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.

Catholicism and Assurance of Salvation

My next post in the current series is already queued up and scheduled; but I think I’m going to delay it for a timely reflection that turns out to be quite apropos. [Part one. Part two.]

Baptism in Kansas (1928), by John Steuart Curry

Baptism in Kansas (1928), by John Steuart Curry (WikiPaintings).

Last night I gave my testimony to a room full of Baptists. On Wednesday nights I attend a home care group at the home of my dear friends Josh and Wendy, ardent Christians and faithful Baptists. I grew up, and my faith was formed, among Baptists, and even now as a Catholic, I have a great and growing love for the Baptist tradition. And last night, we went around the circle as each member of the group shared his or her Christian testimony. As I closed mine, apologetically thanking my friends for their love and acceptance of me, “even though I’m a Catholic now, in a room full of Baptists,” one man spoke up and noted that we were a room full of Christians.

First Baptist Church, Lincolnton, N.C.

There’s one note that was a refrain through many of the testimonies of my Baptist friends, and I don’t wish to speak critically of it, but it made me thoughtful, and I thought I would comment on it from my own testimony: the quest for “assurance of salvation.” Baptists believe one can have assurance of one’s eternal destiny, “eternal security,” a faith that one’s eternal salvation is certain and cannot be taken away. But it seemed that for several of my friends, the search for this assurance was a struggle with uncertainty and doubt, until finally each received a confirmation. Several of them were raised in Christian homes and in church, and grew up knowing of the gospel; several of them had journeys of faith, even serving in the church, only to drift away or fall into sin, or later otherwise realize that they were “lost.” They then had dramatic moments at which they were “saved.”

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (1600)

Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), by Caravaggio.

But I know well, from my own life, the inconstancy of human flesh. I too was raised in a godly home, by godly parents, in a godly church; I knew the Lord from an early age; I grew up walking with Him; as a young man I was “on fire” for Him; and though I was immature and there was much I didn’t understand, I can say with fair certainty that I did know the Lord, that I trusted in Him and followed Him, and in the manner of speaking of Evangelicals, was “saved.” And yet I did fall away; I fell into serious sin; I walked away from God for a number of years. Was what I had before, then, as a young man, not real? Later on God called me back, and I did have dramatic conversion experiences, more than one of them; and yet that wasn’t the end of the road for me, either. I still struggled with sin, even fell in deeper than I ever had before, until I had an even further and deeper conversion to the Lord: not a single moment, but a highway landmarked with monuments of faith.

The road to Rome

So it presents a number of questions: When was I “saved”? Did I “lose my salvation” those times I fell away? Did I never have “assurance” to begin with? My friends’ stories were each framed around the premise that there was a single moment at which they were saved, at which they received assurance; and yet I heard evidence that these people were following and serving the Lord even before those moments. And I seriously wonder that if any of them were to fall again into serious sin — a danger that I am sure they would admit — if they should “backslide” or fall away from the Lord — that they wouldn’t then have further and later moments, and that they wouldn’t then frame their testimonies around them, supposing that that time is when they were truly “saved,” or “recommitted” their lives to Him. Even the language and narrative of Evangelicals seem to admit that “salvation” is a journey, an ongoing conversion, even despite their conventions and focus on single moments.

Despite any assurance of salvation that one might hold at any given moment, it is possible that that person might backslide or fall away — and if he were then to die, at that point there would be uncertainty among those who knew him: Was he truly saved? Did he ever really have a saving faith? One camp, the Reformed, would say that his falling away was evidence that he didn’t; and whatever assurance he had at one time would seem to count for very little. Others, more Evangelical-minded, might say that because he did have assurance of a saving faith at one time, he must have been saved in the end. And yet that saving faith was not saving him toward the end of his life or bearing fruit.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Smith Catholic Art

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Smith Catholic Art (prints available).

The standard Evangelical evangelistic question is, “If you died tonight, are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven and be with Jesus?” I am glad that nobody asked me that question last night, because as a Catholic, they wouldn’t have liked my answer. No, I don’t have absolute assurance; but I stand in good company, and answer with the words of Paul: “I do not even judge myself; it is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:3–4). I trust in the promises of my Lord: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). I know Him and trust in Him and have faith that “He who has begun a good work in [me] will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). I have assurance that my Lord “will never leave [me] nor forsake [me]” (Hebrews 13:5, etc.); if there is any doubt, it is not in the Lord, but in my own fragile humanity. He gives us the grace in Him to stand and to abide; but He also gives us the free will to stand with Him or to walk away, to choose sin and death or His eternal life (Deuteronomy 30:19, Sirach 15:17).

