The Second Reading for today (First Sunday of Lent, Year C) was taken from Rom 10:8-13:
“Scripture says: The word, that is the faith we proclaim, is very near to you, it is on your lips and in your heart. If your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, then you will be saved. By believing from the heart you are made righteous; by confessing with your lips you are saved. When Scripture says: those who believe in Him will have no cause for shame, it makes no distinction between Jew and Greek: all belong to the same Lord who is rich enough, however many ask for His help, for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
This passage of Scripture contains within it a doctrine that was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation – the doctrine of justification. The Catholic Church has always taught that justification is God making the sinner righteous; and that this takes place principally in the waters of baptism where all our sins are washed away and we are made new creatures in Christ by the grace of God.
In opposition to this, the Protestant Reformers began to teach that justification is not about God making a sinner righteous. “NO!” they said – justification is a legal transaction whereby God declares the condemned sinner (who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ) as righteous based solely on the merits of Christ.
In other words, according to the Reformers, the Christian was still naught but a vile and condemned sinner standing before God, his Divine Judge. But instead of God pronouncing rightful damnation upon him, He would see instead the blood of Christ applied by the sinner’s faith and declare the sinner as righteous. For them, the Christian remained incapable of any righteousness; but God would see not his filth but rather the righteousness of Christ which clothed him.
Furthermore, the Reformers went on to teach the separation of justification and sanctification. Justification, according to them, was the once-for-all transaction whereby the sinner was declared righteous; whereas sanctification was the ongoing process whereby the sinner progressively grows in righteousness (or is made righteous) – a process that would continue until the believer is completely conformed to the image of Christ and finally glorified in Heaven. This legal transaction (or justification) they say, took place on the Cross when Jesus took our sin upon Himself, and imputed His righteousness to us in place of our sin. As such, the believer remains a sinner...but a sinner covered by the blood of Christ. Or as Martin Luther put it: We are “snow-covered dung”.And since it was a once-for-all transaction, the person justified (or “declared righteous”) would remain justified forever [and so they also taught that true Christians could never “lose their salvation”]. In this way they claimed that the Catholic Church (by teaching that justification is God making the sinner righteous) actually confused justification and sanctification.
Now, this might seem like a nice, neat little system to follow; and it may seem at first glance to give more honour to Christ. But, upon further examination, it can be seen that it is flawed at its very core and that the Catholic position is most consistent with Sacred Scripture and with reason.Firstly, to declare that a sinner is righteous (i.e. "not a sinner") is like saying that a murderer is not a murderer; or that a thief is not a thief i.e. it is a lie at worst and a contradiction at best. We know that God cannot lie (Tit 1:2); neither can He deceive nor be deceived (CCC #156). So, He will never declare that something is what it isn’t i.e. He will never declare that a sinner is righteous (or “not a sinner”).
Secondly, the idea that justification is not making the sinner righteous, but only declaring him righteous, is unscriptural. In the passage cited for today’s Second Reading, we read:
“By believing from the heart you are made righteous” – Rom 10:11
“Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” – Rom 5:18-19 (NRSV)
On this note, I would add that the Reformed position is not completely wrong. There is nothing wrong with saying that justification is God’s declaration that we are righteous. However, it is not the contradictory legal declaration that the Reformers insisted on. Rather, according to the Catholic Church’s teaching, God’s declaration that we are righteous is based on truth. In other words, God declares that we are righteous, because He has already made us righteous. Not unlike the fact that St. John elsewhere tells us that “we are called the children of God; because that is what we are” (see 1 Jn 3:1).
Thirdly, justification and sanctification cannot be separated as neatly as the Protestant Reformers devised. Rather, what we see in Scripture is that justification and sanctification are often used interchangeably and, in essence, they deal with the same thing e.g.:
“...you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” – 1 Cor 6:11
Sadly, the Protestant Reformers, in their misguided zeal, got the doctrine of justification wrong. Whilst their intention was to give more honour and glory to Christ, what they actually achieved was a detraction of glory because their teaching on justification leads logically to the implication that God is a liar. And because of this, we should never cease to pray for our Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ, that God would allow the scales of “Catholic antagonism” to fall from their eyes and to see that the Holy Catholic Church has always been, and will always remain, the pillar and foundation of Truth – because she is nothing less than the Body of our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.