(Read Part 1.)
My intent in this article is to show from the Catechism of the Catholic Church a radically different understanding of nature and grace than what is taught by the Bible and held by Protestants. The Catholic view of grace and nature, along its view of Christ-Church interconnectedness, leads to a different gospel than found in the Bible. Lord willing, next week we will consider the Christ-church issue.
Our three main sources are the Bible, Allison’s Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).
We are entering into the Byzantine substructures of Roman Catholic theology. And while I am attempting to make sure each article in the series can stand alone, the reader will be greatly assisted by reading the first article in this series.
Allow me to define our terms as we begin: “Nature” in Christian vocabulary is God’s created order and includes everything that God created. And “Grace, in an all-encompassing sense, is the providential activity of God to sustain created nature in existence and to direct it to its divinely designed end, and his redemptive activity to rescue this created order from its fallenness due to sin” (Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice, 46).
According to the Bible, grace is not a quality or a quantity placed within the heart of a man, but rather it is God freely bestowing His kindness (Luke 6:35, Eph. 2:8-9). Grace is a direct action of God founded on his love and kindness. The blessings of grace are measurable, but grace itself is an action bestowed freely according to God’s promises through his Spirit.
When we read of grace in the Scripture, there can be no suggestion of merit, because grace is God’s response to our demerit:
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. (Rom. 5:15)
The trespass of Adam earned condemnation. Adam changed human nature in such a way as to only produce sinful works (Isa. 64:6). We have merited war with God in Adam and by our works, but we cannot merit grace with our broken natures or with a regenerated spirit. Earned grace would be a wage and “wages are not counted as a gift” (Rom. 4:4). So Paul asks in frustration, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7)
The historic critique of Roman doctrine was well aware of the problem of grace and nature. John Calvin (1509-1564) provides an example in his commentary on Romans 5:15:
Hence grace means the free goodness of God or gratuitous love, of which he has given us a proof in Christ, that he might relieve our misery: and gift is the fruit of this mercy, and hath come to us, even the reconciliation by which we have obtained life and salvation, righteousness, newness of life, and every other blessing. We hence see how absurdly the schoolmen have defined grace who have taught that it is nothing else but a quality infused into the hearts of men; for grace, properly speaking, is in God; and what is in us is the effect of grace.1
Grace according to the Bible and Protestant theology “is in God.” Grace is God’s love as expressed towards sinners. The gifts of grace are the effects of God’s love towards sinners and are freely bestowed without reference to the will of man (cf. Rom. 9:16, 1 Cor. 12:11, 2 Peter 1:21). God gives His grace without consulting us or being controlled by us. The blessing, whether it be regeneration or baptism, is evidence of God’s grace, but the blessing is not, properly speaking, God’s grace.
We can compare grace to a wedding band. I wear a wedding ring as evidence of my wife Kimberly’s love for me, but the band is not Kimberly’s love. Kimberly and my marriage, children, household are all the effects of our love, but these things are not our love. And the Bible describes grace as an affection and favor and not as a thing.
It is the argument of Protestant Christians that grace flows to us as a gift of the Holy Spirit. And that grace either is the Spirit or the active working of the Spirit, but grace itself is not a spiritual substance. No sinful man can give grace as a necessary benefit.2
The Rupture Between Nature & Grace
What I’ve sketched above is in general the teaching of Protestants with fraternal disagreements about the order of salvation, what happens in infant baptism, and different degrees of theological consistency. Yet imbedded in this description is a particular understanding of nature and grace. Most importantly there is a rupture between nature and grace that must be repaired by the Spirit.
Unlike Protestant thought, the Catholic system sees nature and grace as interdependent. Nature and grace function together for the purpose of elevating nature to experience the glory of God. Things can have grace inside of them as a spiritual substance.
Thus in the Catholic system the waters of baptism can communicate grace to the person being baptized—the person gets wet and gets grace. The wetness of the water and the giving of grace occur in the same action and through the same substance, because nature and grace are interdependent and in continuum.
Thus we read in the CCC 1238, “The baptismal water is consecrated by a prayer of epiclesis…” (The word epiclesis means the calling down.) The CCC goes on, “The church asks God that through his Son the power of the Holy Spirit may be sent upon the water, so that those who will be baptized in it may be ‘born of water and the Spirit.’” The “prayer of epiclesis” calls down the Spirit on the water and then this grace is stored in the water. The water can be pre-consecrated at the Easter vigil or immediately consecrated by the priest.
