Justification II

by Fr Alvin Kimel


The justification of sinners—this is “the grand question which hangeth yet in controversy between us and the Church of Rome.” Thus declared the great Anglican Divine, Richard Hooker. Hooker notes that Anglicans and Catholics agree on many points about justification. They agree that all human beings are sinners and need to be reconciled to God. They agree that sinners are justified by grace alone for the sake of Christ. They agree that that the righteousness and merits of Christ must be applied to the sinner if justification is to be made actual in his life. Wherein then lies the disagreement? According to Hooker, Anglicans and Catholics disagree on “the very essence of the medicine whereby Christ cureth our disease,” what is often described as the formal cause of our justification. Formal cause refers to what we might call the identity of a given object, the pattern which makes something what it is.

The Catholic Church, writes Hooker, teaches that sinners are justified by an inherent righteousness:

When they are required to show what the righteousness is whereby a Christian man is justified, they answer that it is a divine spiritual quality, which quality, received into the soul, doth first make it to be one of them who are born of God; and, secondly, endue it with power to bring forth such works as they do that are born of him; even as the soul of man, being joined unto his body, doth first make him to be in the number of reasonable creatures, and, secondly, enable him to perform the natural functions which are proper to his kind; that it maketh the soul gracious and amiable in the sight of God, in regard whereof it is termed grace; that by it, through the merit of Christ, we are delivered as from sin, so from eternal death and condemnation, the reward of sin. This grace they will have to be applied by infusion, to the end that, as the body is warm by the heat which is in the body, so the soul might be righteous by inherent grace; which grace they make capable of increase; as the body may be more and more warm, so the soul more and more justified, according as grace shall be augmented; the augmentation whereof is merited by good works, as good works are made meritorious by it. Wherefore the first receipt of grace is in their divinity the first justification; the second thereof, the second justification.

This is a fair statement, I think, of the Tridentine construal of justification. Contemporary Catholic theologians would probably wish to nuance, qualify, and expand the above in various ways. Most acknowledge the limitations of employing the categories of Aristotelian causality in describing the mystery of God’s justifying work in man. Instead of speaking of the infusion of a “divine spiritual quality,” some might wish instead to speak of the supernaturalization or deification of human nature. Catholic theologians would most definitely wish to complement the Tridentine insistence on sanctifying grace as the formal cause of justice with an even greater insistence on the indwelling Spirit. As Charles Cardinal Journet writes:

When you bring into a room a source of light, it illuminates the walls; so, when the divine Persons come to us (here we have the source, uncreated grace), they illuminate the walls of the soul (here we have the effect, created grace). And if you possess grace, then the source of grace, the three divine Persons, is there too. … The uncreated Spirit is given in created grace, as the sun is given in its rays. The uncreated Gift of the Spirit and the created gift of grace are simultaneous. (The Meaning of Grace [1962], p. 14)

Similarly, Piet Fransen:

Created grace is not something standing in between God and us; it is no path to approach God, no ladder to climb up to God, no means to God—at least not primarily…. Created grace does not act as a screen between God and us since it comes into being only because of and within the gesture by which God unites us immediately to himself. He gives Himself without an intervening medium; He comes to dwell in us and take us back to Himself…. Created grace is at once the fruit and the bond of the indwelling, originating in the indwelling and sustained by the indwelling; it raises us into an ever-deepening actualization of the indwelling on earth and in heaven. Latin expresses it more tersely: ex unione, in unione, et ad unionem—arising from our immediate union with God, granted in that union and urging us to that union. (The New Life of Grace [1969], pp 102-103)

Ultimately contemporary Catholic theologians would want to insist that the justification of sinners is nothing less than their regeneration into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence they find it necessary to qualify, as did John Henry Newman in the 19th century, the Tridentine assertion that the formal cause of our justification is the gift of inherent righteousness. As Karl Rahner explains, “It is true that the Council describes this interior grace in terms which in the theology of the schools hold good primarily of created grace, but it nowhere says that interior grace, as the unique formal cause of justification, must be understood exclusively of created grace” (Theological Investigations, I:341). Thus Robert Gleason, for example, speaks of the Holy Spirit as the “quasi-formal” cause of justification (Grace [1962], p. 146).

