The Seed of Glory: Catholic Teaching on Theology of Grace Pt. 1 – Introduction

by Aug 7, 20210 comments


Link to the full series of posts here.

The interior life is for all the one thing necessary. It ought to be constantly developing in our souls; more so than what we call our intellectual life, more so than our scientific, artistic or literary life. The interior life is lived in the depths of the soul; it is the life of the whole man, not merely of one or other of his faculties. And our intellectual life would gain immeasurably by appreciating this; it would receive an inestimable advantage if, instead of attempting to supplant the spiritual life, it recognized its necessity and importance, and welcomed its beneficial influence — the influence of the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost. How deeply important our subject is may be seen in the very words we have used: Intellectuality and Spirituality. And it is important to us not only as individuals, but also in our social relations, for it is evident that we can exert no real or profound influence upon our fellow-men unless we live a truly interior life ourselves.[1]

The interior life is for all the one thing necessary

I continue to grow in appreciation each day of how profound these words are written by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange here. I am starting to think the theology of grace (which is the at the heart of what Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange is referencing as the “interior life”) is not only an important topic for simply learning how to live better Christian lives, but that it is, in fact, the core component of the Gospel itself! As such, the theology of grace should penetrate every aspect of our lives: how we live, how we worship, how we pray, and even in how we evangelize.

Roadmap of Series on Grace

In this series of posts, I aim to present the beginnings of an overview on some key aspects of the theology of grace, with a heavier emphasis on sanctifying grace (the grace we receive in justification) and its soteriological connections. As God continues to teach me more about the infinite depths of this theology of grace, I anticipate that I will write more on the topic as it truly touches so many aspects of the Christian faith.

I think it is so important to look at the connection of grace to justification because it not only gets right to the heart of one the key things that so greatly divides many Christians, but it is what many in the Church call the Seed of Glory – the very animating principle of all of the Christian life. If we get this part of theology wrong about God’s grace, it has many potential disastorous effects for how Christians view everything in the Christian life.

As we move into the discussion of sanctifying grace, specifically, I will also be looking at this topic in relation to Romans 4. I think Romans 4 is so important to look at because it seems to be a key argument for those who hold to an imputed righteousness view of justification, which is one that basically denies sanctifying grace all together or so greatly obscures this aspect of God’s grace as to all but mute its essential components. I hope that by showing there might be very valid ways to read Romans 4 in the Catholic system of thought it may indentify any misunderstandings of Catholicism that non-Catholics have (specifically as to whether this view of grace means Catholics hold to a type of works righteousness in justification) and also show why denying this aspect of infused grace in the Christian life is to deny the very core of the Gospel itself.

I will also plan on going in reverse order in weight of magisterial authority. I think starting with modern Catholic theologians views on grace, with a contemporary vernacular, may help with grasping the essential ideas quickly so we can then move on to where this teaching is derived from. Finally, we can end up on the actual magisterial teaching of the Church, as private theologian’s opinions – as helpful as they may be – are not always what the Church has settled on for binding dogma.

1. Broad outline of theology of Grace and the different types of grace

2. Modern Catholic theologians on justifying grace/sanctifying grace

2.1 John Kincaid article that gives in depth picture of cardiac righteousness

2.2 Various direct responses to Romans 4 interpretation

2.3 Lawerence Feingold’s systematic theology summary of Catholic teaching on grace.

2.4 Mystical Theology summary of Catholic teaching on grace.

2.5 Theosis

3. Two key historical teachers:

3.1 Aquinas

3.2 Augustine

4. The early Church Council’s teaching on Grace and up through Trent.

5. Conclusions

1. Types of Grace

There is so much that has been written on the topic of grace in theology. There are many different, and often complicated views that have arisen on the nature of God’s grace, usuallly as a result of a particular theological dispute (e.g. the nature of predestination). Here, I will present what I have found to be a few of the broadest and most important categories in beginning to look at the nature of God’s graces and how they work in our lives.

First, and foremost, though, it is of the utmost importance to realize we were made for union with God. We were made to be partakers of the divine nature!

