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.

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

The Assumption of Mary: The Redemption of the Flesh

The Assumption (Murillo)

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

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

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

He would not let his holy one see corruption

Guido Reni, Assumption of the Virgin (1580)

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

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

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

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

The body is worth saving

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

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

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

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

Living by the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Baptism in the Early Church: Proof of Extrascriptural Tradition

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore (WikiPaintings).

[Part of a series on Baptism in Depth]

One of the clearest evidences to me of the existence of Sacred Tradition — of the idea that the Divine Revelation of Christ is not contained wholly and exclusively in Sacred Scripture, and that essential elements of Jesus’s teachings were not written down explicitly by the Apostles but continued to be passed down by their own oral teaching — is this: Despite only a few, arguably ambiguous statements from Jesus regarding Baptism in the canonical gospels — despite no recorded teaching of Christ stating clearly what Baptism is and how and why Christians should practice it — on the Day of Pentecost, upon the first proclamation of the Christian Gospel to the multitude, Peter knew just exactly what to do: “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

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

The conclusion that Peter knows something we don’t know is inescapable: He knows that (1) Baptism is an imperative that should be carried out immediately, now rather than later, upon believing in Christ; it is the answer to the question “what must be do?” to become a follower of Jesus; (2) Baptism in Jesus’s name is “for the forgiveness of your sins,” rather than merely “for repentance” as John the Baptist’s baptism was (cf. Matthew 3:11, Acts 19:4); (3) after Baptism, believers will receive the Holy Spirit. Not only does Peter seem to have a fuller understanding of what is happening in Baptism than the gospels indicate, but neither is a detailed explanation of this forthcoming in the remainder of the New Testament. The reader is left to infer Baptism’s meaning from context. In fact, the New Testament’s apparent lack of perspicuity on this matter is manifest enough that various Protestant sects proceeding from a basic reading of Scripture alone, shorn from Christian tradition, have come to widely differing and contradictory understandings of the doctrine — a doctrine of primary enough importance to the Gospel as to mentioned more than twice as often as “justification” (some 170 instances in 75 verses of “baptism” or “baptize”, as compared to only about 80 instances in 40 verses of “justification” or “justify”).

On the other hand, where Scripture is less than clear, Tradition, from the earliest times, evinces the same, full understanding of Baptism and its importance that the Apostles displayed in Scripture. There are no theological or exegetical debates or contradictory claims regarding Baptism found among the orthodox writers of the early Church. As a received doctrine, instructed and passed down by the Apostles themselves to their own disciples, and thence to each succeeding generation of Christians, the meaning and urgency of Baptism were completely understood:

Let us further inquire whether the Lord took any care to foreshadow the water [of baptism] and the cross. Concerning the water, indeed, it is written, in reference to the Israelites, that they will not receive that baptism which leads to the remission of sins, but will procure another for themselves. … [The words of another prophet] imply, Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water; for, says He, they shall receive their reward in due time. … Further, what says He? “And there was a river flowing on the right, and from it arose beautiful trees; and whosoever shall eat of them shall live for ever” (Ezekiel 47:12). This meaneth, that we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit. “And whosoever shall eat of these shall live for ever.” This meaneth: Whosoever, He declares, shall hear thee speaking, and believe, shall live for ever. [Epistle of Barnabas XI (ca. A.D. 120)]

Then [the catechumens] are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). … And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. …[In order that we] may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe… [Justin Martyr, First Apology LX (ca. A.D. 155)]

On the fifth day the living creatures which proceed from the waters were produced, through which also is revealed the manifold wisdom of God in these things; for who could count their multitude and very various kinds? Moreover, the things proceeding from the waters were blessed by God, that this also might be a sign of men’s being destined to receive repentance and remission of sins, through the water and laver of regeneration,—as many as come to the truth, and are born again, and receive blessing from God. [Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus II.16 (ca. A.D. 170)]

Baptism, which is regeneration to God, was instituted by Jesus for the remission of sins. [Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies I.21 (ca. A.D. 180)]

Giving to the disciples the power of regeneration into God, He said to them, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. [Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies III.17 (ca. A.D. 180)]

The sins committed before faith are accordingly forgiven by the Lord, not that they may be undone, but as if they had not been done. … It ought to be known, then, that those who fall into sin after baptism are those who are subjected to discipline; for the deeds done before are remitted, and those done after are purged. [Clement of Alexandria, Stromata IV.24 (ca. A.D. 200)]

Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life! [Tertullian, On Baptism I (ca. A.D. 200)]

From the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible. … What then? Is it not wonderful, too, that death should be washed away by bathing? [Tertullian, On Baptism II (ca. A.D. 200)]

Does Baptism Regenerate? A Look at the Times It Didn’t (Series on Baptism)

The Baptism of Prince Vladimir (1890), by Viktor Vasnetsov

The Baptism of Prince Vladimir (1890), by Viktor Vasnetsov (WikiPaintings).

