The New Testament Church: One Body in Christ

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511) (<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adora%C3%A7%C3%A3o_da_Sant%C3%ADssima_Trindade.jpg">Wikimedia</a>)

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511)

Last time, we examined how, in the usage of the New Testament authors, especially Paul and Luke, the churches of Christ were often referred to in the plural, not as a single body — giving rise to a common Protestant claim about the independence of the New Testament churches — yet how Paul’s frequent exhortations to be of one mind betray a certain sense of unity among all Christian believers. This is made clearest in the words of Christ Himself: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they may also be in Us” (John 17:20–23).

Many Protestants tend to read these appeals to unity as references to a vague, undefined, invisible “unity” that somehow contains all believers “in the Spirit,” regardless of the depth of their actual division and disagreement. But such notions of “unity” do not fit with or maintain the biblical call for a true oneness in mind and spirit; they are not the reality of the Church Jesus founded or Paul exhorted.

One Body

Jesus prayed that all who believed in Him would be one, just as He and the Father are one: that is, not just in a loose, spiritual affiliation, but completely, indivisibly One in Christ, of the very same substance and being. Paul tells us that we are one not only spiritually, but corporately:

I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. … Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4:1, 3–6, 15–16)

These words go beyond exhortation: Paul describes the oneness of the Body not merely as a worthy model to strive for, but as a transcendent reality: There is One Body, One Spirit, One Lord. This oneness applies not only within each local body of believers, but across all believers, the entire, whole Body of Christ: the Epistle to the Ephesians is generally thought to have been a circular letter, circulated among a network of churches if not all churches. And lest there be any question that this Body of Christ to which Paul refers is to be understood as the Church, he tells elsewhere in the same letter:

[God] has put all things under His feet and has made Him the Head over all things for the Church, which is his Body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22–23)

And in other letters:

He is the Head of the Body, the Church; He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent. (Colossians 1:18)

One Church

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

The Greek word usually translated “church” in the New Testament is ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia). Most literally it means a calling out of people into a gathering or assembly or congregation; it was a standard word in Greek for a legislative assembly. I have heard Protestants seek to argue that the New Testament only understands the church in this general sense (the “little-c” church) and not as a single, corporate, universal body (big-C Church). But the verses already cited should leave little doubt to the fact that, just as we (even Protestants) today make a distinction in English between those two usages (the local church and the body of all believers), the New Testament authors and even Jesus Himself also saw a higher meaning of the word ἐκκλησία:

“On this Rock I will build My Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The use of that word ἐκκλησία had an even deeper meaning for a Greek Christian: ἐκκλησία was the common Greek translation the Hebrew קהל (qahal), that appeared in their editions of the Hebrew Old Testament, commonly translated in English as assembly — the assembly or congregation of the Israelite people. The ἐκκλησία, in the mind of a New Testament Christian, was not merely a local assembly of believers: the word evoked striking imagery of the Exodus, the calling out of God’s covenant people out of bondage and into promise.

And so, Jesus’s words echo even more powerfully when He said, “I will build My Church”: not a building, not an institution, not a mere gathering of people, but a calling out of His people, a covenant people of His own. Here He laid its foundation, built on His apostles and prophets, destined to become a holy temple for the Lord (Ephesians 2:20). Here is the One Body of Christ, the Church.

Next time: “The Universal Church”: how the One Body of Christ proceeded whole and undivided; and how it came to be identified as the Catholic Church.

Why the Catholic Understanding of Justification Is Not “Faith Plus Works”

In response to a question on Facebook, after I shared this article from Catholic Answers.

I might say that “faith plus works” can be a valid but misleading generalization — but not “grace plus works” (even though the article does clumsily put those side by side). Catholics do (and the Council of Trent did) fully affirm that salvation is by grace alone. Because everything is grace, even the works we do, since it is only by grace that we can work at all or even will to do good (Philippians 2:13, John 15:4). Even in that case (“faith plus works”), we are not saying that “works save us,” and in no sense do we mean works can “earn” salvation, or that anything must be added to the cross of Christ — which is why I generally disagree with the characterization “faith plus works.”

