Justification Is Not the End of the Road

Part one of a series on “Falling from Grace.”

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665), by Rembrandt.

Lately the Lord has been putting it on my heart to begin a series on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Confession. But first there are a few prickly issues which, approaching the subject from a Protestant perspective, I felt I needed to address beforehand. Of most importance are significant differences in the Catholic and Protestant modes of thinking about sin and grace, which stem from fundamentally different understandings of the justification of sinners. The question in focus: Can a Christian fall from grace through sin?

This has been an exceedingly difficult post to write. In making a sincere effort to be fair to the diverse Protestant points of view, I’ve started this post over from the beginning several times. Trying to synthesize a single, coherent presentation of “the Protestant understanding” of justification is a lot like trying to eat an elephant whole. If I still miss the mark, please call me on it.

(This also proved to be quite long. So I think I will give it to you in three or four pieces.)

Justification: A Moment or a Process?

Perhaps the most basic, practical difference between the Catholic and Protestant modes of thinking about justification — the work of God’s grace by which we are exonerated of our sins and made to be righteous in His sight — is that in the Catholic way of thinking, justification is generally understood to be an ongoing, continuous process, while it seems to be a hallmark of Protestant theology that justification is a moment — a single, instantaneous, and total action.

This is the fruit — and the end — of two fundamentally different understandings of the mode of justification. The traditional, Augustinian, Catholic understanding is that justification is an infusion of God’s grace into the sinner’s soul, a pouring of God’s love into his heart (Romans 5:5) that obliterates sin and not only makes him right before God, but actually sanctifies him and makes him righteous. The Protestant view, beginning with the teachings of Luther and other early Protestant Reformers, conceives of justification as a purely forensic declaration by God as judge, declaring the sinner righteous in God’s court by an imputation of his sins to the sinless Christ and an imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness to the sinner — not actually, in this act, affecting the sinfulness of the believer, but merely covering his sins.

The Protestant view of Justification

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Because, in the Protestant view, God declares the sinner righteous in this once-and-for-all, forensic, judicial declaration, he is then held “not guilty,” in God’s judgment, of all his sins — in most conceptions, all the sins he has committed in his past life and even all he ever will commit in the future. In this idea of imputation, a “swap” or substitution is accomplished, an exchange of accounts: the sinner’s hopelessly bankrupt debt is cancelled, and Christ’s perfect and infinite righteousness is credited to him. Because of this credit, all the sinner’s eternal debts are paid: even if he sins in the future, no sin of his could compare or counter the payment Christ gave on the cross for the sins of all humanity. The sinner’s every sin, from then on, is covered by the blood of Christ.

So in the Protestant conception, the idea of “falling from grace” is nonsensical. For one thing, the notion of a “state of grace” — let alone falling from it — is not generally in the Protestant vocabulary. For another, because justification is understood as a once-and-for-all event, “justification” is often effectively equated with “salvation” — with the result that “falling from grace” sounds to Protestant ears as “losing one’s salvation.” This is not how Catholics understand it.

“Lumping” and “splitting”

What appears at first to be a stark contrast between the Catholic and Protestant views is ameliorated when one takes a broader view of the situation. I’ve written before about “lumpers and splitters” — Catholics having a tendency to lump concepts and terminology together and Protestants tending to split them. Here is another case of that. Even in the Protestant view, justification is only one step in a larger process, one of the initial steps. They split into a separate action the process of sanctification — by which God’s grace makes one actually holy. On the other hand, in the Catholic understanding, justification and sanctification are so closely related as to be part of the same action.

This is the source of much confusion. Many of the Protestant charges that Catholics believe in “justification by works,” I believe, stem from the fact that when Catholics speak of works being involved in justification, they usually are referring to what Protestants would call sanctification, the process of growing in grace and being made holy — which even many Protestants will admit does involve works of charity. Likewise, many Catholic apologists caricature the Protestant position on justification by claiming that it merely casts a cloak over a man’s wretched, festering, sinful state, and doesn’t actually effect a change in his soul or his holiness; but they often overlook that sanctification is a closely bound concept even for Protestants that follows necessarily upon a sincere conversion to Christ, and regeneration is another important event that does accomplish a real change in the soul through God’s grace.

Justification is not the end of the road

El Greco, Apostle St. Paul

Apostle St. Paul (c. 1612), by El Greco.

But what about “falling from grace”? How can one, in the Protestant view, conceive of such a thing? Well, it is important for the Protestant to realize that Catholics take a much broader view of salvation than many Protestants do. While in the minds of many Protestants, “salvation” is the moment when one accepts and converts to Christ — accomplishing (and this is a flattening or lumping) regeneration, justification, and conversion all at once — that is not the end of the road, even for Protestants. “Salvation” implies being saved from something; and while this initial regeneration and justification may have saved the sinner from his sins — even, in the Protestant conception, from the eternal consequences of them — there is still much to be saved from before the end: many sins, dangers, and temptations, and from death itself. The believer still must live the life ahead of him, yielding good fruit (Philippians 1:11, Colossians 1:10) and being sanctified (1 Thessalonians 4:1–8, Romans 6:22). Even Paul in the Scriptures speaks of having been saved not only in the past tense (e.g. Ephesians 2:8–10), but also in the present tense, how we are being saved even now (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 2:15), and we shall be saved, future tense, on the Day of Jesus Christ (e.g. Romans 5:9–10, 1 Corinthians 5:5, cf. 1 Peter 2:12); and this future tense is by far the most common mode of speaking of salvation in the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 24:13, Mark 13:13, Luke 13:23, John 6:54): “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13, etc.).

Next time: the Catholic view of Salvation as a Journey.

8 thoughts on “Justification Is Not the End of the Road

  1. “Trying to synthesize a single, coherent presentation of ‘the Protestant understanding’ of justification is a lot like trying to eat an elephant whole. If I still miss the mark, please call me on it.”

    That is is because there is no single, coherent presentation of ‘the Protestant understanding’ of justification. You are trying to build an argument on a nonexistent premise.

    • That was my point. Maybe it’s a pink elephant. 😀 I know there is no single, coherent “Protestant position.” My aim is to draw generalizations about the way most Protestants view it, and frame the Catholic understanding in similar terms. How did I do so far, from a Luther understanding?

      • I’m in the process of re-reading the Apology to the Augsburg Confession Article IV so I can give you the best answer I can (Melanchthon was not a brief writer!). I’ll let you know when I get all the of classical Lutheran thought together.

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  3. Have to agree with Pastor Ken here. The real problem is that I know some Protestants that hold a very Catholic view of Justification and Sanctification in Salvation. Hard to really get a clear winner on this issue.

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