Grace and Catholicism, Part I: Catechism
“Gratia Dei et contentione voluntatis excellentiam virtutis adipiscimur” (Through the grace of God and the contention of the will, we will reach the perfection of virtue)
This article is the first in three-part series on Grace and Catholicism. I have chosen this topic because it often gives rise to many misunderstandings, due both to its complexity and the unhelpful polarity that has emerged (i.e. portrayals of salvation occurring through “works” or “grace”) particularly since the Reformation. The following paragraphs will serve as a general introduction to the issue, drawing primarily from the current Catholic Catechism. My second installment will delve more deeply into dogmatic concerns, utilizing the manual of doctrine composed by Ludwig Ott. The third and final section will treat Augustine’s Letter 140 in order to ground the debate historically and give “The Doctor of Grace” a chance to speak.
I’d like to begin with a question: “How does Christ work in us?” Common to all Christians is the assumption that, somehow, Christ enables us to become “new creatures” (2 Cor 5:17) and to “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as [we] bear fruit in every good work” (Col 1:10). Let’s call this work of Christ in us “grace.” All Christians can agree that this is the goal—and yet all are far from consensus about how this goal is to be reached.
Followers of Christ acknowledge that faith is a journey. 2 Peter 3:18 enjoins us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” And yet the reality of sin remains. How can Christians reconcile the vivifying work of Christ in (and through) humanity with Scriptural language about human frailty and weakness?
“Called to beatitude but wounded by sin, man stands in need of salvation from God. Divine help comes to him in Christ through the law that guides him and the grace that sustains him: ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Phil 2:12–13).”1 Speaking under the heading “Life in Christ,” the authors of the Catechism refer to a dual movement on the part of Christ and a dual response on the part of humanity.2 The activity of Christ in giving Grace cannot be understood without also considering Christ’s fulfillment (not supersession!) of the Law.
The Law is more than just negative precepts. The Catechism denotes four “expressions” of Moral Law: eternal, natural, revealed, and civil/ecclesiastical.3 All four can only be fully understood through the person and work of Jesus Christ.4 Here, I will briefly discuss natural and revealed law, since they apply most directly to the basics of the Christian walk. Moral law is accessible to all people. It is a foundation of common principles that unites humanity in the ability to discern truth and goodness. However, “the precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately,”5 hence the necessity of “revealed law.” Revealed law is both the “Old Law” and the “New Law”—it is the unity between Testaments made known by Christ and epitomized in the Sermon on the Mount. With this background, we can now discuss one of the most important articles in the Catechism: “Grace and Justification.”
Humanity can do nothing, without Christ, to gain salvation. Catholics, and indeed all Christians, agree with this statement completely. It is the most basic truth of our condition. I began with the question “How does Christ work in us?” This question implies an interplay between Christ and humanity when it comes to the Christian walk. Unfortunately, that interplay is often short-circuited when the details of grace are discussed. Arguments emerge about the definition of good works wherein participants set up only two options: good works can be credited to “us,” or solely to “Christ.” To myself, and to the Catholic Catechism, such a divide between Christians and Christ, between the sanctified person and the acts attributable to that person, is not resonant with Scripture, and fails to adequately account for growth in the Christian life.
Sticking to the original question, “How does Christ work in us?”, Catholics believe that humans cooperate with Christ in the sanctified life. According to the Catechism, “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.”6 Faith and Love: these two are inseparable in the Christian life. “With Justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us.”7 First and foremost, Christ saves us. He makes all that we do possible. But Christ’s action in us is not static: it is made known through the completion of the good work begun in us (Phil 1:6; cf. Eph 2:10). Christ renews our interior life and spurs our desire to serve God in the perfect freedom of love (Jas 1:25, cf. Gal 5:1).
In this desire to love, humans work with that grace that is given them—in the vocations within which they are placed and using the gifts of the Holy Spirit they have received (1 Cor 12:4–11). Our humanity does not disappear when we do good works: it becomes more evident. Nourished by the Word, the Sacraments, and the Church, we grow in loving God and our neighbors. This very growth in love, for Catholics, cannot be divorced from our salvation. It is the most basic component of the journey to God. Christ does not work in us by erasing our freedom, totally subsuming our actions under his auspices. One of my teachers called him “the divine chiropractor.” In this metaphor, Christ works in us by realigning our distorted and selfish desires toward what (or Whom) we truly desire, toward the life we were made to live. Grace is for the whole person.
Hence the view that there can be no fundamental separation between justification and sanctification. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”8 There can also be no separation between faith and works. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:17). “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). We can only know a tree by its fruits (see Luke 6:44), and “those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” (1 John 4:20). I endeavor to take this calling seriously, but acknowledge that I need help. So let us all turn to the Lord in prayer, and unite in our worship communities in order to better praise God not only with our words and thoughts but also with our actions.
Next Post: The specifics of grace and merit! Feel free to challenge this view or ask questions.
2 Also see below, on the inextricability of justification and sanctification.
Translation of Image: Through the grace of God and the contention of the will, we will reach the perfection of virtue.