Justification and the Non-Competitive God

I had the privilege this past week of appearing as a guest on the radio program Theology on Air. It is hosted by a Lutheran pastor and aimed mostly at young Protestants, so while the purpose of my visit was theoretically to talk about comic books, many of the questions posed to me were about differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. This inevitably included discussion of the doctrine of justification and whether or not Catholics believe that what we receive through Christ is sufficient for our salvation or needs a little help from us.

I find these kinds of conversations tricky, not because I lack for things to say but because I want to avoid the danger of re-litigating the sixteenth century. I do not believe it does us much good to get stuck there, either defending or excoriating bits of history that are never going to change no matter who wins the debate. Nevertheless, there is spiritual fruit that can be harvested from an honest conversation on this topic, if we can stay in the mode of theology rather than apologetics, that is to say if we can stay in a mode of prayer, since theology is impossible where prayer is absent.

So, cards on the table: I receive, believe, and teach, to the best of my ability, what the Catholic Church teaches, which means that I do not believe in justification by faith alone. Truth be told, I was only ever a Johnny-Come-Lately to that particular doctrine anyway. By the time I graduated seminary, I was a full-throated Anglo-Catholic, albeit with an Eastward orientation to my spirituality. My understanding of salvation then as now was largely through the lens of theosis, beautifully summarized by the words of St. Athanasius: “God became man so that men might become gods.” We are saved by being united with God and thereby participating in the divine life of the Trinity.

It is not impossible to draw together some version of justification by faith alone with theosis. The Finnish theologian Tuomo Mannermaa, for instance, did some interesting work creating a bridge between Luther’s work and that of the Eastern Fathers. But most renderings of justification by faith alone require letting go of something that is crucial to Catholic doctrine, the idea that we participate in our own salvation. 

There is no part of what Jesus does for us on the cross that we can take credit for. Even the choice we make to cooperate with the grace of God is a choice that, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, is entirely contingent upon God’s graceful action. Yet, that choice is a real choice, and the change that takes place within us is a real change. God does not just decide to treat us as if we were holy but leave us internally rotten. He actually transforms us through union with Christ, rendered possible through the cross and made manifest in the Sacraments. My Lutheran friends like to say, “Sanctification is just getting used to your justification.” Perhaps in a way they are right, but the means by which that unfolds is real transformation, not merely a surface-level realization that we have been passively accepted.

All of that said, I think that what is spelled out in the Joint Declaration on Justification made by Lutherans and Catholics in 1999 is helpful in dispelling common myths about where Catholics and Protestants differ on this topic. We tend towards different emphases, which leads us to different pastoral practices. There is a good deal that Catholics can learn from Protestant theology on this topic, particularly from Lutheran theology. There is an absolute emphasis on the cross there that is refreshing in an age when so many churches want to hide the harsh reality of the cross from view. Another of the things my Lutheran friends like to say: “If Jesus didn’t die in your sermon, you didn’t preach the Gospel.” That one requires nuance as well, but it is nevertheless a helpful tool that I still use to evaluate my preaching.

Perhaps most helpful is the Protestant insistence on the gift of justification. Catholic doctrine is clear that our salvation is something we can only receive freely from God and could never earn, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Yet we do not always stress this enough. We can give off the impression that salvation is a joint venture in which we are equal partners with God. In the formation of Catholics, we do not always emphasize as we should that the Gospel is not something we are required to do for God (or for others) but something that God has done for us in Christ.

Having said that, one of the most beautiful parts of Catholic teaching is the fact that God is presented not as a competitor with humanity but as the one who makes humanity authentically human. It has often felt to me, when listening to the way some Protestants describe justification, that they see it as an either/or situation in which either God acts or we do. We must never work for our own salvation because if we do, that must mean we are taking up the space that rightfully belongs to God. For Catholics, especially if we accept a thomistic view of the nature of God as being itself, the concept that our work could be in competition with God’s work does not make sense. Fr. Nicanor Austriaco explains why:

Consider an author writing a note with a pen. Who wrote the note? Yes, the author wrote the note, but in a very real sense, the pen “wrote” it too. Both the author and the pen were needed to write the note. In the language of philosophy, the author is the principal cause of the note, while the pen is the instrumental cause. Both are real causes that explain the existence of the note.

