“Saying Jesus’s Name Wrong”: A Fallacy of “Hebrew Roots”

Andrea Mantegna, Ecce Homo (1502)

Andrea Mantegna, Ecce Homo (1502) (WikiArt).

One of the most common and insistent tropes of the “Hebrew Roots” movement is the claim that the majority of Christians in the world are “saying Jesus’s name wrong” — that the name “Jesus” itself is improper, a Westernization and a corruption of the Messiah’s true name. The true name of our Lord, the proper way to address Him, these people argue, is by His original Hebrew name, ישוע (yēšūʿa) — most often rendered in English as Yeshua.

Make no mistake: It’s quite true that the original, Hebrew and Aramaic name of Jesus was probably ישוע, a variant of the name of the Hebrew leader and hero יהושע (yəhôšūʿa), meaning “The Lord is salvation.” And if you’d like to call the Lord that, then more power to you. But before you go around condemning traditional Christians who hail our Lord Jesus, here are a few things you should consider:

  1. There is nothing “traditional” about calling the Lord Yeshua (or Y’shua, or Yah’shua, or any variant).
  2. There is nothing “improper,” no form of syncretism or invention or corruption, in the traditional name Jesus.
  3. To insist that Yeshua is the only proper name by which to address our Lord is, in fact, to reject the entire received Christian tradition, to disown the Apostles and Evangelists, even to deny Scripture itself — and to contradict the very message of the Gospel.

An Invented Tradition

Hebrew Roots

Proponents of “Hebrew Roots” often support their arguments with claims that they are returning to the “authentic traditions” of the first Jewish Christians. But is this really true?

Tradition means what has been handed down. And the truth is that there is no tradition — no writings, no hymns, no inscriptions, no traditional teaching or custom — of our Lord being addressed as Yeshua, passed down by the earliest Christians or by anyone else at all, until the beginnings of the “Messianic” movement in the nineteenth century.

Proponents argue that the name Yeshua is what the Apostles themselves would have called the Lord; and that might very well be true. But they left us no record, no tradition of it. Historians believe that Jesus and the Apostles probably spoke Aramaic as their primary language — not Hebrew. Yeshua is a modern reconstruction, based not on Aramaic but on Hebrew pronunciation.*

* Jews wrote Aramaic with the Hebrew script, but pronounced it differently than the biblical Hebrew language. Our transliteration of Hebrew is based on the rabbinical pronunciation of the biblical texts. The original Hebrew texts had no vowels; the system of vowels and pronunciations we have of ancient Hebrew today was passed down (and in some cases made up, or at least formalized) by rabbis. So a rabbi reading ישוע in a biblical text would pronounce it completely differently than a first-century Jew on the street speaking Aramaic, reading the same characters. Syriac Christians (see below), whose liturgical language is essentially Aramaic as it would have been spoken in the first century, pronounce these same characters, ישוע, not as “Yeshua” but as “Isho.”

On top of this, there is the matter that Hebrew and other Semitic languages can only be transliterated incompletely into English, which lacks both the phonemes and the graphemes to fully express those languages’ sounds and meanings. Even presuming the rabbinic tradition of pronunciation — Yeshua, like any other rendering, is at best an approximation. Rather than adhering to the “true” name of the Lord, proponents of this are just as guilty of “translating” His name into their own language as the early Greek Christians were in calling Him Jesus.

There are in fact Christians who have been speaking Aramaic for the past two thousand years, since the time of the Apostles, who have passed down the Christian faith in what can be called its native language: the Syriac Christians, whose liturgical language is essentially Aramaic as Jesus would have spoken it — but they pronounce the Lord’s name not “Yeshua,” but “Isho.” Yeshua was passed down by nobody at all, but invented from imagined traditions in modern times.

What the Apostles did pass down to us, the earliest written records preserved of the Christian Church, are the New Testament Scriptures — written not in Hebrew, not in Aramaic, but in Greek.

The Name of Jesus

Jesus Christ icon

Contrary to arguments I am hearing increasingly from “Hebrew Roots” proponents, the name Jesus is not a late, syncretistic introduction by “Rome,” nor a “corruption” of the true Hebrew teaching, nor any other attempt to pull true Christians away from the “Hebrew Roots” of Christianity. When the Apostles and their associates wrote the New Testament Scriptures in Greek — under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit — they wrote His name as Ἰησοῦς (Iēsous). Every manuscript of every book of the New Testament attests to this.

And this was not a novelty, even for the first Christians. The name Ἰησοῦς had already been extant in Greek for several centuries, as the standard transliteration of the Hebrew name (commonly transliterated in English) Joshua. In the Septuagint, the classic translation of the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek, which can be dated as early as the second century B.C., Ἰησοῦς was used as the name of Joshua, both the man and the book. In applying that name to the Christ, Greek-speaking Christians were following conventions established long before His coming.

When the Apostle Paul, the first great missionary, carried the Gospel of Christ beyond Judea and Palestine, he carried His name not as Yeshua but as Ἰησοῦς. The name Iesus is a natural transliteration of the Greek name into Latin, and thence, with the translation of the Bible into English, Jesus. Is Scripture itself, then — the divine foundation that even “Messianic” Christians claim — compromised, or corrupt, or flawed? Were the Apostles agents of syncretization or dilution, of leading the people of Christ away from His “Hebrew Roots”? This is in effect what these arguments entail. Clearly, if there were any problem, any heresy or corruption or dilution, in translating the name of the Lord into the native tongues of each of His peoples, then the Apostles themselves would not have done it.

Every Tongue Shall Confess

Nesterov, Resurrection (c. 1892)

Resurrection (c. 1892), by Mikhail Nesterov.

St. Paul himself tells us, in fact:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)

Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” — declared in Greek, what was then the lingua franca of the civilized world. The word tongue in Greek, γλώσσα or glōssa, could also refer to language, as with the Latin lingua, and as we continue to use tongue in English. Was “every tongue” to confess the Lord, but only as Yeshua? Plainly not: in that very sentence, Paul hails Him as Jesus in Greek.

