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The Grace Image of Rome's Doctrine of Justification

Editors Comments: The New Testament writers, especially Paul, are so emphatic that salvation is by grace alone that it seems difficult to understand how a professedly Bible-believing Christian body could deny this cardinal doctrine of the New Testament (see Rom. 3:24,28; 4:5; 11:6; Gal. 2:16-21; Eph. 2:8-10; Titus 3:5-8).

The first notable and open challenge to basic biblical teaching on salvation and grace came from the Pelagian heresy, which began about A.D. 400. Pelagius was a British monk and a rigorously ascetical man. He denied that man was born in sin, insisted that his will was entirely free, and taught that by its exercise man was able to live a holy life. In the real Christian sense Pelagius denied the need of grace, for he overlooked the profound struggle between good and evil within man.

Augustine was a contemporary of Pelagius and the greatest of the Latin fathers of the Church. He vigorously opposed Pelagian views and set forth the doctrine of man's inborn sinful depravity and his need of divine grace for inner renewal and power for obedience.

The early councils of the Church condemned Pelagianism as heresy and placed their benediction on the theology of Augustine. The attitude of Roman Catholicism to Pelagianism is expressed as follows in the authoritative Catholic book,
The Life of Grace, by P. Gregory Stevens, O.S.B.


Excerpts from The Life of Grace,

by P. Gregory Stevens, O.S.B

In a number of fifth-century councils the Church consecrated various Augustinian formulas and statements, using them to express her own divine faith. The dependence of man on the transcendent divine causality, made real in the order of grace, is one of the things affirmed: "God works in man many good things which do not depend on man (which man himself does not produce), but man does nothing good which God does not give him the power to do." (D193; II Council of Orange, Can. 20, A.D. 529: taken from St. Augustine, Against Two Letters of Pelagius, IX, 21; PL44,586.) In this passage is affirmed the need on man's part of grace and divine assistance for all good works. Augustine did not clearly distinguish what we would call God's natural assistance, by which all beings in creation are maintained in existence and action, from his supernatural grace, by which men are enabled to do good works beyond the power and capability of nature. Yet in the context of the Pelagian controversy this text applies primarily to the need of genuine supernatural grace for good moral action. The council thus uses Augustine's words to affirm a fundamental element of Catholic teaching on the real need of grace.

The Council of Carthage condemns those (the Pelagians) who hold that grace "has the power only for the forgiveness of sins . . . and is not also an assistance to avoid sins in the future." (D103, Can. 3) This denies the Pelagian position that grace is only a forgiveness of sin granted after a wrong use of freedom; it likewise denies the Pelagian understanding of forgiveness as something merely external or juridical. The council goes on to affirm that grace is a gift and an aid in the effort to avoid sin. In its fourth canon the council condemns the purely external Pelagian understanding of grace. Convicted of error are those who would say "that God's grace through Jesus Christ our Lord helps us avoid sin solely because it gives us a clear knowledge... of... the commandments, but deny that through this grace there is given to us an ability and a love of doing what we know should be done." (D104; TCT528)

The view of the Pelagians that grace is merely something which makes easier the doing of what is good, "as if to say that if grace were not given, it would be, not indeed easy, but truly possible to obey God's commandments without grace" (D105; TCT529, Can. 5) is likewise declared to be false and heretical. Thus grace is not something merely pleasant and helpful. It is in fact demanded if man is to observe the commandments and lead a good life.

The "Catalogue of Errors," called in Latin Indiculus de Gratia Dei, was a collection of statements drawn up perhaps by St. Prosper of Aquitaine and then universally accepted as giving true Catholic teaching. The following brief extracts oppose the Pelagian doctrine:

"No one is capable of rising from the depths of this loss (in original sin) by his own free will, if the grace of the merciful God does not lift him up." (D130; TCT368) "Unless He alone who is good (God himself) grants a participation of himself, no one of himself is good." (D131; cf. TCT534.) This document then affirms the need of the daily help of grace for the living of the good life (D132; TCT535), and goes on to say: "All the efforts, and all the works and merits of the saints must be attributed to ... God, because no one can please God with anything that is not his own gift." (D134; TCT536) The whole matter is thus summarized: "God so works in the hearts of man and in free will that the holy thought, the religious purpose, and every movement of a good will are from God, because it is through him that we can do any good, and without him we can do nothing." (D135; cf. TCT537.)

The solemn voice of the Church here approves the intuitions of St. Augustine in condemning Pelagianism as a system which destroys the heart of the reality of divine grace. The Catholic, therefore, professes his dependence on the love and mercy of God, in virtue of which alone he is redeemed and given the real, internal help of grace to live a life pleasing to God. In his whole religious attitude the Catholic acknowledges that he is saved not by his own power, not through his "independent" free will and strength, but through the grace of Christ.

