Saturday, August 25, 2007

Rome, Having Christ, and Meriting Eternal Life

Continuing a conversation with Japhy, a kind Roman Catholic blog neighbor, about why the Protestants have been Protesting. This current is a response to "part 3".
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

I'm going to break out this conversation into two sections: What does it mean to have Christ, and what merits eternal life.

What does it mean to have Christ?
As we had discussed before, to have Christ is to have eternal life; not to have Christ is not to have eternal life.

Japhy writes
What does it mean to "have Christ" (that is, to fill the need for Christ)? Does it mean...
  • saying the sinner's prayer?
  • being baptized?
  • going to church on a regular basis?
  • loving your neighbor and your enemy?
  • doing corporal and spiritual works of mercy?
  • reading the Bible often?
  • evangelizing?

I could ask 50 different Christian communities and get 50 different sets of answers! Some might say that a person who professes to believe in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior (that is, to "have Christ") yet who does not do some of the things I have mentioned doesn't really have Christ (or is in danger of losing Christ).
I think we might even disagree at square one on this one. There's the part where you say "to 'have Christ' (that is, to fill the need for Christ)", that sets off red flags in my head. The only way to fill the need for Christ is to have Christ; I'd question whether "having Christ" needs to be interpreted at all. I think that "having Christ" ought to be seen as self-explanatory. Let me use an analogy; since you're a newlywed I'll use marriage as an example. What does it mean to have a wife? Does it mean wearing a ring (what happens if you take it off to do the dishes)? Does it mean showing kindness to someone you love (what happens if you're a grump for a day)? Does it mean sharing a bed (what if you're on a business trip or in the doghouse for a couple of days)? Or maybe "having a wife" just means having a wife, and all those things are pretty darn likely to follow but shouldn't be mistaken for having a wife. Maybe 50 different answers about what it means to "have a wife" are all legitimate if you're making a list of what follows, but are all an exercise in missing the point if they're mistaken for the thing itself. Having a wife (for you) means that a kind-hearted and friendly girl named Kristin is forever part of who you are: having Kristin means having Kristin; the rest follows. Back to "having Christ". Having Christ means having Christ; if we ask "what it really means" we have to be careful. Are we asking what follows? Then there are lots things that follow, none of which should be mistaken for the thing itself. Are we asking if "having Christ" really means something else and we can look somewhere besides Christ (maybe a Bible study regime or participation in charity or attendance at church) for whether we really "have Christ"? Then we've missed the point very badly. I've known people who wear rings and are not married; I've known people who attend church and do charity work and do Bible studies and write theology, and nothing is further from their minds than Christ. So on this one, I want to go back and underline where we started: having Christ means having Christ, just as (in your case) marriage is not primarily about rings but about Kristin.

What merits eternal life?
Japhy, I believe you're quoting from the Council of Trent here when you say:
Christ ... continually infuses strength into those justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing further is wanting to those justified to prevent them from being considered to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life. (Emphasis Japhy's)
There it is; that's what we're protesting. Let's see if I can explain to you exactly what the objection is. I have no objection, by the way, to the fact that you mention the parable of the talents and point out that there is a legitimate reward given to those who willingly serve God. The question comes when we get to whether believers have "fully satisfied the divine law" by such works, whether believers have "truly merited eternal life" by such works. It's difficult to explain to you just how wild I think those assertions are, made by the Council of Trent, that our human efforts could "fully satisfy the divine law". Where is the acknowledgment that we still sin daily in thought, word, action, and omission, and primarily in lack of love? How could anyone possibly imagine that, just because by the grace of God we sometimes do the good works he lays before us, we have somehow "fully satisfied the divine law"? "Be holy" and "be perfect" are divine law. Not to hate is divine law. Not to lust in our hearts is divine law. If the one without sin were to throw the first stone, even in a church today or a convention of supposed saints, the wrongdoer would still walk away without a scratch. Nobody "fully satisfies the divine law". Nobody gets through without forgiveness and mercy, neither before nor after the gifts by which we slowly learn to love God's will. May I never imagine that whatever good works I have "truly merited eternal life". Not only did it begin as a gift, but it also ended as a gift. I never merited it. It was not merely a gift at first until God could make me good enough to earn it; it was a gift all along. Let's look at a parable: the workers in the vineyard. The people who are workers in the vineyard from the earliest morning may have merited their pay at the end of the day. But the vast majority of people who were paid at the end of the day, according to that parable, never merited what they got: not at the beginning, not in the middle, not at the end. There alone Trent's blanket statement about believers meriting eternal life flies in the face of what Christ taught. Now, if you could find someone who had been working at the kingdom's work without running out once their whole life, maybe you've found someone who merited eternal life. But I know already that you don't know any such person: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace.

There is no objection to the idea of God working in us to will and to work good things. There is no objection to the idea that our good works done in Christ may be recognized. The objection is when someone starts imagining that we have therefore satisfied the law, that we have therefore merited eternal life. We all sin daily. We all need mercy daily. And not one of us merits eternal life. It is a gift.

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