Arguing that only “Yeshua,” or any other rendition of the name, is the correct and proper address for our Lord, denies the entire received Christian tradition, the handing down of the faith to every people as the Apostles and their spiritual descendants have done. Just as the Greek people received the name of the Lord as Ἰησοῦς, the English people received Him as Jesus, the Spanish as Jesús, and so forth:

Names of the Lord in Various Languages
Language Name Transliteration
Albanian Jezusi
Amharic ኢየሱስ Iyesus
Aramaic ܝܫܘܥ Isho
Arabic يسوع ʿĪsā
Aragonese Chésus
Bengali যিশু Jishu
Chinese 耶稣
Greek (Koine) Ἰησοῦς Iēsous
Greek (Modern) Ιησούς Iēsous
Hebrew (Modern) ישו Yeshu
Hindi ईसा Jesu
Hungarian Jézus
Irish Gaelic Íosa
Italian Gesù
Korean 예수
Latin Iesus Jesus
Romanian Isus
Russian Иису́с Iisús
Church Slavonic Їисъ
Slovak Ježiš
Tagalog Hesus
Tamil இயேசு
Turkish İsa
Vietnamese Giê-su
Yiddish יעזוס Yezus

… I think you get the idea; and I’m having far too much fun with this. This is only a random smattering of just a few languages, pulled from Jesus’s Wikipedia article.

The point is this: Are any of these languages “wrong”? Were the apostles, missionaries, evangelists, and translators who carried the faith of Christ “to the ends of the earth,” to each one of these peoples, “wrong”? To argue that there is only one name by which Jesus can properly be addressed is to deny the universality, the catholicity, of Christ’s message of salvation; to cast aside the very message of the Gospel, of forgiveness and acceptance and inclusion into Christ for all peoples. Is Jesus a Savior for the Jews only? Or did He come for the lost sheep of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue? The greatest danger of the “Hebrew Roots” movement, I fear, is that it in effect recycles the heresy of the Judaizers, in arguing that the only true way to be a Christian is to be a Jew — an argument that Scripture rejects again and again.

A life update

No, I haven’t abandoned my blog. I just have way too much on my plate.

I’m trying to get back into it, at the request of several dear friends. So I thought I would start with an update of where I am and what I’m up to.

Back to school

As you may know, I graduated last December with my master’s degree in history. After a frustrating and fruitless year of job hunting, I’m looking to other pastures than history or education. One of my first great loves and passions was computers. I’ve always enjoyed programming and developing, which are creative and artistic faculties for me, adventures in language and communication and problem-solving. I brushed up on a lot of my old skills in pursuit of my thesis, which involved statistics, demographics, data mining and databases. So for the past few months, I’ve been plugging myself in the IT sector — but with little or no results. As somebody with liberal arts degrees and no applicable work experience, in a supersaturated job market, I simply don’t have the credentials to even get in the door. Even though I do have a lot of useful skills and knowledge, on paper I look like a total noob.

So, I’ve decided to go back to school, again, for a second bachelor’s degree and possibly another master’s in computer science. I resisted this step for the longest time, but now I’m strangely excited. I’ll start in January, taking a full-time load, consisting of an unexpectedly mixed bag at first: in addition to a computer science course, a calculus course, a speech course (a requirement for computer scientists, since so many are lacking in that skill), a seminar in computing ethics (to encourage me to be a white hat and not a black hat), and a course in developmental psychology. The last is an education requirement: I thought that while I’m going back, I might as well see about taking care of another obstacle to my employability, my lack of state teaching credentials.

Kung fu masters

Kung fu masters (from Wikipedia).

You might recall that I was a computer science major for several years as an undergraduate, before I was a history major. What discouraged me from CS before was the requirement that I minor in mathematics. The math minor is no longer a requirement (as of this semester, I think), though there are still math prerequisites. That’s a welcome relief, but oddly, I’m even excited about the math. Mathematics, I’ve come to see as I’ve gotten older, is a beautiful and amazing intellectual pursuit, the manifestation of this ordered and rational universe God has given us. And I’m excited to be able to fill up my brain with yet another discipline, or three. Immersing myself in programming languages and algorithms and technologies again, I feel like a kung fu master, learning an arcane art to bend mind and body and media to my will.*

* I’m excited today to learn that kung fu or gōngfu (功夫), in its original meaning, refers to “any skill achieved through hard work and practice.” Perhaps I’ll be a kung fu master yet!

Juggling

Egyptians juggling

Ancient Egyptians juggling, apparently. (From Wikipedia.)

In the past few months I had been feeling rather discouraged and burned out anyway. It was not a good spiritual state to be in. But now I’m feeling reinvigorated and revivified. Ever-so-often (possibly too often), my interests and passions take radical shifts: I’ve often said that I have academic ADD. My bookshelves were already overburdened with Christian history and theology; I’m not sure they can handle the recent and rapid influx of bulky computer books. Lately, in addition to computing, I’ve also been drawn back to genealogy, video gaming, travel, food, cooking — if it weren’t all so distracting and overwhelming, I would say it was pretty nice. I’ve also been dating a very lovely lady named Kelly.

So I hope all of this begins to explain a little of why my blog posting has suffered of late. Oh, and I also have a new website, at which I’m presenting my résumé and computer stuff, and I’ve been working on revamping my old genealogy site with my newfound skillz (an updated incarnation of that to be unveiled soon). I still love this blog and feel a calling to teach here — I just can’t, to my chagrin, do everything at once. Time management and multitasking have never been my fortés.

As much to motivate myself as to inform you, here are some things I would like to write about here in the near future:

  • More thoughts on the “Hebrew Roots” movement, specifically, the fallacy of several major arguments I’ve been hearing from it lately, and its increasingly radical and apocalyptic tone.
  • As previously promised, a series on the Sacrament of Reconcilation or Confession, and eventually, the rest of the Sacraments.
  • More in the line of “Reading Church History as a Protestant,” thoughts on some major fallacies, including the “Trail of Blood” argument.
  • There were still a few topics I wanted to address on Baptism in Depth, specifically, the teachings of Jesus on Baptism in the Gospels, a focused look at Baptism in the Acts of the Apostles, and Peter’s teaching on Baptism in 1 Peter 3:18–22.
  • A post that I had half-baked at some point on the Catholic understanding of salvation, in line with the recent series on Grace and Justification, but hopefully dealing with it in more practical terms.

Please keep me in your prayers. I love you all, and my God bless you and grant you His peace!

We’ve moved! My new WordPress site

Marc Chagall. Joseph, A Shepherd. 1931.

Marc Chagall. Joseph, A Shepherd. 1931.

How now, Brown Cow?

Sorry I’ve been silent for a few weeks. I’m still around. And one of the major projects I’ve been working on has been transferring my blog from WordPress.com to its new home on its very own shiny new site. Behold, the new LonelyPilgrim.com!