Thus in the fifth century did the Church through her councils and bishops, and through the profound religious mind of Augustine, reassert the basic truths taught in the New Testament. It is only in acknowledging by faith the truth of our own reality in relation to God that we become fully ourselves, and alive in the grace of God.


In opposition to some of Augustine's thought, but owing also in part to misunderstandings of some of his polemical positions, there were those in the fifth century who felt that man's freedom had been excessively limited by Augustine and that his doctrine on predestination removed all possibility of an initial, free cooperation of man with grace. To defend their view of these questions, the so-called semi-Pelagians, centered in monastic circles of southern France, thought it necessary to reserve at least the first step toward grace to man: to see in the initial conversion of man to the life of grace a movement wholly dependent on man's free will and natural goodness. Put another way, the position of semi-Pelagians denied the need of grace for the initial conversion of man's free will and natural goodness. In other words, the semi-Pelagians denied the need of grace for the initial conversion of man to God. There was error in the failure to recognize that the whole process of man's salvation from the moment of first conversion to that of final perseverance is the result of God's grace. Salvation is an entirely gratuitous gift which enables man to take even the first step toward God; it enables him thereafter to act well and to persevere in grace. It is this total need for grace which the Church reaffirmed on the occasion of the semi-Pelagian heresy.

The Church's Teaching

The position of the Church is found in the "Catalogue of Errors" (Indiculus) previously mentioned. Again the fundamental insights of St. Augustine are used to express the Catholic teaching:

We profess that God is the author of all good desires and deeds, of all efforts and virtues, with which from the beginning of faith man tends to God. And we do not doubt that his grace anticipates every one of man's merits, and that it is through him that we begin both the will and the performance of any good work. To be sure, free will is not destroyed by this help and strength from God, but it is freed; so that from darkness it is brought to light, from evil to good, from sickness to health, from ignorance to prudence. For such is God's goodness to men that he wills that his gifts be our merits, and that he will grant us an eternal reward for what he has given us. Indeed, God so acts in us that we both will and do what he wills. . . . And he acts in this manner so that we are cooperators with his grace. (D141; TCT542)

The Second Council of Orange (in southern France, A.D. 529) made particularly clear the Church's condemnation of the semi-Pelagians. The decisions of the council were approved by Pope Boniface II in A.D. 531. The council teaches that "even the desire to be cleansed (from sin) is accomplished through the infusion and the interior working of the Holy Spirit." (D177; TCT544, Can. 4) Furthermore, the first beginnings of conversion to God are the work of his grace, so that the "grace of faith is not found in the free will of all who desire to be baptized, but is conferred through the generosity of Christ." (D199; TCT548; cf. D178f; TCT545f.) The true doctrine is summarized thus:
    We also believe and profess for our salvation that in every good work it is not that we make a beginning and afterwards are helped through God's mercy, but rather, that without any previous good merits on our part, God himself first inspires us with faith in him and love of him so that we may faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism, and so that after baptism, with his help, we may be able to accomplish what is pleasing to him. (D200; TCT549)

Thus it is clearly Catholic teaching that God anticipates our good works by his grace, and that our union with him is the effect of his gifts to us. God does not destroy free will, but so gives his grace that we cooperate freely with it. In the thought of St. Augustine, we thus acquire true freedom: a delivery from the slavery of sin. Yet if man cooperates, and is never merely a dumb or passive tool of God's, he yet depends on God's grace for the entire work of salvation. The Church in the fifth century thus gave definitive expression to the reality of man's relationship of grateful dependence on the gratuitous love of God. — (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1963), pp.46-49.


Roman Catholic Teaching on Salvation by Grace

Editors Comments: Many are surprised to learn that Roman Catholicism has a teaching on justification by faith. The Church does not explicitly deny those New Testament passages which teach salvation by grace alone. Following are extracts from representative Catholic books:


A Doctrinal Catechism
by Stephen Keenan

Q. What is justification?
A. It is a grace which makes us friends of God.

Q. Can a sinner merit this justifying grace?
A. No, he cannot; because all the good works which the sinner performs whilst he is in a state of mortal sin, are dead works, which have no merit sufficient to justify.

Q. Is it an article of the Catholic faith, that the sinner, in mortal sin, cannot merit the grace of justification?
A. Yes; it is decreed in the seventh chapter of the sixth session of the Council of Trent, that neither faith, nor good works, preceding justification, can merit the grace of justification.

Q. How then is the sinner justified?
A. He is justified gratuitously by the pure mercy of God, not on account of his own or any human merit, but purely through the merits of Jesus Christ; for Jesus Christ is our only mediator of redemption, who alone, by his passion and death, has reconciled us to his Father.

