Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Roman Catholic Bank Account

A few months ago I was listening to a homily during a Roman Catholic Mass. For the uninitiated "homily" is the name that Roman Catholics use to refer to a sermon. The priest was explaining an analogy he heard as a child that was used to help explain theology. The person who told him this analogy said that salvation is like a bank account. When God gives us saving grace, he makes an initial deposit into that account. Throughout the rest of our lives we either make deposits or withdrawals from that bank account based upon what we do with our lives. Venial sins are only small withdrawals. Mortal sins close the account completely leaving a zero balance. If we have a sufficient balance when we die then we get to go to Heaven. If not, we go to Hell.

If you were to peruse the Internet for Protestants talking about Roman Catholicism you would probably come across many similar analogies describing Catholic theology. Most Protestants describe Catholicism as "faith plus works." For them, this priest's analogy sums up Catholic theology very well. So the next words out of this priest's mouth may shock them. After describing this analogy he said, "That is bad theology."

That's right, this priest denied the "faith plus works" analogy. Some of you may react to this by saying, "This priest obviously was not preaching true Catholic theology. If he was, he would have embraced that analogy." But this is partially why I encourage people to learn about a position from someone advocating it, not just by listening to what its opponents have to say.

Imagine how frustrated you get when someone says that Protestants believe that once you accept Jesus as your savior, you are free to sin to your heart's content. You can live as indulgent of a lifestyle as you choose with no eternal repercussions, so go ahead and sin!

True, there are some people in this world who think like that, but they are not really saved. The vast majority of Protestant theologians would tell you that if you have truly accepted Christ then the Holy Spirit begins to change who you are. None of us will be perfect, but we are free FROM sin not free TO sin. Anyone who has the attitude that they are free to go on sinning is essentially spitting in Christ's face, defying His will for their life, and is not truly saved.

Imagine how you feel when people continuously repeat that Protestants believe you are free to sin as much as you want and therefore Protestantism is a morally repugnant theology. You probably want to scream, "That is just not true!" It is a straw man argument where someone makes up a caricature of their opponent's position that is not true then proceeds to tear apart this false version of the position, all the while telling people that the caricature is the opponent's true position. It can be extremely frustrating.

If you can identify with that, perhaps you can begin to understand how Roman Catholics feel when Protestants constantly describe their beliefs as "faith plus works." That may be what Catholicism looks like through a pair of Protestant glasses, but it is not how any Catholic theologian would describe their faith.

Before I go any further, let me be clear that I am not Catholic. I disagree with much of their theology. I believe their elevation of Tradition to the same level of authority as scripture is extremely dangerous. Papal infallibility is directly contradictory to Romans 3:10-18. The Immaculate Conception of Mary contradicts Luke 1:47 in which Mary says that she needs a savior. The perpetual virginity of Mary requires a real stretch in your interpretation of the many passages about Jesus' brothers and sisters and requires us to virtually ignore the word "until" in Matthew 1:25 (i.e., Joseph did not have union with Mary "until" Jesus was born). The doctrine of transubstantiation ignores Jesus referring to the wine as the "fruit of the vine" even AFTER he has referred to it as His blood. Finally, asking the saints to pray for us goes against God's command not to "consult the dead on behalf of the living" (Isaiah 8:19). These are only a few examples of my many differences with Catholic theology.

I am not Catholic and I sincerely doubt that anyone will ever convince me to become one. That being said, I disagree with many Protestant theologies as well. I remain unconvinced that R.C. Sproul's strict Calvinism can adequately explain the compatibility of a loving God and all the suffering in the world. I believe that the Episcopal structure of church government finds its origin in a power structure that began in the second century with Ignatius and was not the way the first century church was organized. I do not accept the Pentecostal view that speaking in tongues is the first gift of the Holy Spirit.

But I also do not believe that these differences of opinion should separate us. Salvation is the free gift of God. That is what grace is all about. We do not earn our salvation. God gives it to us. I believe this to be true. R.C. Sproul believes this to be true. Episcopals believe this to be true. Pentecostals believe this to be true. And believe it or not, Roman Catholics believe this to be true. If you accept salvation as God's free and undeserved gift, you are saved. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). If you believe this, you are saved. I believe that Roman Catholics believe this scripture to be true.