If you’re reading by subscription, via RSS or email, then you ought not to see any difference at all from your end. If you continue receiving my posts as before, then all is well. If you don’t — then you probably won’t receive this one. But if you happen to notice any interruptions or problems, please let me know.

I’d like to draw your attention to my shiny new gizmo, the primary reason why I finally decided to move to a self-hosted WordPress installation: a plugin that generates Scripture tooltips upon hovering over Scripture references. One of the most tedious aspects of my blogging was having to manually link every Scripture reference to some Bible site or another. From my end (and from your end, too, as commenters!), all I have to do is refer to a Scripture — for example, Matthew 16:18 or John 3:5 — and the plugin dynamically tags the reference. From your end as readers, if you are reading on LonelyPilgrim.com, all you have to do is hover over the tagged Scripture reference, and the text will appear! Try it out! I call it Sacred WordPress, and after a little more tweaking, I hope to be able to share it with other WordPress users.

My only regret is leaving the close-knit WordPress.com community. The WordPress.com Reader has been the source of many interesting random encounters, and I’m going to miss those. But new readers can still follow me, and read my posts in the Reader! And I will continue following all the wonderful blogfriends I made on WordPress.com.

I hope to resume my regular blogging soon. May God bless you all, and His peace be with you!

Assurance for Today: God works through the Sacraments

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure about this post. It comes across as more critical than I meant it to be. I do not mean to “bash” anyone’s faith; only to point out what I see to be honest, practical difficulties in particularly Evangelical Protestantism, as I’ve witnessed and I myself experienced. As usual, if I miss the mark on something, please call me on it.

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompeo Batoni.

Reading back over my recent posts, there is a point I wanted to touch on but didn’t quite hit in my post on “Catholicism and Assurance of Salvation.”

It is this: Unlike the Evangelical, who might struggle with uncertainty and doubt as to whether he is “really saved,” seeking a “confirmation” of the “assurance” of his salvation — the Catholic can be assured from the very beginning, from the moment of his Baptism, in the promises of Christ, that God’s grace has done what Scripture promises it will do: that his every sin has been washed away (Acts 22:16); that he has been born again in Christ (John 3:3,5; Romans 6:3–6; Titus 3:5); that he has received God’s Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 19:5–6). From the moment he receives absolution in the Sacrament of Confession, he can be sure that God has forgiven his sins (1 John 1:9), that he has been healed and restored in grace (James 5:15), because this is what Scripture promises. From the moment he receives the Lord in the Holy Eucharist, he can be sure that he has encountered Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity (1 Corinthians 10:16), and that His grace and eternal life have flooded his soul (John 6:54) — because this is what Jesus Himself promised.

Hillsong Church, Sydney, Australia

Hillsong Church, Sydney, Australia.

From a practical standpoint, speaking as someone tending to approach situations from the perspective of feeling (I am a textbook INFP) — and, as the other night, having witnessed this in my friends — the Evangelical approach tends to place much emphasis on feelings and emotions: “I have assurance that I am saved because I feel assured.” And vice versa: “I wonder if I am really saved, because I don’t feel it.” Salvation, in this tradition, seems to depend also on our human understanding: I have heard many times, “I thought I was saved; I went to church, was baptized, worked in outreaches, sang in the choir — but then I realized that I didn’t really ‘get it,’ and wasn’t really saved at all.” “Getting it” often depends not only on an intellectual comprehension, but an emotional appreciation. I have heard from so many people — and I can testify to this myself — that “I went down [to the altar call] every week, prayed the ‘sinner’s prayer’ again and again — but I just didn’t feel saved.” “Feeling saved” does not necessarily mean that one is, nor does “not feeling” mean that one is not, but the experience of these feelings certainly has a lot of bearing on one’s assurance and security. The idea of “assurance of salvation” depends on the apprehension of something subjective; something one feels one has or not; something that can be thrown into doubt by sin or scrupulosity.

I suspect this phenomenon is particular to the Evangelical Protestant tradition, possibly only to certain sectors of it, and may have more to do with one’s own scrupulosity and insecurity than anything inherent to the tradition; but that door is very often left open, and I don’t see an easy remedy. Was not Luther’s initial concern his scrupulosity, his not feeling justified? Other forms of Protestantism may or may not suffer from this same problem, or at least not to the same degree. But this emotionalism, this subjectivity, is the extreme end, it seems to me, of one of the basic theological differences between Catholic theology and Protestant theology: differing understandings of the mode of grace working through the Sacraments.

The Workings of Grace

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt.

One of the fundamental disagreements of the Protestant Reformation concerns the mode of the working of the Sacraments: how it is that the grace of the Sacraments is accomplished; in what mode the Sacraments are efficacious. According to the Catholic understanding, first formulated by the medieval scholastic theologians, the Sacraments work ex opere operato, “from the work having been worked”: the efficacy of the Sacrament comes from the very fact that the work was done (by God). The opposing Protestant view can be summed up as ex opere operantis, “from the work of the one working”: that is, the efficacy of the Sacrament depends upon the spiritual disposition of the one receiving it, namely, upon his faith.

The Catholic view understands the Sacraments to be instruments of God through which He immediately acts upon the believer, conferring His grace — one of the gifts of which is saving faith. One of the major concerns of this doctrine, dating from the earliest centuries of the Church, is that the efficacy of the Sacrament does not depend at all on the holiness of the minister — since God can work through even the instrumentality of a sinful priest. The requirements of the Sacrament are only that it be carried out in the correct matter and form, by a minister with the power and the intention to perform it. The graces of the Sacrament flow from the working of the Sacrament itself. In order for the recipient to receive these graces, he must be properly disposed — e.g. having faith in Christ, sincere repentance, the intention to receive the Sacrament, with no obstacle or impediment to it. But whether he receives the graces or not, they are present, ex opere operato. Thus, the recipient of the Sacrament has the positive expectation that the Sacrament has done what it was supposed to do, what God promised: it does not depend subjectively on either the minister or the recipient, apart from the requirement that they have the necessary disposition — which is more often formulated as a negative: the Sacrament can be presumed to have been valid unless there existed some impediment.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

On the other hand, the Protestant view understands the Sacraments to be aids to the mind, which enable it, by faith, to approach God and receive grace. The efficacy of the Sacrament depends solely on the believer’s disposition — that is, on faith alone. Faith is the instrument by which the soul reaches out to apprehend the redemptive work of Christ and procure the grace of justification from God.