Catholics fully affirm that our initial justification — our initial rebirth in Christ — is entirely by faith alone through grace; it cannot be earned or deserved by anything we do or are. Since Protestants tend to compress the whole salvation experience into that initial justification, it’s easy to get the wrong idea when Catholics say that anything more (and “works” at that!) is required. But Catholics understand salvation as an ongoing process (so does Scripture: e.g. Philippians 1:6, 2:12–13, etc.), and roll into a part of “justification” what Protestants call “sanctification,” the ongoing process of being converted and conformed to Christ. And that — and most Protestants would agree — is wrought by “faith working in love” (Galatians 5:6, James 2:24).

Salvation is more than just being once forgiven; it’s being healed, renewed, and transformed by the love and grace of God. And God has designed to make us participants in that life of grace; we are not just passive recipients, but we receive that grace and bear fruit (John 15:1–4). Protestants say that good works are a fruit of grace, and Catholics agree. And just as Protestants say that a Christian who isn’t bearing any fruit possibly isn’t really “saved,” Catholics would likewise agree — only we would say that bearing that fruit is part of the ongoing process of being saved, being renewed and transformed in His image — which begins when we first receive His grace, and ends when we see Him face to face.

Were the churches of the New Testament independent of one another?

The beginning of a series: “How do I know the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded?”

It is a commonplace of Catholic apologetics that we claim that “the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded.” On the other hand, opponents charge that the Catholic Church was in fact founded at some later date, often said to be the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine is a usual suspect for some charge of “invention” or another, or some other arbitrary date. Both these claims are empty without evidence. What is the evidence for the Catholic claim and how can we evaluate it?

Many Churches

Paul Preaching in the Areopagus, Sir James Thornhill

Sir James Thornhill (1675–1734), Paul Preaching in the Areopagus (BBC).

In a world with so many churches, how can we know which is the one Jesus actually founded? Can we even know? Is it even a valid claim at all to say that Jesus founded one Church?

Examining Scripture, Protestants tend to emphasize the apparent independence of the churches in the New Testament: The various apostles fanning out across the world founded churches, not one Church, they say:

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

And [Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. … So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. (Acts 15:41, 16:5)

But is it truly good ecclesiology to claim that each individual church was independent of one another? Is this assumption consistent with the rest of the New Testament — or are there assumptions being overlooked by this very premise? I would argue that the very fact of the collective plural — the churches referred to as a group — betrays a unity that countermands this whole argument.

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. (Romans 16:16)

All the churches greet the church of Rome with one voice — and one man, Paul, has the authority to speak for them.

Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:17)

Likewise, Paul has the same, singular, recognized authority over all the churches. Does their unitary submission to the same leaders not contradict any notion of “independence”?

One Mind

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622)

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622) (WikiArt).

Does anything at all in the New Testament really suggest that these individual churches were truly independent of one another? On the contrary, the very fact that we have a unified collection of Christian documents known as the New Testament attests that all the churches were, in the beginning and for some time thence, unified in the same mind and purpose.

In fact, that is exactly what St. Paul admonishes again and again:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Philippians 2:1–2)

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Being of one mind, in full accord, of the same judgment and same love: this requires a constant, conscious, and active agreement, both within churches and without: a guiding of one church to another, a submission of one’s independence and a commitment to communion.

Next time: “One Body in Christ”

The Sunday Obligation: “Missing Mass is a Mortal Sin”?

Van Gent, Institution of the Eucharist (c. 1474)

Justus van Gent, Institution of the Eucharist (c. 1474)

A common charge against the Catholic Church that I’ve heard from a number of opponents is against the fact that the Church obligates her children to attend Mass each Sunday and on other declared holy days of obligation, and especially against the fact that “it’s a mortal sin to miss Mass.” Supposedly this is an example of the flagrant and tyrannical legalism of the Church, that she would dare to assert authority over how Christians spend their weekends and even dare to declare, arbitrarily, what is sin and what is not.