Much ink has been spilled over the centuries over the question of whether we can be certain that we are in a state of grace, that we are justified and forgiven of our sins; and this doubt coincides with the doubts of “assurance” that I heard from my friends last night. But faith is from the Lord (Ephesians 2:8–10), and He does give assurance and confirmation in that faith that we are in Him. In that faith, I know that it is never God who will let go of me; and I can say with abiding faith that I will not let go of Him between now and the moment of my death, especially were that to come tonight. Now, then, and always, I can only throw myself upon His boundless grace: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Catholicism and Being “Born Again”

Part two of a longer piece on “Falling from Grace.” [Part one.]

Catholics: Salvation is a Journey

Baptism of Christ, from Mariawald Abbey

The Baptism of Christ, stained glass from Mariawald Abbey, by Gerhard Rhemish, The Master of St. Severin, Germany (Victoria and Albert Museum)

So then, Catholics view salvation not as a single, momentary event, but as a road, a journey, a pilgrimage, a race (Hebrews 12:1). We have not yet arrived at our destination, the heavenly Jerusalem. There is certainly, in the Catholic mind, a sense in which we have been saved: at our Baptism, we are born again in Christ (John 3:3,5). We are buried with Him in death and raised to newness of life in His Resurrection (Romans 6:3–6); the old has passed away, and we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Catholics do not often speak of being “saved” in the present tense or of “getting saved” as a momentary event, as especially Evangelical Protestants do — for this we are often criticized. “Catholics don’t believe in being ‘saved’! They say they will not know if they are ‘saved’ until the end of their lives!” That isn’t quite true. We know that we have been saved from our former life and given a new life in Christ; whether we will be saved in the end is something that not even Paul could state with certainty (1 Corinthians 4:3–5).

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (The Kiss of Judas), c. 1306

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (The Kiss of Judas), c. 1306 (WikiArt.org).

Why could Paul not, and why can’t we, know our final salvation for certain? Paul himself tells us that although he knows of nothing against himself, it will ultimately be God Who judges him, “[when] the Lord comes” — and that he is, in his belief of his own innocence, not thereby acquitted — οὐκ δεδικαίωμαι [ouk dedikaiōmai], from δικαιόω [dikaioō], the same verb that is more commonly translated justified. Protestant apologists readily stress that δικαιόω, “justify,” has a primarily forensic meaning, of acquittal — which it does — but they are quick to gloss over instances such as this that do not fit their interpretation of a “once and for all” event. Paul, then, understands that his present and future sins can still be held against him, even the sins of his heart (v. 5); and he knows the danger of falling away — of which Jesus often warned (e.g. Matthew 24:10; Mark 14:27; Luke 8:13; John 16:1). Frequent, too, are the warnings, even from Paul, against falling into sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10:12; Galatians 5:21; 1 Timothy 3:6, 6:9–10; Hebrews 10:29; James 5:12; 2 Peter 1:10).

Being “Born Again”: Renegeration and Conversion

Painting of infant baptism from the Catacombs

A painting of the baptism of a child from the Catacombs of Rome.

Many Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, object to the Catholic identification of Jesus’s call to be “born again” with Baptism — despite the fact that this was historically the universal understanding of the Church in interpreting John 3:3,5, even in Protestant traditions, dating from the earliest times (see especially Justin Martyr, First Apology LX, quoted in this post). The objection that this “new birth” refers to a spiritual rebirth and renewal, not only to a physical washing, reflects a misunderstanding of the concept of sacramentality. A sacrament is an outward and visible manifestation that both represents and actually accomplishes an inward and spiritual grace: so in Baptism, the outward washing and covering with water both represents an inward spiritual cleansing (Ephesians 5:25–27, Hebrews 10:19–22) and a burial and resurrection with Christ (Romans 6:3–10, Colossians 2:11–15), but also actually accomplishes the grace of the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16) and spiritual regeneration (Titus 3:3–5).

Benjamin West, St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost, by Benjamin West (1738–1820) (Wikimedia).

