Can God Impute Righteousness?

One constant objection to the doctrine of imputed righteousness — that God accredits the righteousness of Christ to sinners — is that for God to be just, he cannot simply call sinners righteous. He must make them so. Thus, God has to infuse righteousness, not impute it. Sinners must be made ontologically righteous. “Legal fiction”, as some call it, is not sufficient for the redemption of sinners. God cannot “dress up” a sinner and call him just.

Charles Hodge has a helpful response to this objection. He says,

Another standing objection to the Protestant doctrine has been so often met, that nothing but its constant repetition justifies a repetition of the answer. It is said to be absurd that one man should be righteous with the righteousness of another; that for God to pronounce the unjust just is a contradiction. This is a mere play on words. It is, however, very serious play; for it is caricaturing truth. It is indeed certain that the subjective, inherent quality of one person or thing cannot by imputation become the inherent characteristic of any other person or thing. Wax cannot become hard by the imputation of the hardness of a stone; nor can a brute become rational by the imputation of the intelligence of a man; nor the wicked become good by the imputation of the goodness of other men. But what has this to do with one man’s assuming the responsibility of another man? If among men the bankrupt can become solvent by a rich man’s assuming his responsibilities, why in the court of God may not the guilty become righteous by the Son of God’s assuming their responsibilities? If He was made sin for us, why may we not be made the righteousness of God in Him? The objection assumes that the word “just” or “righteous” in this connection, expresses moral character; whereas in the Bible, when used in relation to this subject, it is always used in a judicial sense, i. e., it expresses the relation of the person spoken of to justice. Δίκαιος is antithetical to ὑπόδικος. The man with regard to whom justice is unsatisfied, is ὑπόδικος, “guilty.” He with regard to whom justice is satisfied, is δίκαιος, “righteous .” To declare righteous, therefore , is not to declare holy; and to impute righteousness is not to impute goodness; but simply to regard and pronounce those who receive the gift of Christ’s righteousness, free from condemnation and entitled to eternal life for his sake.

Hodge explains that the concept of imputation exists in relation to justice, which is legal, or juridical. In other words, justice has to do with the sinner’s record in relation to God’s law and justice, not his subjective holiness or interior state. This is another subject altogether.

Hodge explains this, saying,

[Many] theologians in many instances object to the Protestant doctrine of justification, that it is outward; concerns only legal relations; disregards the true nature of the mystical union; and represents Christ and his righteousness as purely objective, instead of looking upon Christ as giving Himself, his life to become the life of the believer, and with his life conveying its merits and its power… What is urged as an objection to the doctrine is true. It does concern what is outward and objective; what is done for the sinner rather than what is done within him. But then it is to be considered, first, that this is what the sinner needs. He requires not only that his nature should be renewed and that a new principle of spiritual or divine life should be communicated to him; but also that his guilt should be removed, his sins expiated, and justice satisfied, as the preliminary condition of his enjoying this new life, and being restored to the favour of GodThe Bible makes quite as prominent what Christ does for us, as what He does in us. It says as much of his objective, expiatory work, as of the communication of a higher spiritual life to believers. It is only by ignoring this objective work of Christ , or by merging justification into inward renovation, that this objection has force or even plausibility. Protestants do not depreciate the value and necessity of the new life derived from Christ, because, in obedience to the Scriptures, they insist so strenuously upon the satisfaction which He has rendered by his perfect righteousness to the justice of God. Without the latter, the former is impossible.

What Hodge is explaining here, is that while sanctification or regeneration are important points in scripture, they are not the same as justification. In fact, they are concerned with different things. Imputation is concerned with the believer’s legal state: How can a sinner have perfect obedience before a holy God? Regeneration is concerned with the believer’s inward state: How can a sinful person be made new? This makes justification by definition extrinsic, and regeneration intrinsic. They are two actions of God, not one.

Sanctification as Eschatological Living

Richard Gaffin, in his Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, explains Christian sanctification as eschatological life reaching the now. Just as justification is the end judgement reaching the now, so sanctification is the end reaching the now.

