The Texas Inkling


Grace and Justification Part II:  Faith and Works by Nathan Anthony Kennedy

This is part two of a three-part series of reflections on the nature and process of justification through grace. These reflections are intended to inform, clarify, and lead to discussion on matters that both divide and unite Christians historically and presently. In part one, I discussed the nature of sin and its consequences for man's soul. In this part, I explore the role that Faith and Works play in the process of justification, delving into further detail on the nature of Sanctifying Grace and its role in the human soul.


Very few theological discussions require such exacting theological precision as does the discussion over the economy of grace and salvation in the process of justification. It is perhaps the most theologically demanding, second only to the theology of the Most Holy Trinity itself. The interconnected nature of theological categories and dogmas are such that to discuss one issue is to touch on nearly all others—much akin to pulling one fish hook out of a bowl and thereby lifting up all others. Yet, for the sake of clarity, all matters of theological reflection need not arise in order to effect a basic understanding. It is for this clarity that our discussion should center around the role of faith and works in the process of justification.

Perhaps more so than others, this question typifies the current and historical divides that exist between Catholics and Protestants. Since the theologies of Luther, Calvin, and other reformers, the question has served to underline the tension and tumult between the communions; nearly all ecumenical efforts involve to a significant degree the question of justification, particularly concerning the role of faith and works.

Justification Defined

The technical definition of justification is "the transforming of the sinner from the state of unrighteousness to the state of holiness and sonship of God." [1] This state is an eternal one: justification in itself merits eternal salvation for the individual soul. Man's very purpose requires justification, for man's purpose is to know God, to love God, to serve God, and to be happy with God in Heaven for all eternity. [2] Justification also "detaches man from sin" [3], thereby restoring man to his intended friendship with God, that is, restoring man to his state of sanctifying grace.

Considered as an act, justification is solely an act of God (actus justificationis). By the vice of Original Sin, man could not merit his own salvation through any measure of good works or oblation. God, in His infinite love for man, sent His son to die as a sacrifice for the atonement of all sins, once and for all. Thus to "merit" salvation at all, man must freely accept the grace and merits of the Sacrifice of Christ—all of man's merits arise solely from the fact that "God has freely chosen to associate man with His works of grace." [4] To effect salvation then requires an act of the will in order to accept and receive the saving grace of God. Therefore, considered as a process (habitus justificationis), justification requires a state constantly inherent to the soul—properly, sanctifying grace [5]—arising from the free and un-coerced cooperation of the soul with God. Man's role in justification is in total acceptance of God's grace.

Man's Cooperation with Grace

How then does fallen man accept the freely given, unmerited grace offered to him by God? The entire process presupposes the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit to merit the justification of man. This requires a conversion of the heart of man—the turning of the heart from sin and toward God Himself. Particularly essential to conversion is an intrinsic union of human and divine action—the fundamental cooperation of man's free will with the action of grace.

This free will which man is heir to is ultimately the hinge upon which the fruits of salvation depend; for, while God desires that all men be saved, the free, conscious, and deliberate choice of man to persist in sin and to reject God poses a great barrier to man's choosing the grace and salvation offered to him by God. The fallen nature of man is such that the human will can either reject or resist the full offer of God's grace. To reject God's grace is a free act; to resist God's grace is not in all cases a free act. The will, enfeebled by Original Sin, may rebel against the desires and greatest intentions of the mind or heart, still having been effected by attachments and habits of sin. Therefore to accept fully God's total offer of grace and salvation ordinarily requires on the part of man great struggle against those attachments and desires that arise from sin.

Herein lies the heart of the disagreement between the theology of the Catholic Church with the theologies of the Protestant communions: as the reformers of the sixteenth century taught that man is saved by faith alone, the Catholic Church has taught since its inception 2,000 years ago that justification takes a great deal of effort and work on the part of man. According to the reformers, the Catholic Church's proposed salvation is a salvation based on works in which man seeks to earn his own salvation. In order to bypass the role of man's will in the process of justification, Luther taught that justification is an element external to the soul of man; that is, salvation is imputed, not infused. Man remains in a state of sin and remains in his thoughts and actions impure, unjust, and prone toward evil, but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is imputed over man before God so that all that God sees is Christ's goodness. This teaching has been caricatured as being analogous to "snow-covered dung heaps," emphasizing the superficial notion of Luther's theology of justification. Man's role before grace then becomes essentially passive, with justification being a thing done to man and not a thing God does with man.

