-The Harrowing of Hell as depicted by Fra Angelico, 1441-1442, please click on the image for greater detail
-by Karlo Broussard
“One thing that divides Catholics and some Protestants is the understanding of justification, a theological term that’s generally used to signify a Christian being in a right relationship with God—meaning he is no longer subject to condemnation on account of sin.
The Council of Trent taught that “not only are we reputed [that is, considered “righteous” or “just” by God] but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us” (emphasis added). The late R.C. Sproul, however, denies the latter part of Trent’s teaching, stating, “It is not the change in our nature wrought by regeneration [Trent’s ‘justice within us’] or even the faith that flows from it that is the ground of our justification [being declared justified]. That remains solely the imputed righteousness of Christ.”
What Sproul is saying is that God considers Christ’s righteousness as our own (“the imputed righteousness of Christ”) and thereby declares us just, and that’s the only way we can consider ourselves just. Whatever interior change happens within us—a change from a state of ungodliness to a state of godliness—it plays no role in our justification. That interior change would be regeneration, which results in a state of sanctification, something that Protestants like Sproul see as essentially different from justification. No, we’re justified only on God’s say-so.
So how can we defend the Catholic Church’s teaching on justification as regeneration? In other words, how can we back up our insistence that the interior change that happens within us when we become Christians plays a role in us having a right relationship with God?
A full refutation of Sproul’s view would require us to do two things: 1) show that the Bible sees the interior change that is wrought by regeneration at least as grounds for our justification, even if not the only grounds, and 2) show that the grounds for our justification are not the imputed righteousness of Christ. This would suffice to refute Sproul’s claim. Further argumentation, however, would be needed to fully prove the Catholic position that the interior change wrought by regeneration (via sanctifying grace, given initially in baptism) is the sole ground for our justification, or what the Council of Trent called the “single formal cause.”
Due to the limited space that we have here, we’re going to focus only on the first of the two parts of our refutation of Sproul’s view. The passage to focus on is Romans 6:17-18:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
The first thing to note is that the Greek word for “righteousness” is dikaiosunē, which is related to the verb (dikaioō) that Paul uses throughout his letter to the Romans when he talks about Abraham “being justified [Greek, dikaioō] by faith” (Rom. 5:1; see also 4:2), a faith that God reckoned as “righteousness” (Greek, dikaiosunē—4:5). So, for Paul, the state of being “slaves of righteousness” is a state of being justified, like Abraham.
Now, according to Romans 5:1, the justification that we Christians have in Christ is another way of describing the “peace” that we have with God—again, a peace similar to what Abraham had with God. Paul writes, “Since we are justified by faith [like Abraham], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
What does it mean to have “peace with God”? It means to be in a right relationship with him. It means we’re no longer subject to condemnation from him.
So the state of being “slaves of righteousness”—the state of justification—is a state of being at peace with God, or having a right relationship with him.
The next thing to note about the above passage is that Paul describes two states, both of which are preceded by and contrasted with the same state of slavery to sin. First, he speaks of becoming “obedient from the heart,” as opposed to being “slaves of sin.” Second, he speaks of “slaves of righteousness” who were “set free from sin”—which is to say his addressees went from being slaves of sin to being slaves of righteousness.
Given this “common denominator” of slavery to sin, it’s reasonable to conclude that Paul is describing in two different ways the same state that is opposite of being a slave to sin. This being the case, Paul doesn’t see a hard divide between the state of “obedience from the heart” and the state of being “slaves of righteousness.” In fact, he conceives of them as one and the same.
Here’s where the Catholic understanding of righteousness (the interior change wrought by regeneration) comes into play. Consider that obedience to God (“obedience from the heart”) entails the mind and the will being rightly ordered to God’s will—being disposed to believe as true what he says and to do what he commands. That’s an interior state, a state that’s constitutive of our character.
It’s this interior state of the heart and mind, a state that God brings about within us by grace, that Paul identifies as the state of being “slaves of righteousness,” which, as we saw above, is a state of justification, like that of Abraham. Therefore, interior righteousness at least is a ground for our justification.
This interpretation of associating the interior state of “obedience from the heart” with the state of being “slaves of righteousness” is further supported by verse 7 of this same chapter. Paul writes, “For he who has died [the death of baptism] is freed from sin.” The Greek verb for “freed” is dikaioō. So, the text can be literally translated as, “he who has died [the death of baptism] is justified from sin.”
Here, Paul explicitly ties this freedom from slavery to sin, which, as we saw above, is the interior state of “obedience from the heart,” to the state of being justified. It follows, therefore, that in Paul’s mind the state of being justified is not divorced from the interior state of “obedience from the heart,” a state where our hearts and minds are rightly ordered to God, or what the Council of Trent called the “justice within us.”
We can agree to some extent with those Protestants who, like Sproul, say that God declares us just. As Trent states, “not only are we reputed [righteous, or just] but we are truly called and are just”—the implication being that we can affirm that God reputes or declares us just. It’s just that, according to Paul, such a declaration corresponds to an objective reality: our interior state of righteousness that God brings about within us—what Paul calls “obedience from the heart.”
Again, as mentioned above, it takes further argumentation to establish that the interior state of righteousness constituted by sanctifying grace is the sole ground of our justification, or the “single formal cause.” But at least we can say that Paul doesn’t draw a hard divide between our state of being justified (being at peace with God and thus having a right relationship with him, whereby we are no longer subject to condemnation) and our interior state of being rightly ordered to God in obedience. In fact, he conceives of them as the same. And if that’s how Paul conceives of justification, then so should we.”
Love & His peace,