Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Promise of Salvation

Long ago, the prophet Jeremiah spoke about the salvation that would come to the world through Christ: “I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel,” Jeremiah wrote, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Often when we speak about salvation, we have in mind the objective work of Christ: his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of the dead. We think about the promise of heaven, and the sacramental means of grace that get us there. But Jeremiah’s prophecy reminds us that there is also a subjective side to the story of salvation. There is something that the sacraments do to us and in us. This side of the doctrine of salvation can be summarized in the words of St. Peter: “He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.” (2 Peter 1:4)

In the Western Catholic tradition, we have a name for this sharing in the divine nature.  It is called sanctifying grace. Eastern Catholics refer to it as theosis – or divinization.  It does not mean that one becomes God in the pantheistic sense of merging indistinguishably into the divine essence. Rather, it means that one regains what was lost in Adam, that full “image and likeness of God” that orients us towards heaven.

This sharing in God’s own life comes through identification with Christ. St. Paul says, “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk innewness of life.” (Romans 6:4)  It makes us God’s children by adoption. (John 1:12). It brings the gift of God’s Spirit (Romans 8:9), a life of joy, hope, and love. (Romans 5:5)

Throughout sacred Scripture, we learn that it is love and mercy, not legalism, that God desires. (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13). The real fulfillment of the law comes through love. (Romans 13:8).  Through faith, we receive the gift of the Spirit and our sinful inclinations are overcome. (Romans 8:9-10) Our old man dies with Christ. (Romans 6:6) The gift of the Spirit to us is love. (Galatians 5:22)  Through the circumcision of the heart, we fulfill the “righteous requirements of the law.” (Deuteronomy 30:6, Ezekiel 36:26, Romans 2:25-29; Romans 8:3-4)

This is what St. Paul means when he says we are justified by faith and not works. The bare letter of the law is powerless to save us, and even less the mere outward rituals of Jewish observance.  The apostle says, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” (Romans 2:13)  This true obedience to the law – to the spirit of the law and not its mere letter – the life of faith, hope, and charity- is what we receive by the gift of grace.

But what if this is not your experience of the Catholic faith? All these promises of grace and love sound wonderful, but what if you still feel the “weight and sin which clings so closely?” (Hebrew 12:1)  The call to holiness does not mean that Catholics expect absolute perfection immediately. “We all stumble in many ways,” says St. James. (James 3:2) Christ and the apostles made allowances for moral failure and restoration. (Matthew 18: 15-18; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2; 1 John 2:1-2).  In fact, Christ gave the apostles the absolute and unqualified right to forgive sins. (John 20: 21-22)  This would not have been necessary if Christians were perfect immediately.  But the promises of the gospel and the call to holiness means that these things are real, they are available to us.

To enter fully into the freedom of the gospel, we have to withdraw ourselves consciously from the world. “Set your mind on things above,” says St. Paul, “not on things on the earth.  For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:1-3)  Like Jesus himself, we must go away and seek God in the deserts of our lives. “When you pray,” says Jesus, “go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matthew 6:6)

This is what we call recollection in the Catholic tradition.  The Catholic Encyclopedia defines recollection this way:

[It is] attention to the presence of God in the soul. It includes the withdrawal of the mind from external and earthly affairs in order to attend to God and Divine things. It is the same as interior solitude in which the soul is alone with God . . . It is necessary for all who wish to attain Christian Perfection. Without it, it is most difficult to make progress in virtue.

The Gospel promises us the most glorious realities for our inner lives: faith, hope, and charity, the indwelling Trinity, the presence of God in our souls. Salvation is the forgiveness of our sins, but also the infusion of supernatural gifts. If we attend to them, if we practice recollection and prayer, we will find “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

Protestants Becoming Catholic: Justification by Faith Alone

Martin Luther’s doctrine of “Justification by Faith Alone” is at the heart of the Protestant rejection of Catholicism.  He called it “the article on which the Church stands or falls.” Luther once said that if the Pope would only teach justification by faith, he would kiss the Pope’s feet and carry him in his hands. One cannot overestimate how important this doctrine is to traditional Protestantism.