2 Peter 1:3–4 (ESV)

3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to[a] his own glory and excellence,[b] 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

The profundity of this statement that we are “to be partakers of the divine nature” cannot be understated. This is the meaning of life; this is not just for us in heaven, but in the here and now. God is calling us to union with Him and the entire theology of grace is a roadmap to see what this union looks like and how we get there.

Natural vs Supernatural grace

Not all grace is what we would consider supernatural. Creation, itself, is a gift given to us by God; even the basic things in life (life itself, food, shelter, etc.) can be considered a natural grace.

NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL GRACE.—Grace is not necessarily supernatural. Sacred Scripture and the Fathers sometimes apply the word to purely natural gifts. We petition God for our daily bread, for good health, fair weather and other temporal favors, and we thank Him for preserving us from pestilence, famine, and war, although these are blessings which do not transcend the order of nature. 8

a) Our petitions for purely natural favors are inspired by the conviction that creation itself, and everything connected therewith, is a gratuitous gift of God. This conviction is well founded. God was under no necessity of creating anything: creation was an act of His free-will. Again, many of the favors to which human nature, as such, has a claim, are free gifts when conferred upon the individual. Good health, fortitude, talent, etc., are natural graces, for which we are allowed, nay obliged, to petition God.[2]

Supernatural graces, on the other-hand, go above and beyond the natural created order. There are many different types of these supernatural gaces too, which we will explore.

b) Generally speaking, however, the term “grace” is reserved for what are commonly called the supernatural gifts of God, the merely preternatural as well as the strictly supernatural. 10 In this sense “grace” is as sharply opposed to purely natural favors as nature is opposed to the supernatural.

The importance of the distinction between supernatural and purely natural grace will appear from an analysis of the concept itself. Considered as gifts of God, the strictly supernatural graces (e.g., justification, divine sonship, the beatific vision) ontologically exceed the bounds of nature.[3]

Actual vs Sanctifying Grace

It seems the distinction between actual and habitual grace was seldom discussed before Trent. This clearer distinction in the kinds of grace was, like many things in theology, arose as a response to controversies at the time surrounding the nature of grace.

Before the Council of Trent, the Schoolmen seldom distinguished actual grace from sanctifying grace. But, in consequence of modern controversies regarding grace, it has become usual and necessary in theology to draw a sharper distinction between the transient help to act (actual grace) and the permanent state of grace (sanctifying grace)[4]

Actual grace is basically any temporary and specific help that God gives us, that is superntural in nature, and is aimed to help man toward his eternal salvation.

…we may define actual grace as a supernatural help of God for salutary acts granted in consideration of the merits of Christ.

It is called a “help of God for salutary acts”, because, on the one hand, it differs from permanent sanctifying grace, in that it consists only in a passing influence of God on the soul, and, on the other, it is destined only for actions which have a necessary relation to man’s eternal salvation. It is further called a “supernatural help” so as to exclude from its definition not only all merely natural graces, but also, in a special manner, ordinary Divine conservation and concurrence (concursus generalis divinus). Finally, the “merits of Christ” are named as its meritorious cause because all graces granted to fallen man are derived from this one source. It is for this reason that the prayers of the Church either invoke Christ directly or conclude with the words: Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.[5]>

Sanctifying grace, on the other hand, is likewise supernatual in nature but is a created grace that God infuses in us becoming a part of the person, elevating their nautre to a new state that is ordered towards God. This is a long-term grace that we cultivate and grow as we grow closer to God through living a life of virtue and prayer – hence why it is often called the seed of glory. Also of note, actual grace are the helps God gives us to order us towards receiving or growing in sanctifying grace.

Sanctifying grace, on the other hand, is a habitual and abiding “deification” of our soul by which our soul is somehow mysteriously elevated and made proportionate to God’s own ineffable beatitude and inner life.

For an adult to acquire sanctifying grace, many actual graces will first be necessary to move his faculties to seek God and undertake the work of conversion, aiding him to produce acts of faith, hope, charity, and contrition for sin. Thus in the justification of the adult, actual graces always come before sanctifying grace.

