Recently, I had a conversation with someone who disagrees with the Church’s teaching on justification and the use of any kinds of work and grace on our part to merit salvation. Afterwards, I did a little bit more research and realized that I was causing confusion because of the Protestant vs. Catholic understanding of justification. For that I apologize and would like to clarify the Church’s views in this post, hoping that it will help the person in question as well as other non-Catholics and maybe even Catholics who may be confused about the teaching.
When Protestants hear the word justification, they tend to think of an event at the beginning of a person’s Christian life where the person turns to God and He forgives that person’s sins and declares them righteous. They also say that works cannot merit this at all. And as far as this definition of justification goes, they’re actually right. But Catholics take justification a bit further.
The Church teaches that God not only declares us to be righteous, but that he also makes us righteous in justification. That is why the Council of Trent defined justification as “not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man” (Degree on Justification 7). Not only does God give us the gift of righteousness when we turn to Him and He forgives us, but also throughout our life if we are willing to cooperate with His grace. As far as the link between justification and righteousness goes, it has to do with the underlying concept that these separate English words share in their roots in other languages. For more information on all of this, you can visit the link where all of this information is paraphrased from: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/faith-and-works-0
Another part of justification for Protestants is believing that Christ alone has paid our debt and therefore there’s nothing that we can do to change that or try to earn our way into heaven. The first part is true: Christ alone has paid our debt. He overcame the power of sin and death and we now have hope for resurrection into eternal life. But it’s not a guarantee. Christ paid the debt that was necessary to open the gates of heaven that were closed after the Fall of Adam and Eve and make retribution to God’s eternal justice, saving us from the power of certain death that our sins merited. He makes us righteous before God in this way. But being righteous before God does not mean that Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection automatically covers all of our sins and we are seen exactly the same as Christ in God’s eyes, as some Protestants believe. If this were true, it would follow that we would all be rewarded equally in heaven and 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 directly contradicts this, saying that there are different degrees of reward in heaven. It would also follow that we would all be seen as co-saviors and Christ’s Name would no longer be uniquely above the rest, which of course is false (Akin, James. “Justification in Catholic Teaching: The Kind of Justification We Receive.” https://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/JUSTIF.HTM.) So, if we’re not seen as equal to Christ as a result of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, then that means that we are still below Christ and so still have some things to do in this life to earn our place in heaven, since we are not seen as equal to Christ and did not physically suffer and die as He did. We will no longer be damned automatically if we do not will it; Christ saved us from that. But, because of our free will, we can still damn ourselves.
Let’s use a practical example: When you betray a friend (which is exactly what Adam and Eve did to God), the relationship cannot be mended right away. Yes, your friend may forgive you and agree to give the friendship another try, but things won’t automatically go back to being the way they were. You will need to rebuild the trust that was lost and prove to your friend that you’ve changed. Christ dying for us reconciled us to God and He forgave us the eternal punishment of certain death that would have resulted from original sin. But we still have to prove to God that our belief in Christ has changed us and that we deserve the reward that Christ won for us–that He did not die in vain. We can do this by accepting His invitation to continue to be made righteous throughout our lives, as we discussed earlier.
But we don’t do it alone. Just like when you’re trying to make things right with your friend, we get help. Your friend will likely assist you by letting you know what you can do to earn their trust back and get back into their good graces. God does the same thing with us throughout our lives. He gives us graces that assist us to advance our holiness and justification, particularly in the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, and we have guidelines like those in the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. And just like we can choose to not try to make our relationship with our friend what it was before, we can choose to not take advantage of the great gift and graces that God gives us to try to pick ourselves up and make our way toward our heavenly home.