Return to Theological Thoughts

Saved or Being Saved?

Contents

Introduction

The original version of this paper was presented at a meeting of the "Hirst Christian Fellowship". I am publishing it here in revised form in reaction to the publication of the "Lutheran-Catholic Agreed Statement". As I have said elsewhere, I had expected that more progress would have been made by the theologians that contributed to that document, and was very disappointed when I eventually read it. I write as an ex-Methodist: a "Wesleyan Catholic", very conscious of and I believe somewhat sympathetic to aspects of "Reformation" theology. The original text was much influenced by discussions with a number of Protestant friends: Les; Paul; Richard; Graham; Steve; Keith; Angela and in particular my then very close friend: Derek Abbott, now professor of Electronic Engineering at Adelaide University, Australia. The subsequent development of my thought owes much to discussions with Dr P. Miller.


What is Justification?

This question is part of the problem. Protestants and Catholics give different answers. Partly their theories of how it comes about differ because they understand Justification in differing ways. Partly they understand Justification differently because of their differing theories of how it is achieved. It can at least be said that Justification is the status of being acceptable to and a friend of God. Protestants tend to view this as an extrinsic possession: a legal entitlement, much as a title deed or passport. Catholics tend to view it as an intrinsic property of the person Justified. Both agree in using the words Justified and Saved as synonyms, as also Justification and Salvation. Etymologically, "justification" is a positive term. It means "straightened out" or "put right" or "made righteous". Contrariwise, "saved" is a negative term. It implies rescue from some undesirable prospect.

The protestant position

Before giving an account of the Catholic doctrine, I think it helpful to review the protestant position. This is complicated by the many shades of belief that can be found: ranging from near Pelagianism to Calvinism. I am guided in outlining what I believe to be a typical protestant's understanding of the matter by leads given me by various members of the H.C.F., to whom I am indebted. The hypothesis I describe can fairly be labelled "Evangelical". In my view, this term signifies one who professes belief in this doctrine of justification coupled with that of that of the "substitutionary atonement", with which it is closely related.

The "Evangelical" theory of Justification is typified by the slogan "Justification by Faith Alone". By this is meant that once a person "accepts Jesus as their Lord and Saviour" that (s)he is "put right with God". No subsequent actions of a moral or religious character can add to or modify this condition to the slightest degree. This hypothesis is largely based on the Apostle Paul's account of the story of Abram [Rom 4:1-5].

Justification by Imputation

Martin Luther meant more by it than this. He knew that the new Christian is not instantly perfected upon conversion, that he still falls into sin. In fact Luther laid great emphasis on the importance of the confession of sins. He therefore deduced that if the Christian is pleasing to God simply because of his act of "Justifying Faith", then the basis of God's approval must be extrinsic to the Christian's own nature. Somehow, God must accept the believer in spite of his remaining a sinner. Luther enjoined his followers to be confident, in their sinning, that God had already justified them. He didn't mean that they should sin carelessly. However, he did mean to insist that God's justifying action neither operates via, nor is dependent upon any renovation of human nature.

Luther taught that God declares the sinner to be righteous when he believes the Gospel. The sinner's guilt for past sins (including original sin) is remitted and he is clothed with Christ's righteousness. However, even in Heaven, the Christian is to remain essentially a sinner. His righteousness is no more than an imputation or extrinsic attribution of the righteousness of Jesus: a legal fiction. Intrinsically, and objectively, he is far from righteous.

Utter Depravity

From this flows the protestant view of "sanctification". Although this is seen as the calling and obligation of every Christian, it is entirely distinct from justification and adds nothing to it. If justification is an extrinsic imputation of Christ's righteousness: based on a declaration of God, how can the individual's botched attempts at right living enhance it? The protestant considers that if sanctification added to justification, then this would be a cause for conceit: it would undermine the basis of justification as an unmerited free gift. Although the Christian must, with God's help, strive after holiness, this process can never be completed. The damage done to human nature by the fall is far too great. It is utterly depraved and incapable of being healed.
"For if that whic is in most excellent in man be not ungodly, nor utterly depraved, nor damnable, but that which is flesh only, that is the grosser and viler affections, what sort of a Redeemer shall we make of Christ?"
[Martin Luther "The Bondage of the Will: Written in answer to the Diatribe of Erasmus on Free-Will" Sect CXXI]

