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 or 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). Ultimately, there is uncertainty in either case: even for those who claim “assurance,” there is the possibility of falling away, and uncertainty whether a believer is elected to final perseverance. (Not all those, say Catholics, 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.

But wait, there’s more! A further reflection on Catholicism and assurance of salvation: Assurance for today: God works through the Sacraments.

3 thoughts on “Falling from Grace, and God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

  1. Pingback: The Catholic View of Grace and Justification | The Lonely Pilgrim

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