“God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us,” according to St. Augustine (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1847).

This quotation from Augustine has been used by the Catholic Church to express the fact that salvation demands consent because God never forces himself on someone against his will. This fact relates to the whole problem of justification, which is an effect of sanctifying grace in the soul of the Christian. Another way of putting this is that by grace God works in us.

“Faith Alone”?

Catholics are often accused of teaching justification by human works. This is a Pelagian position. Pelagius maintained that grace only allowed a person to do more easily what he could do by his own power. He reduced original sin to bad example. Martin Luther reacted against what he thought the position of the Church was on this subject by making reference to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. St. Paul maintains, in a famous text used by Luther, “Man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28, RSV). Protestants generally maintain that when the word “concupiscence” is used in Scripture, it is what is usually termed actual sin. In other words, what for Catholics is a tendency to sin is the act of sin, which is inescapable. As a result, justified man is still totally depraved as far as his works are concerned and God only considered him just or righteous. In the margin next to the text from Romans 3 he refers to, Luther added “sola,” or “faith alone.” From the context evident in Romans 3, it is clear that Paul is speaking of things such as circumcision, and not good works, which do not cause grace but result from grace received. So faith must be completed by charity to be truly a virtue.

Light can be shed on this problem if one first defines what is meant by justification or righteousness. First, it has nothing to do with the virtue of justice. Justification refers rather to what Aristotle called “metaphorical justice.” It is not about human works, but about the human soul and the interior order in its powers. The virtue of justice is in the will and has to do with a disposition to give rights to others. Justification refers to a rightness of order within the person himself. It is not a disposition, but an ordering of the intellect, the will and the emotions within themselves, because they are ordered toward the true ultimate end of man. In this inner ordering or righteousness, the emotions are subject to the intellect and will, and the intellect and will are subject to God. Adam was created in this state before the sin. For everyone after the sin, justification involves a change not just from being without justice but from being in a state contrary to righteousness. Man, after sin, suffers from concupiscence, which means that he has lost inner ordering, and hence all his powers go their own way. He experiences darkness in the intellect, rebelliousness in the will and does not really enjoy being virtuous in the emotions.

A Movement

Justification is a movement from the state of sinfulness involving forgiveness of sins to a state of being in grace. Justification thus includes two conditions in the time after the original sin: (1) the forgiveness of sins and (2) the divine indwelling of the Trinity, without which there could be no forgiveness of sins. This is what conversion means.

“The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. ‘Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man’” (Catechism, No. 1989).

Justification cannot just be an overlooking of sin on the part of the offended party, as Luther tended to suggest. It must truly involve the presence of habitual or sanctifying grace in the soul. Sin is an offense against God, and sin can only truly be forgiven when the mind of the offended party has been reconciled with the offender, or when we are at peace with God. God can only be at peace with us because of our natural capacity for Him when His love creates a new form in us, which is union with His own divine nature. This peace with God is sanctifying grace. Forgiveness of sins must be the presence of the divine form of God’s own life in us. “[God] gave himself to us though his Spirit. By the participation of the Spirit, we become communicants in the divine nature. . . . For this reason, those in whom the Spirit dwells are divinized” (Catechism, No. 1988).

In a person who has attained the age of reason, there must be a movement of free choice to experience justification and the presence of grace. John 6:45 says, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” Learning entails an act of free choice, because in order to learn one must consent to what the teacher is explaining. The movement of free choice would not be necessary for someone who did not have the possibility of freely choosing, such as infants and the insane. They can be justified by baptism. Their catechesis and consent occur after they have reached the age of reason and are to a justification already experienced.

