“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” ~ Brennan Manning
No one likes it when they encounter a hypocritical Christian. Many of us would agree with this quote, no matter what our faith is. As a Church-going Catholic, I certainly do. When I profess to believe what the Church teaches, and live my life contrary to that, whether it be internally or externally, it communicates something. It communicates that Jesus is not really who He says He is, because where my life should be changed because of Him, it isn’t.
When we live our faith, we demonstrate it in the works that we do. People know we are Christians by our love, or, at least they should. Real love is shown not in word, but in action. Real love is shown in the walk, not just the talk. We know this in our families, in our Churches, in our workplaces, in the people we meet on the street.
Many of us have heard the common protestant claim, contrary to what our Blessed Lord teaches us, that we are saved by “faith alone”, since our good works cannot save us. We as Catholics are often accused of believing that we have to earn Heaven by our good works alone. The truth is, as the quote by Brennan Manning so well communicates, faith and works cannot be separated, and when they are, the effects are devastating. It is right to say that we cannot earn Heaven as none of us deserve it. It is by the sacrifice of Christ alone that we have been granted access to eternity with God. Good works, however, are still necessary in order for us to be united with Christ and merit Heaven.
It is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to us through Baptism, that has the power to justify us, which is to say, that it has the power to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ”. St. Paul tell us that “now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (emphasis mine).” It can be seen here that the Church understands that faith in Christ is necessary as the basis for our salvation.
What a beautiful gift! Through our Baptism, we are cleansed from original sin, and welcomed into the Covenental bond with our Lord, as an adopted son or daughter of God, with the rest of the Christian community. So begins God’s work in us, first through conversion, where we are commanded by Jesus to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” By God’s grace, we turn from our sin, and accept God’s forgiveness and righteousness (justice). The Council of Trent says that “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.“
The Catechism tells us that “justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent”. The Council of Trent also says that “when God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight.”
We need God’s grace to change. It is this favor of the free, undeserved help that He gives to us to enable us to respond to his call to become “partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” In other words, we need God’s grace to become holy, to become saints, for it is only the saints who are in Heaven. In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, he states, “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness… But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” St. Paul was clear on his understanding and teaching of what the Church taught. This has not changed. We receive eternal life if we become sanctified. This is our goal and this is the prize we are running the race to receive.
The grace we receive in Baptism is sanctifying grace and is the source of the work of our sanctification. The Catechism makes clear that “sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification.”
God has given us free will, and so we are freely able to cooperate with or choose not to cooperate with God’s graces for our sanctification. Our Blessed Lord said to us, “thus you will know them by their fruits.” It is by one’s “fruits” that we can see the working of God in their life. The fruits are what is seen in action, which are our good works. St. Augustine said in relation to God that “if at the end of your very good works . . . you rested on the seventh day, it was to foretell by the voice of your book that at the end of our works, which are indeed “very good” since you have given them to us, we shall also rest in you on the sabbath of eternal life.
A common claim that protestants make against Catholics is that good works are the “Works of the Law” that St. Paul tells us not to do, in an effort to support their claim that we are justified by “faith alone”. Dr. John Bergsma, a Professor of Sacred Scripture at Franciscan University of Steubenville, gave a talk regarding The Dead Sea Scrolls in which he shared some very important findings regarding the “Works of the Law”, spoken of in Scripture. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the caves of Qumran in the 1940’s. This was a very significant discovery, because therein were contained the oldest copies of many Old Testament Writings, dating back as early as 200 years before Christ. Dr. Bergsma related that there were three different groups of Jews at the time of the Apostles: the Saduccees, the Pharisees (which St. Paul was a part of), and the Essenes. The Qumranites were Essenes. In the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they found the scroll “Miqtsat Ma’asei ha-Torah” which translates to the “Precepts of the Works of the Law”. This was a letter from the Essenes to the Pharisees about ritual purity, and this was the only place in which was found the phrase “Works of the Law” outside of St. Paul’s Gospel.
The “Works of the Law” included instructions about ritual purity, including things such as the purity of liquids poured from one container to another, the impurity of bones and animal hides, the keeping of dogs outside of Jerusalem, keeping away from Gentiles, and keeping the Blind and Deaf out of the Temple since they were defiled. What many protestants do not realize, are that the “Works of the Law” are wholly different from good works, which our blessed Lord asks us to do. The works of mercy are charitable actions done for the aid of our neighbor in both spiritual and bodily needs. The spiritual works of mercy include instructing, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving, and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy include feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead, as well as giving alms to the poor.
Our Lord says to us in scripture, that when we care for others, we care for Him. Whenever we encounter another, we have an opportunity to love, whether in word or deed, and in doing so, we are really loving our Lord. Our lives should point to God in all that we say and do. As Catholics, we hear at least weekly at Mass, the “great commission” to us. May we respond ever more fully, with our whole heart when we hear the command at the end of Mass, and truly go in peace, glorifying the Lord by our lives.