But it is indeed a truth that there must be a genuine, inward conversion to Christ, a renewal in faith and turning toward Him, in the believer’s life. Catholics, in affirming the efficacy of Baptism in regeneration, in no way detract from this necessity. Especially in adult believers, regeneration in Baptism generally coincides with a faithful conversion to Christ — but it is not necessarily the same thing. The most strident objections come from Baptists and other opponents of “Paedobaptism” (the Baptism of infants), who argue that infants have no faith and cannot truly convert to Christ, and therefore cannot be regenerated: but it is not our faith alone that justifies us or regenerates us, but the working of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit; and He can work no less ably in the life of a child than in anyone else’s. For children, this regeneration in Baptism must be followed by growth in faith and conversion; and the good faith of the child’s family, his or her parents and the Church, in pledging to raise the child as a Christian, is a surety in this.

We must be born again. This is as true for our rebirth and regeneration in Baptism as it is for our sincere and faithful conversion to Christ. Catholics believe this as surely and certainly as do Evangelicals or any Protestants. We may not always have stories of sudden, life-changing “conversion experiences” — though very many do. Consider St. Augustine, St. Francis, or St. Ignatius of Loyola! For my part, my conversion to Christ has been a lifelong and ongoing journey. I can say that, being raised by godly parents in a godly church, God has always embraced me; and over the years, as I’ve learned and matured, I’ve grown in faith, and never converted to Him so wholeheartedly or passionately as I have as a Catholic.

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

Believe and Be Baptized (Baptism in Depth)

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth. Get ready, y’all! I have a burst of inspiration, and thoughts coming out my ears — both to finish my thesis and to share on Baptism.

The Acts of the Apostles, the continuation of St. Luke’s Gospel narrative recounting the earliest history of the Christian Church, is the clearest record we have of the faith and practice of the Apostles. With that in mind, we look to it as a clear window into the Apostles’ understanding of Baptism.

The most important observation we can make about the Apostolic Church and Baptism is that in every single case of Christian conversion in the Book of Acts, Baptism immediately followed the believer’s having faith in Christ — as if believing and being baptized were a part of the very same thought and action. In this we hear an echo of Jesus’s words: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). For the earliest Christians, believing and being baptized were inextricably connected.

Benjamin West, St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost, by Benjamin West (1738–1820) (Wikimedia).

We see, from the very first apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, that Baptism was connected both to believing in Christ and to repenting of one’s sins. To the people’s question of what they should do, St. Peter answers, “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 purpose Peter names of being baptized, we should note, is for the forgiveness of your sins; and the outcome is to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).

Numerous other cases connect faith and Baptism necessarily: In St. Philip the Deacon’s preaching to the Samaritans, we see that “when they believed … they were baptized” (Acts 8:12). When the Ethiopian eunuch believed, he exclaimed immediately, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). In St. Paul’s ministry in Corinth, we find that “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).

Paul and Silas and the Philippian Jailer

In fact, the act of Baptism was so closely connected to the act of believing that baptism implied belief: In a number of cases, Scripture does not specify explicitly that the converts believed, only that they were baptized. When Paul preached to Lydia, the text tells that “the Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul. And … she was baptized” (Acts 16:14–15). Likewise with the Philippian jailer, we read that “[Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and all that were in his house,” urging him to believe, and “he was baptized at once, with all his family” (Acts 16:32–33).

At the very least, we can say that Baptism was a necessary part of salvation in Acts: for no one became a Christian without having been baptized. Baptism was the next step to having faith, the necessary response, no doubt a central part to apostolic preaching, and the completion of the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” As I will show next, in a closer examination of Baptism in the thought of St. Paul, not only did Baptism imply having faith, but having faith came to imply Baptism.

The Rub with Protestant Theology: Why I teach what I teach

El Greco, Christ (1585)

El Greco, Christ (1585)

I’ve been mulling for the past hour or two, thinking of my new Christian friend and how she might take that last post, and I feel I should make a quick follow-up.

Why do I gripe so much about Protestant theology? Is it because I think it’s all wrong and that believing it means one is automatically damned? Not at all. Is it because I have some innate drive to prove myself “right” and prove everyone else “wrong”? I do fear there’s sometimes a trace of that, and it’s pride: Lord, have mercy. But no, there are two main reasons.

