“On Certainty and Sanctification”
“I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me,” (1 Corinthians 4:4).
A painting of St. Paul by El Greco:
Have I been justified? This question merits attention because it has divided evangelical Protestants and orthodox Catholics for centuries. The reformers of the 16th century claimed that a Christian can know with absolute certainty whether or not he or she has been justified. Generally speaking, they thought, “If I have faith in Christ, then how could God reject me? Jesus has already accomplished my salvation; therefore, I am saved when I believe in Him.” Using this line of argumentation, Protestants generally consider “salvation” or “eternal life” to begin at a specific moment in the past. They say things like, “I was saved when I first believed in Christ through the grace of God.”
While there is some truth to this Protestant doctrine, Catholics at the Council of Trent felt impelled to condemn the Protestant belief in absolute certainty. There are a number of reasons for this condemnation. Primarily, the council fathers associated justification with sanctification. They said that our justification is our sanctification. To separate the two would be a disservice to the Bible and to theological tradition. Let’s think about the following quote from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews:
“Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord,” (Hebrews 12:14).
Holiness, or sanctity, is the result of a process of sanctification, which Christ achieves through us over the course of our lives. Without this sanctification, which makes us holy and acceptable to God, we cannot “see” the Lord. During this process, God showers his faithful with graceful and ever-increasing blessings. When we accept these blessings in faith and in love, we grow in sanctity and conform ourselves to the image of Christ. God’s grace is inexhaustible, so pointing to one moment in life as a moment of “salvation” makes little sense because God’s grace extends in both temporal directions infinitely. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are specific historical moments, but what matters for us is our encounter with the risen Lord. This encounter grows and grows without end. Because of God’s grace, we can initiate a conversation that always gets better and never disappoints.
Where, then, do Catholics find biblical support for this idea of sanctifying grace? Take a look at the following verses:
2 Peter 3:18 – “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”
2 Cor 9:10 – “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”
Combined, these verses bear witness to the truth of Catholic doctrine–namely, that grace multiplies and that the multiplication of that grace is connected to our “righteousness” or “justification.”
Aside from understanding and accepting the intimacy between salvation and sanctifying grace, Catholic theologians recognize that our justification is uncertain because St. Paul himself was unsure of his righteousness. He wrote, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me,” (1 Corinthians 4:4). The Holy Judge will decide whether or not we will be acquitted. Only He is certain of our fate. We, meanwhile, must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling,” (Philippians 2:12). I have no right to say that God will save me. Only He has that right. Additionally, Paul writes, “I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified,” (1 Corinthians 9:27). This declaration presumes that if he did not “punish his body and enslave it,” he would risk his salvation. We must pursue holiness: for if we don’t, we may be disqualified from the race towards salvation.
Hence, for these two reasons–the uncertainty of salvation and the connectedness of salvation and sanctifying grace–I assert that justification is a life-long process, not a moment of commitment. Our salvation is a covenant constantly renewed and reinvigorated through prayer, through the sacraments, and through social justice; it’s not a done deal.
May the Lord bless your path of sanctification with abundant and increasing graces. May He fortify you as He draws you closer to Himself and to eternal life.
Let me end with another piece of wisdom from Paul: “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall,” (1 Corinthians 10:12).