Both positions agree that grace comes from God alone. The difference is this: Does God actively and immediately administer grace to the believer through the Sacraments, this grace being efficaciously applied so long as the believer has the proper disposition? Or does the believer, through the Sacraments, reach out to God to obtain His grace by faith? To abstract a step further: Is the immediately active role in justification played directly by God Himself, or by the faith of the believer (which is given by God)? Are we actually justified by faith alone, apprehending salvation, or are we justified by God alone, faith being a necessary disposition, and saving faith itself a work of God? Does God’s grace depend subjectively on the faith of the believer, whether it apprehends the saving work of Christ, or objectively on God’s working alone?

In the case of the Evangelicals with whom this discussion began — they generally have no belief in “Sacraments” at all. Baptism and the Eucharist are merely symbolic acts of faith which convey no grace in and of themselves. But the Protestant principle nonetheless formed a foundation for the Evangelical understanding: Rather than the faith of the believer reaching out to God by means of the Sacraments as aids, his faith reaches out to God with no aid but faith itself. The uncertainty and insecurity of whether faith has apprehended anything at all is thus understandable — like shooting for the moon with only dead reckoning as a guide.

Works’ Righteousness?

Pietro Longhi (1701-1785), The Confession

Pietro Longhi (1701-1785), The Confession (WikiArt.org).

The doctrine of grace being received from the Sacraments ex opere operato is another target for the common anti-Catholic charge that Catholics believe in “works’ righteousness.” The idea that a believer can be baptized, confirmed, partake of the Eucharist, be absolved in Confession — and out of those works themselves, receive grace — seems to all but confirm the accusation. The believer performs a work in exchange for grace.

But this is a misunderstanding. While it is true that the Sacraments are active in working, it is in fact God alone who works in the Sacraments — the believer only passively receiving His grace. Ironically, it is the Protestant position in which grace depends on the work of the believer (ex opere operantis) — on his faith actively apprehending the grace of Christ’s saving work. It is true that faith is not a human work, but a gift of God — so the charge of “works’ righteousness” does not properly apply to the Protestant view any more than it does to the Catholic. But whether one is “saved,” in the Protestant view, depends on whether the believer has apprehended, by faith, the truths of the Gospel. How the understanding of saving faith is framed can vary widely across traditions, but it seems to be inherently subjective. As seen in the Evangelical experience, being “really saved” can be understood to depend on “really getting it,” that is, truly grasping the message of the Gospel, by the head and by the heart.

This at once presents difficulties: If being “saved” depends on the believer’s understanding — and this view seems to be wider than the Evangelical tradition — for example, I frequently hear charges, particularly from the Reformed, that “Catholics cannot be saved unless they have faith in Christ alone,” to the exclusion of the Sacraments, “works,” etc. — i.e. In this view, salvation depends upon the intellectual understanding of a particular doctrine, and any other understanding can nullify faith in Christ — then how can small children be saved? What about the mentally disabled? What if a person can never apprehend the Gospel by faith at all? I have heard Protestant leaders (notably several prominent Reformed ones) say, flat-out, that children cannot be saved. I do not suppose that all Protestants, or even all Reformed, feel this way — but an understanding of salvation that makes grace dependent on the subjective faith of the believer as an intellectual understanding and emotional appreciation naturally runs into such questions.

Assurance for today

Sacred Heart

Pompeo Batoni. Il Sacro Cuore (The Sacred Heart) (1740).

So, to return to the initial, practical concern: The faithful Catholic who participates in the sacramental life of grace has assurance that he is indeed receiving the grace of the Sacraments — for this is what Jesus promised. Despite any charges of “works’ righteousness,” the state of grace in a Catholic depends not on his own working, but objectively on the working of God in the Sacraments, by the saving work of Christ; in contrast to the Protestant, whose assurance is subjective, dependent on whether he has grasped the truths of God by faith. The Catholic’s assurance is not an eternal assurance: he cannot know the future, whether he will have the grace of final perseverance or not; but he has assurance for today, in the daily bread that Jesus provides.

A comment aside: It is really difficult to find artwork to illustrate Protestant theological concepts!

Falling from Grace, and God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

The conclusion of what I originally wrote concerning grace and justification and “Falling from Grace,” in preparation for a discussion of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There’s a lot more where this came from! [Part one. Part two. An aside. Part three.]

Baptism: Initial Justification

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

Our Baptism is the moment of our initial justification, the beginning of our road of salvation; and this is wholly a gift of grace, through our faith, not because of any work or action or merit on our part; there is nothing we could have done to deserve such grace. Even the preparation for that moment, our having been called and drawn to the baptismal font, is entirely a work of God’s prevenient (that is, coming before) grace. At that time we are regenerated, born anew in Christ, and we receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). We are also sanctified, washed clean and made whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7, Isaiah 1:18, Ephesians 5:26), as innocent as newborn babes. Regeneration, being made a new creation in Christ, is a grace that cannot be undone; one can never “fall” from being “born again.” In Baptism, our every sin, both the stain of original sin (in fact, our damaged human nature) and every actual sin committed in one’s past, is washed away by the Blood of the Lamb. We receive sanctifying grace, filling up our heart: we are therefore not only cleared of all sin in God’s heavenly court, but we are actually made righteous in His sight.

What, then, of future sins? We have been washed clean, clothed in a robe as white as snow in Baptism. But our sins still very much affect our soul — as anyone who has struggled with sin surely knows. The Protestant view, preoccupied with God’s judicial aspect toward us, finds complacency in the idea that our sins are covered and will never be counted against us; but it fails to take into account the very real spiritual damage that sin can inflict, even upon the believer. When we sin — when we choose consciously and deliberately to reject God and betray His grace to us — we make a decision not to walk by the Spirit; we choose not to love and not to abide in Him. God’s grace, His love, cannot and will not live in a heart that chooses not to love: and so in serious, willful sin, we damage that love, perhaps even choke it out.

Falling from Grace

Caravaggio, Penitent Magdalene

Penitent Magdalene (c. 1597), by Caravaggio (WikiPaintings.org.

