Justification by Faith in Catholic – Protestant Dialogue (Part 1)
Three distinctive features of Protestant’s Justification
The title of this post comes from that of a book by Anthony N.S. Lane, Professor of Historical Theology and Director of Research at the London School of Theology. The author first described three distinctive features of Protestant’s Justification (his statements are in italic).
It is a forensic Justification: To be justified is to be accepted by God as righteous, to be declared righteous by God, to be acquitted. Justification is a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict in a law court. Catholics, on the other hand, do not view Justification as forensic but as adoption (which Prof. Lane stated as other category to express our relationship to God, page 18). Council of Trent defines Justification (emphasis added) as a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour (Chapter 4 of Decrees on Justification). Catholic Justification is therefore not forensic, Protestants who use forensic analogy to understand Catholic Justification will end-up having misunderstanding.
There is systematic distinction between Justification and Sanctification (or Regeneration) and he stated the difference: Justification refers to my status; sanctification to my state. Justification is about God’s attitude to me changing; sanctification is about God changing me. Justification is about how God looks on me; sanctification is about what he does in me. Justification is about Christ dying for my sins on the cross; sanctification is about Christ at work in me by the Holy Spirit changing my life. Yet these two entities, Justification and Sanctification are not separable – ‘One cannot have one without the other’ he wrote and stated the reason: we receive both in Christ. Catholics, on the other hand, believe that Sanctification is part of Justification – the other and the first (prerequisite) part is conversion to Christ because of what He did on the cross.
How we are justified: On what ground am I justified, accepted by God, reckoned righteousness? It is not because of my good works or anything that I have done. Nor is it my actual state of righteousness, my sanctification. It is not even what God is doing in me by the Holy Spirit, but rather what Christ has done for me on the cross. I am accepted because of the ‘alien’ righteousness of Christ, outside of me and reckoned or imputed to my account. As far as faith in Christ is concerned, Catholics would agree that God gives it to us as free gift, i.e. neither because we did something good nor because we were in acceptable state of righteousness. I would like to zoom on his statement: It is not even what God is doing in me by the Holy Spirit – Catholics believe that we cannot believe in Christ unless God through Holy Spirit first moves our heart. Prof. Lane pointed out the difference between Catholic and Protestant on how we are justified: For the Reformers the cause of our justification is the external or ‘alien’ righteousness of Christ reckoned or imputed to us. In other words, we remain sinful in ourselves but the righteousness of Christ is reckoned to our account. For Trent, by contrast, we are reckoned righteous not because our works but because of the righteousness of Christ which is infused or poured into us, the righteousness which the Holy Spirit implants in our hearts. For the Reformers we are accepted because of the work of Christ on the cross; for Trent it is because of the work of the Spirit in our hearts. I would like to comment on his last quoted statement: for Trent it is because of the work of the Spirit in our hearts – both what Christ did on the cross and the works of Holy Spirit in us are the two elements of Catholic Justification; if I may borrow his phrase: one cannot have one without the other one. Keep in mind that in Protestantism the works of Spirit in us take place in our Sanctification, which is inseparable from their Justification. Prof. Lane is one of not so many Evangelicals who is aware that Catholics do not believe our works contribute to our righteousness: For Trent, by contrast, we are reckoned righteous not because our works but because of the righteousness of Christ [righteousness of God through Christ in Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1991] which is infused or poured into us. Note also his statement (emphasis added) ‘we remain sinful in ourselves but the righteousness of Christ is reckoned to our account’. In other words in Protestantism, we are both unrighteous and righteous (using righteousness of Christ) at the same time.