A conversation I was having yesterday with a friend has set me to thinking. My completely awesome friend JK converted to Roman Catholicism two weeks ago and he was sharing with me his frustrations with Calvin’s view of the Eucharist and how, but for rejecting transubstantiation and the consequent adoration of the elements, Calvin’s view on virtually all other points is the Roman Catholic view. I mentioned something about a perceived radical nominalism the Reformers might have been reacting against in Catholicism’s making the elements the substantial body and blood of Christ while they retain the properties of bread and wine and in some sense may still be spoken of as symbols. I guess I was driving toward the seeming appearance of an epistemological monstrosity in which God becomes bread and wine when one tries to have it both ways, so I wasn’t quite expressing myself clearly in bringing up radical nominalism. There is a transformation in the Catholic view—not just God making bread and wine Christ’s body and blood by fiat. This was key, though, because it moved us toward discussing justification, about which my buddy said the Reformers were working with a radical nominalism in having the justified imputed righteous while they remain sinners. That Luther philosophically defended simul iustus et peccator by resorting to the nominalism of Ockham and others, I agree, but Protestant justification is not a legal fiction. Not only is justification a declaration about Christ satisfying all of God's requirements of justice for us, but it is also a transformative declaration about sinners becoming the righteousness of God, in the same way that in transubstantiation, the words, “This is my body. This is my blood” are a transformative declaration about bread and wine becoming what they were not previously.
The above is a controversial rumination, but it led to one that might be just as controversial. I’m thinking that in regards to justification and our understandings of grace and what grace does to the rebel children of Adam and Eve, both Protestants and Roman Catholics have difficulty with process. Catholics might would say I have a lot of gall saying that in the way that Protestantism divvies up justification and sanctification and states justification as an instantaneous event that delivers a forensic righteousness (not a real personal righteousness, Catholics would note) decisive for final salvation, which, Catholics would go on to argue, renders the process of sanctification that follows superfluous in the economy of salvation. In some Protestant explanations of justification, I would have to admit this Catholic objection scores a legitimate point, but I would counter by speaking of justification as a delivery in the present of an earnest of the substantial righteousness, secured and vouchsafed for us by the perfect life, death, and resurrection Jesus Christ underwent in our place, that will belong to the Christian when God delivers him or her finally and completely from sin and all its effects at the last day. In other words, justification for Protestants need not be considered so exhaustive of salvation that God's delivering us at the level of our nature from the power and presence of sin between regeneration and glorification is emptied of all significance. Justification is the declaration of a fact that will be; the fact—Christ's perfect obedience imputed to us in the present—declaring what will assuredly be in the future—our glorified nature resulting from justification-grounded sanctification.
Where do I view the Catholic understanding of justification to have trouble with process in regards to how grace works? I mean, over against Protestantism Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between justification and sanctification and thinks of the decisive note of justification as a process, for crying out loud! Well, here goes. In Roman Catholicism, the declaration of righteousness a Christian receives at first justification is the declaration of a fact pure and simple, not qualified in any way. At justification, the Christian is not simultaneously a sinner and just; a Christian is just just. All is right with him or her. I may be misrepresenting from this point forward (I do not know, but I trust my ex-Reformed, out-of-the-closet Catholic friend and his Catholic brothers and mine will let me know if I have unintentionally misrepresented the Church’s teachings), but it seems the conclusion we must draw from this is that all the truly meaningful adverse affects of the Fall are healed when one is regenerated (if only until the first post-baptismal sin). Because the only thing wrong with the fallen human being is the deprivation of grace, it seems that it is only because of continuing sin throughout the remainder of life that the further sanctifying work of God is required for the Christian to arrive at the beatific vision. In other words, after first sanctifying grace there is no more healing of human nature that needs to be done. Everything afterwards is just an elaborate maintenance operation.
From the foregoing, then, sanctification and the entire sacramental system it depends on is just a maintenance operation, so thorough is the healing effected by first sanctifying grace. I might be wrong on this because Catholics recognize that concupiscence still remains in a Christian after baptism, but even if Catholics do not believe this concupiscence to be sin itself, it is still a disorder that was not present in humanity at our first creation. Concupiscence, even if we are not guilty simply by virtue of it, is still the seething cesspool of all unrighteousness. Is this the perfect and complete substantial righteousness, the healed nature, on account of which God calls us righteous? As long as the sin factory remains operational in any capacity, we cannot safely be spoken of as substantially righteous in God’s presence. This is where the Tridentine Roman Catholic formulation of justification is susceptible to the same charge of legal fiction Catholics levy at Protestant views of justification.
It seems, in Roman Catholic soteriology, that God can’t do fatherly business with human beings until they come into his presence with every last vestige of unrighteousness or unsoundness in their nature done away with. This is where I say the Tridentine Roman Catholic view of justification and grace, for all of its reliance on Aristotlean becoming, has trouble with process. If Protestants have a process problem in our understanding of such a front-loaded imputed righteousness that it implicitly makes the subsequent healing of our nature and the obedience that would flow from it superfluous in the economy of salvation, then Catholics have just as big a process problem in their view of a positional justification that requires a pristine essential righteousness moment-to-moment in a human being for saving communion with the Holy Trinity. Being called and really made righteous is a long process because the wreck the Fall has made of us is truly great and terrible. Arriving at the end of the process is not and cannot be a precondition for beginning. God takes care of working it out so he can get us started standing on solid ground. For Protestants, that solid ground is the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us presently, which by the progressive work of the Holy Spirit will so permeate us by the last day that it will rightly be spoken of at that point as our own personal nature.
I will conclude this haphazard and off-the-cuff reflection on grace by positing that grace neither be considered exclusively in terms of God’s unmerited favor by which he relates to sinners, a la Protestantism, nor that grace be considered exclusively in terms of Divine energy that must infuse people in order to lift them into communion with the Holy Trinity, a la Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I prefer a both/and approach. They are two sides of the same reality. Grace is nothing other than the personal benevolence of God, whether exhibited in forgiving sinners or communing with his creatures whether they be upright or fallen. God forgives us, fills us, heals us, loves us, by the Spirit of his grace. Grace is forgiveness and healing and peaceful harmony with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit.