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Chapter 24: Christians: Human Children of God

Question D: How does the act of faith link the Christian as a human person with his or her share in the divine nature?

1. We shall approach this problem from the point of view of the Council of Trent, which in its Decree on Justification treats the relationships between the free choice by which a Christian makes the act of faith and the love by which he or she shares in divine life.

2. God’s love has not been bestowed on a faithful humankind. From the beginning all human beings were enmeshed in a web of sin, which alienated humankind from God (see Rom 3.9–19). God’s love is shown all the more splendidly because he sent his only Son to die for us godless ones (see Rom 5.6–8). And so love comes not only as a deifying principle but, first of all, as a healing principle. It straightens out what is crooked; it justifies—that is, puts right. God’s love is a gift of justification (see S.t., 1–2, q. 109, a. 1; q. 113, a. 2).

3. Justification is by faith in Jesus (see Gal 3.1–9, 26). One’s human life becomes a life of faith in Jesus (see Gal 2.20). The believer “is a new creation” in Jesus (2 Cor 5.17). The life of such a person must be that of the “new nature, created after the likeness of God” (Eph 4.24).

4. The intrinsic principle by which anything is such as it is, is called a “formal cause.” Roundness is the formal cause of the shape of a ring, whiteness of the color of snow, and so on. What is the formal cause of the justification of the Christian? According to Trent, it is the “justice of God, not the justice by which he is himself just, but the justice by which he makes us just” (DS 1529/799). Sinners are justified by a rightness which is not merely attributed to them, but which they receive within them as their own, in a measure determined by the will of the Holy Spirit and their own disposition and cooperation (see DS 1529/799). God’s love is poured into hearts by the Holy Spirit and remains in them (see DS 1530/800). Christians would not be justified without this inhering love given by the Spirit (see DS 1561/821).

5. From this point of view, the love of God is a principle by which the sinner is made right, the Christian is made a child of God. This love is not identical with the uprightness of God, nor is it identical with the Holy Spirit. It is the Christian’s own love, which, although received as a gift, remains in the Christian as a transforming principle. A Christian’s living is straightened out and conformed to Jesus by this principle, as a ring is shaped by its own roundness (see S.t., 1–2, q. 110, a. 1; q. 113, a. 2, ad 2; a. 7).

6. One is justified by faith in Jesus in the following sense. Faith is the beginning of salvation (see DS 1532/801). The sinner must turn to Jesus and hear him (see S.t., 1–2, q. 113, a. 4). Otherwise, he or she cannot become a Christian and so cannot become a child of God in Jesus. Yet even after one is justified, grace can be lost by mortal sin, without the loss of faith. When this happens, faith is called “dead faith” because it is loveless, not saving faith (see DS 1544/808; S.t., 2–2, q. 4, aa. 3–5). The faith which saves is that which one seeks and receives in baptism; it is infused along with hope and charity at the same time sins are remitted (see DS 1528/799, 1531/800). This is the living faith which works through love (cf. Gal 5.6) and keeps the commandments faithfully (see DS 1531/800).

7. Although living faith is wholly God’s gift to us, it is also our own human act. God’s love does not destroy but perfects the unique reality of those he divinizes. God wishes that in sharing his life we be ourselves (see S.t., 1–2, q. 113, a. 3; 2–2, q. 2, a. 9; q. 23, a. 2). As St. Irenaeus says: “Not merely in works, but even in faith man’s freedom of choice under his own control is preserved by the Lord” (FEF 245). For anyone capable of free choice, there is the possibility of refusing God’s love. Moved and helped by God, therefore, one must cooperate by accepting his proposal of intimacy (see DS 1525/797, 1554/814).

8. This proposal comes to us in Jesus; it is his gospel. The first work of living faith is to accept God’s proposal, an acceptance which justifies. This is the human person’s own act by which he or she enters into the kingdom announced by the gospel. It is done by the person’s free choice. Now, just as one must have love to have living faith, one must have living faith, which involves a free choice, to have love: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 Jn 4.15). Such acknowledgment is certainly not an act of dead faith. Thus, living faith presupposes love, and love presupposes living faith (see S.t., 1–2. q. 113, aa. 4, 7,; 2–2, q. 2, a. 9; q. 4, aa. 1–3, 7). How can this be?

