The Grand Question: Anglicans and Roman Catholics (and Evangelicals, too) on Justification by Faith

The justification of sinners—this is “the grand question which hangeth yet in controversy between us and the Church of Rome.” Thus declared the great Anglican divine Richard Hooker. Hooker notes that Anglicans and Roman Catholics agree on many points about justification. They agree that all human beings are sinners and need to be reconciled to God. They agree that sinners are justified by grace alone for the sake of Christ. They agree that that the righteousness and merits of Christ must be applied to the sinner if justification is to be made actual in his life. Wherein then lies the disagreement? According to Hooker, Anglicans and Catholics disagree on “the very essence of the medicine whereby Christ cureth our disease,” what is often described as the formal cause of our justification. Formal cause refers to what we might call the identity of a given object, the pattern which makes something what it is.

The Catholic Church, writes Hooker, teaches that sinners are justified by an inherent righteousness:

When they are required to show what the righteousness is whereby a Christian man is justified, they answer that it is a divine spiritual quality, which quality, received into the soul, doth first make it to be one of them who are born of God; and, secondly, endue it with power to bring forth such works as they do that are born of him; even as the soul of man, being joined unto his body, doth first make him to be in the number of reasonable creatures, and, secondly, enable him to perform the natural functions which are proper to his kind; that it maketh the soul gracious and amiable in the sight of God, in regard whereof it is termed grace; that by it, through the merit of Christ, we are delivered as from sin, so from eternal death and condemnation, the reward of sin. This grace they will have to be applied by infusion, to the end that, as the body is warm by the heat which is in the body, so the soul might be righteous by inherent grace; which grace they make capable of increase; as the body may be more and more warm, so the soul more and more justified, according as grace shall be augmented; the augmentation whereof is merited by good works, as good works are made meritorious by it. Wherefore the first receipt of grace is in their divinity the first justification; the second thereof, the second justification. (A Learned Discourse on Justification)

This is a fair statement, I think, of the Tridentine construal of justification. Contemporary Catholic theologians would probably wish to nuance, qualify, and expand the above in various ways. Most acknowledge the limitations of employing the categories of Aristotelian causality in describing the mystery of God’s justifying work in man. Instead of speaking of the infusion of a “divine spiritual quality,” some might wish instead to speak of the supernaturalization or deification of human nature. Catholic theologians would most definitely wish to complement the Tridentine insistence on sanctifying grace as the formal cause of justice with an even greater insistence on the indwelling Spirit. As Charles Cardinal Journet writes:

When you bring into a room a source of light, it illuminates the walls; so, when the divine Persons come to us (here we have the source, uncreated grace), they illuminate the walls of the soul (here we have the effect, created grace). And if you possess grace, then the source of grace, the three divine Persons, is there too. … The uncreated Spirit is given in created grace, as the sun is given in its rays. The uncreated Gift of the Spirit and the created gift of grace are simultaneous. (The Meaning of Grace, p. 14)

Similarly, Piet Fransen:

Created grace is not something standing in between God and us; it is no path to approach God, no ladder to climb up to God, no means to God—at least not primarily…. Created grace does not act as a screen between God and us since it comes into being only because of and within the gesture by which God unites us immediately to himself. He gives Himself without an intervening medium; He comes to dwell in us and take us back to Himself…. Created grace is at once the fruit and the bond of the indwelling, originating in the indwelling and sustained by the indwelling; it raises us into an ever-deepening actualization of the indwelling on earth and in heaven. Latin expresses it more tersely: ex unione, in unione, et ad unionem—arising from our immediate union with God, granted in that union and urging us to that union. (The New Life of Grace, pp 102-103)

Ultimately contemporary Catholic theologians would want to insist that the justification of sinners is nothing less than their regeneration into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence they find it necessary to qualify, as did John Henry Newman in the 19th century, the assertion of the Council of Trent that the formal cause of our justification is the gift of inherent righteousness. As Karl Rahner explains, “It is true that the Council describes this interior grace in terms which in the theology of the schools hold good primarily of created grace, but it nowhere says that interior grace, as the unique formal cause of justification, must be understood exclusively of created grace” (Theological Investigations, I:341). Thus Robert Gleason, for example, speaks of the Holy Spirit as the “quasi-formal” cause of justification (Grace, p. 146).