Fr. Nicanor is using this analogy in order to explain the way God acts in creation, but it works just as well for the way God acts in our salvation. We are justified by the work of Christ on the cross which is applied to us in the Sacraments. We may or may not have chosen to be baptized, but when we go to Confession, we are certainly choosing to receive this grace from Jesus. In that sense, we are active participants, as is the priest who absolves us. When we go to Mass, we become active players in our own salvation too, though we add nothing to the work of Jesus made manifest in the Sacrament. When we pray for others, we participate in their salvation, as do the saints when they pray for us. When we do good works, we grow in holiness as our love increases. None of this makes us competitors with God any more than the pen is in competition with the author.

We are not pens, of course. We have the capacity to say no to the gift of God’s grace. Yet when we say yes, it is not so that we may put on a show for God but so that He may truly be at work in us, changing us from the inside out into what we were always meant to be, prisms that reflect His light. In His generosity and love, God seeks to bring about real transformation in us by allowing us to take part in the mystery of salvation. That is part of the Good News too, not just that we are sinners who have been rescued, but that we are sons and daughters who are being prepared by a life of holiness for that day when the light will shine through us unimpeded.

You cannot build a better life


At no time of year is there a greater divergence between what is happening inside and outside of the Church than at Advent. Outside, it’s red and green with jingle bells and Christmas lights. Inside, we are draped in penitent purple. Outside, every radio station has gone full tilt into the Fa la las. Inside, we are singing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel if you are lucky (and a bunch of dreary hymns you have never heard of before if you are not). Everything happening outside is about getting ready for twenty minutes of fun opening over-priced packages on Christmas morning, while inside we are preparing for the end of the world.

Love or hate the sixteenth century reformer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, it is hard to deny that the man could turn a phrase. Whether weaving together bits of ancient liturgies or composing his own prayers, Cranmer’s skill at crafting liturgical English remains unparalleled. His Advent collects are a prime example, especially the first one which the Book of Common Prayer required to be prayed not only on the first Sunday in Advent but also on all the subsequent Sundays as a second collect. Today this prayer is offered not only in Anglican churches but in all the parishes and communities of the Catholic Ordinariates as well:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

It is a stark, direct prayer that draws a line between whatever is happening out there and what most needs to happen inside of us. The real preparation that needs to take place this time of year has nothing to do with trimming the tree, organizing dinner and travel plans, or ordering a whole bunch of knick knacks online. Christmas, as great as it is, is almost an afterthought. The real action comes not in remembering the Lord’s first coming but in being ready for His second coming. At any moment, Jesus will return, and the world will be flipped upside down when He does. All that’s wrong will be set right. Good will be blessed and evil will be expelled. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s true. He is coming. It is immanent. We need to be ready.

This attitude sharply contrasts with the dominant motif of our age: the soundbyte, the snap, the tik tok, the life lived in bite size bits, the only purpose of which is to make us happy for as long as we can distract ourselves from the silence of death. Despite the best efforts of materialist atheism, we do still believe in the transcendent, but we no longer believe that it comes to us from the outside, through the actions of a Divine Other who enters the world by choice to pull us out of the mire. Now we think that all transcendence bubbles up from within ourselves, producing an awe at the majesty of our own capacity to make meaning. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion from the landmark 1992 Supreme Court case Casey vs. Planned Parenthood. He could not have realized how prescient he was being, considering the smorgasbord of options now available for us to express our personal, inner truth. We mesh our preferences together into a pastiche of ourselves that we then present to the world for validation through social media. Somewhere in the midst of the memes and the re-tweets, we assume a deeper sense of meaning will emerge.

Meanwhile, modern Christianity has bought into a different kind of navel-gazing transcendence, pointing us outward but only as a means of escape. This tends to take one of two forms. The kind that gets labeled “Fundamentalist”–regardless of whether it meets the historical definition of fundamentalism or not– which awaits a fictitious event called “the Rapture” in which true believers will get taken up out of this mean, old world before any of the real effects of the damage we have done to it can touch us. There are lesser forms of this ideology, but it all pivots upon the same false premise, that we can avoid facing ourselves.

