Clearing the Heart to See the Truth

Grace and Works

In two previous posts, I expressed concerns I have about Catholics attending non-Catholic bible studies due to unbiblical assumptions that Catholics unwittingly incorporate into their thinking, making certain teachings from the Church difficult for them to swallow. On more than one occasion I have heard comments from Catholic adults say things like, ‘I just don’t buy the Mary thing;’ Or, ‘where is that teaching found in God’s Word;’ or ‘I don’t need to go to confession if I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior;’ etc. You can read the posts dealing with these faulty either/or suppositions on Mary here, and the Sacraments here. The point is, all of the teachings of the Catholic Church are found in God’s Word, because God’s Word is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14.) I am not at all opposed to ecumenical discussion and mutual study of the Sacred Scriptures. I am simply pointing out that, as Catholics, we need to be aware that often non-Catholic Christians assume either/or oppositions we don’t assume.stained glass

In this last post in the series, I wish to briefly discuss one last either/or assumption that deals with grace and human effort. The Protestant Reformers argued that grace is a free gift from God. No problem there. However, they further taught that human effort was opposed to the gratuitous nature of this gift. In other words, if you have to do something to receive grace, it is not free. For many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, this is the issue of the Reformation. When it comes to salvation, either God is doing everything, or He requires our help, which is where the works come in. If a believer must have faith and works, he must be adding to what God is dong. Paul clearly condemns this in various places, most notably Romans 3:28. Regardless of the proper interpretation of Romans, the Catholic Church teaches that we, indeed, are saved by faith, not works, otherwise we wouldn’t need a savior.

Then what about works: does the Catholic Church teach that our works add to the saving grace of God? Of course not. But our understanding of grace and works is very different to the protestant view. This is a crucial point! When the Church, in following the clear doctrines of scripture (see James 2:17-18, Gal 5:6; Rom 2: 2-8, Mt 7:21, just to name a few,) teaches that we must have grace and works, she is not saying that we must add to God’s power. This is impossible. What the Protestants fail to grasp is that in our works, we are participating in what God does, because He wills to share his power with us!  His grace now works through us; our works, therefore, are His. They are generated by Him, but they are in us, if we choose to respond. Even our response is prompted and carried forth by Him.

Let’s use a classroom analogy to express this. In a math class, we don’t assume that either the teacher knows everything about arithmetic, or the student must add to her knowledge. If a student offers a correct answer to a math question, he isn’t adding to her knowledge, but the teacher is allowing the student to participate in her knowledge without adding to it. In other words, the teacher imparts her knowledge in the student, who now shares in that knowledge.

Let us return to the life of Christ. When he wants to feed the five thousand, he uses what Peter and the 12 were able to collect—five fish and two barley loaves. What they contribute to the situation is ridiculously insufficient and incapable of achieving the goal. Even this meager contribution was provided for by God. Yet, Christ takes it and multiplies it by His grace, and feeds the multitude. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks the man with the withered hand to stretch out his crippled hand, a task he certainly could not perform, otherwise his hand wouldn’t be withered. Yet, the man puts forth effort, and in the very act of stretching out his hand, a task he knew he could not perform, he was healed (cf. Mark 3: 5). The same could be said for the crippled man who is told by the Lord to rise from his pallet and go home (Mt 9:6), Peter walking on water (Mt 14:29), and the Wedding feast at Cana where Jesus turns the stewards’ water into wine (Jn 2:8). In all of these cases, our Lord asks his followers for a response that by itself was futile in achieving the end for which He called it. Yet, in obeying His word, He gives His grace and achieves the desired effect.

As Catholics, we know that we are supposed to do many things: attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, pray, go to confession, root out sin by growing in virtue, study the faith, share the faith with others, etc. We do these things not because we think we are earning our grace or that we need to add to what God does, but because we want to obey Christ. Like the characters mentioned above, we are called to perform meager and futile deeds that in and of themselves are incapable of achieving sanctification. But when done out of obedience to Him, He graces these actions and it is His power that accomplishes the deeds and therefore transforms us. Thus, it is not so much about what we do, but what He does to us and through us.

 

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One Response to “Grace and Works”

  1. Jeff Job says:

    I recently realized another point in this grace (falsely) vs works.
    You repent of your sins and are forgiven they say. The assumption is sin is always something you DID that you shouldn’t have. But some sins are good things left undone such as worship, giving to the poor etc. So if you repent of not praying you by definition START praying. If you repent of not worshiping you START worshipping. In both cases you start acting or you haven’t repented at all. So how do you avoid works now?

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