Does Grace Give License to Sin? (Grappling with Protestant Theology)

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669)

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669) (WikiArt.org)

This will be intensely personal.

Where I left off, I had more or less fallen away from the Christian faith as a young adult. I still claimed to be a Christian, but I stopped praying; I stopped going to church; I stopped striving for holiness. I had fallen into complacency about sin, and was tired of being made to feel guilty for something I felt I couldn’t control.

What was going through my head? What did I believe? If I believed anything about God, it was that He was good and that He loved me. I believed Jesus, God’s only Son, had died for my sins and risen to new life, so that I too could live forever. Having been raised in church, I had fairly thorough book knowledge of the Gospel, the Bible, and the Christian faith. I believed it. As a teenager, I had prayed the “sinner’s prayer” more times than I could count; I had danced with joy at the foot of the altar; I had spoken in tongues and bore witness to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. By every measure I had been taught as an Evangelical, I was a Christian; I was saved.

Dead branch

But something had gone horribly wrong. I had been wounded very deeply, by life, by sin, by people I trusted, by my church. I had retreated to what I thought was a safe place, into myself, into my room. Daily I self-medicated with TV, the Internet, and addictive, sinful behaviors. I felt powerless to do otherwise. This isn’t the way a Christian was supposed to live — I knew that. I had become a dead branch on the vine, bearing no fruit and only attracting worms.

But Jesus loved me; this I knew. Isn’t this all that mattered? Jesus loved me and He knew me; He knew my inmost being, all the longings of my heart, and all the wounds. Surely He understood me. I was hurt, you see; I was just a sinner — and wasn’t everybody? Surely He forgave me — wasn’t I “covered by the Blood”?

Grace and License

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther as an Augustinian Monk (after 1546) (Wikimedia).

Since the time of the Protestant Reformation, one of the leading charges against Protestant theology is that its teachings about grace and justification — notably, that in justification by God’s grace, every sin he has ever committed in the past as well as every sin he will commit in the future — effectively gives a license to sin. A pastor-friend of mine defends against this charge on Facebook frequently. I am one to agree: this is not what the Bible teaches about grace. This is not actually what most Protestant or Evangelical sects teach about grace.

What they teach is that grace, the love and favor of God, our forgiveness and justification in Christ, is medicine to the soul: that it sets us free from sin and death (Romans 8:2), and that so set free, we will delight in God’s love and grace and bear His fruit gladly and gratefully. No longer bound to sin, we will no longer have any desire for license — even though, it is acknowledged, we still have an inclination to sin (e.g. Romans 7:15-20).

This is the way it’s supposed to work. Redemption by grace transforms us, renews us, gives us a new birth; it fills us with the Holy Spirit, by which we bear His fruit (Galatians 5:16-26).

So what in the world happened to me?

It Didn’t Work

I had fallen. I had fallen into sin; I had fallen away from Christ. I think it’s hard to deny this: though I still confessed Christ, His salvation, and His Gospel with my lips, I denied Him with my life and actions.

Handicapped

For me, my faith in God’s grace did become a license to sin. I never flaunted it; I was never proud of it; but that is what it was. It was a license in the same way that a handicapped permit is a license: a resignation that there was something broken about me, some reason that I couldn’t do what I was supposed to do; I couldn’t live the way I was supposed to live; I couldn’t walk the way I was supposed to walk. It gave me complacency in my disability; it gave me immunity from the consequences of my sin; it gave me no incentive to strive or to fight. If there were no consequences, why even try? I knew that no matter what I did, God still loved me and still forgave me. Breaking free from addiction was hard. It was easier to remain where I was and make excuses. And this was my perpetual excuse: when I hurt myself, when I hurt others — when I bumped into you, or crashed into the walls, like any other disabled person, the truth was I couldn’t help myself — I bumbled, “Whoops, I’m sorry,” but needed only flash my “Sinner Saved By Grace” card, and all was explained.

No, this isn’t a true understanding of grace, in anybody’s version of the gospel. This is a twisted, sick, pathological understanding of grace. But it is a weakness that the Protestant teaching about the finality and immutability of justification, the belief that even future sins are covered by grace, easily falls victim to.

