Grace and Justification in Catholic Theology

Stayed up late and finished that paper last night.  I never did choose one vision over the other; I hope it doesn’t bite me.

The next (and second-last of the semester!) paper that I’m working on is about the hermeneutical issues surrounding a contentious issue: I’m supposed to describe the hermeneutical choices that have been taken to lead to differing views on a particular issue (this time I’m not even allowed to take a side).  I’ve chosen Hell as my topic, and thus have been perusing Four Views on Hell, edited by William Crockett.  I’m sure I’ll probably write a rant complaining about the “literal” view and its lack of consideration for literature and hermeneutics, but for now I’m still musing about the chapter on Purgatory by the Roman Catholic Zachary Hayes.

I’m not here to talk about purgatory either, but rather the fundamental reason that Protestants don’t believe in it: because we have a very different understanding of justification and grace.  Typically, our understanding of God’s grace is that we receive it when we confess that Jesus is Lord, and from that moment on we are fully and completely saved (though some argue that salvation can be lost by different means).  Because of this, we can pinpoint the moment we were saved, and also judge whether or not someone else is saved – based on whether or not they’ve made that public confession, whether or not they’re “born again”.  We’re troubled by the fact that the lifestyles of people who are already “saved” don’t always point us to Christ, but we’re even more troubled by the notion that those Catholics have, that works (whether actual good deeds, or participation in the Eucharist, or penance and suffering) are the method through which we are saved.  In all fairness to my fellow protestants, that’s really how it comes across, quite a lot.  In fairness to my Catholic brothers and sisters, hearing that out of their context bothers them too.  So let me describe Hayes’ understanding of salvation, and we’ll see if we still think Catholics are works-based legalists.

In heaven, we have perfect relationship with God.  Right now, this relationship has begun but is far from perfect: God is perfect in his offer of relationship and salvation, but our response to that is often very imperfect.  Like us evangelicals, Catholics believe that human beings must accept God’s offer of salvation; unlike us, they see it as more than a yes-or-no question.  In the Catholic view, our response to Christ involves our actual life.  Ingrained selfishness and sin do not hinder God’s grace from saving us, but they do serve to hinder our ability to accept it and respond accordingly; and like us, they believe that human beings must respond accordingly to God’s offer of grace through Jesus Christ before it can be effective.

So here’s where the works come in.  Protestants have a notion of a thing called sanctification, by which we basically mean that we are being made more like Jesus through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes we even talk about how this is evidence of our salvation.  Us Pentecostals go on about this especially: we’re all about “lifechange”, and the evidence of what God is doing in us.  Being very cautious about appearing as works-based folk, we talk about this in abstract ways, as though it’s a completely spiritual change that is fully affected by the Holy Spirit in us and completely separate from the choices we make (except of course the choice to yield to the Holy Spirit!).  Catholics see this another way: they believe that these changes are affected by the Holy Spirit through such actions and disciplines as receiving the Eucharist, spiritual disciplines, prayer and penitence, and other ways of interacting with the Church, or with the world in Christian service.  There’s an understanding there that not only is the change in us witnessed to by our works, but that our works serve to further that change within us.  So every time we participate in a spiritual discipline, or a church service, or Christian service to the world such as charity, God uses that experience to bring us to a greater maturity, to mold us further into the image of Christ.  And the more that we are like Christ, the more perfectly we can respond to the grace He freely gives us (and ultimately, thus the better suited we are to enter heaven).

That doesn’t sound so bad, right?  (Well, except for that entering heaven part; I’d like to think that God will admit us in process, or else that the process will be completed at the resurrection).  The point here is, God’s grace is freely offered, but we can only imperfectly receive it because of the damage sin has done to us, and the more that we become like Christ the more we can receive it, and we can become more like Christ by following him (i.e. doing what he did, which is – let’s face it – works).  It’s not saying that God’s grace is less efficacious, or that God owes more grace to those who do good deeds or give more money; he’s freely given all of his grace, and it is sufficient, if we’re able to accept it through an appropriate response.  And we do receive a measure of it, because it is only by God’s grace that we can become more like Christ at all, and thus receive more grace as we grow closer to him.

I like this doctrine for a few reasons.  First, because it serves to really underline the fact that Salvation doesn’t just include safety from the eternal flames of darkest Hell (more on that next post, I think), but rather that God saves us from sin.  That there is hope in this life for us to be free from the power of sin, and that it’s a process, and we can see progress in ourselves.  Secondly, I like it because this progress happens in community; it is through our place in the Church that we are conformed more closely to Christ, and through following in his steps and doing the very things that he commands us to do.  I suppose that’s the third reason I like this so much: Salvation isn’t just for me, it changes me and makes me into a person who, like Christ before me, cares for people enough to actually do something!  A fourth reason I like it is because it recognizes that salvation (or sanctification, if you want to call it that) happens in a process, which stops us from identifying a specific moment in which we are saved.  Let me unpack that a little bit.

When we can pinpoint our moment of salvation, we can also pinpoint others’ moments of salvation.  And then when we see other people who are “saved” sinning, we question the validity of their salvation experience (and maybe we question our own sometimes too, when we can’t stop sinning in spite of all of our claims beyond a shadow of a doubt that we know we are saved).  Recognizing it as the process in which you are made more like Christ means that none of us can pinpoint exactly where we are in this process, or exactly where someone else is.  It’s not a question of “in” or “out”, but a journey we can share in which we are guided by the Holy Spirit.  This doctrine leaves absolutely no room for saying the sinner’s prayer and going back to your old sinful lifestyle as one who is “saved”, while our typical protestant evangelical doctrines tend not to speak directly to that all-too-common occurance.

So I guess there are lots of reasons that I like this doctrine.  The more I think about it, the more I think that the only thing that I really don’t like about it is the idea that suffering is salvific.  Purgatory exists in the Catholic view because at our moment of death most of us haven’t “grown in grace” enough to fully receive Heaven, so we get to live on in an intermediate state for a while where we suffer until our sins are atoned for.  I’m still not down with that.  But Catholic views of Grace and Justification?  They’re okay with me, at least until I learn more.

4 thoughts on “Grace and Justification in Catholic Theology

  1. I’m cool with the Catholic reasons for purgatory too, because I’m cool with the synchronicity between Protestant sanctification and Catholic “works.” Protestants just think it should happen immediately while Catholics allow time for it to work. This often comes off as Protestants lack grace (“why aren’t you following the Lord like you should, brother?”) while for the Catholics it comes off, on the one hand, as heaping on guilt (“go do good Catholic things”) while on the other hand it sometimes has a lessez fair flavor (“just try to stop doing bad stuff.”) All the Catholics are doing is extending the Christian life of moving towards God into the afterlife making purgatory a “getting ready to be with God” place. I frankly think that is an unnecessary step due to Protestant atonement theology, but if it turns out to be a part of the atonement process, cool.

    I think Protestants need to rediscover a good “works” doctrine. I remember hearing a good Faith AND works sermon at FT a bunch of years ago. Preaching from James. I mean, our generation isn’t going to slip into legalism or “salvation through works” anytime soon. I don’t think we have to fear some more “go do stuff. God wants you to and your very faith could be at risk if you don’t” language.

    • Agreed!

      I find it so refreshing (and funny!) to find out that I agree with Catholics about something, after they’ve been so demonized all of my life. Who knew they actually knew anything?

      • I did my undergrad at the Catholic school at U of T, so all my theological touchstones for the first 4 years of theological reading were all Catholics. I find that with them you’ll be nodding your head 90% and then they will say “ conclusion: Mary is sinless” and you’re like “aw man! So close!”

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