On Reconciling Catholic Christianity with Christ's Finished Work
As I have written to you already, I am pleased to engage in a friendly and brotherly dialogue about the issues that you have raised in your letters to me. I have discovered something of an overarching question throughout your letters, which I believe might best be written, “How do I, as a leader in [a Christian organization], reconcile the doctrines of Catholicism [...] with the completed work of Christ?”
First, before I begin to directly answer the question, let me say that I believe that it is a mistake to talk about “Catholicism” and its teachings or doctrines. To my mind, there is no such thing as “Catholicism,” per se, in the sense of a religion of Catholicity. There is, however, a Catholic expression of Christianity.
After all my research of Christian history and doctrine and after all my experiences in Evangelical, Anglican, Orthodox, and Catholic churches, much of which is outlined in my “On Becoming a Catholic Christian” essay, I have come to believe that the teachings of the Catholic Church are based upon, coextensive with, dependent upon, and only credible when taken as “the completed work of Christ.” I do not see an opposition between the completed work of Jesus Christ, the salvation he brings by grace through faith in his life, death, and resurrection and the teachings of the Catholic Church. As such, no reconciliation is necessary, in my view, between the two.
As a leader in [a Christian organization], then, I find that the completed work of Christ is the heart of the Gospel and of my beliefs as a Catholic Christian. In order to expand upon what I mean, I will address the specific questions that you asked in your first letter to me, that I received on the Memorial of St. Damasus, A.D. 2008. I will do so in the order that you addressed them to me:
1. Does baptism erase the guilty of sin and place a person in a right, saving relationship with God?
Baptism is the sacrament of Christian initiation, through which God, that is God the Holy Spirit, comes and, for the first time, brings santifying grace into the heart of the baptized.1
1. But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7).
One of my favorite analogies for understanding the doctrine of sacramental, regenerative baptism (that is consistent with and based upon Scripture—and tradition), was developed by C.S. Lewis in his book, Out of the Silent Planet. In the book, Lewis’ hero Elwin Ransom travels to Mars, which Lewis imagines has not been touched by the Fall of Mankind. There, the inhabitants understand original sin as the “bending” of human nature and Creation from its originally-perfect shape. All those suffering from origianl sin are “bent,” in the language of the novel. To use Lewis’ analogy in the real world, we can say that Baptism is the means by which the Holy Spirit confers the grace of Christ to “unbend” the “bent” inherited by our human nature from the original sin of our Father Adam and our Mother Eve.
Baptism universally corrects our bent, but it does have a different character depending upon the person who receives it. For infants, baptism inducts them into the family of God, as their parents confess the Christian Faith on their behalf in hope that one day, the child will claim that Faith for their own at Confirmation. In adults, baptism begins their Christian walk and marks their conversion to Jesus Christ (whom they must confess, while rejecting Satan).2
2. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3:27).
One of the great principles of classic Christianity is “Lex orendi, lex credendi.” That is, “The law of prayer is the law of faith.” This principle is seen throughout the liturgy of the Christian Church, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, where people’s beliefs are shaped by the prayers they pray and the songs they sing. To understand baptism as the Catholic Church does, we can look to one of my favorite liturgies, that of Baptism:
Q. Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
A. I renounce them.
Q. Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
A. I renounce them.
Q. Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
A. I renounce them.
Q. Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
A. I do.
Q. Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
A. I do.
Q. Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
A. I do.3
3. “Holy Baptism: Rite Two.” Book of Divine Worship. Mt. Pocono, Pennsylvania: Newman House Press, 2003. p. 531.
The baptized person is enabled by the Holy Spirit, through God's grace, to have the faith which is the substance of their personal relationship with God.4
4. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16).
Without baptism, a person is still occluded by the bent of their original sin. Without the straightening of that bent, by Christ’s atoning sacrifice (applied through the sacrament, which only comes from Him), the person cannot enter into the fullness of a true relationship with Almighty God.5 Let us be clear: it is not as though the waters of Baptism are any sort of magical potion that cleanse our sin; instead, baptism is a sacrament: the tangible means or instrument through which God imparts his grace to the whole person: both our bodies and souls.6 7
5. [B]aptism [...] now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. (1 Peter 3:21-22).
6. Let us approach [God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22).
7. Then [Ananias] said [to Paul], “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:14-16).
One of the objections usually raised to baptism’s necessity is the example of the Good Thief, known to holy Tradition as Dismas, to whom our Lord, as they were both being crucified, said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Clearly, this man was not baptized, yet no less an authority than God himself declares that he has achieved that which we have just argued can come only through baptism. If Dismas may enter into heaven without baptism, the argument goes, how then can it be said that baptism is the sacrament of regeneration?
