-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)
“One often hears Protestant apologists saying things like, “Catholics do not recognize justification as an event which happens to a person when he first comes to Christ because they confuse sanctification with justification.” This is false on two fronts.
To begin with, Catholics do not confuse the two, thinking there is only one phenomenon when there are really two. Catholics do use the terms “justification” and “sanctification” interchangeably, but they distinguish two (actually, more than two) senses in which these joint-terms can be applied.
First, they recognize what is called “initial justification,” (baptism) which is a single event that happens to a person once, at the beginning of the Christian life and by which one is given righteous before God. Second, they recognize what is called “progressive justification,” which occurs over the course of the Christian life and by which one grows in righteousness, and, eventually, upon death, every individual’s particular judgment by God Who alone can and does judge, hopefully leading to final salvation, accomplished after a lifetime of striving to do God’s will (sanctification).
The Protestant apologist, out of lack of familiarity with the Catholic position, usually jumps on this second phenomenon—progressive justification—and says, “Aha! You see! That’s sanctification! Catholics confuse justification with sanctification!”
But in fact no confusion is going on. Catholics recognize that there are two phenomena; that is why they have given them two different names—initial versus progressive justification. They are not confusing the two events, one instantaneous and one stretched out over time, nor are they confusing the terms; they use the terms consistently, one name for one event, another name for the other. They are simply using the terms differently than Protestants, but it is a logical fallacy of the first caliber to confusing a difference in the use of terms with a confusion in the use of terms.
But there is a second reason why the Protestant apologist’s assertion is false, and this one again springs from a lack of familiarity with the Catholic position, and it concerns the different senses in which the term “righteousness” can be used. Even the Protestants who get past the initial versus progressive issue tend to wrongly assume that what Catholics mean when they talk about progressive justification is what Protestants mean when they talk about sanctification. It isn’t, and the difference between the two turns on the meaning of the term “righteousness.”
For Protestants, the term “righteousness” tends to be used in one of two senses—legal and behavioral. Although they do not always express it in this manner, Protestants will say that in justification one is made legally righteous (i.e., is given legal righteousness by God), but in sanctification one is made behaviorally righteous (i.e., is given behavioral righteousness by God, so that one behaves more righteously than one did before).
The misunderstanding Protestants get into when they look at the Catholic doctrines of initial justification(/sanctification) and progressive justification(/sanctification) is caused by the assumption that Catholic thought on these issues is dominated by the same legal vs. behavioral understanding of righteousness that Protestant thought is dominated by.
Thus the Protestant apologist often reasons to himself like this: “Catholics believe we are made righteous when we are initially justified, but they do not believe we are made legally righteous, so they must mean that we are made behaviorally righteous at initial justification. They also believe that we grow in righteousness during progressive justification. This has to be growth in behavioral righteousness, because legal righteousness before God cannot grow; you are either legally righteous or you are not. Thus Catholics must mean by ‘progressive justification’ what I mean by ‘sanctification’—that is, growth in behavioral righteousness. However, if it is possible to grow in behavioral righteousness after initial justification, that must mean the Catholic does not believe he was made completely righteous in initial justification. Thus Catholics must believe they are made partially behaviorally righteous during initial justification and then they grow in righteousness during progressive justification, which I call sanctification. Thus they confuse justification and sanctification.”
This is an elegant piece of reasoning, and except for a couple of qualifiers I would want thrown in, I would not fault it as a piece of logic. However, like all pieces of logic, its soundness is contingent on the truth of its premises, and the Protestant apologist’s piece of logic is based on a hugely, whoppingly false premise—the idea that Catholics are talking about legal and behavioral justification when they are talking about initial and progressive justification.
Because the Protestant’s thought world is dominated—so far as the idea of righteousness goes—by the concepts of legal and behavioral righteousness, he naturally assumes that when Catholic theologians are thinking about righteousness in the same sort of way. This is the false premise that causes the entire argument to go askew. Catholic thought in connection with the terms “justification” and “sanctification” is not dominated by the ideas of legal and behavioral righteousness. Instead, it focuses on a third kind of righteousness which may be called ontological or real righteousness.
Ontological or real righteousness is the quality which adheres to the soul when one does righteous acts. Its opposite, ontological or real unrighteousness, is the quality which adheres to the soul when one does unrighteous acts. Catholics conceive of guilt and innocence as objectively real properties which cling to our souls just like colors cling to the surface of objects. When we sin, we become guilty and our souls grow dark and dirty before God. But when we are justified, God purifies us and our souls become brilliant and clean before him. Guilt and innocence, righteousness and unrighteousness, are therefore conceived of as properties of our souls
Even though Protestants do not normally use this language to talk about justification, there is no reason why they cannot. In fact, the Catholic will point out that there are very good reasons for Protestants to accept the claim that when we are justified God removes one objectively real property of our souls and replaces it with another.
First, moral realism demands it. Protestants are firm believers in moral realism. Our actions are either right or wrong, good or bad, and they are that way objectively, regardless of how we feel about it. Protestants are the first to agree that moral relativism is a crock. If you commit a homosexual act, it is simply wrong and perverted, no matter what you think about it. It’s just wrong. Wrongness is an objectively real moral property that attaches itself to certain actions.
But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you intentionally commit a objectively wrong act, then you become objectively guilty. Guilt is therefore an objectively real moral property as well. The same goes for positive moral properties, like righteousness. If you intentionally perform an objectively righteous act then you become objectively righteous. Righteousness, like guilt, is an objective property just as guilt is, and it clings to your soul just in the same way that guilt does.”
Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
 One might also call behavioral righteousness “dispositional righteousness” since it is the change in dispositions that God gives one which produces the change in behavior.
 Such as a clarification of the sense in which one is either legally righteous or not-righteous before God, for Hitler was less legally righteous in front of God than the average sinner in the sense that Hitler had racked up more legal/moral crimes before God. However both Hitler and the average sinner are equally legally unrighteous before God in the sense that they lack the total legal righteousness of Christ. They are both equally lawbreakers, but they have not broken the law equally.