By: Joel McMichael
Let’s talk about soteriology. Now “soteriology” is not a word you would hear at the dining room table, in the barber’s chair, and maybe not even from the ambo at Mass. However, we all have an idea about soteriology. Soteriology comes from the Greek word sōtēria which means “salvation.” This is suddenly more familiar to the Christian mind. This discipline analyses doctrines of salvation, and is an area of consideration that is very important to the Church—the Mystical Body of our Savior Jesus Christ.
However, understanding how we are saved is both an incredibly important concept to have a grasp on and a lofty set of propositions that stump even the greatest minds. I believe it is critical for every Catholic to have at least some understanding of what the moving parts are in the act of salvation, especially living in such a Protestant area as East Texas. While almost all Protestants rightly understand that our salvation is found in Christ Jesus, they are almost universally in error on how we unite to the salvation of Christ, starting with how we are justified. Unfortunately, many Catholics have taken on some of these false notions about salvation—about grace, justification, merit, perseverance in faith, and the four last things (which you can read more about here). In this article, I want to specifically look at justification.
What is justification? It is the act of God that “detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin” (CCC 1990) and it is “the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ” (CCC 1991). The Council of Trent, responding to the Protestant movement, lays out a definition of justification: Justification is “the transition from the state in which man is born as the son of the first Adam to the state of grace and adoption as sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior” (Ott, 269). Simply put, Justification is the eradication of sin and the renewal of the inner man.
Justification is the technical starting point of the process of sanctification (from the Latin sanctificare, to make holy). However, the Holy Spirit is active in the life of a believer before justification occurs, offering grace to bring about conversion. In this, “man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high” (CCC 1989). This conversion leads a man to accept faith. Faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, is not simply a “faith-trust”; belief in God’s divine mercy, promises, works, etc. Faith is a theological virtue received at baptism. Justification of an adult is not possible without faith, but further acts of disposition are required also.
The idea that someone could “add to the work of Christ” might make some uncomfortable, seeing that as a diminishing of the Cross. To be clear, justification is “merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross” and is not an action of man, but an action of Jesus “whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men” (CCC 1992). The gospel, however, demands change of every man. The cross demands conformity to the one who hung on it. Man, therefore, must cooperate with this grace poured out on the cross. It is a matter of faith (de fide) proclaimed by the Council of Trent and seen in the witness of Sacred Scripture that man has to cooperate with this grace and provide further acts in union with the work of Christ in order to be justified. Ludwig Ott, in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, outlines these, which include: hope in the mercy of God, fear of divine justice, beginning of the love of God, hatred of sin, and purpose to receive baptism (Ott, 273). These dispositions lead to the justification found in theological faith.
There is no question that prior to receiving grace and being justified, a man will need to make commitments to certain ideas about the faith. Mental and spiritual preparation that come before justification are in part man’s own action but they are most especially the act of the grace of the Holy Spirit. This “preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace,” thus God is always the first actor in salvation (CCC 2001). The Holy Spirit starts man on his journey to justification through his grace, and then crowns him with justification in baptism.
The cooperation of man with God’s grace is a free act, as “the soul only enters freely into the communion of love” (CCC 2002). In the same way that a man has to accept grace freely prior to being justified, man can freely choose to reject grace after he is justified. Every time we sin, we are rejecting this grace; rejecting God’s love and putting ourselves first. Therefore this state of grace is not just lost by unbelief, but by each mortal sin committed by a person. This is contrary to what the Reformers taught, who mostly held a view that a man’s grip on salvation could not be lost. This is not grounded well in Scripture, nor is it grounded in reason—considering, speculatively, human freedom (which implies that a man can sin), and considering that mortal sin is the turning away from God toward something else, which is completely opposed to sanctifying grace (Ott, 283).
Soteriology—remember that fun word?—goes much further than just justification. The whole of the Christian life is a process of salvation in which we cooperate with God’s grace in which we should “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1b). In the discussion of salvation, we can also talk about merit, about distinctions of sanctifying and actual grace, and much more. The scope of this article is limited to justification: the starting point. It is fitting that we as Catholics start with this discussion in a world that has all sorts of wrong ideas about how a person is justified by God. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit, who justified us and is “the master of the interior life,” will continue to draw our minds toward the truths of God’s beautiful, infinite grace.