And this is what it means to “fall from grace”: to be in a state of grace — the righteous, sanctified state we are in following Baptism, filled with God’s love and grace — and to lose that sanctifying grace through deliberate, grave sin. What are we really losing when we lose grace? Are we “losing our salvation,” as Protestants suggest? Salvation, again, is not something we have ever fully received, and won’t fully receive until the end of life. The graces we received in Baptism — our spiritual rebirth — cannot be taken away. Our spiritual growth and progress, the degree to which we’ve been conformed to Christ, is not erased — we don’t have to start over from zero — though we could certainly compromise that progress through repeated and prolonged sin. So what have we really lost? If sanctifying grace is a clean, white robe in which God has wrapped us, falling from that state of grace is like tripping and falling in the mud. Stumbling does not change who we are: We are still the new creations God has made us to be, and His handiwork in our lives, molding and changing us, is still there. We have only fallen and sullied our robe. We are still God’s children, even if we have squandered our inheritance in a pig pen far from home.

Protestant critics who allege that “falling from grace” is equated with “losing our salvation” are operating from a mistaken, Protestant understanding of grace to begin with. They presume that falling into sin after justification entails that God, who has declared us righteous, imputing the righteousness of Christ to us, now somehow takes that away, goes back on His word, and revokes his promises. If He has promised us an eternal inheritance in “saving” us, he must then, they say, be taking that inheritance away when we sin — only to give it back when we are reconciled, then take it away again, and so forth — but this is not the Catholic view of grace, sin, or forgiveness. The idea that God is watching us with an ever wrathful, judgmental eye at all times, prepared to condemn us, take away our eternal reward, plunge us into the pit of hell, the moment we make a mistake, is strictly unbiblical, and does not describe the Catholic understanding of God at all. Scripture says repeatedly that God will judge us on the Last Day (Matthew 10:36; Acts 17:31; Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Peter 4:5; Revelation 20) or when we die (Hebrews 9:27). And if we are indeed predestined to our eternal reward (Romans 8:29), chosen before the world began (Ephesians 1:4), then God foreknows whether we will receive that reward in the end not; it is only a narrow, temporal view that would presume that God, Who is outside time, would alter our eternal destiny based on every positive and negative action we commit in our own, earthly present.

El Greco. Penitent Magdalene. c. 1590.

El Greco, Penitent Magdalene, c. 1590 (WikiArt.org).

But for the important, eternal question: Can a believer in Christ who has been regenerated in Baptism, but who has fallen into sin, be condemned to hell, should he die in that state? In light of the scriptural warnings against falling away (e.g. Matthew 24:10; Mark 14:27; Luke 8:13; John 16:1) and living unrighteously (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10:12; Galatians 5:21; 1 Timothy 3:6, 6:9–10; Hebrews 10:29; James 5:12; 2 Peter 1:10), the Catholic Church believes that he can. Christ Himself warned that those who were in Him, who did not abide in Him, would be cast away into the fire. Is this not, then, “losing one’s salvation”? Is “salvation,” in the scriptural sense, something that is ever fully realized before the end of life? Protestants, particularly the Reformed and those in their tradition, who espouse a belief in the “perseverance of the saints” or “eternal security,” appeal to such verses as John 6:37–40 and 10:27–30, 1 Peter 1:4–5, and 1 John 4:16–18 to demonstrate the irresistibility of grace, the immutability of divine election, and the finality of the gifts already given; but these conclusions depend, in many cases, on presupposing a Reformed view of God’s sovereignty that limits or eliminates human freedom. Yes, God has willed that all those He gives to Christ shall not die but be saved; but does God not allow men the free will to choose life or death (Deuteronomy 30:19, Sirach 15:17)? Who is it who has really been given or elected? The Reformed themselves allow uncertainty about an individual believer’s election — such that if a believer should fall away from Christ, the conclusion is that he never really had saving faith in the first place. They allow that the body of the visible church contains many who are not elect, who appear to be regenerate but are not. In the Catholic position, the uncertainty is not regarding whether a believer has been regenerated, whether he has received God’s grace in his life — which is evident by his works; the uncertainty is regarding whether he will abide in that grace and love and allow it to save him (John 15); whether he will persevere to the end (e.g. Matthew 10:22). Christ Himself warned that those who were in Him, who did not abide in Him, would be cast away into the fire (John 15:6). Ultimately, there is uncertainty, as with the Reformed, whether a believer is elected to final perseverance — for not all who are elected to be regenerated are elected to persevere, a distinction that the Reformed do not make.

Finally, what does it say about the love of God, that He would allow his son or daughter to perish? Does it evince a failure of God’s sovereign will — or a condescension of that will, to allow His beloved creations the freedom to choose? Scripture testifies that He does not take pleasure in the death of a sinner, but desires that he turn from his way and live (Ezekiel 33:11, cf. 2 Peter 3:9): if only God’s will were at issue, than all would be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). It is a mark of God’s love, rather than a neglect or abandonment of that love, that He allows us the freedom to accept or reject His grace. If any man should perish, it is ultimately by his own willful choice to reject God.

God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665), by Rembrandt.

The correct view of the grace and forgiveness of God is the one presented in Scripture again and again: that of absolute, unfailing mercy, rather than perpetual wrath. Jesus presents it in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), in which the father sadly but freely allows his son to pursue a life of profligacy, but runs to meet him in the road and pours out his grace unsparingly as soon as his son repents and returns. The wayward son had been raised in the favor of his father, but ungraciously cast it away. Sin had destroyed his life, and so long as he remained in the far-off land, he was without recourse; he would have died a pauper. But the father’s love was unending and his mercy boundless. There is no note here that the son, who had cast away grace, was from then on forever in his father’s graces, irrespective of his future conduct; but certainly, whatever he should do in the future, the father’s mercy and love would ever meet him in the road. It is exhibited in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the face of God which He revealed to us. It is the same view presented by the prophets of God’s mercy toward wayward Israel — for a most vivid example, in the Book of Hosea. Even despite Israel’s repeated infidelity — even though she make herself a harlot — even despite God’s righteous judgment — the Lord, again and again, receives her back, cleans her, clothes her in clean robes, and again pours his mercy and favor and love upon her. “I will heal their faithlessness; / I will love them freely, / for my anger has turned from them” (Hosea 14:4).

Reconciliation

And that brings us, at last, to Reconciliation, the Sacrament of God’s forgiveness and mercy, by which the Lord receives those believers who have fallen, picks them up, heals them, and restores them to the flock. From this point we will begin our discussion.

The Catholic View of Grace and Justification

Part three of a longer thought on grace and justification and “Falling from Grace.” [Part one. Part two. An aside.]

Murillo, Christ on the Cross (1665)

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Christ on the Cross (1665) (WikiArt.org).