Justification is a movement of free choice, which is twofold: the renunciation of sin and the movement of faith to God. There are four aspects of this movement of free choice: (1) the infusion of grace from God the mover; (2) the movement of free choice to God from the one moved; (3) the movement of free choice rejecting sin, which is also moved by God; and (4) the forgiveness of sins itself, which is the termination of the movement of justification. This can be seen in the questions asked at baptism:

Do you reject Satan?
And all his works?
And all his empty promises?
Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

A Moral Change

Since God is an infinite agent who brings about justification, He does not depend on a long preparation. As in all natural changes, there is a gradual change from one condition to another. This can be the case with justification.


The apostles had three years of instruction from Christ; St. Augustine had about 30. But God does not have to bring about such a change over time. He can bring it about in an instant as is witnessed in the most famous conversion in the history of the Church, the conversion of St. Paul. This is a moral change and God is not limited by the lack of malleability of the matter, in this case the free choice of the soul. He can dispose it to choose for Him in an instant.

From the point of view of the manner of working, the greatest work of God is creation, because God brings something into existence from nothing. But creation is completed in the categories of time. Justification consists in God raising a created soul to the categories and experience of eternity. Justification finishes in the nature of God himself. For this reason, one justified soul from the point of view of the work itself is greater than the whole created universe put together. “The good of grace in one is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas.

No One Merits Justification

Justification is miraculous if one looks at it from the point of view of human power to bring it about. The Pelagians taught that man could merit justification by his own power. All grace did was allow man to do what he could have done by his own power but in an easier way. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is no active power in man by which he can attain grace. Every work, which can be done by God alone, is miraculous in this sense.

Sometimes the manner in which justification is carried out is beyond the customary order and, in that sense, is miraculous. An analogy would be when a sick man recovers his health instantaneously completely beyond the skill of art or nature. St. Paul’s justification was like this, but not the other apostles.

But for something to be completely miraculous there can be no passive potential in the nature of the thing for the particular action. For example, there is no power in asses to prophesy, or in the wind and the sea to be calmed by the word of a man, or a body to rise from the dead by the work of a man. Yet, Balaam’s ass prophesied and Jesus calmed the wind and sea by His word and raised the dead. This is not the case with grace. There is a natural capacity in man for God and therefore for grace because of the presence of the intellect. “The soul is naturally capable of grace,” taught Thomas Aquinas.

“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” said St. Augustine.

The one thing which must be crystal clear is that no one merits justification by works. Man can prepare himself to receive the justification of grace by allowing God to move his free will, but this is not a human motion in origin. It is only a human motion in effect. The primary cause is God.

St. Thomas Aquinas and Justification

Justification taken passively implies a movement towards justice, as heating implies a movement towards heat. But since justice, by its nature, implies a certain rectitude of order, it may be taken in two ways: first, inasmuch as it implies a right order in man’s act, and thus justice is placed amongst the virtues — either as particular justice, which directs a man’s acts by regulating them in relation to his fellowman — or as legal justice, which directs a man’s acts by regulating them in their relation to the common good of society.…

Secondly, justice is so-called inasmuch as it implies a certain rectitude of order in the interior disposition of a man, in so far as what is highest in man is subject to God, and the inferior powers of the soul are subject to the superior, i.e. to the reason; and this disposition the Philosopher calls “justice metaphorically speaking” (“Ethic.” v, 11). Now this justice may be in man in two ways: first, by simple generation, which is from privation to form; and thus justification may belong even to such as are not in sin, when they receive this justice from God, as Adam is said to have received original justice. Secondly, this justice may be brought about in man by a movement from one contrary to the other, and thus justification implies a transmutation from the state of injustice to the aforesaid state of justice. And it is thus we are now speaking of the justification of the ungodly, according to the Apostle (Rom 4:5): “But to him that worketh not, yet believeth in Him that justifieth the ungodly,” etc. And because movement is named after its term “whereto” rather than from its term “whence,” the transmutation whereby anyone is changed by the remission of sins from the state of ungodliness to the state of justice, borrows its name from its term “whereto,” and is called “justification of the ungodly.”

— Summa Theologiae, Question 113 (“Of the Effects of Grace”)