Grace “didn’t work” for me. I did everything I thought I thought I was supposed to do; I confessed Jesus and believed; I prayed the “sinner’s prayer”; I had apparently borne good fruit, for a while. Why did I wither on the vine? Jesus spoke, in the parable of the sower, of the one “who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). This is, it seems, what happened to me. I don’t pretend for a moment that there is any deficiency in the grace of God; any failure on God’s part — though at one time I would have blamed Him for not helping me, for allowing me to fall. No, the failure plainly was my own.

Who Falls Away?

Rembrandt, Judas Repentant (1629)

Rembrandt, Judas Repentant,
Returning the Pieces of Silver
(1629) (Wikimedia)

The primary thrust of Protestant theology is the insistence that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and the rejection of the thesis that humans have to earn their salvation in any way. This is, in the plainest sense, true. The Catholic Church has always rejected Pelagianism, the belief that the human will can choose God on its own and attain salvation apart from His grace, and her official doctrine has never been different. But in many threads of Protestant theology — dating back to the Reformers themselves — this rejection has a visceral, reactionary quality, denying any role of “works” at all, any involvement whatsoever of human effort. This is an extreme overreaction, and unsupported by Scripture. But it is the ground of the kind of thinking that sets the trap I fell into: If human effort has no role in salvation, then an abandonment of human effort should be no detriment to it.

There are some who teach a dogged, hard-core belief in a doctrine of “once saved, always saved”: that if one confesses with his lips that Jesus is Lord and believes in his heart that God raised Him from the dead, he is saved, and this transaction is irrevocable. No matter how he lives, no matter what he does after that, he is nonetheless saved. Even if he should deny Christ with his mouth and refute his former belief, proclaiming himself an atheist, he is still nevertheless saved. He cannot lose his salvation: he is bound to Christ, even against his will; even if there should be no evidence of it in his life at all.

Gerard Seghers, Repentance of St. Peter

Gerard Seghers, Repentance of St. Peter (c. 1625-1629) (Wikimedia).

When I was on the bottom, I probably would have affirmed this. It was my only hope. It is the hope, too, of many parents whose children fall away from faith and live lives of profligacy; the hope at funerals for those who never returned. But is it real? I now believe, and Scripture consistently presents, that the evidence of being in Christ is bearing His fruit (John 15:1-6). Faith without works, without fruit, is barren and dead (James 2:18-26). The one who falls away, who denies Christ by his fruit, gives no appearance that he is in Christ at all.

Other Protestants, especially those of the Reformed tradition, present a version of “perseverance of the saints” that argues that the believer who truly has saving faith will persevere to the end; he will not fall away; he will be saved. This at least acknowledges that there are some who do fall away, and that falling away has consequences. But it concludes, rather coldly, that the one who falls away didn’t truly have saving faith to begin with. Thus, it is absolutely consistent, absolutely bulletproof in logic, but absolutely no comfort at all to the one struggling with sin and in real spiritual danger of falling away.

The Good Shepherd, Bernhard Plockhorst

Bernhard Plockhorst, The Good Shepherd (19th century) (Wikimedia)

Scripture presents that the one to whom Jesus gives eternal life will never perish, and “no one will snatch him out of my hand” (John 10:28-29). He presented, on the same occasion, that “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). Satan, the enemy, is real and a real danger, even to Christians. He cannot “snatch the sheep out of the Father’s hand”; no, his threat is, and always has been, more subtle, to entice, to seduce, to cajole the sheep into stepping outside the fold. The grace of Christ is truly amazing; it can truly set us free from sin and death and raise us to new life, and it can protect us, if we abide in Him. But grace does not abrogate our human will or human responsibility. We always have the freedom to depart from His side, to fall away from His path, to reject Him and His grace.

My life is evidence of this. My life is also evidence that even when we sin, even when we reject God, even when we fall away, He never stops loving us, never stops pursuing us, and does not let us go without a fight. Especially for those of us who have tasted His Holy Spirit, who have been regenerated in the waters of Baptism, we are marked with His seal; we are His children; we belong to Him. And He will stop at nothing to reclaim His own. But even when He subdues us by violence, He does not take us against our will, but calls us to return to Him of our own volition.

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.