"Hence: - If we believe that original sin has so destroyed us, that even in the godly who are led by the Spirit,it causes the utmost molestation by striving against that which is good; it is manifest, that there can be nothing left in a man devoid of the Spirit, which can turn itself towards good, but which must turn towards evil! Again:- If the Jews, who followed after righteousness with all their powers, ran rather into unrighteousness, while the Gentiles who followed after unrighteousness attained unto a free righteousness which they never hoped for; it is equally manifest, from their very works, and from experience, that man, without grace, can do nothing but will evil!"
[Martin Luther "The Bondage of the Will: Written in answer to the Diatribe of Erasmus on Free-Will" Sect CLXVII]

Instead of the hopeless route of attempted Law observance, God has provided another way to Heaven: as the Christian puts on Christ's righteousness, he dies to sin and so escapes the condemnation of the Mosaic Law.

Once saved, Always saved

Many protestants take this train of thought further. They argue that if Justification is a simple declaration of acceptability on God's initiative, then the Christian can be certain of his Heavenly destiny once he has been justified. This is because it is unthinkable that God should "un-say" what He has once said. Remember that justification was not deserved by the sinner, so there is nothing the sinner can do that could "un-deserve" it. Even a subsequent loss of faith could not undo what God had once done!

Blessed Assurance

Finally, some believe that the Christian can and should know beyond doubt that he has been saved and will therefore certainly enjoy Eternal Life with God beyond death. They call this knowledge "assurance of salvation". This is a typically Methodist (Wesleyan) doctrine.

A Catholic Critique

All the above follows naturally from the slogan "Justification by Faith Alone", if this is understood as Martin Luther, its originator, understood it: in terms of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer. A number of scriptural texts can be advanced to back up this contention, though the slogan is itself unscriptural. While, from a Catholic perspective, it is unimportant that a doctrine is not found explicitly in Sacred Scripture, Luther felt it appropriate to add it as a gloss in his translation of the Fifth Chapter of St Paul's Epistle to the Romans.

I next give a number of reactions to the specimen protestant position I have just outlined.


Abraham was God's Friend

The Apostle Paul had mainly in mind an argument about circumcision when writing Chapter 5 of his Epistle to the Romans. To take his words out of that context is dangerous. Moreover, it is ludicrous to suggest that Abram's attitude towards God when he "believed the Lord" [Gen 15:6] was just one of faith. Both he and his nephew Lot had already acted on God's vocation by leaving their family in Canaan and travelling first to Egypt and then back to the Negeb [Gen 12:4;13:1]. Abraham is recorded as being God's Friend and shown to be insubordinate with God when Justice and Mercy were at stake [Gen 18:19,23-32]. The "faith" that Abram showed such that God "reckoned it to him as righteousness" [Gen 15:6] was a living faith already active in works, and one - I suspect - that was based on a profound love of God.
God is Holy
According to the overwhelming testimony of Sacred Scripture, God is Holy. Moreover, according to metaphysical inquiry, He must be perfect, just, and the ground of all truth. Injustice and imperfection is therefore incompatible with His nature. It alienates from God: it is sinful. No imperfection or disorder can be overlooked. God is omniscient: incapable of not knowing what is. We are enjoined by Our Lord to "Be holy, as your Heavenly Father is holy." Luther's doctrine of Justification by Imputation singularly fails to square with the Divine Perfection. It presents God as involved in a legal fiction and purposefully disregarding sin. It makes God into a liar!
One of the principal points of conflict at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century was the view of human nature held by either side of the discussion. The Reformed side tended to hold a view of human nature which claimed that after the fall, having been created good we became radically corrupted. We are saved by God imputing to us a counter-factual goodness which is not really ours at all, but which is made available for us to put on, by Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross.
The important thing about this for us here is what it means about our moral and spiritual life. It means that all our "goodness" is so much fakery, not real goodness, and God's goodness must be given to us through our being ordered to behave in ways which have nothing to do with our natural inclinations. God may order us to go totally against our natural inclinations, because our natural inclinations have been totally corrupted, and there is no proper analogy between what we think of as good, what we desire, and what really is good, what we should desire.
The sort of life story which this underlying theology asks us to tell about ourselves is one involving a radical conversion: how once I was a sinner (and so behaved in certain ways) but now, very suddenly, I am saved, and I have a completely new life story, one with no real organic continuity with my old life story. One where there is a real rupture. Whoever I was is now dead, and now there is a new "I", someone totally new.
[James Alison: London December 2003]

