On Justification (Part I)

Today’s Office of Matins begins with a reading from Augustine on Faith and Works. Augustine writes, “Some would say that by faith alone — which, remember, without works is lifeless — you can gain eternal life, even if you fail to keep the commandments. But how can this be reconciled with what our Lord is going to tell those whom He sets off to the left, “Go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his Angels,” and with His reason for condemning them, not any want of belief in Him but their failure to do good works? He wanted to make sure that no one would expect to win eternal life by faith alone, which is dead without works.”

Augustine is the Doctor of Grace. He taught a Catholic doctrine of justification, not a Lutheran doctrine.

What is the Catholic Doctrine of Justification? What did Luther hold? What do the official documents of the Lutheran confessions hold? We will get into these matters slowly.

In a nutshell, the Catholic doctrine is this: No one can get themselves into grace. That anyone enters the state of grace requires God’s work. No human labor can produce that state. For several reasons. 1) That state is supernatural. And none of our natural works is oriented to the supernatural.

2) We are presently in a state of corruption, until healed by grace. That means that our wills do not have as their final end God as intimate friend. Rather, we set our final end on anything but God. (Unless we are healed.) Now, all our choices, our free choices, are made with regard to a pre-established end. I choose to eat sushi rather than steak (choice) because I wish to eat. I choose to eat rather than do homework (choice) because presently this option meets my desire for a balanced life. I choose a balanced life over an imbalanced life (choice) because …. Ultimately, there is some end that I simply wish and which I cannot “choose”. For, every choice requires a pre-established end. Now, if all ends were chosen, we would have an infinite regress right now in the here and now. Observe this infinite regress: Any particular choice can be made only in light of an end. But if every end is itself chosen, then there is no anchoring end by which any lower choice can be made. Therefore, I could not choose anything.

What is that end which is not chosen? Most theorists propose it is this: Happiness. We all desire our crowning completion. We all desire happiness. We do not choose to desire it. We just desire it. This is a natural desire. And this desire is in fact good. However, in what does happiness consist? Where shall I find it? All of us lay down for ourselves our idea of what constitutes this happiness. Some think it is in a pleasant life. Some in honors. Some in intellectual pursuits. We do freely choose this ultimate option (on the basis of the desire for happiness, which we do not choose). Call this our ultimate option. It is really our “first” option. We might not think about it, because we are caught up in the means to obtain that first option. But upon reflection we can discover that this indeed is what I want: To play tennis at the club, drink a drink, have the bill sent to me account, make some money, travel, etc. That is my end. I call that the spend-the-money-on-pleasantries option.

So, you could say, “Why can’t someone want to be ‘good for God’ as an option? Why can’t someone choose religion as their ultimate option?” If God wanted merely good “natural men” then perhaps that would be an option. But here’s the hitch. God wants more of you than that! He wants your devotion, your love, your sonship! So, God is calling us to an end that surpasses natural desire. God is calling us to intimacy with him. But such acts of intimacy with God are supernatural. Thus, we again come to #1. If I do not have loving God as intimate friend as my ultimate option, no subsequent / lower option will ever be oriented to that. Recall, every option is for the end. It makes sense only in light of a higher end. Now, if my ultimate option is not for God as intimate friend, no choice I make will ever be a means of approaching God’s intimacy. My options might not be sins (contra Luther). I might choose to help someone change his tire. Why? Because that is what a decent man does. It is cold, and he cannot speak English. And his tire is flat. That is a deed that is decent and necessary. It would be indecent not to do it, if it were in my power (Prov 3:27). But that does not make it an act of love for neighbor rooted precisely in love of God for his own sake as intimate friend. No, it makes it merely a decent human act. But God wants sons and daughters. Thus, he knocks on hearts to give them the wherewithal to make Him their ultimate option. So, we must simply accept God’s calling, surrender to it, be caught up in it.

Thus we see, Catholic doctrine of justification does not involve man working his way to God. It involves receiving God’s healing surgery on the heart, removal of the heart of stone and replacing it with the heart of flesh (Ezek 37). It involves God circumcising the heart, so that we may (freely) do good, so that we may inherit the land (beatitude) (Deut 30). And this is Paul’s teaching: “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become servants of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom 6:22).