(Part of an in-depth series on Baptism. Part 1. Part 2.)

When we left off, we were examining the Baptist view of Baptism, that it is merely a symbol, a sign of a work of grace that has already taken place in the believer by faith, an ordinance of the Church, not necessary for grace or salvation, but ordained by Lord and done in obedience to Him.

This understanding seems to derive not so much from the interpretation of any particular passage of Scripture that would indicate Baptism was purely symbolic, but a general interpretation of all passages of Scripture pertaining to Baptism as symbolic. The whole argument that Baptism is not sacramental and does not in itself accomplish regeneration in a believer appears to rest on three cases in which believers were apparently regenerated prior to and apart from Baptism: (1) the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:39–43), (2) Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), and (3) the fall of the Holy Spirit on the gathered Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:24–48). But do these cases represent the ordinary working of the Holy Spirit, or were they exceptions? To answer this, let us delve into the Scriptures.

The Repentant Thief

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

The Crucifixion, by Vincenzo Foppa

The Crucifixion (1456), by Vincenzo Foppa (Wikimedia).

So the thief repented, which we know was a work of grace. And we know that the thief died, and that when he did, Jesus welcomed him into His kingdom. In this sense, he certainly received salvation without the necessity of Baptism in water. But does this case demonstrate definitively that the thief was regenerated, his sins washed away and his soul born again in Christ, the way Christian believers ordinarily are, prior to his death? Perhaps he was; perhaps he wasn’t; but this passage doesn’t indicate it.

The Catholic Church believes that Baptism by blood — in which one suffers death for the sake of the faith — can bring the fruits of the Sacrament of Baptism. Whether this is what happened here or not — it is self-evident that if ever there were an exceptional case of salvation in the Gospels, it was that of the repentant thief, who was saved at the very divine fiat of Jesus.

Paul on the Road to Damascus

The Conversion of St. Paul, by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie

The Conversion of St. Paul (1767), by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie (Wikimedia).

Now as [Saul] journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” …
Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized. (Acts 9:3-6, 17-18)

In the case of Saul, we see that Jesus intervened directly and tangibly in his life, stopping him in his tracks and turning his life around. But it is not at all clear here that Saul was regenerated or received the Holy Spirit prior to his Baptism.

In fact, elsewhere we find reason to believe that he was not. In the second telling of Saul’s conversion, as Paul presents his defense before the Jews, different words are given to Ananias:

“And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’ (Acts 22:12–16)

We see, then, that Saul’s regeneration was not accomplished the moment he met Jesus in the road. He had to be baptized in order to wash away his sins and receive the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but it couldn’t wait — it was of the utmost urgency and necessity.

The Gentiles at the Home of Cornelius

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

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

While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:44–48)

Here these Gentiles do receive the Holy Spirit prior to their Baptism — hence the Jews’ amazement! They have been, indeed, regenerated apart from Baptism. But if Baptism were not essential, why is it the very first thing Peter thought of when he witnessed this miraculous manifestation? And is this situation the rule, or another exception? Do any other cases support its being an ordinary occurrence?

We don’t have to look very far, in fact, to find a counterexample:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all. (Acts 19:1–7)

Here we likewise see Gentile converts, who had not yet been baptized with Jesus’s Baptism, but only with “John’s Baptism.” They had “believed” and were apparently “disciples” of Christ — and yet had they really heard the full Gospel of Christ, if they had not even heard there was a Holy Spirit? We observe several things:

  1. These believers had not yet received the Holy Spirit — and the first thing Paul asked them was “Into what, then, were you baptized?” Paul’s implication is clear: if they had been baptized properly into the Baptism of Christ, they should have received the Holy Spirit.
  2. If they had been baptized into Christ, they also should have heard of the Holy Spirit — suggesting that despite St. Luke’s reference to being “baptized in the name of Jesus,” the Apostles did in fact baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), the traditional Trinitarian formula which the Church has always observed. [The Oneness Pentecostals, for example, seize on this verse and several others in the Acts of the Apostles to insist that they should baptize only “in the name of Jesus,” contrary to orthodox Christian practice.]
  3. These disciples received the Holy Spirit only after their Baptism, not before, when they profess to have “believed” (even if their understanding appears to have been incomplete). Clearly, then, mere “faith” or belief was not sufficient for their regeneration. This invalidates the above example from Acts 10.

