The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctive’s : Part 2 Justification

[This portion of the blog post The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctives is re-posted with permission of Dave Armstrong.  This material is also found in his book: The Church Fathers Were Catholic: Patristic Evidences for Catholicism]

II. History of the Doctrine of Justification

No theologian or Christian figure of any note believed in forensic, imputed justification until Luther and Calvin came onto the scene of Church history in the 16th century. It is simply implausible and incredible (and unbiblical: Matthew 16:18, John 14:26) to think that a theological concept considered so absolutely crucial by Protestants could have been lost immediately after the Apostles and for fifteen centuries thereafter. We have seen how Protestant notions of justification, absolute assurance of a salvation which can’t be lost, eradication of free will, double predestination, and so forth, are unbiblical. Now we shall establish that the unbroken Tradition of Catholic Christianity up until Luther’s time also bears witness to the above outlined view of soteriology.

In the late first century and early second, St. Clement of Rome speaks of “being justified by works and not by words,” (21) just as St. James does. Likewise, St. Ignatius of Antioch warns against “desertion” and describes works as “deposited withholdings” which will accumulate “back-pay.” (22) Thus, the concepts of merit and loss of salvation are delineated very early on.

In the second century, St. Justin Martyr refers to “the merit of each man’s actions,” upholds free will, (23) and directly denies imputed justification. (24) St. Theophilus (25) and St. Irenaeus (26) discuss merit and good works with regard to salvation, as does Tertullian, around 204 A.D. (27)

In the third century, St. Clement of Alexandria defines baptism as “a washing by which we are cleansed of sins,” (28) and denies “faith alone.” (29) Origen (30) and St. Cyprian (31) espouse good works and merit, and the latter expressly affirms baptismal regeneration. (32)

In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa writes, “Faith without works of justice is not sufficient for salvation.” (33) St. John Chrysostom makes the same denial of “faith alone” (34) and teaches infused justification: “He has not only delivered us from sins, but has made us lovable.” (35) St. Ambrose makes works (and merit) the scale upon which our eternal destiny will be weighed. (36) St. Jerome condemns “faith alone.” (37)

In the early fifth century, St. Augustine repudiates the Calvinist ideas of Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace: “He does not justify you without your willing it.” (38) He teaches an initial justification (39) which enables the Christian to perform meritorious good works, (40) in order to work out their salvation, as St. Paul taught. Around 421, he elaborated his view of infused justification:

Grace makes a man entirely new . . . it even renews a man perfectly, to the extent that it achieves his deliverance from absolutely all sins. (41)

And a few years before his death, he warned of the possible loss of one’s salvation:

If someone already regenerate and justified should, of his own will, relapse into his evil life, certainly that man cannot say: ‘I have not received’; because he lost the grace he received from God and by his own free choice went to evil. (42)

This utterly contradicts Calvinism’s Perseverance of the Saints as well as Irresistible Grace. St. Augustine was no Protestant, and most assuredly not a Calvinist!

The Second Council of Orange in 529 (43) condemned the heresies of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism (which St. Augustine had already done a century earlier). Pelagianism denied Original Sin and regarded grace as within man’s natural capacities. Semi-Pelagianism made man primarily responsible for his own salvation and denigrated the necessity of God’s enabling grace. The Council made many binding definitions of grace and salvation which may be quite surprising to many Protestants, who are wont to accuse the Catholic Church of the same heresies which it anathematized fourteen centuries ago. The Catholic Church fully agrees with Holy Scripture that faith, the subjective condition of justification, is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8 ff., John 6:66, Hebrews 12:12, Philippians 1:6, 1:29, 1 Corinthians 4:7). This was the emphasis of 2nd Orange. (44)

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) reiterated the decrees of a thousand years earlier, developing them further, and emphasizing man’s free will (in opposition to Protestantism) but adding nothing essential. Some of the more notable portions of the Decree on Justification (January 13, 1547) follow:

Chapter 5: . . . The beginning of the said justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God through Jesus Christ; that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they who by sins were alienated from God may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace to convert themselves to their own justification by freely assenting to and cooperating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, for as much as he is also able to reject it; yet he is not able, by his own free-will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight.

Canon I: If anyone saith that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema. (45)

Canon IV: If anyone saith that man’s free-will, moved and excited by God, by assenting to God exciting and calling, no wise cooperates towards disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of justification; that it cannot refuse its consent, if it would, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive; let him be anathema.

Canon VI: If anyone saith that it is not in man’s power to make his ways evil, but that the works that are evil God worketh as well as those that are good, not permissibly only, but properly and of Himself, in such wise that the treason of Judas is no less His own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let him be anathema.

Canon XI: If anyone saith that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.

Canon XXIV: If anyone saith that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

Canon XXVI: If anyone saith that the just ought not, for their good works done in God, to expect and hope for an eternal recompense from God, through His mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ, if so be that they persevere to the end in well-doing and in keeping the commandments; let him be anathema.