Gaffin says:

The Reformation… was a (re)discovery, at least implicitly, of the eschatological heart of the gospel: the sola gratia principle is eschatological in essence. Justification by faith, as the Reformers came to understand and experience it, is an anticipation of the final judgement. It means that a favourable verdict at the last judgement is not an anxious, uncertain hope, but a present possession, the confident and stable basis of the Christian life. Romans 8:1, which they clung to, is a decidedly eschatological pronouncement.

However while the Reformation and its children have grasped, at least intuitively, the eschatological thrust of the gospel for justification, that is not nearly the case for sanctification and the work of the Spirit. Undeniable is a tendency, at least in practice, to separate or even polarize justification and sanctification. Justification, on the one hand, is seen as what God does, once for all and perfectly: sanctification, on the other hand, is what the believer does, imperfectly. Sanctification is viewed as the response of the believer, an expression of gratitude from our side for salvation defined in terms of justification and the forgiveness of sins — usually with an emphasis on the inadequate and even impoverished quality of the gratitude expressed.

The intention of such an emphasis is no doubt to safeguard the totally gratuitous character of justification. But church history has made all too evident that the apparently inevitable outcome of such an emphasis is the rise of moralism, the reintroduction into the Christian life of a refined works-principle, more or less divorced from the faith that justifies and eventually leaving no room for faith. What is resolutely rejected at the front door of justification comes in through the back door of sanctification and takes over the whole house.

Certainly we must be on safeguard against all notions of sinless perfection. Forms of “entire” sanctification or “higher”, “victorious” life, supposedly achieved by a distinct act of faith subsequent to justification, operate with domesticated, voluntaristic notions of sin and invariably de-eschatologize the gospel and in their own way, despite their intention, end up promoting moralism. We must not forget that “in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning” (HC, answer 114).

But — and this is the point — the beginning, however small, is an eschatological beginning. It stands under the apostolic promise that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6, NASB). Sanctification, no less than justification, is God’s work. In the NT there is no more basic perspective on sanctification and renewal than that expressed in Romans 6: It is a continual “living to God” (v. 11) of those who are “alive from the dead” (v. 13). Elsewhere, it is a matter of the “good works” of the eschatological new creation, for which the church has already been “created in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:10). In their sanctification, believers begin at the “top”, because they begin with Christ; in him they are those who are “perfect” (1 Cor 2:6) and “spiritual” (v. 15), even when they have to be admonished as “carnal” (3:1, 3).

I think this is right. The gospel, as the cross shows, brings the last judgement and the kingdom to the “here and now”. And so, what is sanctification, but an eschatological realization of the here and now of kingdom life. We are called to live in the here and now how we will live in our future, glorified state.

And thus, sanctification, is an ever-increasing practical realization, apprehension, and outworking of the life which will be given in full at the last day.

Calvin and the New Perspective on Paul


The New Perspective on Paul, as put forward by several Protestant theologians (Wright, Sanders, Dunn et al), is the thought that when Paul speaks of justification not being by “works of the law”, he is only speaking of the ceremonial and civil laws, not the moral laws.

What this translates to, is that when Paul says: “one is not justified by works of the law”, he is exclusively speaking of the Jewish aspects of the Mosaic Law. So one cannot be justified through the Mosaic laws. The moral law, however, is still in play. Hence, one is justified by faith in Christ plus cooperation with God’s grace in obedience to the moral law. Works done in grace play into justification, however that may look.

James Dunn explains:

[D]enial that justification is from works of law is, more precisely, a denial that justification depends on circumcision or on observation of the Jewish purity and food taboos. We may justifiably deduce, therefore, that by ‘works of law’ Paul intended his readers to think of particular observances of the law like circumcision and the food laws. (New Perspective on Paul, 191)

In this way, Paul is not doing away with all works, but rather works of the ceremonial and civil type. One is not justified by being a “good Jew”; rather one is justified in the last day by being “in Christ” and cooperating in good works through grace. This means that justification is a process, worked in the now, but finished at the final day in harmony with our works in Christ. Essentially, this conflates justification, and sanctification, making them one action of God and man.

What some may not know, is that this interpretation is not new. In fact, Calvin dealt with this argument in his dialogue with Roman Catholics of his day.

