Cajetan, On Faith and Works (1532)
Of the many Roman Catholic theologians who took up the pen against Luther, Cardinal Cajetan (1468–1534) ranks among the best. This Thomist, who had met with Luther in Augsburg in 1518, was one of the few in the next decade who recognized the issue that was at the heart of Luther’s attack on the church. His careful response to it in this essay allows us to compare Luther’s theology of justification with a contemporary and indisputably Roman Catholic perspective on the issue.
To the Supreme Pontiff, Clement VII:
Obedience to the commands of your Holiness is always due, but now it is for me a delight since I was wanting to refute the poisonous Lutheran views on faith and works. Fearing these were infecting even the hearts of the faithful, I had shortly before receiving your Holiness’ command felt called to write this treatise. This is consequently an agreeable act of obedience which I hope proves fruitful for Christ’s faithful and pleasing to your Holiness, whose office it is also to judge this short work.
1. The Lutheran Doctrine of Faith
The Lutherans exalt the evangelical doctrine of man’s eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, our human Mediator between God and man. They teach that men attain the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ, but they enlarge the term “faith” so as to include that conviction by which the sinner approaching the sacrament believes he is justified by the divine mercy through the intercession of Jesus Christ. They assign such great value to this conviction that they say it attains the forgiveness of sins through the divine promise. They affirm that unless one has this firm conviction about the Word of God, one is despising the divine Word by not believing the divine promise. But if in receiving the sacrament one firmly believes he is justified, then he is truly justified. Otherwise the divine promise would not be true and effective.
Some Lutherans so extol this kind of faith that they teach it attains the forgiveness of sins before the sinner has charity. They base this on extended texts of the apostle Paul which distinguish justifying faith from the law. Charity, they hold, is included under the law, since the first and greatest commandment of the law is to love God with one’s whole heart, and so on, as our Lord said in the gospel, in Matthew 22 [:37].—These views make up the heart of Lutheran teaching concerning faith.
2. A First Error: Equivocal Use of the Term “Faith”
“Faith” means one thing when Holy Scripture refers to that which justifies men, and means something else when it refers to that conviction by which one believes he is justified by Christ and the sacraments. Justifying faith is that which Hebrews 11 [:1] defines: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.” Taken in this sense, faith is one of the three theological virtues referred to by Paul, “Now faith, hope, and charity remain” [1 Cor. 13:13]. Taken in this sense faith is the gift of God, as written in Ephesians 2 [:8], by which we are saved and without which it is impossible to please God. By such faith we believe all the articles of faith and whatever is to be believed as necessary to salvation.
But faith, taken as a conviction by which a person believes he is justified as he here and now receives this sacrament by the merit of Christ, is much different from faith taken in the first way. As a first indication of this, consider what is believed. Now faith cannot hold to something false, but this conviction can be deceived, since it concerns a particular effect here and now. This conviction arises in part from the faith that is necessary for salvation and in part from human conjecture. Concerning the merit of Christ and the sacraments, it is faith that calls for such a conviction; but concerning the effect here and now in one’s own case, it is human conjecture that gives rise to the conviction.
It is a matter of Christian faith that anyone trusting in the merit of Christ and inwardly and outwardly receiving the sacrament correctly is justified by divine grace. But Christian faith does not extend to the belief that I am at this moment inwardly and outwardly receiving the sacrament correctly. Similarly I am held by Christian faith to believe that the true body of Christ is in a correctly consecrated host, but Christian faith does not extend to the belief that the host consecrated at this moment by this particular celebrant on this altar is the body of Christ, since this latter can for various reasons be false.
A second consideration is that all Christians share in one and the same faith, according to Ephesians 4 [:5], “One Lord, one faith.” Obviously, my own faith does not entail believing that this man who is receiving the sacrament is here and now justified or that the body of Christ is in a particular host. Consequently no one’s “faith” entails believing this particular effect of this sacrament in the case of this individual. Therefore, the unity of faith brings to light the second difference between faith and the conviction described.
Hence the first error of the Lutherans in this matter is that they attribute to this conviction what Holy Scripture attributes to faith. When they teach this conviction they constantly cite texts of Holy Scripture on faith, such as, “As justified by faith, we have peace with God” [Rom. 5:1], and “by faith purifying their hearts” [Acts 15:9] and countless texts like these.
3. The Second Error: Teaching That This Conviction Attains Forgiveness of Sins
Their assertion that a conviction of this type attains the forgiveness of sins can be said and understood both rightly and wrongly. If it is said and understood that this conviction informed by faith and charity attains forgiveness of sins, this is true. But if the informing influence of charity is excluded, then it is false. As Augustine says in De Trinitate, Book XV, Chapter 18, there is no more excellent gift of God than charity, which alone distinguishes the sons of the eternal kingdom from the sons of eternal perdition.