The misunderstanding lies in the phrase "not by works." Protestants look at all the rituals Catholics follow (such as Reconciliation, the Eucharist, etc.), hear Catholics say that these sacraments are means to receive God's grace and conclude that the Catholic believes that they must perform certain deeds in order to be saved. However, this is looking at Catholic theology through a Protestant lens. We use our Protestant understanding of "grace" and insert it into the Catholic teaching. Low and behold we conclude that the Catholic believes in (at least partially) salvation based upon works.

But we are saved by what is in our heart. If an individual's heart contains true faith then that individual is saved. But if this is true, shouldn't we ask what is in the Catholic's heart before we decide whether or not he or she is saved? This requires us to ask sincerely what THEY believe, not what we think they believe. This requires listening. Listen to what Catholics say they believe. Don't assume you know based upon your own interpretation of Catholic teachings.

Please allow me to illustrate. When Protestants hear that Catholics think they receive God's grace by participating in reconciliation, we hear, "By confessing their sins to a priest, Catholics believe that God grants them salvation." But this is not true.

Catholics believe in two different types of grace: saving grace and sanctifying grace. Again, I do not agree that scripture teaches this two tiered system of grace, but the purpose of our analysis is only to determine if Catholics believe that salvation is by God's free gift, however they believe the particulars work out.

When a person comes to accept that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, God grants that person saving grace. This is a one-time transaction. When this grace is given, the individual's sins are forgiven. The later sacraments do not grant saving grace. God freely gives saving grace to a person only once.

However, Catholics also believe in something called "sanctifying grace." Imagine if you wanted to live on Mars. You do not have the physical capabilities to do so. You would have to undergo a number of physiological changes in order to make this possible. Similarly, even after receiving saving grace humans lack the spiritual capability to exist in heaven. We need to undergo a number of spiritual changes in order to make this possible. The debt owed from our sins is no longer an obstacle to our entrance into heaven, but our lack of spiritual capability is. After we receive saving grace, God makes these spiritual changes in us through the free gift of sanctifying grace.

God grants sanctifying grace via the sacraments. Through this process we become more and more like Christ. This is very similar to the Protestant concept of sanctification. However, Catholics do not believe that you MUST participate in these sacraments in order to receive sanctifying grace. God does grant sanctifying grace through these sacraments, but sanctifying grace is God's free gift to grant to whomever He chooses however He chooses. This is what has led the Catholic Church in recent years to acknowledge that it is possible for those outside the Catholic Church to go to Heaven.

So whereas Protestants speak of salvation and sanctification, Catholics would speak of saving grace and sanctifying grace. The concepts, while not identical, are actually far more similar than most Protestants understand.

According to Catholic theology, people do not "earn" sanctifying grace. If a Protestant is feeling overwhelmed by the temptations of the world we pray for God's sanctification. We may find it in any number of places: a Bible passage, a prayer group, a particular sermon, etc. There is no end to the things that God may use to strengthen us. If a Catholic is feeling overwhelmed by the temptations of the world they partake of the sacraments. They believe that God sanctifies them through those activities. But this no more means that they are "working" for their salvation than a Protestant is earning his or her salvation by asking God to give them strength to be a true disciple of Christ.

While it is true that Catholics believe you can lose your salvation, so do many Protestants (Methodists, for example). What Catholics or Methodists call "losing your salvation" Presbyterians or most Baptists would say is someone who was never truly saved to begin with.

Personally, I find this to be a matter of perspective. I believe in the perseverance of the saints. This is because God is timeless. He created time and therefore exists outside of time (hence the Bible's description of God as "eternal"). It is nonsensical to say, from God's perspective, that someone "lost" his or her salvation. The events of 200 years ago are just as present to God as the events of 200 years into the future. God does not exist linearly, one day after another as we do. He exists simultaneously in all times. Therefore, God saves people in His ever-present "now." He does not wait to see if you maintain your faith because He does not "wait" for anything.

Catholics and Methodists think of God in linear terms. Their theology assumes that God exists in the same linear sense as we do, but this is a false assumption. In order to accommodate free will they believe we must be free to reject God. But if we exist within time and God exists outside of time, we are free to exercise our freedom within time while God is freely sovereign outside of it. There is no past, present or future to God. There is only His ever present "now."

