It's not often that a theological word like justification makes headlines, but with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Lutheran and Catholic churches on Sunday, it's been in the news all week. As church historian Douglas A. Sweeney pointed out on Tuesday in an earlier article, the doctrine has been called "first and chief article" of Protestant Christianity, indeed the article "on which the Church stands or falls." So today we take a look at two articles from the Christianity Today archives, one (from a 1975 editorial) examining the traditional Protestant understanding of the term, and another, presented here, examining the Roman Catholic view.

"Although no single theologian speaks for the entire Catholic church, an able guide is Fr. Avery Dulles, professor of theology at the Catholic University of America," we wrote in an introduction for that article, part of a special section on America's Catholics that ran in our November 7, 1986 issue. Dulles, a Jesuit, is now Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University. He was interviewed by Donald Bloesch, professor of theology emeritus (he was not then emeritus) at Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. The article examined Catholic beliefs on papal infallibility, the Assumption of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, and other issues, but here we excerpt the section on justification.

How far apart on this doctrine [of justification] are contemporary Catholics and Protestants?

I would say that really we do not greatly disagree on the way in which the individual comes to justification: through the grace of Christ accepted in faith. That's pretty much common doctrine between our churches, even though it has not been recognized as common doctrine. Many Catholics are astonished to hear this—they think that Catholics are justified by their good works. But that has never been Catholic teaching.

That would be a surprise to many people, and not just Catholics. Please elaborate.

The response to Luther was made official at the Council of Trent [1545-63]. In its "Decree on Justification," the council described the process of justification and insisted that it is through faith that one is justified.

One is first freely justified by the grace of God, and then one is held to live up to the faith that one professes. Works will follow in the life of a believer. If they flow from faith, they are good in the sight of God and will be rewarded.

That we will be rewarded according to our works is said a number of times in Scripture [see Matt. 16:27, 1 Cor. 3:8, and 2 Cor. 9:6]. So the heavenly rewards do depend somewhat upon the good works that we have been able to perform in the flesh, in this life. But those good works presuppose faith.

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It's interesting that you spoke of the "process" of justification. Protestants think justification is like being pregnant: you either are or you are not.

Catholics believe you either are or are not, but there is normally a gradual preparation for justification, and after you are justified you can be more justified still. It's partly a question of terminology. Most Catholics and Protestants distinguish between justification and sanctification. In Catholic theology, the increase of justification is commonly called sanctification, and thus there are degrees of sanctification. I guess what you're really asking about is sanctification.

In Reformation theology, sanctification and justification are described as two separate works of grace. Justification is the foundation, an external imputation of righteousness to the sinner who has faith in Christ. Sanctification is the inward purification of that person. The Reformers were adamant about the two not being confused.

There may be something of a difference, then, between evangelicals and Catholics. We maintain that justification is not simply extrinsic. It originates outside but is received in us, so we are not only reputed just but are made really just or righteous. There is an inner transformation in justification itself. That inner change could also be called sanctification. Thus justification and sanctification, for Catholics, are really inseparable.

We've made some distinctions about the words justification and sanctification. What does the word faith mean to an informed Catholic?

There are different Catholic understandings of faith. In medieval scholasticism and up to recent times, faith was commonly understood as an intellectual act of belief. It was contrasted with hope and love, which had more to do with the will than with the intellect.

But one can also understand faith in a more global or inclusive way: faith as a loving, trusting commitment of one's whole self to God. That is the sense of the term as it was used in Vatican II. If you understand faith in that broad sense, then you can use an expression like "justification by faith."

But this is an expression used more by Protestants than Catholics. Catholics look to the distinction Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 13 between faith, hope, and love. He says the greatest of these is love, and that if you do not have love, even a faith that can move mountains will profit nothing.

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Protestants, too, would say that love is the crown of faith. But faith is the foundation. We first have faith and then we do works of love to demonstrate our faith.

We wouldn't have any disagreement there. The Council of Trent said that faith is the root and foundation of all justification. So faith is a necessary element but, understood strictly as a matter of intellectual belief, it is not sufficient. There must be an accompanying hope and love.

And of course, Protestants have a centuries-old rally cry: justification by faith alone. It appears that whether or not a Catholic can accept that dictum depends on the understanding of the term faith. If we define faith in the broad sense, as the commitment of the entire self to God, could you affirm justification by faith alone?

It could be said that faith itself is intrinsically characterized by love. As I mentioned, Vatican II speaks of faith as a loving obedience, and in that sense you could say faith alone is sufficient to justify.

Let's backtrack again, to the idea of reward. How does the Catholic tradition of merit relate to justification?

Only those who have been freely justified by God's grace are in a position to merit. We do not merit justification, but having been justified or made righteous in God's sight, by his favor and grace, we are in a position to perform good works—and those good works will be rewarded. This is indicated in the New Testament many times. Catholics believe there are degrees of glory, which depend upon how one has responded to grace.

Would you say that we do not merit the first grace that comes to us, but we can merit salvation, the final grace?

I was going to say yes. But when you said "final grace" I hesitated, because there is a thesis of Saint Augustine that the grace of final perseverance cannot be merited. It's a special gift of God and we cannot really control whether we will die in God's favor or not. But with that reservation I would say yes, we can merit salvation provided that we persevere in grace.

Again we need to examine the meaning of our terms. When Catholics speak of salvation, they are thinking of the end of a process. When Protestants use the word salvation, we tend to think of it as something accomplished when the believer accepts Christ as Savior and Lord. We can also recognize the life of faith as a process, as sanctification, and in that sense the Christian is being saved at present and will be saved in the future. Yet the evangelical Protestant would not like to associate merit with any of these stages. There will be rewards, but instead of being based on merit, they will depend on God and the mystery of his providence.

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I don't see any sharp difference between us. The Council of Trent did say, quoting Augustine, that in rewarding our merits God crowns his own gifts. So it really is a meriting from grace: Only because of God's gifts can we merit at all. The word merit is always used with reservation in theology.

With careful qualifications, then, you would say that Christians merit salvation. In what sense would or would not a Catholic speak of being saved at this moment, before death or the end of the faith journey?

We thank God for having put us on the path that leads to final salvation, but we do not boast that we've already been saved in the sense that we can't be lost. That would lead to a wrong attitude before God. We are always conscious of our sinfulness, which makes it possible for us to fall away.

So we hope we will be saved. It is a firm a confident hope, not a mere wish. Saint Thomas [Aquinas] and others understand hope to include an assurance, though it is not an absolute assurance. There is the possibility of resisting God's grace. He does not treat us as automatons, but regards us as free people who could turn away and reject his love. As Paul says, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling [Phil. 2:12]

But at the same time, we do believe in a God who is merciful and powerful so that those who trust in him will never be put to shame, as the psalm says [Ps. 31:1]. Thus we move ahead peacefully and joyfully, with a sense of God's loving providence over us.

Related Elsewhere

Today's other article on justification, "Justified By Works," presents a more traditionally evangelical point of view on the subject. It is from the October 24, 1975 issue of Christianity Today.

The Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on Justification includes not only the traditional Catholic understanding of the term, but the traditional Catholic understanding of Protestant understanding of the term.

Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, which is posted online, is largely responsible for today's Catholic understanding of justification and grace. You can read what he wrote about the necessity and essence of grace, the division of grace, its cause and effects, and merit.