There are two basic arguments that Calvin dealt with in his time: the first was what is commonly known as the New Perspective — that works of the ceremonial and civil law were what Paul was arguing against; not works done in the context of the New Covenant. Another argument he dealt with, was that the works Paul was so set against were works done outside of grace: i.e. before one is regenerated. So, works done in a natural state could not justify; after regeneration, however, one can cooperate with grace and grow in justification after being in Christ. In his Institutes, Calvin denied both stances.

He said:

[Catholics] explain “works” as meaning those which men not yet reborn do only according to the letter by the effort of their own free will, apart from Christ’s grace. But they deny that these [works of the law] refer to spiritual works. For, according to them, man is justified by both faith and works provided they are not his own works but the gifts of Christ and the fruit of regeneration. For they say that Paul so spoke for no other reason than to convince the Jews, who were relying upon their own strength, that they were foolish to arrogate righteousness to themselves, since the Spirit of Christ alone bestows it upon us not through any effort arising from our own nature…[They also argue] that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works. (Institutes, 744)

So we can see that this issue of “works” came up long before the New Perspective. How does Calvin respond to this charge? And how to works and salvation relate?

Calvin says:

[These theologians] do not observe that in the contrast between the righteousness of the law and of the gospel, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all works are excluded, whatever title may grace them [Gal 3:11-12]. For he teaches that this is the righteousness of the law, that he who has fulfilled what the law commands should obtain salvation; but this is the righteousness of faith, to believe that Christ died and rose again [Rom 10:5, 9]… (ibid, 744)

In other words, in the NT, there is a hard line between faith and works in general. Works in general are said to be one way of justification, while faith is said to be another.

Calvin continues:

[They argue] that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works… Do they think that the Apostle was raving when he brought forward these passages to prove his opinion? “The man who does these things will live by them” [Gal 3:12], and, “Cursed be every one who does not fulfill all things written in the book of the law” [Gal 3:10]. Unless they have gone mad they will not say that life was promised to keepers of ceremonies. If these passages to be understood of the moral law, there is no doubt that moral works are also excluded from the power of justifying. (ibid, 749)

Calvin puts forward the verse: “cursed by everyone who does not fulfill all things written…”. What he proposes is that “all things” necessarily include the moral tenets of the law. What this means for him, is that works and faith are not and cannot be united together in justification. Justification and sanctification must be separated.

Calvin explains:

[I]n its proper place,.. the benefits of Christ — sanctification and righteousness — are different. From this it follows that not even spiritual works [works done out of regeneration] come into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith… From this it is also evident that we are justified before God solely on the intercession of Christ’s righteousness. This is equivalent to saying that man is not righteous in himself but because the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation (ibid, 744, 753)

In other words, imputation of righteousness and regeneration or sanctification are distinguished, separated. Sanctification is something that flows from imputation, but is not the same thing. New Perspective (and Romans Catholics) place together the work of justification and sanctification, such that one can participate in his final justification through works done in grace.

On the Necessity of the Church


In his Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner has an interesting section in which he argues that church should not be seen as simply a secondary help in the Christian life (I can’t tell you how many Christians I’ve talked to who make church out to be a sort of “advice column” to their relationship with Christ). Instead, Rahner says, God acts toward his people through the church. The church is God’s action; His objective, concrete, act of grace. For this reason, Rahner says explains that the church is necessary, and not optional. It is primary, not secondary.

Rahner explains,

Christianity is essentially ecclesial, and not just a secondary way or from the viewpoint of the social or pedagogical aspects of religion. The church as such belongs to Christianity, at least when Christianity really becomes conscious of itself and when it intends to maintain continuity of a real history of salvation and has to prolong this continuity. Church is more than merely a practical and humanely unavoidable organization for fulfilling and satisfying religious needs. Christianity as the event of salvation, as God’s act upon us and as man’s response to God’s ultimate self-communication, is ecclesial

