In the Epistle of James (2:14-18), we read:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
During the Reformation, Father Martin Luther described this Epistle as one made of straw. For Catholics, however, the ideas expressed by the sacred author seem not only logical, but filled with duty. Namely, that the gift of faith carries with it a solemn responsibility that extends beyond sola fide or faith alone. In arriving at that point, we ponder the mystery of justification.
The Council of Trent’s teaching on justification took direct aim at Protestant ideas. First, with respect to Luther’s advocacy of “justification through faith alone,” the Council confirmed the need for faith to be made active through love and completed by hope and charity. In essence, justification through faith alone would deny the response proper to the one who has been justified. Our loving response continually completes the act of justification by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Nearly five-hundred years ago, the Council’s Decree on Justification responded to various questions of grace and justification:
- With regard to the Pelagian teaching advocating the possibility of justification without divine grace through Jesus Christ, the council fathers stated that “If anyone says that, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, one can be justified before God by one’s own works, whether they be done by one’s own natural powers or through the teaching of the Law, anathema sit.”
- With regard to the necessity of preparation on the part of adults for the grace of justification, “the Council moreover declares that in adults the beginning of justification must be attributed to God’s prevenient grace through Jesus Christ, that is, to his call addressed to them without any previous merits of theirs. Thus, those who through their sins were turned away from God, awakened and assisted by his grace, are disposed to turn to their own justification by freely assenting to and cooperating with that grace. In Zech 1:3, it is said ‘Return to me and I will return to you.’”
- With regard to the nature and causes of the sinner’s justification, “the final cause is the glory of God and of Christ, and life everlasting. The efficient cause is the merciful God who gratuitously washes and sanctifies, sealing and anointing with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance. The meritorious cause is the beloved only-begotten Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ who, while we were sinners, out of the great love with which he loved us merited for us justification by his most holy passion on the wood of the cross and made satisfaction to God the Father. The instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith. Finally, the single formal cause is the justice of God, which we have as a gift from him and by which we are spiritually renewed.”
- With regard to justification by faith alone, “it must also be asserted against the cunning wits of some who by fair and flattering words deceive the hearts of the simple-minded, that the grace of justification, once received, is lost not only by unbelief which causes the loss of faith itself, but also by any other mortal sin, even though faith is not lost.” Furthermore, Canon #11 states that “If anyone says that people are justified either by the imputation of Christ’s justice alone, or by the remission of sins alone, excluding grace and charity which is poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit and inheres in them, or also that the grace which justifies us is only the favour of God, anathema sit.”
- With regard to the possibility of an increase of justification in the justified, Canon #24 states, “If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and even increased before God through good works, but that such works are merely the fruits and the signs of the justification obtained, and not also the cause of its increase, anathema sit.”
- With regard to the necessity for the observance of the commandments, Canon #26 states, “If anyone says that for the good works performed in God the just ought not to expect and hope for an eternal reward from God through his mercy and the merits of Jesus Christ, if they persevere to the end in doing good and in keeping the divine commandments, anathema sit.”
- With regard to the possibility of losing one’s justification and the need for perseverance, Canon #29 states, “If anyone says that one who has fallen after baptism cannot rise again through God’s grace, can indeed recover the justice lost, but by faith alone without the sacrament of penance, contrary to what the holy Roman and universal Church, instructed by Christ the Lord and his apostles, has always professed, observed and taught, anathema sit.”
- Finally, with regard to the nature of merit resulting from the good works of the justified, Canon #32 states, “If anyone says that the good works of the justified person are the gifts of God in such a way that they are not also the good merits of the person justified …, anathema sit.”
And having now resolved this doctrine, we turn inward and recognize certain realities regarding our own faith journey…
First, as a past event: that WE HAVE BEEN SAVED.
- For in hope we were saved. (Rom 8:24)
- By grace you have been saved by faith. (Eph 2:8)
- He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal. (Titus 3:5)
Second, as a present process: that WE ARE BEING SAVED.
- The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18)
- As you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet 1:9)
Third, as a future promise: that WE HOPE TO BE SAVED.
- Whoever endures to the end will be saved. (Mat 10:22)
- The one who perseveres to the end will be saved. (Mat 24:13)
- Salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. (Rom 13:11)
In fast-forwarding a half-millenia past Trent, we awaken and hear the great Apostle exhort us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12-13). Day by day.