Christ freed us from our sins! But this is not enough. Really.
I have known a number of Catholics who were able to speak very eloquently about the forgiveness of our sins and our freedom in Christ. They had a knack for helping others realize how much God loved them, so that they could be unburdened by fear, doubt and guilt. Unfortunately, in some cases, they have also been severely tempted to think the Church herself places too much stress on the consequences of sin, on our personal guilt and on our human responsibility to do God’s will in order to be saved.
They thought they saw even in the official teachings of the Church the idea that Christ’s atonement for our sins was insufficient. They began to see the Sacrament of Confession and even the continued Sacrifice of the Mass down through history as proof that the Church did not understand that Christ had already set us free. Therefore, they were tempted to leave the Church because they thought it would make it easier for them to enjoy and to share the Good News.
Clearly such Catholics have read Scripture in a rather Protestant way. Even by their own lights, however, they should have realized that there are many passages in Scripture which suggest that Christ’s sacrifice is, in fact, somehow insufficient, in the sense that the story of our salvation is deeper and richer than a simple acknowledgement of Our Lord’s act of redemption. (If you are tempted to protest here, read Mt 7:21, Col 1:24, and Heb 3:12, just to scratch the surface.)
Also by their own lights, they should have realized that Scripture by itself is incomplete. Not only is it unable to provide a guide to its own interpretation, but in fact it presupposes at every point a pre-existent and more complete instruction about life in Christ which has already been given orally by the apostles to build up the Church. So they should have known that holding a position drawn from Scripture in opposition to the teaching of the Church is exactly like insisting that we know our lineage without consulting our parents.
Still, my interest today is not in argument but in vision. I will not tell you how the story of those known to me has ended; that is hidden in God. But I will tell you how the full story of our salvation ends, and how common it is to confuse the beginning with the end. For the sacrifice of Christ, by which we are freed from the curse of sin and given access to the Father, is actually only the necessary starting point. And like all beginnings, it is far less than the end.
God Calls Us to Love
An excessive fear of hell can actually confuse people into viewing salvation from hell as both the essence and the apex of God’s plan for us. (I hate to mention it, but the fact that Martin Luther comes to mind is theologically relevant.) But our Father has not called us to escape hell. He has called us to something much greater than that. In fact, He created us in the first place for a union of love with Himself, an eternal participation in the life of love which animates the Holy Trinity—an everlasting initiation into the Family of Love, which is what God is—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
When we were cut off from God by our offenses, the Father sent His only begotten Son to redeem us. Our Lord did this by taking on a human nature and then suffering and dying on the Cross as a full payment—an infinite payment—for the debt of sin. In theological terms, this “justified” us. That is, the debt was paid and we were now free to enter into the relationship for which God had destined us from the first.
But if we can learn only one thing from the Incarnation of the Son of God, we need to learn that God loves us the way He created us; in other words, He loves each and every one of us in our human nature. We are composite beings, body and soul, and God does not look upon us and see that human nature is some sort of Divine mistake. The Incarnation of Christ teaches us this fundamental fact before it teaches anything else.
This has enormous consequences. One consequence is that the Protestant notion of human salvation is false at its very root. Salvation does not consist in God’s willingness to throw a pure garment over our human nature so that He can somehow magically ignore the corruption of that nature—the putrid stink—which remains beneath the cloak. To put it another way, grace does not replace nature in God’s sight. No, God wants us to fulfill the promise of our own nature, to respond to Him in our own nature, to learn to love Him in our own nature, and finally to be united to Him forever as He created us, in our own nature.
And that is exactly where some dynamic evangelical Catholics I have known have gone wrong. They failed to see that God is not interested in a pretense of holiness, or even in a substitute form of holiness. He desires an eternal embrace of love with each of us at the deepest core of our being. God’s love and generosity—indeed, his almost incredible condescension to us—runs far deeper than accepting a substitute offering. Instead, he wants us to participate in and return His love in the very way He designed our human nature to love.