Christianity is essentially more than an affair of [man’s] own subjective and pious dispositions and his own religious consciousness, and is more than the objectification of this. From this perspective church means the church which makes a claim on me, the church which is the concreteness of God’s demands upon me. Basically this concreteness is to be expected precisely if Christianity is not a religion which I create, but rather is the event of salvation which God bestows upon me by his own incalculable initiative. And if this salvific event as an act of God is not merely to come to me in the ultimate depths of conscience, but rather in the concreteness of my existence, then the concreteness of this God, who makes demands upon me and who is not my discovery or creation, is Jesus Christ and his concrete church makes demands upon me in the same way. (pg 347)

Rahner makes an astute observation that if Christianity is more than “pious dispositions and… religious consciousness”, which is certainly is (though not less), then there must be something concrete about the way God interacts and disposes himself to his people. And how does God act concretely toward his people? Through the church. Through the church, God condescends and acts savingly, graciously, toward us.

Karl Adams agrees with Rahner. And he goes a step further. He says,

Christ the Lord is the real self of the Church. The Church is the body permeated through and through by the redemptive might of Jesus.

Meaning, it is through the church that we necessarily encounter God in Christ. Why? Because it is in the church, through the church, that Christ communicates his grace

Adams goes so far to say that we should see the church and Christ as indistinguishable:

Christ and the Church: the two are one, one body, one flesh, one and the same person, one Christ, the whole Christ.

So then, it is through the church that we encounter Christ, because the church is Christ. Augustine himself articulated that in the church we encounter not a (only) mass of individuals, but we encounter the whole Christ. Augustine says that “Christ is not simply in the head and not in the body, but Christ whole is in the head and the body”. What he means here is that the church is totus Christus, the “whole Christ”.

So then, through the sacraments, preaching, body life, church discipline, et al, we not only encounter random spiritual disciplines; we encounter the whole Christ. As Rahner says, God acts by way of this objective reality, this thing we call the church. And so, the church herself is the whole Christ, God’s saving activity.

Because of this, church should be something more than just a social club. It should be something more than just a weekly sermon. It should be something more than just consumerism. If Christianity is ecclesial, then we must expect to encounter Christ in his body. We must expect to submit to Christ himself through the local church. Local ecclesiology is therefore no mere option. If we wish to do the will of God in Christ, it is necessary that we be in his body, under his authority, in the local church.

Karl Adams says,

Is not all human exercise of authority tantamount to a usurpation? Yes, if it be merely human, it is. For every merely human governance necessarily rests on might, whether it be the tyranny of an individual or the despotism of a community. Only in theocracy is a man free from men, for he serves not men but God. Therein lies the secret of that child-like obedience, so incomprehensible to the outsider, which the… [believer in Jesus] gives to his Church, an obedience whereby he freely and cheerfully submits his own little notions and wishes to the will of Christ expressed in the action of authority; an obedience whereby his own small and limited self is enlarged to the measure of the great self of the Church. That is no corpse-like obedience or slave mentality, but a profoundly religious act, an absolute devotion to the Will of Christ which rules the Church, a service of God. And so this obedience is not cowardly and weak, but strong and ready for sacrifice, manly and brave even in the presence of kings. It is faithful even to the surrender of earthly possessions, yes, even to the sacrifice of life itself, offering itself to the Christ who lives in the Church.

Augustine and the Pelagius Debate: Pre-fall or Post-fall?


Saint Augustine

In the world of theology, Pelagianism is generally understood to be the teaching (from a man named Pelagius) that mankind has the natural powers to “ascend” into relationship with God. Meaning, man without any help or grace or power from God, can be in friendship with him.

Augustine, a contemporary of Pelagius, refuted this teaching, arguing that man cannot in and of himself come into relationship with God. Rather, God must condescend to man if he is to know God as friend. Augustine taught this condescension as grace. God, in grace, comes down, thereby elevating and enabling mankind to be in relationship with him.

This debate is usually put in the context of post-fall mankind. In other words, mankind after the fall of Adam, cannot naturally come into relationship with God. Pelagius went so far as to teach that after the fall, man is not affected by Adam’s sin, and is born in a state of neutrality. And he can come into relationship with God by mere obedience to the law, or else if he sins, he came gain help from Christ. Of course, Augustine taught that mankind is mortally wounded by the fall. All men are born into original sin, and therefore need a positive righteousness if they are to be any type of friendship with God.

