Romans 5:1 is a favorite verse for Calvinists and those who hold to the doctrine commonly known as “once saved, always saved:” Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. This text is believed to indicate that the justification of the believer in Christ at the point of faith is a one-time completed action. All sins are forgiven immediately—past, present and future. The believer then has, or at least, can have, absolute assurance of his justification regardless of what may happen in the future. There is nothing that can separate the true believer from Christ—not even the gravest of sins. Similarly, with regard to salvation, Eph. 2:8-9 says: 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. For the Protestant, these texts seem plain. Ephesians 2 says the salvation of the believer is past—perfect tense, passive voice in Greek, to be more precise—which means a past completed action with present on-going results. It’s over! And if we examine again Romans 5:1, the verb to justify is in a simple past tense (Gr. Aorist tense). And this is in a context where St. Paul had just told these same Romans: For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Righteousness is a synonym for justice or justification. How does it get any clearer than that? Abraham was justified once and for all, the claim is made, when he believed. Not only is this proof of sola fide, says the Calvinist, but it is proof that justification is a completed transaction at the point the believer comes to Christ. The paradigm of the life of Abraham is believed to hold indisputable proof of the Reformed position.
THE CATHOLIC ANSWER: The Catholic Church actually agrees with the above, at least on a couple points. First, as baptized Catholics, we can agree that we have been justified and we have been saved. Thus, in one sense, our justification and salvation is in the past as a completed action. The initial grace of justification and salvation we receive in baptism is a done deal. And Catholics do not believe we were partially justified or partially saved at baptism. Catholics believe, as St. Peter said in I Peter 3:21, “Baptism… now saves you…” Ananias said to Saul of Tarsus, “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” That means the new Christian has been “washed… sanctified… [and] justified” as I Cor. 6:11 clearly teaches. That much is a done deal; thus, it is entirely proper to say we “have been justified” and we “have been saved.” However, this is not the end of the story. Scripture reveals that it is precisely through this justification and salvation the new Christian experiences in baptism that he enters into a process of justification and salvation requiring his free cooperation with God’s grace. If we read the very next verses of our above-cited texts, we find the inspired writer himself telling us there is more to the story here. Romans 5:1-2 reads: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. This text indicates that after having received the grace of justification we now have access to God’s grace by which we stand in Christ and we can then rejoice in the hope of sharing God’s glory. That word "hope" indicates that what we are hoping for we do not yet possess (see Romans 8:24). Ephesians 2:10 reads: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. There is no doubt that we must continue to work in Christ as Christians and it is also true that it is only by the grace of God we can continue to do so. But even more importantly, Scripture tells us this grace can be resisted. II Cor. 6:1 tells us: Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. St. Paul urged believers in Antioch—and all of us by allusion—“to continue in the grace of God" (Acts 13:43). Indeed, in a text we will look at more closely in a moment, St. Paul warns Christians that they can “fall from Grace” in Galatians 5:4. This leads us to our next and most crucial point. The major part of the puzzle here that our Protestant friends are missing is that there are many biblical texts revealing both justification and salvation to have a future and contingent sense as well as these we have mentioned that show a past sense. In other words, justification and salvation also have a sense in which they are not complete in the lives of believers. Perhaps this is most plainly seen in Galatians 5:1-5. I mentioned verse four above. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.
The Most Important Thing
When Catholics read of Abraham "justified by faith" in Romans 5, we believe it. But we don't end there. For when Catholics read of Abraham "justified by works" in James 2 we believe that as well. For 2,000 years the Catholic Church has taken all of Sacred Scripture into the core of her theology harmonizing all of the biblical texts. Thus, we can agree with our Protestant friends and say as Christians we have been (past tense) justified and saved through our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. But we also agree with our Lord that there is another sense in which we are being saved and justified by cooperation with God's grace in our lives, and we hope to finally be saved and justified by our Lord on the last day: I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matt. 12:36-37).All of this really comes down to faith without works is dead. Remember the last words of Mary in the bible “Do whatever He tells you.” All the singing and faith in the world must not drown out the love of God. Our faith if true; propels us to works of mercy and a sheer joy that celebrates life and defends life, liberty and happiness for ourselves and others.
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