How is grace received by the individual? The short answer is faith. But what is faith and how does faith work in the overall scheme of justification? Faith is “both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God who invites his response, and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed” (CCC Glossary) (read Jn 6:27-29). “By faith, man completely submits his intellect and will to God” (CCC, para. 143).
Thus, faith is complete and utter obedience to God and His promises. It is not merely believing that God exists or that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. These are only parts of the whole truth to which we are called.
Knowledge of God alone does not produce faith. Many people have heard about God and reject Him. Many others have even been raised in the faith only to leave the faith later in life. These folks had knowledge of God but, they did not come to or continue to believe in or trust in Him.
Belief occurs in the intellect by command of the will. A person’s will moves his intellect to believe in, trust in, and obey God. This is an active faith, and it is absolutely necessary for justification. Faith is not man alone trying to reach God. Rather, God reaches down to us by grace that we may respond to His grace by faith. Therefore, faith is man’s initial and continuous response to God’s grace with the help of God’s grace.
St. Paul says this about faith, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction [between Jews and Gentiles]; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption, which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:21-25a).
To illustrate his point, St. Paul puts forward the case of Abraham’s justification: “What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 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’” (Rom 4:1-3).’”
In this passage, Paul speaks about Abraham’s faith, which preceded works of the Law, namely, circumcision. Before Abraham circumcised himself, his faith, which was his initial response to God’s grace, was credited to him as righteousness. When Paul says, “…if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about,” he is talking about works before justification. In other words, Abraham did not work his way to justification. However, good works in a state of justification are meritorious after one is justified by an active faith.
Paul continues, “No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith[shows his faith was not stagnant or dead] as he gave glory to God, fully convinced [shows his full trust in God] that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness’” (Rom 20:20-22).
Abraham’s faith in God was so strong that he journeyed from his homeland to the land of Canaan (about 1500 miles), the Promised Land, at God’s direction. He then believed God’s promise that He would give him a son, and it was this faith (active, not dead) that was reckoned to him as righteousness.
In our next article, we will look at the role of works in the economy of salvation.