However, what most don’t know, is that the Pelagian debate didn’t just revolve around post-fall man, but also pre-fall man.

Pelagius taught that Adam was created with the natural capacity to be in relationship with God. While this might sound reasonable, Augustine staunchly refuted this. Augustine said that even pre-fall Adam, because he was ontologically (human, physicalseparated from God (divine), had no natural power to be in friendship with God. Rather, Adam needed an infusion of God’s own life to be his child. He needed God to condescend and give him grace.

For instance, Augustine says,

…the Pelagians have been bold enough to aver, that grace is the nature in which we were created, so as to possess a rational mind, by which we are enabled to understand — formed as we are in the image of God, so as to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth (On Grace of Free Will, 25)

Augustine refutes this position, saying,

The first man had not that grace by which he should never will to be evil; but assuredly he had that in which if he willed to abide he would never be evil, and without which, moreover, he could not by free will be good, but which, nevertheless, by free will he could forsake. God, therefore, did not will even him to be without His grace, which He left in his free will; because free will is sufficient for evil, but is too little for good, unless it is aided by Omnipotent Good… (On Rebuke and Grace, 31)

So even pre-fall Adam, though created good, did not possess the divine qualities to be in relationship with God or to obey God perfectly, without grace.

Now, the reason for this, according to Augustine, is that though Adam was created innocent, he was still merely human. And mankind is by nature not divine, and he cannot possess divine qualities, unless God graciously imparts it. For this reason, Augustine taught that God created Adam with supernatural grace, in order that he might partake not only in human life, but in the divine life. God condescended, to make man not only a creation, but a divine son, sharing in his own nature.

Theologian Frank Sheed explains Augustines view, saying that Adam was given “supernatural endowment” at the point of his creation. He explains that,

…by this supernatural endowment we are raised from being merely creatures of God to being sons of God . For the power to see God as He is is a power which by nature belongs to God alone. Thus by the supernatural life we are being given a share, a created share certainly, in God’s own life. Merely as created spirits we are in the likeness of God; but this natural likeness is as nothing to the supernatural likeness whereby, enabled to do what belongs to the nature of God, we are raised to such a likeness of His nature as joins children to their father…

There was no first moment, however short, in which Adam existed simply as the perfect natural man. From the first moment of his creation until his fall Adam had two lives in him, the natural life and the supernatural life. (Theology and Sanity, p 165)

So then, Adam was created as man, but also, he was created with this supernatural life; this grace of God, which enables him to be brought into God’s own life. Indeed, as Sheed says, mankind was created to share and exist in two types of life: one natural (physical, bodily), and one supernatural (divine, eternal).

Involved in this debate is the thought that humans, even in a state of innocence, cannot live as God lives — eternally, without temptation or sin, etc. The Second Synod of Orange, in response to Pelagius, says,

No one is saved without God’s mercy. Human nature, even had it remained in the integrity in which it was created, could by no means have saved itself without the assistance of its creator (19th Canon)

To some this is surprising. But what this is merely asserting, is that mankind cannot preserve itself, even in innocence; nor can it share in God’s friendship without God’s divine life. Frank Sheed has an interesting aside, in which he examines that the creation, without the preservation of God’s life, would necessarily breakdown, or change.

Sheed says,

…the INFINITE BEING having all perfections is utterly changeless. Nothing else is. Every created being, however glorious, contains a certain negative element, lacks something, from the fact that it is made of nothing.

So St. Augustine writes (De Natura Boni): All the things that God has made are mutable because made of nothing.

And the Council of Florence tells us that creatures are good, of course, because they are made by the Supreme Good, but mutable because they are made of nothing.

…With MATTER we have of course ceaseless accidental change and the ever-present threat, only too often realized, of substantial change, of being so changed that it ceases to be what it was and becomes something else. So much is this so, that change is almost matter’s definition

…For the changelessness of GOD there is ETERNITY; for the continuous changefulness of MATTER there is TIME. Time is the duration of that which changes, as eternity is the duration of that which does not change… Space and time express its finitude. (p 124-125, 126)

He gets into some metaphysics here; but generally, what Sheed is saying, is that humanity, because it shares in matter (though mankind is by definition matter and spirit), changes, and is subject to finitude. Matter is just that way.

