Luther’s “Tower” Justification Idea & Catholicism

Luther’s “Tower” Justification Idea & Catholicism May 28, 2024

+ Early Catholic Church & St. Thomas Aquinas on Grace Alone (Contra Pelagianism) & Justification

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A website called Reformation 500 provides the standard, boilerplate Protestant polemic and mythology about one of the key events of the Protestant Revolt (aka, “Reformation”) and about the supposed Catholic belief before it occurred:

The [Catholic] church taught that the church and its human priesthood were indispensable for salvation. (“Luther’s Tower Experience: Martin Luther Discovers the True Meaning of Righteousness by Faith,” 1-13-17)

In fact, both Martin Luther and John Calvin taught a version of the same notion. Luther stated:

[O]utside the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation. (Sermons II, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand; Sermon for the Early Christmas Service, Luke 2 [:15-20], 25 December 1521, translated by John G. Kunstmann; in Luther’s Works, vol. 52)

And Calvin agreed:

[B]eyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for . . . the abandonment of the Church is always fatal (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. IV, 1:4)

This being the case, why rail against the Catholic Church for believing the same? The article continues:

[R]elief from guilt and punishment could be dispensed by the church at whatever price it set. There was no benefit in the church teaching that God “so loved the world” that He paid the price of the sinner’s disobedience Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. If Christians feared God, the church had an important role to play in mediating between God and sinners.

Salvation as a gift of grace and righteousness by faith were not understood by Christians until the Reformation. Christians were taught to feel terror toward God and to believe that He watched their every move, eager to punish any slip. As a result, Christians felt indebted to the church for standing between that wrathful God and themselves.

Luther’s breakthrough in understanding and his preaching of justification by faith as a gift from the heart of a loving, heavenly Father changed everything. Suddenly, God’s character was seen in a new light. The Reformation taught believers to approach God personally because He was a loving Father who delighted in mercy. (Ibid.; my italics)

First of all, before I begin my analysis proper, I have in the past noted many times how the Catholic belief concerning initial justification is virtually identical to Protestant justification by faith alone; and we also agree that salvation is ultimately by grace (sola gratia). See:

Trent Doesn’t Utterly Exclude Imputation (Kenneth Howell) [July 1996]

Initial Justification & “Faith Alone”: Harmonious? [5-3-04]

2nd Council of Orange: Sola Gratia vs. Total Depravity [1-5-09]

Grace Alone: Perfectly Acceptable Catholic Teaching [2-3-09]

Monergism in Initial Justification is Catholic Doctrine [1-7-10]

Catholics & Justification by Faith Alone: Is There a Sense in Which Catholics Can Accept “Faith Alone” and/or Imputed Justification (with Proper Biblical Qualifications)? [9-28-10]

Salvation: By Grace Alone, Not Faith Alone or Works [2013]

Grace Alone: Biblical & Catholic Teaching [12-1-15]

Catholics and Protestants Agree on Grace Alone and the Necessity of the Presence of Good Works in Regenerate and Ultimately Saved Persons; Disagree on Faith Alone [5-4-17]

Now let’s look at Luther’s own report of his “tower” experience, from the same article cited above:

Meanwhile in that same year, 1519, I had begun interpreting the Psalms once again. I felt confident that I was now more experienced, since I had dealt in university courses with St. Paul’s Letters to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the Letter to the Hebrews. I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. (translation by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB, for the Saint Anselm College Humanities Program. It is distributed by Project Wittenberg with the permission of the author. (c)1983 by Saint Anselm Abbey).

Our beef with this is the idea that this was some blinding insight that never crossed Catholic minds since time immemorial. It’s the same sort of myth that we also see when, for example Luther made out that no one ever had the Bible in their own tongue till he came along. Now he wants to claim credit for discovering the true doctrines of sola gratia and justification. And that myth had been bandied about for 500 years now.

Readers of this article have the rare opportunity of actually being able to learn about the Catholic perspective on all this, too. There are always two sides to every story. It so happens that the basic outlook of Luther’s realization — at least in some significant aspects — was expressed by the Catholic Church 989 to 1000 years earlier. The Sources of Catholic Dogma (Heinrich Denzinger) is the standard Catholic compendium of Catholic dogmas. It’s available online (30th edition, 1854), and I have the latest 43rd edition (2012) in my library, about three feet away from me as I write. It was partially translated and edited by a good friend of mine, Dr. Robert Fastiggi. The two versions have a different numbering system. I will note both as I cite these reference works.

