Link to the entire series of posts
This was the hardest intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journey I have ever gone through. It certainly has not been without costs, either. And yet, I wouldn’t ever take my decision to join the Catholic Church back, for though I struggled and suffered some, I have gained the greatest good.
As we close out this series of posts, hopefully the statement the Catholic Church is the fullness of the truth has taken on a clearer picture. Though we just scratched the surface, I hope I also presented enough new concepts to those not familiar with the Catholic Church to stir up the desire to learn more.
The more that I looked into these issues, the more I was amazed that every time I thought I found a good objection against the Catholic Church, they always had a very compelling answer. Furthermore, most of the objections I heard against the Catholic Church were based on misunderstandings of the Catholic position (e.g. they teach justification by works).
Before I give a quick summary and conclusion, I want to mention that I will post a summary of all the resources and a few others in a separate post. I will also have an Appendix post that will go over some of my favorite things about being Catholic. There are so many!
A quick review of where we have been
How the Natural Law lead me to the Catholic Church
First, we covered how the study of natural law and Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics lead me to investigate the Catholic Church. This was because I was running into many instances of moral relativism among Christians as they didn’t affirm the natural law, teleological based views of morality. As such, anything that was not explicitly in the Bible (such as artificial contraception) was considered adiaphora (not explicitly in the Bible). It was then left up to the individual conscience to decide if it was right or wrong. Though it may be a clear violation of the natural law, Protestant ethics ends up with Christians coming to all kinds of different opinions on these matters.
Only the Catholic Church seemed to stand up to the increasing moral depravity of the modern world and strongly adhere to natural law. This really made me want to find out how the Catholic Church could be so right in its philosophy and natural theology but get the most important doctrine of justification by faith alone wrong. This was the doctrine, after all, the church supposedly stood or fell on.
The Sola Fide Debate
Next, I walked through my investigation of the doctrine of sola fide and how I was shocked at how mistaken I was as to what the Catholic Church taught about justification.
For Catholics, justification is a past, present, and future process that is fueled by God’s grace every step of the way (omnia gratia). Initial justification, through the gift of faith in Christ from God, is received in baptism. Catholics do not teach works righteousness as any merit we earn through good works after initial justification are only done through God’s grace. This is why Augustine said: “If, then, your good merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His own gifts.” (Augustine, On Grace and Free Will 6. 15)
The core issue in the debate between Protestants and Catholics is whether the very nature of justification (the formal cause) is Jesus’ imputed righteousness that covers us from the outside (extra nos), or if justification is the infusion of sanctifying grace into the believer. On the imputed righteousness model, the believer is still a sinner on the inside after justification and only loses salvation if they lose faith. On the infused righteousness model, the believer is truly made righteous and then cooperates with the gifts of God to increase in their infused gifts and could only lose their justification and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and His gifts through mortal sin.
I was amazed at all the biblical evidence there was for the Catholic view of infused grace and found many trouble passages for the imputed righteousness/faith alone model. Namely, the necessity of obedience to the moral law after justification and the idea of being judged by your deeds, not your faith alone (Romans 2:13, Romans 2:6, 2 Cor 5:10, James 2:24-26, Matthew 7:21-23, Revelation 20:11-15, Matthew 25:31-46, etc.)
Lastly, as Alister McGrath concludes in his exhaustive study on the history of justification in the Christian Church, Luther’s idea of sola fide through imputed righteousness was a complete break of what came before him. These ideas were a theological novum (a new theology).
The Sola Scriptura Debate
In the post on sola scriptura we saw how I didn’t realize that there is a strong and soft version of sola scriptura. When I was Protestant, I had always affirmed the soft version that while we can know theological truths outside of scripture, we cannot teach anything that contradicts scripture. I now know that this is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches about scripture too (see Dei Verbum). I learned that sola scriptura, in common Protestant practice, means that only doctrine can come from scripture.
I then learned that the doctrine of sola scriptura itself cannot be found in the Bible. This was a show stopper for me because it meant the idea of sola scriptura is a self-refuting position.
The other major problem for sola scriptura I discovered was that it always leads to solo scriptura. This is because the individual is always the final authority as to what scripture means. This leads to theological individualism/liberalism where Christians can use the same scriptures to come to completely opposite conclusions, e.g. as to if divorce or homosexual acts are licit.