The conversion of the Gentiles at the home of Cornelius, then, appears to have been an exceptional case, a demonstration of the power of God to save and regenerate even Gentiles, specifically to convince Peter of their inclusion into Christ. The manifestation coincided with Peter’s vision of Acts 10:9–16, a similarly direct intervention and revelation, and clearly itself an exception from the mode in which believers were generally saved. Once these Gentiles had believed, Peter urged them to Baptism as the essential next step, for their incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church.

Believers Baptized but not Regenerated?

Almost as a counterpart to the previous example, here’s one more, presenting an opposite problem: these believers had been baptized, but had apparently not received the Holy Spirit.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. (Acts 8:4–7)

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14–17)

St. Philip the Deacon

St. Philip the Deacon (oca.org)

Now, this does appear to present a complication. Had these people really been baptized and not regenerated? This poses an equal problem to both the Baptist and Catholic views. To the Catholic, it would seem that Baptism had not regenerated them; to the Baptist, it would appear that believing in Christ had not regenerated them!

Again, we observe first of all that the expectation was that these believers would have received the Holy Spirit at their Baptism; because they had not, the Apostles Peter and John had to make a special trip. But there is even more going on here than first appears. Clearly, when Philip (this is Philip the Deacon, not Philip the Apostle) brought the Gospel to Samaria, the Holy Spirit worked through him miraculously, exorcising unclean spirits, healing the lame and paralyzed. That the Holy Spirit came upon these people with such wondrous manifestation as they believed and were baptized does indicate, in fact, that they were regenerated, born again in Christ — they did receive the Holy Spirit. So why did Luke say they had not?

In the interpretation of the Catholic Church, what we are witnessing here is an early example of the Sacrament of Confirmation. Because this was yet early in the development of the Church and of Christian doctrine, St. Luke didn’t know quite how to describe what was happening. But yes, the Samaritans had been baptized in Christ and had been regenerated, and had received the Holy Spirit in some measure. But they had not received the Holy Spirit in His fullness, in the full anointing of Pentecost. Because this was one of the first times a missionary who was not an Apostle had preached to people unto conversion, it was probably just as much a surprise to Philip and to the Apostles as it is to us, that these new believers did not receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit. As the teaching of the Church developed, it was understood that the Sacrament of Confirmation could only be conferred by a bishop (a successor of the Apostles) or by a priest to whom the bishop specifically delegated it. In the previous example from Acts 19, when Paul “laid hands” on the newly-baptized believers, this too is understood as the completion of their baptismal grace in the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Conclusion

In conclusion to what I realize is a really long post — but one which I hope has been revealing and helpful — I do not believe that these four examples, unusual and early cases of conversion and regeneration, support the Baptist position, that Baptism is purely symbolic and unnecessary for salvation. Even these examples, when examined closely, indicate strongly that Baptism was necessary and efficacious in accomplishing the grace of Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit. Next time, I will explore in depth some of the many other references to Baptism in Scripture, which likewise support a sacramental understanding.

The Eucharist: The Source and Summit of Our Faith

Juan de Juanes, La Última Cena (ca. 1562)

La Última Cena (ca. 1562), by Juan de Juanes. (Wikipedia)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Yeah, I’m a little late on that one, but it’s been a busy and stressful few weeks. I’m still trying to settle back in at home, and re-situate my books and my life, and make progress on my thesis.

I’ve been stressing, too, you know, about the next post in my series on the Sacraments: an introductory post on the Eucharist. How can I do such a subject justice in a single brief post, or even in a dozen? It’s had me bound up for weeks, researching fervently and never feeling worthy. So I finally decided to sit down and give you, rather than the ultimate, perfect, authoritative post, a human and personal reflection.

Eucharistic adoration

We Catholics say that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the whole Christian life.” (Second Vatican Council [1964], Lumen Gentium III.11.1, lit. totius vitae christianae fons et culmen — those words are a lot richer than they come across in English: fons is the fount from which the blessings of our faith flow; culmen means the very peak, the summit, the apex, the culmination). As a Protestant growing up, I had no notion of this — we rarely celebrated Holy Communion in the churches I was a part of — and even early in my conversion, after I’d begun attending Mass, I couldn’t comprehend it. I used to think as a Protestant that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was merely a pious superstition, one inconsequential to the substance of the Christian faith and message: what does it matter whether He’s really there or not, as long as we believe in Him and follow Him? What is the big deal about the Lord’s Supper? Why make Communion the central act of the Christian life — the very reason for going to church? Don’t we have better things to focus on, like edification through preaching and teaching, and fellowship and support through community, and ministry to the lost and hurting? As I heard Mass, as I witnessed it and stood in the presence of the Eucharist, though unable to partake, a glimmer of the truth began to dawn on me; but it wasn’t until the very moment of my First Communion, the first time I came to the Eucharistic table and experienced it for myself, that the full reality, the full mystery, hit me and overwhelmed me.

