Justification

In the combox of a post about ‘faith alone’ Ron Henzel said,

First of all, in 1 Clement 30, [Clement] was not indicating that his audience was “justified by works,” but admonishing them (notice the hortatory beginning of your quote, using the first person plural) to be “justified by our works, and not our words”—i.e., that they demonstrate their righteousness in action, and not merely in words. But in 1 Clement 32, he explicitly declares that “we…are not justified by…works,” where the context is clearly eternal salvation rather than ethical conduct.

This could be true, but I don’t think so. I think he use the word ‘justified’ in the same way in both 1 Clement 30 and 32. Henzel’s ‘quote’ of 1 Clement 32 leaves much out. Clement says that that we “are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works.” (The emphasized part is the thing Henzel thought he could remove, but which altered the entire meaning of the sentence.) Yes, we are not justified by our own works, and the Catholic Church doesn’t say otherwise. But there is a big difference between saying that “we are not justified by works” and that “we are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works.”

The former is flat out heresy, and it is contradicted in the Bible, most importantly by St. James: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” (Jas 2:24) The latter, however, tells us something important: that although we are not justified by our own works, we are indeed justified by the works of Christ. Underlining this is the question of how we view God. Is God, as some say, ‘alone-working,’ or is he ‘all-working’? If the former, God works outside of us, like a surgeon or (more likely in a reformed system) like a judge.

If the latter, he works through us, utilizing our very natures as human beings. That means that if we do works that are meritorious, it is not ‘our works,’ but Christ working through us. That fits perfectly with St. Paul. “With fear and trembling work out your salvation. For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13) “I am crucified with Christ; and I myself live no longer, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)

Yes, Clement said that “we are not justified by our own works.” But he did not say “we are not justified by works.” To claim he did is dishonest.

Furthermore, it is important that we see what is meant by ‘faith.’ When St. James use the word ‘faith,’ it seems to me that he use it in a ‘intellectualized’ way; as ‘knowledge’ of theological truths — God’s existence, the nature of Christ, etc. This kind of faith is shared with demons, who certainly doesn’t have ‘faith’ in a more broader sense. What St. James doesn’t do, however, is use ‘faith’ to mean ‘dead faith.’ Try substituting ‘dead faith’ for ‘faith’ and you end up with nonsense like this: But someone will say, “You have dead faith and I have works.” Show me your dead faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my dead faith. (Jas 2:18)[1]

That is just plain absurd. What St. James tells us, is that without works, faith as such will be dead. I would go as far as saying it is nonsense. But when St. Paul talks of faith, he use it in a broader sense. “For in Christ Jesus,” he tells us, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision[2] avails anything; but faith working through love.”

In the setting of St. Paul we might say that we are justified by ‘faith alone,’ but we have to remember then, that for St. Paul ‘faith’ includes works. Maybe we should rather talk of ‘faithfulness,’ which is a perfectly good translation of πίστις. But this faithfulness is not merely our own; it is Christ who works through us. This can be argued for by taking a look at Romans 3:22. The phrase διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστου can be, and is often, translated “through faith in Jesus Christ.” But it can also be translated thus: “…through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” This phrase might tell us that we are saved not by being ‘super Christians’ with a ‘strong faith,’ but through the faithfulness of Christ himself. And I believe the verse does say that.

Faith without works, which does not work through love, is dead.

Notes:

[1] For a discussion on this, read Jimmy (James) Akin’s brilliant piece on Justification in James 2.

[2] A rather ‘washed out translation,’ actually. Ἀκροβυστία literally means ‘foreskin,’ not ‘uncircumcision.’

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