The answer to this objection is that Jesus spoke of more than one kind of baptism. Indeed, he spoke of at least three: water, Spirit, and blood.8 9 Because of this we understand that there are three kinds of baptisms: first, there is the normative baptism, that of water. All persons, whether infants or adults, are called to receive this baptism for salvation as the application of Christ’s grace to their souls.
8. Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5).
9. After his baptism by John, Jesus, speaking to his disciples, said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38).
Second, there is the baptism of the Spirit, or the baptism of intention. For those who earnestly desire true baptism, but who cannot receive it, God, being just, will not play a cosmic “gotcha” game and deny that person Christ’s grace. If they put their faith and trust in Jesus, and desire the beginning of their Christian lives while being unable (either by circumstance or by ignorance) to receive water baptism, God will account this baptism efficacious. This is the baptism that Dismas, the thief on the cross, received. Had he known of baptism and sacramental regeneration in Jesus’ name, he would have claimed it. Since he did not know about it, and since he was unable to receive it before he died, his faith in Jesus was sufficient.
Finally, there is the baptism by blood. This is the second baptism that Jesus himself underwent: the baptism of martyrdom for the Kingdom of God. It was this kind of baptism that the “Holy Innocents,” the children of Bethlehem who were slaughtered at the hands of Herod’s soldiers, underwent when Herod was trying to kill Jesus.
To answer the original question directly, baptism begins the right relationship with God, but it does not do so because of anything special in and of itself. It is through the sacramental application of the grace of Jesus Christ, won on the cross and confirmed in his resurrection, that the baptized person receives the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit and enters into the abundant life promised by Jesus to his disciples.
2. You have argued “logically” that Mary was without sin. But where do you see the Biblical evidence and how do you answer to Romans 3:10-12, 23?
The problem with this question is that it presupposes a theological perspective, namely that of sola Scriptura. This Latin phrase was coined by the followers of the Reformer Martin Luther. Briefly, the doctrine of sola Scriptura holds that Scripture alone is the authority by which all things of God must be derived and proven. Some variations allow for things not found in Scripture so long as they are not repugnant to Scripture (this is the Anglican view; it is also the view of some Lutherans). The typical evangelical understanding of sola Scriptura is that literally all things must be provable by a verse or implication of the Holy Bible (an extreme example of the practical implementation of sola Scriptura are the members of the denomination known as the “churches of Christ,” who, for the most part, reject the use of musical instruments in Christian worship because they believe that there is no Biblical precedent for such use in the New Testament).
I know that you, as a former Catholic Christian and current non-denominational Protestant minister, are aware that one of the major theological distinctions between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians is that Catholic Christians reject sola Scriptura, whilst Protestant Christians embrace it as a fundamental doctrine or primary hermeneutical paradigm: a concept that assists in defining all others, even those about God and salvation.
For me, the breakthrough in my decision to be confirmed in the Catholic Church came because I became persuaded that the doctrine of sola Scriptura was not, in my view, consistent with the teaching of the Bible, with the Tradition of Christianity, or with the objective chronology of the Church. Once I began to see Scripture in this new light, many of the doctrines professed by Catholic Christians, that are rejected by Protestant Christians, not only made sense, but they seemed to embrace a much fuller understanding of Jesus’ teaching and mission.
a. Biblical evidence
First, the teaching of the Bible does not support sola Sciptura. In the Old Testament, there is an institutional priesthood set up by God that is given authority to determine when the ritualistic purity laws had been properly complied with by the faithful Israelites. The interpretation of these laws was not necessarily straight-forward, but it required an authority that had to be passed from priest-to-priest. This authority was not recorded in the Scriptures, yet it was authoritative for the Israelite people. It is true that Christ’s advent did away with the necessity for the system of Temple sacrifices, but no where does Christ seem to imply that there should be a rejection of the priestly authority to interpret the law or oversee its application.10
10. Then Jesus said to him, "See that you don't tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:4).
In the Four Gospels, Jesus constantly refers to the Jewish tradition (cf., "You have had heard that it was said ...," used throughout the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in Jesus' ministry). It is true that Jesus rejects the “traditions” of the Pharisees (i.e., those occasions where the Pharisees have made more laws and stricter laws than God’s holy law demanded), but here, Jesus is rejecting accreted customs that had grown up around the oral tradition of Temple worship and the authority of the priests to interpret God’s law. Indeed, we do not see Christ rejecting the authority of the priests to interpret the law, i.e., to apply oral tradition, but instead, we see Jesus rebuking them for their innovations. This, then, is a a rejection of innovation, not a repudiation of the priestly power to interpret the law, given to them by God in the Aaronic priesthood set up by Moses, according to God’s command, at Sinai.11
11. “‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!’ Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’’” (Matthew 15:2-4).