The Roman Catholic need not deny forensic imputation, effectually enacted in baptism and absolution. Cardinal Newman boldly acknowledged the imputational force of the justifying Word: Christ declares to the sinner that he is now forgiven and restored to righteousness, and in that divine declaring the sinner is made righteous:

Justification is a word of state and solemnity. Divine Mercy might have renewed us and kept it secret; this would have been an infinite and most unmerited grace, but He has done more. He justifies us; He not only makes, He declares, acknowledges, accepts us as holy. He recognises us as His own, and publicly repeals the sentence of wrath and the penal statutes which lie against us…. Before man has done anything as specimen, or paid anything as instalment, except faith, nor even faith in the case of infants, he has the whole treasures of redemption put to his credit, as if he were and had done infinitely more than he ever can be or do. He is “declared” after the pattern of his Saviour, to be the adopted “Son of God with power, by a” spiritual “resurrection.” His tears are wiped away; his fears, misgivings, remorse, shame, are changed for “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost;” he is clad in white, and has his crown given him. Thus justification is at first what renewal could but be at last; and, therefore, is by no means a mere result or consequence of renewal, but a real, though not a separate act of God’s mercy. It is a great and august deed in the sight of heaven and hell; it is not done in a corner, but by Him who would show the world “what should be done unto those whom the King delighteth to honour.” It is a pronouncing righteous while it proceeds to make righteous. As Almighty God in the beginning created the world solemnly and in form, speaking the word not to exclude, but to proclaim the deed,—as in the days of His flesh He made use of the creature and changed its properties not without a command; so does He new-create the soul by the breath of His mouth, by the sacrament of his Voice. The declaration of our righteousness, while it contains pardon for the past, promises holiness for the future. (Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, pp. 73-74)

By the Word of God the sinner is forgiven his sin, made regenerate in the Spirit, adopted as a son in the Son, and brought into the ecstatic love of the Holy Trinity. He is made righteous in the core of his being and supernaturally oriented to God in faith, love, and hope. The Catholic Church thus refuses to divide justification and sanctification. We can distinguish the two intellectually, but in reality there is only the one grace that is the self-communication of God.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,” the Apostle proclaims, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

Hooker, on the other hand, insists that the righteousness by which we are justified in the present is extrinsic to the sinner:

There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the world to come: and there is a justifying and a sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness, wherewith we shall be clothed in the world to come, is both perfect and inherent. That whereby here we are justified is perfect, but not inherent. That whereby we are sanctified, inherent, but not perfect….

But the righteousness wherein we must be found, if we be justified, is not our own; therefore we cannot be justified by any inherent quality. Christ hath merited righteousness for as many as are found in him. In him God findeth us, if we be faithful; for by faith we are incorporated into him. Then, although in ourselves we be altogether sinful and unrighteous, yet even the man which in himself is impious, full of iniquity, full of sin; him being found in Christ through faith, and having his sin in hatred through repentance, him God beholdeth with a gracious eye, putteth away his sin by not imputing it, taketh quite away the punishment due thereunto, by pardoning it; and accepteth him in Jesus Christ, as perfect righteous, as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded him in the law: shall I say more perfectly righteous than if himself had fulfilled the whole law?

Justifying and sanctifying righteousness are thus different in kind, says Hooker. Justifying righteousness is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. It is external to us and is received by faith. For the sake of Christ, God forgives and accepts us. Sanctifying righteousness is the transformation effected in us by the Spirit and consists of “faith, hope, charity, and other Christian virtues.”