The second form this takes in modern Christianity is that of the social transformation warrior. Not social justice, which is a venerable concept and one that has roots in the Bible and Catholic teaching, but social transformation, in which we pin our hopes on our ability to remake the world in our own righteous image. It is neither a liberal nor conservative thing, but rather takes on whatever cause seems closest to the aims of our particular political tribe. Social transformation theology also allows us to avoid looking squarely at our own sin, brokenness, and weakness, keeping out attention always on the Utopian dream of the perfect Christian society which the other kind of Christians do not want us to achieve.

Cranmer’s collect lets the air out of all of these falsehoods. As we pray it, we are forced to accept at face value that Jesus will return and that we must be ready. There is a judgment coming. There is a great renewal that will take place. Good will defeat evil. It is not theoretical. It is a known fact. Jesus will be returning to reclaim the world. The only question is whether or not we will be aligned with good or saturated with evil when He arrives.

Advent is good news, but it is good news that befuddles the secularist and the modern Christian alike. It means letting go of the notion that we can build better lives for ourselves. Transcendence will not come from some unexplored corner of our inner selves, nor will it be built out of the raw material of the world. The transcendence we seek comes only from union with Jesus, offered by Him in mercy and forgiveness when we repent of our sins and seek the good that flows from His Sacred Heart. It is good news that we will be judged because the judgement of Jesus is like a fire that lights up our hearts even as it burns away the idols to which we attach ourselves. Advent is the sure hope that the current state of this world and the current state of our lives is not final. We are preparing for something greater.

This post is part of a series on English Catholic Spirituality. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To see all the posts in this series, click here.

English Catholic Spirituality: An Introduction

They say sometimes that you can win a battle but lose the war. It is also possible for you to win the war but lose history. Just ask Oliver Cromwell.

During the period after Cromwell’s great victory in the seventeenth century English Civil War, the English nation was transformed in myriad ways, none more visceral than in religion. The Book of Common Prayer was banished as a relic of the “papistry” it was meant to replace. For a time, other written prayers were allowed, yet even they were eventually deemed too close to papism for comfort. Eventually, ministers were instructed that they could only conduct worship with good, wholesome, biblical prayers that they offered extemporaneously. And so, many clergymen who had dutifully prayed the Office from the Book of Common Prayer all their lives started to lead their congregations through whole sections of Morning and Evening Prayer “off the top of their heads.”

English Catholic spirituality has a long history and a deep well to draw from. It cannot easily be dispensed with or ignored.

Of course, having said that, it is important to note that the clergymen I just referenced were not Catholic. We might call them Anglican, though they themselves would not have known that word. They might have been willing to refer to themselves as “Reformed Catholic,” though that term was more in vogue after the Restoration than before. They certainly would have called themselves Christians and ministers of the Church of England (perhaps even priests, though they would have understood this distinction in a way that would differ from how generations of later Anglo-Catholics would see it). Oddly enough, one moniker they would have been comfortable with is one that I always found deeply uncomfortable when I was an Anglican: Protestant.

Regardless of what they called themselves, though, they would have rejected strongly any insinuation that they were in any way associated with the unreformed Church of Rome. Yet the move they made to retain and conserve their history and theology through the memorizing of liturgical prayers is a deeply Catholic move. The Puritans who objected to the Book of Common Prayer on the grounds that it was too Catholic were not entirely wrong.

As an Ordinariate Catholic, I am blessed to worship each day with some of those same words that those men memorized, words that have been cherished by generations of Anglicans, but I get to do so from within the heart of the Catholic Church, influenced by and interacting with centuries of the great traditions of both the Latin West and the Byzantine East. In the Ordinariates, we have been entrusted with an “Anglican patrimony” for the purposes not only of preserving it but sharing it, as both Anglicanorum Coetibus and its accompanying complementary norms make clear.

