Justification by Grace Alone

 by Jimmy Akin

Man’s total inability

1. Man’s Total inability Before the Fall

Protestants emphasize man’s complete inability, without special grace, to come to God after the Fall. Catholics also emphasize this but also teach that man was completely unable, without special grace, to have union with God before the Fall.

Catholic theology divides human acts into two kinds, natural and supernatural. Natural actions are those which God’s natural (or “common”) grace enables man to perform (e.g., build houses, plant crops, bear children, etc.). Supernatural actions are those which require God’s supernatural (or “special”) grace to perform (i.e., acts of faith, hope, and charity). Without supernatural or special grace, man is completely unable of performing these actions. They require a special infusion or outpouring of God’s grace.

This is true for man even in an unfallen state. God could have created man in what is known in Catholic theology as “the state of pure nature,” in which man would have had an unfallen but purely natural existence. Correspondingly, he would have had a pure and possibly immortal destiny on earth, but not the calling to the supernatural destiny of eternal life in intimate union with God. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature. (CCC 1998)

As it happened, God chose to give Adam supernatural grace at the time he created him, placing him in what is called “the state of elevated nature” or “the state of original righteousness.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The Church . . . teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original “state of holiness and justice”. This grace of original holiness was “to share in. . .divine life”. (CCC 375)

By the radiance of this grace all dimensions of man’s life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die. The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman, and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation, comprised the state called “original justice. (CCC 376)

Still, it required a special infusion or outpouring of God’s grace for Adam to have union with God.

The same is true of every individual supernatural act (i.e., of faith, hope, or charity) that Adam performed before the Fall. St. Thomas Aquinas states:

And thus in the state of perfect nature man needs a gratuitous strength superadded to natural strength for one reason, viz., in order to do and wish supernatural good; but for two reasons in the state of corrupt nature, viz., in order to be healed, and furthermore in order to carry out the works of supernatural virtue . . . (Summa Theologiae I-II:109:2)

2. Man’s Total inability After the Fall

The Catholic Church is equally adamant that man is completely unable to rise from sin and come to God in the state of fallen nature. Both human nature and the Mosaic Law are completely unable to lift man out of sin. The Council of Trent taught:

“If anyone asserts that this sin of Adam . . . is taken away either by the forces of human nature or by a remedy other than the merit of the one mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ [see 1 Tim. 2:5], who has reconciled us to God in his own blood, made unto us righteousness, sanctification and redemption [see 1 Cor. 1:30] . . . let him be anathema” (Decree on Original Sin 3).

“The holy council declares first, that for a correct and clear understanding of the doctrine of justification, it is necessary that each one recognize and confess that since all men had lost innocence in the prevarication of Adam, having become unclean, and, as the Apostle says, by nature children of wrath . . . that not only the Gentiles by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated or to rise therefrom” (Decree on Justification 1).

“If anyone says that divine grace through Christ Jesus is given for this only, that man may be able more easily to live justly and to merit eternal life, as if by free will without grace he is able to do both, though with hardship and difficulty, let him be anathema” (Decree on Justification, can. 2).

Just as man needed special grace for each individual act of faith, hope, and charity before the Fall, so it is necessary for man even after man has come to God and entered a state of grace or justification. In 529, the Second Council of Orange infallibly taught:

“It is a divine gift, both when we think rightly and when we restrain our feet from falsity and injustice; for as often as we do good, God operates in us and with us, that we may operate” (II Orange, can. 9).

“The assistance of God ought to be implored always even by those who have been reborn and have been healed, that they may arrive at a good end, or may be able to continue in good work” (II Orange, can. 10).

“God does many good things in man, which man does not do; indeed man can do no good that God does not expect that man do” (II Orange, can. 20).

Similarly, the Council of Trent taught:

“Christ Jesus Himself, as the head into the members and the vine into the branches [John 15:1f], continually infuses strength into those justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God . . . ” (Decree on Justification 16)

There can thus be no doubt on the Catholic Church’s teaching of the absolute necessity of grace, both before the Fall, after the Fall, and after a person has come to Christ and been justified. All man’s good actions are absolutely require God’s grace from first to last.

Salvation: God’s Initiative and Man’s Response

Christians often speak of salvation in terms of God’s initiative and man’s response. Protestants often who are aware of the Catholic teaching on the absolute necessity of God’s grace recognize that the Catholic Church affirms God’s initiative in salvation, but some attack Catholic teaching concerning man’s response to God’s grace.