9. As was explained (in 20‑D), one is prepared to accept the gospel because it is credible; seeing that one ought to believe it, one chooses to do so. Before receiving God’s love, one makes this choice for the sake of some human good, such as avoiding God’s punishment and enjoying his favor. Having accepted God’s proposal and thereupon received his gift of love, however, one is disposed by this love toward the divine goodness which God is and which he shares with his children. Thus, one has an additional reason, his goodness, for choosing to listen to God and adhere to him faithfully. One’s choice is thereby transformed, not as if one chose to assent to a different gospel, but by being a differently motivated choice to assent to the same gospel. Not merely out of love of a human good but out of love of God, one chooses to adhere to God revealing himself in Jesus and to be faithful to God by living according to the gospel.

10. This clarifies how God’s love invites, respects, and ultimately divinizes a human being. An adult enters freely, by his or her own human choice, into intimate communion with God. Since one remains a distinct person, this free commitment remains one’s own act.

11. Still, as long as faith is living, this act is really proportionate to God’s love and responsive to it. The human person is not accepting communion on unequal terms. As St. John of the Cross explains, the good shared by God and the soul is common to both. Moreover, one who adheres to God with living faith is not seeking eternal life with God for the sake of something—a merely human good—other and less than God, but for the sake of the divine goodness by which one hopes to be fulfilled with God.

12. By God’s love poured forth in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us, we are disposed to love supernaturally and spontaneously the superhuman good, namely, divine goodness (see S.t., 1–2, q. 62, a. 1; q. 109, a. 3). We are disposed supernaturally, because we share by adoption in the divine nature; by the Spirit’s gift we share in the love of God, which is the power to act according to the divine nature.

13. By this power we freely choose, out of love of God and not merely out of love of a human good, to accept God’s proposal of intimate communion. Our first act done by the love of God poured forth in our hearts through the Holy Spirit is our act of living faith, an act by which we freely accept this gift and our own participation in divinity.

14. In sum, God gives himself to us altogether gratuitously (see S.t., 1–2, q. 109). We become his children only by his grace, his utterly free election. Yet, since we accept God in faith, we are his children by our own free choice. If we faithfully persevere in love until death, this free choice of ours will last forever. God’s love for us is always his, our love for him will always be ours. The respective freedoms by which uncreated persons and created persons enter into communion with one another retain and always will retain their mutual distinctness. Thus, the love which is the Holy Spirit and the love of God inhering in us constitute a communion in divinity among persons and persons who remain absolutely distinct.

The stress placed here upon the role of free choice—the suggestion that the point of insertion of the human participant in divinity precisely is in the choice—is likely to raise a question about the situation of Christian infants. They surely share in divine life but appear not to make any free choices. The question is twofold. What about their situation now? What about their situation if they should die without ever making a free choice?

In considering this difficulty, one must bear in mind that revelation on the whole obviously is addressed as saving truth to those who can understand it and make choices; it is not personally addressed to infants. Therefore, how God cares for them is not likely to be clear in the sources of revelation, and endless controversies about the fate of infants seem to show this to be so.18 One must always remember that in theology one proceeds on faith, and one does not know how many other ways of doing things God might have in the reserves of his infinite wisdom and love.

The social character of Christian life is relevant to the problem. Christian life is not individualistic. We are sinners in Adam and sons of God in Jesus. Children who cannot act at a specifically human level naturally are members of society in their families, through their parents or guardians. The Church is the mother of all her children. Thus the infant does in some sense share in an act of faith which is in some way its own, appropriate to its age and condition: the faith of the Church. When we say, “We believe . . .,” we include in the “we” our baptized infants and others who for whatever reason cannot make a free choice, but are somehow incorporated in the Church.

18. On theological problems and possibilites in respect to infants: P. J. Hill, “Limbo,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 8:762–65; E. J. Fortman, S.J., Everlasting Life after Death (New York: Alba House, 1976), 143–55.