Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Justification: All grace, all the way

As we contemplate a transition to Roman Catholicism, there's a lot to think about, and some of the differences are pretty intimidating.

But the doctrine of justification doesn't bother us at all.

All Christians believe that we're not saved by our own merits, but by the meritorious work of Christ. (Catholics affirm this in every mass!)

It's all grace. All of it.

Moreover, all Christians believe that the God's saving grace inexorably draws us into ever increasing conformity with Christ.

Salvation is a free gift, not a thing earned. And true Christians are characterized by their active fruitful love. It's impossible to take the Bible seriously without affirming both of those things, but there are a number of different ways of talking about it.

Because of Jesus, God forgives our sins and makes us holy. When we talk about salvation, do we mean just the forgiveness part, or do we mean the holy-making part as well? Is sanctification part of justification, or something separate that comes afterward?

It all depends on how you define your terms.

Words matter. But I'm pretty sure that our salvation doesn't depend upon our deft definitions and delineations.

We're saved by grace, and we can't earn God's favor by our cognitive merits. Whatever the words "justification" and "sanctification" ought to mean, it's safe to say that God regularly gives both of these gifts of grace to people who define them imperfectly.

Which is actually one reason that I was quite content to remain Protestant long after I became convinced that the Catholic way of talking about salvation is more helpful.

Careful Catholics and careful Protestants agree that the process of growing into love (sanctification) is a gift of grace. It's not something you can bootstrap yourself into. Trying harder doesn't work. You have to wait upon the hope of righteousness.

But even though we all agree that it's all gift, it's easy for a protestant to slip into the habit of thinking that we're sanctified by our own efforts.

I'm sure that Catholics are not immune to this pitfall, and I know that not all Protestants fall into this trap.

But even though I've never met a protestant who seriously thought that we can sanctify ourselves by our own efforts, that's the logical implication whenever the Catholic view is characterized as "earning your salvation."

Thinking of sanctification as a part of justification has nothing to do with earning, unless sanctification is something we do for ourselves.

But it's not. It's all gift. It's all grace.

Day by day, I'm struggling to remember that God alone can rescue me from my sin. I need all the help I can get, and it really helps to think of my journey into love in salvific terms.

I don't see this as something to break fellowship over. But it does seem like a good reason why maybe we don't really need to go out of our way to avoid fellowship with the Christians in our neighborhood.


  1. Beautifully said!

  2. Elena, I agree that the justification/sanctification argument is unnecessary. I grew up with Catholic best friends and we really believed the same thing and used slightly different words to discuss it. The thing I have a problem with, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it, is how the Catholic Church excludes everyone else. It bothers me a lot that even though we truly believe in the same Lord Jesus, I am not allowed to receive communion in a Catholic Church. To be honest that is probably the biggest reason that I will never be Catholic.

  3. "The key to understanding Catholic theology is to set aside the assumption that it is always a zero-sum game. Justification is about our being part of a communion of saints, the body of Christ, through baptism, the Eucharist, confession, and all the sacraments. I do nothing without the initiation of the Holy Spirit. It is not my merit; it is his. And yet, there is a mystery here. I cooperate with this grace, but I contribute nothing to it. In my obedience, I am allowing the grace of God to transform me. And yet, it is wholly God's doing. I am confident of my eternal fate, but confidence in that eternal fate is not the exclusive purpose of justification. For God not only wants you to get to heaven, he wants to get heaven into you. And he does so by grace that has the power to change nature." --Francis Beckwith, Return to Rome, p. 113.

  4. Emily,

    You're quite right, we do all believe in the same Lord Jesus. But we don't believe quite the same thing about the presence of Jesus' body in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist is so hugely powerful.

    Think of it this way--if you somehow had, in your possession, a real live literal piece of Jesus' very own heart tissue, and believed that Jesus had commanded you to chew on it, and to offer it to others, would you give to someone who believed it was only a ::symbol:: of his tissues?

    No, better not to. Living tissue is too powerful of a thing to hand out lightly, especially when it comes from Jesus' own chest.

    Of course the Catholic Eucharist is bread and wine, exactly as it appears to be. But it's also Jesus, in the most literal way possible. I have no idea how that's possible, but it's been my undeniable experience that it is so. (You know, for whatever that's worth. :) )

    The Catholic sacraments look just like Anglican sacraments from the outside (especially in the Ordinariate, which is where Tim and I landed), but they're so completely different when you're actually taking them. They're much more powerful--I don't mean emotionally powerful, I mean flat out bondage-breaking, sin shattering, changing-who-you-are-inside powerful. Best not to hand that reality to someone who's prepared to receive a symbol. It's too dangerous.

  5. That being said, I'm pretty convinced that not every Christian is called to become a Catholic. When I told our priest that the first time we met, he immediately agreed; I would not have moved forward with the process if he hadn't. There's SO much good in Protestantism, and one must go wherever one is called; that's a refrain I've heard over and over since we became Catholic.

    I hope my rant above wasn't too... excluding... I've been bowled over by how different the Catholic sacraments are from what I expected, and more than a little annoyed at wonderful, well-meaning Anglicans who told me there was no difference. The difference is enormous, and while I don't think that means everyone ought to become Catholic, I do think people ought to at least know that.

  6. But Rachel, how could they possibly be so different? As Anglicans we also believe that the Eucharist is the true and real Body of Christ. You're saying that your church somehow does communion in a way that is "more real" or more...something... than we do. And honestly, that is quite offensive. I get how Catholic communion would be "more powerful" than Baptist communion, because Baptists aren't taking a sacrament (in fact I think they'd be a little appalled at the idea). But Anglicans are, just like you are. And what you're saying is that somehow we aren't doing it properly, and thus it isn't efficacious, which is a pretty rotten thing to say to your fellow *sacramental* believers. I love you guys and I'm not trying to pick a fight, but I do think it is a conversation worth having honestly.

  7. Emily, I apologize. I realized after I published my comment that it could easily be read that way, and that's not what I meant and I feel really bad. Anglicans and catholics do differ in understanding what the eucharist is, and the end product is very, very different, and I think people deserve to know how different they are, but I don't want to offend people I care about, so I'll leave it at that. Again, I'm sorry.

  8. Yeah, I'm not sure what to think. I'm still trying to figure out what it means to affirm transubstantiation, if/how that's different from real presence, and what to make of the divisions in Christ's body.

  9. I'd like to help you on your journey. Food for thought...What is the absolute minimum one must believe/affirm to be considered/accepted as a Roman Catholic? Do you accept all official/historical Roman Catholic doctrine (indulgences, transubstantiation, purgatory, idol/image worship, authority of Catholic Church and tradition, etc.)? What is your understanding of the Protestant view of salvation/justification by grace/faith alone through Christ alone?