Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Jesus Saves

Realizing that not everyone who sees this humble blog necessarily reads the award-winning Stand Firm, I'm taking the liberty of replicating part of an item that appeared there--an essay by one of their regulars, David Ould, on the prospects for fast-track canonization for the late Pope John Paul II--and my own response to it.

David Ould wrote (in part):
I don't know about you, but the idea that I should, somehow, have to contribute myself to my eternal status is a terrifying thought. Luther tried it and it drove him to despair. It is the common complaint of those who view the Christian life as one of constant work - no wonder Roman Catholics speak of guilt. And the notion of "saints" who have done more than the rest of us and so gain more love from God is thus appalling. We are all saints if we trust Christ and what He has done for us, not what He enables and empowers us to do for ourselves - as though there were something we could add to His majestic and finished work.

I commented:

I don’t particularly relish the thought of being the turd in the punchbowl here (to extend David Ould’s use of Luther’s metaphor), but I find this essay troubling on more than one level. I have neither the time nor the energy to take it on in detail, but I will quickly observe that it seems to be based on a caricature of Roman Catholic teaching drawn from de-contextualized popularizations. If the author had chosen to engage extended passages from The Catechism of the Catholic Church, his arguments might carry more heft. I will also point out my own contention that Catholics and Evangelicals are ultimately talking about the same thing when considering the mystery of our salvation, but use technical vocabulary (grace, faith, mercy, justification, sanctification, inter alia) in different ways, leading to great confusion and strife. In brief: Catholics approach salvation from the perspective of Sanctification (actual righteosness) and hence emphasize the necessity of cooperating with Grace, while Evangelicals approach salvation from the perspective of Justification (forensic righteousness, per Ould), and therefore emphasize the gratuitous character of God’s mercy. Both are, to use a cliche, correct in what they affirm and on shaky ground in what they deny. But in a less substantive but nonetheless important “process” vein, this piece makes me yearn for the days when this was all Anglicans had to fight about! It’s the classic High-Low, Catholic-Evangelical battle. I’m not making light of any of it; it covers some astonishingly disparate theological and spiritual territory. But we somehow (for the most part, the REC schism in 1872 being a notable exception in the U.S.) managed to maintain institutional unity. In this present darkness, Catholics and Evangelicals within Anglicanism see fit to make common cause against the “broad church” party run amok, and rightly so. But what David’s observations on JPII’s prospects for early canonization also demonstrate is that, should we weather this storm together, we will still have each other to keep life interesting.

A bit of autobiography is perhaps relevant: My original Christian formation was very much in the Evangelical tradition. I "accepted Christ as my personal savior" at the age of six, and talked about that as the moment when I was "saved." I was baptized, after a public confession of my own faith, when I was ten. I don't deny or disparage any of that. In fact, I believe more about those events now than I did then, not less. But in my early twenties, I embraced Catholic Christianity (via Anglicanism and, yes, the Episcopal Church), and an accompanying soteriology (the "theology of salvation") that I find much more satisfying and coherent than the one on which I was raised.

Forensic justification--imputed righteousness--is a wonderful gift of grace. I believe in it. In fact, I believe that every time I preside at the Eucharist and elevate the host and the chalice after the words of institution I am leading the congregation in "pleading Christ" before the Father: Look on us not as we are, but as we are becoming in your Son--placing the blessed Son of God between our sins and their reward.

But being justus isn't enough as long as I am simul peccator. My problem isn't so much that I sin today and need forgiveness; it's that I'm going to sin again tomorrow and the next day. I need to be made really righteous before I can say with full assurance that I am "saved." That's where the Catholic tradition, with its emphasis on Grace infused through the sacraments, with an ascetical praxis that is designed to produce concrete growth in holiness, is so much more helpful.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello, sorry, I'm kind of a random person that was pointed to your blog here. I'm finding it very edifying to read. I come from a more non-denomenational, evangelical background myself, so I don't have much of a Roman Catholic understanding of Christianity.

I just had a question... maybe it's more of a comment. I don't know. I've really cherished the "forensic justification" part of salvation myself just because I see so much danger in the other aspect. What does it mean to be "really righteous", you know? How really righteous do we need to be before we can say we are saved? How can a person know they are saved at all? I would love to know what you think. I do believe righteous fruit (good works... a changed life) should flow out of a serious belief and understanding of Christ's free and unmerited forgiveness of our sins. Maybe we're saying the same thing... maybe I'm missing something you're saying.