Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
~St. Paul, the First Letter to the Corinthians
Yesterday, I posted a “parable” about a runner who went to two very different coaches for advice on running his first marathon.
Here’s the main point I was trying to make: Protestant soteriology (or “doctrine of salvation”) is not the “good news” that it’s often claimed to be. Catholic soteriology is actually much, much better news.
Protestant evangelicals are told (I know, I was an evangelical for the first twenty-some-odd years of my life) that they are saved “by faith alone.” The leaders of the Protestant Reformation referred to this doctrine in Latin as sola fide. The first instance of faith is often referred to as “when you were saved,” and this act of faith is (generally) all that needs to be done to go to Heaven. Keep that belief until the end, and you’re golden.
At first, this seems great. But eventually, a problem crops up: the New Testament is chock-full of urgent, urgent commands to holiness. And there’s simply no good, clear-cut way to explain, from an evangelical standpoint, why on earth the New Testament is so concerned with how we behave if it doesn’t make a difference to our eternal destiny. I mean, what’s a sola fide kinda guy supposed to do with Matthew 7:21–”Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven”?
And so, various explanations of these verses have arisen, to try to make them seem compatible with sola fide.
A popular explanation in the churches I grew up in (non-denominational charismatic) was that growth in personal holiness (I’ll refer to it as “sanctification” from here on out) is necessary for our evangelistic efforts. That is, sanctification needs to happen in our lives to give credibility to the Gospel message, so that our unbelieving friends and relatives will see how Christ has transformed us, and come to faith in Him as well. And I’ll grant that there’s a certain amount of truth in that: I think that when Christians sin badly, it does huge damage to our efforts at evangelism. Who among us can forget Gandhi’s rebuke: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”
There are two problems with this explanation: the first is, it fails to adequately account for verses like Hebrews 12:14, where we’re told about a holiness without which no one will see the Lord. The second is that (and here I go off of personal experience) when the primary motivation for sanctification is “attracting others to Jesus by our holy lives,” it can degenerate really quickly into being very inauthentic, very much like a used car salesman, very concerned with appearances only… so you still end up committing your major sins, you just try not to do them in front of your non-believing friends (who, by the way, can smell that kind of falsehood from a mile away). This will inevitably fail, causing all of your fellow-runners and race spectators to see all of your throw-up on the side of the road…
Another explanation is the “Coach Martin” theory. In Lutheran theology (and therefore, in a lot of other evangelical theology), sanctification just happens more-or-less without any effort on the part of the believer. In fact, too much effort is just the kind of “works righteousness” that Luther et al. left the Catholic Church to avoid! Many Lutherans hold to a very sharp “law/Gospel distinction,” which explains the purpose of sanctification verses (“law”) in the New Testament by saying that their primary purpose is to point out our sinfulness and need of Christ, and to drive us back to Him to receive grace and forgiveness (“Gospel”). If you’re looking for a great example of writers who hold this perspective, the Mockingbird blog is written by some Lutheran and Anglican guys who occasionally do some really great critiques of popular culture.
The problems there are similar to the first explanation: first, the Scriptural case for this theory is incredibly thin. In fact, one is forced to suspect that this is the real reason why Martin Luther famously wanted to remove the books of James and Hebrews from the Canon of Scripture, among others… The second problem is experiential: anyone who has been a Christian for very long can tell you that sanctification never just happens; it requires a lot of effort. You can’t just show up to the starting line and expect to effortlessly run a marathon!
The third explanation is the Reformed one, and here we finally get to the heart of what Fr. Bryan encouraged me to address:
Let’s remind ourselves about the basics of the Reformed view of election. Reformed theology teaches that, before He created the world, God chose some to be saved, and He passed over others, according to His own good pleasure. For the ones He chose (“the elect”), He provided all of the means of salvation, including sending His Son to atone for their sins. For the ones He didn’t choose, well…the news is not so good…
According the Reformed view, God’s election is irrevocable. That is to say, if you aren’t elect, there’s nothing you can do to change that. But if you are elect, then we have great news for you: you will not, under any circumstances, fail to make it to Heaven. The Reformed call this the doctrine of “perseverance of the saints.” Hence why Coach Ulrich (Zwingli) believes that some are meant to be runners, and some aren’t, and no amount of training is going to change that…
Here’s the catch: in Reformed theology, no one knows with 100% certainty who is elect and who is not. And here’s where our old friend sanctification comes in: growth in personal holiness is taken as an indicator that you are probably (not definitely) a member of the elect.