One should know that this conviction is in fact shared by all who devoutly approach the sacraments. A person devoutly approaching any sacrament does believe that by receiving it he is justified by the merits of the passion and death of Christ, or else he would not so approach. But this conviction is not the same in all, since one person may believe more than another that he is justified. Generally the devout join to this conviction a doubt, namely, that the contrary may be the case. They do this since no text of Scripture and no document of the church teaches us that we must hold this conviction against all doubt. The reason for doubt is that generally no one knows whether on his part something impedes reception of the gift of forgiveness of sins. Generally, one does not know whether he is lacking the grace of God. Hence such a doubt entails no despising of the divine promise. One is not doubting about God, not about the merit of Christ, and not about the sacrament, but one is doubting about himself. It is written [Ps. 18:13], “Who understands his own sins?” Further evidence for this ordinary doubt about a particular effect of the divine mercy, that is, the forgiveness of sins of an individual now devoutly turning to God, is found in chapter 2 of the prophet Joel. After speaking of those who had turned to God with their whole heart in fasting, weeping, and lament, and after referring to the greatness of God’s mercy toward sinners, the prophet added [Joel 2:14], “Who knows whether God will turn and forgive?” Thus no one among those who were converted was certain, but each had some doubt whether God forgave them.
A confirmation of this lies in the fact that the doubt affecting this conviction would only be justifiably removed by one of three causes. First, divine revelation could bring this about, but this is not to the point here, since although God has revealed that all do attain forgiveness who inwardly and outwardly trust correctly that they attain this, he has not revealed that this person is now correctly turning to God inwardly and outwardly. This particular effect is not included in the revelation on which Christian faith is based. Second, a sufficient number of testimonies can motivate one to believe in a particular fact. For instance, a sufficient number of testimonies can bring one who has never left Rome to believe that the island of Calicut or Taproban does exist. But obviously in the case of the conviction by which one believes he is justified there do not occur any testimonies that bring the mind to be convinced about this effect now in oneself. Third, the special competence of witnesses could remove the doubt, for instance, if they were beyond all objection, as in Romans 8 [:16] where the apostle writes that the Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are sons of God. This witness presupposes that the forgiveness of sins has been conferred, because it presupposes that the one about whom witness is given is in fact a son of God, as the text clearly indicates. But the conviction asserted by the Lutherans does not presuppose in one the forgiveness of sins, but is itself the way of attaining this, as a prior reality attains what follows.
Hence it is to posit an arbitrary dogma to say that this sort of conviction about the word of Christ, based on the merit of his passion, and so on, infallibly attains the forgiveness of sins. Consequently Leo X included the following among the condemned articles of Luther:
Sins are not forgiven unless when the priest forgives one believes they are forgiven; in fact, sins remain unless one believes he is forgiven. It is not sufficient that sins be forgiven and grace be given; one must also believe he is forgiven. . . . You should in no wise trust you are absolved because of your contrition, but because of the words of Christ, “Whatever you loose. . . .” Rely on these if you receive the priest’s absolution; firmly believe you are absolved, and you will truly be absolved, however it might be with your contrition. . . . If perchance, as could not occur, one is not contrite when he confesses, or if the priest gives absolution in jest and not seriously, still if one believes he is absolved, he is in fact truly absolved.
4. The Third Error: Forgiveness of Sins Preceding Charity
It is intolerable that one’s sins would be forgiven before charity is infused in the person forgiven, as the following will convincingly show. An enemy cannot be made a friend unless he have the attitude of friendship. A friend devoid of the quality of friendship would be incomprehensible, just as something white is incomprehensible without whiteness. But when the unrighteous man is made righteous through Christ, an enemy of God is transformed into a friend of God, as the apostle says in Romans 5 [:10], “When we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” Reconciliation makes the reconciled person a friend. Hence it is impossible and incomprehensible that a sinner be justified in the absence of friendship toward God. Charity is this friendship between man and God, being both man’s love of friendship toward God and God’s toward man. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” [1 John 4:16]. We read in the same epistle, “We love God, because he first loved us” [4:19].
Since friendship consists in mutual love, the forgiveness of sins takes place essentially through charity. Hence what we call the righteousness of faith is identical with charity. We speak of the righteousness of faith, since by it a person is righteous before God, conformable to the divine realities and deeds in which we believe. The sense appetites are subject to the will, the will to right reason, and right reason is subject to God in conformity to what we accept in faith about him and about our heavenly homeland. We call the same thing charity since it also involves the love of friendship toward the God who is granting us citizenship in the heavenly homeland. Philippians 3[:20] says, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” And Ephesians 2[:19], “You are no longer guests and strangers, but citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.” Also, in the Canticle, “My beloved is mine, and I am his” [2:16].