Elsewhere, Jesus tells the disciples to “[g]o into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). He does not command them, however, to write. Elsewhere in the Gospel accounts, Jesus commands his disciples to “make disciples of all nations [...], teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). In John’s Gospel, however, the Apostle writes that “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one were written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that could be written” (John 21:25). If, then, the Apostles are to teach Jesus’ disciples everything about him, how can they faithfully obey if the Gospel writers themselves write in the Gospels that there is much of Jesus’ words and teachings that is not contained there? Clearly, then, there must be more to Jesus’ ministry than what is written in the Bible. Luke confirms this for us at the beginning of his Gospel: his audience is a man who had already received “instruction” that was “handed on” to him by “servants of the Word” (Luke 1:1-4).
In the New Testament letters, we find more Biblical support from Luke, Paul, Peter, and John for the role of Holy Tradition and its authority in the lives of believers:
• Paul commands Timothy: "what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2);
• Paul states that oral instruction is the foundation of Gospel-preaching: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17; this might seem to contradict the point I'm making, but recall that when Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, it was somewhere around A.D. 55-60, almost 300 years before the New Testament canon would be "officially" set -- the word of Christ had to come by word-of-mouth, through oral Tradition);
• Peter defines what is meant by "the word of the Lord": "'[B]ut the word of the Lord remains forever.' And this word is the good news that was preached to you" (1 Peter 1:25; again, the word was handed on through preaching -- orally -- in holy Tradition -- which Peter says will stand forever, as the "word of the Lord");
• Paul refers to a previous letter written to the Church at Corinth that was not included in the New Testament, but which was binding upon them by virtue of Paul’s apostolic authority: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons—not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:9-11);
• Paul says that the Thessalonians received “the word of God” from him and his fellow-workers: “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). If the Bible is the only authority, how can Paul compare his handing on of oral tradition with Scripture?
• Paul even commands Christians to keep the Tradition they received from him: “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from every brother who is living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
Each of these verses impliedly or implicitly supports the use of Holy Tradition. But is there a verse in the Bible that explicitly requires the reception of Holy Tradition? It comes from Paul's second letter to the church at Thessaloniki: "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Here we have the clearest exhortation by Paul to observe not only what is written by him—much of which would eventually become part of the New Testament—but also the words spoken by Paul and his fellow apostles—that is, the oral tradition delivered by Paul and others as they passed on the Tradition of Jesus’ teachings. In a striking way, Paul lays out both Scripture and Tradition—spoken word and letter—as complementary authorities for the lives of believers.
b. Chronological evidence
As I stated in my original essay, On Becoming a Catholic Christian, one of the other reasons I was persuaded to be confirmed in the Catholic Church is because of the consistency of her claims with history as we observe it from objective sources. That sort of analysis is also helpful in examining the doctrine of sola Scriptura.
First, we must determine which Scriptures we are referring to when we discuss the doctrine itself. When most Protestants refer to the “Scriptura” in sola Scriptura, they are referring to the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments that were declared to be canonical by the Reformers in the sixteenth century. But when we examine the history of the Church, we see that this is an innovation of the Reformers themselves.
We know that the early Christians widely spoke Greek. The Bible that they used was the Greek-version of the Old Testament, which we know today as the Septuagint (or “The Seventy,” so called because there were supposedly seventy rabbis who translated this text from Hebrew into Greek between 285-246 B.C.). In the Septuagint, there were additional books, not now included in the Protestant Canon of the Old Testament. But from the beginning of the Church until Martin Luther in the 1500s, Christians had 7 additional Old Testament books of the Bible. Why did Luther and the other Reformers reject the 7 deuterocanonical books? There is no stated reason, except that the Jews of A.D. 90 rejected the 7 books rejected by Luther. There is little authority, however, to argue that any Christians did the same. Many believe Luther made the decision because some of the doctrines taught by the Catholic Church that Luther rejected found support in the books he chose to de-Scripturize.12
12. There are even references in Books currently accepted as canonical by Protestant Christians to the deuterocanonical books that Protestant Christians now reject: Jude 14-16 quotes Enoch 1:9; Hebrews 11:35 et seq. references 2 Maccabees 6:7-10.