Substitutionary Commotion

[NOTE: This is not to be confused with Substitutiary Locomotion.]

I suppose it’s time to raise my blowhole for a few moments.

Giotto, The Crucifixion

The Crucifixion (ca. 1311), by Giotto (WikiPaintings).

It’s been a hard few weeks, with yet another ugly head rising from the stump of my thesis, just as soon as I thought I’d dealt the death blow. I pray, once again, that I nearly have the thing where I want it and can push to the end very soon. And I’ve been stressed out and struggling and grouchy and in a foul mood, so I apologize to anyone with whom I’ve gotten into an argument recently. And I’ve been staying away from the blogosphere the past week or so, probably to the benefit of getting work done.

I know I still have the series on Baptism on the stove, and the one on Indulgences. Please bear with me. I hope I’ll be able to serve up something worthwhile whenever I have time.

The past week or so there’s been something else on my mind that I wanted to write about, though I have the time neither to research it properly nor write it up fully right now. It’s this debacle recently in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the more mainline, liberal denomination of American Presbyterians, over removal of the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal — allegedly over an objection to its reference to the “wrath of God,” though now the Presbyterians are saying that the offense was instead because of the reference to God’s wrath being “satisfied,” implying the satisfaction theory of atonement, which, I was surprised to learn, they reject (contrary to historic Presbyterian doctrine).

The offending lyric:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

Eugene Delacroix, Christ on the Cross (1853)

Christ on the Cross (1853), by Eugene Delacroix (WikiPaintings).

The truth is, I must confess, I’ve never understood the differences between the various theories of the atonement — neither how they differed from one another, or what the big deal was. I had heard, vaguely, that the Reformed and Evangelicals adhere to the doctrine of penal substitution; while I’d heard that we Catholics did not. But it seemed to me that in this, as in many other areas of doctrine, differing opinions might be compatible with one another and weren’t necessarily contradictory. Christ’s Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection are the pivotal events of all history; can’t they have done more than one thing, or be validly understood more than one way? Can their mystery even really be comprehended fully by human understanding?

After all, don’t we all believe that Christ died to atone for our sins? Does Scripture not clearly say that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins — not just ours, but those of the whole world (1 John 2:2)? That God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of His Blood (Romans 3:25)? Yes, but beyond this, a number of understandings of the Atonementwhy Christ died for our sins and how the propiation of our sins is accomplished — have been put forward. It’s here that the theological poverty of my upbringing really shows: I had never even heard of this until I began reading deeply into Reformed theology last year. (Thanks to Resting in His Grace for calling the matter to my attention this time around.)

Carl Bloch, The Resurrection of Christ (1875)

The Resurrection of Christ (1875), by Carl Bloch (WikiPaintings)

It is certainly true, as I suspected, that the Christus Victor understanding of Christ’s Death and Resurrection — that Christ conquered death, hell, and the grave (cf. Revelation 20:13–14) — was perfectly scriptural and in no way opposed to the idea, also perfectly scriptural, that Christ died in atonement for our sins (Romans 5:11). But it’s with this idea of atonement proper — how Jesus’s death atones for our sins — about which we have disagreements — in how to interpret Scripture. And these disagreements are compounded by confusion, by appeals and false appeals to the Early Church, by Reformed proponents finding antecedents of their view in Anselm or whomever, and Catholic scholars rejecting such suggestions, with the result that it’s unclear to me who was teaching what or when.

Even as an Evangelical, I didn’t understand this idea of penal substitution. But it truly pervades the Evangelical understanding. I took for granted growing up that Jesus “paid the price for our sins” and “died for our sins so we wouldn’t have to” — and have even thoughtlessly used such language as a Catholic. But the more I read about this doctrine, and learn what it truly rests on, the less I like it. What seemed on the surface to be hair-splitting nuance reflects a much deeper and more troubling misunderstanding of the love and mercy of God.

Bryan Cross has, as usual, a splendid and piercing exposition on the differences between the Catholic and Reformed conceptions of the Atonement. And I begin to understand what is meant by the statement that “as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” In the understanding of Penal Substitution, God the Father punished Christ the Son for all the sins of humanity. Christ literally bore the penalty (poena) for our sins, the penalty we would otherwise suffer. God poured out His wrath, the wrath of judgment on sinners, on Christ the spotless lamb, who knew no sin.