This reasoning suffices in itself to convince the mind, but it is further supported by the authority of Christ, and of Peter, John, and Paul, all of whom attribute the forgiveness of sins to both faith and charity. In Luke 7[:50], Christ said to the sinful woman, “Your faith has saved you.” But he also said about her: “Many sins are forgiven her, because she has loved much” [7:47]. In this text the conjunction “because” shows that love is the proximate cause of the forgiveness of sins, that is, “because she has loved.” Faith is the cause inchoatively, but charity is the cause completing the forgiveness of sins.
Peter the apostle said in Acts 10 [:43], “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone receives forgiveness of sins who believes in his name.” Then in his First Epistle, chapter 4 [:8], he wrote, “Charity covers a multitude of sins.”
In a similar way the apostle John wrote in chapter 5 of his First Epistle, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” [5:1]. And in chapter 3, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. One who does not love remains in death” [3:14]. Granted that John wrote specifically about love of the neighbor, but this does not disprove our point, since obviously the charity by which we love God for his own sake is identical with that by which we love the neighbor for the sake of God. John’s First Epistle says this in chapter 4 [:7–12] and finds evidence for the passage from death to life only in such love of the neighbor [3:14].
Finally, the apostle Paul, in Romans 5[:1], wrote, “Justified by faith, we have peace with God.” But in 1 Corinthians 13[:2], “If I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not charity, I am nothing,” nothing, that is, in the spiritual realm where we are made children of God. In Galatians 5[:6] he wrote, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but rather faith working through love.” What avails in Christ is evidently not just any kind of faith but that working through love.
It is evident therefore that the ordinary teaching of the church is true: that the forgiveness of sins occurs not by uninformed faith but by faith informed by charity. The normative texts teaching that we are made righteous by faith are consequently to be understood in the precise sense of faith informed by that friendship toward God, which we call charity.
Now it was objected that faith is made distinct from and opposed to the law, and that charity is included under the law. We answer that when Christ spoke of the first and greatest commandment of the law, he used “law” in a different sense than did the apostle in distinguishing faith from the law [Matt. 22:37f.]. Christ used “law” to indicate all the divine commandments written in the books of Moses. But the apostle spoke of “law” in a narrower sense, as embracing moral, ceremonial, and juridical precepts.
I have not invented this distinction, but have taken it from Scripture itself, so that even the adversaries should accept it. The fact that Christ used “law” in a broad sense is proven by the text of Deuteronomy 6 from which he cited the precept concerning love of God [6:5]. Immediately before this, there is a precept concerning faith, where it says, “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord” [6:4]. In the same passage of the law there is laid down a precept of faith, believing God is only one, and a precept of loving the same God. We are to understand that a precept concerning charity is no less included in the law than a precept concerning faith, when we take “law” in a broad sense. Hence it is also clear that just as the apostle distinguishes faith from the law, one can equally well distinguish charity from the same law.
But the fact that the apostle speaks of the law in a manner excluding the elements of faith and charity is obvious when he calls it the “law of works” [Rom. 3:27, Vg.], and says that the gentiles observe it by nature, as in Romans 2 [:14], “the gentiles who do not have the law do by nature what the law requires.” It is certain that they do not do by nature what charity requires.
Since this objection equivocates in speaking of “law,” it consequently is of no worth. Love of God is not embraced by the law of works which is distinguished against faith, but is under the same law that includes faith, as in Deuteronomy 6 where precepts of faith and love of God occur together. Answers to the other objections of the Lutherans are obvious from what has been said.—This is sufficient treatment of faith.
5. The Lutheran Teaching on Works
The Lutherans teach that our works are neither meritorious of grace and eternal life, nor do these works make satisfaction for sins. They argue that since Christ has superabundantly merited for us both the grace of forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and since he satisfied superabundantly for all, it is consequently perverse to attribute to our works the merit of grace (or of forgiveness of sins) and of eternal life, and to say our works satisfy for our sins. Such teaching is said to insult Christ, since it is blasphemy to attribute to ourselves what is Christ’s own work. If there is need of our merits and satisfaction, this detracts from the merit and satisfaction of Christ, implying they are inadequate.
These denials are made on the basis of many texts of Scripture, beginning with those asserting that we do not merit by our works the forgiveness of sins. This is proven by Paul’s demonstration in Romans and Galatians that we are justified not by works but by faith. He cited Habakkuk 2[:4], “The man righteous by faith will live” [Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11]. Paul wrote to Titus, “Not by works of righteousness that we did, but through his mercy, he saved us” [3:5]. Also, in Ephesians 2[:8f.], “By grace you have been saved through faith, not of your own doing, but by the gift of God, and not because of works, lest one should boast.”
