Wait a minute! Isn’t St. Paul the one who said that we are justified by faith in Christ and not by our actions? Isn’t he the one who said, “We cannot save ourselves”? How can this man who spent so much time telling us that salvation is a free gift from God also tell us that we can “fail the test”? How can he say that we ought to approach our salvation with “fear and trembling” and that we have to “persevere in the faith” if we want to be saved?
It seems like such a sharp contradiction, but we know Paul was too intelligent to be so confused. So let’s take a look at why Paul spoke about being justified by faith even as he told us to work hard so that we could attain our salvation.
Called to Holiness. The short answer to this question is that Paul saw a difference between justification, which we looked at in the first article, and sanctification, which the above quotes describe. But what is that difference?
Justification points to the work of Jesus on the cross. Because he died for our sins and rose again, we are now forgiven. We are acquitted of our guilt, and we can be baptized into his life. All that is necessary for justification is that we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that he really did rise from the dead.
Sanctification builds on this justification. To be sanctified means to become holy. It means to become more like Jesus, the Holy One of God. The word “become” tells us that holiness is an ongoing process, not something that happens overnight. This is what Paul meant when he told the Thessalonians, “This is the will of God, your holiness” and “God did not call us to impurity, but to holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7). It’s this process of growing in holiness that St. Paul was referring to when he told the Philippians to work out their salvation (2:12) and when he told the Colossians to persevere in exercising their faith (1:23).
Stories from Luke. St. Luke was a disciple and traveling companion with Paul. Luke tells us that he was with Paul on his third missionary journey and when Paul was taken to Rome as a prisoner (Acts 16:11-12; 27:1-2). This is the same Luke who wrote the Gospel that bears his name, as well as the Acts of the Apostles.
As you read Luke’s writings, you can tell that he understood Paul’s teaching about justification by faith. You see it in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, when the tax collector stood in the back of the Temple and prayed, very simply, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Jesus said that this man “went home justified” (18:14). You see it also in the way Luke is the only Gospel writer to include stories like Zacchaeus (19:1-10), the ten lepers (17:11-19), and the “good thief” on the cross (23:39-43). Each of these stories is about people who put their faith in Jesus and received the free gift of justification because of it.
But Luke also understood that everyone who is justified is also called to be sanctified. He spent more time than the other Gospel writers describing John the Baptist’s call to repentance and holiness (Luke 3:1-20). He shared Jesus’ parable of the fig tree, about a farmer who expects fruit from his tree, just as God expects his people to bear the fruit of their own holiness (13:6-9). And he shared Jesus’ story about the poor man Lazarus and the rich man who ignored him to show that God wants his people to reach out and care for the poor (16:19-31).
A Sequel to a Parable. Luke is also the only one of the four Gospel writers to tell Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In the story, a young man was justified—saved by his loving father—when he came home. All of his sinful past was wiped away as if it had never happened. Everything was resolved simply because the son came home.
Luke doesn’t tell us how this son turned out after he came home. But we can imagine two possible endings. In one option, the son didn’t like living in his father’s home. Perhaps the rigors of his father’s way of life were too much for him and he either tolerated it or left again.
In the other option, the son really wanted to stay with his father. But to do so would mean that all of his old selfish ways had to change, and whatever virtuous ways he possessed needed to be strengthened. No longer could he go out and get drunk, meet up with a prostitute, or steal. No longer could he stay up all night and then sleep all day. His loose ways of living could not coexist with his father’s way of life.
In his new life, the young man would have to get up early and go out to work in the fields, as his brother had always done. Rather than think only about himself, he would have to consider the needs and best interests of his family. He would have to spend time repairing his relationship with his older brother and try to show him love and respect.
Were these changes going to be difficult? Probably. But every time the prodigal son was tempted to leave again, he could recall how unloved and desperate he had felt when he was out on his own, living with pigs and starving. He could recall the love of his father and how happy he was when his father embraced him and welcomed him back home.
A Divided Heart. This is a good way to understand our need for sanctification. In certain ways, we are all like either the prodigal son or his older brother. The prodigal son was bound in pride and selfishness. He was a slave to his passions and had no concern for his family. On the other hand, his brother may have been living in his father’s house, but he was filled with jealousy, bitterness, rivalry, and anger. Like these two brothers, we all have areas in our lives that go against the love and mercy God wants us to have. That’s why we need ongoing sanctification.
We all have good intentions, but experience tells us that we also have an inclination toward sin and evil. Even after having been baptized, we still feel the pull of sin. Even after a lifetime of praying and trying to obey God’s commandments, we still have to contend with issues like pride, selfishness, lust, and envy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that our inclination toward sin and evil is a continual and ongoing struggle (CCC, 2520).
For example, at Mass or in prayer we might feel close to the Lord and at peace with the people in our lives. But then later in the same day, we feel distant from him. Thoughts about some of our family members or friends might turn dark, and we might become less patient and kind. In one setting, we find it easy to be generous, but in another setting, we are suspicious or moody. At one moment, we are kind and thoughtful, and in the next moment, we are angry, frustrated, and intolerant.
Is this the way God wants us to live? Does he really want us to be so inconsistent? Of course not! Our Father in heaven wants us to live peaceful lives, even when troubles and challenges come our way.
It’s a Process. This contrast between our “holy” selves and our “sinful” selves doesn’t have to remain unpredictable. We can learn how to deal with our old sinful ways and strengthen our new holy ways.
According to St. Paul, we can keep growing in holiness as we put off the “old self” of our sinful ways and put on the “new self” that we received in baptism (Ephesians 4:22, 24). Holiness isn’t a “once and done” event. It is an ongoing, daily process that brings about ongoing changes in our lives.
If you want to boil it down to its essentials, there are three steps to this process:
1. Try to put off sinful ways (anger, resentment, deception, etc.) and put on your new self (love, kindness, mercy, etc.).
2. Make time for Jesus in personal prayer so that you can receive his love and find the strength we need to make these changes.
3. Ask God for the grace you need to resist temptation as soon as we see it come up.
Becoming sanctified isn’t easy, but it is possible. Why? Because we have been justified. We don’t have to be at the mercy of our sinful nature. What’s more, the Holy Spirit can change our hearts and help us to live a new way. We may never graduate from the “School of Christ,” but we can make progress, even great progress. We just have to be patient with ourselves and try to keep moving closer to the Lord.
A Simple Test. St. Paul asked us to test ourselves to see if we are living in faith (Romans 12:2). It’s not a complicated test. Actually, just as there are three steps to the process of sanctification, there are three questions on the test:1. Do you notice that fruits of the Spirit like peace, patience, and love are increasing in your life?If so, you are being sanctified.
2. Do you find that sins of the flesh like anger, resentment, deception, and the like are decreasing?
3. Are you feeling a greater desire to care for the people around you, especially the poor and needy?