Christ on the Cross (1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Christ on the Cross (1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (WikiPaintings)

Now, Bryan can give this matter much greater theological clarity and detail; what I offer is my gut reaction. I have always been troubled, even as an Evangelical, by the image of “sinners in the hands of an angry God” put forward by Jonathan Edwards — God as an angry, wrath-filled deity, ravenous to punish sinners. Certainly our loving and merciful God, who sent His only Son that we might be saved, does not want to punish sinners. Certainly He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires that he turn from his way and live (Ezekiel 33:11). So it seems utterly foreign to the idea of a loving God that He would punish His own Son. In my conception, even as an evangelical, Christ willingly bore our sins, was wounded for our transgressions — but it wasn’t God punishing Him so much as Christ giving Himself up for us. I can find nothing in Scripture to support the view of a wrathful God punishing an innocent Christ. Certainly God’s wrath is reserved for the wicked on the Day of their judgment (cf. Revelation 19:15); and certainly that wrath will not now be turned upon those of us who are saved in Christ Jesus. But the idea of God punishing Christ with our penalty, such that his wrath is satisfied, has an even deeper consequence that I never understood before.

It’s from this that the Reformed and Evangelicals receive their misunderstanding that “salvation” is a one-time thing, that when they have faith in Christ, they are “saved” and their sins are “covered” — not just their past sins, but every sin they will ever commit. Because Christ, in addition to atoning for our sins, purchasing our pardon (what we would call the ransom theory of atonement), paid the penalty that was meant for us, for all our sins forever — such that there is no more penalty left for us to pay. He has already suffered the penalty for any sin we could ever commit, so we will never have to suffer any penalty — ergo, all our sins are effectively already forgiven.

Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of Abraham (1635)

The Sacrifice of Abraham (1635), Rembrandt (WikiPaintings).

There is a fine nuance here: Certainly, we Catholics agree, Christ died to atone for all our sins, ever, for all time — even the sins we had not yet committed — since temporally, all of us sinners had not even been born yet, let alone committed any sins; and His mercy will still be there for many more generations of sinners after we die. We are redeemed — bought with a price — before we are born, before we sin — but we are not forgiven until we present ourselves repentant. There is certainly a limitless flow of the mercy and grace Christ bought for us, to forgive our every sin for all time; but rather than Christ paying a penalty that we will now never have to pay, He bought our redemption, to unshackle us from sin and death, when He calls us to Him to receive it.

I’m giving myself a headache. There is a whole lot more of this where it came from, and another deep hole of theology to fall into.

Like the Dewfall

My reckless path over the past months had left my way littered with a lot of brokenness — not least of all my own. The most gracious Healer had been to my bedside — but still I shut Him out of my heart, the most wounded part of all.

Though I’d made a miraculous recovery from my accident, I was still, for the first few months after coming home from Ohio, in need of a lot of attention. I relied on my parents, especially my mother, to get myself to class every day (that one class I insisted on taking), and to doctor’s appointments, and to social gatherings, and for anything else I needed or thought I needed. I wish I could say that I was a grateful and cooperative patient, but the truth is that I wasn’t — especially the more she and I came to talk about God and religion.

To my friends, too, I was becoming intolerable. I felt the need to talk about my accident ad nauseam, to tell everyone I spoke to about it. I appreciated the loving concern that so many people had shown me, so much that I thought I deserved it and could selfishly demand it. What is worse, I began to grow angry: angry at the truck driver, and at the circumstances, and at God, for taking away my car and my freedom; angry at my parents for not bowing to my every whim and demand; angry at my friends for not making me the center of their universe.

Peter Bruegel the Elder, Anger

Mouths swell with anger, veins grow black with blood (Ora tument ira, nigrescunt sanguine venae) (Anger from the Seven Deadly Vices), by Peter Bruegel the Elder (1558).

