Thursday, June 25, 2009

St. Thomas on Justification - Remission of Sins

St. Thomas tells us that "remission of sins is justification." Now the Protestant might jump at this and say that such a declaration shows us that Aquinas really believed something like "sola fide". But he would be mistaken.

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, as appears from Ethic. v, 1. [ST I-II, Q113, A1; emphasis added]

"Movement towards justice" doesn't imply the instantaneous thing the Protestant believes, in which he reduces justification to a mere judicial decree. No. It implies the acquisition of the thing, "as heating implies a movement towards heat."

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 (Romans 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." [ST, op. cit.]

This is not to say that there is no "instantaneous" aspect to justification at all. God's forgiveness is not a thing given progressively. But St. Thomas tells us that the movement towards justice (which is what justification means) is a movement towards "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."

It's clear from this explanation that St. Thomas is concerned not merely with a judicial condition, but rather with the question of whether the sinner becomes just.

Every sin, inasmuch as it implies the disorder of a mind not subject to God, may be called injustice, as being contrary to the aforesaid justice. [ibid., ad 1]

A judicial declaration is not the same as a removal of this disorder; it does not make the unjust to be holy, to be just. Obviously this doesn't mean that the declaration is irrelevant: far from it! But it does mean that we can't get by on that alone. God doesn't simply declare our sins to be forgiven; by his grace he moves us towards justice - towards actually being holy.

None of this happens because of human action. The Catholic Church does not teach a works-based salvation. God forgives our sins by his grace; God moves us to become just by his grace, and we cannot become just apart from his grace. Those who say that the Catholic Church teaches otherwise are badly misinformed.


Ludovicus said...

Here is a nice passage from St. Thomas's commentary on Galatians chapter 3 which I think nicely sums up the dispositions that are required on our part for justification.

"He says therefore: Truly, justice and the Holy Spirit come from faith, As it is written in Genesis (15:6) and mentioned again in Romans (4:3): Abraham believed God and it was reputed to him unto justice. Here it should be noted that justice consists in paying a debt. Now man is indebted to God and to himself and to his neighbor. But it is on account of God that he owes something to himself and his neighbor. Therefore the highest form of justice is to render to God what is God’s. For if you render to yourself or your neighbor what you owe and do not do this for the sake of God, you are more perverse than just, since you are putting your end in man. Now, whatever is in man is from God, namely, intellect and will and. the body itself, albeit according to a certain order; because the lower is ordained to the higher, and external things to internal, namely, to the good of the soul. Furthermore, the highest thing in man is his mind. Therefore the first element of justice in a man is that a man’s mind be subjected to God, and this is clone by faith: “Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

"Therefore in all things it must be said that God is the first principle in justice and that whosoever gives to God, namely, the greatest thing that lies in him by submitting the mind to Him, such a one is fully just: ‘Whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14). And hence he says, Abraham believed God, i.e., submitted his mind to God by faith: “Believe God, and he will recover thee: and direct thy way, and trust in him” (Sir 2:6); and further on (2:8): “ Ye that fear the Lord believe him,” and it was reputed to him unto justice, i.e., the act of faith and faith itself were for him, as for everyone else, the sufficient cause of justice. It is reputed to him unto justice by men exteriorly, but interiorly it is wrought by God, Who justifies them that have the faith. This he does by remitting their sins through charity working in them."

Obviously there is no question of a mere "judicial decree" here. There must be a real submission on the part of the man to God, in order to be justified. Further, man is unable without grace to make such a submission. Hence the first act is indeed on God's part, but it necessarily entails a real change on the man's part.

God bless,

Reginald de Piperno said...

Very interesting! Thanks!


Agellius said...

Good stuff, Reg. Thanks.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Thanks, Agellius.