We read next in the catechism: “The essential rite of the sacrament follows: Baptism properly speaking. It signifies and actually brings about death to sin and entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity through configuration to the Paschal mystery of Christ” (1239).
The water carries within it or is a channel of grace and necessarily does the work intended by the church. And it’s this way with the wafer, oil of chrism, and wine. The stuff carries within it different sorts of grace and the grace necessarily does the work assigned to it.
To come to this view the Roman Catholic Church created a radically different understanding of nature and grace than taught by the Bible. Protestants, in agreement with the Bible, teach that sin ruptured, destroyed, the ability of human beings to do good, and that salvation is not merely an issue of renovation and perfection of nature, but it is a radical re-creation of a fallen nature.
Nature in Roman Catholic thought is tainted by sin, but there is no absolute brokenness; all nature including the human soul “still possesses a capacity to receive, transmit, and cooperate with grace” (Allison, 47).
Thomas of Aquinas (1224-1275), the architect and popularizer of much of this theology, in his commentary on the book of Romans illustrates the issue:
But in the unbeliever along with his unbelief is the good of his nature. Therefore, when an unbeliever does something from the dictate of reason and does not refer it to an evil end, he does not sin. However, his deed is not meritorious, because it was not enlivened by grace.3
Thomas taught with modern Rome that an unbeliever can do things that are not a sin, because his entire nature has good within it. Sin is a disorder that can be overcome by human effort or be assisted by grace.
Grace perfects what is already good in the sinner, and grace combined with personal effort then leads to merit. The Catechism tells us that “ ‘merit’ refers in general to the recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of its members” (2006).
It’s not possible to “merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification” (2010). But, when “[m]oved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life” (Ibid.).
Roman Catholic thought sees nature as not only good, but with both the ability and capacity to voluntarily and even mechanically cooperate with grace. Further, because there is a continuum between grace and nature, grace has attributes similar to nature. Grace becomes a spiritual substance.
When the priest prays over the baptismal waters, then the power of regeneration, justification, and so forth clings to the water. As long as the water is used in the proper way, it gives the grace of baptism to the recipient. And, in the same way that I can earn cash from an employer and then request that the salary be given to my son, so grace can be earned and directed to others. Or as we just read “we can merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed.”
The most grossly economic use of graces as merit is found in the Catholic doctrine of the “Church’s treasury.” It’s described this way in sections 1474-1479:
1475—“In the communion of the saints, ‘a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.”
1476—“We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of the saints the Church’s treasury….
1477—“This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary…. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord… In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.”
1478—An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individuals and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies….
1479—Since the faithful departed now being purified [in purgatory] are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.
Indulgences can be earned in a variety of ways and the indulgence can be used for both the living and the dead. One can pay for extra Masses to be said, go on a pilgrimage, do good works, or simply pay cash.
What should be clear is that thoughtful Protestants and Catholics view the universe in very different ways and view grace in radically different ways. In the papal system grace takes part in some of the attributes of nature, grace can be stored, earned, traded, and sold. Nature is a fit receptacle for grace, because the Fall did not damage nature.
In 1517, Martin Luther published the 95 Theses in response to the vulgarity and grossness of Johann Tetzel sale of indulgences. Tetzel’s preaching only violated a single aspect of the current Catechism. Purchasers of indulgences must now be “duly disposed” (1471). Tetzel, and the modern Roman Church, can sell grace because of their doctrine of grace and nature.
While the grossest abuses of the papal system have been muted since the Reformation, the fundamental doctrine on grace and nature has not changed. And this doctrine is antithetical to the gospel of grace.
The gospel of grace knows nothing of merit for salvation or blessing: “O LORD, you will ordain peace for us, for you have indeed done for us all our works” (Isa. 26:12).
And the cry of the preachers of the true gospel remains the same for all time:
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live… (Isa 55:1-3a)
1 Romans 5:15, Commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans, vol. 19, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003. 207-208.
2 My paedobaptist friends, including Calvin, allow a single exception to this rule in infant baptism, but they quickly right themselves in the rest of their theology of grace.
3 Romans 14:20-23, Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, C. 14, L. 3, in Biblical Commentaries, vol. 37. Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012, 390.
Shane Walker became the pastor of Andover Baptist Church, Linthicum, MD in June of 2007. Raised in Iowa, Shane graduated from the University of Iowa in 1996. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Kimberly, have four children: Hannah, Malee, James, and John.