The Fruits of Justification

In defense of his proposition, Luther purported the words of St. Paul to say that man is saved by faith alone. By faith, Luther did not mean an assent to and firm belief in all of God's revealed truths and promises (fides theoretica, dogmatica) but "the infallible conviction (fides fiduciales, fiducia) that God for the sake of Christ will no longer impute to us our sins, but will consider and treat us, as if we were really just and holy, although in our inner selves we remain the same sinners as before." [6]

In the very center of this divide is the very fabric of God's own nature and man's entrance into the divine life: charity. By charity we refer to "a divinely infused habit, inclining the human will to cherish God for his own sake above all things, and man for the sake of God." [7] Charity—also known as love—represents not only the highest order of the actions and habits of man, but also the very nature of God Himself. For, "God is love," [8] and human beings, being made in the image of God, reflect this very nature. Justification then requires that man come to perfectly mirror this divine love in all things in sacrificial, self-giving, total love. Consider the Reference 2011 from the Catechism:
"The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace."
Notice that "grace" and "merit" here are not mutually opposed; in order to merit salvation, man's efforts must be fecundated with divine grace. [9] Our justification before God is dependent on the infusion of Christ's divine charity, and our salvation cannot be effected without it. [10] "Faith without works is dead"—this includes both Luther's fiduciary faith and the Church's dogmatic faith.

Thus, the efforts and merits of man constitute the material cause of justification, that is, it is through those efforts and merits that man is justified. Yet, it must be noted that even this cause has in itself its own formal cause, that being the unmerited grace of God. The formal cause of justification beyond the initial grace is solely that of Sanctifying Grace—only Sanctifying Grace. In the words of the Catechism, "Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to man's collaboration." [11] Likewise, the words of St. Augustine ring clear: "He who made you without your doing does not without your action justify you. Without your knowing He made you, with your willing He justifies you, but it is He who justifies, that the justice be not your own." [12]


We come then both the primal and final question of our discussion: What role do faith and works play in the process of justification? Such a simple question strains the very limits of language to answer. It is perhaps fair to say that both are equally important, yet though such an answer may satisfy the heart, it does not satisfy the head. There must be something deeper, something much more profound. That the reformers, in reference to the Church, taught a great lie is undeniable; what becomes known through closer investigation is that the reformers taught a lie not defined by a complete lack of truth, but a partial lack of truth. The Church, it is true, teaches a salvation based on works—but this is not the whole truth. The Church teaches that these works are impossible without the grace of God, and that to accept the grace of God is the primary act of faith. Good works are, in a sense, analogously describable as sacraments of justfication—they both signify and effect the interior perfection of man and that man's fundamental turning toward God.

In the end, salvation is not a one-way street: it is a collaboration, a cooperation, between two wills. The highest peak of interior perfection a man can ever attain is a total, unhesitant, and unqualified union of his own will to the divine will of God. Given the state of the human will in Original Sin, this very truly not a sudden change, as if a person could be a saint overnight. This, we will discuss further in Part III. As Our Lord admonished the Pharisees—who were the epitome of those whose salvation depended on both dead faith and empty works, and for whom salvation was largely exterior and not interior—"Bear fruit that befits repentance." [13]

[1] Pohle, Joseph. "Justification." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 14 Jun. 2009 <>.
[2] A number of citations:
  • "Quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te." / "For thou hast created us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee." St. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, Book I.
  • "Of all visible creatures only man is "able to know and love his creator".219 He is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake",220 and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity." Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., Ref. 356
  • "What is it that is about to be created, that enjoys such honor? It is man that great and wonderful living creature, more precious in the eyes of God than all other creatures! For him the heavens and the earth, the sea and all the rest of creation exist. God attached so much importance to his salvation that he did not spare his own Son for the sake of man. Nor does he ever cease to work, trying every possible means, until he has raised man up to himself and made him sit at his right hand." St. John Chrysostom, In Gen. Sermo 2,1: PG 54,587D-588A.
  • "Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God's merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals." Catechism, Ref. 1990.
[4] Catechism, Ref. 2008.
[5] Pohle.
[6] ibid.
[7] Sollier, Joseph. "Love (Theological Virtue)." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 14 Jun. 2009 <>
[8] 1 John 14:23; 15:14
[9] Catechism, Ref. 2009.
[10] Galatians 5:6; 1 Corinthians 13; James 2:17 sqq.
[11] Catechism, Ref. 2025
[12] St. Augustine, Serm. clxix, c. xi, n.13
[13] Matthew 3:9

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