Thursday, February 26, 2009

Salvation and works

"Catholics believe you need works to be saved." I've heard this argument time and again from well-meaning friends and a few authors. The truth is that Catholicism does not believe this either, since as Paul said in Ephesians, "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast." (Eph. 2:8-9) All Christians agree that God's grace is what ultimately saves us, His free, undeserving grace. But, Paul also wrote that we are to "work out [our] salvation through fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). What it boils down to are two different perspectives on another principle: justification.

To most Protestants, justification is like a court trial. We, as sinners, stand before God and are deemed innocent because Christ's blood covers our sins. Luther described this as a snow-covered pile of dung, clean on the outside, but not on the inside. This view is prevalent in many Protestant denominations.

Catholics view justification more in terms of bathing or healing, like someone washing another or a doctor tending to a sick patient to make him healthier. With this, there is a transformation that takes place. Now, I know there are many Protestants who would agree with this, yet still use the court trial analogy.

Another analogy would the story of the leper found in the Gospels. In Mark, Jesus cleanses a leper (Mark 2:40-45). Here, Jesus does not merely call the man clean, he transforms and heals him, even touching him (in Jewish law, touching something unclean also made you unclean)! This shows that Jesus is the source of cleanliness and transformation, purely clean so that no thing can make him unclean. Psalm 51 illustrates this as well. Here, David prays to God to blot out his offenses (more legal) (v.1), cleanse him (intrinsic) (v.2), wash him to be like snow (intrinsic) (v.7), and blot out iniquities (legal) (v.9).

This is where works comes in. While we are initially cleansed and justified, Catholics see another step: progressive justification, or sanctification. While the quality of the initial justification is perfect, our quantity is relatively small. Here's a recent analogy I came upon:

Say you have a glass of 100% pure water. That represents our righteousness. Jesus' righteousness is like an ocean, vast and infinite, while ours is quite finite. Sanctification is like adding more water to our glass (or getting a larger glass of water), and this addition comes through our good works within God's grace and with the help of His grace. In other words, doing a good work for selfish or wrong motives is not a purely good work.

The opposite is also true. Not doing purely good works diminishes our righteousness. James said it well when he wrote, "Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (2:17). He then talks of Abraham and Rahab and how they were rewarded for their works (2:21-25), and concludes with this: "For just as a body without spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead" (2:26). A dead faith is no good to the Church or to God. It's like a runner just barely crossing the starting line of a race and stopping when there's a whole race to be run for God!

Ultimately, it all comes down to grace and our acceptance of it. We should be so grateful for God's grace that we want to do great things for Him, not take this most precious gift and keep on our mantle.

Monday, February 23, 2009

My reasons (preface part 2)

Now I know some might ask, "Why are you Catholic in the first place? What are your reasons?" Here is what I say (this is from an earlier "blog" via Facebook note):

Why am I Catholic? Because I firmly believe that we as Christians should be united together as one catholic (universal) body. Yes, we espouse this today, but many Protestant churches view themselves as their own entity and do not interact at all with other churches that are sometimes right across the street! In Catholicism, there is that unity. All parishes and churches are answerable to the hierarchy that has been established. There are many independent churches today, and it gives me pause because they are answerable to no one but themselves.

Why am I Catholic? Because I believe in the power of the Eucharist. Before converting, I had to stay back while others received the body and blood of Christ, and I longed and at times ached to join them. It was an exciting moment for me to finally be able to receive the sacrament in front of many friends and others who came to support me. Now I am able to join in this great gift.

Why am I Catholic? Catholicism is grounded in Scripture. During each mass, there are three readings: the first typically from the OT, the second from the Epistles, and the third from one of the four Gospels. Between the first and second readings, there is a psalm that is sung as well. It is amazing to hear the readings and the themes that run throughout them. It shows me that the Holy Sprit truly worked in the hearts and minds of not only the biblical authors, but also those who compiled both the OT and NT canons.

Why am I Catholic? Catholicism values those who have gone before us, i.e. the saints. Up until college, I had little clue who some of the great people in Christian history were, such as St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas. Catholicism calls us to imitate these men and women of faith who are like us in many ways. No matter your belief or faith, it’s hard to deny the working of Christ in their lives.
Asking for these men and women to pray for us is powerful as well. During the early years of the Church, believers would meet in the catacombs where their Christian brothers or sisters had been buried after they were martyred, believing their holiness still permeated the area. This is how the practice of praying to the saints and relics came about.

Why am I Catholic? Because I believe in the power of the sacraments. I have come to realize that Protestants also practice the same Catholic sacraments, though the means differ. Baptism and the Eucharist are the most similar, but the sacraments of Holy Orders and Marriage are practiced by Protestants through ordination and marriage done by a pastor.
Reconciliation/Confession is something that has become encouraged in Protestant denominations through small groups and accountability partners. With this sacrament, I find it much more meaningful to physically hear the priest through the Spirit forgive the sins I confess. James himself wrote, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other, so that you may be healed.” Knowing that I walk away with my sins forgiven is a wonderful feeling!
Anointing of the Sick is another sacrament practiced by Protestants. I know there have been many times when at the end of a service the pastor has asked for those who wished to be anointed and prayed for to come to the altar.
The Eucharist is especially powerful and meaningful to me. Each Mass, we as Catholics partake of Jesus' body and blood, our spiritual food! In this sense, we literally become temples of Christ and renew our covenant with him!

Why am I Catholic? It has a rich history. Catholicism has essentially been around since the 200s, at least in a form we recognize today, though it espouses that it’s the church since Christ ascended. Throughout that history, many heresies have been fought, councils have convened, and through all this our beliefs and traditions have been forged. The traditions Catholicism holds today have been handed down since the early Christians way before the 1500s and the Reformation. Luther himself believed what Catholicism believes and has believed; what he disagreed upon were not those beliefs, but instead certain practices that required reform, which the church did at the Council of Trent.


After being out of blogging for a while, I thought I'd start a new one up, though for entirely different reasons. The purpose of this blog is to answer questions that various people have asked of me about Catholicism. These questions have come up primarily because of my journey and recent conversion to the Church. It is my belief that many well-meaning Christians have a misconception of what the Church stands for and believes, and I seek to clear the cobwebs as it were.

My ultimate goal is to create a mutual respect between Catholics and Protestants. I am someone who grew up with these very same misconceptions and have hacked my way through that jungle to find the oasis inside. However, I fully admit that do not have all the answers; I am no scholarly theologian. However, there is a secondary goal to this. In seeking answers to the questions that have been posed and (hopefully) will be posed, I hope to gain an even greater appreciation for the Church and its founder, Jesus Christ.

What I do not explicitly seek with this is to convert people to Catholicism. Should my answers and my reflections drive people to pursue it themselves, then that's all the better. I am not here to force my beliefs on anyone, only explain them in the hopes we can respect each other or at the very least, agree to disagree.

Peace be with you all, and God bless.