James, Paul, and Justification at the Council of Trent

Justification means being put into right relationship with God. A great number of people, both inside and outside of the Church, are confused as to how we Catholics believe this comes about. One of my goals in writing about the Epistle of James to show how James’ view of justification is in agreement with St. Paul’s and how this biblical teaching is exactly what the Catholic Church enunciated in Trent’s Decree Concerning Justification (DCJ hereafter). Justification is a process with a beginning, middle, and end – with every stage completely dependent upon God’s grace.

Initial Justification

God is the source of our justification. The Father sent his Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to announce and enact the gospel of our salvation. Faith in the gospel is the beginning of our salvation. James tells us, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” Paul is of the same mind: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:9). And Trent could not be more emphatic: “[N]one of the things that precede justification, whether by faith or works, merit the grace of justification” (DCJ, 7); and again, “in adults the beginning of that justification must proceed from the predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ…without any merits on their part, they are called” (DCJ, 5).

We cooperate with this predisposing grace and receive Baptism, the sacrament of faith: “He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit… so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). Baptism is our birth into the family of God.

Progress in Justification

Once born, we are expected to grow; and that requires our cooperation. Just as physical growth requires proper nutrition, the normal functioning of the muscles, and avoidance of danger; so growth in the supernatural life requires attentiveness to prayer, the willingness to live as Christ, and the avoidance of grave sin. James asks, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? . . . Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:14-17). This actually continues St. Paul’s thought from above, “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God…For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:9-10).

Every good work originates in God but is actualized in us, requiring our cooperation. That is why Paul tells the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). The Council of Trent reiterated, “For since Christ Jesus Himself, as the head into the members and the vine into the branches [Jn 15:1], continually infuses strength into the justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies, and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God. . .He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their merits” (DCJ, 16).

Martin Luther famously saw conflict between James’ statement that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24) and Paul’s “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom 3:28); but this simply isn’t the case. James wrote to Jewish Christians who he had reason to believe were lax in living their faith. Paul, on the other hand, wrote to mixed communities in which Jewish believers insisted that Gentiles who came to faith in Christ were not truly justified until they were circumcised and began living under the Mosaic Law’s cultic and dietary stipulations.

Christians do live under a law, but it is not the Law of Moses. It is what James calls “the royal law,” or law of the kingdom (2:8-9) and what Paul calls the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21). Paul makes a clear distinction between “works of the law” and other “works” which must be manifest if one is to obtain final salvation: “[God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom 2:6–7). In Galatians he says, “[T]hrough the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. . .[N]either circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:5-6). There is no true conflict between Paul and James; they even make the same distinction between those who hear and those who do (Rom 2:13; James 1:22)!

We progress in justification as we remain faithful to Christ in the midst of trial and temptation. Listen to James: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life. . .[E]ach person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.” (1:12-15). Paul called this our struggle against “the flesh” (Rom 7:21-23; 8:12-13). But as James assures us, we receive power to overcome, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind” (James 4:6-10).

The Council of Trent wrote of these same realities: “[I]n the one baptized there remains concupiscence or an inclination to sin, which, since it is left for us to wrestle with, cannot injure those who do not acquiesce but resist manfully by the grace of Jesus Christ; indeed, he who shall have striven lawfully shall be crowned [Eph 4:22, 24; Col. 3:9]. This concupiscence, which the Apostle sometimes calls sin [Rom 6-8; Col. 3], the holy council declares the Catholic Church has never understood to be called sin in the sense that it is truly and properly sin in those born again, but in the sense that it is of sin and inclines to sin” (Decree Concerning Original Sin, 5).

“Venial” sins impede the flow of Christ’s life within us but do not completely sever our union with the Lord. James says, “For we all make many mistakes” (3:2); and Trent notes, “during this mortal life, men, however holy and just, fall at times into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial, they do not on that account cease to be just, for that petition of the just, forgive us our trespasses [Mt 6:12]” (DCJ, 11). Venial sins, if not repented of, can take us to mortal sin; or as James says, “desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (1:15). Paul lists such deadly sins in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:19-21, warning that “those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

“But God, who is rich in mercy,” restores every child who repents (Eph 2:4). James writes, “whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:20). This healing is normally effected through the sacrament of reconciliation; James may well make reference to its public celebration in connection with his discussion of the anointing of the sick (5:16; Cf Jn 20:22-23). Trent highlights the role of grace in reconciliation: “Those who through sin have forfeited the received grace of justification, can again be justified when, moved by God, they exert themselves to obtain through the sacrament of penance the recovery, by the merits of Christ, of the grace lost” (DCJ, 14).

The bottom line is that we must grow in the divine life. As Paul wrote, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:12).

Final Justification

Our perseverance in grace will be rewarded when we stand before Christ the judge and receive the fullness of justification in the resurrection of our bodies. James tells us, “The farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:7-8); and Paul writes, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:16-17). Trent insists that even this result of grace:

“…with regard to the gift of perseverance, of which it is written: He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved [Mt 10:22; 24:13], which cannot be obtained from anyone except from Him who is able to make him stand who stands [Rom 14:4], that he may stand perseveringly, and to raise him who falls, let no one promise himself herein something as certain with an absolute certainty, though all ought to place and repose the firmest hope in God’s help. For God, unless men themselves fail in His grace, as he has begun a good work, so will he perfect it, working to will and to accomplish [Phil 1:6; 2:13]” (DCJ, 13).

So there you are, a short(ish) scriptural and magisterial primer on the doctrine of justification.

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This article was adapted from Shane Kapler’s James: Jewish Roots: Catholic Fruits (Angelico Press, 2021).

Photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash

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