And so at the point of creation, God must have condescended, and given Adam a share in his infinite, divine life. Why? Ontologically, Adam could not in and of himself live forever, nor even look upon the face of God.

We can see a bit of this behind Paul’s explanation of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:

For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Cor 15:39-44)

Natural bodies must be changed, sharing in God’s glory. And so Adam, at the point of his creation, was created with a body/soul which shared in God’s own life; because God condescended and gave him a share in his own life (2 Pet 1:4), making him a son rather than a mere creation. 

And, this is why glorification is necessary for the Christian: if we are to live in the face of God, we must “be changed”, as Paul says. Our fallen bodies (not just our souls) must be glorified.

Thus, Pelagianism reaches even to the pre-fall state, because we need God’s great condescension even then!

The Catholic Understanding of Justification and Purgatory


So, as is probably evident if you’ve perused my blog, I’ve been studying Catholic theology as of late. In two former posts I’ve examined the Catholic teaching on justification, and the Catholic teaching on faith / works, in contrast to the Protestant teachings (read HERE and HERE).

This has been beneficial to me, as I can say with conscience that Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ; although Protestants and Catholics have some big differences in their theology. As I stated in my first post, Catholics believe that “justification” is not merely God’s declaration over the sinner; rather, justification in the Catholic sense is a sort of “corporeal” inclusion in the righteousness of Christ. That is to say, justification includes an “infusion” of Christ’s righteousness, not an imputation. What this means, is that final eschatological justification depends not merely on faith (though it certainly does), but also on cooperation with Christ’s righteousness. What I mean, is that by inclusion into Christ, the Catholic believer, now “owning” the righteousness of Christ, must live out that righteousness. He must live out Christ’s infused righteousness, in other words. And his final justification depends on the believer, who ever grows in union with Christ, cooperating and living out the merits of Christ.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his Theo-Drama IV: The Action (Part III, C, 4, b — his excursus on communion on the saints), says that believers become “incorporated into Christ’s obedience, [and thereby]… become obedient with him”. In other words, Jesus infuses his obedience into the believer (and the believer is incorporated into Him), thereby allowing him to “merit” eternal life by and in his life. Balthasar explains,

Christ’s fruitfulness “overflows” onto the members of his Body [believers], so that the latter are enabled to bring forth fruit for eternal life on the basis of a power that is their own yet comes to them in a secondary way, from Christ. Accordingly, we should not say “that we merit eternal life because of our works,… but that we merit eternal life by”… [the gift of Christ’s merit within]

Balthasar contrasts this understanding of justification to the Protestant definition, saying,

[Protestants] suggest a “double righteousness”, that is, a real but insufficient righteousness on man’s part that needs to be supplemented by the all-sufficient righteousness of Christ; this means that both righteousnesses are external to each other

What Balthasar is critiquing here, is the thought that the Christian has “two types of righteousness”: one which is alien to him by the merits of Jesus, and one that is intrinsic or actual to him by the power of the Holy Spirit. The former, this alien righteousness, is what merits eternal life for us and without us. The latter, is what comes through us as a result of the former.

Martin Luther actually used this title, “two righteousness”, in an early sermon; he says,

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness, just as man’s sin is of two kinds [natural and actual sin]. The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without… This [second] righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, [and is] the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence…This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin (full quote)

Luther distinguishes between “salvific” or “imputed” righteousness and “actual” righteousness.

Catholics have never made this distinction. They see Christ’s righteousness and the believer’s as one and the same thing. By virtue of corporeal union with the “mystical body of Christ”, Christians receive the merits of Jesus infused, and thereby merit for themselves eternal life by that same righteousness. Balthasar clarifies (again in The Action, his explanation of the communion of the saints),

The merits of Christ are attributed to us, since God regards Christ and us as a single mystical Person, and, in part, they overflow upon us, granting us, who are the living members of the vine, a share in its power of fruitfulness (that is, Christ’s merit)

Now, this is a very important thing to understand when it comes to the Catholic teaching on “purgatory”. Purgatory is generally understood by Catholics to be a place of cleansing or “purging” after death. It is a place where sins that still “cling” to the believer are expiated.