However, sanctifying grace has a certain natural or logical primacy with respect to actual grace, for actual grace is ordered to the acquisition of sanctifying grace through conversion, and once we possess it, actual grace is ordered to the increase and fecundity of sanctifying grace. The succession of temporary supernatural impulses (actual graces) are ordered to the birth and growth of the abiding divine life in us (sanctifying grace).[6]

Sanctifying grace is not God dwelling in us Himself, but a gift God gives when He comes to dwell inside of us after we are justified.

sanctifying grace is not the Holy Spirit Himself but a created gift of God which inheres in the soul as a perduring reality that perfects the spirit of man, not unlike the way his body is informed by the rational soul…“He infuses into them certain forms or supernatural qualities, through which they are gently and promptly directed by Him in order to obtain the eternal supernatural good” to which they are destined. [36][7]

Sanctifying grace is recieved at justification. It is the gift received through faith that God gives us as He comes to dwell in us as a regenerate person. It is not God himself, but is a gift that habituates us to follow God’s will.

  1. Ontological Definition of Sanctifying Grace

a) Sanctifying Grace is a created supernatural gift really distinct from God. (Sent. fidei proxima.)

The Tridentine definition of Sanctifying Grace as “ God’s justice, not by means of which He is Himself just, but by which He makes us just” (D 799) excludes the identity of Sanctifying Grace with the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is not the formal cause, but the efficient cause of justification. According to Rom. 5, 5: “The charity of God is poured forth in our heart by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us.” The Holy Ghost is the mediator of the love of God, which is given to us in the justification, and is therefore distinguished from Sanctifying Grace, as the gift from the giver.[8]>

Sanctifying grace is also not a substance – it is not some “spiritual goo” infused inside of us – but is a real accidental habit (not of our natural essence) infused in our soul.

c) Sanctifying grace is not a substance, but a real accident, which inheres in the soul..substance. (Sent. certa.)

The Council of Trent uses the expression “inhaerere” (0 800, 809, 821) which an accidental mode of being.

As a state of the soul, sanctifying grace falls more closely into the category of quality and as a lasting state, into the species of habit. As sanctifying grace immediately perfects the soul-substance, and only mediately refers to the activity, it is defined as habitus entitativus (as distinct from habitus operativus). According to the manner and degree of its coming into the soul the habitus of sanctifying grace is defined as habitus infusus (as distinct from habitus innatus and habitus acquisitus).[9]

We will have a lot more to say about sanctifying grace as we move further along, so it will suffice for now to show that this type of grace is an infused supernatural help that serves as the seeds for our supernatural life as Christians. This type of grace changes our nature so that we can know, love, and serve God as He wants us to and aids us on our path to full union with God.

Opperative vs Cooperative Grace

Grace can be thought of as acting in different ways in our lives. One way is opperative grace, which is to say that God sometimes just does His own work inside of us, without any of our cooperation. Cooperative grace is when God has already changed our will to desire Him and align our will with His will and the resulting good works that follow as we cooperate with God and His gifts.

Actual graces can be classified in different ways. Perhaps the most fundamental distinction is between operative and cooperative grace (also referred to as operating and cooperating grace). Through operative grace God works in us—illuminating our mind and inspiring our will with a good desire—without presupposing any prior act on our part or any free cooperation. Cooperative grace, on the contrary, presupposes a prior good will in the soul, already brought about by operative grace, and cooperates with our free will so as to lead to the actual performance of a good or salutary act.

Operative grace is thus a first movement of actual grace in the soul by which the soul is attracted to the supernatural good. On the basis of an operative grace, the soul can then deliberate about how to do good and make a salutary choice. The good deliberation and the good choice are necessarily supported by God’s actual grace, which cooperates with the first good movement of the soul by which it began to will the good through operative grace.[10]

Operative grace comes first, then, and empowers us to later cooperate with God.