One friend in particular came to bear the brunt of my anger. The harder I pushed and the more attention I demanded, the further she drifted. I do not blame her at all, in retrospect, for what happened: she, too, broke off contact with me. I was infuriated. Never before in my life have I been, and I pray I never will be again, so filled with rage. It is true — I learned firsthand — that Wrath is a Deadly Sin — because as the days and weeks wore on, this blaze grew higher and higher, and consumed more and more of me. My mind was filled with horrifying, violent thoughts to the point of hatred. And it was killing me. My performance at school, my relationships with family and friends, even my health, was becoming unhinged. I was self-destructing.

And then, everything changed.


Praying girl

This isn’t her. It’s a stock photo.

It started with a phone call. Halloween night, a caring, Christian friend called to check on me, to see how I was recovering since the accident. But she wasn’t doing so well herself, struggling with health issues of her own. She said that she was praying for me. I said, reflexively, as my twenty-five years of Christian upbringing had taught me, that I would pray for her, too.

But as I hung up the phone, I realized that I was lying. I wouldn’t pray for her; I didn’t pray at all, and hadn’t in many months. Going to sleep that night, I resolved to do something about that, for my friend.

The next day, remembering my resolution of the night before, I unceremoniously knelt down in my bedroom to pray. And suddenly I found myself face to face with the Most High, the God I had been actively avoiding and running from and pushing away for the past six months. I stammered. What could I say for myself? Here I was to make a request of Him, and I had hardly spoken to Him or acknowledged the priceless gift of life He had already bestowed. Feebly, I fumbled, “I know I should probably get back into a church one of these days…”

Rain

My friend’s simple act of charity, her kind words and her concern, had been but a drop of moisture; but it reminded me in a distant way of the Font from which all mercies flow. My own simple gesture, reaching out to pray for her, was, however small, an acceptance of His grace and an act of His love. And with this drop of water on the parched soil of my soul, the rain gently began to fall. It came as soothing droplets to my burning heart; like the first trickle from the floodgates into a scorched riverbed.

There have only been one or two times in my life when I have heard God’s voice clearly and absolutely. This was one of those times. It came like a thunderclap that knocked me to the floor. The words were almost audible as they formed in my mind, in answer to my halfhearted offering: “Go back to Calvary. This Sunday.”

Calvary

Calvary: the church I grew up in, towards which I’d held so much anger and bitterness for years; the place I blamed for failing me in my time of need and leading me down a dead-end path. If there was anything I would have expected God to say, anywhere I would have expected Him to send me — that would have been the very last place. When I’d suggested going back to church, it was more an excuse than an intention: I didn’t have the slightest idea when or where I would ever go back to church, or much of a motivation to do so — but I absolutely had no thought of going back there. But suddenly, out of the ether, I had an answer, the last one I would have ever chosen for myself. It hit me not as a passing thought; not as an idea desperate or compromising that I struggled against or had to wrestle with to accept; but as an unambiguous, authoritative command that it never even occurred to me to question. “Yes, Lord; I will obey,” is all I could answer.

It was November 1, All Saints’ Day. I did not celebrate it then, but I was aware of the fact.

Murillo, Return of the Prodigal Son 1670

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

The last time I’d been made to go to church with my parents, I’d scowled and grumped through the whole service. That Sunday morning, to their surprise, I volunteered. This time, my attitude was entirely different: I was hurting; I was starving. From the moment I entered, I had the feeling of coming home; of comfort and security. As the call was given to come down to the altar, I all but ran. As I knelt there, and one of the pastors, and my parents, laid their hands on me and prayed for me, the tears began to flow. A sense of peace came over my restless heart. The thorns of anger and pain and hate I’d allowed to dig into my heart, the barbs of hurt and bitterness and unforgiveness that had bound me for so long — began to slip away.

Sunrise by Albert Bierstadt

Sunrise, by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

It was a night and day difference — the night of my darkness and waywardness and confusion, and the day of His light and warmth and guidance. The shadows lifted, and I began to see the road again, the way out of my ravine. The next days or weeks or months were not easy — there was so much I’d allowed to take over my life that needed to be rooted out, and it was painful going — but I continued to pray and seek God’s face. I continued going to church at Calvary with my parents. But about a week after that first time, I drove out to the country to be alone with my Bible and Every Man’s Battle. There, tearfully, I finally laid down my fight, humbled myself, and surrendered my life wholly to God, for probably the first time ever.