So, then, is justification merely a forensic declaration acquitting the sinner of sins, as the Protestants say? Or is it, as the Catholic Church teaches, an actual infusion of grace that cleanses and purifies the soul, obliterating sin and making the sinner not sinful? To ask an even more basic question: Is grace an actual thing, an objective gift that is actually given by God and received by the sinner — “God gives grace to the sinner”? Or is it an abstract concept, like favor, merely describing God’s disposition toward the sinner — “God is gracious to the sinner”? Is the sinner justified because God changed the sinner, making him acceptable, or because God changed His attitude toward the sinner, who has not objectively changed?

In the latter, Protestant view, man is justified because God assumes an objectively different disposition to the sinner. He no longer sees a sinner at all, but sees only the righteousness of Christ; and future sin cannot affect or alter this new disposition. Given this understanding, the idea of a Christian confessing future sins (1 John 1:9) seems almost superfluous. A standard Protestant view seems to be that even though his sin is covered by the Blood of Christ, a Christian is nonetheless obligated to obey God and to seek His forgiveness when one fails. I have even read some Protestant commentary seeking to draw a distinction between God’s divine judgment upon the unjustified sinner and His paternal chastisement upon a wayward Christian.

Sacred Heart

Pompeo Batoni. Il Sacro Cuore (The Sacred Heart) (1740).

In the Catholic view, on the other hand, grace is an actual thing that is given by God to the sinner, in the form of love poured into His heart and the gift of the Holy Spirit, such that it fills him, cleanses him, and transforms him. The concepts of regeneration, justification, and sanctification are difficult to separate in the Catholic understanding: though they describe different effects of grace, they are all effected by the same grace poured into the soul, often worked at the same time. This grace is called sanctifying grace, because in addition to the forensic aspect of being made right in God’s sight, this grace actually makes us holy, turns our hearts toward Christ, and begins the process of transforming us in His image (2 Corinthians 3:18) — that we might become the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The response to sin

Diego Velazquez, The Crucifixion (1632)

Diego Velazquez, The Crucifixion (1632).

In the end, these distinctions profoundly affect the way a Christian views sin and grace. The Catholic response to serious sin is to repent and confess the sin and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness — which is always freely given, without limitation, a gift of His mercy and grace and a work of His healing. He picks us up, mends our wounds, and sets us back on the road. Protestants may or may not even see the need for the confession of sins: since in many views, the grace of God’s justification has already been given in full, there is, in a practical sense, no more comfort to be offered; only the assurance (false assurance, the Catholic might say) that all one’s sins are already forgiven.

I will leave much more to say here for our discussion of the Sacrament of Confession, but let me briefly say this: Only God forgives sins. Catholics do believe that a sinner can be forgiven his sins without the benefit of sacramental Confession, if he is truly repentant and contrite for his sins. Confessing sins, as Scripture teaches, whether to a minister, before the church, one to another, or even privately to God, places one in a much better position toward one’s sin than not, since it expresses that contrition.

Both the Catholic and Protestant views can be defended scripturally (the Catholic view, in my judgment, being more consistent with the whole of Scripture, not to mention Tradition). Is one “more Christian” than the other? Protestants today, in my experience, are much more likely to charge that Catholics have a mistaken understanding of grace than vice versa. But any view that understands God’s love and mercy as abundant and freely flowing, and His redemption and salvation as a free gift of grace by the Cross of Christ, cannot miss the mark entirely.

Next up: Falling from Grace, and God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

The Assumption of Mary: The Redemption of the Flesh

The Assumption (Murillo)

The Assumption of the Virgin (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Today is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Early in my journey as a Catholic seeker and convert, I didn’t know quite what to make of this belief and this observance; but as the years go by, and I continue to reflect on it, it is coming to have deeper meaning for me — as it makes deeper meaning of what happened to me today eight years ago.

I didn’t discover until years later that it was on the feast of the Assumption that I had nearly died. When I first discovered, it didn’t mean anything to me; just an odd coincidence of dates. As I began my journey into the Catholic Church, and began to become aware of the Blessed Mother’s intercession for me, I thought, Perhaps someone special was looking out for me that day. But why then, of all days? What did it mean?

He would not let his holy one see corruption

Guido Reni, Assumption of the Virgin (1580)

Assumption of the Virgin (1580), by Guido Reni.

Protestants are bothered by the idea of the Assumption because (and I know, because I felt this way, too) it seems to exalt Mary to a divine level, even to the level of Jesus. I thought that, in Catholic thinking, Mary “ascended” into Heaven, the same as Jesus. But no: the Assumption is a statement that can be applied to every one of us: Mary passed away. She died, as one day every one of us will. And as one day He will appear for every one of us, Jesus came and called to her: as “through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

It is written deep within our human nature that one of the most traumatic experiences imaginable is the decay of the body. Since the earliest gasps of human prehistory, man has sought to prepare the bodies of his departed loved ones to rest in death as they would have lived in life, perhaps equipping them as for a journey, clothing them and arraying them with the articles and comforts they would have needed in bodily life. Even today, the idea of seeing our formerly vibrant loved one in a state of decomposition is horrific to the senses: so we chemically treat the corpse to delay the process; we doll it up like a mannequin to give every appearance, to maintain the pretense, that the deceased is still alive, just for a little longer.

For Jesus, no less than for anyone endowed with a human nature, he did not want the beloved flesh of His Mother to see the corruption of the grave. And He alone, having conquered Death, Hell, and the Grave, having won for us Resurrection and Eternal Life, having promised every one of us that “in her flesh, she shall see God” (Job 19:26) — He alone had the power to secure for His Blessed Mother the firstfruits of His Redemption of the human body.

The body is worth saving

Assumption of the Virgin, by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823)

Assumption of the Virgin, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823) (WikiPaintings)

There is a tendency in Christianity, especially in Protestantism, to reject our human flesh as thoroughly depraved or corrupted, the things of this world as fallen, and — if we’re not careful — to fall into a kind of dualism, resigning the earthly body and bodily things to the dominion of the Devil, against, in contrast, the spirit and spiritual things that are of God. A sometimes lopsided emphasis on the theology of St. Paul, with his frequent juxtaposition of the desires of the spirit with the carnal desires of the flesh doesn’t really help this (e.g. Galatians 5:18–26). I once fell into this trap, too. But even for Paul, the flesh (σάρξ) is not equated with the body. As St. John Chrysostom comments, “By the flesh …, he does not mean the body, or the essence of the body, but that life which is fleshly and worldly, and uses self-indulgence and extravagance to the full.” (Homily XIII on Romans, 8:8).