The Catholic need not deny forensic imputation, effectually enacted in baptism and absolution. Cardinal Newman boldly acknowledged the imputational force of the justifying Word: Christ declares to the sinner that he is now forgiven and restored to righteousness, and in that divine declaring the sinner is made righteous:

Justification is a word of state and solemnity. Divine Mercy might have renewed us and kept it secret; this would have been an infinite and most unmerited grace, but He has done more. He justifies us; He not only makes, He declares, acknowledges, accepts us as holy. He recognises us as His own, and publicly repeals the sentence of wrath and the penal statutes which lie against us…. Before man has done anything as specimen, or paid anything as instalment, except faith, nor even faith in the case of infants, he has the whole treasures of redemption put to his credit, as if he were and had done infinitely more than he ever can be or do. He is “declared” after the pattern of his Saviour, to be the adopted “Son of God with power, by a” spiritual “resurrection.” His tears are wiped away; his fears, misgivings, remorse, shame, are changed for “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost;” he is clad in white, and has his crown given him. Thus justification is at first what renewal could but be at last; and, therefore, is by no means a mere result or consequence of renewal, but a real, though not a separate act of God’s mercy. It is a great and august deed in the sight of heaven and hell; it is not done in a corner, but by Him who would show the world “what should be done unto those whom the King delighteth to honour.” It is a pronouncing righteous while it proceeds to make righteous. As Almighty God in the beginning created the world solemnly and in form, speaking the word not to exclude, but to proclaim the deed,—as in the days of His flesh He made use of the creature and changed its properties not without a command; so does He new-create the soul by the breath of His mouth, by the sacrament of his Voice. The declaration of our righteousness, while it contains pardon for the past, promises holiness for the future. (Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, pp. 73-74)

By the Word of God the sinner is forgiven his sin, made regenerate in the Spirit, adopted as a son in the Son, and brought into the ecstatic love of the Holy Trinity. He is made righteous in the core of his being and supernaturally oriented to God in faith, love, and hope. The Catholic Church thus refuses to divide justification and sanctification. We can distinguish the two intellectually, but in reality there is only the one grace that is the self-communication of God.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,” the Apostle proclaims, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

Hooker, on the other hand, insists that the righteousness by which we are justified in the present is extrinsic to the sinner:

There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the world to come: and there is a justifying and a sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness, wherewith we shall be clothed in the world to come, is both perfect and inherent. That whereby here we are justified is perfect, but not inherent. That whereby we are sanctified, inherent, but not perfect….

But the righteousness wherein we must be found, if we be justified, is not our own; therefore we cannot be justified by any inherent quality. Christ hath merited righteousness for as many as are found in him. In him God findeth us, if we be faithful; for by faith we are incorporated into him. Then, although in ourselves we be altogether sinful and unrighteous, yet even the man which in himself is impious, full of iniquity, full of sin; him being found in Christ through faith, and having his sin in hatred through repentance, him God beholdeth with a gracious eye, putteth away his sin by not imputing it, taketh quite away the punishment due thereunto, by pardoning it; and accepteth him in Jesus Christ, as perfect righteous, as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded him in the law: shall I say more perfectly righteous than if himself had fulfilled the whole law?

Justifying and sanctifying righteousness are thus different in kind, says Hooker. Justifying righteousness is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. It is external to us and is received by faith. For the sake of Christ, God forgives and accepts us. Sanctifying righteousness is the transformation effected in us by the Spirit and consists of “faith, hope, charity, and other Christian virtues.”