Q. Why then do Protestants charge us with believing, that the sinner can merit the remission of his sins?
A. Their ignorance of the Catholic doctrine is the cause of this, as well as many other false charges. —pp.138, 139.


The Theology of Grace
by Jean Daujat

Certain people after hearing a sermon or reading a pious book have an idea that by grace is meant some sort of assistance which God gives us to facilitate our own efforts or complete the merits of our good actions. But since they do not know in what such assistance consists, or know only that it is something incomprehensible, they think vaguely that it is simpler not to concern themselves with it and that, on a last analysis, the surer means of saving their souls is to count upon themselves and the merits of their good deeds. So convinced are they that they can save themselves and gain eternal life through their virtuous lives, that they fall into the Pelagian heresy, which is explained later in this book, for many Christians are Pelagians without knowing it. . . .

Sinful man cannot, of himself, be pleasing to God. For that, he must receive a gift from God which transforms him interiorly, cleanses him and sanctifies him by adorning him with qualities that render him pleasing to his Creator.

Already, then, we see grace not only as a pure gift of God, which man does not deserve and cannot obtain by himself, but as something which, once given, completely changes him, by purifying him inwardly from sin, and rendering him good and holy. By his grace, God communicates to man the holiness of which he is himself the fountainhead.

This first analysis enables us to avoid the great heresies of which we shall treat later — Pelagianism, since grace is shown to be a pure gift of God, which man cannot of himself obtain or merit, and the Lutheran and Calvinist heresies, since through this grace man ceases to be a sinner and is made truly virtuous and holy. The Old Testament well says that grace is the gift of God: And I will give favour to this people,1 And the Lord will give favour2; And the Lord gave favour to the people.3 To Judith it was said: The God of our fathers give thee grace.4 But this grace or "favour" is really goodness and interior holiness. He that is good, shall draw grace from the Lord 5; the grace of God, and his mercy is with his saints.6 The most complete example in the Old Testament, although the actual word "grace" does not occur in it, is to be found in Ezekiel: "I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness, and I will cleanse you from all your idols. And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you."7

The fact remains that the exact and fundamental meaning of these Old Testament texts can be grasped only because the New Testament has taught us to understand the full significance of the word "grace." Prepared by the former, the full revelation of the reality belongs to the latter. The Gospel, in particular, uses the word to express the work of God in Jesus Christ, who is stated to be "full of grace",8 and as having the grace of God in him,9 and in Mary, who is greeted as "full of grace." Thus it is the sanctity of Jesus and Mary that is the work of God. But it is in the teaching of St. Paul that the word was used as a matter of course in the precise sense which came to be reserved for it in Catholic theology: that is, in the sense of a holiness which sinful man can neither have by any means of his own, nor merit by his works and his virtues, but which is given, or freely imparted to him, as a pure gift of God who, at the same time, both cleanses him and sanctifies him. For example, St. Paul tells us that we are "justified freely by his grace",10 and that we are "saved according to the election of grace, and if by grace it is not now by works: otherwise grace is no more grace".11 To the Corinthians, he writes: "By the grace of God I am what I am",12 and speaks to the Ephesians of "Christ, by whose grace you are saved... for by grace you are saved ... and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God".13 He reminds Timothy that "God has called us by his holy calling, not according to our own works, but according to his own purpose and grace".14 And again: "To every one of us is given grace, according to the measure of the giving of Christ."15 The same Apostle writes to Titus: "That being justified by his grace, we may be heirs according to the hope of life everlasting",16 and again to the Ephesians that God has "predestinated us unto the praise of the glory of his grace, in which he hath graced us in his beloved Son".17........

God the Author of Salvation and Sanctification

We have already quoted St. Paul's words to the Romans: The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom we have received.18 Charity is the life of Christ present in us by the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus who, dwelling in us through the gift of the Holy Spirit, loves God perfectly in us through the Holy Spirit by whom we are animated and moved. So St. Teresa of Lisieux could write: "When I am charitable, it is only our Lord acting in me." Of ourselves, we are incapable of a single movement of love, unless it comes to us by the grace of Christ abiding in us by the Holy Spirit.

So supernatural life is made real in us through acts inspired by charity, which are truly one act in which we love God with the perfect love wherewith he loves himself: in which, therefore, his whole divine life is communicated to us. But we perform these acts, of which we are incapable by ourselves, only through the action of grace moving us interiorly. By ourselves, we are capable only of natural or human good works, which are of no value for attaining the true object of our life which is life eternal. Our Lord has taught us: "Nobody can come to me without being attracted towards me by the Father",19 that is, without the grace by which the Father adopts us in Jesus Christ as his children. Without that life of Christ engendered in us by the Father we cannot bear any supernatural fruit. Our Lord tells us again: "The branch that does not live on in the vine can yield no fruit of itself; no more can you; if you do not live on in me. I am the vine, you are its branches. If a man lives on in me, and I in him, then he will yield abundant fruit; separated from me, you have no power to do anything." That is why on the third Sunday after Pentecost, the Church prays: "O God, . . . without whom is nothing strong, nothing holy."