The 15th (or 16th) Synod of Carthage in May 418 decreed:

“whoever says, that for this reason the grace of justification is given to us, that what we are ordered to do through free will we may be able to accomplish more easily through grace, just as if, even were grace not given, we could nevertheless fulfill the divine commands without it, though not indeed easily, let him be anathema. For of the fruits of his commands the Lord did not speak when He said: Without me you can accomplish (them) with more difficulty, but when He said: Without me you can do nothing [John 15:5].” (Denz. #138 / new number: 227)

Then we have the Second Council of Orange, begin on July 3, 529:

Can. 3. If anyone says that the grace of God can be bestowed by human invocation, but that the grace itself does not bring it to pass that it be invoked by us, he contradicts Isaias the Prophet, or the Apostle who says the same thing: “I was found by those who were not seeking me: I appeared openly to those, who did not ask me” [Rom. 10:20; cf. Isa. 65:1]. (#176 / 373)

Can. 4. If anyone contends that in order that we may be cleansed from sin, God waits for our good will, but does not acknowledge that even the wish to be purged is produced in us through the infusion and operation of the Holy Spirit, he opposes the Holy Spirit Himself, who says through Solomon: “Good will is prepared by the Lord” [Provo 8:35: LXX], and the Apostle who beneficially says: “It is God, who works in us both to will and to accomplish according to his good will” [Phil. 2:13]. (#177 / 374)

Can. 5. If anyone says, that just as the increase [of faith] so also the beginning of faith and the very desire of credulity, by which we believe in Him who justifies the impious, and (by which) we arrive at the regeneration of holy baptism (is) not through the gift of grace, that is, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit reforming our will from infidelity to faith, from impiety to piety, but is naturally in us, he is proved (to be) antagonistic to the doctrine of the Apostles, since blessed Paul says : We trust, that he who begins a good work in us, will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus [Phil. 1:6]; and the following: It was given to you for Christ not only that you may believe in Him, but also, that you may suffer tor Him [Phil. 1:29]; and: By grace you are made safe through faith, and this not of yourselves; for it is the gift of God [Eph. 2:8]. For those who say that faith, by which we believe in God, is natural, declare that all those who are alien to the Church of Christ are in a measure faithful [cf. St. Augustine]. (#178 / 375)

Can. 6. If anyone asserts that without the grace of God mercy is divinely given to us when we believe, will, desire, try, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, urge, but does not confess that through the infusion and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in us, it is brought about that we believe, wish, or are able to do all these things as we ought, and does not join either to human humility or obedience the help of grace, nor agree that it is the gift of His grace that we are obedient and humble, opposes the Apostle who says: W hat have you, that you have not received? [I Cor. 4:7J; and: By the grace of God I am that, which I am [I Cor. 15:10; cf. St. Augustine and St. Prosper of Aquitaine]. (#179 / 376)

Can. 7. If anyone affirms that without the illumination and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, — who gives to all sweetness in consenting to and believing in the truth,– through the strength of nature he can think anything good which pertains to the salvation of eternal life, as he should, or choose, or consent to salvation, that is to the evangelical proclamation, he is deceived by the heretical spirit, not understanding the voice of God speaking in the Gospel: “Without me you can do nothing” [John 15:5]; and that of the Apostle: Not that we are fit to think everything by ourselves as of ourselves, but our suffic1ency is from God [II Cor. 3:5; cf. St. Augustine]. (#180 / 377)

Can. 9. “The assistance of God. It is a divine gift, both when we think 182 rightly and when we restrain our feet from falsity and injustice; for as often as we do good, God operates in us and with us, that we may work” [St. Prosper]. (#182 / 379)

Can. 12.”God loves such as us. God loves us, such as we shall be by 185 His gift, not such as we are by our own merit” [St. Prosper]. (#185 / 382)

Can. 14. “No wretched person is freed from misery, however small, unless he is first reached by the mercy of God” [St. Prosper], just as the Psalmist says: Let thy mercy, Lord, speedily anticipate us [Ps. 78:8 J; and also: “My God, His mercy will prevent me” [Ps. 58:11].” (#187 / 384)

Can. 18. “That grace is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed; but grace, which is not due, precedes, that they may be done” [St. Prosper]. (#191 / 388)

Can. 19. “That no one is saved except by God’s mercy. Even if human nature remained in that integrity in which it was formed, it would in no way save itself without the help of its Creator; therefore, since without the grace of God it cannot guard the health which it received, how without the grace of God will it be able to recover what it has lost?” [St. Prosper]. (#192 / 389)

Can. 20. “That without God man can do no good. God does many good things in man, which man does not do; indeed man can do no good that God does not expect that man do” [St. Prosper]. (#193 / 390)