So here is the catch. Men and women are not like angels. We do not learn to love in a flash of intellectual knowledge. We learn to love step by difficult step, dying a little more to our own selfishness day after day, taking up our cross daily and following Him. This is what it means for a human person to learn to stop resisting grace and to start cooperating with it. The short name for that is love.
Theologically, this process is what the Church calls sanctification. It is to enable this stuttering and often painful growth in love that we were justified by Christ’s sacrifice. As a result, grace is offered to us again and again. When we resist it, we must repent in order to grow again in love. When we cooperate with it, we grow in love more easily and directly. God’s love always comes first, of course, but it comes in uncounted ways each and every day of our lives. Every offered grace is ours if we do not resist it. We grow continuously in love if we do not resist. But sometimes we do resist, and we call this resistance sin.
By baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s death and Resurrection. If God calls us to Himself after baptism before we have resisted any grace, He welcomes us without reservation, for we bear no personal guilt. But most of us are given an opportunity to grow over time. Through our own experience, we soon realize how frequently we resist grace. Indeed, if we are properly attuned, we experience guilt. It is actually by responding to grace, and by responding to the guilt we acknowledge when we resist grace, that we live out in our daily lives the life into which we have already been incorporated through our baptism. We join Christ in His sufferings so that we might join Him in His Resurrection.
This is arguably the most significant theme in the letters of St. Paul. With St. Paul, and exactly as he stated, we receive the incomparable gift of making up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body the Church (Col 1:24). For what is “lacking” is our own love, the love to which God calls us, the reflection and return of His own love through the very nature He gave us. This is the full story of our salvation. Christ dies and rises at the beginning, but it is our lived participation in this reality that is the end of the Gospel.
Every man or woman who has ever reflected on life knows what a struggle it is to grow in love. They also know by an instinct rooted in their very nature that to pretend to such love without this painful growth is a sham. To take just one example, this explains why good Protestants always live as if their behavior matters, even though Protestant theology says their vile corruption is covered by Christ as by a cloak.
The End of the Story
This is why there is a Church; why there are sacraments to accompany us on our way; why the Mass continues to be celebrated to apply the graces of the Redemption throughout time and space; why Mary is our mother as well as Christ’s; why saints matter; why we can gain indulgences; why we fast and pray; why we seek the truth through study; why we adore it in the Blessed Sacrament; why we use holy water and wear scapulars; why we kneel, and sit and stand; why we discern and follow vocations; why we bear and raise children across the generations; why we serve others; and I daresay why we laugh and why we cry as we struggle to do God’s will. We are learning to love.
This is also why we suffer. The sacrifice of Christ is a great proof of God’s love and God’s grace. His sacrifice does indeed justify, and it is sufficient to sustain all the rest. But it is also an example of love which demands a response. It is therefore the beginning. But the Incarnation of Christ and all that followed—His human growth, His public ministry, His teaching, His selection of the apostles; His establishment of the Church; certainly His sacrifice as both God and man; and (lest we forget) His ongoing life in the Church down through history: All of this is a proof of something deeper still.
God’s plan is far richer than we tend to think. It is infinity beyond infinity, this marvelous condescension of our God. He permits us to participate in love, to merit through love, to grow in love, and He accompanies us all through that growth: repenting our sins, offering our small sacrifices in union with Christ, repeatedly choosing life so that we and others might live. Here we have the astonishing proof that God wants our love, the love we have to give as men and women, priests and laity, Jew and Greek, slave and free, you and me.
Any account of the Gospel which misses this fails to walk the whole way with Christ. Our God and Father wants the messy, halting, embarrassing and even broken love of each unique human person—a love received from God, nurtured in us, and finally returned to Him. It is true that the love we share with God does come in a flash of grace, of course it does. But if it is really yours or really mine—if that is the love God so desires—then it also comes through a muddy slog of tears. In human terms, its name is joy.
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