I’ve always had a simple answer to this challenge, but never had any particular scriptural support to cite. But today in my private Bible study I happened upon it: a clear statement of the mind of God on the matter, and what has always been the mind of the Church. But first, addressing the objections is in order.

Not Dictating Sin, but Labeling Sin

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

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

First, it’s important to realize that the Church does not have the authority to dictate what is and isn’t sin, beyond what God Himself holds. The Church’s authority and duty is to teach the truth she has received from Scripture and Tradition. When the Church teaches that something is a sin, it is not arbitrary: it’s because something about that act or behavior objectively places one in opposition to God and His order and plan for us.

It is that opposition, not anything arbitrary, that makes an act a mortal sin. The Church teaches that in order to be a mortal sin, an act must be of a grave matter, objectively opposed to God’s order, and done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). A sin is a sin because it is those things, not because the Church declares it sinful; and yes, there are certainly cases, when an act is done in ignorance or against one’s will, that it is not a sin after all. The moral teachings of Scripture and of the Church are there to guide and to guard, to direct God’s people to a safe path; it is only God who judges. The Church declares something a sin not to condemn the sinner, but to warn him, to correct him, to save him.

Those who object to the idea of mortal sin in the first place ought to read my recent series on grace and justification and “falling from grace.” Does mortal sin — and does missing Mass — cause a Christian to “lose his salvation”? No — not in the terms that Protestants understand such things. Mortal sin, for a Christian, is more akin to stumbling into mud and hurting oneself than being cast out from the Lord’s kingdom.

“Missing Mass is a Mortal Sin”?

Jesus and the Eucharist

So, “missing Mass is a mortal sin.” Well — it’s not quite that simple. Yes, I know any one of you can dig up quotations from popes, teachers, catechisms, that state in plain terms, “missing Mass is a mortal sin” — when taken out of context. But I am here to say, as anything more than a topical reading would reveal, that there is more to the matter than such a flat declaration. Is simply missing Mass, not going to church on a Sunday, for whatever reason, “grave matter”? Many in today’s western (largely Protestant) world — where church attendance has become casual and inconsequential — would say no, of course not; it is an optional and personal decision. But the more important question to ask is, why did you miss Mass? Was it intentional and deliberate? Could it have been avoided? Did you know better?

There are plenty of cases — more than I could possibly name — when missing Mass would not be a sin. Were you elderly and homebound, or even simply sick in bed? Did you have to work, and there was no possible way around it? Were you traveling and not in a place or situation where you could reasonably find a Mass to attend? Were you caring for a new baby or a sick loved one? Did you have other, important family or social obligations that could not be missed or rescheduled? Or did you simply choose, deliberately and intentionally, not to go to Mass? Did you decide that there was something else, a football game or holiday party, that you would rather go to instead? Did you simply not feel like it, out of anger or spite or even apathy? Any priest would tell you that in the former cases, and many more, you were not at fault; the latter are a different situation entirely.

Missing the Lord’s Banquet

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Alterpiece: Adoration of the Lamb

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Alterpiece: The Adoration of the Lamb (c. 1432).

Jesus gave several parables in His preaching to the kingdom of God being a great banquet or feast (Matthew 22:1–14, Luke 14:7–24, cf. Revelation 19:6–9). Throughout His ministry, He invited the lost to dine with Him (e.g. Luke 15:2). The Mass, the Eucharist, is the Lord’s Supper — the great feast He has prepared for us, at great cost to Himself, and invited each of us to come and dine with Him (John 6:35; cf. Revelation 3:20), promising to feed us richly with the bread of life, to reward us with the great bounty that awaits, eternal life, and to share with us the most intimate fellowship and communion with Him (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16). Missing Mass is more than simply “deciding not to go to church today”; to deliberately choose not to go to Mass is to refuse the Lord’s invitation, to say to Him that there are more important things to you. This is the mortal sin: not merely “missing Mass” — which, by itself, might not be a sin at all — but the deliberate rejection of the Lord.