St. Teresa of Avila has written: "Without grace nothing is possible to us, for of ourselves we cannot think one good thought." The Council of Trent has proclaimed definitively: "As the head over the members and the vine over the branches, Christ Jesus continually exercises his influence upon souls that are justified, and this influence always precedes and accompanies their good acts. Without it, these works can in no way be pleasing to God or meritorious." The same Council condemns as heretical "to say that a man may be rendered just before God by means of the works accomplished, whether by means of his natural and human capabilities, or by keeping the commandments, and without the grace of Christ"; and "to say that without the forestalling action of the Holy Spirit and his help, man can believe, hope, love or repent in the manner that is necessary if he is to obtain grace."

From these quotations it is clear that there exists no merit anterior to grace, of which man would be capable by himself, and by means of which he would obtain grace. A grace that we could deserve and obtain by ourselves would be ours by right, and so would not be a pure gift and therefore not grace.

Of ourselves, we have not, and cannot have, merit, virtue or holiness. It is Jesus Christ, living in us, substituting his life of grace for our natural, sinful life, who is our merit and our sanctity. We are capable of meritorious and holy living only in the measure in which we have renounced the sinful, natural life inherited from Adam, our desires and impulses that are purely sensuous, as also our own opinions and self-will, in order to live henceforth the "Christ-life" that must permeate everything in us. That is what is meant by "renouncing Satan, and all his pomps and works" at Baptism. — A Faith and Fact Book (London: Burns & Oates, 1959).

1 Exod. 3.21.
2 Exod. 11.3.
3 Exod. 12.36.
4 Judith 10.8.
5 Prov. 12.2.
6 Wisdom 4.15.
7 Ezekiel 36.25-6.
8 John 1.14.
9 Luke 2.40.
10 Rom. 3.24.
11 1b1.d. 11. 5-6.
12 1 Cor. 15. 10.
13 Ephes. 2.5-8.
14 2 Tim. 1.9.
15 Ephes. 4.7.
16 Titus 3. 7.
17 Ephes. 1.6.
18 Rom. 5.5.
19 John 6.44.


The Life Of Grace
by P. Gregory Stevens, 0.S.B.

St. Paul has summarized the plight of man without Christ and without grace in a single sentence: "For when we were in the flesh the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in our members so that they brought forth fruit unto death." (Rom 7, 5) Man without Christ is doomed to death because he is subject to and unable to control the sinful movements of the flesh, a principle of rebellion against God. In causing man to become more conscious of sin, the Law heightened his responsibility; but it gave no power to fulfill its own prescriptions. Even those Jews who, like the pharisees, took pride in their own ability to live out the Law are defeated by the Law, for grace comes only through Christ. Only through grace is man liberated from that bondage to Satan which leads to death. In his gracious mercy the Father has sent his Son to free man, to unite man with the living Trinity, to lead man to the plenitude of his destiny in the grace of Christ. (Ephesians 2 may be studied as a summary of this whole doctrine in Paul's own words and expression.) . . .

"For there is no distinction, as all have sinned and have need of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3, 22-24)

Paul is writing to oppose those Jews and Christians who saw justification as something to be accomplished by a person through his own good works. In this aberration, man was seen as bringing about grace as a reward or even as a salary from God for good deeds done. Paul vigorously opposes this religion of human self-sufficiency, denying, as we have seen, man's power to perform the good works of the Law, and constantly affirming that justification is a work of God bestowed on faithful men as a free divine gift. The Apostle strongly opposes a religion based on "boasting," on self-sufficiency before God. Such a religion is injurious to the divine goodness and is based on an unreal view of the human condition.

It is in this context that the example of Abraham is proposed. "What then shall we say that Abraham... acquired? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has reason to boast, but not before God. For what does Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as justice.' Now to him who works, the reward is not credited as a favor but as something due. But to him who does not work, but believes in him who justified the impious, his faith is credited to him as justice." (Rom 4, 1-5) Abraham was truly a just man before God. How had this come about? St. Paul describes two ways of receiving something: in the first, recompense is given for work accomplished; in the other a pure gift is bestowed. The justice of Abraham was a gift that was bestowed as really as a payment rendered for services, but was nevertheless in no way dependent on Abraham's merits or his work. Not even faith was a good work meriting grace: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not from yourselves, for it is the gift of God; not as the outcome of works, lest anyone may boast." [Eph 2, 8f] . . . .

From its genesis at the beginning of man's life to its consummation at the end, the work of man's salvation is inseparably the gratuitous gift of God and the free cooperation of man.