Justification of the soul – the key to justice

I have spent more than a year writing about social justice or the right order of human society based upon the order revealed in Eden: the right order of man beneath God, the right order between man and woman, who in marriage constitute the first and most fundamental human society, which gives origin to all human society, and the right order between man and the rest of the created world, but leaving aside the right order of the human soul. Now it is time to write something about the right order of the soul, without which the right order of society is impossible.

The human soul is what was first and directly wounded by sin; the human soul is what finds itself beset by the ‘enemies’ of the devil, the world, and the flesh, as I wrote last week. Christ came to save the whole man, but there is an order. Salvation begins in this life with the soul and reaches final completion with the resurrection of the body.

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rm 8:11)

This salvation requires that we be rescued from the enemies of the soul; without the grace of Christ we live subject to the power of the devil, the world, and the flesh. St. Paul gives thanks to the Father who has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.

I was writing about social justice; people usually place justice ‘out there’ in human society, but justice begins ‘inside’ in the soul, the just soul, which means the soul that has been ‘justified’, set in right order.

In any case, ‘justification’ is actual a key concept in the Christian faith and was at the heart of the original conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Protestant revolutionaries, when they affirmed ‘justification by faith alone’ effectively declared that the soul was not in fact justified by God, but only ‘counted’ as just. This is called ‘extrinsic justification’. The Catholic faith has always held that the grace of justification, which is the beginning of salvation in us, actually transforms the soul, making it to be truly ‘just’ in the eyes of God.

The 16th century dispute over ‘justification’ seems rather arcane to us today, but actually the doctrine on justification lies at the heart of the Gospel message. It has everything to do with the salvation that Jesus, the Savior, brought to us.

So it will be worth reviewing the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this subject. This teaching relies on the authoritative and masterful answer given by the Council of Trent (1547 AD) to the Protestants.

The Catechism emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit. “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’ and through Baptism.” (CCC 1987)

Sanctifying grace, which makes us partakers in the divine nature (2 Pe 1:4; CCC 2000, cf. Glossary under ‘Grace’), is the effect of the grace of justification. (cf. CCC 1988) Or we could say that ‘justification’ is the beginning of the life of sanctifying grace in us. “The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification … Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. ‘Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.’” (CCC 1989, Council of Trent DS 1528)

Justification is the fruit of Christ’s death on the Cross: “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life.” (CCC 1992, Council of Trent DS 1529)

Justification comes from God without violating human freedom: “When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight.” (CCC 1993, citing Council of Trent, DS 1525)

If we consider the whole scope of justification, from beginning to end, it is the most excellent work of God’s love, surpassing this passing world precisely because it does not pass away, surpassing even the creation of angels in justice, because the justification of the sinner bears witness to God’s mercy. (cf. CCC 1994)

Sanctifying grace brings with it an array of virtues and gifts that elevate the soul and have been referred to by spiritual writers as ‘the spiritual organism’. (cf. CCC 367) The spiritual organism that lies at the heart of the justified soul will be the subject matter of my next series of essays.



Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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