We are justified by what is from God and not by what is ours. We inherit heaven by what is from Him and not by what is ours. It is said: Man is not justified before God by his works; and again: Let no one boast in works but in the justice which is from faith. This justice, then, Paul says is not from works but only from faith, that is in Jesus Christ.
This is the interpretation, then, as to how what was said happens, that is, that no one is justified by works. This does not refer only to visible works, that is, the order of the Law. The body, in fact, on its own is not capable of fulfilling all which is commanded so as to justify man. By the works of faith one is justified! Listen then to this: if one says he possesses justice according to the Law because of the works of the body, he would be a debtor of all which is commanded by God to be fulfilled. And only then would he be deservedly considered righteous.
If then the grace of faith which justifies the conscience does not intervene as mediator, or when works are lacking, or committing a transgression is involved, or one is not able to complete the works—the will can take their place. This is not to say that it is impossible to be justified by the Law without need of conversion or pardon; but the Law may also declare one deserving of censure.
Justice, whether through conversion or conscience, is not given without grace. So that when one is found to be guilty, through conversion suddenly and without works, he stands justified. The Law does not see it his way. In fact, when one has obeyed all the precepts but has stumbled in one of them—the one who wished to be justified according to the Law, that is by works and not by grace—not even the precepts which he has done are counted. But for one precept he disregarded he will receive punishment, according as the order of the Law has enjoined: “Whoever does not do all which is commanded in this Law will perish, from out of his people.”
Whoever therefore supposes to be justified in accordance with the Law or by bodily works, what righteousness awaits him? For nature is always deficient, and the penalty of its deficiency after being judged according to the Law is determined by divine punishment. Therefore if one would come to expect to be considered righteous before God, this would be a perilous matter, even to the loss of one’s salvation. Because human nature is not able to be without sin and to fulfill all righteousness as God desires since not even one has been found who has never fallen. Behold it is written: “Anyone who does not do all which is commanded will perish.” This is the righteousness according to the Law!
But if you say: “I am justified by conscience and by the will of the soul and I reveal my heart to God,” behold you have requested grace! While not having accomplished any work, or having stumbled, or having fallen short because of issues, you are convinced that such a conscience is reckoned as a deed. But if you have no work, you who boast about work, why the boast? It is brought to naught. What joy can there be from our way of life?
Let every mouth be silenced: the Lord alone has granted victory! One is redeemed by grace and not by works and by faith one is justified, not by one’s way of life. In such a way that one has not worked, but only believes in the One who justifies sinners, the faith of his conscience is reckoned by God as righteousness. This is what the Apostle said: A man is justified by faith and not by works. But if righteousness were reckoned on the basis of work, it is written: “All who do not do everything which is commanded will perish.” Behold the righteousness which is from one’s way of life!
This is the righteousness, however, which is from grace when one does a little according to one’s strength and fulfills it with one’s will, even if the work is not well done. God, on account of His grace, reckons it as the fullness of righteousness, ascribing the whole action to him. For myself, even if I am not able to do much, I work according to my strength; certainly I am not able to be without blame or without sin. But O God, for a minimum of work, You give me righteousness!
Sometimes I am lacking even this minimum. Not only do I not have a work to give, but many times even that sincere will which I acquired with a good desire, turns aside from You and becomes involved with evil and is separated from You. I am almost emptied of a sincere will towards You. But then when I am empty of works or of will, with only the hint of conversion which You obtained in me, in an instant You give me the fullness of righteousness while the deed is distant—righteousness which neither time nor bodily labor could yield.
But while I remain waiting for all of this, You Yourself receive me, and by means of grace without works, You justify me. You establish me in my former high place. And only because of the conversion of my will, while I am not capable of anything, You take from me the death of conscience, and You give me righteousness without fault. Who is righteous so as to be able to renounce this grace? And by whom have these things not been received along the path of one’s way of life?
Who then understands this and faithfully discerns is not able to rejoice in works but only in the goodness of God. And the one who truly recognizes that God’s goodness is the cause of his joy, does not hold that his joy be only for himself but rejoices for all creatures. His joy comes to be more abundant than the sea, because it is the goodness of the God of the universe affording such joy, and all creation is a partaker in it, even sinners share in this.
So then, he is quick to rejoice even for sinners. He says in fact: “They are not far from mercy because of the goodness of the Lord of the universe by which righteousness has been given even to me without works.” And again he says: “All like me share in this great good because God is good: He only requires a little will then He gives His grace abundantly and remits sin.”
This is the grace with strengthens the righteous, preserving them by its being near and removing their faults. It is also near to those who have perished, reducing their torments and in their punishment deals with compassion. In the world to come, indeed grace will be the judge, not justice. God reduces the length of time of sufferings, and by means of His grace, makes all worthy of His Kingdom. For there is no one even among the righteous who is able to conform his way of life to the Kingdom.
But if human realities are to be judged and examined according to justice, yet in listening to the word of Scripture one investigates according to exterior knowledge, not entering into the meaning—where is justice here? As it is said, He is merciful in all his works. However, even when He chastises here below or in the life beyond, it is not correct to consider this as justice, but rather fatherly wisdom.
Nor do I call “exacting punishment” even those times when God visits one with a severe aspect, either here or in the life beyond, but rather “instruction,” because they have a good end. On that account, as I said, no one is able to make his way of life resemble that Kingdom and that way of life which is granted only by mercy.
So then I have explained what was already said, that we inherit heaven by what is His and not by what is ours. And this grace is given every day, not just from time to time. If we all receive this grace, let us rejoice in Him who gives it and the greater will be our joy. Let us adore and give thanks for it, and an even greater gift will be given.