Can. 21. Nature and grace. Just as the Apostle most truly says to those, who, wishing to be justified in the law, have fallen even from grace: If justice is from the law, then Christ died in vain [Gal. 2:21]; so it is most truly said to those who think that grace, which the faith of Christ commends and obtains, is nature: If justice is through nature, then Christ died in vain. For the law was already here, and it did not justify; nature, too, was already present, and it did not justify. Therefore, Christ did not die in vain, that the law also might be fulfilled through Him, who said: I came not to destroy the law but to fulfill (it) [Matt. 5:17], and in order that nature ruined by Adam, might be repaired by Him, who said: He came to seek and to save that which had been lost [Luke 19:10]” [St. Prosper]. (#194 / 391)

We see, then, that grace alone and God’s mercy were no new things (Catholics are neither Pelagians nor Semi-Pelagians), putting the lie to the article’s ludicrous claim: “Salvation as a gift of grace and righteousness by faith were not understood by Christians until the Reformation.” An instant salvation — unable to be lost — by faith alone, however, was a novel and false idea.  See:

Faith Alone: Development of Church Fathers & St. Augustine? [11-24-00]

Romans 2-4 & “Works of the Law”: Patristic Interpretation [2-16-01]

Church Fathers vs. the “Reformation Pillar” of “Faith Alone” [10-24-07]

Final Judgment & Works (Not Faith): 50 Passages [2-10-08]

Justification: Not by Faith Alone, & Ongoing (Romans 4, James 2, and Abraham’s Multiple Justifications) [10-15-11]

Final Judgment Always Has to Do with Works and Never with “Faith Alone” [9-5-14]

Jesus vs. “Faith Alone” (Rich Young Ruler) [10-12-15]

“Catholic Justification” in James & Romans [11-18-15]

Philippians 2:12 & “Work[ing] Out” One’s Salvation [1-26-16]

“Faith Alone”?: Quick & Decisive Biblical Refutation [1-8-19]

Jesus: Faith + Works (Not Faith Alone) Leads to Salvation [8-1-19]

Defense of Bible Passages vs. Eternal Security & Faith Alone (vs. Jason Engwer) [8-12-20]

Banzoli’s 45 “Faith Alone” Passages; My 200 Biblical Disproofs [6-16-22]

Luther’s Translation of “Faith Alone” in Romans 3:28 (Also: Did “Early Erasmus” Agree with Luther?) [12-7-22]

Abraham: Justified Twice by Works & Once by Faith [8-30-23]

Abraham and Ongoing Justification by Faith and Works [National Catholic Register, 9-19-23]

Sola Fide (Faith Alone) Nonexistent Before the Protestant Revolt in 1517 (Geisler & McGrath) [Catholic365, 10-31-23]

Bible / Faith “Alone” vs. The Fathers (vs. Gavin Ortlund) [2-13-24]

Abraham’s Justification By Faith & Works (vs. Jordan Cooper) + Catholic Exegesis Regarding St. Paul’s Specific Meaning of “Works” in Romans 4 [3-1-24]

Church Fathers vs. “Faith Alone”: Handy Capsule Proofs [4-8-24]

16 Church Fathers vs. Faith Alone [National Catholic Register, 4-23-24]

14 More Church Fathers vs. Faith Alone [National Catholic Register, 4-30-24]

St. Thomas Aquinas provided great insight on these matters in the 13th century (still nearly 300 years before Luther). Here are some of the relevant sub-topics from my book, The Quotable Summa Theologica (Jan. 2013, 200 pages):

Grace Alone (for Justification and Salvation)

Now it is manifest that human virtues perfect man according as it is natural for him to be moved by his reason in his interior and exterior actions. Consequently man needs yet higher perfections, whereby to be disposed to be moved by God. These perfections are called gifts, not only because they are infused by God, but also because by them man is disposed to become amenable to the Divine inspiration, according to Is. 50:5: “The Lord . . . hath opened my ear, and I do not resist; I have not gone back.” Even the Philosopher says in the chapter On Good Fortune (Ethic. Eudem., vii, 8) that for those who are moved by Divine instinct, there is no need to take counsel according to human reason, but only to follow their inner promptings, since they are moved by a principle higher than human reason. This then is what some say, viz. that the gifts perfect man for acts which are higher than acts of virtue. (ST [Summa Theologica] 1-2, q. 68, a. 1c)