Yet there remain legitimate and interesting theological questions about what that patrimony consists of and what that means for the larger Church. Certainly the patrimony includes the celebration of the Mass according to Divine Worship The Missal. But is it more than that? The Anglican tradition has a different pastoral approach than exists in much of the Catholic Church today. How does that fit into the patrimony? There is also a long tradition of ascetical theology in Anglicanism. Much of it is compatible with the faith articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or can easily be adapted. Does this too now have a home in the Catholic Church?

This series that I begin today, “English Catholic Spirituality,” will be an effort to explore some of these questions, but it will not answer them definitively. Anglicanorum Coetibus is barely ten years old, and the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in which I serve is a mere seven. In the history of the Church, that is barely a blip. It will likely take many years to work all of these questions out. My goal is much more modest. I want to participate in an ongoing theological conversation. I want to think out loud and to invite others to participate.

A Word About Nomenclature

The title “English Catholic Spirituality” may raise questions for some people. I am choosing not to use the term Anglican. In referring instead to English spirituality, I am invoking in part that classic work by the Anglican theologian Martin Thornton who also chose not to use the word Anglican in his title because he saw the ascetical tradition he was describing as much bigger than that. It would be confusing and unfair to actual Anglicans for me to try to repurpose their name. My hope though is that Anglicans–particularly those of a Catholic mindset–will see in what I am doing something that resonates with their own experience.

I have added, of course, to Thornton’s title the term Catholic. This word can be its own sticky wicket. Undoubtedly, some Anglicans will protest that I should only use this word if I intend to add the word Roman as well, but this is unreasonable. I am overjoyed to be able to call myself a Roman Catholic, but there are twenty-four churches in full communion with the Holy Father who have every right to call themselves Catholic and only one of them is Roman. I use the word Catholic in the same way that Anglicanorum Coetibus does, with reference back to the documents of Vatican II, particularly Lumen Gentium:

The communion of the baptized in the teaching of the Apostles and in the breaking of the eucharistic bread is visibly manifested in the bonds of the profession of the faith in its entirety, of the celebration of all of the sacraments instituted by Christ, and of the governance of the College of Bishops united with its head, the Roman Pontiff.

This single Church of Christ, which we profess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic “subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside her visible confines. Since these are gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.”

I describe as Catholic those things which are substantiated in the faith and sacramental life found in those churches that are in communion with the Holy See, but this does not exclude the possibility that there are elements of a true, good, and holy catholicity found in other ecclesial settings. Indeed, the entire concept of the Ordinariates would be impossible if this were not so.

A Few Caveats

This series needs to be understood for what it is not as much as for what it is:

This is not official

I am in no way speaking for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, nor do my opinions carry any weight beyond just being my opinions. Moreover, I claim no great expertise. I am a priest who lives and breathes this stuff and who has done a lot of reading over the years, but that is the extent of my qualifications.

This is a blog, not a textbook

Nothing here is peer reviewed. I will not be offering footnotes. I do think that there are books to be written on this subject, but that is not what I am doing here. The purpose is to engage and get conversation going. Do not treat any of this like it’s gospel. And like any good, thinking person should, I reserve the right to change my mind.

This is not apologetics

There is an important place for apologetics and for debating the unique claims of the Catholic Church over and against that of other groups, but this is not it. I realize there are some folks who live to pick fights on the internet. That is not what I am trying to do here. Which is not to say that I do not welcome challenge. In fact, I would be happy if this sparks some good-natured, spirited debates. But the second it devolves into “my guys are better than your guys,” I am going to shut it down. If that is what you are looking for, I suggest going to one of the thousands of other spots on the web that are specifically designed for such exchanges.

All of that being said, I am looking forward to where this new series will go. If there are specific things you hope I might tackle, please let me know.

Why I am becoming Catholic

This August, I will be entering into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It is the culmination of many years of God working on my heart and at least two years of intense prayer and discernment.

I confess that this is how it feels for me right now: Beautiful but scary, a giant leap into the unknown, and in many ways very sad. I have spent my entire adult life in The Episcopal Church. It is in The Episcopal Church that I first came to believe in Jesus. The Episcopal Church is where I married my bride and baptized my children. I learned much of what I know about the Catholic faith from wonderful Anglo-Catholic friends and mentors, not to mention from the lives of great Anglican saints. Heck, I spent five years blogging about how totally awesome Anglicanism is. It is not easy for me to leave all that behind, especially when I know that there will be many people who will be disappointed by what I am doing.