If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is
inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema. [Trent Session VI Can XI]

The protestant might reply: "God is not a liar. The utter depravity of human nature distorts our understanding of Justice. True justice is accessible only to God. Whatever God says is just, is just: just because God says it is just. Hence the imputation of Christ's Righteousness (as also the Substitutionary Atonement) is Truly Just, though it seems to human judgement to be unjust."

To which I would rejoin: then we have no notion of what Justice is and no idea that it is something to be aspired to. This turns the whole matter into the question of avoiding Hell Fire rather than aspiring to the admirable perfection of the Divine. The imputation of righteousness is not mysteriously just: to a normal human analysis it is directly and seriously unjust. No degree of human depravity could make white seem so black!

Faith without Works is Dead
The Apostle James clearly teaches that "Faith without works is dead" [Jas 2:26], which directly contradicts Luther's slogan. Moreover, the Apostle presents this teaching in a context where the outworkings of love towards one's neighbours features as the key to receiving "the crown of life" [Jas 1:12]. This is identifiably the same teaching as given by Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats [Mat 25:31-46]. It is significant that Luther described St James' Epistle as "so much straw" and failed to include it in his translation of the New Testament.

What use is it to attend Church, believe every article of the creeds of the Oecumenical Councils, read the Bible, and have lots of good feelings? This does constitute something, I would say it was close to the Apostle James' "dead faith", but it is of no value before God. It gains value and power only in action: in prayer leading to penance, almsgiving and  other charitable deeds. It is the heart that God judges, not external actions as such: but a good will - if not frustrated by external constraints - must give rise to effects.

The protestant might reply: "justifying faith is not bare intellectual belief or conviction: orthodoxy; but an intuition of the Divine: episteme. It necessarily brings with it an attitude of heart which bears fruit in good works [Lk 8:15]."

To which I would rejoin: then Justification is intrinsically linked to sanctification via charity. This is tantemount to the Catholic doctrine.

God is Omnipotent
It is incredible that God's grace is inadequate to the task of perfecting and healing human nature. God is omnipotent. Moreover, his will is for all to be saved and become holy. So long as the Christian is willing not to obstruct God's renewing action, God has both the power and will to reform him.
If any one saith, that, in every good work, the just sins venially at least, or - which is more intolerable still - mortally, and consequently deserves eternal punishments; and that for this cause only he is not damned, that God does not impute those works unto damnation; let him be anathema. [Trent Session VI Can XXV]
The protestant might reply: "Such a reformation may be possible, even though Luther taught that it wasn't. Whether it is possible or not doesn't matter, it is not involved in Justification."

To which I would rejoin: Luther specifically ruled out this possibility because he wanted to ensure that Justification had no intrinsic character. Once it is allowed that God's grace can and so will reform fallen human nature, there is no need to believe in Justification by Imputation, and the doctrine falls by Occam's Razor.

God is Merciful
The idea that a new dispensation, based on "faith",  is required to avoid the condemnation of the Mosaic Law is unscriptural. The Old Testament teaches clearly that all that is required of a man for  him to be acceptable to God is that he "does well" [Gen 4:6] and that it is possible for man to "master sin" [Gen 4:7] by repentance [Wis 11:23] and God's grace [Wis 12:1]. No number of infractions of either the Natural or Mosaic Law finally alienates the sinner from God. Original sin does not utterly deprave human nature, and there is no need for any imputation of extrinsic righteousness! Both St Paul [Rom 3:20] and St James [Jas 2:10] condemn those who pervert the Mosaic Dispensation by seeking to attain righteousness by attempting an external conformity to the letter of the Law, rather than an inward repentance [Rom 6:23] guided by its commands [Ps 118:9, 34, 67, 71, 75, 176]. They do not say that with God's grace it is impossible to become holy and so be able to fulfil all the demands of Justice [Rom 8:1-11].

