As I’ve been pondering theology lately, it occurred to me: All this time I’ve been charging that theology is human, man-made, artificial; that it is only man’s attempt to comprehend the mysteries of God in his own feeble, limited, human mind. And we cannot possibly fully comprehend God. And that is true. But that doesn’t mean that theology is unimportant. Because it can profoundly affect the way we live our lives, the way we approach the world, and the way we approach God.
The past week or two I’ve been reading about Calvinist and Arminian and Catholic soteriology — views of sin, and grace, and justification. I’m trying to get a full, balanced view, by reading all sides of the matter, and sometimes that’s a lot of work. I’m realizing how fully and how very different the Catholic and Protestant views really are. It is a lot to wrap my head around.
Catholics charge — and I’ve read this several places, most recently here — that Protestant theology doesn’t truly believe in the eradication of sin from our lives: that when we are forgiven and justified, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, despite our own inherent sinfulness, and God declares us righteous before Him. Though I was never formally taught that, this seems to be consistent with my Protestant way of thinking.
There is a quote from Luther that I’ve seen and heard many places, and I wish I could find the original context — but the only thing I can find when I google is Catholics criticizing the doctrine. Perhaps my Lutheran friend can help? Luther is said to have taught that justification is like a cloak or a white sheet thrown over the putrid, rotting sin of the human soul: that we are only declared righteous before God while remaining sinners; that we are not truly washed clean, only our sins and our shame are covered. Is this true? I know Protestant theology makes a distinction between justification and sanctification. Hopefully, after this covering, there would be some actual purification and cleansing through God’s grace?
Catholic theology, on the other hand, doesn’t make the distinction between justification and sanctification. The two are inseparable, part of the same process, practically synonymous. When our sins are washed away through Baptism, they are really washed away. When we are forgiven and absolved through Reconciliation, our sins are really taken away, blotted out. This gives a much more satisfying and clean feeling.
But the difference is this: Protestants believe that the experience of justification is a once-and-for-all legal declaration; that when we are justified, Christ throws the white sheet and all our sins are covered; that when Christ’s righteousness has been imputed, no sin we could ever do can be held against us; that Christ paid the price for all our sins for all time. Catholics, on the other hand, believe that justification is a continuing, lifelong process. That though Christ paid the price for all our sins, we have to go back again and again to be forgiven when we fall, to receive that justification again. That when we sin again after our baptismal regeneration, the sin actually sullies our soul, damages our connection with God and with the Church — in the case of grave, mortal sin, even severs it. There is no white sheet protecting us, covering our shame: we are naked, and when we sin, filthy. Reconciliation is not just a formality; it is a sacrament of actual, spiritual healing. Through the grace of Penance, God washes us clean again, heals our wounds, and restores our damaged connection.
And this can have profound consequences for the way we think about sin. For years and years as a Protestant, I struggled with the same sin (I still do, only now I am actually struggling). I assuaged myself, told myself that God knew I was sinful, knew I was a wretch, and that He’d already forgiven me; that nothing I could ever do could take away my salvation. There was never any impetus to truly repent, to truly strive for holiness. And so I didn’t. For a long time I would pray and ask for forgiveness, say I was sorry; but then go right back to doing the same thing. After a while, I stopped even pretending to repent, believing that God “understood” and had it covered.
That’s not a Christian way to live. I hope and believe that that’s not the way most Protestants live, that most Protestants do indeed strive after repentance and holiness as the Bible teaches — but I know that it was an easy fallacy for me to fall into, believing what I did about justification. Now, as a Catholic, I am realizing more and more vividly that sin is something severely harmful and menacing — that not only does it harm me temporally, make me miserable, but it harms my relationship with God; it causes me to fall from grace; it threatens my immortal soul. More than ever before — where I have not had it before — I feel the drive to repentance and to holiness.