First, I see these doctrines — especially sola fide (justification by faith alone) and sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) — as the main obstacles standing between the reunion of all Christians; the main matters dividing us. I guess there’s not really any hope of my making an irrefutable case that will convince everybody and singlehandedly bring about reconciliation, but I hope that maybe I can convince one or two, who might go and spread the message.

Saints Peter and Paul, by El Greco

Saints Peter and Paul (between 1605 and 1608), by El Greco.

Second, and even more important: Though I don’t believe that all Protestant theology is irredeemably wrong — I affirm, with the Catholic Church, that many Protestant communities retain elements of Christ’s truth and sanctification — I do believe that some Protestant doctrines are very wrong, and even dangerous.

If you believe in Jesus Christ and all that Christians have traditionally believed, and strive to live your life for Him, then I don’t think there’s any major problem. I think, through the grace of God, He works salvation in the lives of Protestants, as long as they do the things Christians are supposed to do, as the Bible teaches: repent of their sins and turn to God, confess Christ is Lord, and live their lives according to the Gospel.

Bible

But there are some teachings that have the potential to lead people into serious error. What is meant to convey love and hope can be turned to weapons of the enemy. They can give false assurance that one is “saved” and has eternal security of that salvation, no matter how they live their lives or what sins they commit — when the Bible teaches repeatedly that those who continue in sinful lifestyles are not children of God (1 John 3:6, Galatians 5:21, Romans 2:8, etc.). God is just and faithful to always forgive our sins if we repent of them and ask forgiveness (1 John 1:9) — but if we keep on living that way, we are throwing away the grace that God has freely given (1 John 3:8–9).

Likewise, the teaching that man is “totally depraved” and “hopelessly sinful” — the false idea that no one can pursue righteousness — can easily lead to apathy and complacency in sin, or despair that one can’t ever be better. “God knows I’m a sinner, and he forgives me; there’s no way I can be righteous, so I guess this is okay” — that’s the trap I fell into for so long. We are called to pursue lives of holiness (1 Peter 1:14–16, Hebrews 12:14, Ephesians 4:17-24).

And that’s why I teach what I teach: to guide others to the truth, and to spare them from the many mistakes I’ve made, and that I see so many others making, that have the potential to lead them to destruction. And I want to always teach in love. I know I’m not always good at getting that across.

Justification by faith alone, or what? What do Protestants think Catholics believe?

Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus

The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus (1649), by Eustache Le Sueur. (WikiPaintings.org)

For Protestants, one of the cries of the Reformation, one of the staples of Protestant faith, is sola fide, justification by faith alone. Many Protestants, especially the Reformed, hold this point to be so crucial and integral to the message of the Gospel that they label any other view (that is, the Catholic or Orthodox views) to be “heresy” or even “apostasy.”

As you know, this troubles me deeply. The Catholic Church teaches salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), the gracious and unmerited favor of God on the sinner, just as uncompromisingly as any Protestant community. So Catholics and Protestants agree on the source and the cause of grace; what we disagree on with regard to sole fide amounts to merely the mechanics by which that grace is received. To my view, our theologies even on this disputed point are much closer to each other than either side generally admits, resulting in what appears to me to be a difference of mere wording and nuance.

Velazquez, St. Paul

St. Paul (c. 1619), by Diego Velazquez. (WikiPaintings.org)

So the charge that the Catholic Church teaches a “different gospel” than Protestants (and a false one) is entirely incomprehensible to me. And so, the question occurs to me — and I sincerely hope for some dialogue with Protestants here: What is it that Protestants, particularly Reformed Protestants, think that the Catholic Church teaches, that is so antithetical to the Gospel? that would warrant denying fellowship with their Christian brothers and sisters, and even accusing them of “apostasy”? I am not at this time attempting any positive argument for Catholic position; I am merely trying to understand the Protestant charge.

The unspoken assumption of sola fide — by faith alone — is the rejection of the idea that “works” play any role in salvation. As St. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). These verses comprise one of several linchpin passages in sola fide theology — but what exactly does Paul mean here by “works”? I have often heard the accusation that Catholics (or Arminians, or anyone not Calvinist) teach “works’ righteousness” — the doctrine that by our “works” we are saved: that somehow, anything we can do can win God’s favor, merit our salvation, or in our own deeds make us righteous. As I’ve demonstrated, this isn’t what Catholics believe at all. I have heard the charge that Catholics are “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian”: Pelagius taught that Adam’s original sin did not taint human nature and that man was capable, in himself, of choosing good over evil without the grace of God. The Catholic Church denies this, and always has.