. . . in matters directed to the supernatural end, to which man’s reason moves him, according as it is, in a manner, and imperfectly, informed by the theological virtues, the motion of reason does not suffice, unless it receive in addition the prompting or motion of the Holy Ghost, according to Rm. 8:14,17: “Whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are sons of God . . . and if sons, heirs also”: and Ps. 142:10: “Thy good Spirit shall lead me into the right land,” because, to wit, none can receive the inheritance of that land of the Blessed, except he be moved and led thither by the Holy Ghost. Therefore, in order to accomplish this end, it is necessary for man to have the gift of the Holy Ghost. (ST 1-2, q. 68, a. 2c)

By the theological and moral virtues, man is not so perfected in respect of his last end, as not to stand in continual need of being moved by the yet higher promptings of the Holy Ghost . . . (ST 1-2, q. 68, a. 2, ad 2)

. . . man, by his natural endowments, cannot produce meritorious works proportionate to everlasting life; and for this a higher force is needed, viz. the force of grace. And thus without grace man cannot merit everlasting life . . . (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 5c)

It is written (Jn. 6:44): “No man can come to Me except the Father, Who hath sent Me, draw him.” But if man could prepare himself, he would not need to be drawn by another. Hence man cannot prepare himself without the help of grace. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 6, sed contra)

. . . since God is the First Mover, simply, it is by His motion that everything seeks to be likened to God in its own way. Hence Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that “God turns all to Himself.” But He directs righteous men to Himself as to a special end, which they seek, and to which they wish to cling, according to Ps. 72:28, “it is good for Me to adhere to my God.” And that they are “turned” to God can only spring from God’s having “turned” them. Now to prepare oneself for grace is, as it were, to be turned to God; just as, whoever has his eyes turned away from the light of the sun, prepares himself to receive the sun’s light, by turning his eyes towards the sun. Hence it is clear that man cannot prepare himself to receive the light of grace except by the gratuitous help of God moving him inwardly. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 6c)

Man’s turning to God is by free-will; and thus man is bidden to turn himself to God. But free-will can only be turned to God, when God turns it, according to Jer. 31:18: “Convert me and I shall be converted, for Thou art the Lord, my God”; and Lam. 5:21: “Convert us, O Lord, to Thee, and we shall be converted.” (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 6, ad 1)

It is the part of man to prepare his soul, since he does this by his free-will. And yet he does not do this without the help of God moving him, and drawing him to Himself . . . (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 6, ad 4)

The Apostle says (Gal. 2:21; Cf. Gal. 3:21): “For if there had been a law given which could give life—then Christ died in vain,” i.e. to no purpose. Hence with equal reason, if man has a nature, whereby he can he justified, “Christ died in vain,” i.e. to no purpose. But this cannot fittingly be said. Therefore by himself he cannot be justified, i.e. he cannot return from a state of sin to a state of justice. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 7, sed contra)

Man by himself can no wise rise from sin without the help of grace. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 7c)

To man is bidden that which pertains to the act of free-will, as this act is required in order that man should rise from sin. Hence when it is said, “Arise, and Christ shall enlighten thee,” we are not to think that the complete rising from sin precedes the enlightenment of grace; but that when man by his free-will, moved by God, strives to rise from sin, he receives the light of justifying grace. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 7, ad 1)

. . . man cannot be restored by himself; but he requires the light of grace to be poured upon him anew, as if the soul were infused into a dead body for its resurrection. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 7, ad 2)

The Pelagians held that this cause was nothing else than man’s free-will: and consequently they said that the beginning of faith is from ourselves, inasmuch as, to wit, it is in our power to be ready to assent to things which are of faith, but that the consummation of faith is from God, Who proposes to us the things we have to believe. But this is false, for, since man, by assenting to matters of faith, is raised above his nature, this must needs accrue to him from some supernatural principle moving him inwardly; and this is God. Therefore faith, as regards the assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God moving man inwardly by grace. (ST 2-2, q. 6, a. 1c)

To believe does indeed depend on the will of the believer: but man’s will needs to be prepared by God with grace, in order that he may be raised to things which are above his nature . . . (ST 2-2, q. 6, a. 1, ad 3)

Justification by Faith

. . . if we suppose, as indeed it is a truth of faith, that the beginning of faith is in us from God, the first act must flow from grace; and thus it cannot be meritorious of the first grace. Therefore man is justified by faith, not as though man, by believing, were to merit justification, but that, he believes, whilst he is being justified; inasmuch as a movement of faith is required for the justification of the ungodly . . . (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 5, ad 1)

Justification, Imputed (Initial); of the “Ungodly”

