Grace and Catholicism Part III – Repentance
Grace and Catholicism Part III – Repentance
We approach the edge of a cliff. Flailing arms wildly, we careen toward the brink and launch outward into abyss. Abyss of inscrutability, abyss of love, abyss of justice. Abyss of knowing and unknowing, of God and man, of freedom … or something else? In line with the subject of our series, this abyss represents the dire difficulties raised when we speak about the human will in matters of salvation.
Christians are staunchly divided on this most critical issue. A great many of the theological conversations I witness—whether among friends or via internet platforms—center on a seemingly stark division between “salvation by works” and “salvation by faith.” As dualisms go, this is an especially silly one. It tends to reduce to “salvation because of things we do” and “salvation because of things God does.” My purpose here is to show that these sorts of black and white statements about salvation make no sense. They are not Scripturally sound, and fail to accurately describe the life that Christians experience.
Repentance is the core of Christianity. John the Baptist got it going: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 3:2).1 Christ confirmed the command: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matt 4:17). And Peter handed on the message: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19). Without repentance, we are no different than the children of darkness—those who despise the light of Christ and attempt to distort or demolish the message that God forgives, enlightens, and renews human beings for immortality.
But who takes the first step? While we are the ones repenting, this activity is impossible without God first convicting us of our sin and empowering us to desire that the chains be broken. God frees us from the bondage of sin just as God liberated the people of Israel from the oppression of their captors. When we’re stuck in a bind, languishing in our own pride, lust, greed, envy, laziness, indulgence, or belligerence, we are just as helpless as Gideon’s group of three hundred before an army of thousands (Judges 6-8).
All Christians admit that we are incapable of repentance without the prior assistance of grace. At the same time, all believe that God speaks to us, encouraging us to repent of our sins and open our hearts to the Gospel. Repentance is a thing we do; it is a response. When we confess our sins—whether in an assembly, before a priest, to friends and family members, or privately—we are doing something. We are acting. We are acknowledging failure and brokenness and we are resolving to amend, to heal relations with God and neighbor. When we repent, the goal is growth in grace. Repentance enables us to stop destructive behavior and start building up the kingdom of God in ourselves, in others, and in the world. In other words, salvation is impossible without repentance.
Let’s review. We have established that repentance is a work (something we do) that relates to our salvation. We have also established that repentance is not something humans do alone, since God initiates and supports our efforts. The act of repentance—manifested in sorrow, confession, and resolution to make amends—is truly ours because it is truly God’s. God also brings our repentance to fruition. The power of forgiveness—the power that revitalizes hearts to love God and neighbor—cannot originate in the sinner who is repenting. Far from it! It is God’s love that propels forgiveness. This love embraces the whole human person, transforming mind, will, and heart.
We have, as is so often the case with the deepest truths of the Christian faith, stumbled upon a paradox. Repentance is inevitably a “both God and us” scenario. The Catholic position on grace, which I’ve tried to describe in this series, is simply an extension of this same truth. We believe that interaction between “God and us” continues to the end, and effects every aspect of our salvation. God would have it no other way. Thus, we are not concerned with tired tropes of “justification vs sanctification” or “faith vs works.”
Why is there such hearty division among Christians on these topics? Divisions arise, as I see it, from differences in philosophical theology and Biblical interpretation. First, I will describe the philosophical/theological impasse. Do human beings possess the freedom to make choices that have bearing on salvation? Before we begin to answer the query, indeed before it leaves our lips, we run into vexing philosophical debates about what is meant by “freedom” and “choice.” These debates, in turn, impact the way we use the theological term “salvation.” One camp understands salvation as the journey of a person to God—a holistic process that occurs in this world and the next. Another understands salvation as a once-for-all imputation of the gift of Christ’s life. But now we have another problem. What is meant by “Christ’s life?” How does it relate to “our” life? The questions continue, until both sides are reduced to the basic position of either affirming or denying the involvement of the human will in salvation.
Above, I believe I have made a solid case for affirming the human will in a matter that concerns salvation (repentance). This affirmation of the will does not, as opponents fear, remove God from the picture. But how far and where to affirm the will in the whole of Christian life is another debate altogether. It is not a debate we can have without some admission of mutuality between us and God. We can’t write ourselves out of the equation, nor can we make ourselves the master mathematician. Hence, I have chosen to end this series with the simple goal of removing prejudice against human effort. I repent of doing much else, since we can achieve nothing without first admitting that we are involved in this life, in this drama of salvation that plays out across time—as the Scriptures record.2
It is to the Scriptures that we turn in conclusion. I mentioned that Biblical interpretation is the second impasse we face when attempting to describe the human will and salvation. In lieu of what would necessarily be an extended discussion on exegetical theory, let’s take one passage and explore two potential interpretations. That passage is Christ’s command: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Free will sympathizers interpret this exhortation as a goal to which humans must aspire. Those concerned about the dangers of admitting free will in matters of salvation, on the other hand, approach the passage with trepidation and qualification.3 Christ would seem to be demanding something that is impossible. But to say so opposes the very spirit of our Lord’s words, which are a call to repentance, charity, works of mercy, and taking up the cross. Placing too much emphasis on human inability overshadows such exhortations, just as a pessimistic view of human nature strips away divine-human mutuality from the life of faith (see Part I of this series).
To be fair, all Christians acknowledge that human perfection—considered in the abstract, or without divine assistance—is impossible. So we can also err on the side of free will, if we assume that Christ’s commands are to be accomplished with little or no divine aid (Pelagianism). But I argue that it is more damaging to rob Christ’s words of their power by denigrating the human will than it is to attribute too much strength to the will in its quest to follow our Lord’s commands. If and when we fall, we can always count on Christ to raise us back up again, and—through twists and turns—continue to lead us toward greater glory. That, friends, is the promise of Christianity itself: we will one day become deiform. Growth toward God occurs in, with, and through us because Christ himself works in, with, and through us. This union of God and man is the fundamental ground of grace. It is the safeguard against vainglory and the liberation from lust that sets us free to live in holiness.
I pray that you will read this and be edified. I pray that we will continue to encourage each other in our journeys toward God. But most of all, I pray with David: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore until me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.” (Psalm 51)
1) The Scripture quotations contained herein are from The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2) My goal in this series—which now comes to its own “repentant” end—has not been to create controversy or sow discord. In the light of this moment, I see little value in long debates about free will, or about Scriptural exegesis of passages dealing with free will. Much verbiage cannot alter the fundamental disjunction between those who affirm mutuality between God and humanity, and those who deny it. A fundamental union between faith and works lies tacitly in the background of every theological conversation, animating us with the will and ability to speak humanly about God.
3) Here is a response I received via email from a Missouri Synod Lutheran on the topic: “Don’t quote the sermon on the mount as an example of how to live. My eyes, ears, hands and reproductive organs would be cut off (I have considered that truthfully) if I took that sermon as a literal guide on how to live a God-pleasing life. The whole point of that sermon is to point you to the cross and how necessary it is.”