I have spent quite some time reviewing passages of Scripture that present problems for the Protestant doctrine of sola fide. More recently we took a look at what the Council of Trent had to say about the Catholic formulation of sola fide. I think it would be profitable to spend some time looking at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says on the subject of justification. I am choosing the CCC rather than some older source for one reason: readability. The doctrine hasn’t changed, but things are expressed in terms that are (hopefully for us) clearer to the modern reader. The section on justification is a bit lengthy, though, and in order to do it justice my plan, Lord willing, is to write several posts about it. There are different angles, I reckon, from which one could view what the CCC has to say on the topic. I suspect that if anything my comments will be largely apologetical in viewpoint, though I may broaden the scope from time to time too.
With that housekeeping out of the way, let’s take a look at §1987, where the CCC’s discussion of grace and justification begins. Right away we should observe that justification and grace are grouped together here. We saw before that the Council of Trent attributed our justification solely to grace; the connection is reaffirmed in the CCC.
The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism.
What has the power to justify us? Only one answer is given: “the grace of the Holy Spirit.” We do not, we cannot justify ourselves before God. Nothing we do or say or think or believe justifies us. God does it. God must do it, or it cannot be done at all: for starters, we are sinners and cannot reconcile ourselves to Him when we stand condemned. On top of that, no natural power is sufficient to attain to a supernatural goal. Our powers are suited to the natural world. They cannot and will never be sufficient to lift us above nature to God’s presence, which is obviously supernatural.
From an apologetics point of view the most obvious thing to note here is that there are many Protestants who have a mistaken notion of what the Church teaches about justification. Most of what they hear said is just that: hearsay. The presumption is made that the Catholic Church is legalistic because so-and-so said it, and he’s an expert…but far more often than not, our so-and-so expert has not actually read anything published by the Catholic Church; rather, he is only parroting what he heard someone else say. And so on. And so on. And so on. I can assure you that this was most certainly my experience as a Protestant, even at my conservative Presbyterian alma mater. Catholic views were critiqued in the courses I took as part of my biblical studies degree, but they were never actually examined from primary sources (like, for example, the CCC). The inevitable result was the perpetuation of mistakes and errors that are centuries old and which remain unquestioned throughout most corners of the Protestant world. I hope this series of posts will help to clear the air of all that smog, and contribute to our mutual pursuit of the truth.