Operative grace is thus the first in a series of actual graces, which does not presuppose any prior movement of the will. Cooperative grace refers to the subsequent action of grace which supports the movement of the soul to the good in its free actions of consent and choice, and which presupposes the good and salutary desire of the will which was first brought about by operative grace.

St. Augustine made this distinction in his work Grace and Free Will:

For He who first works in us the power to will is the same who cooperates in bringing this work to perfection in those who will it. Accordingly, the Apostle says: “I am convinced of this, that he who has begun a good work in you will bring it to perfection until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). God, then, works in us, without our cooperation, the power to will, but once we begin to will, and do so in a way that brings us to act, then it is that He cooperates with us. But if He does not work in us the power to will or does not cooperate in our act of willing, we are powerless to perform good works of a salutary nature. [Augustine, Grace and Free Will 17.33][11]

Cooperative grace, by its very nature, necessitates that people have a free will. Since God wants us to freely love Him, He does not take our free will away. It is always God’s grace empowers anything good that we do, so when we get to talking about merit, it is still really God who is earining the merit.

Since operative grace is the work of God prior to the will’s self-movement, it is efficacious of itself. However, the whole purpose of operative grace is to enable the will to consent freely to the movement of grace. This consent is worked by the will through the aid of cooperative grace. Thus the action of operative grace is perfected by cooperative grace. Cooperative grace, by its very nature requires the will’s free cooperation. Thus cooperative grace is not efficacious of itself alone. God begins by working in the will without the will’s cooperation, attracting it to Himself, precisely so that He can gain the free cooperation of the will in the process of salvation.

Thus the illumination and attraction aroused by operative grace is attributed to God alone, whereas the free action—involving deliberation and consent—accomplished through cooperative grace is attributed both to God’s grace and to the person willing. St. Thomas explains this in ST I-II, q. 111, a. 2:

[1] Hence in that effect in which our mind is moved and does not move, but in which God is the sole mover, the operation is attributed to God, and it is with reference to this that we speak of “operating grace.” [2] But in that effect in which our mind both moves and is moved, the operation is not only attributed to God, but also to the soul; and it is with reference to this that we speak of cooperating grace.“ Now there is a double act in us. First, there is the interior act of the will, and with regard to this act the will is a thing moved, and God is the mover; and especially when the will, which hitherto willed evil, begins to will good. And hence, inasmuch as God moves the human mind to this act, we speak of operating grace. But there is another, exterior act; and since it is commanded by the will, as was shown above (q. 17, a. 9) the operation of this act is attributed to the will. And because God assists us in this act, both by strengthening our will interiorly so as to attain to the act, and by granting outwardly the capability of operating, it is with respect to this that we speak of cooperating grace. Hence after the aforesaid words Augustine subjoins: ”He operates that we may will; and when we will, He cooperates that we may perfect.” And thus if grace is taken for God’s gratuitous motion whereby He moves us to meritorious good, it is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating grace.[12]

The operative and cooperative distinction also applies to sanctifying grace.

The distinction between operative and cooperative grace can also be applied to sanctifying grace. The first infusion of sanctifying grace at the moment of justification would be called operative grace, and that same grace, insofar as it is the habitual principle of works of charity, would then be called cooperative grace. St. Thomas explains this in the same article:

But if grace is taken for the habitual gift, then again there is a double effect of grace, even as of every other form; the first of which is “being,” and the second, “operation”; thus the work of heat is to make its subject hot, and to give heat outwardly. And thus habitual grace, inasmuch as it heals and justifies the soul, or makes it pleasing to God, is called operating grace; but inasmuch as it is the principle of meritorious works, which spring from the free-will, it is called cooperating grace.[13]

And here is a somewhat provocative statement from Dr. Lawerence Feingold that will be helpful to keep in mind as we explore some more of the basics of the theology of grace. This is the idea that Semipelagians and Lutherans each denied a different aspect of the opperative/cooperative grace distinction in our salvation.