. . . this justice may be brought about in man by a movement from one contrary to the other, and thus justification implies a transmutation from the state of injustice to the aforesaid state of justice. And it is thus we are now speaking of the justification of the ungodly, according to the Apostle (Rm. 4:5): “But to him that worketh not, yet believeth in Him that justifieth the ungodly,” etc. (ST 1-2, q. 113, a. 1c)

As God’s love consists not merely in the act of the Divine will but also implies a certain effect of grace, . . . so likewise, when God does not impute sin to a man, there is implied a certain effect in him to whom the sin is not imputed; for it proceeds from the Divine love, that sin is not imputed to a man by God. (ST 1-2, q. 113, a. 2, ad 2)

The justification of the ungodly is brought about by God moving man to justice. For He it is “that justifieth the ungodly” according to Rm. 4:5. Now God moves everything in its own manner, just as we see that in natural things, what is heavy and what is light are moved differently, on account of their diverse natures. Hence He moves man to justice according to the condition of his human nature. But it is man’s proper nature to have free-will. Hence in him who has the use of reason, God’s motion to justice does not take place without a movement of the free-will; but He so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time He moves the free-will to accept the gift of grace, in such as are capable of being moved thus. (ST 1-2, q. 113, a. 3c)

. . . a movement of free-will is required for the justification of the ungodly, inasmuch as man’s mind is moved by God. Now God moves man’s soul by turning it to Himself according to Ps. 84:7 (Septuagint): “Thou wilt turn us, O God, and bring us to life.” Hence for the justification of the ungodly a movement of the mind is required, by which it is turned to God. Now the first turning to God is by faith, according to Heb. 11:6: “He that cometh to God must believe that He is.” Hence a movement of faith is required for the justification of the ungodly. (ST 1-2, q. 113, a. 4c)

The justification of the ungodly is called the remission of sins . . . (ST 1-2, q. 113, a. 6, ad 1)

The justification of the ungodly is caused by the justifying grace of the Holy Spirit. Now the Holy Spirit comes to men’s minds suddenly, according to Acts 2:2: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a mighty wind coming,” upon which the gloss says that “the grace of the Holy Ghost knows no tardy efforts.” Hence the justification of the ungodly is not successive, but instantaneous. (ST 1-2, q. 113, a. 7, sed contra)

Works, Good (in Grace)

. . . grace is the principle of all our good works . . . (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 5c)

Man’s every good work proceeds from the first grace as from its principle . . . (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 5, ad 3)

In the citations above, St. Thomas illustrates instances where Catholics and Protestants essentially agree. But St. Thomas was, of course, an orthodox Catholic, so he also believed in the following things, that Protestants reject:

Apostasy (Falling Away from the Faith or Salvation)

Some have said that none could be blotted out of the book of life as a matter of fact, but only in the opinion of men. For it is customary in the Scriptures to say that something is done when it becomes known. Thus some are said to be written in the book of life, inasmuch as men think they are written therein, on account of the present righteousness they see in them; but when it becomes evident, either in this world or in the next, that they have fallen from that state of righteousness, they are then said to be blotted out. . . . the book of life is the inscription of those ordained to eternal life, to which one is directed from two sources; namely, from predestination, which direction never fails, and from grace; for whoever has grace, by this very fact becomes fitted for eternal life. This direction fails sometimes; because some are directed by possessing grace, to obtain eternal life, yet they fail to obtain it through mortal sin. . . . Those, however, who are ordained to eternal life, not through divine predestination, but through grace, are said to be written in the book of life not simply, but relatively, . . . God knows one is first ordained to eternal life, and afterwards not ordained when he falls from grace. (ST 1, q. 24, a. 3c)

But if he give up the faith, then he seems to turn away from God altogether: and consequently, apostasy simply and absolutely is that whereby a man withdraws from the faith, and is called “apostasy of perfidy.” In this way apostasy, simply so called, pertains to unbelief. (ST 2-2, q. 12, a. 1c)

For since faith is the first foundation of things to be hoped for, and since, without faith it is “impossible to please God”; when once faith is removed, man retains nothing that may be useful for the obtaining of eternal salvation, for which reason it is written (Prov. 6:12): “A man that is an apostate, an unprofitable man”: because faith is the life of the soul, according to Rm. 1:17: “The just man liveth by faith.” (ST 2-2, q. 12, a. 1, ad 2)

. . . it is written (2 Pet. 2:21): “It had been better for them not to have known the way of justice, than after they have known it, to turn back from that holy commandment which was delivered to them.” Now those who know not the way of truth will be punished for ever. Therefore Christians who have turned back after knowing it will also be punished for ever. (ST Suppl., q. 99, a. 4, sed contra)