However, while I believe this is an incorrect theology, I do not believe this difference of opinion disqualifies anyone from salvation. The key question for salvation according to Ephesians 2:8-9 is whether you trust God alone for your salvation and not your own strength. Despite the plethora of misconceptions that exist among Protestants about Roman Catholic theology, I believe (based upon Roman Catholic sources) that modern Catholics do trust solely in Jesus Christ for their salvation.

That being said, I think there are some dangerous things about Catholic theology. Your average person in the pew is not going to open up a theology textbook, and the structure of the Catholic system is ripe for misinterpretation. The average Catholic parishoner who hears that he or she should confess their sins to a priest may assume that this is something they must "do" in order to achieve salvation. Therefore, while I believe the official teaching of the Catholic Church is adequate to be classified as "Christian," it would not surprise me in the least if there are many parishoners who are trusting in their own strength. And as I said before, I do not believe that the Bible supports the notion that God grants sanctifying grace through the Catholic sacraments.

However, I believe it is a mistake for Protestants to exclude Roman Catholics from the broad pantheon of Christianity. I know that this will not make me particularly popular among my conservative Christian brethren. I can only encourage you to investigate Catholic Theology for yourselves using Catholic sources. I recommend "Theology for Beginners" by F.J. Sheed.

The average Protestant website will tell you that Catholics believe that faith in Christ is only the first step toward salvation. Beyond that, Catholics must earn their way into Heaven by their deeds. A careful examination of Catholic theology, however, shows that this is not true. It is perfectly understandable that the average Catholic grows increasingly frustrated by the Protestant apologist repeatedly caricaturizing their position as "faith plus works." They can only scream, "That is not true!" so many times before they throw up their hands in exasperation.

After the homily, I spoke to the priest who rejected the bank account analogy. I praised him for explaining Roman Catholic theology far better than most. I wished some of my fellow Protestants could have been sitting in the pews. Many misconceptions could have been cleared up. The priest said he believed that if the Catholic Church had sat down and talked to Martin Luther instead of demonizing him we might not be separated today. I don't know if he is right or not, but clearly the schism was handled poorly. Raw emotions run deep and I believe they may still be dividing us today. Many Protestants and Catholics do not want to admit that we may be part of the same body of Christ. This leads to them setting up straw man versions of each other's positions, probably genuinely believing the straw men to be true. But if we are ever to overcome these differences we must listen to each other.

I do not agree with Catholics, but I sympathize with them and I believe they are brothers and sisters in Christ. I will continue to discuss with any Catholic why I believe many of their practices are mistaken, but I fully expect to see them in the next life (without having to wait through purgatory).

God bless you all.


David said...

My dear brother: Thank you for a kind word for us Catholics. I was an Evangelical for many years and recently converted to Catholicism. I disagree with your take on a few matters,i.e. Tradition, Mary, Sacramental Theology, but I love your heart, and I have great love and respect for Protestants. We have much more in common than many suspect, particularly if we look at the views of the early reformers; (Even Luther believed in a type of transubstaniation and stated that all the Church Fathers did as well, which is true.) At any rate, thank you for your kindness, and love...may we all pray for one another till we look upon His face. God Bless you, David W.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Thank you David. When I first started exploring these issues on a deeper level I was amazed to learn, for example, how much the Reformed concept of salvation vs. sanctification had in common with the Catholic concept of saving vs. sanctifying grace. And you are absolutely correct about Luther's view on the Eucharist. While I don't think he quite embraced the full modern notion of transubstantion, his views really weren't that far off (nor are the views of many Lutherans today).

Actually, one of my biggest regrets about the Christian Church today is that we allow ourselves to be separated at the communion table. Don't get me wrong. I understand why people do it (I can see why if you believe the elements to be the substance of the body and blood of Christ, it would be offensive for someone to consume them who does not share that belief). I just find it unfortunate that the sacrament that was most intended for us to commune together as one body actually serves to separate us. I think people would have a better time viewing others as fellow Christians if we could sit down at the same table together and share Christ's supper despite our theological differences of opinion.