As will be seen below, the doctrine of operative and cooperative grace eliminates the opposing errors of Semipelagianism and Lutheranism. Semipelagianism in effect denies the necessity of operative grace. Lutheranism denies the possibility of cooperative grace.[14]

Grace of Perseverance

Though it is well beyond the scope of this brief survey of the theology of grace, it is worth mentioning that the final grace we recieve is the grace of perseverance. This is the grace that keeps us faithful to God’s gifts we receive in justification unto death. The Church has always recognized that staying in God’s grace and keeping the faith unto the end of our life is also a mysterious gift of God, as can be seen here in the Council of Trent:

Chapter 13. The gift of perseverance

The same is to be said of the gift of perseverance [can. 16], about which it is written, “He who has persevered to the end will be saved” [Mt 10, 22; 24,13]. This gift can be had only from Him who has the power to determine that he who does stand shall stand with perseverance [Rom 14, 4], and who can lift up him who falls. Let no one feel assured of this gift with an absolute certitude, although all ought to have most secure hope in the help of God. For unless men are unfaithful to his grace, God will bring the good work to perfection, just as he began it, working both the will and the performance [Phil 2, 13; can. 22]. Yet, let them who think they stand take heed lest they fall [1 Cor 10, 12], and let them work out their salvation with fear and trembling [Phil 2,12], in labors, in sleepless nights, in almsgiving, in prayers and offerings, in fastings, and in chastity [2 Cor 6, 3 ff]. Knowing that they are reborn unto the hope of glory [1 Pet 1,3] and not yet unto glory itself, they should be in dread about the battle they must wage with the flesh, the world, and the devil. For in this battle they cannot be the victors unless, with God’s grace, they obey the Apostle who says: “We are debtors, not to the flesh, that we should live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live” [Rom 8,12 f].[15]

The Seed of Glory

As I stated at the beginning, this excurses on the theology of grace will be mainly looking at sanctifying grace, and its implications for the Christian life. Sanctifying grace is best thought of as the seed of glory that God plants inside of us, and blossoms over the course of our lives as we move toward full union with God. This is such a key teaching for understanding what we are called to as Christians, and yet, it is quite oftened misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

I think a big reason for misunderstanding in this area is because of its connection to the different views of slavation among Christians and the divisions these different views have caused. I hope that in time, this very teaching on grace will be what helps to heal these rifts and bring us all back together in one unified mystical body of Christ.

Common points missing in a Protestant understanding of Catholic Soteriology and its relation to sanctifying grace

Before we move further, I also think it may be helpful to frame this discussion around a few important concepts that I have found to be common misunderstandings from Protestants of Catholic soteriology. As we shall see, it is impossible to separate this discussion of grace from its soteriological connections for I believe sanctifying grace is the very core of the Gospel itself. Here are a few points to keep in mind, then, as we move forward:

  • The key to unlock Catholic thought on the relationship between faith, works, and salvation is Augustine’s teaching that cardiac righteousness (infused sanctifying grace/justifying grace) is both a gift from God and an activity of the person recieving the gift.
  • Filial adoption into God’s family (being engrafted into Christ – John 15) is the broad picture of what it means to be justified. The effects of this adoption is receiving sanctifying grace and the Trinity inside of us (along with other specific spiritual gifts).
  • The telos (purpose) of justification is God divinizing us (theosis) so that we can one day be in full beatitude with him (1 John 3:1–3, 2 Peter 1:3–4, 2 Corinthians 3:17–18, etc.). This union is above our nature and requires God’s incarnation and grace to elevate us to desire and achieve this union with Him.
  • Works are not the way into God’s family and His New Covenant (filial adoption), but they flow from adoption and are indeed required to maintain the covenant and our state of grace. Works are done freely through cooperation with God’s grace (we have a “graced will” post justification). Without grace, this would be impossible (John 15:5)
  • We are able to fulfill the law in this supernatural state of grace. (Ez. 36:25–27, Rom 5:5, Gal. 5:14, John 13:34, St. Augustine of Hippo, On the Spirit and the Letter)

Setting the stage for the discussion of Romans 4

Romans 4 (ESV)

1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, tour forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but unot before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say?“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

Likewise, here are a few important ideas that will be helpful to keep in mind as we also look at Romans 4.

