Did you notice? It’s Reformation Week. While Reformation Day/Week/Sunday is marked/celebrated in a relatively small minority of American Protestant churches, it carries historical significance–and modern-day importance for evangelization-minded Catholics. For many, “Reformation” has an inherently “oppposed-to-Catholicism” ring to it. Something to forget about, avoid remembering, and stay away from. But from our current place in history, this seems short-sighted and more importantly can form a barrier to helping people to make a decision to accept as the Church teaches, “the saving sovereignty of Christ” (Redemptoris Missio, §46).
As Father Raniero Cantalamesa, papal preacher since 1980, observed in a homily:
the great majority of Catholics have lived their whole lives never having directly heard preaching on the free gift of justification by faith without too many ‘buts’ and ‘howevers’ (Remember Jesus Christ, quoted here)
Is Fr. Cantalamesa correct?
Based on my personal experience, yes. Though I attended catechism classes and Mass weekly growing up, I did not effectively learn of the free gift of justification by faith. As a young adult Catholic I was fortunate to be a part of a parish that sponsored a discussion series with a neighboring Lutheran parish to read and talk about the Lutheran World Federation and Catholic Church’s 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). From the table discussions, I recall most of my fellow Catholic parishioners reacting with surprise that this was indeed part of our faith!
More recently, I’ve heard Fr. Michael White, pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, repeatedly preach the importance of receiving God’s grace as gift–not as something to be earned (for example, here or here). Based on his leadership team’s read of their audience in a historically/culturally Catholic part of the country, an anti-earning message is clearly quite important.
Why does this lack of hearing matter?
Because the free gift of justification in Jesus Christ is incredible. So amazing. So awesome. Something that should never be overlooked.
Beyond that, the free gift of justification has two important ramifications for many of the people we meet in our missionary evangelization and disciple-making.
First, it’s a clear antidote to what’s become “pop Christianity/Catholicism” for many–something called moral therapeutic deism. Coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, moral therapeutic deism includes the premises that:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Smith and Denton document this among American youth–yet anecdotally I’ve certainly seen it among Generation X, Baby Boomers, and older generations. Moral therapeutic deism and much of our popular/civic religion says we can do it on our own. But we can’t. Period.
Secondly, the free gift of justification is an antidote to any notion of earning or stocking up on grace to get to heaven.
As Fr. Ronald D. Witherup reflects,
As a child in catechism class, I remember being fascinated by the notion that grace could be quantified. Our teachers encouraged us to tank up with prayers and good deeds. Grace was like a substance put in a container, like storing up credit for a better place in God’s kingdom.
As a result:
many Catholics mistakenly thought that the purpose of their good works was to earn salvation. They imagined that prayers, good deeds, attending church, the corporal works of mercy, and so on were the way to merit a higher place in heaven. This is neither Paul’s teaching nor the Church’s.
Whether the error is moral therapeutic deism (I can do good myself!) or working one’s way to heaven (I can earn grace!) both are barriers to making a personal decision to accept the saving sovereignty of Christ. And this should concern all of us.
For example, if I’m convinced that my generally-good-not-a-murder life wins me eternal communion with God, then why would I ever need to repent and enter into relationship with Jesus as Lord? On the flip side, if I’m convinced that I have to work my way to heaven through Catholicism, then Jesus is not a gracious and and loving Lord, but a task master! And, I’d be missing out on the power of the Holy Spirit to enable growth in holiness.
FOCUS Catholic ministry’s Curtis Martin spoke to the USCCB a few months ago with this message:
Quoting chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel, Curtis shared one of Jesus’ parables: the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid—and for joy over it, he went and sold all that he had to buy the field (Mt. 13:44). When asking young people “How’s that Catholic thing going for ya?” Curtis found the overwhelming response to be, “This Catholic thing is really tough!” That is because young people are going through life trying to sell all they have to find a treasure. But that isn’t how the parable goes. In the story, the man found the treasure first. That treasure is one’s encounter with Christ’s love and the knowledge of His plan of salvation for each one of us.
The free gift of justification by faith is a critical part of God’s plan of salvation for every person in the world.
As the Joint Declaration states:
by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.
While I share the sentiment of the late Protestant theologian, Michael Spencer, who wrote regarding Reformation Day, “having a party celebrating the division of Christianity doesn’t really strike me as a something I want to do.” We should also not forget about the Reformation, nor forget that on October 31, 1999, Pope John Paul the Great explicitly supported the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification–affirming that by “no merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit.” A challenge to each of us, myself included, to preach this message far and wide so that many more of our friends, family members, co-workers, and parishioners might enjoy this deepest, most authentic freedom and love the world has to offer.