1. The Calvinist argument

Some Calvinistic Protestants, while acknowledging that Catholics teach the necessity of grace, argue that the Catholic gospel is false because Catholics teach, under the influence of grace, man makes a free choice for or against God, thus making man’s salvation dependent on his own efforts. There are four problems with this argument:

a. Man’s free will is God’s gift

First, whatever kind of free will man has (and even Calvinists acknowledge that man has free will of a form; i.e., in the sense of freedom from external compulsion), he has it as a gift from God. But if salvation is dependent on something God has given man, this is no attack on the sufficiency of God’s grace. This is proven by the fact that Calvinists do not regard the fact that salvation is dependent on man’s faith as an attack on the sufficiency of God’s grace because man’s faith is a gift of God. But if it is okay for salvation to be dependent on man’s faith because that is a gift, then it is okay for salvation to be dependent on man’s ability to choose, for that is just as much a gift.

b. The choice of faith is a supernatural gift

Second, not only is man’s free will in general a gift of God, but the kind of will used to make an act of faith is a special, supernatural gift, not a common, natural gift. An act of faith is a supernatural act (see above), thus the ability to choose to make an act of faith is itself a supernatural act. All supernatural acts require special grace. Thus any ability man has to choose to accept Jesus is itself a special gift of Christ’s redemption, not something within the power of man’s natural will. But how can anything that is a special gift of Christ’s redemption be described as something man has on his own and thus “works righteousness”?

c. Many Catholics believe in efficient grace

Third, many Catholics agree with Calvinists that men are unconditionally elected to come to Christ and that this is brought about efficaciously by God’s grace, with no one refusing his efficacious grace. This is the Thomistic school of Catholic theology. According to Thomism, God chooses certain individuals to come to him and gives these a special form of intrinsically efficacious grace which automatically–intrinsically–brings those people to choose Christ. Thus the Calvinist argument could not apply to the Catholic teaching on salvation in general, because many Catholics agree with them. It would only apply to one school of Catholic theology–Molinism, which normally claims that some do freely choose against God, even when he has given them the fullness of his redemptive grace.

d. The argument equally attacks Arminians

Fourth, if the Calvinist argument did work against Molinism then it would prove too much because it would equally show that Arminians (Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, most Baptists and Anglicans)–in fact, everybody but Calvinists–have a false gospel.

2. The Arminian Argument

Because the Catholic Church accepts Thomism, Arminian Protestants might make a corresponding objection. However it would fail for two reasons:

a. Many Catholics Believe in Man’s Refusal

First, many Catholics (Molinists) agree with Arminians that some do freely choose against God, even when he has given them the fullness of his redemptive grace. Thus the Arminian argument could not apply to the Catholic teaching on salvation in general, because many Catholics agree with them. It would only apply to one school of Catholic theology–Thomism.

b. The argument equally attacks Calvinists

Second, if the Arminian argument did work against Thomism then it would prove too much because it would equally show that Calvinists (Presbyterians and a few Baptists and Anglicans)–in fact, all non-Arminians–have a false gospel.

3. The Mixed Argument

Some Calvinists and Arminians might criticize the Catholic Church for not having infallibly settled the issue of whether God’s grace is intrinsically efficacious and condemning either Thomism or Molinism. However, a number of points should be made:

First, the Catholic Church normally only infallibly defines something during a controversy, but there is not currently a controversy over this issue. In fact, for several centuries the Thomists and the Molinists have been forbidden by the pope to accuse each other of heresy.

Second, this is a desirable condition. Catholicism has avoided the intense controversy over this issue that has wracked Protestant denominations and left Calvinists and Arminians mutually excoriating each other.

Third, it is not a practical necessity to define the doctrine since it is does not have many (if any) practical applications. Men must be exhorted to choose Christ. Why they choose Christ and whether they had the ability to refuse the grace they were offered is of secondary practical importance.

Fourth, many Protestant denominations have not settled the issue either; for example, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fifth, even if the argument that the Catholic Church should settle this issue has merit, it is not an argument about the falsity of the Catholic gospel and is thus irrelevant to that question.

Protestants thus have no basis to accuse the Catholic Church of having a false gospel by denying salvation by grace alone — at least no basis which would strike only some Catholics and which would not at the same time strike numerous Protestants who they embrace as brothers in Christ. A Protestant thus cannot accuse the Catholic Church of denying grace alone without committing gross doctrinal hypocrisy.

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