Post Series



Olson argues that it is impossible to overestimate the importance Thomas Aquinas has had for the story of Christian theology and especially for the story of Catholic theology; he truly is the “scholastic thinker par excellence.” ((Olson, Christian Theology, 331.)) Aquinas’ theological corpus, the Summa Theologica, had a large effect on Roman Catholic dogma and later helped trigger the response from Luther that led to the Reformation. Though his “ultimate aim was to protect and promote salvation,” ((Olson, Christian Theology, 344.)) components of his understanding of the nature of salvation later led to the theological protests that marked the 16th and 17th centuries. Primary among those components is Aquinas’ answer regarding our ultimate question: How does one become right with God? While some have dismissed these protests as “misunderstandings,” ((Olson, Christian Theology, 335.)) much of Luther’s and Calvin’s reactions were legitimate responses to theological problems posed by the Thomistic tradition. Chief among those were Aquinas’ definition of justification and dynamic between faith and merit for the consummation of the justifying process at glorification.

Justification Defined

According to Aquinas, “the justification of the unrighteous is a movement in which the human mind is moved by God from the state of sin to the state of justice.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 179.)) “In its passive sense justification implies a movement towards justice;” in its primary sense “justification implies a kind of transformation from the state of injustice to the state of justice.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 65.)) From his perspective, all of humanity is unreconciled to God and “spoiled.” While human nature can be thought of in two ways—intact like Adam before sin or spoiled after Adam sinned—Aquinas insists that we are spoiled and need to be healed in order to live as we were intended out of our supernatural meritorious capacity. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 75.)) Aquinas believes that justification is a four-fold process that happens in an instance at the moment of baptism when a sinner’s original sin is absolved. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 11, 23.)) The infusion of grace necessary for justification to occur “takes place in an instance without temporal succession.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 185.))

This movement and transformation is both instant and a process, illustrated in figures 1 and 2 (Note: this is graphic illustrates Aquinas’ very complicated process of justification. It looks complex because it is!):


While fig. 1 appears to display a temporal succession of “events,” they are not; the act of justification is logical, not temporal. The four logical, successive requirements for justification of the unrighteous include: 1) infusion of grace; 2) a movement of free choice toward God; 3) a movement of free choice away from sin; and 4) the forgiveness of sins. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 181.)) This entire justifying process happens all at once in this particular order, beginning with the infusion of God’s grace outside any personal merit.

Contrary to popular evangelical notions, justification itself is not initially won by merit. We cannot become initially right with God on our own, but need the grace of God. While meritorious works are important for the process of justification to proceed to the end, which this examination will address shortly, the initial movement is begun entirely by God. As Aquinas insists, “man cannot merit eternal life without grace.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 87.)) He believes this is the case because eternal life is “an end which lies beyond the proportionate scope of human nature…by his natural endowments man cannot produce meritorious works proportional to eternal life.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 87.)) Because man is spoiled, having sinned and offended God and become excluded from receiving eternal life, ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 169.)) he needs the higher power of grace in order to be healed and restored, to become right with God. That higher power comes in the form of an infusion of grace from God through a preparation for its receipt, primarily through God and secondarily through the person. Primarily, God is the one who dispenses the gift of grace. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 155.)) He is also the one responsible for moving the will to receive its infusion; God is the primary agent who moves the free choice of man. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 149.)) Secondarily, a person may prepare himself in greater ways in order to receive it more abundantly, though it “is only man’s doing in so far as his free choice is moved by God.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 149, 155.))