Rembrandt, The Raising of Lazarus (1630)

Rembrandt, The Raising of Lazarus (1630).

I believe that my accident was a kind of baptism by fire; that my restoration mirrors the new birth in Christ that a Christian experiences at his baptismal regeneration. I believe in some small measure, I tasted Christ’s Resurrection power — that on that day I stood at the threshold of death’s door, and was brought back. I believe that every Christian does: this is Christ’s power over Death and the Grave that every Christian receives at baptism as the old man is buried and the new man is raised up in new life. I believe I was given a tangible sign, a sacramental experience, by which the invisible, spiritual transformation was writ large in visible, physical actions.

I still don’t know why God spared me that day, but I am grateful every day for the opportunity to find out and for the life I’ve been given. I live every day in the faith that God has some purpose and calling for my life, some reason for keeping me here. The road ahead wasn’t always smooth. I made a good many wrong turns, and had a few more minor collisions (spiritually speaking). But I was on the road again.

He welcomes me home by name

There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

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

One of the most poignant images to me of God’s forgiveness, in my struggles as a Christian, has been Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In his father’s house, the wayward son had everything, and yet he abandoned it. Even as he went, he took the bountiful gifts of his inheritance; and yet he squandered them.

And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

In that distant land, the son lost everything that he had. Sin is like that. It will take you further away from home than you ever intended to go, and take more out of you than you ever intended to give. It will take away your gifts and leave you in abject poverty. It never yields the harvests that it promises.

But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’

There is a lot of power in a name. Though we do not know the name of the lost son or his father, it is clear that theirs was a family of some wealth and prestige. Even above all the material wealth he had been granted, the son’s name — the name of his father and family — was certainly of more lasting worth. The Book of Proverbs tells us that “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1). And yet the son had squandered and shamed that, too. He considered himself unworthy for his father to call him ‘son’; undeserving to bear his father’s name.

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

But the mercy and compassion of his father was overflowing. As the son returned, not only did the father accept his son back, but he saw him still a long way off, and ran to embrace him.

But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

Not only did the father welcome him home — but he gave him his name back. The signet ring — the seal of the family — was the mark of his identity. He was his father’s son again. And the father rejoiced. He spared nothing — he clothed him in the most sumptuous robe; he killed the best fattened calf; brought out the best wine. For this was his son who was lost to him, and was found; who was dead in his sin, and was alive again. The language of resurrection here could not be more vivid.

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

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

I don’t think it is any mere coincidence that we come to our priests in the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the cry of “father”: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Just as the prodigal son returned to his father confessing his sins, we return to our fathers, and to our Holy Mother Church, and to our Heavenly Father, confessing ours. And though our earthly priests don’t always run to embrace us — often their words are stern and bear godly discipline — our Heavenly Father pours out His endless grace upon us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, our sins are absolved. And at the table of the Eucharist, we are again and again offered the choicest of all meats, the Body and Blood of the Lamb of God.

Today I returned to my Holy Mother Church heavy with guilt and shame, not deserving of the name that has been given to me. I laid down my sins, and by that boundless grace bought by Blood, they were absolved. But when I went forward to receive the Eucharist, a funny thing happened, that I don’t think has ever happened before. Deacon Ted, always quite reserved, communicated the Host to me, and greeted me by name: “The Body of Christ, Joseph.” And my friend Jan, bearing the Cup, did too: “The Blood of Christ, Joseph.”

There is a lot of power in a name. And hearing my own name, being recognized and welcomed at the Table, as I was again given Communion in Christ’s Body and Blood, it was as if Christ Himself welcomed me home by name. I am a child of this Church. I was sealed with the Holy Spirit, and received the mark of Christ as a member of His flock, as a child of God: the name of “Christian.” Though in my wandering I make myself undeserving of it, He always welcomes me home by name, and restores to me my identity, my sonship.

Laid low and lifted high: On Reconciliation, and awards too!

Murillo, Return of the Prodigal Son 1670

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (WikiPaintings.org).

It’s been a pretty brutal couple of weeks. I am pretty beaten up and beaten down. I haven’t had the energy or the motivation to write. I’m forcing myself even now. Because I don’t want to abandon this thing.