The protestant might reply: "Faith was just as necessary under the Mosaic Dispensation as that of Christ. Abraham was justified by faith [Rom 4:1-12], and so would be anyone else who pleased God before Jesus' resurrection. The faith that justifies would always be implicitly directed towards Jesus, the redeeming Messiah of God."

To which I would rejoin: as long as the manner in which faith justified Abraham is understood as requiring "completion by works" [Jas 2:22], then this is agreed.

Faith is not meritorious
St James points out that faith of itself cannot save a man [Jas 2:14], because it is intellectual only and so barren [Jas 2:19-20]. Luther's doctrine is self contradictory. The act of justifying faith seems to bring about justification as if it won God's approval by some intrinsic merit. To the extent that the believer's act of faith is seen as crucial in the process of justification, this faith is made the singly meritorious act. The Protestant doctrinal stance which seeks to eliminate all merit as a cause of boasting succeeds only in creating a singular cause for conceit.

The protestant might reply: "Granted, faith is not meritorious. It does not deserve God's Justifying response. God has simply enacted positive law to the effect that when the sinner believes the Gospel, then Christ's righteousness is imputed to him."

To which I would rejoin: this contradicts what St James says. If such "positive divine law" existed, then faith alone would save a man. Neither is this what you have agreed to already. If "justifying faith" is an episteme of the Divine and so involves caritas, then it is meritorious: because it amounts to a participation in the Divine Nature. It is the first term of a series that leads to the complete sanitization and divinization of human nature.

Sanctification is meritorious
Although "good works" may not be a cause for conceit as not enhancing ones status as "justified", still they might be a cause of conceit as enhancing ones "sanctification".  Because of this, the protestant might say: "Good works are not meritorious. They are no more than the obligation on a slave to his master [Lk 17:7-10]. As such they are no cause for conceit."

To which I would rejoin: this contradicts the frequent, explicit and consistent teaching of Jesus [e.g. Mk  3:35; 9:41; 10:21,29-30; 14:6  Lk 6:35; 10:25-28; 12:42-44; 14:12-14].

If any one saith, that the just ought not, for their good works done in God, to expect and hope for an eternal recompense from God, through His mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ, if so be that they persevere to the end in well doing and in keeping the divine commandments; let him be anathema. [Trent Session VI Can XXVI]


Catholic Teaching

The Catholic doctrine of Justification is founded on the necessity that the Christian really be made righteous and holy: acceptable to God not via an extrinsic legal device but intrinsically, because of a reformation of moral character. This sanitization of nature is brought about by the action of God's grace, which brings a new life to birth as "streams of living water" released from a spring newly broached in the soul.

A (wo)man is accepted by God and pleasing to Him on three counts.

  1. God discounts the guilt of past sins, including original sin.
  2. God infects the heart with a spark of Divine Life.
  3. This beneficent contagion spreads through the entire nature of the friend of God: purifying, healing and perfecting it.

Friendship with God

Although individual sinful acts separate a (wo)man from God, yet the basic barrier is deeper: original sin. Individual offences are only symptoms of the fact that no member of the human race is constitutionally or intrinsically a "friend of God". Forgiving individual infractions against Justice is neither here or there. The real issue is the gracious offering - on the part of God - and  unforced acceptance - on the part of a (wo)man - of friendship. This relationship of a (wo)man being reconciled with or "at one with" God is what is meant by a soul being in a "state of grace".

Original sin is not at all the same as concupiscence: the disorder of the will and general inclination towards short-term gratification that is characteristic of (wo)mankind since the fall. This moral weakness is caused by a (wo)man living out of his/her proper context: God. If only the sinner had epistome of the good: the beatific vision, they would do justice. On the other hand, they would not then be able to "merit"; because their actions would be constrained by this knowledge of God. It is because it was God's intention that (Wo)Man should have free-will and so merit His love that God allowed the first humans to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and then sent them away from His direct presence in the Garden of Objective Epistome into the World of Subjective Doxa, where they could make mistakes, learn, merit, grow and mature.