van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), center panel

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden. The center panel, showing the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the whole Christian life because it is Christian life itself. In the Eucharist we have the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, really and truly present. In Holy Communion we share in His full humanity and His full divinity; we partake of His eternal life itself — the love and the life of God delivered to us directly, not just spiritually but corporeally and viscerally. We are united with Him more intimately than we can ever be united with anyone else, in the flesh as well as in the spirit; united with the very Body of Christ, in Communion not only with Him but with all the saints and believers who have been united with Him over the ages, in the Church on earth and in His eternal kingdom. The Eucharist is our font and our apex because from it flows all else: all the grace by which God forgives us and saves us; all the faith and hope and love with which He imbues us; all the power and authority and ability He gives us to turn from sin and follow Him, to pursue His righteousness, to love and minister to others. All the preaching, all the teaching, all the ministry, all the fellowship are subsumed to the Eucharist because without the Eucharist we could have none of those. It is the source of our life; our very food from heaven.

In the grace of the Eucharist, I find so much strength, but at the same time see how truly weak I am, how desperately I need Christ, how I am nothing without Him. Where before the Lord’s Supper was “no big deal” to me, a nice symbol and memorial, now not only my faith, but my entire life orbits the Eucharist. I know I cannot live without His Presence; the Lord’s Day is the center of my week; my soul and my body ache to be departed from Him even the few days in between. What is this miracle, what is this mystery, what is this treasure God has given us?

The Protestant will ask, can you support that biblically? And yes, Jesus states it plainly (John 6:22–71):

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. … I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. Somehow, by some tragic blindness, Protestants interpret this passage as symbolism and metaphor. But the universal witness of the early Church attests to the belief of the earliest Christians in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and of its centrality to the Christian life. For Christian life is about communion with Christ — even Protestants should admit this — and it is only in the Eucharist, the Most Blessed Sacrament, that we have the true and full Communion with Him that His Body was broken for; that He gave to us for all time.

Luther’s Innovations

de la Tour, St. Paul (1620)

St. Paul (1620), by Georges de la Tour. (WikiPaintings.org)

Here’s an attempt at a brief little post:

I do intend to pick up my series on the Sacraments, soon — but to do them in the right order (that is, starting with the Sacraments of Initiation and proceeding to the end of life), I need to cover the Eucharist next — and how can one write a brief post on the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith? Where do I even begin? I guess my general theme has been the Catholic view of the Sacraments, and how Protestants have or have not received them. That will be a starting point. But the hurdle is writing a post on “the Catholic view of the Eucharist”!

I have acquired some Catholic commentaries on Scripture recently, and have been immersing myself in them and in the Word: especially a close study of St. Paul, in particular his Epistles to the Galatians and Romans, which Protestants have appropriated and used to justify their doctrine of sola fide. As a nascent Catholic, I was rather wary of these letters, fearing the all-too-familiar Protestant interpretations would lull me back; but now that I’ve matured a little bit, I’m finding just how little support there is for those understandings.

Martin Luther

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

I’m coming to the realization that Martin Luther did not so much “rediscover” “the doctrines of grace” or justification by faith, as is often credited to him — the Catholic Church has always affirmed those, and continues to. What Luther did that was new was read innovations into those doctrines: in particular the idea that justification is by faith alone — which the text never says or even implies (in fact it says the opposite); and that the “works” of which St. Paul is writing are more than just the works of the Mosaic Law — which is the clear context — but any “works” at all; anything that man does in an effort to please God.

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Later Protestants, particularly Calvinists, erred in applying this interpretation of “works” to the Sacraments, which are the “works” of Christ, not man, and in which man only participates by the grace of God, through faith (cf. CCC 1999–2001). Luther himself taught that the Sacraments were the means of grace. Calvinists’ unscriptural aversion to “works” can be taken to extremes, such that sinners should logically make an effort not to do anything, lest they appear to be relying on their own “works” for salvation.

Protestants have grown so accustomed to these interpretations that when they read St. Paul, their minds fill in the gaps with Luther’s false assumptions, such that they are completely unable to read the text on its face. They read “by faith alone,” whether the text says it or not. They understand “works” in the broadest definition possible, no matter how narrowly Paul applies the term. It’s the blind spot in one’s vision that one has lived with for so long that one forgets what it’s like to really see; the cherished rug that has covered one’s floor for so many ages that one forgets what the floor looks like, or that there’s even anything underneath.

Okay. Well, that wasn’t what I intended to write when I sat down to write; but there you have it — a (relatively) brief little post.

See my follow-up to this post, “The Rub with Protestant Theology: Why I teach what I teach.