There is a lot of negative I could be focusing on right now; but this blog is meant to be about the positive, the beauty and the majesty and the glory of Christ and His Church. So all I will say is that I am hurting too much on my own right now to engage in the kind of knock-down, drag-out apologetic debate that I was courting before. I am tired, very tired, of spilling my breath and my words for Christians who are still living the battles of 500 years ago, still cultivating those ancient, festering wounds; who are more about division and separation in self than union and communion in Christ; who would rather reject their fellow believer in rancor and hate than love and forgive their neighbor in charity. I am tired of liberal friends and acquaintances misunderstanding and misrepresenting and deriding my faith; I am tired of a secular culture determined to call the black white and the twisted path straight; I am tired of politics in which even the lesser of two evils still looks pretty evil to me. I am really weary of this world.

But I am thankful for a Lord whose grace is sufficient for my every need, Whose strength is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9); Who even when I am most broken down abounds in the power to forgive and heal and save; Who is faithful and just to forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). I am thankful for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where His grace will always meet me at my lowest; for His Penance which guides me to restoration. I am thankful for His Eucharist, His daily, most intimate Presence; His blessed Bread of Life to nourish my soul. I am thankful for a pastor and confessor who will hear me, who is unsparing in his discipline but overflowing with Christ’s mercy.

I am thankful for my dear blog-friends, who have presented me with another award: the Reader Appreciation Award, to mark the appreciation of my readers:

Reader Appreciation Award

Both Foraging Squirrel and Jessica of All Along the Watchtower nominated me for this award; and for both of them I am very honored and grateful.

The rules for accepting this thing are that I thank and link back to those who nominated me (done), and pass it along to some other fine people. I have been detached from the blogosphere for a couple of weeks, but I will try to determine who hasn’t already received these; maybe even introduce someone new to our circle of blog-friends.

These blogs and bloggers are some that I genuinely appreciate and recommend:

  • The Reluctant Road – Somebody has probably already given him this, and I don’t think he posts these things anyway, but I always enjoy his blog. Before my conversion, evangelicalism was increasingly foreign to me; Anthony, as a fellow evangelical convert, tries to make sense of it and gently demonstrate some of the misguided paths it has taken. He’s a man after my own heart, in that he still loves the people and places he’s left behind and isn’t lashing out in anger.
  • Thoughts from a Catholic – Chris has many insightful things to say from the rational perspective of an engineer (God love the engineers; they keep us liberal artists from floating away). If you haven’t read his blog, you ought to check it out.
  • SatelliteSaint – A fellow pilgrim on the road to God, Tucker has deep and valuable and sometimes piercing insights into Christianity. He is a Protestant with affinities for history and tradition and the wider Church. I still haven’t quite figured out where he’s going, but that’s part of the enjoyment in reading.

I’m not supposed to say something else interesting about myself, am I? Good, because I’m afraid that tank is running a little dry right now.

Please pray for me, my dear friends.

New Every Morning

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
Lamentations 3:19-24 ESV

Robin on branch

I woke up bright and early this morning after an early and melancholy night last night — feeling a world better, as the dawn light streamed in through my window, and the waking birds sang in the trees around me. And this verse echoed in my head. “His mercies are new every morning.”

This is an easy passage of Scripture to take out of context. I’ve so often heard it repeated in saccharine sentiment as a “feel good” message — but read the entire chapter from Lamentations, and you will find a graphic, painful, heart-wrenching description of God’s judgment on a sinner; on sinful, apostate Jerusalem. But even in the face of this suffering, this wasting away, the speaker turns to God in hope; and God gives His mercy to the sinner.

The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone in silence
when it is laid on him;
let him put his mouth in the dust—
there may yet be hope;
let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
and let him be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.
Lamentations 3:25-33 ESV

God’s mercies are new every morning, for His children who turn away from their sin. God is not the “happy, feel-good” God portrayed by so much of evangelical Christian media. Neither is He the God of wrath anticipated by secular society. He is a God of just judgment; but above all He is a God of abundant love. Just as Jesus offered forgiveness “seventy times seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22), God’s mercies are new every morning, for every morning that we turn from our sin and toward Him.