Repentance for past sins, with a purpose to avoid sin in future: two necessary dispositions to Justification prior to the reception of the Sacrament of Penance

by Fr. Joseph Di Bruno, D.D, 1895

Justification is a divine act which conveys sanctifying grace, and by that grace communicates a supernatural life to the soul, which by sin, whether original or actual, had incurred spiritual death; that is to say, justification is a change in the human soul or translation from the state of sin into the state of grace.

It is a gift of Almighty God, a ray, as it were, coming direct from the divine goodness and filling the soul, which makes those who receive it pleasing to God and justified in His sight.

The grace of justification produces a change affecting the soul of the regenerate by its presence, elevating and perfecting it. By this grace the likeness to God is brought out in them, and they are raised to a state of friendship with Him, and of divine sonship.

The Catholic Church teaches that the grace of justification not merely covers sin, but blots it out; that is, blots out the guilt and stain arising from sin, and remits the everlasting punishment due to it.

Justifying is not dressing splendidly a dead man's body, it is vivifying it. It is not covering a leprosy with a beautiful shining dress, it is curing it thoroughly. It is not gilding a piece of coal, leaving it inwardly black, but it is transforming it into a brilliant diamond.

What unspeakable regrets it would leave in the justified man if he had ever to see his soul, indeed magnificently arrayed, still in itself stained with sin, deformed, corrupt, black, and horrible as before.

Merely covering sin is a human way of forgiving, which consists in passing over the crime of a sinner, and in treating him outwardly as if he had not committed it, and as if no stain were in the soul in consequence of it, though the guilt and the stain are still there.

God's way of pardoning a sinner is very different, and wholly divine. It is a way worthy of His infinite goodness, sanctity, omnipotence, and worthy, too, of the immense efficacy of Christ's blood, and of His superabundant redemption, and of His infinite merits.

God's way of pardoning is to cleanse away entirely the guilt and stain of sin, so that instead of it, God sees in the pardoned sinner the "charity of God poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Ghost" (Rom. v. 5), which, like a fire, has destroyed all the dross of sin, and rendered man pure, upright, and holy.

Hence the justification of a sinner is represented in Scripture as the putting on of the new man who is "created in justice, and holiness of truth" (Ephesians iv. 24); the "renovation of the Holy Ghost." (Titus iii. 5.)

In the case of grown-up persons, some dispositions are required on the part of the sinner in order to be fit to obtain this habitual and abiding grace of justification. A man can only dispose himself by the help of divine grace, and the dispositions which he shows do not by any means effect or merit justification, but only serve to prepare him for it; and for that reason are simply called dispositions or preparations. This is the teaching of the Council of Trent, which declares: "We are said to be justified gratuitously, because none of the things which precede justification, whether it be faith or good works, can merit this blessing for us." (Session VI. chapter viii.) The same holy council declares that sins are remitted gratuitously by the mercy of God through the merits of Jesus Christ. (Sess. VI. chapter vii.)

The principal dispositions required for justification are the following acts, which can only be made by the assistance of God's actual grace, namely, an act of faith or belief in revealed truths, of fear of God, of hope, and of charity; an act of repentance for past sins, with a purpose to avoid sin in future, and to keep the commandments; a desire of receiving baptism for those who have not yet been baptized, and for those who have fallen into sin after baptism, a resolution to approach the sacrament of penance. (Council of Trent, Sess. VI. chap. vi.)

Justification may be lost by wilfully violating a commandment of God, either by doing what is forbidden, or by not doing what is commanded. Justification is a talent or gift which should be made to bear fruit, or we shall be punished for the neglect.

By justification we are raised to the dignity of sons of God, heirs of His kingdom; and this entails upon us the duty of acting in a way becoming to so high a dignity. "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments," said our Lord. (St. Matt. xix. 17.) By justification we are incorporated with Christ, like a branch growing on a vine; but if the branch produces no fruit it will be cut off and cast into the fire. (St. John xv. 6.) Hence, the grace of justification is compared by our Saviour, not to a pond, but to a fountain, whose waters reach unto heaven: "But the water that I will give him shall become in him a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting." (St. John iv. 14.)

