In today’s first reading, the epistle to the Galatians, the apostles makes clear that justification does come by works of the law: “For all who depend on works of the law are under a curse.” The Church has, from its earliest times, condemned “works salvation” as I mentioned in my reflection earlier this week pointing to the Pelagian heresy. That heresy held that, while not very likely, man possesses the ability apart from God’s grace to gain salvation. To believe that premise would make one a full-on Pelegian. Many in the Reformed and Protestant traditions would suggest that Catholics are semi-Pelegians.
That Catholics believe, or at least operate out of the idea, that while faith is necessary, one must absolutely do works of charity in order to be justified before God. The reformed rejoinder cry is “by faith alone.” And so enter the apologists for the age old debate about being saved. The reformed apologist shakes the bones of St. Paul for the better argument of faith alone. The Catholic apologist shakes the bones of St. James to counter that faith without works is dead.
St. Paul makes clear that his most intrinsic message is about being justified before God. Which is an interesting phrase: “before God” because I would suggest that a better phrase would be “justified by God.”
Our justification comes from the grace of God. Full stop. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive [children], partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. One receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church. (CCC 1996-97)
Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent. (CCC 1993). How great is this? St. Augustine wrote that “the justification of the wicked is a greater work than the creation of heaven and earth,” because “heaven and earth will pass away but the salvation and justification of the elect . . . will not pass away.” (CCC 1994)
Justification is the greatest gift of God to the world. It is the most radical, unmerited gift of God to the world. But God will not justify us without us. We respond unevenly to that gift in living out a demonstrable life of faith as we respond to God in love and worship. Living out a demonstrable life of works of charity because it is a response to grace, the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Maybe some Catholics are semi-Pelagians. Maybe some people are semi-married. They profess their love for their spouse, but never live it out in action. Or perhaps some live it out in action, but never profess their love. The aspiration in marriage is to love in profession and action. The aspiration of each Christian is to live, believe and act in the fullness of God’s grace.