Clearing the Heart to See the Truth

The Touch of Grace

Jesus healsIn my previous blog, I shared some concerns I have regarding Catholics who attend some non-Catholic bible studies. As I indicated, I often discover in their thinking assumptions that are un-biblical. I summarized these in a series of either/or assertions: either you go to Christ, or Mary and the saints; either you receive grace spiritually (not sensibly) or you don’t receive it at all; and grace is either a free gift, or you have to do something, which means that its not free. In this post, I wish to examine the second another either/or assumption that can be unknowingly be presupposed in the understanding of our relationship with Christ. I summarize it as follows: either grace is given spiritually, or it’s not given at all. If some Christian (here read Catholic) tells you that you must enact some ritual (i.e. the Mass, or some other Sacrament,) to receive grace instead of a pure profession in Christ, he is placing an obstacle between you and Christ.

At first glance, this certainly seems correct. God is pure spirit. His life and power come from His own eternal reality as pure spirit. Grace, the gift of His life and power to human creatures, is therefore a spiritual reality, and benefits us in our spirit. Therefore, grace must be received spiritually, or it’s not received at all.

If God had not become man in Christ, I would completely agree with this. However, the reality of the Incarnation reveals the mystery of God’s new relationship with creation: The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us! (Jn 1: 14.) This means that the pure, eternal Spirit–God– has now permanently and irrevocably wed Himself to His creation by taking it unto Himself as Jesus Christ, the God-man, and now acts through His material world. This explains the entire sacramental vision of Catholicism. And this is where the disagreement comes in.

If I am saved by faith alone, as Luther attested, then visible, tangible encounters with God are unnecessary.  The only thing that matters, according to this view point, is that we accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior. He will then impute His innocence on us in a purely spiritual exchange, and the process of salvation is complete.

Although I agree that our faith must be personal and must firmly accept Him so as to become His disciple, the problems lie in the lack of an appreciation of the reality and effects of the Incarnation. How does this faith come to me, since all Christians agree that we need a Savior? After all, if I could produce the faith on my own, without divine assistance, I wouldn’t need a savior. The answer is through the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. His physical reality now mediates Divine grace. Further, He, Himself, established His Church as His Mystical Body (see Colossians 1:18; 1 Cor 12: 13-ff; Eph 5: 29-30, to name a few,) through which to continue to offer His living and active grace today.

I recently had a conversation with someone who told me that she grew up Catholic, but wanted a personal relationship with Jesus and so was attending an Evangelical worship service and bible study with a friend. Although I was glad that she approached me after one of the classes I was teaching (which told me that she hadn’t shut the door on the Catholic faith completely,) I also realized that I would have my work cut out for me. I know that the most personal relationship someone can have with Jesus is in a devout reception of Him in Holy Communion. I personally stay a few minutes after Mass in silent prayer precisely because I desire the same thing. Thus, when I hear of a Catholic leaving the Church because they desire this personal relationship with Jesus, I heartily applaud their desire, but recognize the tragedy of their lack of understanding the Catholic faith. During our conversation, it was clear that she viewed the Sacraments as empty rituals, akin to the rituals imposed by the Pharisees. Since Jesus condemned this form of religiosity (cf. Mt 15:6; 23: 13-36), by extension, He condemns Catholicism, at least in her mind.

I explained to her that in each and every miracle in the Gospels followed a particular pattern: the sick sinner is drawn to Jesus by an initial attraction. Jesus turns to them out of mercy and encounters them through their senses (touching, speaking, seeing, tasting, etc.); He then tells them, ‘Go, your faith has saved you.’ In each case, they have some semblance of faith, which is why they are drawn to Him. But it is imperfect and immature, which is why they still need to be healed. In each case, that which strengthens their faith and heals them is grace, no doubt, but a grace which comes through their sensible encounter with Christ! The sinner may have an initial and immature form of faith that attracts them to Jesus, but it is through a tangible and sensible meeting with Christ, coupled with their trust, that heals them. Grace is now incarnate in the Divine Person of Jesus Christ. To assume that somehow sensible instruments get in the way of grace fails to appreciate the fact of the Incarnation and the ways that Jesus now offers us His saving power.

This in no way implies that man is the author, origin, or source of God’s grace; only that God uses sensible means to distribute it. This is how we as human beings come to receive any immaterial good necessary for our growth: love, truth, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, beauty, goodness, etc. all come to us through our senses. We have no direct encounter with any of these, only through a sensible relationship. So, too, salvific grace. It comes to us through our senses. This is why the inspired writers wrote to us in the first place; that we might hear (or read) and believe! “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard is the preaching of Christ.” (Rom 10:17.) “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you…that you may have fellowship with us.” (1 Jn 1: 1-3.) These spiritual writers take great pains to explain to us how faith comes to us, that we may believe. “…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Phil 3:10.) Our encounter with God in Jesus is thus a tangible, sensible, incarnate meeting.

This is why Christ instituted the Sacraments, so as to continue His tangible and active encounter with us today. This is why He commanded His followers that we baptize, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 28:19.) “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?…that we too might walk in newness of  life?” (Rom 6:3-4.) Our baptism incorporates into the incarnate reality of Jesus Christ, to receive His Spirit so that our flesh may be born again from water and this self-same Spirit (cf. Jn 3: 5.) Further, in order to complete the full reception of this Incarnate Grace-Offering Savior, He offers us the Eucharist. Not only does He gives us His own flesh to eat and blood to drink, but commands the apostles to do this in memory of Him.”Take and eat.” (Mt 26: 26.) “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk 22:19-20.) “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” (Jn 6:53-54.) In fact, this is the point of establishing every Sacrament directly, that Jesus might continue to come to us and heal us and save us today! Therefore, grace, a spiritual reality, is now also a tangible/sacramental reality. It is both/and, not either or.

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  1. Grace and Works | Prayer and Perspective - […] read the posts dealing with these faulty either/or suppositions on Mary here, and the Sacraments here. The point is,…

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