Actual Grace

After we are justified we still stand in need, in order to perform any meritorious good work, of another grace called actual. Justifying grace, of which we spoke in the preceding chapter, called also habitual grace, is something in itself lasting; actual grace is something that passes, and extends only to individual acts for the time it is needed. Actual grace is a passing, supernatural, divine help, enlightening our understanding, and moving our will, and enabling us to perform any single good action; for instance, to accept any supernatural revealed truth, or to perform any good work considered good in the supernatural order.

Grace does not force man's free will, but respects it, and leaves man free to act with it or not. Grace, therefore, does not destroy our freewill, but only helps it, and our own working with grace is required. "God who has created thee without thee, will not save thee without thee" ("Qui creavit te sine te non salvabit te sine te"), says St. Augustine: and in Holy Scripture it is repeatedly stated that God will render to every one according to his works. A renovation which renders a soul renewed, pure, bright, amiable and endearing to God.

We stand in continual need of actual grace to perform good acts, both before and after being justified. "Without me you can do nothing," says our Saviour, and St. Paul declares that without God's grace we are incapable of even a good thought. The good acts, however, done by the help of grace without justification are not, strictly speaking, meritorious, but serve to smooth the way to justification, to move God, though merely through His mercy and condescension, to help us and render us better disposed for the same. But if, with the assistance of actual grace, good works are done by a person who is in a state of justifying grace, then they are acceptable to God, and merit an increase of grace on earth and an increase of glory in Heaven.

Hence St. Paul says: "God is not unjust that He should forget your work, and the love which you have shown in His name." (Hebrews vi. 10.)

How Christ's Redemption is Applied to Men

And writing to Timothy, he declares that "a crown of justice" was laid up for him; and not only for him, "but to them also that love His [Christ's] coming." (2 Timothy iv. 8.) And in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, he says, "for that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory." (iv. 17.)

All our merits, however, without any exception, are grounded on the merits of Jesus Christ, and on His grace, without which no one can move a step towards heaven.

The merit of a good action performed in a state of grace, as being in consequence of justification, and in union with our Lord, is truly our own merit, because that good action is really performed by us, by our co-operation with God's grace; but it is also, and principally, a merit of our Lord, as a grape is the fruit of the branch, and yet also and principally the fruit of the parent vine without which, or if not connected with which, the branch could not produce any fruit, or indeed have become a branch at all. Our merit, therefore, does not take away from Christ's merits, for without Him we can do nothing. We merit through Christ, Christ makes us merit; or still more properly, Christ merits in us, and therefore all the glory is His. "God forbid," says the Council of Trent, "that a Christian should confide or glory in himself and not in the Lord, whose goodness towards men is so great that He regards as their merits the very gifts which He Himself bestows upon them." (Session VI. chap. xviii.) And St. Augustine had said long before, "God crowns His own grace when He crowns our merits."

Jesus Christ died for all mankind; He truly died that "He might taste death for all." (Hebrews ii. 9.) Yet we know that all men will not be saved, but only those who do His will; for we read in St. Paul: "And being consummated, He became to all that obey Him the cause of eternal salvation." (Hebrews v. 9.) And so, notwithstanding Christ's redemption, it is stated in the gospel that some "shall go into everlasting punishment." (St. Matt. xxv. 46.) St. Paul did not say that God will save all men, but, "Who will have all men to be saved" (1 Timothy ii. 4), implying thereby that for salvation, man's will and co-operation is required to fulfil the conditions, and use the means appointed by God Himself for the purpose.

Only those who "have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Apocalypse [Rev.] vii. 14), that is, who have the merits of Christ applied to them, and who persevere to the end in doing what is commanded, will be saved.

The direct means instituted by Christ Himself for applying His infinite merits to the souls of men are the holy sacraments, which are so many channels instituted by Jesus Christ to convey to men His grace purchased for us at the price of His most precious blood: "You shall draw waters with joy out of the Saviour's fountains." (Isaias xii. 3.)