Sola scriptura seemed to be the foundational problem at almost all theological conflict. In rejecting the authority of the Catholic Church, Protestants started the process of endless division that continues today, despite the fact that Jesus calls the Church to be united and one (Rom 16:17, Jn 10:16, 1 Cor 1:10, Jn 17:17-23).
The Authority of the Catholic Church
Finally, we looked at what the Catholic Church claims the nature of the Church is and why they think they hold unique authority over all Christians.
We saw that scriptures teach us that Jesus instituted a Church through his apostles. This church is the one mystical body of Christ. It is the bride of Christ eagerly awaiting her bridegroom. We also saw that Jesus named Peter his prime minister over His kingdom, which is the fulfillment of the Davidic Kingdom. By referencing back to Isaiah 22, Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, which instituted the office of the Papacy with the unique authority over all Christians to “bind and loose”, meaning to teach and define doctrine and administer the sacraments.
We also saw that this Church structure was passed on throughout the early Church, with many Church Fathers attesting to this apostolic tradition and the primacy of Peter. Specifically, we looked at writings from Clement, Ignatius, Iraneaus, Jerome, and Augustine, though there are countless others.
Lastly, we pointed out that the Catholic Church teaches that God can and will save Christians not explicitly in bounds of the Catholic Church. Christians are anyone who professes faith in Christ as Lord and have been baptized. If, through no fault of their own, they are not aware of the truth of the Catholic Church, and they are not in a state of mortal sin, they could be saved.
Modes of Life
Why are any of these debates over sola fide, sola scriptura, or Church authority important? I think it is important because it greatly affects how you live your day to day life, or put differently your “mode of life”.
Sola fide (faith alone) and sola scriptura (Bible alone) lead to a potentially dangerous combination that can destroy the life of grace. While there are many different nuances people try to take, essentially the big problem with sola fide is the idea that Christ covers our sin from the outside no matter how sinful we are on the inside (imputed righteousness). This leads to the view that the only mortal sin that separates us from God is to lose your faith (apostasy). There is no need on this view to avoid all sin, then, or actively pursue holiness in everything you do (I am not denying that many Protestants do, of course).
This is in opposition to the Catholic teaching of infused grace which empowers a different mode of life. This Catholic view of the life of grace is that God infuses sanctifying grace in us when we are justified and engrafts us into His family. We do not earn this initial justification with God or merit this initial infusion of sanctifying grace; it is given solely as a gift through faith in Christ and merited solely by Christ’s work on the cross. This grace cleanses us completely of the stain of original sin and empowers us to live a holy life as we then work with and grow in God’s grace and struggle against the temptations of our fallen world.
Many people (even Christians) want to live a good life and do good, but they often want to do so by their own judgements only. In the process of trying to live a good life as they see it, they will unknowingly do things that destroy God’s grace that dwells within them. Some people take a moralistic therapeutic deistic approach to God and think everyone is basically good and a distant God accepts everyone simply as we are, faults and all. Others, through a sola scriptura view of the faith, often make an idol out of their own construction/understanding of God rather than truly striving to know how God has revealed himself and His will in the Bible and through His Church. We see evidence of this fact in that many well-intentioned people come to completly contradictory conclusions about what is acceptable or necessary in the moral and spiritual life. Many people, then, do not realize the mode of life we are called to live by Christ’s gospel and instead live one of their own making.
God’s true mode of life leads to happiness and beatitude with Him; it is empowered by His grace dwelling within us and is filled with truth, goodness, and beauty when you surrender to it. **The Church, the Bible, and natural law help set the bounds of acceptable belief and ways of living a God pleasing life. They show us the ways that increase our life of grace and the ways that destroy our life of grace.**
Here are a few concluding verses that I believe encapsulate this Catholic mode of life we are called to.