And there’s more, a striking biblical support for this teaching, that I was stunned to discover today.

Offering the Lord’s Offering at the Appointed Time

Marc Chagall, "The Israelites are eating the Passover Lamb" (1931)

Marc Chagall, Les Israélites mangent l’Agneau de la Pâque (“The Israelites are eating the Passover Lamb”), 1931 (WikiArt).

Of course, as everyone knows, we are to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) — and, barring the objections of “Seventh-Day” Christians and some “Hebrew Roots” proponents (which I will address another time), most Christians generally accept the traditional teaching of the Church, that from apostolic times Christians have transferred the Old Testament Sabbath obligation to Sunday in honor of our Lord’s Resurrection. But today I found an even more explicit statement of the Church’s teaching on the Sunday obligation, in the ordinances of the Israelites concerning the Passover:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Let the people of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of this month, in the evening, you shall keep it at its appointed time; according to all its statutes and all its ordinances you shall keep it.” …

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, If any man of you or of your descendants is unclean through touching a dead body, or is afar off on a journey, he shall still keep the Passover to the Lord. … But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, yet refrains from keeping the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people, because he did not offer the Lord’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin. (Numbers 9:1–3, 9–10, 13)

Not only is Sunday the fulfillment of the commandment to “remember the Sabbath,” but the Mass is the fulfillment of the Passover, “for Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). To the degree that the Israelites kept the Passover, which marked their liberation from human bondage — that much, and more, should Christians venerate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, which sets us free from darkness unto life!

Similar to the Church’s teaching, it is only the man who, despite being perfectly well and able, deliberately refrains from keeping the Passover who is to be cut off. But if failing to keep the Passover was such a grave matter for the Israelites, is it not understandable that refusing to honor the Passover of the Lord, refusing to offer the Lord’s offering — ourselves — at the appointed time, is a grave matter for the Church? And yet the Lord, and the Church, is merciful: for this and every other sin, there is forgiveness and healing and a welcoming back to the banquet.

“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.

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 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.

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

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: An aside on Catholicism and Assurance of Salvation. Then, The Catholic View of Grace and Justification.

Justification Is Not the End of the Road

Part one of a series on “Falling from Grace.”

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

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

Lately the Lord has been putting it on my heart to begin a series on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Confession. But first there are a few prickly issues which, approaching the subject from a Protestant perspective, I felt I needed to address beforehand. Of most importance are significant differences in the Catholic and Protestant modes of thinking about sin and grace, which stem from fundamentally different understandings of the justification of sinners. The question in focus: Can a Christian fall from grace through sin?

This has been an exceedingly difficult post to write. In making a sincere effort to be fair to the diverse Protestant points of view, I’ve started this post over from the beginning several times. Trying to synthesize a single, coherent presentation of “the Protestant understanding” of justification is a lot like trying to eat an elephant whole. If I still miss the mark, please call me on it.

(This also proved to be quite long. So I think I will give it to you in three or four pieces.)

Justification: A Moment or a Process?

Perhaps the most basic, practical difference between the Catholic and Protestant modes of thinking about justification — the work of God’s grace by which we are exonerated of our sins and made to be righteous in His sight — is that in the Catholic way of thinking, justification is generally understood to be an ongoing, continuous process, while it seems to be a hallmark of Protestant theology that justification is a moment — a single, instantaneous, and total action.

This is the fruit — and the end — of two fundamentally different understandings of the mode of justification. The traditional, Augustinian, Catholic understanding is that justification is an infusion of God’s grace into the sinner’s soul, a pouring of God’s love into his heart (Romans 5:5) that obliterates sin and not only makes him right before God, but actually sanctifies him and makes him righteous. The Protestant view, beginning with the teachings of Luther and other early Protestant Reformers, conceives of justification as a purely forensic declaration by God as judge, declaring the sinner righteous in God’s court by an imputation of his sins to the sinless Christ and an imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness to the sinner — not actually, in this act, affecting the sinfulness of the believer, but merely covering his sins.

