Saturday, March 13, 2010
I’m confident that many of us have come across the phrase “once saved always saved” in dialogue with our non-Catholic Christian friends. Behind this denominational mantra is the belief that justification is a one-time event. As a Protestant or Evangelical, justification is by faith alone. This faith is a recognition and belief of who Jesus Christ is as both God and redeemer. Once the seeker acknowledges personal sinfulness and the necessity of Jesus Christ for salvation, one is saved. This happens at a particular moment in time, which is the answer to the common question, “When were you saved/born again?” The Christian rests on the “assurance” of his/her salvation in this particular moment in life. It is this one proclamation of faith that justifies the individual forever requiring no need to speak of a present or future justification/salvation. The Christian was saved on such-and-such day and this one moment irrevocably carries him/her till death where heaven becomes the reward of that particular day of surrender. For those individuals who initially claim faith in Jesus Christ while later on defecting, the non-Catholic Christian is said to never have had faith (i.e. “saving faith”) to begin with so he/she was never actually saved. After all, once one is saved, that salvation is forever according to non-Catholic Christian theology.
As Catholics, we believe something different. Justification is not a one-time event but a process. Viewing justification as a process flows from the belief that while faith is indispensable (and the foundation) for justification, faith is never alone as it must be accompanied by charity/good works. From personal experience, it is evident that while faith may happen instantaneously, a life defined by good works takes a lifetime to achieve. In other words, while both Catholics and non-Catholics believe good works flow from faith, Catholics make evident in their theology that such works do not flow automatically. Since good works, while associated with faith, do not infallibly flow from faith, God takes them into account regarding justification along with faith. Thus, justification is a process. I was originally justified as an infant through baptism, I am currently being justified now through grace, and I hope to be justified at the end of my life.
The New Testament’s reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham expresses the truth of the Catholic Church’s position on justification. Both Catholics and non-Catholics alike look to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans for the identification of Abraham’s moment of justification in the eyes of God. The thrust of St. Paul’s argument in chapter four of Romans is in the recalling of God’s act of justification toward Abraham which happens in Genesis 15 before Abraham is circumcised, thus showing the lack of necessity of circumcision for salvation. While this passage alone does nothing to either support or deny both the Catholic and non-Catholic position, two other reflections from the New Testament Canon quickly turn the theological tide toward the Catholic understanding.
The Letter of James appears to provide a different part of Abraham’s life for God’s moment of justification. According to the author of this letter, Abraham is justified not in Genesis 15, but rather Genesis 22 when Abraham remained obedient to God by offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God (cf. Jms. 2.21). It was Abraham’s “work” that justified him at this particular moment. Many non-Catholics will explain this passage away by saying that the author was not saying Abraham was actually “justified” but rather “vindicated” since the Greek word can have that connotation at times. Abraham simply confirmed the reality of his past justification by his obedience to God even to the point of offering his only son as a sacrifice. While such an explanation is possible, context shows that it is in no way possible for this particular passage. Three verses later the inspired writer compares Abraham’s justification to another historical character’s moment of justification. Apparently, in the same way Abraham was justified Rahab was also justified (cf. Jms 2.25)! This leaves no room for Abraham’s justification in Genesis 22 to be anything other than pure justification. Rahab was a prostitute who helped Israel spy on the military in Jericho without being caught, and through her assistance God justified/saved her (cf. Josh 2.1-21). Thus, we have two accounts of Abraham being justified by God. The Protestant/Evangelical position has already become untenable through the lens of Scripture.
If these examples were not enough, the author of Hebrews also weighs in on the moment Abraham was justified and it is neither Genesis 15 nor 22 but rather chapter 12 (cf. Heb. 11.8). We read that it was “by faith” that Abraham initially obeyed God when he was called out of his comfortable living environment to set out for a land some mysterious God had promised him. Anyone with an ounce of understanding of Abraham’s circumstances must agree with the author of Hebrews that Abraham was justified at this moment. If a faith resulting in leaving family, friends, employment, and security for an unknown territory that had been promised by a then unknown God could not lead to justification then many of us who have left significantly less for God in Whom we know much more about is in eternal trouble!
The idea of justification being a one-time event is foreign to Scripture and so it is foreign to the Catholic faith. In the same way Abraham was justified, we too are justified. Justification is a life long “yes” to God by which we surrender with grace not only our minds but everything we are and do, and we will be held responsible for what we do and say. This is precisely why St. Paul calls us to stand firm in our faith (cf. Php. 4.2) and why the author of Hebrews exhorts us not to throw away our confidence (cf. Heb. 10.35). Justification is not a one-time event so it can also be lost during the process. Next time we will explore how this process informs the material of justification. If it is a process as Scripture proclaims then it means that justification results in an actual change in the person which the Catholic Church calls “infused righteousness.” Until then, May God be Praised!