Ezekiel 36:25-27 (RSVCE)
25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
New creations through indwelling grace (Ez 36:25-27, Romans 5:5, 2 Cor. 5:17, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, Gal 6:15)
God is divinizing us (1 John 3:1-3, 2 Peter 1:3-4, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Romans 8:15-25, Hebrews 12:7-11)
We are called to Holiness and to strive after perfection with God (Mt. 5:48, Philippians 3:12-14, Romans 12:1-2, CCC 2013-2016, Lumen Gentium 40)
Called to obedience (Mt. 5:48, Jn 14:15, Mt. 7:21-23, Jn 14:23-24, 1 Tim. 3:15, etc.)
Judged by deeds (Mt 25:31-46, Mt 7:21-23, Rm 2:6-11, Rev 20:11-15, Rev 2:23, Jm 2:24-26, Rm 2:13, 2 Cor 5:10, Mt. 16:27)
The Impact of the Correct view of the Gospel on the Spiritual Life
Finally, having the correct view of the nature of the Gospel – that is God becoming man to defeat sin and win for us the ability to partake in His divine nature through his grace infused into us – has major implications for the Christian spiritual life. Getting the question of imputed vs infused righteousness correct affects so many things downstream. In my experience as a Lutheran, because we were taught that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us and simply covers our sinful nature rather than fully healing it, there wasn’t really an emphasis on the life of prayer and ascesis/growing in holiness (I’m certainly not saying this doesn’t exist at all in Lutheran thought, but it doesn’t seem to be heavily promoted). It now seems to me that the novelty of Luther’s view of imputed righteousness in justification was largely responsible for my not knowing about what Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange calls the one thing necessary for the Christian life, this is growing in God’s sanctifying grace through the interior life (viz. prayer, sacraments, and ascesis):
The interior life is for all the one thing necessary. It ought to be constantly developing in our souls; more so than what we call our intellectual life, more so than our scientific, artistic or literary life. The interior life is lived in the depths of the soul; it is the life of the whole man, not merely of one or other of his faculties. . . And it is important to us not only as individuals, but also in our social relations, for it is evident that we can exert no real or profound influence upon our fellow-men unless we live a truly interior life ourselves.
— Garrigou-Lagrange, R. (1938). The three ways of the spiritual life.
When we see justification as Luther did, as a cover for our sinful natures that still remain after justification, then we don’t have nearly the same level of urgency to grow in the sanctifying grace that God infuses in our soul. When we see justification as Catholics do, that God infuses grace inside of us completely wiping out sin (Ez. 36:25-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11) and making us a new creation (Gal 6:15 ), then the urgency to cooperate with God (2 Corinthians 6:1-2, John 15:5) to keep and grow in this sanctifying grace takes on a whole new dimension. Again, this has huge implications for the day to day life of a Christian:
Sanctifying grace, the principle of our interior life, makes us truly the children of God because it makes us partakers of His nature. We cannot be sons of God by nature, as the Word is; but we are truly sons of God by grace and by adoption. And whereas a man who adopts a child brings about no interior change in him, but simply declares him his heir, God, when He loves us as adoptive sons, transforms us inwardly, giving us a share in His own intimate divine life.
— Garrigou-Lagrange, R. (1938). The three ways of the spiritual life.
The interior life – the life of prayer, sacraments, and the ascetical life – isn’t just for super-Christians and monks/nuns; it is something God calls us all towards in order to grow in grace so that we continually draw nearer to full union with Him (theosis/divinization). These ideas are beautifully echoed throughout the writings of the Church faithers and also in the Catechism of the Catholic Church here:
2013 “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.”65 All are called to holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”66 (915; 2545; 825)
In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift, so that … doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Thus the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the history of the Church through the lives of so many saints.67
2745 Prayer and Christian life are inseparable, for they concern the same love and the same renunciation, proceeding from love; the same filial and loving conformity with the Father’s plan of love; the same transforming union in the Holy Spirit who conforms us more and more to Christ Jesus; the same love for all men, the love with which Jesus has loved us. “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he [will] give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.”41 (2660)
460 The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”:78 “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”79 “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”80 “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”81 (1265, 1391; 1988)
— Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference.
I highly recommend reading at least the first chapter of the book, “The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life” by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. He gives such a great explanation of the Catholic view of salvation with a ton of biblical support. He also teaches about the basic outline of the spiritual life (purgative, illuminative, and unitive way) which hopefully will end up sparking an interest in anyone reading it. As just seen above we are all called to this spiritual life (only possible through God’s grace that He gratuitously puts inside of us: CCC 2010-2015, John 15:5).