This preparation for grace leads to an infusion of “the gift of justifying grace in such a way that at the same time he also moves the free choice to accept the gift of grace.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 171.)) After receipt of this gift, the mind is so moved to leave behind sin and approach justice, which is right living according to God. According to Aquinas, then, there is a double movement of free choice: “one in which one reaches out for God’s justice by desire, and one in which sin is renounced.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 179.)) In the movement of justifying grace, a person is moved to walk toward God and His justice and moved to leave behind sin, all of which is informed by God’s grace. The end to which this process moves is ultimately the forgiveness of sins. As he puts it, “The justification of the unrighteous is said to consist in the forgiveness of sins in the sense that every movement is specified by its end-term.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 183.))  Aquinas believed that man was in a state of sin and alienation from God, needing a transformation out of that state. As his definition states, justification is a transformation from the state of unrighteousness and sin to the state of righteousness through the forgiveness of sins. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 165.)) In the end, sin is forgiven and man is reconciled to God through His divine love. His sins are not imputed to him and he receives an infusion of a right ordering.

For Aquinas, “Justification is concerned with ‘justice in the sight of God.’” ((McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 65.)) He defines justice as “a rightness of order,” which includes “a right order in man’s own action” and “a kind of rightness of order in man’s own interior disposition.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 165.)) There is a way in which man is supposed to be according to God’s original design, but he is spoiled. Man is disordered, which is effectively born out in his Reason. “Every sin, so far as it implies a kind of disorder of a mind which is not subject to God, can be called injustice, being contrary to justice in the sense defined…but justice implies the whole rightness of order general.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 167.)) While justice is defined in relation to God Himself, it seems as though there was an original state within man himself that allowed him to act in concert with justice, that was properly ordered. In his spoiled nature, man falls short of what he is capable of doing according to his nature, so that he cannot live as he was intended to live by his own endowment. This natural endowment is not obliterated and overly depraved, but rather spoiled. “Human nature may be damaged goods, so to speak, but the basic image of God, which is reason, is intact in spite of original sin. What the Fall destroyed was ‘original righteousness,’ not the image of God.” ((Olson, Christian Theology, 344.)) This original righteousness of man is returned to him by an infusion of his own inherent righteousness.

As McGrath explains, “Iustitia infusa is that justice which is infused into humans by God, by which their higher faculties are submitted to God…The human intellect is restored through justifying faith, so that individuals are able to avoid mortal sins,” although humans are “still unable to avoid venial sins.” ((McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 66.)) Furthermore, “Thomas’ concept of infused justice is very similar to Aristotle’s notion of metaphorical justice, which refers primarily to a rectitude of order within the interior disposition of humans.” ((McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 66.)) Man cannot be restored to this original righteous state on his own or through his own natural reason, however. Rather “he needs the light of grace to be infused in him again.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 95.))

After this first justifying grace, an individual’s sins are forgiven and he is healed and restored. Once healed, he or she “is raised up to perform works which merit eternal life.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 101.)) “This nature is in fact healed as far as the mind is concerned” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 103.)) and now capable of performing works that lead to eternal life, while sitting in the first infused grace, which is justifying grace. It seems clear that Aquinas is banking on an original, internal righteousness being restored to humanity, rather than the righteousness of Christ Himself. Though it is by the grace of Christ that a person finds forgiveness and restoration, ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 217. Christ Himself was the only person who merited, through His obedience, the first grace (justification) for someone else (i.e. Humanity). And Christ’s soul “was moved by God through grace in such a way that not only he Himself should arrive at the glory of eternal life but should bring others to it too, in his role as head of the Church and authority of human salvation.”)) what he or she receives is not His righteousness, but a restored personal righteousness. A person is made right with God because they themselves are restored to the way they were originally intended, even before glorification. Rather than their rightness before God being dependent upon the rightness of Christ, it is dependent upon themselves through the grace of God. This is more clearly illustrated when one realizes that justification is a process, one that someone can fall in and out of throughout their life. Unlike the answer given by subsequent generations, (i.e. Luther and Calvin) Aquinas’ answer to our question seems to be dependent upon works of merit in addition to the initial movement of faith of the believer.