Divinization

Justification is more than just a forgiveness of sins, or even the gaining of a status as "friend of God". As Jesus promises, it involves an indwelling of the Trinity, and especially Holy Spirit in the the soul. This new life of the soul is a participation in the inner Life of God, itself [II Pet 1:4]. On the one hand, this divinization is a convergence of habit: so the characteristic behaviour of the Christian converges on the pattern of  Divine Caritas. On the other hand, it is a fellowship and communion with the Triune Community that is God HimSelves. Holy Spirit is singled out as especially indwelling in every soul that is in a state of grace because She is the substantiation (real and substantial personifica tion) of the love of the Father for/and the Son. God justifies us because He first loves the (distorted) image of HimSelves that He sees us. He also loves the potential that He perceives within us. His action of justification is to pour HimSelves into our hearts. It is the very presence of this Love in our hearts, put there first by God, that actually makes us loveable.
This disposition, or preparation, is followed by Justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting. [Trent Session VI : Ch 7]
The central difficulty in the Protestant account: that God cannot tolerate sin, is overcome by realizing that the eventual effect of living in God's veiled presence is to be perfectly conformed to His nature. It is in anticipation of this eventual sanitization that God accepts, here and now, the imperfect believer as His friend: on the basis of mutual trust [Rom 4:5]. If the process of sanctification is not completed on death, then it will be fulfilled in Purgatory, the threshold of Heaven, before the soul enters into full communion with God in the Episteme of the Beatific Vision. The indwelling Spirit is an advance or down-payment [Rom 4:3] on the eventual inheritance of glory. The gift of grace is made in pre-view of the believer's destiny: which itself can only come about by the flowering of charity in the soul of the redeemed.
"....The Catholic understanding, as set out by the Council of Trent, whose ardent fan I am, is that the word 'desire', which the apostle Paul sometimes uses in such a way as to give the impression that he considered it a purely negative thing, has never been considered by the Church to be a purely negative thing, to be sin in the strict sense of the word. It is in fact an entirely good thing which is, in the case of all of us, very seriously disordered, so that the way we find it in us is as something which comes from sin and inclines us towards sin, but which is nevertheless capable of being gradually transformed and ordered by grace so that we are brought to a flourishing starting from where we are. This means that in the Catholic understanding grace perfects nature, takes something which, while good, is severely damaged, and transforms it starting from where it is, whereas in the 'radical corruption' account I gave you, grace cannot transform nature, because nature has become instrinsically corrupt. Grace has to abolish the old nature and start again.
Now, as you can tell, this means that any story of salvation told by Catholics is of rather a different sort from the one I outlined to you earlier. It means that because our nature is not radically corrupt, just accidentally corrupt, and because grace perfects our nature, and because grace meets us starting from where we are, so what salvation looks like is our undergoing a process of divinely initiated transformation, together, in and as Church."
[James Alison: London December 2003]

