Christian TraditionsRoman CatholicSalvationTheology & Spirituality

Justification in Catholicism, Part III

This is the third and final post in my series on Catholicism and Justification. The first two parts can be found here and here.

Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, we find a similar commitment to a Catholic view of justification. One such example is found in his phrase, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything” (Galatians 5:6, 6:15, 1 Corinthians 7:9). I will look at all incidents of this phrase in Paul’s writing. It is, of course, a rebuke to the Judaizers’ belief that circumcision, and more generally the Mosaic Law, is efficacious and necessary for justification. Paul uses this phrase to reject the Judaizers’ beliefs, and then assert the truth of our justification before God. Therefore, if the Protestant view is correct, then that phrase should be followed by a defense of faith alone.

However, Paul writes instead that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” in Galatians 5:6. Faith is not judged solely by itself when it comes to God’s justification. Instead, faith is judged with the love it works through. This should bring to mind James’ discussion of justification and works of charity, which we went through earlier. Faith is, as the brother of Christ says, “completed by works” (James 2:22).

Similarly, Paul writes a chapter later that “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). In the same way that the previous passage undermines Sola Fide, this passage rebukes the Calvinist distinction between regeneration and justification. The inward renewal of the Christian is not separate from God’s turn from wrath to love; it is synonymous with it. The new creation within us is what justifies us, not circumcision. We are freed from the Law, not because of penal substitution, but because “the law is binding on a person only during his life” (Romans 7:1); we “have died to the law through the body of Christ” (Romans 7:4).

How is this possible? Paul explains a chapter earlier in Romans, when he asks, “do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). This is why Christ not only died, but was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). The newness of life, or new creation, that justifies us was accomplished through the Resurrection. If penal substitution was true, we need only to have had Christ die on our behalf. But so that we would be reborn to life, He rose again.

Baptism is a portal to another state, free from the curse of the Law. That is why Paul describes our legal debt as canceled, not paid, before God: “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14).

This is why Paul equates justification, inward regeneration, and baptism in 1 Corinthians 6:11 “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” From the Protestant perspective, these three items cannot be synonymous. However, alternative interpretations seem to fail. After all, the listing cannot be chronological—from the Calvinist paradigm, justification and sanctification precede the washing in baptism. Neither can it be meaningless; Paul clearly means to communicate something by repeating these three items. The simplest explanation, it seems, is the Catholic one: the three are different aspects of the same theological occurrence.

This leads us to the final incident of Paul’s phrase, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision.” It occurs for a third time in the first epistle to the Corinthian church. There, Paul writes that “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19). This passage seems almost contradictory to us if we were to interpret works of the Law as identical to works of charity (see a fuller discussion of the difference here). However, here Paul contrasts the two, pointing to one as ineffectual and the other as efficacious.

Faith is important to justification for many reasons. It leads us to, and is embodied in, baptism. In fact, after every major Pauline treatise on faith he concludes by speaking about baptism, whether it be Galatians 3, Romans 6, or Colossians 2. It is important because, as Paul notes in Hebrews, without knowing that God exists, it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11). It is important because trust is at the heart of the covenant of salvation we make with God. However, the Bible never says that faith is important because it results in immediately imputed alien righteousness that pays for all our sins, past present and future. The Bible speaks often about faith, but imputed justification is not one of the reasons Scripture cites for the importance of belief.

Having discussed my birds-eye view of the two systems as wholes here and here, I will not again sketch out my understanding of Protestant and Catholic soteriology. I will allow any interested readers to examine what I have already said. However, I would like to re-use two short paragraphs I wrote shortly after my conversion to conclude this series. Both are posted here. The first reads as follows:

“In order to defend Protestant theology, I was forced to adopt very loose exegetical techniques when interpreting many passages that link salvation to baptism (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, Acts 22:16, Mark 16:16, Romans 6:3-4, John 3:5, Galatians 3:27, Colossians 2:12, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Titus 3:5), confession (1 John 1:9, James 5:16), works (James 2:20-24, Romans 2), love (Galatians 5:6), and the Eucharist (John 6). Frankly, I was relieved when I finally realized that passages linking faith to justification in no way exclude a literal interpretation of these verses.”

I might add to this list with the benefit of more knowledge (and hindsight), but I still hold to the same thought process. Scripture links much more than merely faith to salvation, to say that the Bible supports Sola Fide seems to require an elimination of much of the Scriptural testimony on the matter.

While works contribute to our justification, this does not mean that Catholicism views salvation as “works-based,” contra the claims of some Protestant apologists. This brings me to the second paragraph I would like to re-use from the essay quoted earlier:

“Although Protestants often charge Catholics as preaching a works-based salvation, this is a misunderstanding. Catholics see salvation as almost a state of being. That state of being is a full and complete union with Christ. In a sense, heaven is solely the perfect presence of God in one’s life. To put it another way, heaven is the final fruit of sanctification. We are “conformed into the image of the Son” (Romans 8:29); we are “partakers of the divine essence” (2 Peter 1:4); we actually “become His righteousness” (2 Corinthians 5:21). It is true that this occurs through the sacraments and good works. But these things are merely another way of saying that we enter heaven by partaking in God. After all, baptism is being united with Christ’s death (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12), and communion is a participation in His body and blood (1 Corinthians 10:16). Good works are both an expression of the God that is love (1 John 4:8) and acts of love towards Christ himself (Matthew 25:40). Therefore, salvation is ultimately about a relationship with Christ.”

In the midst of nuanced theological debate, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture. The truth is that salvation is nothing less than the Church’s mystical marriage to Christ; in other words, it is a relationship with God. May we never lose sight of that truth.


Featured image found here.

Christian McGuire

Christian McGuire

Christian was raised in an evangelical, Calvinist family with a deep love for Christ. However, his conversations with members of other Christian traditions gradually led him to question some of his preconceptions. After six years of research into Scripture, Church History, miracles, and philosophy, he was confirmed into the Catholic Church. His favorite Christian thinkers include G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, and Saint Augustine, his confirmation saint.

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