The differences between the two communions on justification are clear. Anglicanism teaches the imputation of righteousness; Catholicism teaches the infusion of righteousness. Yet matters may not be quite as clear as they seem. The discussion comes to a head when we ask, “May one be justified apart from repentance and a transformed moral and spiritual life?” This is not an idle question. One need only read the writings of Zane Hodges and the other teachers of the Grace Evangelical Society. These theologians have followed out the doctrine of imputation to its logical conclusion, offering a clear yes to the question. Yet Hooker refuses to separate justifying and sanctifying righteousness. Saving faith is inseparable from the virtues of love and hope:

We ourselves do not teach Christ alone, excluding our own faith, unto justification, Christ alone, excluding our own works, unto sanctification, Christ alone, excluding the one or the other as unnecessary unto salvation. It is a childish cavil wherewith in the matter of justification our adversaries do so greatly please themselves, exclaiming that we tread all Christian virtues under our feet and require nothing in Christians but faith, because we teach that faith alone justifieth; whereas by this speech we never meant to exclude either hope and charity from being always joined as inseparable mates with faith in the man that is justified, or works from being added as necessary duties, required at the hands of every justified man, but to show that faith is the only hand which putteth on Christ unto justification, and Christ the only garment which, being so put on, covereth the shame of our defiled natures, hideth the imperfections of our works, preserveth us blameless in the sight of God, before whom otherwise the very weakness of our faith were cause sufficient to make us culpable, yea, to shut us out from the kingdom of heaven, where nothing that is not absolute can enter.

We are justified by faith, yet faith is never alone. At this point the gap between Anglicanism and the Catholic Church narrows considerably. What precisely is the difference between Hooker’s assertion that justifying faith is always joined to charity and hope and the Catholic assertion that justifying faith is intrinsically “formed by love” (fides caritate formata)? The gap narrows to a hair’s breadth when Hooker addresses the question “Which does the believer receive first, justifying or sanctifying righteousness?” Hooker’s answer is illuminating and needs to be read carefully:

We have already showed that there are two kinds of Christian righteousness: the one without us, which we have by imputation; the other in us, which consisteth of faith, hope, charity, and other Christian virtues; and St. James doth prove that Abraham had not only the one, because the thing he believed was imputed unto him for righteousness, but also the other, because he offered up his son. God giveth us both the one justice and the other: the one by accepting us for righteous in Christ; the other by working Christian righteousness in us. The proper and most immediate efficient cause in us of this latter is the spirit of adoption which we have received into our hearts. That whereof it consisteth, whereof it is really and formally made, are those infused virtues proper and particular unto saints, which the Spirit, in that very moment when first it is given of God, bringeth with it. …

If here it be demanded which of these we do first receive, I answer that the Spirit, the virtues of the Spirit, the habitual justice which is ingrafted, the external justice of Christ Jesus which is imputed, these we receive all at one and the same time. Whensoever we have any of these we have all; they go together. Yet since no man is justified except he believe, and no man believeth except he have faith, and no man hath faith unless he have received the Spirit of adoption, forasmuch as these do necessarily infer justification, but justification doth of necessity presuppose them; we must needs hold that imputed righteousness, in dignity being the chiefest, is notwithstanding in order the last of all these, but actual righteousness, which is the righteousness of good works, succeedeth all, followeth after all, both in order and in time. Which thing being attentively marked showeth plainly how the faith of true believers cannot be divorced from hope and love; how faith is a part of sanctification, and yet unto sanctification necessary; how faith is perfected by good works, and yet no works of ours good without faith; finally, how our fathers might hold, we are justified by faith alone, and yet hold truly that without good works we are not justified.

Believers cannot lay hold by faith of the righteousness of Christ unless they have already received the Spirit of adoption, who creates faith within us. Imputation, in other words, logically follows the gift of the Spirit. “What is this,” Newman asks about this passage, “divested of verbal differences, but to say expressly that the Holy Spirit is the formal cause of justification?” Quite so. The Catholic would simply add that where there is the indwelling Spirit, there is also the transformation of the human person, i.e., sanctifying grace. Are we not here confronted with a mystery that eludes our analytical categories?