Justification by Sanctification

Faith is no more than an essential precondition for justification.
For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said, that Faith without works is dead and profitless; and, In Christ Jesus neither circumcision, availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by charity.
[Trent Session VI Ch 7]
Faith is not meritorious. Faith is a conviction that certain things are true and trustworthy, based on - but not fully established by - a rational analysis of evidence provided by sources that one has come to accept, for good reason, as authoritative. Clearly, such a disposition towards the Gospel is excellent, appropriate, and necessary [Rom 4:5] but hardly adequate! It is completed by a loving co-operation with God's grace [Jas 2:22]. Faith is given life in good works. It is necessary to believe that love is possible before love can be accepted, and the love then still has to be accepted and responded to. Nevertheless, to emphasize the belief and acceptance: (wo)man's part in the affair, rather than that what is accepted: love, God's part; is to overplay (wo)man's role in the process, which is in reality entirely negative! Although (wo)men are free and able to reject God's vocation to friendship, they do nothing meritorious in accepting it. Anyone can damn themselves, but one's only contribution to justification is to not reject the unmerited promptings of grace.
...the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: "Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you", we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; "Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted", we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God. [Trent Session VI, Ch 5]
Justification and Sanctification are thus inseparable in the Catholic account of the affair. Justification is in fact by Sanctification. It is a process, not an instantaneous event: though it has a start, of course. It involves a life of "good works", ranging from acts of piety and devotion to acts of charity for neighbour. Justification without good works is impossible: not because one somehow proceeds from the other, but because they are one and the same thing seen from differing perspectives. Just as good works flow from the promptings of grace, so they nurture the life of faith in the soul: bringing  forth an increase in  that very life. Good works are meritorious: justification is advanced by charity and piety - and all the other virtues. The fruits of Holy Spirit are the works of the Spirit, and the work of Holy Spirit is our sanctification.
Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just, that, to wit, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to every one as He wills, and according to each one's proper disposition and co-operation. For, although no one can be just, but he to whom the merits of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet is this done in the said justification of the impious, when by the merit of that same most holy Passion, the charity of God is poured forth, by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those that are justified, and is inherent therein: whence, man, through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives, in the said justification, together with the remission of sins, all these (gifts) infused at once: faith, hope, and charity. [Trent Session VI Ch 7]
Good works are not meritorious because our poor human actions of themselves deserve God's reward [Rom 4:4]. Nothing a (wo)man can do could obligate God! Good works are only meritorious because they spring from God HimSelves. They bring an increase of grace because they exercise our spiritual muscles. It is a staggering thought that God invests simple human acts of kindness and consideration with supernatural worth, but this is entirely in keeping with the doctrine of the Incarnation.
If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema. [Trent Session VI Can XXIV]

Mortal Sin

Justification is a real condition of the human individual, not merely a disposition of God's will. Hence, it is possible for it to be lost. Of course, God's grace is always sufficient to prevent any occasion of sin becoming His friend's undoing. However, just as a (wo)man is able to reject the first urgings of grace towards justification, so (s)he is able to reject them later and chose to do evil or neglect to do good. The Apostolic Tradition distinguishes between actions sufficiently heinous as to eclipse the new life principle of the soul and to break the friendship between the believer and God and others that only detract from it. This is the distinction between mortal and venial sins.

Many Christians - especially "Liberal" Catholics as well as Evangelicals - like to think that it is impossible that they could ever commit a sin which cuts them off from their intimate communion with God. Some, like Julian of Norwich, being of a generally sensitive disposition, may be excused. Others, I fear, simply fool themselves. Christians sometimes do the most horrid things, with varying degrees of intent. I myself have ostracized a friend when he did something that I didn't approve of - I later learned to regret this and was blessed by God with the opportunity to seek and gain forgiveness for this serious sin from my one-time friend. On another occasion, I invaded someone's privacy, so betraying a trust invested in me. Once more, I repented and was able to seek and gain forgiveness from and reconciliation with the offended party. We have no basis for asserting that serious sin makes no difference to our fellowship with God. On His part, God is always willing and waiting to forgive: but we are presumptuous if we assume that the Divine Presence remains with us should we knowingly commit serious sins such as anger, sloth, conceit, deceit, betrayal, lust or greed.

Evangelicals tend to insist that all sins are equally bad and reject the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin. The slightest failing in a non-Christian merits eternal punishment in Hell. The most severe and premeditated crime committed by a Christian is forgiven before the event and of no eternal consequence. This seems to me to be both bizarre and to be without scriptural basis.

Conclusion

The Catholic Doctrine starts from grace and ends in grace. Good works are means of grace. The start of  Justification is identical with the start of the process of Sanctification. Without sanctification there is no beginning of anything. Justification consists of God's renovation of human nature. Justification is caused by Sanctification, or perhaps is identical with Sanctification. When the Christian enters Heaven, (s)he really and intrinsically deserves to be there, because his/her whole being will be oriented towards God as the supreme good. The destiny of the friend of God is to be conformed perfectly (but in a personal, unique and distinct way) to the pattern of the Son of God, who Himself was the Ideal Man.

In practice, I find that most protestants act and talk informally as if this is what they believe. Only when stimulated to respond in slogans and half remembered formularies does Luther's doctrine start to appear. I sincerely hope that soon the barriers of distrust and the inherited suspicions of four hundred years will be done away with and this, the central issue of the "Reformation" be disposed of  once and for all.


Back to top.