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera. (WikiPaintings.org)

This line of sola fide reasoning apparently interprets that the “works” of Paul’s argument means any act of doing somethingany work accomplished, ἔργα or facta. The belief, then, that doing something, anything, any action at all other than having faith, is necessary for salvation, is therefore construed as a contradiction: Certainly the practice of the Sacraments or the belief that Baptism is necessary for salvation fall into this category, but taken to the extreme, this opposition to “works” (that is, having to do anything to be saved) includes even the simple act of praying a prescribed prayer.

So is that it? Is it this teaching that one has to do something in order to be saved that is so gravely contradictory to the Gospel, and that makes Catholics “apostate” (that is, having willfully turned one’s back on and denied Christ)? Or is there something else I’m overlooking? Because the something that Catholics believe one must do to be saved, at a most basic understanding, is merely to accept God’s freely offered grace. All other actions — Baptism, the Sacraments, good works of charity proceeding — are merely the result of God’s grace working in our lives, both giving us the will and empowering us to work (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:12–13).

Where in this is the denial of Christ? If I believed that in any sense I was abandoning Christ’s Gospel, I would not have made this journey. I would like to understand the positions of Protestants who would label this “apostasy.”

Sacraments and “Works”: Where Protestants get it wrong

Theophany Icon

An icon of the Theophany, the Orthodox celebration of the Baptism of Christ, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove.

It occurred to me today, I think, the real reason why Reformed and evangelical Protestants reject the Sacraments and any belief in the idea of sacramentality.

St. Paul writes (Ephesians 2:8-10):

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

In the Protestant mind, Baptism and the other Sacraments are “works.” The idea of sacramentality is incompatible with the doctrine of sola fide because, by the Protestant interpretation of Paul, one’s salvation is accomplished by faith alone. To grant that the act of Baptism itself, a “work,” has any sacramental power at all, that it washes away one’s sins and gives one a new birth in Christ, is to admit that some other action beyond faith alone is necessary for salvation.

Therefore, in order to make sola fide work, they dismiss Paul’s clear testimony elsewhere in Scripture regarding the efficacy, sacramentality, and necessity of Baptism (Titus 3:4-7):

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

How can this be? How can Paul say that God saved us not because of works, and at the same time that He saved us by the washing of regeneration (διὰ λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας)? Clearly, Paul speaks of “works” here in a different way than Protestants suppose.

We are saved not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. Certainly, we are saved only by God’s mercy and grace — no works we do can ever earn our salvation. But that doesn’t mean — and Paul never says — that we are saved by faith alone — that we don’t have to do anything. Baptism, and the other Sacraments, are not “works” by which we try to earn God’s favor or earn our salvation, but the God-given and Christ-instituted means by which we receive His grace.

Sacrament and Schism: The Media of Grace and Our Separated Brethren

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

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden. This is the left panel of the triptych, representing (left to right) Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession. (WikiPaintings.org)

Here’s the beginning of something I’ve been pondering for a while now (or really the last post may have been the beginning). I’m going to try to be a little more brief than I usually am, both for your sake and mine.

The ministry of the Roman Catholic Church to her people is focused in the Seven Sacraments: Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Confession, Marriage, the Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders. The word sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum, which classically referred to a solemn oath, but came in Ecclesiastical Latin to mean something set apart, consecrated, made sacred. It became one of the common translations for the Greek μυστήριον (mystērion, mystery, as in the sacred mysteries) — e.g. Ephesians 5:32, “This [marriage] is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church” (Douay-Rheims Bible).

So what is a Sacrament? The clearest definition, which apparently comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (though it seems to have a basis in St. Augustine and Hugh of Saint Victor), is that it is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Or, as it was explained to me in RCIA, a sacrament actually accomplishes spiritually what it represents physically. Baptism, through a washing with water, actually accomplishes a spiritual washing away of sin, a death to the old self and a new birth in Christ. The Eucharist, through the breaking of bread and the eating and drinking of the elements, actually communicates to us the Body and Blood of Christ, by God’s grace. We believe that the Sacraments are the “media of grace” — the means by which God transmits His grace to His people.

