The Father William Most Collection
Nature of Justification
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
Is justification a once for all thing, which is permanent, gives infallible salvation? Only if one thinks justification makes no change in the person, and is purely extrinsic and legal, as if the Father calls us into court, knows we are sinful, yet declares us "acquitted".
They lean much on Greek dikaiaoo. In general, verbs with -oo mean to put person into state indicated by the root - but here is a change of pattern: the meaning is acquit, since no human court can make a person just.
But that change in meaning comes just from the weakness of a human court. God is not so limited. He can change the soul. Does He do so? Yes, 2 Peter 1.4 says we become sharers in the divine nature. That is more than legalistic and extrinsic, leaving one corrupt. That in turns makes us capable, radically, of the face to face vision of which St. Paul speaks in 1 Cor 13. God does not have a face, nor does the soul have eyes. When I see you, I do not take you into my mind, but only an image of you. But if I come to see God, no image can be involved, for images are finite, He is infinite. Hence Pope Benedict XII defined there is no image. What then? It obviously is that God joins Himself directly to the human mind, without even an image in between (Cf. St. Thomas Suppl. 92. 1, c). Thus the soul can know Him directly. Will He do that if the soul is still the same old corruption? Hardly. Mal. 3:2: "Who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner's fire." So there must be a real change, a complete change. That is what justification means.
If it is once gained, can it be lost? St. Paul surely thought so. In 1 Cor 9:27: "I chastise my body and lead it around in subjection, so that after preaching to others, I myself may not be rejected" at the final judgment. He means he must be hard on his body to tame it so it will not lead him into sin, and he might fail at the judgment. If anyone ever took Christ as his Savior, it was Paul. But he knew he could be eternally lost. He did not say that he had passed from death to life and now had life, God had acquitted him, so if he sinned, God would forgive him, while leaving him corrupt, because of the merits of Christ. Clearly, Paul did not think that way. And in 1 Cor 6:9-10 he gave a list of chief great sins, and said that they who do such things "will not inherit the kingdom". We inherit, get it without merit. We do not have to keep on doing good works to keep it - but we do have to refrain from earning to be disinherited, like bad children. (Protestants like to quote John 5:24 saying we now have eternal life, have passed from death to life. Right, but that means the presence of grace in the soul, transforming it, not leaving it totally corrupt. It is the downpayment, the pledge (2 Cor 1:22) of final eternal life to come.)