In 1986 the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission released a common statement on justification: Salvation and the Church. The document witnesses to the conviction of the commission members that an authentic convergence of belief between Anglicans and Catholics is indeed possible on the question of justification. They key to this convergence is the mutual recognition of the effective and recreative power of the justifying word:

Justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11). This does not mean that justification is a reward for faith or works: rather, when God promises the removal of our condemnation and gives us a new standing before him, this justification is indissolubly linked with his sanctifying recreation of us in grace. This transformation is being worked out in the course of our pilgrimage, despite the imperfections and ambiguities of our lives. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours. (par 15)

We must think together, in other words, justification and sanctification, the forensic and the ontological, the external and the internal.

If the respective Anglican and Catholic positions are so close, why do so many Anglicans, especially those of evangelical commitment, continue to cite the doctrine of justification as an issue that divides the two communions? I am sure there are many answers, but I would like to highlight one issue. In his excellent book Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (2002), Tony Lane asks the question, What are the grounds on which we are reckoned righteous?

On what basis do we come to God to pray? On what ground do we suppose that he is gracious to us and willing to hear our prayer? Through Christ we have access to the Father by one Spirit (Eph 2:18). Indeed, but how does that work? Do we approach God on the basis that Christ has changed our lives sufficiently for us to be acceptable to him? Or is it on the basis that imperfect as we remain in ourselves, we are acceptable because Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us? (p. 163)

The evangelical concern is faithful access to the holy God. Given that I am a sinner, how can God accept me? When the evangelical hears the Tridentine assertion that the formal cause of our justification is “the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just,” he hears the Catholic Church declaring that God only accepts us when we have become perfectly righteous. But I suggest that Trent’s assertion of the formal cause of justification was not designed to answer the question “What are the grounds on which we are reckoned righteous?” That question was answered by Trent’s assertion of the meritorious cause of justification: “The meritorious cause is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father.” Why does God forgive us? Why does he accept us? Why does he justify us? Not because of our works and merits or because we have fulfilled specific conditions of righteousness, but only because of the merits of Christ Jesus. We are justified by grace—sola gratia. According to Catholic understanding, God applies the justification of Christ to us in the sacrament of holy baptism, by which he communicates to us the righteousness of Christ and comes to dwell within us in the Holy Spirit, thereby incorporating us into the divine life of the Holy Trinity.

But I also wish to suggest that there is something odd about the questions posed by Lane, at least odd when posed within the gospel and the liturgical experience of the Church. The presumption of the liturgy is that the Church subsists in Christ: she is his body; and in and through him she participates in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. She does not ask herself if she has a right to address God in prayer, she does not ask if she is acceptable or whether she has fulfilled the conditions of justification, for to do so would be to to deny the identity she has received from God by mercy and grace. The Church simply knows that she lives within the Holy Trinity and thus may and must pray to her heavenly Father, not of course by natural right or in her own resources but only through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

So what does it mean when individual members of Christ’s body raise the question, May I come to God in prayer?

7 January 2007


The love of God for human beings is unconditional. This fundamental truth of the gospel bears repeating. It bears repeating because we Christians, clergy and laity, seem to forget it so easily. Yes, we know all the words—“God is love,” “Christ died for the ungodly,” “This is my body which will be given up for you,” “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”—and we can recite from heart the parables of the prodigal son, the shepherd and the lost sheep, the woman and the lost coin, as well as the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery—yet for whatever reasons we seem to prefer a different narrative. This narrative goes something like this:

God is angry with us, and he’s been angry with us since the day we were born. But if we repent of our sins, he will change his mind, forgive us, and give us eternal life, as long as we continue to believe in him and avoid mortal sins. But we need to be careful, because if we trip up, God will turn on us at a moment’s notice.