Canon XXVII: If anyone saith that there is no mortal sin but that of infidelity (unbelief); or that grace once received is not lost by any other sin, however grievous and enormous, save by that of infidelity; let him be anathema.

Canon XXX: If anyone saith that, after the grace of justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.

Martin Luther exhibited unorthodox tendencies as early as his Commentary on Romans (1516), where he wrote that even when we “do good, we sin, [bene operando peccamus in Latin] but Christ covers over what is wanting and does not impute it.” He denies merit and the existence of venial sin. For Luther, all sins, even the smallest, are mortal. He even goes so far as to say that those who determine that they are predestined to hell should resign themselves to their fate, since it is God’s will – this knowledge being a source of “ineffable joy.” Even Jesus Christ “offered Himself to the eternal Father to be consigned to eternal damnation for us.” Luther thus was at variance with the Catholic Church on soteriological and christological issues at least a year before he critiqued the doctrine of Indulgences, which is commonly considered his first departure-point. (46)

In the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, Luther stated: “God . . . graciously accepts our works and our life notwithstanding their complete worthlessness . . . All that a man does is the work of the devil, of sin, of darkness and foolishness.” (47)

Luther biographer Hartmann Grisar concludes:

It was only in 1518-1519 that he developed the doctrine of the so-called “special faith,” by which the individual assures himself of pardon and secures salvation. Thereby he transformed faith into trust, for what he termed fiducial faith partook more of the nature of a strong, artificially stimulated hope; it really amounted to an intense confidence that the merits of Christ obliterated every sin. (48)

The radical subjectivity and inadequacy of Luther’s views on “assurance” of salvation are evident in his revised Commentary on Galatians:

We must day by day struggle towards greater and greater certainty . . . Everyone should therefore accustom himself resolutely to the persuasion that he is in a state of grace . . . Should he feel a doubt, then let him exercise faith; he must beat down his doubts and acquire certainty . . . And even when we have fought very hard for this, it will still cost us much sweat . . . The matter of justification is difficult and delicate, not indeed in itself, for in itself it is as certain as can be, but in our regard; of this I have frequent experience. (49)

Therefore, Luther’s assurance of salvation amounts to the following: in order to possess assurance of salvation you must believe – despite doubts – that you have salvation. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this is reasoning in a vicious circle. (50)

Cardinal Newman critiqued Luther’s views on faith and assurance when he was still an Anglican:

A system of doctrine has risen up during the last three centuries, in which faith or spiritual-mindedness is contemplated and rested on as the end of religion instead of Christ . . . And in this way religion is made to consist in contemplating ourselves instead of Christ; not simply in looking to Christ, but in ascertaining that we look to Christ, not in His Divinity and Atonement, but in our conversion and our faith in those truths . . . What! is this the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and wherein we stand, the home of our own thoughts, the prison of our own sensations, the province of self? . . . No wonder that where the thought of self obscures the thought of God, prayer and praise languish, and only preaching flourishes . . . To look at Christ is to be justified by faith; to think of being justified by faith is to look from Christ and to fall from grace . . . [Luther] found Christians in bondage to their works and observances; he released them by his doctrine of faith; and he left them in bondage to their feelings . . . Whereas he preached against reliance on self, he introduced it in a more subtle shape; whereas he professed to make the written word all in all, he sacrificed it in its length and breadth to the doctrine which he had wrested from a few texts. (51)

FOOTNOTES (Justification)21. 1st Clement (to the Corinthians), 30:3, 31:2, 32:3-4, 33:1-2,7, 34:1-3. From Lightfoot, Joseph B. & J.R. Harmer, tr., The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., ed. & rev. by Michael W. Holmes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989 (1st ed. 1891), 45.
22. Letter to Polycarp, 6,2. From Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 26.
23. First Apology, 43. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 53.
24. Dialogue With Trypho the Jew, 141. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 62-63.
25. To Autolycus, 1,14.
26. Against Heresies, 4,37,7.
27. Repentance, 2,11j 6,4.
28. The Instructor of Children, 1,6,26,1-2. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 178.
29. Miscellanies (Stromateis), 6,14,108,4-5. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 184.
30. Commentaries on John, 19,6.
31. Works and Almsgiving, 14.
32. To Donatus, 4.
33. Homilies on Ecclesiastes, 8. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 46.
34. Homilies on the Gospel of John, 31,1.
35. Homilies on Ephesians, 1,3. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 120.
36. Letter to Constantius, a Bishop, 2,16; The Duties of the Clergy, 1,15,57.
37. Commentaries on Galatians, 2,3,11.
38. Sermons, 169,13. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 29.
39. Various Questions to Simplician, 1,2,2.
40. Ibid., 1,2,21.
41. Against Julian, Defender of Pelagianism, 6,13,40. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 146.
42. Admonition and Grace, 6,9. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 157.
43. The Second Council of Orange was not an ecumenical, or General Council, but is solemnly authoritative for all Catholics due to the confirmation of Pope Boniface II (Papal Bull: Per Filium Nostrum, January 25, 531).
44. Some of the more important decrees of the Second Council of Orange in 529:

Canon 3: If anyone says that the grace of God can be conferred in answer to man’s petition, but that the petition itself is not due to the action of grace, he contradicts the prophet Isaiah and the Apostle, who both say: ‘I was found by them that did not seek me, I appeared openly to them that ask not after me’ (Romans 10:20, Isaiah 15:1).