First, Romans 4 is a key text because it shows the completely gratuitous nature of justification. Many Protestants think that the beginning verses of Romans 4, in fact, show that Catholics teach something contrary to the Gospel, implying they teach a form of works righteousness and deny the gratuitous nature of justification or that it only comes through faith.

6 This article concerning justification by faith (as the Apology says) is the chief article in the entire Christian doctrine, without which no poor conscience can have any firm consolation, or can truly know the riches of the grace of Christ…And concerning this article especially Paul says that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. Therefore, in this article he urges with so much zeal and earnestness the particulas exclusivas, that is, the words whereby the works of men are excluded (namely, without Law, without works, by grace [freely], Rom. 3:28; 4:5; Eph. 2:8–9), in order to indicate how highly necessary it is that in this article, aside from [the presentation of] the pure doctrine, the antithesis, that is, all contrary dogmas, be stated separately, exposed, and rejected by this means.

9 Concerning the righteousness of faith before God we believe, teach, and confess unanimously, in accordance with the comprehensive summary of our faith and confession presented above, that poor sinful man is justified before God, that is, absolved and declared free and exempt from all his sins, and from the sentence of well-deserved condemnation, and adopted into sonship and heirship of eternal life, without any merit or worth of our own, also without any preceding, present, or any subsequent works, out of pure grace, because of the sole merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone, whose obedience is reckoned to us for righteousness.[16]

Here we see Phillip Melanchthon explicitly state that Lutherans believe Catholics teach they can be saved by the Law (i.e. doing good works/works righteousness). We shall in time see this couldn’t be further from the truth and is a great overreaction on the part of the early Lutherans to errors that had crept into some people’s teaching within the Catholic Church.

7 Of these two parts [The Law or the Gospel] the adversaries select the Law, because human reason naturally understands, in some way, the Law (for it has the same judgment divinely written in the mind); [the natural law agrees with the law of Moses, or the Ten Commandments] and by the Law they seek the remission of sins and justification.[17]

And here, Martin Luther also claims that the Catholic Church teaches a false Gospel, one that is a justification by works. Agian, we shall see that Luther’s charge is simply off base and he is actually teaching things about the nature of the Law and the relationship of works to justification that goes against the whole history of the Church.

The false apostles preached a conditional gospel. So do the papists. They admit that faith is the foundation of salvation. But they add the conditional clause that faith can save only when it is furnished with good works. This is wrong. The true Gospel declares that good works are the embellishment of faith, but that faith itself is the gift and work of God in our hearts. Faith is able to justify, because it apprehends Christ, the Redeemer.[18]

Whoever teaches that good works are indispensable unto salvation, that to gain heaven a person must suffer afflictions and follow the example of Christ and of the saints, is a minister of the Law, of sin, wrath, and of death, for the conscience knows how impossible it is for a person to fulfill the Law.[19]

The core difference in the Lutheran understanding of justification is faith receives Christ’s very own righteousness imputed to us as an alien righteousness in justification. In the Lutheran view, God simply regards us as righteous because we have a blanket of Christ’s righteousness, but God does not actually make us fully righteous at the time of our justification. We shall see that Catholics teach we don’t receive Christ’s very own righteousness, but rather God infuses a righteousness (sanctifying grace) in us at justification on account of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, making us interiorly righteous and empowering us to keep is law.  For Lutherans, justification is primarily external and for Catholics it is primarily internal.

In the Lutheran view, there is room for some talk of internal change through sanctification, and even the beginnings of an ontological change through the mystical union with Christ, but it is not complete and the stain of original sin remains although it is completely forgiven (simul iustus et peccator). Lutherans think a full sanctification will only happen after we die and enter heaven.

11 This faith is a gift of God, by which we truly learn to know Christ, our Redeemer, in the Word of the Gospel, and trust in Him, that for the sake of His obedience alone we have the forgiveness of sins by grace, are regarded as godly and righteous by God the father, and are eternally saved.

