In Thomas Aquinas’ three-fold understanding of grace, grace begins with God. On that starting point there’s no difference between the Catholic perspective and what Luther fleshes out in his re-formation.
The second procession of grace, sanctifying grace, is grace that is in us. But how do you know if you have sanctifying grace? That question starts to get at Luther’s criticism.
The third procession of grace, according to Thomas, is our response of faith, hope and love that sanctifying grace makes possible. Again, if you don’t really have sanctifying grace- if perhaps you’ve deceived yourself and only thought you did- then necessarily you can’t possess genuine faith, hope and love.
Thomas’ formulation of grace, though it boasted a pedigree that went all the way back to the church fathers and though there appears to have been no other reformation era critics of it, in Luther’s mind placed for too much on us.
Whereas Thomas believed sanctifying grace is bestowed upon us in baptism and through the sacraments, Luther re-conceives grace’s movement.
Grace, first of all, names God’s favor, loving inclination, towards us. This is where Luther and Thomas agree. Second, grace is a Word addressed to me, a declaration. For Luther this declaration is the Gospel. Rather than a gift God implants within us, this Word God declares to us is the gift. Third, this word-gift is what enables me to respond in faith.
Part of the difficulty in the reformation debates is the confusion of terms. Thomas and Catholic theology in general use the term ‘justification’ to name the entire process of God’s favor towards us, God’s sanctifying grace and our response. Luther and the reformers after him instead use ‘justification’ to refer exclusively to God’s inclination and declaration to us. Our healing and response tend to get treated separately as ‘sanctification’ or ‘vocation’ or, in Wesley, ‘perfection.’ So, often, when Protestants accused of Catholics of ‘works righteousness’ it’s because Protestants thought Catholics were speaking of justification when, really, Catholics were talking about sanctification. And when Catholics thought Protestants were eliminating any role for works of faith and making faith totally passive it’s because Catholics thought Protestants were speaking of sanctification when, really, Protestants were speaking specifically about justification. That both sides tended to be led by stubborn, recalcitrant men didn’t ameliorate the confusion.
What’s essential in the divergence of views is how, for Luther, there’s nothing inside me that is different or changed. There’s nothing inside me that empowers me to respond to God with faith, hope and love. Luther did believe that eventually our trust in God would create a new life but that new life would never be the basis of our justification. It would never be why we’re pleasing to God.
Again, this gets back to Luther’s spiritual crisis. For Luther, what’s important is that we don’t look within ourselves to determine if we’re saved.
For Luther, looking within is the problem because, basically, inside we’re messed up. Within us, no matter how much we trust God, is a whole stew of conflicting motives. Obviously this is an incredibly autobiographical insight on Luther’s part. According to Luther if we want to know how we stand before God we look, not within, at the promise of God.
Justification, then, in this classical Protestant formulation is objective (in that it depends not on our apprehension of it) and it is passive (in that it God’s act outside of us).