About a year ago, I spoke with a friend and fellow Episcopal priest about the fact that I was considering becoming Catholic. In response, he asked me, “What’s the fatal flaw in Anglicanism then?” I was surprised by the question because that is not what this is about for me. I am not becoming Catholic because I want to reject Anglicanism. This is not about escaping the turbulence of life in the modern Episcopal Church or about some piece of doctrine or practice that got stuck in my craw. For me, this is about only one thing: Following the Lord Jesus Christ to where it is He is leading me.

When I first heard God calling me to the Catholic Church, it was during a period of fervent prayer. I was aware that there was something spiritually lacking in my life, but I could not put my finger on exactly what it was. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, God revealed to my heart that I needed to be Catholic. And I objected rather strenuously, “But I’m already Catholic!” The Lord did not argue with me. He did not lay out a five or ten point plan to try to convince me of the error of my ways. He just quietly, insistently, repeated Himself. The more I struggled against this calling, the more calmly and consistently the Lord repeated it.

In the months that followed, I began to explore the Catholic Church in new ways. I already knew the work of many Catholic theologians, of course, but now I broadened my search to try to understand what it means not just to think Catholic thoughts but to live a Catholic life. Many of you are aware that I was baptized Catholic and spent a good portion of my childhood in the Catholic Church, but it was under a somewhat strange set of circumstances, in a place that did not stress Catholic identity, and so I never really understood what being Catholic really meant. It was only after I became an Episcopalian that I discovered things like sacramental theology, liturgy, Catholic spirituality, and the lives of the saints. I figured that these things were the common heritage of all Christians (as indeed they are, at least in a sense). But now, as I looked at the Church again as if for the first time, I realized what I had missed before. My wife and I watched Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series, which shows in a lovely way not only the depth and history of Catholicism, but also the rich cultural landscape of how the faith is practiced all over the world. The breadth of the Catholic Church–from Africa to Calcutta, from medieval European cathedrals to the beautiful stone chapels of the new world, from the priest at the altar to the beggar at the mission door–is simply breathtaking. One night, after watching one of those videos, I turned to my wife and said, “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life in a pond and only just now realized that there is an ocean.”

It is hard to explain, but there is a difference between reading St. Thomas Aquinas and being in communion with St. Thomas Aquinas. There is a difference between knowing that a common Baptism unites us as brothers and sisters in Christ and actually seeing the footprint of that in history. There is a difference between loving the tradition of the Church, even trying very hard to apply that tradition to new circumstances, and recognizing my place as just one sailor on a sea of tradition that I cannot control but that will always carry me home.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Naturally, there were doctrinal and practical issues that I needed to work out before I could enter into the Church, though not as many of the former as I might have suspected. Perhaps some time in the future I will talk more about these. Or perhaps not. For the moment, all I can do is approach the cross with wonder and wait upon the word of the Lord.

One thing that struck me pretty heavily in the last two years of discernment is how much more ecumenical my thinking has become. As I have come to accept God’s calling for me to come into the full communion of the Catholic Church, I have become far less defensive of my own theological turf. As an Anglican, I have always felt that I needed to justify Anglicanism’s continued existence, which sometimes led me to feel the need to bash others. But as I prepare to become a Catholic, I don’t feel that same need. The Catholic Church does just fine without me. She doesn’t need me to make the case for why she should exist. I can relax and embrace the fact that Baptists and Methodists and others are my brothers and sisters through Baptism and the cross. It is not my job to figure out the mechanics of unity amongst all Christians. It is, rather, my job to be faithful to the teaching of the Church and to love my neighbor as myself.

There are many challenges that face my family in the months to come. It will be difficult and heartbreaking to lay down my priesthood and to leave behind my beloved parish where I have spent almost a decade as Rector. But it is not really my priesthood. It never really was. All priesthood belongs ultimately to the one true priest, Jesus Christ Himself, who this day is inviting me and my family into the richness of His sacrifice and the depths of His heart. May each and every one of us come to know His saving embrace.