Grace: Degrees or Greater Measure of

It is written (Eph. 4:7): “But to every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the giving of Christ.” Now what is given in measure, is not given to all equally. Hence all have not an equal grace. (ST 1-2, q. 112, a. 4, sed contra)

Augustine says (super Ep. Joan.; cf. Ep. clxxxvi) that “charity merits increase, and being increased merits to be perfected.” Hence the increase of grace or charity falls under merit. (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 8, sed contra)

By every meritorious act a man merits the increase of grace, equally with the consummation of grace which is eternal life. (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 8, ad 3)

Justification, Infused (Sanctification)

Augustine says (De Natura et Gratia xxvi) that “as the eye of the body though most healthy cannot see unless it is helped by the brightness of light, so, neither can a man, even if he is most righteous, live righteously unless he be helped by the eternal light of justice.” But justification is by grace, according to Rm. 3:24: “Being justified freely by His grace.” Hence even a man who already possesses grace needs a further assistance of grace in order to live righteously. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 9, sed contra)

. . . in order to live righteously a man needs a twofold help of God—first, a habitual gift whereby corrupted human nature is healed, and after being healed is lifted up so as to work deeds meritoriously of everlasting life, which exceed the capability of nature. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 9c)

. . . man, even when possessed of grace, needs perseverance to be given to him by God. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 10, sed contra)

Grace causes faith not only when faith begins anew to be in a man, but also as long as faith lasts. . . . God is always working man’s justification, even as the sun is always lighting up the air. Hence grace is not less effective when it comes to a believer than when it comes to an unbeliever: since it causes faith in both, in the former by confirming and perfecting it, in the latter by creating it anew. (ST 2-2, q. 4, a. 4, ad 3)

A thing is impure through being mixed with baser things: for silver is not called impure, when mixed with gold, which betters it, but when mixed with lead or tin. Now it is evident that the rational creature is more excellent than all transient and corporeal creatures; so that it becomes impure through subjecting itself to transient things by loving them. From this impurity the rational creature is purified by means of a contrary movement, namely, by tending to that which is above it, viz. God. The first beginning of this movement is faith: since “he that cometh to God must believe that He is,” according to Heb. 11:6. Hence the first beginning of the heart’s purifying is faith; and if this be perfected through being quickened by charity, the heart will be perfectly purified thereby. (ST 2-2, q. 7, a. 2c)

The Apostle says (Heb. 9:14): “The blood of Christ, Who by the Holy Ghost offered Himself unspotted unto God, shall cleanse our conscience from dead works, to serve the living God.” But dead works denote sins. Therefore the priesthood of Christ has the power to cleanse from sins. (ST 3, q. 22, a. 3, sed contra)

Christ’s Passion is applied to us even through faith, that we may share in its fruits, according to Rom. 3:25: “Whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood.” But the faith through which we are cleansed from sin is not “lifeless faith,” which can exist even with sin, but “faith living” through charity; that thus Christ’s Passion may be applied to us, not only as to our minds, but also as to our hearts. And even in this way sins are forgiven through the power of the Passion of Christ. (ST 3, q. 49, a. 1, ad 5)


It is written (Eccles. 12:14): “All things that are done, God will bring into judgment . . . whether it be good or evil.” Now judgment implies retribution, in respect of which we speak of merit and demerit. Therefore every human action, both good and evil, acquires merit or demerit in God’s sight. (ST 1-2, q. 21, a. 4, sed contra)

. . . our actions, good and evil, acquire merit or demerit, in the sight of God. On the part of God Himself, inasmuch as He is man’s last end; and it is our duty to refer all our actions to the last end, . . . Consequently, whoever does an evil deed, not referable to God, does not give God the honor due to Him as our last end. . . . Now God is the governor and ruler of the whole universe, . . .  and especially of rational creatures. Consequently it is evident that human actions acquire merit or demerit in reference to Him: else it would follow that human actions are no business of God’s. (ST 1-2, q. 21, a. 4c)

Man is so moved, as an instrument, by God, that, at the same time, he moves himself by his free-will, . . . Consequently, by his action, he acquires merit or demerit in God’s sight. (ST 1-2, q. 21, a. 4, ad 2)

Augustine is speaking here of that hope whereby we look to gain future bliss through merits which we have already; and this is not without charity. (ST 1-2, q. 65, a. 4, ad 3)

. . . to fulfil the commandments of the Law, in their due way, whereby their fulfilment may be meritorious, requires grace. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 5, ad 2)