Now, why would cleansing be necessary? From a Protestant point of view, the suffering of Christ is enough. The reason is because in Protestant theology, Christ suffered in the place of the believer, and his righteousness is “accredited” in full through faith. Justification is, in the Protestant scheme, “closed” and complete precisely because it is “accredited” or “imputed”.

However, as has been covered, Catholics view justification as an infusion of of corporeal righteousness, not as an imputation; and the believer “merits heaven” by that infused righteousness.

But, if the believer dies with “unrighteousness” still present before they go to heaven, they enter into a purification stage whereby their still-remaining sins are “purged”. This purging cleanses the believer from any clinging sins which had not been repented of, or expiated in their life, so that they can enter into heaven.

The Catholic Catechism states that,

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified [by Christ’s infused righteousness], are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (CCC, 1030)

Taylor Marshall says,

Purgatory is a place only for those on their way to Heaven. It is the final purification of those who die in fellowship with Christ… [However,] Christ died to make us actually and really holy… “Be holy as I am holy.”… Purgatory is this final transformation by which our Christ-centered actions are acknowledged and our sinful affections are burned away… (source).

Catholics see this as a place associated with fire, with pain, because as Marshall says, “we must let go of the desires of the flesh and face our failings”. In other words, it is a place where God finally “purges” away the areas in the believer’s life that are not righteous as a result of their union with Christ.

Hopefully you can see how the Catholic idea of Purgatory is directly related to the doctrine of “infused” righteousness. The righteousness given to the believer is meant to cause a life meritorious of heaven. Yet, if the believer hasn’t reached complete righteousness before heaven, purgatory is mean to cleanse them before entering. In this way, Catholics see purgatory as merciful. We cannot overstate that. Purgatory is not hell in the Catholic scheme. Rather is God stripping away any sins which would exclude the Christian from heaven.

Joseph Ratzinger himself (Pope Benedict XVI), claimed that purgatory was the sinner’s collision with Christ himself. He said, “encounter with the Lord is this transformation” of purgatory. The closer the sinner comes into actual fellowship with Jesus, the more his sin expiates; the more it “burns away”. Therefore, the pain is the sinful soul’s collision with the sinless Christ.

In contrast, Protestants see the “two righteousness” model as sufficient, and find no place for purgatory in “justification”. When we die, though we will not be “saints” in the actual sense of the word, Christ’s perfect “record” is what merits our way into heaven.

Catholicism vs Protestantism on Faith + Works: What’s the Difference?

faith works

I wrote a POST earlier, describing the main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. And what I said essentially, was that justification was the doctrine that distinguished the Reformers from the Catholicism of their day. And it really isn’t different nowadays.

What I want to consider in this post, is how justification in either position deals with “works”, or state differently, how works are connected to a believer’s justification.

Catholics commonly say that justification, or final salvation, comes through faith and works. Now, to a Protestant, this rubs against the core of the solas. Justification, even final justification, is by faith alone! 

OK… But, why do Catholics argue this? Is Catholicism a dry religion, where you earn God’s love? Well, not quite. Let’s review the Catholic understanding of justification quickly to understand:

For Catholics, justification is not merely declarative. Or legal. Justification does involve a status change; but there is an added element. Justification, in the Catholic scheme, is an infusion of Christ’s righteousness within the believer; what I mean is that in salvation, Jesus’ righteousness is actually infused into the believer by union with him; that by faith / sacraments, the believer contains actual, “ontological”, “corporeal” righteousness from Jesus. And this righteousness grows in the believer as they cooperate with God in the sacraments, and live out that righteousness.