Catholics and Protestants tell different versions of the story (Catholics will insert the sacraments of baptism and penance, and Protestants will downplay mortal sin and emphasize faith), but the essential narrative remains constant: God is a God of conditional love. If we fulfill the conditions he specifies, he will be to us loving and merciful; if we do not, he will be to us wrathful and punishing. God is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Which one we meet depends on our performance.

And so I repeat the fundamental truth of the gospel: the love of God for human beings is unconditional. God does not love us because of anything we have done. He does not love us because we are virtuous or obedient or kind, nor does he cease to love us when we fail to love as we should or when we disobey his commandments. He does not cease to love us even when we commit evil. God’s love for us is unconditional, unmerited, unqualified, unreserved, absolute, immutable. We cannot earn it, no matter how hard we try; we cannot lose it, no matter how hard we try. God does not change his mind. He is eternally and hopelessly in love with the creatures he made in his image.

The Dominican theologian, Fr Herbert McCabe, rejoiced in the unconditional love of God and loved to preach and write on it. “It is very odd,” McCabe writes, “that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this, that God deals out to us what we deserve. … I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all” (God, Christ and Us, p. 11).

Look at the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son takes his inheritance and squanders it in a far country. Eventually he finds himself impoverished and hungry. In despair he acknowledges how his sin has altered his relationship to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” But what precisely has changed? Has the father ceased to love his son? Has he become the angry patriarch the son now fears him to be? On the contrary, the father has been waiting for his son to return, and upon seeing him in the distance, he jubilantly rushes to greet and welcome him home. No, what has changed is the son. Because of his sin, the prodigal is no longer capable of seeing the father as he really is. As McCabe explains: “Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us” (Faith Within Reason, pp. 155-156).

The father does not need to be persuaded to forgive and welcome his son. He does not need to change his mind. He loves his son. That is his truth. All the son needs to do is to see his sin for what it is. He recognizes himself as a sinner, and at that moment he ceases to be one. His contrition is forgiveness. All the rest is celebration and feasting: “This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us” ( p. 156).

God doesn’t change his mind about us, McCabe declares; God changes our mind about him—again and again and again. McCabe is direct and pointed:

His love for us doesn’t depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love. Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else, into this punitive ogre, this Satan. Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it doesn’t matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense he doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns. We damn ourselves because we would rather justify ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves by the infinite love of God. (p. 157)

I was a tad shocked when I first read these words. How can our sin not make a difference to God? If we could ask Fr Herbert this question, I think he would remind us precisely who and what God is. God is not a being within the universe; he is not a part of the world; he is not a god. He is the infinite mystery who utterly transcends the world he has made. The world makes no literal difference to God. This is what we mean when we say that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. He did not have to create the universe, and if he had chosen not to, his glory and being would not have been diminished one whit. God plus the world is not greater than God alone. The world does not add anything to God; it does not change or affect God. Ultimately it does not make a difference to God. God is God, in infinite glory, majesty, and love. Robert Sokolowski describes this as the “Christian distinction”:

In the distinctions that occur normally within the setting of the world, each term distinguished is what it is precisely by not being that which it is distinguishable from. Its being is established partially by its otherness, and therefore its being depends on its distinction from others. But in the Christian distinction God is understood as “being” God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world. Thus the Christian distinction is appreciated as a distinction that did not have to be, even though it in fact is. The most fundamental thing we come to in Christianity, the distinction between the world and God, is appreciated as not being the most fundamental thing after all, because one of the terms of the distinction, God, is more fundamental than the distinction itself. (The God of Faith and Reason, pp. 32-33).

Pagan philosophers did not and could not envision deity as utterly transcendent of a radically contingent creation. The creatio ex nihilo was incomprehensible to them. This understanding was forced upon the Church by divine revelation.