12 Therefore it is considered and understood to be the same thing when Paul says that we are justified by faith, Rom. 3:28, or that faith is counted to us for righteousness, Rom. 4:5, and when he says that we are made righteous by the obedience of One, Rom. 5:19, or that by the righteousness of One justification of faith came to all men, Rom. 5:18.

13 For faith justifies, not for this cause and reason that it is so good a work and so fair a virtue, but because it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel; for this must be applied and appropriated to us by faith, if we are to be justified thereby.

14 Therefore the righteousness which is imputed to faith or to the believer out of pure grace is the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Christ, since He has made satisfaction for us to the Law, and paid for [expiated] our sins.[20]

As we move forward, we shall probe this conflict between the Catholic view and the Lutheran view more and see it all revolves around if justification includes sanctifying grace as the seed of glory aiding us on our journey to union with God or not. We shall also see how pivotal Romans 4 is for the imputed righteousness view and I think it will become apparent that Catholics can actually affirm Romans 4 completely and do not actually teach a form of “works righteousness” or that we are justified by the law. Catholics can actually affirm most everything that Lutherans say above, with again, the main difference coming over the kind and location of what this justifying righteousness is. Here are a few helpful ideas to keep in mind, then, as we continue to look at these pivotal verses from Romans in depth.

What does “works” or “Works of the Law” mean?

This is an often debated topic as to what St. Paul means when he says “works” in Rom. 4:4–5, and more specifically, “works of the law” as in Rom. 3:28. The question comes down to does St. Paul mean to include the complete moral law by this phrase or is he just saying the old cerimonial laws of the Mosaic covenant (such as circumcision) no longer apply to enter God’s family and be saved?

First off, like St. Peter said, St. Paul’s writings aren’t always as clear and systematic as we would like (2 Peter 3:16 ) and can be used to draw out many different contradictory conclusions.

Secondly, I hesitate to rule out the fact that Paul is talking specifically about ceremonial laws, circumcision in particular, because it seems to fit the text and many of Paul’s ideas (like in Galatians) so well. Be that as it may, I think it is standard Catholic teaching that affirms St. Paul clearly teaches that the full moral law does not bring any of us into the adoption into God’s family and his New Covenant (cf. Eph. 2:8–9). I hope to now show why Catholicism so often takes a both/and view of scriptures and why both of these views seem to be valid choices here.

Two Keys to the Catholic View of Romans 4

I think there are two main ideas that help with the Catholic response to Romans 4. I hope to flesh these ideas out a bit more to show that the charges of works righteousness against Catholics is not warranted.

1. No works can merit adoption into God’s New Covenant; this is true for initial justification or any return to faith from a state of mortal sin – faith is always the root of everything and our receiving justifying grace.

Some Protestants point out that St. Paul is definitely arguing that there are none righteousness before God of their own abilities. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Also, that we are all without excuse before God and condemned by having broken the universal and eternal Law of God (Rom. 1:20, Rom. 3:9).

Catholic teaching recognizes the universality of the problem of sin before all men and our inability to get right with God of our own natural powers too. This is certainly an important and key aspect of our state of nature before justification and St. Paul is certainly emphasizing this condition of man in sin. From what I can tell, Catholic theologians have consistently throughout history maintained that there are no works done before justification that can earn our way into God’s New Covenant. In other words, there are no works done before God freely justifies us through His gift of faith that earn us initial justification which is receiving forgiveness for our past sins and cleansing us of this state of original sin.

2. Paul is frequently speaking of the law in the context of an outward circumcision versus an inward circumcision of the heart.

Many Protestants also make the case that St. Paul is not speaking at all about ceremonial works of law when he is coming to his conclusions in Rom. 3:28 and Romans 4:1–5.

