Justification, grace, works and perseverance

Despite the words of St. James (the guy who wrote a book of the Bible), Protestants have a habit of opposing “justification” and “works”. Consequently, one will not infrequently end up hearing some well-intentioned person accuse the Catholic of needing to add works to their justification for salvation.

Now, the first thing to be noted is that there is no absolute necessity to “add works” to our justification to be saved. Witness the baptized baby who subsequently and tragically dies. The baby will *certainly* go to heaven, while not having performed any works.

However, for the adult, it is true that the person needs to perform good works to get to heaven. To perform “bad works” would be to risk mortal sin, and endanger one’s salvation (which, it must be remembered, can always be repented until the last breath is breathed). Therefore, good works help us maintain a state of grace, and thus help us to reach heaven. In performing these good works, we are further justified and sanctified, not only preserving the grace that we have been *given*, but also increasing it, making us more holy and more ready to enjoy the life of heaven.

All good and well.

What I have been pondering, however, is how to speak of these realities to Protestants, while circumventing their justification-works false dichotomy. Maybe the term to emphasize is “perseverance”. After all, many Protestants believe that God gives the gift of perseverance to those who are born again. Similarly, Catholics also believe that perseverance is a *gift*, as the Council of Trent makes clear. However, how is that gift worked out in the life of the believer? Obviously, he who perseveres, by God’s grace, is he who continues to adhere to Christ and his Holy Will throughout the ups and downs of life. Granted, all of us are subject to concupiscence, and all of us fall short of this will from moment to moment (though some more than others). And yet, he who perseveres is he who is seeking to do God’s will throughout his life. Does this not entail good works? Is the outworking of the gift of perseverance not the doing of good works, by God’s grace, throughout the Christian life?

So instead of telling the Protestant that we need to add good works to our justification to be saved, maybe the better tact is to say that perseverance needs to be added to our justification to be saved. Perseverance is a gift. And yet its outworking entails good works.

This does not solve all the problems, though. After all, the type of Protestant I am thinking of would assume that the gift of perseverance is automatically given to all who are born again. Thus, to them, to be given justification is to be given perseverance. Whereas to the Catholic (with St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas), this is not necessarily so. Catholics would interpret the Bible differently on this point. Thus all who are justified in baptism will not necessarily be given the gift of perseverance.

So we have managed to eliminate the need to freak the Protestant out by mentioning the “W” word, but we have also struck at what I think is one of the unbridgeable chasms between some forms of Protestantism and Catholicism: the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, or once-saved-always-saved. I say “some forms” because some Protestants believe that salvation can be lost. For those Protestants, the chasm would seem to be bridgeable, at least on this point.

Predestination can work its way into this whole discussion very easily, though I am generally trying to avoid it. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas would make the distinction between “predestination to justice” (or some such) and “predestination to glory” (or some such). Thus, those who are predestined to glory will definitely be saved (see Romans 8:29-30). So, it could be argued that some who are justified in baptism will definitely persevere and be saved. But the fact that it is only “some” means that we cannot know with certainty who these are.

This inevitably draws the accusation that we Catholics must lead such tormented lives, never knowing *infallibly* whether we are saved or not. The short answer to that is, “well, no, not really.” The long version will be the subject of another bloated, long-winded, and utterly boring post.


~ by Rob on May 17, 2007.

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