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

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden. The right panel, depicting (left to right) Holy Orders, Marriage, and Anointing of the Sick. (WikiPaintings.org)

So why do Catholics call these seven things sacraments? Why do we raise these things to the level of the sacred? Why do we place the emphasis on them that we do? The simplest answer: Because Christ commanded us to do them. We find in Scripture Christ teaching these things to His Apostles; we find the Apostles taking them and making them part of the worship and practice of the Early Church. In the Tradition of the Church, passed down from the Apostles themselves, these things have always been done; always held to be sacred. A lot of the finer points of sacramental theology were worked out by the Church’s theologians over many generations; even the firm definition of Seven Sacraments was a development over time. But we know that Christ commanded these things; we know that they accomplish what He said they would.

And that brings me to the question I’ve been pondering: We Catholics believe that the Sacraments are the means by which God saves us. If I accept as an assumption that Protestants can be saved — many of whom deny the efficacy of the Sacraments — how does God’s grace move for them? As I mused last time, I reckon God’s Divine Mercy is so overwhelming that His grace bleeds even through the cracks of our schism. The Church holds that even though the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” (Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium §8). And I’m enthralled by this wondrous grace that reaches even beyond our gravest human failings, across the chasms of our human divisions, to catch up those who love Him and serve Him and won’t let them slip away.

I plan in the near future to focus on each of the Sacraments, and the graces that we believe as Catholics they bestow, and muse on why our separated Protestant brethren have rejected them, how each’s particular aspect of salvation is accomplished in Protestant systems of belief, and how even though Protestants reject them, the Sacraments bear grace to them anyway. First, I will think about Baptism.

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

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden. The center panel, showing Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. (WikiPaintings.org)

The Outpouring of Divine Mercy: A thought on the Work of God among all Christians

The Works of Mercy, by David Teniers the Younger

The Works of Mercy (c.1645), by David Teniers the Younger. (Wikipaintings.org)

Hello, dear friends. I’m still around. I’m continuing to struggle with some things — not least of all a real terror of a paper — but I think the sun is beginning to shine through the clouds, and I hope, I pray, that I’ll soon be able to return to you on a more regular basis.

I have been thinking about a lot of things lately — the direction this blog has been taking, the direction my heart has been taking, and the way my heart needs to lead this blog. For one thing, I need and deeply long to return to this blog’s original mission, to extol all the beauties and graces of the Catholic Church, and to ponder the lamentable divide between Catholics and Protestants, and to work in my own way to bring us closer together. I have been lashing out defensively, even aggressively, against Protestants who reject communion with the Catholic Church, against their arguments and even against their beliefs. But the truth is that this all breaks my heart grievously, in being hurt and even more in that my words might hurt others.

I have been spending a lot of time with my Protestant brethren lately, most of all my dear Baptist friends. And I find that the passion, the mercy, and the love of their worship and ministry is true and genuine and full of God’s grace and healing. And that begs the question, as my wandering road as a Protestant always begged — how can more than one thing be true? If the Catholic Church is Christ’s True Church, founded by Him and His Apostles, bearer of Apostolic Tradition, the fullness of God’s plan of salvation for us — and this I firmly and thoroughly believe — what are our separated brethren? And if I see God’s grace and love alive and active in them, as witnessed by the transformation of lives — what does that mean for the Truth? It means, I suppose, that God is so much bigger than us and our petty disputes, than any division we can create; that His mercy is infinitely greater and overflowing to all who love Him.

We of the Catholic faith practice the Christian life as it has been handed down to us. Catholic tradition is just that — that which has been handed down — and it has been handed down from the ages because it is what works, what time has proven to bear fruit, and what Christ and the Apostles commanded us to do. So what about all the other Christians who do differently, who believe differently? The Catholic Church is not in the business of pronouncing judgment on them, on deeming whether they or anyone is “saved.” What the Church teaches is what she knows; what she has received; what has proven to be true. How God moves and saves with other Christians is His business, the outpouring of His Divine Mercy. It is our job to seek His Truth, and to be faithful and obey.