The Protestant view of Justification

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Because, in the Protestant view, God declares the sinner righteous in this once-and-for-all, forensic, judicial declaration, he is then held “not guilty,” in God’s judgment, of all his sins — in most conceptions, all the sins he has committed in his past life and even all he ever will commit in the future. In this idea of imputation, a “swap” or substitution is accomplished, an exchange of accounts: the sinner’s hopelessly bankrupt debt is cancelled, and Christ’s perfect and infinite righteousness is credited to him. Because of this credit, all the sinner’s eternal debts are paid: even if he sins in the future, no sin of his could compare or counter the payment Christ gave on the cross for the sins of all humanity. The sinner’s every sin, from then on, is covered by the blood of Christ.

So in the Protestant conception, the idea of “falling from grace” is nonsensical. For one thing, the notion of a “state of grace” — let alone falling from it — is not generally in the Protestant vocabulary. For another, because justification is understood as a once-and-for-all event, “justification” is often effectively equated with “salvation” — with the result that “falling from grace” sounds to Protestant ears as “losing one’s salvation.” This is not how Catholics understand it.

“Lumping” and “splitting”

What appears at first to be a stark contrast between the Catholic and Protestant views is ameliorated when one takes a broader view of the situation. I’ve written before about “lumpers and splitters” — Catholics having a tendency to lump concepts and terminology together and Protestants tending to split them. Here is another case of that. Even in the Protestant view, justification is only one step in a larger process, one of the initial steps. They split into a separate action the process of sanctification — by which God’s grace makes one actually holy. On the other hand, in the Catholic understanding, justification and sanctification are so closely related as to be part of the same action.

This is the source of much confusion. Many of the Protestant charges that Catholics believe in “justification by works,” I believe, stem from the fact that when Catholics speak of works being involved in justification, they usually are referring to what Protestants would call sanctification, the process of growing in grace and being made holy — which even many Protestants will admit does involve works of charity. Likewise, many Catholic apologists caricature the Protestant position on justification by claiming that it merely casts a cloak over a man’s wretched, festering, sinful state, and doesn’t actually effect a change in his soul or his holiness; but they often overlook that sanctification is a closely bound concept even for Protestants that follows necessarily upon a sincere conversion to Christ, and regeneration is another important event that does accomplish a real change in the soul through God’s grace.

Justification is not the end of the road

El Greco, Apostle St. Paul

Apostle St. Paul (c. 1612), by El Greco.

But what about “falling from grace”? How can one, in the Protestant view, conceive of such a thing? Well, it is important for the Protestant to realize that Catholics take a much broader view of salvation than many Protestants do. While in the minds of many Protestants, “salvation” is the moment when one accepts and converts to Christ — accomplishing (and this is a flattening or lumping) regeneration, justification, and conversion all at once — that is not the end of the road, even for Protestants. “Salvation” implies being saved from something; and while this initial regeneration and justification may have saved the sinner from his sins — even, in the Protestant conception, from the eternal consequences of them — there is still much to be saved from before the end: many sins, dangers, and temptations, and from death itself. The believer still must live the life ahead of him, yielding good fruit (Philippians 1:11, Colossians 1:10) and being sanctified (1 Thessalonians 4:1–8, Romans 6:22). Even Paul in the Scriptures speaks of having been saved not only in the past tense (e.g. Ephesians 2:8–10), but also in the present tense, how we are being saved even now (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 2:15), and we shall be saved, future tense, on the Day of Jesus Christ (e.g. Romans 5:9–10, 1 Corinthians 5:5, cf. 1 Peter 2:12); and this future tense is by far the most common mode of speaking of salvation in the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 24:13, Mark 13:13, Luke 13:23, John 6:54): “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13, etc.).

Next time: the Catholic view of Salvation as a Journey.