Accepting for historical purposes that the original Old Testament had 46 books and not 39, we are still left with this fact: any time the text of the New Testament refers to Scripture, it must be referring to the Old Testament, the forty-six books of the Greek Old Testament. We must also understand that there is no definitive statement of what books are to be included as canonical Scripture by anything approaching the whole Church until the Reformation. Prior to this, there are examples of authoritative canons, including Constantine’s A.D. 331 commissioning of Bibles with certain books included, and the A.D. 393 Synod of Hippo (presided over by none other than the Bishop of Hippo Regius, St. Augustine), which established the books of the Septuagint as the authoritative books of the Old Testament (there has not been any controversy about the books of the New Testament, though Luther did initially advocate the removal of the Epistle of St. James from the New Testament canon, before retreating to his position on the seven deuterocanonical books).
The question must be asked, then: what Scriptura did the first four hundred years’ worth of Christians use solely? The answer seems clear that they observe the command of the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians and kept both the spoken word and letters of the Apostles as the tradition of the Faith. They received the instruction about Jesus from the Apostles and their successors, the Bishops, of which Luke speaks in his preface to the Gospel he wrote.
c. Mary’s immaculate conception
As I stated in my earlier essay, the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception comes to us through the application of human reason to the Biblical texts that we are given. But it also comes down to us through Holy Tradition. Mary’s sinlessness, which really was the prevenient application of Christ’s grace (won for her at Calvary) at the very moment of her conception, is one of those doctrines received from the Apostles in the oral history of the Church. But even in the Scripture there is the conscious parallel between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant: both are described as carrying the covenant of God. Follows are the Lucan parallels to the account of the Ark from 2 Samuel:
2 Samuel 6: Ark of the Old Covenant
1. Set out and went. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.
2. Leaping for joy before the Lord. As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.
3. Disbelief that the Ark has come. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?’
4. Ark remains for three months.The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months
Luke 1: Ark of the New Covenant
1. Set out and went. In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,
2. Leaping for joy before the Lord. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting [the greeting of the new Ark’s arrival], the child [John the Baptist] leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit
3. Disbelief that the Ark has come. And why has this happened to me, that the mother [ark] of my Lord comes to me?
4. Ark remains for three months. And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
In addition to the Samuel-Luke parallels, there is also the Apostle John’s explicit linkage of the vision of the Woman in Revelation with the Ark of the Covenant (cf., Rev. 12:13-16).
Despite these allusions to Mary’s role within Scripture, the clearest elucidation of her immaculate conception comes to use from the early church Fathers, writing even before the canon of Holy Scripture was first listed at the Synod of Hippo in A.D. 393:
• “She was the ark formed of incorruptible wood. For by this is signified that [Jesus’] tabernacle was exempt from putridity and corruption” (Hippolytus, Orations Inillud, Dominus pascit me, ca. A.D. 235).
• “This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one” (Origen, Homily 1, A.D. 244).
• “Let woman praise Her, the pure Mary” (Ephraim, Hymns on the Nativity 15:23, A.D. 370).
• “Thou alone and thy Mother are in all things fair, there is no flaw in thee and no stain in thy Mother” (Ephraem, Nisibene Hymns 27:8 A.D. 370).
• “O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides” (Athanasius, Homily of the Papyrus of Turin 71:216, ca. 373).
• “Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin” (Ambrose, Sermon 22:30 A.D. 388).
These are not, obviously, the only references to the immaculate conception, but these are very early references from very famous and venerable saints (including the man credited with the Athanasian Creed, St. Athanasius).
Thus prepared with the authority of Scripture and Tradition, I must finally answer your question regarding the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans and its implications for the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception. There the Apostle writes:
[W]e have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.” ... 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, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Romans 3:9b-12, 22b-25a).
Here, the Apostle Paul is arguing that there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles because all have fallen “under the power of sin,” and there “‘is not one who is righteous, not even one ....’” First of all, let us state the obvious: we cannot take Paul’s statement to be absolutely literal, because both Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians would agree that all, literally, have not sinned: Jesus, after all, did not sin. Thus, we already have one exception to Paul’s quotation from Psalms 14:1-3 and 53:1-3. Second, we know that the Greek word for “all” that Paul uses is pantes (πάντες). The Apostle also uses this word in his first letter to the Corinthians when he writes, “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” We know that the Bible teaches that all have not died: neither Enoch nor Elijah (nor Mary, if you believe tradition) died, but they were assumed into Heaven.13 14 We are confident that Paul knew of Enoch and Elijah, being the Rabbinical scholar that he was, so was Paul being careless, or was he trying to communicate something else by his use of “all”?