Faith and Love

Giotto, Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet

Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, by Giotto (c. 1305), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

For the past little while, since I’ve been engaging with hostile Protestants, I’ve been increasingly troubled. Because to my Protestant-steeped brain, their reading of the Apostle Paul sounds correct—the way I’ve been raised up to read him. I’ve struggled to read the Catholic idea of “justification through faith plus works” in his thought (even though I know this is a Protestant misrepresentation), and aside from the few verses I’ve explicated, it has been disturbingly difficult. What if we Catholics have Paul wrong? What if Luther was right? What if he really does mean sola fide, justification by faith alone?

At the same time, I’ve been more comfortable with our reading of Saint James and of Jesus Himself; and I’ve recalled the charge I’ve heard all my academic life, that Paul preached a different Gospel than Christ. I’ve never believed that. Both Catholics and Protestants find ways to read Scripture to make it appear internally consistent to themselves; it certainly is possible. But it is very clear that Paul was thinking along different lines than either Jesus or James; he was confronting different problems. Jesus never propounded anything resembling justification by faith alone. It is very clear that Protestants, particularly the Reformed variety, emphasize Paul and sola fide to the exclusion of all other interpretations; they force Jesus and James into their own framework of sola fide. They likewise accuse us of the same thing, of forcing Paul into our framework of “works’ righteousness.”

I’ve been writing recently and vehemently that the Catholic Church does not teach “works’ righteousness”—that it is through our works, done by the grace of God, that we are saved, not by our works, done in our own power (see Philippians 2:12-13). God working in us, through our works, justifies us and sanctifies us; but I haven’t really thought about what it is that is actually occurring in us as this happens. Last night I read a piece by Bryan Cross of Called to Communion that has profoundly affected me; provided me with this missing puzzle piece I didn’t even know I was lacking; shone light on the key to the Catholic understanding of salvation; given the glue that binds together what Jesus said and what James said and what John said and what Peter said and what Paul said, what God has said throughout the entire Bible:

… It’s love. Love is the key. Not faith alone. Not faith and works. Because even if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, but have not love, I have nothing; I am just a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8). Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-26)—but what works? Works of love. Jesus said that the greatest commandments are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our mind, all soul, and all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). And how do we love God? We keep his commandments (John 14:15). Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10).

This has been staring me in the face all along, and it hasn’t clicked. I’ve worn out the section on grace and justification in my copy of the Catechism (or at least I would have, if I were still carrying my paper copy)—and yet I haven’t seen it. The word “love” is used eleven times in that section alone; “charity” is used another eleven. Love—agape (ἀγάπη)—charity (caritas)—all three words refer to the same idea—is at the core of Catholic teaching; as it well should be, since it is at the core of Scripture.

Bryan brilliantly illustrated this to me clearly for the first time in his explication of the thought of St. Irenaeus (c. 125–c. 202) toward justification, and in his piece, which I hadn’t read before but read immediately following, on the soteriology of Pope St. Clement of Rome. Though our doctrine today is more fully developed, both early Fathers reflect these ideas. And if we read Paul with this understanding, then everything makes sense.

If we have faith, but have not love, then our faith is in vain. It is only having faith in love that accomplishes anything toward our justification. If we do good works, but don’t do them in love, then they are empty and meaningless. If we love God, we will obey His commandments. If we continue to disobey God, how can that be love? “If anyone says he loves God, but hates his brother, he is a liar. . . . God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:20, 16). “No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen Him or known Him” (1 John 3:6).

The Reformers would have us believe that we are totally depraved; that even our good works are filthy rags before God; that the entire purpose of the Law was to prove that we couldn’t keep it, that we were morally bankrupt without salvation, and even with it, we are just and sinners at the same time (simul justus et peccator). And yet all throughout Scripture—in the Old Testament, and in the teachings of Jesus, Peter, Paul, James, and John, we are called to obedience and holiness (1 Peter 1:13-35). We are told again and again that we will be judged according to our deeds (Matthew 16.27, 1 Peter 1:17, Romans 2:6, Revelation 20:13)—and yet Protestants tell us that we are incapable of living by God’s Law; that our works do not matter as long as they are covered by Christ’s imputed righteousness. I have said before that I never felt much inclination as a Protestant to pursue holiness, feeling that my sin was “covered.” Now I see how starkly the Protestant view misses the main idea of Scripture: We are to obey God’s commandments, because we love Him, through the grace which He gives us by the Blood of Christ. It is through living in His grace, growing in His love, conforming ourselves to His image, that we are saved. Faith and works are both just active parts of that.