Wednesday, July 1, 2009

St. Thomas on Justification - Grace Justifies Perfectly

Aquinas denied that grace was available through the sacraments of the Old Law. Contrasting them with the sacraments of the New Law, he writes:

It is written (Galatians 4:9): "Turn you again to the weak and needy elements?" i.e. "to the Law," says the gloss, "which is called weak, because it does not justify perfectly." But grace justifies perfectly. Therefore the sacraments of the old Law did not confer grace. [ST III, Q62, A6; emphasis added]

For purposes of the present series on justification, the relevant portion is that grace justifies perfectly. Now if grace justifies perfectly, then there is no aspect of our justification which must be perfected by anything that we might do. Consequently we see once again that we are saved not by works (as some falsely allege) but rather by grace.

But back to the article in question. Responding to an objection that at least circumcision was a means of grace, St. Thomas replies:

There have been many opinions about Circumcision. For, according to some, Circumcision conferred no grace, but only remitted sin. But this is impossible; because man is not justified from sin save by grace, according to Romans 3:24: "Being justified freely by His grace."

Wherefore others said that by Circumcision grace is conferred, as to the privative effects of sin, but not as to its positive effects. But this also appears to be false, because by Circumcision, children received the faculty of obtaining glory, which is the ultimate positive effect of grace. Moreover, as regards the order of the formal cause, positive effects are naturally prior to privative effects, though according to the order of the material cause, the reverse is the case: for a form does not exclude privation save by informing the subject.

Hence others say that Circumcision conferred grace also as regards a certain positive effect, i.e. by making man worthy of eternal life, but not so as to repress concupiscence which makes man prone to sin. And so at one time it seemed to me. But if the matter be considered carefully, this too appears to be untrue; because the very least grace is sufficient to resist any degree of concupiscence, and to merit eternal life.

And therefore it seems better to say that Circumcision was a sign of justifying faith: wherefore the Apostle says (Romans 4:11) that Abraham "received the sign of Circumcision, a seal of the justice of faith." Consequently grace was conferred in Circumcision in so far as it was a sign of Christ's future Passion, as will be made clear further on (70, 4). [ibid., ad 3; emphasis added]

Here we see (in the highlighted portion) that Aquinas emphatically denies any possibility that we are justified by anything other than grace. This being the case, it's clear that it's flatly untrue to claim (as some do) that Catholics believe in a "works-based" gospel. We don't. We are saved by grace alone.

4 comments:

Ludovicus said...

I wonder if it would be better to say that we are justified by faith alone, but that to be saved, considered as attaining heaven, works are required in a certain sense.

Couldn't we say works are required insofar as God gives us the grace to do good and meritorious works and he bestows further grace upon us as a reward for these works.

Thus, while men are justified by grace alone, nevertheless, grace taken less properly can include meritorious works, for which God wills to bestow further graces on us.

Thus, we can really say works have a real role in man's path to salvation. We have to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling."

God bless,
Ludovicus

Reginald de Piperno said...

I wonder if it would be better to say that we are justified by faith alone, but that to be saved, considered as attaining heaven, works are required in a certain sense.

Hello Ludovicus,

I'm not sure I understand the question, so before I try and engage, I'd like to seek clarification.

In the post I said "we are saved by grace alone." Are you suggesting that my statement would be better phrased as "we are justified by faith alone," or did you mean to mean to distinguish being "justified by grace alone" from being "saved by grace alone"?

Does my question make sense?

Thanks,

RdP

Ludovicus said...

"In the post I said "we are saved by grace alone." Are you suggesting that my statement would be better phrased as "we are justified by faith alone," or did you mean to mean to distinguish being "justified by grace alone" from being "saved by grace alone"?

The former, since at least if grace is taken as the totality of the good that God prepares for man, man's own good works are included in this grace. Hence, we are saved "by grace alone," provided that grace here includes meritorious good works.

If we speak about the formal cause of justification, this is faith alone. Works precisely insofar as they are such, cannot justify. However, if they are motivated by grace, they can have a role in both justification and salvation, insofar as they can be somehow causes of these.

Thus, perhaps God ordains it that the works of a missionary are a real opportunity for faith in those whom he converts, even though the faith itself only comes directly from God moving the heart.

I guess I am just trying to say that we have to make sure not to fall into the attitude of some Protestants that since St. Paul says that man is justified by faith and not by works, works simply speaking have no relevance to our salvation.

Maybe once you finish your posts on justification you could do some posts on the relevance of works to salvation. I would be interested in that. :)

God bless,
Ludovicus

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello Ludovicus,

I wound up with the deliberate choice of saying that we are saved by grace alone because of two things - first, Aquinas says that justification is instantaneous (ST I-II Q113 A7; discussed here), and second because he says that grace justifies perfectly (ST III Q62 A6; discussed here). It seems as though he means to distinguish between what happens in Baptism (i.e, justification properly speaking) and what we must do afterwards, and so it seems reasonable to say that we are saved by grace alone.

Of course, the fact that an act of free will is required - moving toward God and away from sin, as discussed here - means that complete passivity on our part is just not part of the picture: we must act, precisely because we are human beings. Further, I agree of course that in our lives following Baptism our works are critical to our salvation. So I'm certainly not disagreeing with you there.

I hadn't previously considered a series related to what Aquinas has to say about the proper place of our obedience in our salvation, but I will think about it :-) At the moment I have two other series forthcoming after this, relating what Trent and the CCC say about justification to what St. Thomas says. I've heard some folks suggest that Aquinas didn't necessarily follow the Church's teaching on this subject, and I'd like to dispel this false rumor as well. :-)

I guess I am just trying to say that we have to make sure not to fall into the attitude of some Protestants that since St. Paul says that man is justified by faith and not by works, works simply speaking have no relevance to our salvation.

I have made every effort to try to say no more than what St. Thomas says, which is principally why I have emphasized justification by grace rather than by faith (unless demanded by something that he has said). But as I said at the outset of this series, I'm not a real Aquinas scholar. It is entirely possible I might have missed something, so by all means feel free to point it out if you think this has happened. You're probably right. :-)

Peace,

RdP