87 In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul discusses this topic especially, and declares that, when we believe that God, for Christ’s sake, is reconciled to us, we are justified freely by faith. And this proposition, which contains the statement of the entire discussion [the principal matter of all Epistles, yea, of the entire Scriptures], he maintains in the third chapter: We conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law, Rom. 3:28. Here the adversaries interpret that this refers to Levitical ceremonies [not to other virtuous works]. But Paul speaks not only of the ceremonies, but of the whole Law.[21]

I am not sure that this conclusion follows from everything in Romans 1–3, though. Paul is also speaking a lot about the difference between Jews and Gentiles in Romans and how it isn’t circumcision as an outward appearance that justifies us, but it is rather an inward circumcision of the heart that is the key to being counted as one of God’s family in the New Covenant.

Romans 3:29 (ESV)

29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Also, even with Catholics teaching that the formal cause of justification is the infused justifying grace of God (sanctifying grace), I don’t think this necessarily leads to the conclusion that Catholics teach our justice before God depends on deeds of the law. This is because this justifying grace that makes us righteous isn’t ours; it is a free gift from God not given based on anything in us or that we have done other than that we have faith (which is also a grace from God) and have a repentant heart.

It seems to me that we have the exact same conditions as Lutherans in play when it comes to initial justification, we each just place the justifying righteousness in different places, disagree about the nature of the grace slightly (is it Jesus’ very own righteousness or a separate righteousness still from God but not God’s own), and if this is a complete cleansing of sin or if some part of our sinful nature remains. I see no reason that the conclusion has to follow that this internal righteousness (sanctifying grace) has to depend on works of the law; we shall see in the coming sections that Catholics explicitly teach that it does not.

I hope to explore in the coming posts the idea a bit, then, that Paul is trying to covey the notion that what people often thought the Old Testament taught as ways of entering into God’s Covenant – faithfulness to external acts of righteousness (e.g. circumcision) – is not how God intended things. God meant for it be an inner righteousness wrought solely through faith (circumcision of the heart) which is available to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. This is the heart of the very gospel; God became man so that we may become gods (St. Athanasius, St. Aquinas, et al.) through the gift of His sanctifying grace. We are called to the path to union with God! This also is an important aspect of Paul’s argument in Romans which we will now turn to in the coming posts.

Next up, we will look at one specific concept for explaining what sanctifying grace is and why we need it, and this is the the concept of cardiac righteousness.

2 Peter 1:3–4 (ESV)

3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to[a] his own glory and excellence,[b] 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

Blog End


  1. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Three Ways of the Spiritual Life.  ↩
  2. Pohle, J., & Preuss, A. (1919). Grace, actual and habitual: A dogmatic treatise(3rd, Revised Edition ed.). Toronto: W. E. Blake & Son, Limited.Toronto, Canada. p. 9  ↩
  3. ibid. p. 9  ↩
  4. Pohle, J. (1909). Actual Grace. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved August 2, 2021 from New Advent:  ↩
  5. ibid.  ↩
  6. Dr. Feingold – The Mystery of Israel and the Church Fall 2011 – Series 9 Man Elevated to Share in the Divine Life. Talk #6: : Actual Grace and Our Cooperation  ↩
  7. Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. History and Theology of Grace Chapter IV Sanctifying Grace  ↩
  8. Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 254  ↩
  9. Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 255  ↩
  10. Dr. Feingold – The Mystery of Israel and the Church Fall 2011 – Series 9 Man Elevated to Share in the Divine Life. Talk #6: : Actual Grace and Our Cooperation  ↩
  11. ibid.  ↩
  12. ibid.  ↩
  13. ibid.  ↩
  14. ibid.  ↩
  15. Council of Trent. Session VI.  ↩
  16. Formula of Concord. Solid Declaration. III.  ↩
  17. Apology of the Augsburg Confession. IV.  ↩
  18. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians; The Martin Luther Collection: 15 Classic Works (p. 222). Waxkeep Publishing.  ↩
  19. ibid. p. 236  ↩
  20. ibid.  ↩
  21. ibid.  ↩

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Fullness of the Truth Pt. 7: Bibliography

Fullness of the Truth Pt. 7: Bibliography

Link to the entire series of posts Works Cited/Suggested Resources How the Natural Law Lead Me to the Catholic Church An introduction to ethics: A natural law approach by B. Besong. Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide, Edward Feser The Last Superstition, Edward Feser Five...

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