Once we understand the Christian distinction between God and the world, we are then positioned to discern the limitations and anthropomorphism of the stories we tell about God and his people. Stories we must tell if we are to proclaim the gospel, for God presents himself to us by story, as story; yet the metaphorical nature of these stories must be recognized, if the Christian distinction is to be respected.

Christians proclaim the forgiveness of God; but what precisely do we mean when we say that God forgives us? In human relations we forgive someone who has offended us. Offense is something deeper than injury. If someone injures us accidentally, we may deserve compensation but we do not require an apology. But if someone offends us, if someone attacks and harms us, then apology, and perhaps much much more than apology, is needed. Only forgiveness will suffice, if both parties are to be healed and relationship restored. It is necessary for the offender to abase himself and offer atonement; it is necessary for the offended to surrender his right to vengeance and to forgive. Only thus can both offender and offended be healed and recreated.

The language of offense, atonement, and forgiveness has been rightly transferred to the relations between God and man. “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love”—so begins a traditional form of the act of contrition. It is important for us to speak words like this to God; but it is also important to recognize the figurative nature of this language. McCabe elaborates:

God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re-creative and redemptive side of forgiveness. All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

We can forgive enemies even though they do not apologize and are not contrite. But such forgiveness … does not help them, does not re-create them. In such forgiveness we are changed, we change from being vengeful to being forgiving, but our enemy does not change. When it comes to God, how-ever, it would make no sense to say he forgives the sinner without the sinner being contrite. For God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner. God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God. It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us. (God, Christ and Us, pp. 121-122)

The language of faith is filled with conflicting images of God—the image of the wrathful God who hates our sin, who requires propitiation and appeasement; the image of the God who endures our sins, who is long-suffering and abounding in mercy; the God who punishes the wicked, the God who forgives the penitent. These conflicting images are helpful, necessary, and unavoidable. But it is also necessary, says McCabe, for us to think clearly:

The initiative is always with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of God is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom. (pp. 16-17)

The God of the gospel is not the Jekyll and Hyde of our nightmares. He is not a God we need to appease. He is not a God we need to persuade to forgive. He is not a God who puts conditions on his mercy and care. He is, rather, the God who comes to us in love, only in love, relentlessly and passionately in love.

17 January 2007


Earlier this month, Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” interviewed the Boston button man, John Martorano. The interview is unsettling. In a quiet, detached, matter-of-fact tone, Martorano describes the twenty confessed murders he committed during his years as an enforcer for the Winter Hill Gang. At the conclusion of the interview, Kroft asks the question I wanted to hear: Do you regret what you did?

“In some cases, regret can take over a person’s life. I don’t get the sense that that’s the case with you.”

“Well, maybe that’s just not my temperament or my personality. Maybe it is, but you can’t see it. Or maybe I can’t express it the way you want it, but I have my regrets.”

“You seem cold. You killed 20 people and that’s all you have to say about it?”

“I wish it wasn’t that way. I mean, I wish there was none. You know, you can’t change the past. I’m trying to do the best I can with the future and explain it as best I can. I regret it all, I can’t change it.”

“You still a Catholic?”


“I mean, you can burn in hell for killing one person.”

“I don’t believe that. At one point, maybe a couple years ago, I sent for a priest and gave him a confession. It was maybe 30 years since my last confession. But I went through the whole scenario with him, and went through my whole life with him, and confessed. And at the end of it, he says, ‘Well, what do you think I should give you for penance?’ I says, ‘Father, you can justifiably crucify me.’ He laughed and says, ‘Nope. Ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers, and don’t do it again.’ So I listened to him.”

This interview has been remarked upon throughout the blogosphere. Most people are dissatisfied with Martorano’s expression of contrition. He seems too cool, too detached. They do not believe he has truly repented and therefore do not believe that God has forgiven him. Many mock the penance assigned by the priest. Yet what struck me most was Martorano’s trust in the sacramental word of the priest: “I listened to him.” Martorano believes that God has forgiven him. He believes this because he believes the divine word of absolution that was spoken to him.