The fact that we do not merit eternal life through works, but attain it by the gift of God, is shown in Romans 6[:23], “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” Luke 17[:10] is cited to prove the same point and at the same time to demonstrate that no matter how righteous we may be, our works do not make satisfaction for sins: “When you have done all that I command you, say, ‘We have done what we ought, we are unworthy servants.’” If they are unworthy servants who have kept all the commandments of Christ, then clearly the reward is not merited. Those then who have not kept all the commandments, and so need to make satisfaction, are much more unworthy and incapable of making satisfaction.
I can omit the texts proving the sufficiency of Christ’s merit and satisfaction on our behalf. About this there is no controversy.
The Lutherans therefore teach that good works are to be done, because they are commanded by God as the fruit of justifying faith, but not because they are meritorious of eternal life and satisfactory for sins.
6. The Meaning of Merit in This Context
Before determining whether our works are meritorious or not, we must first briefly examine what is meant by merit and how theologians understand it in this context concerning our works.
Merit is said of a voluntary work, whether interior or external, to which by right a payment or reward is due. The apostle says in Romans 4[:4], “To one who works payment is not accounted as a grace, but as his due.” Hence four elements go together to constitute merit: the person meriting, the voluntary work of merit, the payment due for the merit, and the person rendering payment. The last is essential, since it would be pointless to merit unless it be from some person rendering one payment.
Since we are discussing our merit before God, we must explain how men can merit from God a reward for their works. It appears problematical that God would by right render payment for our work, since between ourselves and God there is no right, strictly and absolutely speaking. Scripture says, “Enter not in judgment with your servant, Lord” [Ps. 142:2]. There is only a derived kind of right, which is much less than the right of a son toward his father and of a slave toward his master. How much less are we in relation to God than a man who is slave in relation to the man who is his master, and than a son in relation to the earthly father who begot him. So, if as is written in Book V of the Ethics, there is no right strictly and absolutely speaking, but only a derivative kind of right between slave and master and between father and son, then much less is there a right between ourselves and God.
All that the slave is belongs to the master. A son cannot render as much to his father as he received. Hence a right, strictly and absolutely considered, cannot exist between master and slave and between father and son. It is true to a much greater extent that all that a man is belongs to God and that man cannot render as much to God as he received. Hence man cannot merit something from God that would be due him by right, unless this be a right so weakened that it be far less than the right between master and slave and father and son. Even such a weakened right is not, absolutely speaking, found between man and God, because absolutely speaking man’s every voluntary good action is due to God. In fact, the more and the better a man’s interior and outward works, so much more does he owe to God, since it is God who works in us both to will and to complete our every action [Phil. 2:13]. This weakened right is found between man and God by reason of the divine ordination by which God ordained our works to be meritorious before himself.
When man merits anything before God, God never becomes man’s debtor, but rather his own. If even this weakened debt were given in an absolute sense between man and God, then God would owe man the payment he earned. But it is obvious that God is in debt to no one, as Paul says in Romans 12 [sic = Rom. 11:35], “He who has given the gift, shall he then reward this?” God is therefore indebted to himself alone, that he should carry out his own will by which he granted that human works would be meritorious so he would render to man the reward for his work.
This is undoubtedly true about the simple and absolute sense of merit. In other cases, an agreement is presupposed between God and man on some matter, as among men when a master makes a pact of some kind with his slave. In this case a right can arise between master and slave. Thus if God deigns to make a pact with man, a right can arise between man and God with reference to the matter of the agreement. We often read in the Old Testament that God deigned to enter covenants with men. Genesis 9[:9–16] records God’s covenant to never again permit a flood over the whole world. Genesis 15 [:18–21] describes God’s covenant with Abraham concerning the land of Canaan which was to be given to his offspring. Genesis 17 [:1–11] tells of the covenant of circumcision. In Exodus 24[:8] Moses says, “This is the blood of the covenant. . . .” In Jeremiah 31[:31–34] God speaks explicitly of the covenants of the old and new law. In the New Testament our Savior reveals God under the form of the householder hiring workmen for his vineyard for a day’s wages, in Matthew 20[:1–16]. “After making an agreement for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard” [20:2]. Further on [20:13], “Did you not enter into an agreement with me?”
These texts make it clear that there can be in our works an element of merit even by right, with reference to the reward concerning which an agreement has been made with God.
Keep in mind though that to whatever extent there is a pact between God and man concerning a reward, still God never falls into our debt, but is only in debt to himself. For in view of the agreement made, there is due to our works the reward on which was agreed. God does not thereby become indebted to us regarding this reward, but rather indebted to his own prior determination by which he deigned to enter a pact with us. Consequently we profess in full truth that God is indebted to no one but to himself. One can therefore ascertain a double aspect of merit before God in our works. There is first the weakened right, and second the agreement. But never is God indebted to us.—These, then, are the initial considerations for a right understanding of the terms used in treating our merits before God.