But the truth is, body and soul, we are created in the image of God. We are whole beings composed of bodies and spirits, not merely spirits wearing corruptible “skins” of flesh. Since the earliest times, the Church of Christ has condemned such dualistic beliefs that matter or the human body were evil, hallmarks of such heresies as Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Catharism. The idea that flesh is inherently evil is contrary to Christian truth: Jesus came in human flesh to sanctify it, to save us and redeem us from the death of the body wrought by Adam’s sin. Our bodies are worth saving. Jesus was crucified, died, and was resurrected, not as a disembodied spirit, but in a glorified, perfected body, one that lived and breathed and ate: and the same is promised for every one of us. And the Assumption of Mary is the assurance of this; the earnest of the reward that awaits us all. If human flesh were sinful and hopelessly irredeemable, then He would abandon our bodies to the corruption of the grave, but instead He will raise us all to a new life in the body.

Living by the Spirit

The Assumption of the Virgin (1650), by Nicolas Poussin

The Assumption of the Virgin (1650), by Nicolas Poussin (WikiPaintings).

This bears significance for the present life, too: if our bodies, our flesh, were evil, then the sins of the flesh would be excusable. We would simply write off sin and say, “It’s not me that sins; it’s just my sinful flesh, and someday I will shed that.” Paul writes something that does sound vaguely similar: “It is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:17-18). But does he leave it at this? No! “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). For

“there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1–4)

So often these verses are read in such a way as to suppose that “there is now no condemnation” for sins committed by those who are in Christ Jesus; as if even though we continue to sin, that sin will not be condemned. But that is not what Paul says here at all. Jesus came to condemn sin in the flesh — not that we could go on sinning (cf. Romans 6:1-10) or be exempt from keeping God’s commandments (cf. Romans 3:31; Matthew 19:17; John 15:10; 1 Corinthians 7:19; 1 John 3:22,24; Revelation 14:12), but that we might overcome the flesh, that we can, that we have the power and the grace to keep His commandments“that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us — not in the law-keeping of Christ, which is imputed to us, but in us“who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” This is the way Mary lived her life, and the way every one of us who are in Christ can live our lives. Blessed be God!

And this is the meaning of the Assumption to me: the message Jesus sent especially for me by marking so significant an epoch in my life on this day, by very literally saving my flesh from the corruption of the grave before my time. At a time when I was lost in sin, when I had completely resigned myself to sin’s flames, excusing it as my sinful human nature which could not be overcome, he stopped me in my path and showed me this: that my body was worth saving, in more than one way; that I could, by His grace, rise above my sinful flesh; that I could be freed from those shackles and set free to live by His Spirit. Glory to God in the highest!

Catholicism and Assurance of Salvation

My next post in the current series is already queued up and scheduled; but I think I’m going to delay it for a timely reflection that turns out to be quite apropos. [Part one. Part two.]

Baptism in Kansas (1928), by John Steuart Curry

Baptism in Kansas (1928), by John Steuart Curry (WikiPaintings).

Last night I gave my testimony to a room full of Baptists. On Wednesday nights I attend a home care group at the home of my dear friends Josh and Wendy, ardent Christians and faithful Baptists. I grew up, and my faith was formed, among Baptists, and even now as a Catholic, I have a great and growing love for the Baptist tradition. And last night, we went around the circle as each member of the group shared his or her Christian testimony. As I closed mine, apologetically thanking my friends for their love and acceptance of me, “even though I’m a Catholic now, in a room full of Baptists,” one man spoke up and noted that we were a room full of Christians.

First Baptist Church, Lincolnton, N.C.

There’s one note that was a refrain through many of the testimonies of my Baptist friends, and I don’t wish to speak critically of it, but it made me thoughtful, and I thought I would comment on it from my own testimony: the quest for “assurance of salvation.” Baptists believe one can have assurance of one’s eternal destiny, “eternal security,” a faith that one’s eternal salvation is certain and cannot be taken away. But it seemed that for several of my friends, the search for this assurance was a struggle with uncertainty and doubt, until finally each received a confirmation. Several of them were raised in Christian homes and in church, and grew up knowing of the gospel; several of them had journeys of faith, even serving in the church, only to drift away or fall into sin, or later otherwise realize that they were “lost.” They then had dramatic moments at which they were “saved.”

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (1600)

Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), by Caravaggio.

But I know well, from my own life, the inconstancy of human flesh. I too was raised in a godly home, by godly parents, in a godly church; I knew the Lord from an early age; I grew up walking with Him; as a young man I was “on fire” for Him; and though I was immature and there was much I didn’t understand, I can say with fair certainty that I did know the Lord, that I trusted in Him and followed Him, and in the manner of speaking of Evangelicals, was “saved.” And yet I did fall away; I fell into serious sin; I walked away from God for a number of years. Was what I had before, then, as a young man, not real? Later on God called me back, and I did have dramatic conversion experiences, more than one of them; and yet that wasn’t the end of the road for me, either. I still struggled with sin, even fell in deeper than I ever had before, until I had an even further and deeper conversion to the Lord: not a single moment, but a highway landmarked with monuments of faith.

The road to Rome

So it presents a number of questions: When was I “saved”? Did I “lose my salvation” those times I fell away? Did I never have “assurance” to begin with? My friends’ stories were each framed around the premise that there was a single moment at which they were saved, at which they received assurance; and yet I heard evidence that these people were following and serving the Lord even before those moments. And I seriously wonder that if any of them were to fall again into serious sin — a danger that I am sure they would admit — if they should “backslide” or fall away from the Lord — that they wouldn’t then have further and later moments, and that they wouldn’t then frame their testimonies around them, supposing that that time is when they were truly “saved,” or “recommitted” their lives to Him. Even the language and narrative of Evangelicals seem to admit that “salvation” is a journey, an ongoing conversion, even despite their conventions and focus on single moments.

Despite any assurance of salvation that one might hold at any given moment, it is possible that that person might backslide or fall away — and if he were then to die, at that point there would be uncertainty among those who knew him: Was he truly saved? Did he ever really have a saving faith? One camp, the Reformed, would say that his falling away was evidence that he didn’t; and whatever assurance he had at one time would seem to count for very little. Others, more Evangelical-minded, might say that because he did have assurance of a saving faith at one time, he must have been saved in the end. And yet that saving faith was not saving him toward the end of his life or bearing fruit.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Smith Catholic Art

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Smith Catholic Art (prints available).

