Pope Francis on Wednesday underlined that “we do not become just through our own effort,” for “it is Christ, with his grace, who makes us just.”
Speaking at the general audience in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall on Sept. 29, the pope reflected on “justification,” a doctrine fiercely contested at the time of the Protestant Reformation.
He said: “What is justification? We, who were sinners, have become just. Who justified us? This process of change is justification. We, before God, are just. It is true, we have our personal sins. But fundamentally, we are just. This is justification.”
The pope described the doctrine of justification as “a difficult but important topic,” noting that it had generated “a lot of discussion” among Christians, focused on the writings of St. Paul the Apostle.
He said that while the doctrine was “decisive for the faith,” it was hard to provide “an exhaustive definition.”
“In fact, God, through Jesus’ death -- and we need to underline this: through the death of Jesus -- destroyed sin and definitively granted us his pardon and salvation. Thus justified, sinners are welcomed by God and reconciled with Him,” he explained.
“It is as though the original relationship between the Creator and the creature before the disobedience of sin intervened has been restored. The justification wrought by God, therefore, allows us to recuperate the innocence lost through sin.”
In recent years, Catholics and Protestants have begun to overcome their divisions over justification.
In 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a landmark Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, concluding that Catholics and Lutherans were “now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.”
At the beginning of the audience, Galatians 2:19-20 was read out to pilgrims in various languages.
The pope highlighted what he said was a “novelty” in St. Paul’s teaching: that justification comes through grace.
“The Apostle is always mindful of the experience that changed his life: his meeting with the Risen Jesus on the way to Damascus. Paul had been a proud, religious, and zealous man, convinced that justification consisted in the scrupulous observance of the precepts of the law,” he said.
“Now, however, he has been conquered by Christ, and faith in Him has completely transformed him, allowing him to discover a truth that had been hidden: we do not become just through our own effort, no, it is not us, but it is Christ, with his grace, who makes us just.”
But the pope said it would be wrong to assume that Paul therefore rejected the Law of Moses that had so profoundly shaped his life.
“We must not, however, conclude that the Mosaic Law, for Paul, had lost its value; rather, it remains an irrevocable gift from God. It is, the Apostle writes, ‘holy’ (Romans 7:12),” Francis noted.
“Even for our spiritual life, observing the commandments is essential -- we have already said this many times. But even here, we cannot count on our efforts: the grace of God that we receive in Christ is fundamental.”
The pope’s comments were notable as his previous general audience remarks on Jewish law aroused controversy. Rabbis wrote to him following his audience address on Aug. 11, expressing concern that his words implied that Jewish law was obsolete.
Vatican Cardinal Kurt Koch replied to the Jewish leaders, assuring them that Francis’ remarks did not devalue the Torah.
Continuing his explanation of justification, the pope recalled the words of the Apostle James, that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
He said that James’ teaching, which Reformation leader Martin Luther sharply criticized, complemented that of Paul.
“For both, therefore, the response of faith demands that we be active in our love for God and in our love of neighbor,” he said.
He continued: “Justification incorporates us into the long history of salvation that demonstrates God’s justice: before our continual falls and inadequacies, he has not given up, but he wanted to make us just and he did so through grace, through the gift of Jesus Christ, of his death and resurrection.”
He recalled that he frequently described “God’s style” in three words: nearness, compassion, and tenderness.
“And justification is precisely God’s greatest nearness with us, men and women, God’s greatest compassion for us, men and women, the greatest tenderness of the Father,” he said.
“Justification is this gift of Christ, of the death and resurrection of Christ that makes us free. ‘But, Father, I am a sinner… I have robbed… I have…’ Yes, yes. But fundamentally, you are just. Allow Christ to effect that justification. We are not fundamentally condemned. Allow me to say, we are saints. But, fundamentally, we are saints: let us allow Christ’s grace to come and this justice, this justification, will give us the strength to progress.”
Concluding his catechesis, he said: “The power of grace needs to be coupled with our works of mercy which we are called to live to bear witness to how tremendous is God’s love. Let us move ahead with this trust: we have all been justified, we are just in Christ. We must effect that justice with our works.”
A precis of the pope’s catechesis was read out in seven languages. After each summary, he greeted members of each language group.
In his remarks to French-speaking pilgrims, the pope noted that Sept. 29 is the Feast of Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
“On this day when the Church celebrates the Holy Archangels, I ask St. Michael, protector of France, to watch over your country, to keep it faithful to its roots, and to lead your people along the paths of your people on the paths of ever greater unity and solidarity,” he said.
Greeting Catholics from the United States, the pope said: “In a particular way my greeting goes to the seminarians of the Pontifical North American College and their families gathered for the ordination to the diaconate. Upon all of you, and your families, I invoke the joy and peace of the Lord. May God bless you!”
At the end of the audience, Pope Francis prayed for the victims of a recent attack in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
“I learned with sorrow of the news of the armed attacks last Sunday against the villages of Madamai and Abun, in northern Nigeria,” he said.
“I pray for those who have died, for those who were wounded, and for the entire Nigerian population. I hope that the safety of every citizen might be guaranteed in the country.”
The audience concluded with the recitation of the Our Father and the Apostolic Blessing.