St. Thomas On Christ’s Grace and Justification — Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 22, 2011

Descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles on Pentecost - by TIZIANO Vecellio - from Santa Maria della Salute, Venice.


As he goes on to develop this account Aquinas observes that Christians receive justification by virtue of Christ’s grace. `By his passion’, he explains, `Christ merited for us the grace of justification and the glory of beatitude. [Summa theologiae 3a 46.3]. Christ, he says, was obedient to his father even to death. Commenting on this notion, he goes on to suggest that `it was altogether fitting that Christ should suffer out of obedience’. And the first reason he gives for saying so is that `his obedience was in keeping with our justification (justificatio).’[ Summa theologiae 3a 47.2]

To understand what this means it is important to recognize that Aquinas taught about justification long before the subject became a matter of controversy during the period of the Reformation and afterwards. So it would be quite wrong to read what he says about it as, for example, a polemic directed against views on justification such as those of Martin Luther (1483-1546). What Aquinas considers under the heading `Justification’ was in his day traditionally dealt with in treatments of Penance, and he himself deals with it in connection with that in Book 4, d. 17 of the Commentary on the Sentences. In the Summa theologiae, his account of justification is part of a wider discussion of grace in general. Hence he speaks in the Prologue to 1a2ae of how we must next consider `the effects of grace’ and `firstly the justification of the unrighteous, which is the effect of operative grace’. `The justification of the unrighteous as a whole’, he says, `consists by way of origin and source in the infusion of grace.’ [Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.7]

What does this last statement mean? The answer is effectively given in Aquinas’s explanation of what is required for justification. According to this:

Four requirements for the justification of the unrighteous may be listed: namely, the infusion of grace; a movement of free choice directed towards God by faith; a movement of free choice directed towards sin; and the forgiveness of sin.
[Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.6]

In Aquinas’s thinking, justification occurs as, under the influence of grace, one moves towards God with faith in Christ. Justification, he says, is a `kind of rightness of order in people’s own interior disposition, namely when what is highest in people is subject to God and the lower powers of their souls are subject to what is highest in them, their reason’. [Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.1] In other words, it is what you have when sinners repent and change direction. Or, as Aquinas also wants to say, it is what you have when God forgives sin.

Some people hold that, when God forgives sin, he goes through a process of some kind. This is because they think of God’s forgiveness by assimilating it to that of human beings. When I forgive you, I have to go through a process. I have to learn of your offence against me. Then I have to decide to ignore it. With that behind me, I must next do something to put my decision into effect — albeit that this may largely mean me not doing something (e.g. not being angry with you). And such, so it has been thought, is how it must be with God. But it should now almost go without saying that Aquinas could never agree with this suggestion — unless it is taken as a metaphor or image of some kind. Since he believes in God’s immutability, he cannot accept that God’s act of forgiveness involves him in going through a process of any kind. For him, therefore, to say that God has forgiven us is equivalent to saying that we have changed direction and turned to him.

An offence is only forgiven someone when the mind of the offended party is reconciled to the offender. And so sin is said to be forgiven us when God is is reconciled to us. Now this reconciliation and peace consists in the love with which God loves us. But God’s love, as far as the divine act is concerned, is eternal and immutable; but as to the effect which it impresses on us, it is sometimes interrupted, namely when we sometimes fall away from it and sometimes regain it. Now the effect of divine love in us which is removed by sin is the grace by which someone becomes worthy of eternal life, from which people are excluded by mortal sin. And therefore the forgiveness of sin would not be intelligible unless there were present an infusion of grace.
[Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.3]

Though God cannot change, we can. And, when we change by moving towards him, that is because he is drawing us to himself in love, and has therefore forgiven our offence against him. As one of Aquinas’s modern commentators observes: `When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him.. . Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. [Herbert McCabe, OP, Hope (London, 1987), 17 f.]

For Aquinas, then, justification is a matter of God making us more godly. That is why he discusses it in the context of a treatment of grace in the Summa theologiae. And, for him, it is an effect of the Incarnation since, in his view, the Incarnation is all about God making us more godly through Christ. Aquinas believes that, in the life and death of Christ, God is doing nothing but making his love present in the world. He sees Christ’s life and death as divinity incarnate cancelling the barriers between people and God and calling us to accept that these barriers really have been cancelled. That is why he can say that we are justified by means of Christ.