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange also spends a bit of time in the first chapter explaining the difference between this extrinsic vs. intrinsic righteousness debate between Luther and the Catholic Church. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange shows throughout the book that this has extremely important implications on the spiritual life. That book changed everything for me. Once I realized how rich the traditions of the spiritual life were in the Catholic Church and that my Lutheran view of imputed righteousness was a huge reason why I never knew about them, I dove head first in.
You can even access the book for fee online here:
You ask us to be perfect, therefore, as your Father in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). But apart from You I can do nothing (John 15:5). But, with You, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).
Please, show me Your will and give me the strength to do it. Please, make me Your instrument. Please, make me into a Saint.
Conclusion to the Conclusion
What I learned from Lutherans
While my theological journey has already taken me so far, I know that I have a long way yet to go and I very much look forward to whatever else God has in store for me.
I would like to add that I am very thankful that God had me learn about the Church through Lutheranism. Lutherans taught me so much. Lutherans are a very loving and God-fearing people. They taught me that we are wholly dependent on God’s grace. They also taught me to put Jesus at the center of everything. This is probably the most important lesson that I will cherish from my time as a Lutheran.
My time as a Lutheran also afforded me the opportunity to deal with some of the strongest challenges to the Catholic Church. Other than maybe some challenges from Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicans, the challenges that Lutherans made to the Catholic Church were some of the most substantial you can find. And many of these challenges did cause real change and necessary changes in the Catholic Church during their counter-Reformation period.
A few other final thoughts
I would like to take a moment to harken back to the first post on natural law and ask that all Christians seriously look at natural law and classical theism again. I firmly believe that natural law and classical theism are necessary for all Christians to combat the madness of the world. We need to rediscover that we can trust our senses again. Things really have essences, and we can know them. Things really do have natures that are directed towards an end/purpose (telos) and we can know what these ends/purposes are. From this, we can derive all of Christian morality and politics. This should be natural knowledge to all mankind (Romans 1) and, especially, all Christians.
Also, there are so many graces waiting for everyone in the Catholic Church. God loves us more than we can possibly imagine and we see this through the gifts He continually gives us in the Catholic Church.
One such gift is the Church itself to guide, protect, and administer the sacraments.
Another gift is the Eucharist where God is truly present body, blood, soul, and divinity making it the source and summit of the Christian life. The Eucharist is truly Jesus. Amen! It is the source and summit of the Christian faith and you can receive it everyday in the Catholic Church. You can also spend time with Jesus in adoration of the blessed sacrament, praying and simply being in the presence of the risen Lord.And also God gives us the other of the seven sacraments, each of which is a beautiful gift from God, and each conferring graces to us in their own way.
Confession is a way to really experience God’s forgiveness in the most intimate way and is a way to help move past sins that have been holding you back and overcome them to grow in your sanctification.
Another key aspect of being a Christian that has taken on new meaning for me as a Catholic is the spiritual life. Advancing in your life of prayer and virtue isn’t something to be looked down on a works righteousness. It is probably my favorite part of being Catholic. I am not earning my way to heaven, I am preparing myself for the beatific vision. We do so either now or after death, and it sounds like according to Paul (1 Corinthians 3:15) that it is a much more pleasant experience to do so now than after death.
Again, I realize nothing stated here is likely to convince anyone outright that Catholicism is true. I hope this at least sparks an interest to do a serious investigation yourself. I truly believe the fullness of the truth resides in the Catholic Church. There were many signs along the way that pointed me in that direction, but my prejudice against anything I thought went against sola fide prevented me from even looking into what the Catholic Church actually teaches. I think if you take the time to truly understand the inner logic of the Catholic Church’s teachings, you will hopefully see it is a beautiful gift from God to help guide and preserve us in the faith on our journey through this vale of tears on our way to God in the life to come.
Please, consider taking advantage of all the modern resources we have and research this more for yourself. In many ways, with all the information we have a mouse click away, we are in such a better place than the original Reformers to be able to journey to the truth on these matters.
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.