13. When Enoch had lived for sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah for three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him. (Genesis 5:21-24).
14. As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:11).
What Paul is talking about in this section of Romans is the truth that all persons are subject to original sin. To use our prior analogy, all persons have inherited the bent human nature bequeathed to them by our first parents, Adam and Eve. Mary, too, as a human being born of human parents, was subject to original sin until the miracle of the immaculate conception: when God, outside of time in eternity, applied the finished work of Christ to Mary so that could be the pure Ark of the New Covenant, our Lord Jesus Christ (as I argue above and in my first essay, On Becoming a Catholic Christian).
3. If you believe in transubstantiation, do you believe that the Eucharist deserves our “worship”?
I believe that Jesus Christ deserves the worship of all creation.15 16 I also believe, based upon the teachings of Jesus in the Bible and in holy Tradition, that upon consecration of the bread and wine during the Eucharist, the bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.17 I believe that if I should encounter my Lord Jesus Christ, it is right, just, joyful, appropriate and my bounden duty to worship Him, because he is worthy of worship and because he is my Savior, Lord, and God.18 Because of my belief that the Body and Blood of Lord Jesus Christ are truly and really present once they have been consecrated to God, I have worshiped my Lord Jesus Christ in the guise of the Eucharistic Host after it has been transsubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Jesus. It may seem strange, but if one truly believes that Jesus has entered the Church after consecration, fulfilling his promise to be with us always (not in the guise of the Holy Spirit, but really present with us himself),19 how can one not worship our Risen Lord?
15. Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, O Lord our God, for you created everything that is, and by your will they were created and have their being; And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, for with your blood you have redeemed for God, From every family, language, people, and nation, a kingdom of priests to serve our God. And so, to him who sits upon the throne, and to Christ the Lamb, Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor, for ever and for evermore. (Revelation 4:11; 5:9-10, 13).
16. Therefore God also highly exalted [Jesus] and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11).
17. "So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. ... Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ ... I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’" (John 6).
18. “It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord....” “The Holy Eucharist: Rite One.” Book of Divine Worship. Mt. Pocono, Pennsylvania: Newman House Press, 2003. p. 304.
19. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20).
I do not believe that “the Eucharist” deserves my worship. Prior to consecration, the bread and wine are simply bread and wine—no more special than a Big Mac. Obviously, to worship a piece of bread or fermented grape juice would be idolatry and blasphemous to our Lord. Once the consecration of the ordinary bread and wine has occurred, however, there is no longer any bread or wine on the altar. Instead, it is our Lord Jesus Christ himself. And I will, Lord willing, worship him forever and ever.
4/5. Can mortal sin be forgiven if not confessed to a priest? Does sin remove a person from the eternal grace of God, causing them to forfeit their eternal standing, unless confessed?
First of all, let us define what a “mortal sin” is.20 According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which serves as an authoritative compilation of holy Tradition), a mortal sin is “sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (Catechism ¶ 1857). Mortal sin cuts the sinner off from the life of grace; it is a product of God’s restraint of his own divine sovereignty otherwise known as “free will.” As the Scriptures say, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” but God does not force his love on us. If we choose to reject God by sinning, then God will respect our choice (which He gave us as an exercise of his power) and withdraw his Holy Spirit.
20. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. If you see your brother committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. 17All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal. (1 John 5:12-17).
Protestant Christians who follow the teachings of John Calvin will respond that much of Paul’s letter to the Romans would stand opposed to this teaching about God’s restraint of his own sovereignty. However, when Romans is taken in light of Scripture and Tradition, it becomes clear that the Calvinist (or, if you prefer, “Reformed”) theology of election, which holds that God predestined persons under the principles of “total depravity,” “unconditional election,” “limited atonement,” “irresistible grace,” and “perseverance of the saints,” is deficient in light of other parts of Scripture.21 22 23 24
21. Despite our bent nature, God offers us a choice. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for refusing to accept him: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40).
22. God restrains his sovereignty to give humans a choice, and we can resolve to seek truth. “About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, ‘How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?’ Then Jesus answered them, ‘My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own” (John 7:14-17).
23. The atonement is not limited: “ My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).
24. "Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality." (Romans 2:4b-11).