A certain preparation of man for grace is simultaneous with the infusion of grace; and this operation is meritorious, not indeed of grace, which is already possessed—but of glory which is not yet possessed. . . .  merit can only arise from grace . . . (ST 1-2, q. 112, a. 2, ad 1)

Now it is clear that between God and man there is the greatest inequality: for they are infinitely apart, and all man’s good is from God. Hence there can be no justice of absolute equality between man and God, but only of a certain proportion, inasmuch as both operate after their own manner. Now the manner and measure of human virtue is in man from God. Hence man’s merit with God only exists on the presupposition of the Divine ordination, so that man obtains from God, as a reward of his operation, what God gave him the power of operation for, even as natural things by their proper movements and operations obtain that to which they were ordained by God; differently, indeed, since the rational creature moves itself to act by its free-will, hence its action has the character of merit, which is not so in other creatures. (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 1c)

. . . a man can merit nothing from God except by His gift, which the Apostle expresses aptly saying (Rm. 11:35): “Who hath first given to Him, and recompense shall be made to him?” (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 2, ad 3)

Man’s meritorious work may be considered in two ways: first, as it proceeds from free-will; secondly, as it proceeds from the grace of the Holy Ghost. . . . If, however, we speak of a meritorious work, inasmuch as it proceeds from the grace of the Holy Ghost moving us to life everlasting, it is meritorious of life everlasting condignly. For thus the value of its merit depends upon the power of the Holy Ghost moving us to life everlasting according to Jn. 4:14: “Shall become in him a fount of water springing up into life everlasting.” (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 3c)

. . . our actions are meritorious in so far as they proceed from the free-will moved with grace by God. Therefore every human act proceeding from the free-will, if it be referred to God, can be meritorious. Now the act of believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the Divine truth at the command of the will moved by the grace of God, so that it is subject to the free-will in relation to God; and consequently the act of faith can be meritorious. (ST 2-2, q. 2, a. 9c)

Salvation, Instantaneous (Falsity of)

But just as eternal life is not given at once, but in its own time, so neither is grace increased at once, but in its own time, viz. when a man is sufficiently disposed for the increase of grace. (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 8, ad 3)

. . . a man hopes to obtain eternal life, not by his own power (since this would be an act of presumption), but with the help of grace; and if he perseveres therein he will obtain eternal life surely and infallibly. (ST 2-2, q. 1, a. 3, ad 1)

. . . perseverance . . . may be taken to denote the act of perseverance enduring until death: and in this sense it needs not only habitual grace, but also the gratuitous help of God sustaining man in good until the end of life, . . . Because, since the free-will is changeable by its very nature, which changeableness is not taken away from it by the habitual grace bestowed in the present life, it is not in the power of the free-will, albeit repaired by grace, to abide unchangeably in good, though it is in its power to choose this: for it is often in our power to choose yet not to accomplish. (ST 2-2, q. 137, a. 4c)

Man is able by himself to fall into sin, but he cannot by himself arise from sin without the help of grace. Hence by falling into sin, so far as he is concerned man makes himself to be persevering in sin, unless he be delivered by God’s grace. On the other hand, by doing good he does not make himself to be persevering in good, because he is able, by himself, to sin: wherefore he needs the help of grace for that end. (ST 2-2, q. 137, a. 4, ad 3)

Synergy: Cooperation with God’s Grace as “Co-Laborers” and Secondary Mediators

One is said to be helped by another in two ways; in one way, inasmuch as he receives power from him: and to be helped thus belongs to the weak; but this cannot be said of God, and thus we are to understand, “Who hath helped the Spirit of the Lord?” In another way one is said to be helped by a person through whom he carries out his work, as a master through a servant. In this way God is helped by us; inasmuch as we execute His orders, according to 1 Cor. 3:9: “We are God’s co-adjutors.” Nor is this on account of any defect in the power of God, but because He employs intermediary causes, in order that the beauty of order may be preserved in the universe; and also that He may communicate to creatures the dignity of causality. (ST 1, q. 23, a. 8, ad 2)

This argument holds, in the case of an instrument which has no faculty of action, but only of being acted upon. But man is not an instrument of that kind; for he is so acted upon, by the Holy Ghost, that he also acts himself, in so far as he has a free-will. (ST 1-2, q. 68, a. 3, ad 2)

. . . we may say that, as regards the infusion of the gifts, the art is on the part of the Holy Ghost, Who is the principal mover, and not on the part of men, who are His organs when He moves them. (ST 1-2, q. 68, a. 4, ad 1)

The mind of man is not moved by the Holy Ghost, unless in some way it be united to Him: even as the instrument is not moved by the craftsman, unless there by contact or some other kind of union between them. (ST 1-2, q. 68, a. 4, ad 3)

