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"Chapter 20: Do We Contribute to Our Salvation?"

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The second Epistle of St. Peter comments on the complexity of the Epistles of St. Paul: "In them [his Epistles], are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable twist, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction." (3:16). From our own experience with St. Paul we can say a hearty, "Amen. Yes, St. Paul's writing can be puzzling."

Earlier, in speaking of Luther's idea of our total dependence on God, we quoted some texts from St. Paul and found them difficult to understand. We promised to return to them. Now is the time, since they are vital in ecumenism. Protestants insist strongly that we contribute nothing at all to our own salvation. The problem gets more complex because, as we began to see in Chapter 18, these texts of St. Paul seem to leave us no free will at all.

As a result, we are again faced with two sets of seemingly contradictory statements. First, St. Paul insists with devastating force our incapability of doing any good. Philippians 2:13 says, "For it is God who works in you, both the will and the doing, according to his good will." So we cannot even make a good act of will by ourselves, or carry it out. But, could we at least get the good thought that starts the process? No, for 2 Cor. 3:5 says, "Not that we are sufficient to think any thing of ourselves, as of ourselves: but our sufficiency is from God."

Could Philippians 2:13 be softened by saying Paul is using a familiar Semitic pattern in which Scripture says that God positively does what He really just permits? Thus, in Exodus 10:1 God says of Pharaoh, "I have hardened his heart." Of course, God does not create evil. (See 1 Sam. 4:3). Obviously, that language pattern is not used here, for then Paul would mean just that God permits us to do good. In that case, the good would be from us, not from Him. Whereas Paul says in 1 Cor. 4:7, "What have you that you have not received?" In other words, "Every bit of good that you are or have or do is God's gift, you did not originate it."

Some weak translations of Phil. 2:13 imply that God only gives us the desire. If that means that He causes the desire, but we make the act of will, the same problem exists, for we would credit ourselves with the real good.

Consequently, we are forced to take the meaning of Phil. 2:13 and 2 Cor. 3:5 fully. They deny us all ability to think good, to will good, to carry out good by ourselves. In fact, these verses say that even when God offers us grace to enable us to do good, we cannot even decide (make the act of will) to accept it! So where is our free will?

We know from experience, as well as from Scripture, that we do have free will. All the countless exhortations in Scripture to repent, to reform, to turn to God, imply that. So does St. Paul in 2 Cor. 6:1: "And we exhort you, not to receive the grace of God in vain."

Semites did not mind believing two truths which seemed to clash. Faith made that easy for them, and their own mentality did not tend to make syntheses or harmonious patterns. For example, in Matthew 6:6 Jesus says, "But you when you pray, enter into your chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret."

Yet in Matthew 5:16, He said, "So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." Both sayings are fully true, even though they seem to conflict. Semites might not even notice the seeming clash.

But people of our time do notice such incongruities, and naturally ask, "How can we be both dependent on God for decision of will and yet be free?"

As we said, since the Church has not given an answer to this problem, we must find one on our own. Our ecumenical spirit urges us to find a solution, since the question of the interaction of our freedom and God's grace is vital, and Protestants insist that we contribute nothing to our own salvation. So we are going to offer an original attempt at a solution. We did a similar thing in Chapter 19, when we proposed a solution to the problem of predestination. There we offered it confidently, for the answer, once found, was so completely simple and clear. But on this problem we cannot and do not claim the answer is so obvious. Even so, it is worth our time and effort.127

First, imagine God sending me grace to lead me to do .a particular thing now. Without it I would be helpless, of course. His mere favor-smiling at me-would not be enough, for as Jesus insisted, "Without me you can do nothing." (John 15:5). So then grace has come to me. First, it must put the good idea into my mind because as 2 Cor. 3:5 insists, I am not sufficient to do that. The very fact that I saw something as good makes me favorably disposed, for the will is naturally inclined to what is presented as good.

What are the possibilities now that this grace has come? We see that I could accept it or reject it. But we had better think twice before saying I could accept it, since that would be a decision of my will, a good decision. Phil. 2:13 warns, "It is God who works in you both the will and the doing." So then, it seems there would be only one option open to me: to reject. But if that is my only choice, I am not free. A person with just one choice is not free.

Thus, there has to be a third option to consider besides accepting and rejecting. Clearly, the only possibility would be "non-rejecting." This would have the same effect as accepting, but yet would not be the same thing in itself.

There are two ways to describe the concept of non-rejecting. The first will not hold up under study, but we will examine it anyway for completeness.

After I find that grace has put a good idea into my head, I sit back and say to myself, "I see that a grace has come to me. It wants me to do thus. What will I do?" After thinking it over I conclude, 'I hereby decide, I will not reject it.'" But St. Paul will not allow it to be so simple, since the example involves a decision to non-reject. Such a decision is ruled out again by Phil. 2:13, "For it is God who works in you, both the will and the doing."

There is a different way of looking at the same example. God has sent me a grace; it has put into my head the good idea of what He wants me to do. At this point I could reject it-I know that from sad experience. But-and this is the important point now-at the very juncture at which I could reject it, I might just do nothing, make no decision at all. Is that in my power? Of course, for it is merely doing nothing. Yes, that lack of decision at such a juncture, when I could have rejected it, can serve as the condition for the next step. If that condition is verified, God will then work in me both the will and the doing.

We should notice that though we have spelled out this process at length, it really would not have to take up any length of time. The complete process, from good thought to decision, can fit into just one instant of time. For clarity of explanation, we needed a logical division or spelling out of the stages.

Now we can see where we are at: In doing a good act, our contribution at the critical instant which settles everything was zero or a lack of a decision, when we could have rejected it. This fits well with the Protestant insistence that we refrain from saying we contribute anything to our own salvation. And yet, we would be controlling the outcome, even though we would do it by taking no action. So two elements are clear in our example: (1) we contribute nothing to salvation; (2) we control whether or not we receive the grace of God in vain-recalling 2 Corinthians 6:1, which urges us not to receive grace in vain.

We may even add that our very ability to do nothing, to non-reject when we could reject, depends on the fact that grace causes us to see the thing proposed as good. If it did not do that, rejection would readily follow.

At this juncture, the Council of Trent demands one small addition to our picture. It teaches that under the action of grace, we are not totally passive.128 So in this second stage, after omitting a decision to reject, two things are happening: I am both being moved by grace, and moving myself by power being received at the very instant from grace. Thus I am not fully passive.

St. Augustine said, as we saw earlier, "When God crowns our merits, He crowns nothing other than His own gifts."129 We have accepted that idea completely. And we can agree most heartily too with St. Paul: "Or what have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you boast, as if you had not received it?" (1 Cor. 4:7).


END NOTES

127 Cf. W. Most, New Answers, pp. 335-88.
128 DS 1554.
129 Cf. note 124 above.
END

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