While baptism is the means through which God restores the bent nature that we inherited in original sin, we are still subject to sin’s control over this world until our Lord Jesus Christ returns. We must still battle sin, as the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 7. When we fall short, Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12). The Apostles teach us that “if we confess our sins, he [God] who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).25 But there is an “if... then” dichotomy in both the Lord’s Prayer and the teaching from St. John. And while the Bible teaches that Jesus is the one mediator between God and man, it also teaches that Jesus delegated some of his power to his Apostles: “Jesus came and stood among [the disciples] and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:19b-23).
25. "The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed." (James 5:15-16a).
Thus, sins should generally be confessed to a priest, one of those to whom Jesus gave authority through apostolic succession. Can sins be forgiven, even mortal sins, if they are not confessed? The definition of mortal sin suggests that they can, though this is not normative. A Protestant Christian, for example, who did not believe in mortal sin in the first place, could not commit a mortal sin with either “full knowledge” or “deliberate consent.” There would still be sin, but it would not necessarily destroy the life of grace within the sinner. And, even if a mortal sin is committed, as with baptism, discussed above, God is not a divine nit-picker. If someone who is genuinely sorry for his sin makes a perfect act of contrition, i.e., confessing their sin and repenting whole-heartedly for love of God and not in fear of hell, then their sins are forgiven. Again, however, the normative means by which our Lord Jesus Christ has called us to accept his mercy and forgiveness are through his Body, the Church, and through the successors of the Apostles, the Bishops (and their priests).
6. What is the "temporal punishment" that remains, even after Christ has forgiven me of my sin that I just confessed to Him? Do you believe that confession must be followed by penance—“doing something to ‘recover our full spiritual health’”?
Penances are an opportunity for a repentant sinner, newly restored to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, to make reparation for the earthly consequences of his sins. To understand this doctrine, we can look to Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, after the Son has, in the words of Jesus, “come to himself”:
So [the Prodigal Son] set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24).
One of the key points in Jesus’ parable is made by the words of the Prodigal Son himself: when we sin, we do not only sin against God, but in most cases, we also sin against our neighbor. It was a sin against Almighty God for the Prodigal Son to go and squander his money on wild living; but it was also a sin against his father that he did not respect his father enough to work for his father as he was expected.
Jesus puts the words, “I have sinned against heaven and before you” into the mouth of the Prodigal son to emphasize that there are both eternal and earthly consequences for our sin. To those who have claimed Christ’s promises by grace through faith in the sacrament of baptism, God offers forgiveness for the eternal consequences of sin: hell and eternal death. It is important to remember, however, that God does not, usually, affect the earthly, or natural, consequences of sin.26 Instead, we must bear the consequences of our earthly action (for example, going to jail if we have broken the law—or, in the case of Dismas, suffering the “just condemnation” of the civil law that we have merited with our crimes).
26. For example, when Jesus forgave Dismas and declared that he would be in Paradise, the forgiveness did not include Jesus’ sending angels to rescue Dismas from the crucifixion itself. As Dismas said to the thief who mocked Jesus, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40b-41).
It is also important to understand that the Catholic Church teaches that these natural consequences will inevitably play out, even if we die before they do—this is the doctrine of purgation (also called “purgatory”). All persons who have trusted in Jesus Christ by grace through faith in baptism and who do not die in a state of mortal sin (i.e., without God’s saving grace) will be “tested by fire” at death, and those who have built on the foundation of Jesus Christ will be refined in the fire. For those, however, who have built with straw or wood, their works will be burned away. They will be saved, but as one who is saved through fire.27 28 29 30
27. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
28. In this you rejoice,even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7).
29. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. (Malachi 3:2-3).
30. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them. (Wisdom 3:4-6).
Everything in Catholic Christianity is built upon the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: his life, death, and resurrection have made it possible for us to be saved by grace through faith in the same Jesus Christ, our Lord and God. In the name of the most holy Trinity: through the blessed sacrament of baptism, we begin our life in Christ; we benefit from the perfect, constant prayers of the blessed virgin Mary and all the saints; we see Christ’s promise to remain with us until the end of the age fulfilled as he comes among us in his most holy Body and Blood at the Eucharist, where we may worship Him; and through the sacrament of reconciliation we are restored by the confession of our sins and the claiming of the promises of Christ—offered freely to all who admit that they are sinners and place their trust wholly in Jesus’ almighty, life-giving grace.
—D.E.B., The Third Tuesday in Advent, Anno Domini 2008.