According to (now contested) ecumenical exegesis of the New Testament, justification is God’s eschatological act of acquittal by which sinners are declared to be just—the final judgment let loose in history ahead of time (see Righteousness in the New Testament). As eschatological judgment, justification is an event, not a process. When God tells me that in and through Christ my sins are forgiven, that I have been set right in his Kingdom, then I simply am forgiven, just, and right. There is nothing more to be added to this divine declaration. I can either believe it and live my life in its truth, or disbelieve it and remain under condemnation. This is why love is not directly correlated to justification. I am justified by faith alone. Hans Kung explains:
Justification through “faith alone” bespeaks the complete incapacity and incompetence of man for any sort of self-justification. In justification the sinner cannot give anything which he does not receive from grace. The attitude of simple trusting submission under God’s gracious judgment is faith, which does not even appeal to its self, its deed or its attitude, which would only be the craftiest kind of “glorying” (1 Cor 4:7; Rom 4:20). Thus, no work, not even a work of love, justifies man, but only faith, justified through God himself. This faith as a gracious gift of God is not achievement through works, but rather self-surrender to God, an abandonment by grace to the grace of God as a response to the act of God. (“Justification and Sanctification in the New Testament,” in Christianity Divided, p. 323)
At the moment of baptism, I am justified; at the moment of absolution, I am justified; at the moment of eucharistic reception, I am justified. Do I know this for an absolute certainty? It depends on which direction I’m facing. When I look at myself, I see a sinner who does not deserve God’s love and forgiveness, who daily chooses self over God, a sinner whose heart is filled with greed and envy and bitterness. But the gospel summons me to look, not toward myself, but to Christ Jesus who addresses me in Word and Sacrament. This Jesus declares me to be righteous and reborn in the Spirit and assures me a place at his Heavenly Banquet. I trust the word of the Word.
If salvation is considered purely as process, then assurance of any kind is impossible. I can know neither the authenticity of my love today nor whether I will persevere in faith tomorrow. But at the eschatological moment that confronts me in the gospel, I may look to Christ and believe that I am saved. Christ died for the ungodly, the gospel tells me. I appear to qualify. The priest speaks to me “I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Sounds good to me. Who am I to argue?
The Catholic fear has been that the Reformation doctrine of imputation creates a legal fiction. But if the declaration of justice is God’s declaration, then it necessarily effects that which it promises. “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). The Word creates and recreates. This has been well stated in the Catholic/Anglican agreement Salvation and the Church:
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)
To be in Christ, St Paul tells us, is to be a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). There is no legal fiction here. We truly become what God declares us to be. Imputation of righteousness is sanctifying transformation. Thus Cardinal Bellarmine: “When God justifies the sinner by declaring him just He also makes him just, for God’s judgment is according to truth.”
How can we understand this? By seeing that justification and sanctification are simultaneously bestowed upon us in our baptismal rebirth and our incorporation into Christ. We are ontologically united to Christ Jesus and indwelt by his Holy Spirit. We live in Christ and he in us. All of his blessings are given to us in union with him. If I am truly baptized into the ascended Son of God, if my human nature has been transfigured in the uncreated energies of the eternal Word, how can it be said that I am not saved, justified, sanctified, deified, glorified?
Does this mean “once saved always saved”? I think that the best answer to this question is “I truly hope so!” But I also know in myself the terrible possibility that I might choose to sever myself from God’s grace forever. Karl Barth called this the “impossible possibility.” How is it possible for a person who is surrounded by the unconditional and infinite love of God to choose hell? Yet we see this possibility enacted in Judas. Is this not what mortal sin truly is, a decisive concentration of the will in rejection of God’s love and mercy? Have I thus run afoul the traditional Catholic teaching on mortal sin? I’m not sure. I have for a long time been attracted to Catholic presentations of the fundamental option; but I also acknowledge that the fundamental orientation of the human person toward God is shaped by our actions and embodied in our actions. I am therefore happy (I think) to agree with John Paul II when he writes:
By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter. (Veritatis Splendor 67)
Where, though, does the gospel proclamation of Christ’s unconditional love and mercy fit in to all of this? Is salvation merely a matter of avoiding grave sins? I hear John Paul’s warning. We cannot presume upon God’s mercy while at the same time freely choosing to disobey him. Our faith in Christ’s promises cannot be divorced from the choices we make in our day to day lives. Yet there is also the decisive word of the gospel: Christ died for the ungodly! To believe and live upon this promise is not presumption but life in the Spirit. At the beginning and end of each day, all we can do is throw ourselves back on the unmerited mercy of the Lord and rededicate our lives to his service.
Is assurance of my future salvation therefore impossible? Surely not. God has already issued his judgment in the cross of his Son: “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6). God has already sealed this judgment to me in gospel, baptism, absolution, and eucharist: “You are righteous in my Son.” Cleaving to the gracious promises of Christ Jesus and his Kingdom, surely it is right to confidently hope for my future salvation. “Faith is hope anticipated,” writes Richard John Neuhaus, “and hope is faith disposed toward the future.” He who has died for the sins of the world, he who has risen from death into the glory of God, he who has poured out his Spirit upon me and brought me to faith, will surely keep me in this faith. This is my hope. But I do not have any guarantees. The warning of hell remains.
So is justification a process? No and Yes. Justification is an eschatological event in which I am captured by Christ’s word of forgiveness and justice. The Kingdom breaks into the present. When God says to me in the gospel that I am accepted by him, then truly I am accepted by him. The Lord has spoken and he does not lie. “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Yet each day my life in Christ finds itself under attack by the flesh, the world, and the Devil; and so each day the Church summons me to repentance and to grow in sanctity through prayer, mortification, and acts of love and mercy. Each day she summons me to become the person God has spoken me to be. “Become what you are,” St Leo the Great declared, “another Christ.”
(24 March 2004; rev.)
(Please note the date when this piece was originally published. At that time I was concerned to find ways to reconcile Protestant and Catholic understandings of justification.)