Role of Faith; Role of Merit

Aquinas has made it clear that no one can merit eternal life while in the state of sin. “For since sin is an offense to God which excludes the sinner from eternal life…no one in the state of sin can merit eternal life without first being reconciled to God and his sin forgiven.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 207.)) Because people are by nature spoiled and exist in the state of sin, they are incapable of becoming right with God on their own, of attaining justifying grace through merit. Instead, “it is clear that in the justification of the unrighteous an act of faith is required in this sense, that man should believe that God is who justifies men through the mystery of Christ.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 177.)) A person becomes initially right with God when through faith their mind is turned to God. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 175.)) This is an initial iteration in a life-long progression toward eternal life, however.

After the infusion of grace that starts the process of justification, a person believes through faith that God re-orders men through the mystery of Christ. “Man is justified by faith, not as though by believing he merits justification, but in the sense that he believes while he is being justified…the movement of faith is required for the justification of the unrighteous.” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 215.)) This is true because Christ alone is the one who has merited the first grace for us. “Christ’s soul was moved by God through grace in such a way that not only he himself should arrive at the glory of eternal life, but should bring others to it too…” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 217.)) For Aquinas, the receipt of justifying grace, which is the first grace, comes not by merit, but through faith. This is only half the picture, however, because the final consummation of grace and the perseverance of a person unto glory is indeed dependent upon the meritorious works of the believer while in the state of grace.

Though a person becomes initially right with God by grace through faith, he or she is called to persevere through free choice. Aquinas believed that justification was just the beginning, not the end goal. Instead, that end was eternal life, which was merited in some way because of the naturally endowed ability to freely choose. Though no one in the state of sin can inherit eternal life, after one is reconciled to God and his sins forgiven he or she can and is required to. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 207.)) By the grace of God, a person is empowered to merit eternal life after being restored to their original state by the grace of God, a merit that is divinely preordained and ordered. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 205.)) After one is restored to this state with an infusion of inherent righteousness, a person reaches toward eternal life through meritorious works, though our merit is a secondary cause in addition to the primary one by God’s mercy and Spirit. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 209.)) Though man cannot earn the first grace, justifying grace, ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 215.)) “once healed [he] is raised up to perform works which merit eternal life. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 101.))

While beforehand a person could not merit eternal life, after the process of justification has begun he or she is in the state of grace marked by habitual grace, which allows a person to do good works in order to merit the final consummation of grace, eternal life. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 87, 89.)) Furthermore, a person is not entirely safe and completely right with God, because there is the chance for “a future fall,” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 221.)) which is rectified through the sacrament of Penance. ((See McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 117-127. Also see Aquinas, Summa, Part 3 Question 84.)) Aquinas calls this “the second plank after shipwreck,” because after the justified believer looses their “spiritual integrity” through sin, they regain their justified state through Penance. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.60, 27.)) While “any act of charity merits eternal life in an absolute sense,” subsequent sins impede the preceding merit and get in the way of the life-long journey toward the final grace. ((Aquinas, Summa, v.30, 221.)) These subsequent sins cause a person to fall of rightness with God after the first justifying grace. It is necessary for the salvation of the sinner that his sin be taken away, which cannot happen “without the sacrament of Penance; it is clear that the sacrament of Penance is necessary for salvation after sin…” ((Aquinas, Summa, v.60, 23.)) Therefore, a person is neither really secure in their righteous state nor truly right with God until the end, where he or she will find out for sure whether they stayed in that grace enough.

For Aquinas, then, becoming right with God is initiated by the grace of God and received by faith. Once a person receives their original inherent righteousness through a divine infusion after their sins are remitted, they begin a life-long meritorious journey toward eternal life, during which they fall in and out of their justified state thanks to continued sinning. A person is restored back to rightness with God through Penance and loose that rightness with God through sin. Ultimately, a person receives eternal life and experiences the final consummation of grace through personal merit. While the process of becoming right with God is begun by God, it is finished and completed by and dependent upon the individual.

The next post will look at the Lutheran response and justification definition.