{In Bouyer, Louis, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, tr. A.V. Littledale, London: Harvill Press, 1956, 67}.Canon 4: If anyone contends that God waits for our will so we may be cleansed from sin – and does not admit that the very fact that we even will to be cleansed comes in us by the infusion and work of the Holy Spirit, he resists the same Holy Spirit. {In Most, William G., Catholic Apologetics Today, Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1986, 110}.

Canon 5: If anybody says that the . . . beginning of Faith and the Act of Faith itself . . . is in us naturally and not by a gift of grace that is by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he is opposed to Apostolic teaching. {In Ott, Ludwig, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. Patrick Lynch, Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974 {orig. 1952 in German}, 230}.

Canon 6: If anyone says that God has mercy on us when, without his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, work, watch, study, ask, seek, knock, and does not confess that we believe, will, and are enabled to do all this in the way we ought, by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us; or makes the help of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man, rather than ascribing such humility and obedience to the free gift of grace; he goes counter to the Apostle, who says, ‘What hast thou that thou hast not received?’ and ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’ (1 Corinthians 4:7 and 15:10). {Bouyer, 67-68}.

Canon 7: If anyone asserts that we can, by our natural powers, think as we ought, or choose any good pertaining to the salvation of eternal life, that is, consent to salvation or to the message of the Gospel, without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit . . . he is misled by a heretical spirit, not understanding what the voice of God says in the Gospel, ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5), nor the words of the Apostle, ‘Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God’ (2 Corinthians 3:5). {Bouyer, 68}.

Canon 9: As often as we do good God operates in us and with us, so that we may operate. {Ott, 229}.

Canon 13: Free will, weakened in the person of the first man, can be repaired only by the grace of Baptism . . . [cites Jn 8:36]. {Bouyer, 68}.

Canon 20: Man does no good except that which God brings about that man performs . . . {Ott, 229}.

Canon 25: In a word, to love God is a gift of God. He, yet unloved, loves us and gave us the power to love . . . Through the sin of the first man, the free will is so weakened and warped, that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought, or believe in God, or do good for the sake of God, unless moved, previously, by the grace of the divine mercy . . . In every good work that we do, it is not we who have the initiative, aided, subsequently, by the mercy of God, but that he begins by inspiring faith and love towards him, without any prior merit of ours. {Bouyer, 69}.

45. Anathema: A condemnation used by the Church to declare that a position or viewpoint is contrary to Catholic faith or doctrine, derived from Galatians 1:9. It means, literally, “let him be excommunicated,” or barred from the sacraments, not damned, as many mistakenly suppose.
46. Information derived from Hartmann Grisar, Luther, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 vols., London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917, vol. 1, 216-217,221-222,238-240; Grisar in turn cites Luther himself from the edition of Commentary on Romans by J. Ficker (Leipzig: 1908).
47. Grisar, ibid., vol. 1, 319.
48. Ibid., vol. 4, 432, 456-457.
49. Ibid., vol. 4, 437-443.
50. The Council of Trent, in its Decree on Justification (chapters 9, 12, 15), rejected Protestantism’s notion of subjective assurance of salvation:

But, although it is necessary to believe that sins neither are remitted, nor ever were remitted save gratuitously by the mercy of God for Christ’s sake, yet it is not to be said that sins are forgiven, or have been forgiven, to any one who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of sins, and rests on that alone; seeing that it may exist, yea does in our day exist, amongst heretics and schismatics; and with great vehemence is this vain confidence, and one alien from all godliness, preached up in opposition to the Catholic Church. But neither is this to be asserted, that they who are truly justified must needs, without any doubting whatever, settle within themselves that they are justified, and that no one is absolved from sins and justified but he that believes for certain that he is absolved and justified; and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone; as though whoso has not this belief doubts of the promises of God and of the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ. For even as no pious person ought to doubt of the mercy of God, of the merit of Christ, and of the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, even so each one, when he regards himself and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension touching his own grace; seeing that no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.No one, moreover, so long as he is in this mortal life, ought so far to presume as regards the secret mystery of divine predestination as to determine for certain that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate; as if it were true that he that is justified either cannot sin any more, or, if he do sin, that he ought to promise himself an assured repentance; for except by special revelation it cannot be known whom God hath chosen unto Himself.

. . . It is to be maintained that the received grace of justification is lost not only by infidelity, whereby even faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin whatever, though faith be not lost . . .

51. Newman, John Henry, Lectures on Justification, 1838, (Newman’s Works, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1881), 323-8,330,336-7,339-41.


About Rob Brock

A Catholic convert with a fire for discipleship, catechesis, and formation that leads to transformed lives in Christ. View all posts by Rob Brock

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