What all of this means is that final justification is dependent on the believer’s cooperation with this gift of Christ’s righteousness. And through cooperation, Christ’s life increases in the believer, enabling them to be “actually righteous”. As they partake more and more in the corporeal life of Christ, in union with him, they grow to become more and more “justified”, or “saintly”. This is why Catholics say that final justification is by faith and works. Faith is the initial thing which gives the gift of righteousness; but, because Christ’s righteousness is by nature ontological, the believer must cooperate and grow in that righteousness. In other words, Catholics view justification and sanctification (growth in justification) as one big thing.

Catholic Peter Kreeft says,

Catholic theology teaches that justification and sanctification, faith and works, are not separated, as Luther thought. Rather, “ ‘[j]ustification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man’ 6 ” (CCC 1989) (source, pg 126)

Catholic Taylor Marshall says,

As a Catholic, I understand [justification to be] juridical [or legal] AND transformative. A sinner “becomes righteous” [actually, or ontologically] and this is why the Greek word was rightly translated as iustificatio—“making just.”

I’m saying that a legal, declarative change is not merely what God does for us. Salvation involves a union with Christ to the sinner and that union transforms the sinner into a new creation.

I was not merely “declared righteous” through faith, rather I “became righteous,” because Christ washed away my original sin and my personal sins so that I was a new creation. Grace filled my soul and the Holy Spirit came upon me (source)

That being said, it’s not quite fair to call Catholicism “works-based”, as many Protestants do. But, because of their sort of “corporeal” understanding of Christ’s righteousness, meaning that it is infused in the believer, and because that believer must cooperate with that righteousness, there is a reality to the claim that salvation is by a sort of “working faith”. The Catholic Catechism even has a theology of “merit”, whereby the believer, cooperating with Christ’s infused righteousness, “merits” eternal life. Granted, it’s not by the believer’s own righteousness. It is by Christ’s righteousness.

So, Catholics see faith and works as one big thing, whereby justification is a gradual process (sanctification) as the believer cooperates with the grace of God.

Now, how does this contrast with Protestant theology?

In the Protestant scheme, justification is not the ontological infusion of righteousness. Rather, it is the legal imputation of righteousness. Now this might seem like a small change, but it’s actually important, as I said in my last post. Rather than righteousness being actually infused, righteousness is accredited to the believer; and the believer is righteous not by cooperation with that righteousness, but solely on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. The righteousness that is the believer’s, is only their’s because Christ himself is righteous. In other words, God accredits the believer with the perfect account of Jesus, and they are thereby legally righteous in a complete sense. Nothing lacks. Justification then, is a once-for-all declaration. It is a finished, closed reality. And the believer doesn’t need to grow in righteousness for final salvation, because the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed / accredited, is complete already.

That being said, how do good works come into play in the Protestant scheme? Do they come into play at all. Why, yes!

What a Protestant would say is that good works are necessarily involved, but only insofar as they blossom, or grow out of that once-for-all justification. In other words, good works are a fruit, a confirmation or justification, not part of justification. Protestants want to be careful to separate “justification” and “sanctification”. They see them as separate realities.

Justification is a closed reality. And sanctification is proof that one has experienced that reality. Good works mean that God has already justified that person. And a person who has good works has been justified.

OK, got it. But why is that true?

The reason is because justification, while being a legal reality, leads to and causes ontological realities. What does that mean? What I mean, is that once God declares a sinner “righteous”, he doesn’t just stop there! He also forgives, regenerates, and indwells that person. And what is regeneration, but God creating new life within that person? And when the Spirit indwells the believer, what can happen but a change in lifestyle? 

In other words, justification is but the start of many changes within the believer. And if the believer has spiritual fruit, or obedience to God, what can it mean but that they have been justified? So someone who claims to have a living faith proves it by living out new-creation realities. As RC Sproul says, “true faith will absolutely and necessarily yield the fruits of obedience and the works of righteousness” (source). That sounds awfully Catholic! Well, OK. We aren’t saying that good works aren’t important. Catholics and Protestants agree, they are.

We just disagree about why they are important.

So while Catholics say that justification and sanctification are one process, Protestants say that justification is one thing, and that sanctification necessarily follows, but is not that same one thing. These are small differences, but as you can hopefully see, they diverge as the believer attempts to live out their spiritual life. While I believe that Catholics and Protestants can call one another “brothers”, they do have some important differences.