The differences between the two communions on justification are clear: Anglicanism teaches the imputation of righteousness; Roman Catholicism teaches the infusion of righteousness. Yet matters may not be quite as clear as they seem. The discussion comes to a head when we ask, “May one be justified apart from repentance and a transformed moral and spiritual life?” This is not an idle question. One need only read the writings of Zane Hodges and the other teachers of the Grace Evangelical Society. These theologians have followed out the doctrine of imputation to its logical conclusion, offering a clear yes to the question. Yet Hooker refuses to separate justifying and sanctifying righteousness. Saving faith is inseparable from the virtues of love and hope:

We ourselves do not teach Christ alone, excluding our own faith, unto justification, Christ alone, excluding our own works, unto sanctification, Christ alone, excluding the one or the other as unnecessary unto salvation. It is a childish cavil wherewith in the matter of justification our adversaries do so greatly please themselves, exclaiming that we tread all Christian virtues under our feet and require nothing in Christians but faith, because we teach that faith alone justifieth; whereas by this speech we never meant to exclude either hope and charity from being always joined as inseparable mates with faith in the man that is justified, or works from being added as necessary duties, required at the hands of every justified man, but to show that faith is the only hand which putteth on Christ unto justification, and Christ the only garment which, being so put on, covereth the shame of our defiled natures, hideth the imperfections of our works, preserveth us blameless in the sight of God, before whom otherwise the very weakness of our faith were cause sufficient to make us culpable, yea, to shut us out from the kingdom of heaven, where nothing that is not absolute can enter.

We are justified by faith, yet faith is never alone. At this point the gap between Anglicanism and the Catholic Church narrows considerably. What precisely is the difference between Hooker’s assertion that justifying faith is always joined to charity and hope and the Catholic assertion that justifying faith is intrinsically “formed by love” (fides caritate formata)? The gap narrows to a hair’s breadth when Hooker addresses the question “Which does the believer receive first, justifying or sanctifying righteousness?” Hooker’s answer is illuminating and needs to be read carefully:

We have already showed that there are two kinds of Christian righteousness: the one without us, which we have by imputation; the other in us, which consisteth of faith, hope, charity, and other Christian virtues; and St. James doth prove that Abraham had not only the one, because the thing he believed was imputed unto him for righteousness, but also the other, because he offered up his son. God giveth us both the one justice and the other: the one by accepting us for righteous in Christ; the other by working Christian righteousness in us. The proper and most immediate efficient cause in us of this latter is the spirit of adoption which we have received into our hearts. That whereof it consisteth, whereof it is really and formally made, are those infused virtues proper and particular unto saints, which the Spirit, in that very moment when first it is given of God, bringeth with it. …

If here it be demanded which of these we do first receive, I answer that the Spirit, the virtues of the Spirit, the habitual justice which is ingrafted, the external justice of Christ Jesus which is imputed, these we receive all at one and the same time. Whensoever we have any of these we have all; they go together. Yet since no man is justified except he believe, and no man believeth except he have faith, and no man hath faith unless he have received the Spirit of adoption, forasmuch as these do necessarily infer justification, but justification doth of necessity presuppose them; we must needs hold that imputed righteousness, in dignity being the chiefest, is notwithstanding in order the last of all these, but actual righteousness, which is the righteousness of good works, succeedeth all, followeth after all, both in order and in time. Which thing being attentively marked showeth plainly how the faith of true believers cannot be divorced from hope and love; how faith is a part of sanctification, and yet unto sanctification necessary; how faith is perfected by good works, and yet no works of ours good without faith; finally, how our fathers might hold, we are justified by faith alone, and yet hold truly that without good works we are not justified.

Believers cannot lay hold by faith of the righteousness of Christ unless they have already received the Spirit of adoption, who creates faith within us. Imputation, in other words, logically follows the gift of the Spirit. “What is this,” Newman asks about this passage, “divested of verbal differences, but to say expressly that the Holy Spirit is the formal cause of justification?” Quite so. The Catholic would simply add that where there is the indwelling Spirit, there is also the transformation of the human person, i.e., sanctifying grace. Are we not here confronted with a mystery that eludes our analytical categories?

In 1986 the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission released a common statement on justification: Salvation and the Church. The document witnesses to the conviction of the commission members that an authentic convergence of belief between Anglicans and Catholics is indeed possible on the question of justification. The key to this convergence is the mutual recognition of the effective and recreative power of the justifying word:

Justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11). This does not mean that justification is a reward for faith or works: rather, when God promises the removal of our condemnation and gives us a new standing before him, this justification is indissolubly linked with his sanctifying recreation of us in grace. This transformation is being worked out in the course of our pilgrimage, despite the imperfections and ambiguities of our lives. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours. (§15)

We must think together, in other words, justification and sanctification, the forensic and the ontological, the external and the internal.

