternal life. Since freedom from sin and sanctification are gifts of God to us, not produced by ourselves but given to us by the Holy Spirit, purchased by the sacrifice and merits of Christ, we can take no ultimate credit for them. But we cannot avoid “taking credit” for our sins, for they come from us originally. Therefore, in this sense, we ultimately have no merit. We deserve hell, never heaven, and that is that. As canon 12 of the Second Council of Orange put it, “God loves us for what we shall be by his gift, and not by our own deserving.” We could articulate this by saying that we are justified only by the imputation of the righteousness and satisfaction of Christ to us, for it is only by these being declared ours that they become ours and so count for us. Our sanctification adds nothing to this other than being the experiential working out of that imputation. I’ve sometimes compared it to buying a house. First, the house is deeded over, and then you get to move in. If it is not deeded over, no amount of moving in would make it yours. On the other hand, if you never move in, the fact that it is deeded to you is to no effect. Similarly, it is only because Christ’s righteousness is “deeded over” to us that we can be justified; but if we are not also sanctified we receive no benefit from it for we remain experientially outside of its benefits.
3. You say: “Every crime deserves its punishment, and every sin must be punished infinitely.”
Yes, every sin, being against God, the Infinite (total) Being, is infinite in its ill-desert and so deserves an infinite punishment. But, in light of what I said above in #1, we need to be careful to be accurate about what this means. Just as righteousness is ultimately “love for God as the Supreme Good,” sin is “the failure of a rational being to love God as the Supreme Good.” Just like righteousness, it is a state of the heart ultimately, and specific acts are important insofar as they manifest that state of heart. The state of sinful fallen man, without grace, is that we have rejected God as the Supreme Good and substituted our own desires in his place, and so have become the sort of beings that deserve God’s infinite (total) wrath, which leads necessarily eventually to hell, which is the state of experiencing God’s total wrath. Only an infinite atonement by an infinite being could redeem us from this condition, because only an infinite being (God) could absorb into himself the fullness of our sinful condition with all its consequences and yet be able to overcome it and fill us up with his overcoming satisfaction and righteousness. So in Christ’s atonement, there is indeed an infinite satisfaction for sins. Christ’s satisfaction and righteousness are worked out in our lives as we are freed from sin and sanctified in holiness. So nobody’s getting off the hook in the Catholic view. The infinite price is paid by Christ and worked out in our lives in our dying to sin and living to righteousness. Sanctification is necessary because so long as we are in a sinful condition–a condition in which we do not love God as the Supreme Good–we are morally loathsome to God and so fit only for hell. The only way we can become morally pleasing to God is by the satisfaction and righteousness of Christ, purchased by Christ’s infinite atonement, to be applied to our lives so that we are changed from being sinful to being righteous in sanctification. We must be crucified with Christ so that we might rise with him, his infinite atonement having its full effect in our lives.
Following up with #2 above, we could put this in terms more congruent with Protestant ways of talking, I think. If my record has one sin on it, this sin came from me. It is an expression of my moral condition apart from Christ. No matter how sanctified I eventually become, this will always be my moral condition apart from Christ. So we can say that I will always deserve hell, considering only my own personal merits and desert apart from what is a free gift to me in Christ. Christ’s infinite atonement fully pays for my sins, and this satisfaction is imputed to me, and only by that imputation does it become mine, and so I can take no credit for it. Sanctification is the working out in my life of this imputation. Sanctification is necessary, because if the imputation of Christ’s satisfaction and righteousness is not worked out in my life, I will never receive the fruits of that imputation–again, just as in the analogy with the house above. But my sanctification adds nothing to the imputation, but is only its working out in my life. Nothing I can do, even through grace, can satisfy God’s justice for my sins or merit God’s favor, because all the good I have through grace is a free gift and so I cannot take credit for it. I have nothing of my own with which to make up for my sin or merit God’s favor. I must rely entirely on the fact that God has imputed Christ’s satisfaction and righteousness to me.
4. You say: “And, truthfully, in practice, it’s doubtful that people can truly rely on God’s grace alone, when they think to merit eternal life by their own works.”
I believe that the sanctification God is working within me and which will be eventually complete is true righteousness, truly pleasing to God, and therefore fit for a positive response from him. When my sanctification is fully complete, it will merit eternal life. However, I do not claim that I personally get any ultimate credit for any of this, because it is a gift of grace. In that sense, I will never merit anything. By God’s grace, I truly do rely on God’s grace alone, and I come to him with empty hands to receive from him righteousness and eternal life as a free gift. And in this life, I am conscious of all the imperfections remaining in me since I am not yet perfectly sanctified, and I am of course also always conscious of my past sins (which reflect my true moral character apart from grace). So I certainly do not think of myself as deserving God’s favor, as if I could claim it by right. That would be the height of arrogant presumption! I am confident in God’s work in me to make me what he wants me to be, but I place no confidence in myself apart from God’s grace.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2011), this is expressed by a quotation from St. Thérèse of Lisieux, using very Protestant-sounding language: “After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself” (found here – http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c3a2.htm). Catholics not infrequently use such language, because they recognize that since salvation is a free gift, they cannot claim any ultimate credit for it, even though one of the main goals of salvation is to make us, by God’s grace, truly righteous and therefore truly pleasing to God.
5. You said: “even Roman Catholic and secular sources agree with me that monergism lost and a synergistic doctrine prevailed at Trent because the Pope was convinced by the Jesuits that monergism was too close to the Protestant Reformers.”
Whatever various sources might say (and certainly not all sources agree with you), this is simply false. Monergism (as Calvinists would use and understand the term) was affirmed clearly as official Catholic doctrine at the Second Council of Orange (http://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/ORANGE.HTM). Whatever was said at Trent must be interpreted in light of this and not taken contrary to it. Nor do I see anything at Trent that must be taken in a way contrary to it. I address this in the articles cited in my previous response.
We have to be careful with terminology here. Catholics and Calvinists use terminology differently, and in my experience it seems to cause a lot of confusion both ways. When Calvinists talk about “monergism,” Catholics tend to hear the idea that we are as inanimate objects when God converts us, that our will is not involved, that we are moved along like a stone. Of course, Calvinists don’t typically mean this. Catholics like the term “synergism,” but what they mean by this is simply that there are two wills involved in conversion–God’s and our own. Our good will is a product of God’s grace, but our will is still involved. In other words, in conversion we are active, voluntary beings. Of course, Calvinists agree with this, but they don’t tend to use the word “synergism” to describe it. Here is the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2001) on this (using quotations from St. Augustine):
“The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it:”
“Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.”
This is what Catholics mean by “synergism,” but note that it is the same as the Calvinist view.