How Much Grace? Reflecting on Conversion in Catholic and Reformed Christianity

Editors’ note: 

When we put our faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit directly and permanently unites us to Jesus.

Recently, with the anniversary of the Reformation, I’ve been thinking through some of the ways the Reformation changed the way we think about ourselves with regard to sin and righteousness. I’ve been trying in particular, particular to find a way to visualise how the reformation changed the way we think about conversion and what it means.

Here’s my attempt to lay it out.

1. Before Conversion

Both reformed and Catholic theology understand humans to be guilty before God. Yet there is a difference in the understanding of what that means.

Catholics think of humans as guilty on account of actual sins (their own and Adam’s). But they see these sins coming from a disorder in human desire. Humans aren’t intrinsically evil, more confused—like shopping trollies with wonky wheels.

…human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin—an inclination to evil.  
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 404) 

The reformers say that human nature isn’t just damaged; it’s corrupt. Our individual sins come from hearts that are hostile to God. Humans don’t want God telling us how to live (though we might do what he says when it pleases us) and we don’t want to admit that we are guilty before him.

… man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.  (39 Articles of Religion, Article 9)

Justification Pre Conversion

2. Conversion

Catholics and reformed Christians both believe: 

  • humans need forgiveness; 
  • Jesus provides that forgiveness through his death and resurrection; 
  • we need God to change our hearts so that we’ll trust in him; 
  • that the grace to live a new life comes through being united to Christ by faith and through the Spirit.

But there are differences in the way these things are understood—most significantly in the area of grace.

Catholicism tends to give the (Catholic) church a monopoly on the distribution of Christ’s grace. If you want forgiveness or strengthening you need to get baptised; or go to confession; or attend mass etc. The sacraments (and other means of grace) parcel-out the grace of Christ and deliver them to the faithful. Baptism provides the biggest chunk of grace, providing forgiveness for every previous sin and transforming believers so that you become truly righteous.

Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1992) 

Reformation Christianity thinks about grace in a more direct and personal way. When we put our faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit directly and permanently unites us to Jesus. Because we belong to Jesus, he takes responsibility for all our sins and gives us every blessing won by his life, death and resurrection. Though we remain sinners our lives are now part of Christ’s life—and he has already paid the price for our sins by dying on the cross.

[Faith] unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh. …  Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own … Here, this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell

(Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty)
By the grace and the power of the same Spirit, we are made his members, to keep us under himself and in turn to possess him. (3.1.3) … That joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed.
(Jean Calvin, Institutes 3.1.3, 3.11.10)

Justification Conversion

3. After Conversion:

Both Catholic and reformed Christians look to Christ to provide further spiritual help for the  maintenance and strengthening of their faith. Some of this help comes through the church, some can be received directly.

Reformed Christianity understands this ongoing sanctifying grace as another aspect of our union with Christ. The same Spirit that gathered us to Christ; now begins to change us from within—primarily through God’s Word, sacraments and the gifts exercised within the church. Bit by bit, Christ’s life and character becomes ours.

Christ, when he illumines us into faith by the power of his Spirit, at the same time so engrafts us into his body that we become partakers of every good.
(Institutes, III.2.35)

Catholics might agree with that, yet, for them, the stakes of the struggle are higher. They believe that sanctification includes maintaining the righteousness that you were given at baptism. If you fail, and commit minor sins, that means time in purgatory after you die. If you commit serious sins, you will lose your grace altogether and go to hell. In both cases, you can get more grace to deal with these things through the intercessions of the church. 

Justification Post Conversion

Reflecting on the Traditions

As I’ve been struggling to understand the relationship between Catholic and Reformation Christianity, it has struck me that the two main differences between the systems are the immediacy of Christ and the seriousness of sin.

Both agree that sin can only be taken away by Christ, and that the Christian life cannot begin without internal changes wrought by the Holy Spirit. But Catholic Tradition controls and rations that grace. It doles it out through discreet ceremonies and actions (mostly) mediated by the church. In between those, believers must stand on their own record.

It’s not hard to see that many of the Catholic Church’s extra-biblical innovations surrounding sin and forgiveness are attempts to do with fears about living under such intermittent grace: purgatory, venial sin, merit, indulgences, private masses for the dead—all these innovations are attempts to plug the holes in grace.

The reformed tradition, on the other hand, stresses the immediate and unbroken connection between Christ and the believer. Though many of Christ’s blessings are communicated in the context of church life (especially through the Word and the sacraments), the bedrock of reformed Christianity is direct and personal spiritual union with Jesus.

Because reformed believers never need to stand on their own before God, they are also free to be honest about their own sin. They can say, with Paul, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” (Rom 7:18) because they are thoroughly convinced that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1)—with emphasis on “no” and “in”.

Truthfully, many Catholics have instinctively known this too. Even at Trent, there were those who protested that a believer could never do enough to satisfy the requirements of divine justice.[1] Even today in item 2011 of the Catholic Catechism we find a statement that might have been written by a reformer. It might be a good note to finish with:

  In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.

(Thérèse of Lisieux, Act of Offering) [2]

Photo: Amritanshu Sikdar, unsplash

[1] See comments by Cardinal Seripando in B. L. McCormack, Justification in perspective : historical developments and contemporary challenges (Grand Rapids, Mich Edinburgh: Baker Academic Rutherford House, 2006), 132-134.

[2]… This is not to say that the Catechism cites Thérèse with a reformed understanding. When it says “Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God” [my emph.] it is probably speaking of congruent merit where imperfect human works might be received as righteous on account of Christ’s merits. Of course, if that’s the case, then Thérèse’s statement should be amended to speak of “almost empty hands” and “mostly blemished.”