The concept of justification is one of the most discussed and debated topics among Christians. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the act of justification reconciles man to God and frees him from sin (CCC, 1990). It pinpoints the moment we go from being children of wrath to sons and daughters of God through Christ.
The Council of Trent describes justification as the “renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting” (Trent Session VI.7).
Justification is, therefore, very important for the Christian life in understanding God’s love for us. The Catholic sense of justification is especially misunderstood by Christians of other churches and denominations, but understanding the Catholic view can help us overcome roadblocks to Christian unity and provide more effective evangelization.
Catholic thought often uses Latin terms to describe complex theological concepts. The Latin phrase that describes justification is gratia infusia, which means “infused grace”. The important thing to remember about infused grace is that it is a metaphor meaning “to pour”. To say that grace is infused isn’t the same as saying that grace is a substance mixed into another. The concept is derived from biblical language that describes God’s bestowal of grace upon us.
For example, Romans 5:5 says that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Titus 3:6 says “God poured out the Holy Spirit abundantly on us through Jesus Christ our Savior.” The key detail to remember about the term gratia infusia itself is that it is poetic language used in scripture to describe God’s outpouring of graces onto mankind.
The Theological Virtues
Humans are uniquely created in the image of God in a way other earthly creatures are not. (Angels are in a separate category, sharing in a purely spiritual nature with God.) We are gifted with intellect, the ability to love, and the free will to choose to love. These characteristics enable us to partake in the divine nature by way of the three theological virtues. These virtues are known as faith, hope, and love. 1 Corinthians 13:13 says “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Upon justification, the theological virtues are directly infused into our souls by God. They enable us to live out our lives as Christians. The virtues are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being (CCC, 1813).
By Grace Alone Through Christ Alone
Our justification is merited by Christ’s passion on the cross. We are not capable of meriting justification by our own actions or powers. The Council of Trent states that “no one can be just, but he to whom the merits of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated” (Trent, VI.7).
Understanding the role of grace in Catholic justification is to understand the central framework of what we believe. There is never a moment in the Catholic perspective of justification where the believer or even the potential believer is without grace. In the sincere non-believer, God’s grace always works to gently draw him or her to faith. The Holy Spirit works to bring us conversion of heart (Acts 7:51), which is the very first work of grace by the Holy Spirit. It is also an ongoing work of grace throughout our lives.
We Are Made Clean
In Catholic justification, we believe that once God declares us justified He actually cleanses our souls. Justification is not only a remission of sins but a renewal and sanctification of the inner man (Trent, ibid.). 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that we become the righteousness of God. The Greek word used for “become” is ginomai. The same Greek word is used in multiple instances to describe things that come to pass or actually come into existence.
Matthew 17:2 uses ginomai when describing Christ’s garments during the transfiguration on the mount. His garments become white as light. Similarly, when we are justified we are cleansed in our interior beings.
With justification also comes sanctification. 1 Corinthians 6:1 says, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Justification is Ongoing
It is common to hear some Christians refer to justification as the moment you come to Christ. This is one acceptable aspect of justification as scripture lists it in the past tense on more than one occasion (Romans 5:1). However, it is not the only aspect of justification listed in scripture. Justification is also listed in the present tense in scripture (Romans 5:9) and in the future (Matthew 12:37).
For Catholics, justification continues to increase throughout the Christian life. The Council of Trent says “by mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified” (Trent, Ibid.).
Conferred in Baptism
Baptism is the main means by which we are made clean and justified. Titus 3:5-7 says “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
While baptism is the main means by which God’s justifying grace outpours, He can work in them and through other means to bring about justification as He did with Abraham and other key biblical figures who were justified without baptism like King David.