Yet our instinctive reaction is “this is not enough.” We want to see deeper sorrow, reparations, and a dramatic change in the man’s life before we will consider the possibility that God has forgiven him. It’s all too easy, all too unjust.

In his book That Man is You, Fr Louis Evely describes a scene from a play by Jean Anouilh:

The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.

All at once, a rumor starts spreading: “It seems He’s going to forgive those others, too!”

For a minute, everybody’s dumbfounded. They look at one another in disbelief, gasping and sputtering, “After all the trouble I went through!” “If only I’d known this …” “I just cannot get over it!”

Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they’re damned. That was the final judgment.

What is the kingdom of God like? It is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard … So the last will be first and the first last (Matt 20:1-16).

We are scandalized by the injustice of grace. It’s quite one thing for God to forgive me, but I still want him to mete out justice to everyone else.

The seventh century ascetical master, St Isaac the Syrian, boldly challenged the portrayal of God as one who rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked:

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Homily 60)

The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. “God is not One who requites evil,” declares St Isaac, “but who sets evil right.” Indeed, Isaac goes even so far as to assert that “mercy is opposed to justice.” Even when God punishes, he does so only for our good:

God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbour wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution. … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!

The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. But does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. As St Antony the Great explains:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

The rays of God’s love shine on the righteous and wicked equally. If we choose to close our eyes to his illumination, then the fault lies in ourselves, not in God.

Latin theologians are loath to speak of a conflict between divine love and divine justice; ultimately they cannot conflict. Yet as John Paul II acknowledges in his wonderful encyclical Dives in misericordia, justice must ultimately be interpreted and reinterpreted through love. Speaking of the revelation of God’s loving kindness in the Old Testament, the Holy Father writes:

In this way, mercy is in a certain sense contrasted with God’s justice, and in many cases is shown to be not only more powerful than that justice but also more profound. Even the Old Testament teaches that, although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfection nevertheless love is “greater” than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice—this is a mark of the whole of revelation—are revealed precisely through mercy. This seemed so obvious to the psalmists and prophets that the very term justice ended up by meaning the salvation accomplished by the Lord and His mercy. Mercy differs from justice, but is not in opposition to it, if we admit in the history of man—as the Old Testament precisely does—the presence of God, who already as Creator has linked Himself to His creature with a particular love. Love, by its very nature, excludes hatred and ill-will towards the one to whom He once gave the gift of Himself: Nihil odisti eorum quae fecisti, “you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence.” These words indicate the profound basis of the relationship between justice and mercy in God, in His relations with man and the world. They tell us that we must seek the life-giving roots and intimate reasons for this relationship by going back to “the beginning,” in the very mystery of creation. They foreshadow in the context of the Old Covenant the full revelation of God, who is “love.”

Like St Isaac, John Paul looks to the parable of the prodigal son as a revelation of the mystery of divine love. Neither justice nor mercy are mentioned in the parable, yet the relationship between the two is stated exactly. “It becomes more evident,” John Paul writes, “that love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice—precise and often too narrow.” Within the order of justice, the son deserved the loss of sonship. He deserved to be hired as one of his father’s servants and to begin the process of rebuilding the wealth he had squandered. But the father shows mercy, not justice. The graciousness of the father reveals his faithfulness to his love, which is the essence of his fatherhood:

Going on, one can therefore say that the love for the son the love that springs from the very essence of fatherhood, in a way obliges the father to be concerned about his son’s dignity. This concern is the measure of his love, the love of which Saint Paul was to write: “Love is patient and kind … love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful … but rejoices in the right … hopes all things, endures all things” and “love never ends.” Mercy—as Christ has presented it in the parable of the prodigal son—has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called agape. This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin.

