Over the past couple weeks, we have considered the topic of our salvation, as it is understood from both the Catholic and Protestant perspectives. Once again, from the Catholic perspective, salvation consists in being made a sharer in God’s own life, and by this gift or grace, man is justified, or made right, in the eyes of God. From the Protestant perspective, God’s grace is not something that justifies man interiorly, rather it is God’s declaration of justification, apart from any real interior justification of the soul.
As we considered, the source of the Protestant position lies in the frustrated heart of Martin Luther, who did not make a proper distinction between actual sin and certain disordered tendencies which incline us to sin, commonly called concupiscence. Having confused the act of committing a sin with the condition of concupiscence, Luther concluded that since he felt his disordered appetite at war within him in every action, he must be committing sins in all his deeds, even the virtuous ones. Thus, Luther taught that man’s acts, either virtuous or vicious, could in no way be a determinative factor in his salvation. As we noted at the beginning of the series, this error is the foundation for all that divides western Christendom. Please note, if man is left in his sin, then the entirety of the sacramental system—by which Catholics believe that God pours his own divine life into the soul of man, sanctifying, justifying and saving him from his sin—is an outrage! What is the truth?
In the beginning of the Gospel of Saint John, the Evangelist tells us that God sent his only-begotten Son, so that men might be given the power “to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). This gift of divine adoption raises man up, through the Sacrament of Baptism, so that we might “be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). As Saint Paul explains, “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies . . . but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life” (Rom 6:12-13). “Let us then,” Saint Paul continues, “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12). Here we find the heart of the Catholic teaching on salvation. It is simply this: that God loved his people so much, that he would not leave them under the dominion of the devil. Therefore, he sent his only Son, who is himself the Good News, that mankind, in the person of Jesus Christ might come into the presence of God, “holy and blameless and irreproachable” (Col 1:22). As the Scriptures tell us, “nothing unclean shall enter [into the house of the Lord]” (Rev 21:27).
By Baptism, the Sacred Scriptures tell us, and the Catholic Church believes, we “put on a new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24). Thus, God reconciles his creation by making men once again “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). From this participation in the life of God, man is justified, not by an external juridical declaration, but by an interior restoration. God’s life becomes man’s life once again, in order that man might live the life of God. By grace, mankind, reconciled to the Father through Jesus Christ, now lives the life of “the Son,” carrying the cross and being crucified in the flesh, so that “as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:4). With the grace of God flowing through us, now all is made possible, because our life has become the life of God himself (Cf. Acts 3:12, 4:30). Let us be clear, the Catholic Church does not teach that man is saved by his works, but rather, that man is saved by being united to the life and work of the Son of God. The key to understand the Catholic position on salvation is that our union with the work of Christ is an interior union which restores the whole of the human person, even his work. When a Catholic performs works of charity, he believes that God is at work in him, justifying him by making him a sharer in God’s work. The justified man is the man who is fully alive in God, through Jesus Christ. Thus we read in the epistle to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap . . . let us not grow weary of well-doing, for in due season we shall reap” (Gal 6:7,9). Far from being left in our sin, and declared justified apart from our true state, God has made us “partakers of the divine nature,” that in every action of our lives, God is present, reconciling the world to himself. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ.
As we continue our journey of Lent, making our way to the great Paschal feast, let us keep our salvation in mind. Let us always remember the great gift that God has prepared for us in Jesus Christ, and remember that our salvation depends upon our union with Him. Let us prepare our hearts, therefore, that when the day of salvation appears, the doors of our hearts are found open to Him.