What St. Paul said

When I was in the Protestant seminary, a few Protestant and Catholic theologians got together to craft an ecumenical document affirming the things we share in common. It was called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Fr. Richard John Neuhaus led the Catholic contingent. Prominent scholars like J.I. Packer and Mark Noll led the Protestant side.  The document affirmed that Protestants and Catholics are “brothers in the Lord.”

Unfortunately, many conservative Protestant leaders reacted violently. (My own seminary professors were incensed.) The reason? ECT minimized our differences over justification by faith. In the mind of these traditional Protestants, Rome denies “faith alone.”  For this reason, they said Catholics and Protestants are not “brothers.” They said Catholics are not even Christians.

It is ironic that in the years since ECT many conservative Protestants have embraced the Catholic Church because of its doctrine of justification. My own path to Catholicism began with a thorough investigation of the biblical and historical issues surrounding the doctrine of justification. In his book Return to Rome, former evangelical theologian Francis Beckwith discusses the role justification played in his conversion to the Church. Former Lutheran philosopher Robert Koons also said justification was central to his conversion to the Church. (See his internet article “A Lutheran’s Case for Roman Catholicism.”)  There are many more like this.

There are at least three reasons that the doctrine of justification has become a bridge for Protestant conversions to the Catholic Church in recent years.

First, Protestants have historically (and ironically) read Sacred Scripture from within a tradition. Lutherans read it from within the Lutheran tradition. Calvinists read it from within the Calvinist tradition. Wesleyans from within the Wesleyan tradition. From an early age, these traditions teach one “the correct” interpretation of difficult passages. But Protestant students and scholars are becoming more willing to criticize their own traditions and to reexamine the teaching of Scripture. When they do this, they find that Luther’s doctrine is very difficult to square with the Bible. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to squeeze Luther through texts like Romans 2:13, James 2:24, 1 John 2:4, or Matthew 19:17.

Second, Protestants have always believed Scripture should be read in context. Good scholars understand that language takes its meaning from the culture in which it is used. In the last several decades, however, many Protestant thinkers have been arguing that Luther got the context wrong when he read the Bible.

In 1977, a Protestant named E. P. Sanders changed the theological landscape with a book called Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders, and many more since then, have argued that Luther read St. Paul as if he were a scrupulous Catholic monk from the fifteenth century. But Paul was a self-assured Pharisaical Jew of the first century.  Luther didn’t see that he and Paul were asking different questions, had different concerns. As result, Luther profoundly misread St. Paul. Protestant scholars like Sanders, Krister Stendahl, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright (see his book What St. Paul Really Said) have challenged a generation of Protestant leaders to rethink their objections to the Catholic Church.

Third, historical scholarship has been unraveling the Protestant view of justification. Luther thought “faith alone” was the doctrine of the early church. He saw the Reformation as a return to the Church’s pristine purity. But Protestant scholars now realize that this is not true. The earliest Christians were anything but Lutherans. In his book Iustitia Dei: a History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, Protestant historian Alistair McGrath admits that Luther’s doctrine is a complete novelty in Church history. This fact, above all, compelled me to reexamine my objections to the Catholic Church.

At root, justification is about how God accepts us as his children. Catholic faith teaches that the grace of God changes us. We become qualitatively different through the death and resurrection of Christ. (Romans 6: 1-23) We come to share in God’s own inner life.  (2 Peter 1:4)  It is because of this change that God accepts us as his children. (Romans 2:13, Romans 2:25-29, Romans 8:3-4, Romans 8:13) Protestants teach a different doctrine. They say that God punished Christ in our place, so that we get off scot-free. They ignore or minimize all the Scripture that teaches Christians can lose the grace of God through willful disobedience. (Romans 8:12-13, Galatians 5:18:21, Hebrews 6:4-6, Matthew 18: 15-20)

Many Protestants have drawn a line in the sand over justification.  Others (both Catholic and Protestant) want to ignore our differences over justification, but this is a mistake. As Catholics, we should not be afraid to say, “There are differences. The differences matter. And the Catholic faith is right.” Protestants who take the doctrine seriously are reexamining their objections to Catholicism. Far from a stumbling block, the Catholic teaching on justification is becoming a bridge for Protestants to embrace the Catholic Church.