The standard Evangelical evangelistic question is, “If you died tonight, are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven and be with Jesus?” I am glad that nobody asked me that question last night, because as a Catholic, they wouldn’t have liked my answer. No, I don’t have absolute assurance; but I stand in good company, and answer with the words of Paul: “I do not even judge myself; it is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:3–4). I trust in the promises of my Lord: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). I know Him and trust in Him and have faith that “He who has begun a good work in [me] will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). I have assurance that my Lord “will never leave [me] nor forsake [me]” (Hebrews 13:5, etc.); if there is any doubt, it is not in the Lord, but in my own fragile humanity. He gives us the grace in Him to stand and to abide; but He also gives us the free will to stand with Him or to walk away, to choose sin and death or His eternal life (Deuteronomy 30:19, Sirach 15:17).

Much ink has been spilled over the centuries over the question of whether we can be certain that we are in a state of grace, that we are justified and forgiven of our sins; and this doubt coincides with the doubts of “assurance” that I heard from my friends last night. But faith is from the Lord (Ephesians 2:8–10), and He does give assurance and confirmation in that faith that we are in Him. In that faith, I know that it is never God who will let go of me; and I can say with abiding faith that I will not let go of Him between now and the moment of my death, especially were that to come tonight. Now, then, and always, I can only throw myself upon His boundless grace: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Catholicism and Being “Born Again”

Part two of a longer piece on “Falling from Grace.” [Part one.]

Catholics: Salvation is a Journey

Baptism of Christ, from Mariawald Abbey

The Baptism of Christ, stained glass from Mariawald Abbey, by Gerhard Rhemish, The Master of St. Severin, Germany (Victoria and Albert Museum)

So then, Catholics view salvation not as a single, momentary event, but as a road, a journey, a pilgrimage, a race (Hebrews 12:1). We have not yet arrived at our destination, the heavenly Jerusalem. There is certainly, in the Catholic mind, a sense in which we have been saved: at our Baptism, we are born again in Christ (John 3:3,5). We are buried with Him in death and raised to newness of life in His Resurrection (Romans 6:3–6); the old has passed away, and we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Catholics do not often speak of being “saved” in the present tense or of “getting saved” as a momentary event, as especially Evangelical Protestants do — for this we are often criticized. “Catholics don’t believe in being ‘saved’! They say they will not know if they are ‘saved’ until the end of their lives!” That isn’t quite true. We know that we have been saved from our former life and given a new life in Christ; whether we will be saved in the end is something that not even Paul could state with certainty (1 Corinthians 4:3–5).

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (The Kiss of Judas), c. 1306

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (The Kiss of Judas), c. 1306 (WikiArt.org).

Why could Paul not, and why can’t we, know our final salvation for certain? Paul himself tells us that although he knows of nothing against himself, it will ultimately be God Who judges him, “[when] the Lord comes” — and that he is, in his belief of his own innocence, not thereby acquitted — οὐκ δεδικαίωμαι [ouk dedikaiōmai], from δικαιόω [dikaioō], the same verb that is more commonly translated justified. Protestant apologists readily stress that δικαιόω, “justify,” has a primarily forensic meaning, of acquittal — which it does — but they are quick to gloss over instances such as this that do not fit their interpretation of a “once and for all” event. Paul, then, understands that his present and future sins can still be held against him, even the sins of his heart (v. 5); and he knows the danger of falling away — of which Jesus often warned (e.g. Matthew 24:10; Mark 14:27; Luke 8:13; John 16:1). Frequent, too, are the warnings, even from Paul, against falling into sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10:12; Galatians 5:21; 1 Timothy 3:6, 6:9–10; Hebrews 10:29; James 5:12; 2 Peter 1:10).

Being “Born Again”: Renegeration and Conversion

Painting of infant baptism from the Catacombs

A painting of the baptism of a child from the Catacombs of Rome.

Many Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, object to the Catholic identification of Jesus’s call to be “born again” with Baptism — despite the fact that this was historically the universal understanding of the Church in interpreting John 3:3,5, even in Protestant traditions, dating from the earliest times (see especially Justin Martyr, First Apology LX, quoted in this post). The objection that this “new birth” refers to a spiritual rebirth and renewal, not only to a physical washing, reflects a misunderstanding of the concept of sacramentality. A sacrament is an outward and visible manifestation that both represents and actually accomplishes an inward and spiritual grace: so in Baptism, the outward washing and covering with water both represents an inward spiritual cleansing (Ephesians 5:25–27, Hebrews 10:19–22) and a burial and resurrection with Christ (Romans 6:3–10, Colossians 2:11–15), but also actually accomplishes the grace of the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16) and spiritual regeneration (Titus 3:3–5).

Benjamin West, St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost, by Benjamin West (1738–1820) (Wikimedia).

But it is indeed a truth that there must be a genuine, inward conversion to Christ, a renewal in faith and turning toward Him, in the believer’s life. Catholics, in affirming the efficacy of Baptism in regeneration, in no way detract from this necessity. Especially in adult believers, regeneration in Baptism generally coincides with a faithful conversion to Christ — but it is not necessarily the same thing. The most strident objections come from Baptists and other opponents of “Paedobaptism” (the Baptism of infants), who argue that infants have no faith and cannot truly convert to Christ, and therefore cannot be regenerated: but it is not our faith alone that justifies us or regenerates us, but the working of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit; and He can work no less ably in the life of a child than in anyone else’s. For children, this regeneration in Baptism must be followed by growth in faith and conversion; and the good faith of the child’s family, his or her parents and the Church, in pledging to raise the child as a Christian, is a surety in this.

We must be born again. This is as true for our rebirth and regeneration in Baptism as it is for our sincere and faithful conversion to Christ. Catholics believe this as surely and certainly as do Evangelicals or any Protestants. We may not always have stories of sudden, life-changing “conversion experiences” — though very many do. Consider St. Augustine, St. Francis, or St. Ignatius of Loyola! For my part, my conversion to Christ has been a lifelong and ongoing journey. I can say that, being raised by godly parents in a godly church, God has always embraced me; and over the years, as I’ve learned and matured, I’ve grown in faith, and never converted to Him so wholeheartedly or passionately as I have as a Catholic.

Next up: The Catholic View of Grace and Justification.