If, however, by man’s fruit we understand a product of man, then human actions are called fruits: because operation is the second act of the operator, and gives pleasure if it is suitable to him. If then man’s operation proceeds from man in virtue of his reason, it is said to be the fruit of his reason: but if it proceeds from him in respect of a higher power, which is the power of the Holy Ghost, then man’s operation is said to be the fruit of the Holy Ghost, as of a Divine seed, for it is written (1 Jn. 3:9): “Whosoever is born of God, committeth no sin, for His seed abideth in him.” (ST 1-2, q. 70, a. 1c)

. . . our works, in so far as they are produced by the Holy Ghost working in us, are fruits . . . (ST 1-2, q. 70, a. 1, ad 1)

Man, by his will, does works meritorious of everlasting life; but . . . for this it is necessary that the will of man should be prepared with grace by God. (ST 1-2, q. 109, a. 5, ad 1)

. . . if we speak of grace as it signifies a help from God to move us to good, no preparation is required on man’s part, that, as it were, anticipates the Divine help, but rather, every preparation in man must be by the help of God moving the soul to good. And thus even the good movement of the free-will, whereby anyone is prepared for receiving the gift of grace is an act of the free-will moved by God. And thus man is said to prepare himself, according to Prov. 16:1: “It is the part of man to prepare the soul”; yet it is principally from God, Who moves the free-will. Hence it is said that man’s will is prepared by God, and that man’s steps are guided by God. (ST 1-2, q. 112, a. 2c)

God ordained human nature to attain the end of eternal life, not by its own strength, but by the help of grace; and in this way its act can be meritorious of eternal life. (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 2, ad 1)

It is not on account of any defect in God’s power that He works by means of second causes, but it is for the perfection of the order of the universe, and the more manifold outpouring of His goodness on things, through His bestowing on them not only the goodness which is proper to them, but also the faculty of causing goodness in others. Even so it is not through any defect in His mercy, that we need to bespeak His clemency through the prayers of the saints, but to the end that the aforesaid order in things be observed. (ST Suppl., q. 72, a. 2, ad 1)

Theosis; Divinization

Nothing can act beyond its species, since the cause must always be more powerful than its effect. Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle. (ST 1-2, q. 112, a. 1c)

. . . the worth of the work depends on the dignity of grace, whereby a man, being made a partaker of the Divine Nature, is adopted as a son of God, to whom the inheritance is due by right of adoption, according to Rm. 8:17: “If sons, heirs also.” (ST 1-2, q. 114, a. 3c)

The head and members are as one mystic person; and therefore Christ’s satisfaction belongs to all the faithful as being His members. (ST 3, q. 48, a. 2, ad 1)

. . . grace is nothing else than a participated likeness of the Divine Nature, according to 2 Pet. 1:4: “He hath given us most great and precious promises; that we may be partakers of the Divine Nature.” (ST 3, q. 62, a. 1c)

. . . one can be changed into Christ, and be incorporated in Him by mental desire, even without receiving this sacrament [the Eucharist]. (ST 3, q. 73, a. 3, ad 2)

Now, granted, if we are talking about 16th century Catholics in practice, there was a great deal of ignorance and much to be desired. It wasn’t one of the Catholic Church’s best times. But when analyzing any Christian belief-system, we can only look at what their confessions and creeds teach. We can’t ultimately go by the man in the pub or old ladies with purple tennis shoes (as if they are the best representatives of theological thought). We compare Luther and Calvin and Protestant creeds and arguments with Trent and St. Thomas Aquinas and ecumenical councils. All that Luther introduced (considered his great insight) were false beliefs and novelties.

But grace alone and God’s mercy and enabling of all good things had been there since the beginning of Christianity, and articulated in a more advanced form by Catholic anti-Pelagian writers like St. Augustine, and in the 5th and 6th centuries in Catholic councils confirmed by popes. Now that folks have had a chance to consider both sides in the dispute, they can get a much more accurate (and I think, also more interesting) picture of the actual historical and theological realities in play. The more we learn, the more we realize that the two sides are closer in thinking than most on either side imagined.


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Photo credit: The Augustinian Monastery in Wittenberg, Saxony, where Martin Luther lived, including the tower where he had a “new” insight about justification. From the article, “Luther’s Tower Experience: Martin Luther Discovers the True Meaning of Righteousness by Faith,” 1-13-17.

Summary: Analysis of Luther’s famous “tower experience” of 1519 where he arrived at a Protestant understanding of justification, & Catholic thinking (early Church & Aquinas).

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