Friday, April 23, 2010

Justifying The Doctrine of Justification: Part III of VI

One of the most striking differences between Catholics and Protestants regarding the doctrine of justification is over the terms “imputed” and “infused” righteousness. The Protestant is adamant in believing that righteousness/justification is something foreign to the individual, something other than the believer. In other words, the believer never becomes righteous but rather receives Christ’s righteousness. This is why they call it “imputed” righteousness. Martin Luther gave a rather crude but effective illustration by comparing the sinner to a dung-heap. When the sinner repents, he or she remains a dung-heap through-and-through but what distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian is that the believer has a white coat of snow over them. This white coat of snow represents Christ’s righteousness that “cloaks” the sinner.

Catholics, on the other hand, take a different theological approach to justification. Continuing Luther’s illustration, the Catholic doctrine can be likened to the sinner being a heap of pure snow that has been covered by a layer of dung. Sin has compromised his or her original innocence but has not annihilated it. The act of justification is the act of Christ’s merits slowly removing the dung from the snow, making the indivdual pure white again. Thus, we see here that justification becomes more of an “infused” righteousness as the very act transforms who we are as a person, albeit over time.

If you have been following my previous columns on justification, you will immediately notice that this interpretation fits seamlessly with Scripture’s teaching on justification as a process.This does not mean that during this process we are only half-justified. Through baptism we are fully justified. However, sin inevitably creeps into the picture which threatens our relationship with God (like any relationship). We must continually surrender to the power of the cross through repentance whereby we receive the grace to become who we were created to be: partakers of the divine nature (cf. 2 Ptr. 1.4).

Another way to perceive the fundamental difference between Catholic and Protestant theology regarding justification is by likening the Protestant conception of justification to a law-court scene and to likening the Catholic conception of justification to a family-room scene. For the Protestant, being righteous means standing before the divine law-court and to be declared free from all crime. For the Catholic, being righteous means to be adopted into the divine family of God and to live a life that is in accord with such dignity which is only done through grace. One view perceives God as the gracious Judge while the other perceives God as the loving Father.While admitting this is an over-simplification, the analogy still retains its overall distinctive accuracy.

One of the main reasons why Protestants rebel against any notion of infused righteousness is that they believe it diminishes the efficacy of grace by making good works necessary for salvation along with grace. This is simply an error in thinking. While good works are necessary for salvation (i.e. becoming righteous), such good works are grounded in grace for we can do nothing good outside of this grace. I will discuss more about the relationship between faith and works in grace in my next column. For now, it is enough to see that the Protestant belief in imputed righteousness does not make sense of Scripture’s teaching on justification as a process, for an imputed righteousness has no room for process as it is instantaneous.

We must now turn briefly to St. Paul to provide evidence of infused righteousness. The best example comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Chapter five of the epistle focuses on contrasting the disobedience of Adam, leading to the condemnation of the world, to the obedience of Jesus which offered salvation to the world. Amidst this contrast, Paul speaks of the righteousness of God which is for all believers, but he does so in a somewhat puzzling way. In verse 18, the Apostle speaks of this righteousness as being the Christian’s acquittal from condemnation. At this moment, it appears as of the Protestant has the advantage as this is clearly law-court language. On the other hand, the very next verse appears to counter this particular notion by mentioning that what he means by this is that in the same way that all descendants of Adam were made sinners through Adam’s disobedience, all believers in Christ are in the same way made righteous through Christ’s obedience. Here we see the Catholic position come alive as Paul stresses the transformative power of God’s righteousness along with the declarative dimension of righteousness.

Confusion may abound for the reader at the moment as how could Paul advocate a declarative and a transformative righteousness at the same time? Are they not mutually exclusive realities? Either righteousness is imputed or infused but it cannot be both, right? For man, yes but for God, no. To see this we must turn to Isaiah 55:10-11. Isaiah is speaking to an Israel that believes God has forgotten His promises of the covenant. To that doubt, God says ““For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (italics mine). In other words, that which God speaks infallibly comes to completion. Thus, when God declares someone righteous that declaration will be made manifest in the person without remainder. This is why Paul can intermix both imputed and infused terminology because both result in the same end: a person who becomes righteous.

Once again, it is good to be Catholic! How thankful we should be for Christ’s fulfilled promises that His Church would never fall into error regarding the truths of Jesus Christ. My next column will address the relationship between faith and works in light of grace as expressed in the Gospels and the Pauline corpus. Until then, May God be Praised!