Notice, however, that in reaching this conclusion, Aquinas is not merely saying that God has deemed people to be at one with him. For some Christian authors, influenced by texts like Romans 3: 28, to say that someone is justified by God does not imply that the person in question is necessarily better than he or she would be if unjustified. It is to say that one has been accepted by God, or acquitted by him, or declared to be right or innocent in his eyes. This seems to have been Luther’s understanding of justification. [`It is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not by any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently would not need faith' (The Freedom of a Christian: see Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York, 1960, 55. Again: `So the Christian who is consecrated by his faith does good works, but the works do not make him holier or more Christian, for that is the work of faith alone. And if a man were not first a believer and a Christian, all his works would amount to nothing and would be truly wicked and damnable sins' (Ibid. 69).]

One can also find it in Calvin’s declaration that the saved `receive justice, but such as the people of God can obtain in this life. It is possessed only by imputation, because our Lord in his mercy considers them just and innocent. [Institutes of the Christian Religion, edition reprinted under the direction of A. Lefranc (Paris, 1911), 548.] Aquinas, however, thinks of justification as making a difference to people. Because it involves the work of grace, it must also, so he thinks, involve a moving away from sin. In this respect, his teaching on justification is in line with typical medieval accounts considered as contrasting with typically Reformation ones. For, as Alister McGrath explains:

The characteristic medieval understanding of the nature of justification may be summarized thus: justification refers not merely to the beginning of the Christian life, but also to its continuation and ultimate perfection, in which the Christian is made righteous in the sight of God and the sight of men through a fundamental change in his nature, and not merely his status. In effect, the distinction between justification (understood as an external pronouncement of God) and sanctification (understood as the subsequent process of inner renewal), characteristic of the Reformation period, is excluded from the outset. This fundamental difference concerning the nature of justification remains one of the best differentiae between the doctrines of justification associated with the medieval and Reformation periods.
Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justijication: The Beginnings to the Reformation (Cambridge, 1986), 41.

Yet Aquinas is at least in accord with the typically Reformation insistence that justification is a gift of God and not something earned. This, or course, is because of the way in which he thinks of it as an effect of grace. As we saw in Chapter 13, he denies that people can do anything to ensure or prepare for the giving of grace. [Notice, however, that there are grounds for attributing to Aquinas some development of thinking on this issue. In the Commentary on the Sentences he speaks of people being moved to receive grace by secondary causes such as other people or illness. In later works, the emphasis falls on God as moving one to the graced life. See McGrath, lustitia Dei, 82] As he puts it:

If we speak of grace in the sense of the assistance of God moving us towards the good, no preparation as it were anticipating the divine assistance is required on our part; rather, whatever preparation there might be in us derives from the assistance of God moving the soul towards the good. In this sense, that good movement of free choice itself, by which someone prepares to receive the gift of grace, is the action of a free choice moved by God … The principal agent is God moving the free choice; and in this sense it is said that our will is prepared by God, and our steps are directed by the Lord.
[Summa theologiae 1a2ae 112.2] Aquinas is alluding here to Proverbs 8: 35 in the Vulgate translation, and Psalms 36: 23.

In his view, therefore, justification is in no way a consequence of `works’. He certainly does not think that we get to God by confronting him with a righteousness that obliges him to reward us. He thinks that we are justified by God on the basis of sheer liberality. For him, our repentance, and what follows that in the way we behave (our `works’), are the projection into history of God’s eternal love making and sustaining goodness where there is no prior claim obliging him to do so. Luther attacked Aquinas by saying that he taught that we become righteous, not by faith, but by doing righteous acts. He thought that Aquinas belittled the role of grace. But, as Denis R. Janz makes clear, Luther’s understanding of Aquinas was decidedly deficient on this aspect of his teaching.

For Thomas, human beings are not justified by their acts if `justification’ means what it sometimes means for Luther, i.e., the forgiveness of sins. This first step and sine qua non presupposition for progress towards one’s final end, the initium fidei, is `from God moving inwardly through grace’. On the other hand, if `justification’ refers to the entire process by which one reaches the final goal, then human actions are of course part of the process. As Thomas puts it in his commentary on Romans, justification is sola gratia sine operibus precedentibus, but not sola gratia sine operibus subsequentibus. Or, as he says in the Summa Theologiae, the grace of God does not presuppose goodness in human beings but creates it. In view of all this, it is a misunderstanding or at least an oversimplification to say as Luther does that for Thomas, one is justified through one’s good acts.
Denis R. Janz, Luther on Thomas Aquinas (Stuttgart, 1989), 57.

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One comment

  1. In the Catholic Church justification is granted by God from baptism firstly, (Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1992 “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.”) instead of plainly by faith, and from the Sacrament of Reconciliation after if a mortal sin is committed.(Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1446 “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.” ” A mortal sin makes justification lost even if faith is still present. Before baptism faith is required of adults. The baptism of babies requires the parents’ promise to pass on the faith to the child. Baptism is called the sacrament of faith.

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