If the respective Anglican and Roman Catholic positions are so close, why do so many Anglicans, especially those of evangelical commitment, continue to cite the doctrine of justification as an issue that divides the two communions? I am sure there are many answers, but I would like to highlight one issue. In his book Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue, Tony Lane asks the question, What are the grounds on which we are reckoned righteous?

On what basis do we come to God to pray? On what ground do we suppose that he is gracious to us and willing to hear our prayer? Through Christ we have access to the Father by one Spirit (Eph 2:18). Indeed, but how does that work? Do we approach God on the basis that Christ has changed our lives sufficiently for us to be acceptable to him? Or is it on the basis that imperfect as we remain in ourselves, we are acceptable because Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us? (p. 163)

The evangelical concern is faithful access to the holy God. Given that I am a sinner, how can God accept me? When the evangelical hears the Tridentine assertion that the formal cause of our justification is “the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just,” he hears the Catholic Church declaring that God only accepts us when we have become perfectly righteous. But I suggest that Trent’s assertion of the formal cause of justification was not designed to answer the question “What are the grounds on which we are reckoned righteous?” That question was answered by Trent’s assertion of the meritorious cause of justification: “The meritorious cause is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father.” Why does God forgive us? Why does he accept us? Why does he justify us? Not because of our works and merits or because we have fulfilled specific conditions of righteousness, but only because of the merits of Christ Jesus. We are justified by grace—sola gratia. According to Roman Catholic understanding, God applies the justification of Christ to us in the sacrament of holy baptism, by which he communicates to us the righteousness of Christ and comes to dwell within us in the Holy Spirit.

I also wish to suggest that there is something odd—at least from an Eastern Orthodox perspective—about the questions posed by Lane, particularly when posed within the gospel and the liturgical experience of the Church. The presumption of the Divine Liturgy is that the Church subsists in Christ: she is the body of the eternal Son body; in, with, and through him she participates in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. She does not ask herself if she has a right to address God in prayer, she does not ask if she is acceptable or whether she has fulfilled the conditions of justification, for to do so would be to to deny the divine identity she has received from God by mercy and grace. The Orthodox Church simply knows that she lives within the Holy Trinity and thus may and must pray to her heavenly Father … through Jesus Christ … in the Holy Spirit. I presume that the Roman Catholic Church would say the same thing about its life in the Holy Trinity.

Hence what does it mean when individual members of Christ’s body raise the question, May I come to God in prayer? Does not the question presuppose a position “outside” of Christ?

Eastern Christians do not concern themselves too much about the justification by faith debates. They worry about the forensic and scholastic distinctions that both Roman Catholics and Protestants invoke and thus prefer to remain within the patristic understanding of deification. Theosis communicates a soteriological wholeness that Western formulations of justification seem to miss. When justification becomes the decisive soteriological category, it appears to become more difficult to speak of the Church’s deified life within the Holy Trinity. It’s as if one gets stuck at the front door. Perhaps this need not be the case, yet the past five hundred years of Catholic-Protestant debate suggests otherwise. But it would be unwise for the Orthodox to yield the justification floor. As I recall, the Apostle Paul happily spoke of the justification of the baptized in Jesus Christ. Orthodox should be as fluent in the language of justification as their non-Orthodox brethren.

(This is an edited version of an article originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 9 January 2008)

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5 Responses to The Grand Question: Anglicans and Roman Catholics (and Evangelicals, too) on Justification by Faith

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Daniel, I’m afraid that my recollection of the Gorham controversy is spotty, so I had best not comment.


  1. Dan says:

    Good read. But should we Lutherans feel left out or smug? 🙂


  2. And Lutheran NT scholar Joachim Jeremias argues that incorporation into Christ, not justification, is the dominant soteriological motif in the New Testament.


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