This causes all sorts of agony in the life of the Christian, which I’ve written about before. The gist is this: when you fall into major sin, you can really start to doubt whether you’re part of the elect. AND THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT!!! I mean, you ask for God’s forgiveness, but at the end of the day, who knows what will happen? Sanctification (or lack there of) becomes a source of deep, deep anxiety in your life, with no real victory at the end of it.
There are other Protestant theologies of sanctification, but they all run into a basic problem: they don’t take St. Paul seriously when he says there’s a race to be run, our eternal destiny depends upon crossing the finish line, and the only way to run a good race is to train like crazy.
And as a consequence of this deficient theology of sanctification, Protestant spiritual disciplines (or “training plans,” in the parlance of the marathon enthusiast) have atrophied a lot over the last 500 years. That is to say, even if you believe that you need to “get in shape” before you “run a marathon,” there aren’t a lot of tools available in the Protestant world to help you get there…
In evangelical churches today, one hears vague talks of having a “quiet time.” That is, a time of day spent “with the Lord” in Bible reading and prayer. It’s a practice that leads a lot of evangelical believers very frustrated and underwhelmed, and continuously shopping for books on “how to have a better quiet time.” It’s very bare bones, and while there’s obviously so much value to reading the Bible and praying, only doing those things is somewhat akin to only lifting weights with your right arm, and ignoring your left arm, your legs, your abdomen…
In Reformed churches (and other evangelical churches these days, I gather), there’s an emphasis on “accountability groups.” For my Catholic friends with no experience with this sort of thing: imagine going to Confession. But when you get there, instead of one priest behind a screen, it’s a group of 3 or 4 (or more) people, none of whom have any training in moral theology or spiritual direction, all staring you down. And they can’t give you absolution at the end (see above), so they just tell you to try harder next time. And there’s no seal of the Confessional, so there’s no guarantee that they won’t tell other people what you’ve confessed (spoiler alert: they tell other people…). And rather than the mercifully short couple of minutes you spend in Confession, “accountability group” can last for hours on end.
Yes, it is as miserable as it sounds. And no, it certainly doesn’t help you become more holy.
When Protestant theologies and spiritual disciplines (or more like “lack thereof”) fail to help you cross the finish line, it can be incredibly, incredibly discouraging.
So here’s the Good News about being a Catholic: no, we aren’t going to hide the fact that you need to actually run the marathon, nor are we going to sugar-coat the fact that running a marathon is brutally hard work. But man, we have the most amazing training plans you’ve ever seen!
This last year as a Catholic, I’ve experienced so much more growth in my Christian life than I did in all my years as an evangelical combined. And it’s all thanks to the 2,000 years of beautiful, wonderful, holy “coaches” that have gone before me (“Coach” St. Francis of Assisi certainly being a prime example), who have left us with absolutely astounding spiritual disciplines .
My prayer life is so much richer now that I have the Rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet, the Angelus, novenas, the Jesus Prayer, etc.
My reading of Scripture has been so much more fruitful now that I have practices like Lectio Divina.
I fast now. I never fasted when I was a Protestant. But now my Church requires me to fast on certain days. And you know what? I like it. I’m growing in my control over the passions because of it.
I have Eucharistic Adoration. Goodness gracious, I have Eucharistic Adoration!!! When I was in RCIA, my dear friend Mary Alice suggested that I go to Adoration, and I’ve not been the same since. You’re going to have to go elsewhere for a better explanation of that, because words fail me to describe this wonderful practice.
I have icons displayed in my home. They remind me constantly of the “great cloud of witnesses,” and call me ever onward towards the finish line.
I have Franciscan Spirituality. I have Ignatian Spirituality. I have Benedictine Spirituality. I have Carmelite Spirituality. I have Byzantine Spirituality. I have Maronite Spirituality. I have, in short, all the wisdom handed down by all those who have followed Christ Jesus, all over the world, for the last 2,000 years. “All things are yours!”
I have the Devotion to the Sacred Heart. The precious, beautiful, glorious Sacred Heart, my constant proof of the love that Jesus Christ has for ME, and a constant reminder that Love’s victories are hard won.
I have Confession. The sacrament of Confession is so, so much better than I feared it was going to be. What a sweet, beautiful experience of mercy and forgiveness, and what a source of great strength in the fight against temptation.
And all of these things always lead me to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the source and summit of Christian life. Here I receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”
So you see, I haven’t run a marathon yet. But I’m running a lot farther than I used to. And the more I run, the harder I train, the closer I feel to Jesus and the more I can almost taste the victory…
…and that, my friends, is why a Catholic has more “security” than a Protestant.