But it is in the Paschal Mystery that the love and mercy of God is perfectly and fully revealed. The Son of God is arrested, abused, condemned, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross, and dies in torment. He who had so beautifully communicated mercy is denied mercy. He is not spared from the injustice of man. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin,” the Apostle writes. These words succinctly summarize the the work of divine redemption through the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ. The cross discloses the holiness of God:

Indeed this Redemption is the ultimate and definitive revelation of the holiness of God, who is the absolute fullness of perfection: fullness of justice and of love, since justice is based on love, flows from it and tends towards it. In the passion and death of Christ—in the fact that the Father did not spare His own Son, but “for our sake made him sin”—absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a “superabundance” of justice, for the sins of man are “compensated for” by the sacrifice of the Man-God. Nevertheless, this justice, which is properly justice “to God’s measure,” springs completely from love: from the love of the Father and of the Son, and completely bears fruit in love. Precisely for this reason the divine justice revealed in the cross of Christ is “to God’s measure,” because it springs from love and is accomplished in love, producing fruits of salvation. The divine dimension of redemption is put into effect not only by bringing justice to bear upon sin, but also by restoring to love that creative power in man thanks also which he once more has access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God. In this way, redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness.

The Paschal Mystery is the culmination of this revealing and effecting of mercy, which is able to justify man, to restore justice in the sense of that salvific order which God willed from the beginning in man and, through man, in the world. The suffering Christ speaks in a special way to man, and not only to the believer. The non-believer also will be able to discover in Him the eloquence of solidarity with the human lot, as also the harmonious fullness of a disinterested dedication to the cause of man, to truth and to love. And yet the divine dimension of the Paschal Mystery goes still deeper. The cross on Calvary, the cross upon which Christ conducts His final dialogue with the Father, emerges from the very heart of the love that man, created in the image and likeness of God, has been given as a gift, according to God’s eternal plan. God, as Christ has revealed Him, does not merely remain closely linked with the world as the Creator and the ultimate source of existence. He is also Father: He is linked to man, whom He called to existence in the visible world, by a bond still more intimate than that of creation. It is love which not only creates the good but also grants participation in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For he who loves desires to give himself.

Divine justice flows from love, and through this love justice is restored to God’s creation. The Pope avoids the rhetorical opposition of love and justice, of which St Isaac is so fond. He will not speak of such an opposition because, in his his eyes, to divorce love and justice would suggest an approval and indulgence of wickedness and injury. Christ commands us to forgive seventy-times-seven, but this absolute command to forgive does not abolish the “objective requirements of justice,” the need of those who have been forgiven to make compensation and reparation to those whom they have injured. In this sense we may say that justice is the the goal of forgiveness. “Thus the fundamental structure of justice,” John Paul explains, “always enters into the sphere of mercy. Mercy, however, has the power to confer on justice a new content, which is expressed most simply and fully in forgiveness. Forgiveness, in fact, shows that, over and above the process of ‘compensation’ and ‘truce’ which is specific to justice, love is necessary, so that man may affirm himself as man.”

The mercy of God is infinite and inexhaustible. The Father always stands ready and eager to welcome home his prodigal children. Flowing from the sacrifice of Christ—“that ‘kiss’ given by mercy to justice”—the power of God’s forgiveness breaks through all boundaries. “No human sin,” proclaims the Pope, “can prevail over this power or even limit it. On the part of man only a lack of good will can limit it, a lack of readiness to be converted and to repent, in other words persistence in obstinacy, opposing grace and truth, especially in the face of the witness of the cross and resurrection of Christ.” Conversion is not a precondition for God’s mercy but the discovery of his mercy, a discovery of a love that is always patient and kind. Those who attain to this knowledge of the merciful love of God live in a state of perpetual conversion, constantly turning to God and re-experiencing the tender forgiveness of the Father.

Despite differences in emphasis, Pope John Paul II and St Isaac of Ninevah clearly share a deep common faith in the God who is love, the God whose prodigal mercy scandalizes the righteous and redeems the ungodly.

20 January 2008

%d bloggers like this: