Thursday, April 27, 2017

Grace First or Grace Alone? Good Gracious!

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the culmination of important and much-needed reforms of the Late Middle Ages but also the flashpoint for the unfortunate fissure of Western Christianity. Like fish in water, most of us were raised in a world wet by this unhappy division. We don’t know any different. We assume notions about “the other” through the same cultural matrix that informs our views about privilege, punctuality, poverty and pizza. “Catholics believe in salvation by works and Protestants proclaim salvation by grace.” Right? (sigh)

Well, we’ve come a long way since 1517. While differences remain, we’ve straightened out a lot of the nonsense about works righteousness, ringing coins and souls springing from purgatory. Today Protestants and Catholics acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are children of one Father, members of one Body, cleansed by one baptism, united by one Spirit, proclaimers of one faith, disciples of one Lord, evangelizers of one world, redeemed by one Savior, Jesus Christ. “We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port!” Pope Francis says. “Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all.”[1]

However, in the latest edition of Christianity Today, the subject of grace (of all things) seems to rear the ugly head of division yet again. And quite unnecessarily, I might add. The article features two contributors - one from the Catholic perspective and another representing the Protestant tradition - who have been asked to reflect on the nature of grace. Hence the title – “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us.”

I was eager to read the article, even more so when I discovered that the initial reflection was written by Bishop Robert Barron. Barron, a brilliant systematic theologian and adept ecumenist, offered a characteristically even-handed and conciliatory treatment of the Reformation, particularly in light of the Second Vatican Council. Extending the ecumenical olive branch, Barron notes:

Vatican II valorized a number of themes dear to the hearts of the Reformers: the primacy of Christ, the need for ardent evangelization, the central place of the Bible in the life of the church, using both bread and wine in Communion, the priesthood of all believers, etc. And it expressed its fervent hope for the unification of all those baptized into the body of Christ.[2]

“For this,” Barron continues, “both Protestants and Catholics should give thanks.” True to the Catholic tradition, Barron takes nothing away from the primacy of grace in the economy of salvation but his argument hinges on how Luther interprets “being”.[3] Does human cooperation with grace take away from or magnify God’s primacy and glory? This is the question Barron posits as the essential kernel. No mention of human “merit”, no suggestion that we have anything to boast about when it comes to salvation. It’s all by grace.

So it was particularly confusing (ok, disheartening) when the Protestant contributor strikes a notably different tone, immediately picking up the tired bone of Pelagianism. He states:

Our main objection to Catholic theology is the implication (if not straightforward claim) that merit other than Jesus’ own comes into play in the sinner’s reconciliation and right standing with God. . . All [Protestants] agree that, whatever the case may be, there can be no talk of human ‘merit’ and no ground for boasting of salvation.[4]

Hold on. What? Merit? Boasting? As a student of Catholic theology myself, I wondered what resources were informing his understanding of Catholicism.

While there are necessary distinctions to be made about efficient and instrumental causes of salvation, both Protestants and Catholics agree that God’s gift of grace through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the whole kit and caboodle of Christianity. The heart of our common message has been, and will always be the same, God’s love revealed in the crucified and risen Christ. We’re not talking about “merit” here. That case was closed definitively in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: “Together we confess, by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s work and not because of any merit of our own, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”[5] Pope Francis further clarifies, “No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift [as salvation]. God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him.”[6] Catholics don’t depend on our efforts toward salvation any more than we go around boasting about our cooperation with God’s grace. Good gracious!

Barron started his essay by citing Yves Congar, French Dominican, ecumenist and major architectural contributor to Vatican II (which Cardinal Dulles referred to as “Luther’s Unfinished Council”).[7] Congar suggested that if both sides had not given in to exaggerations and over-reactions, there would be no split in the Western Church. Such is the poignant lesson today.  

Jesus calls us to loving communion, to abide in one another as we abide in Christ. To heal the divisions in the one body we must listen to one another, truly listen. We must not give into the temptation of opening old wounds, stirring old controversies, and harboring uncritical prejudices. “How do we proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation after centuries of division?” Pope Francis asks. Through an open posture of good will. Through a faith that seeks understanding. By seeing a separated brother to be loved, not a contested argument to be won. By “losing our lives” for one another so that the world may believe in the power of God’s reconciling mercy.[8]

We are one in Christ. I pray that by God’s grace we can all live into that mystery as we commemorate (for the first time in history) the Reformation together.

[1] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 99.
[2] Bishop Robert Barron, “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us,” Christianity Today (April 2017), 44.
[3] The underpinnings of Luther’s notion of being rest in nominalism, a philosophical movement of the late medieval period championed by William of Ockham. Ockham asserts that God and creation are categorically univocal, meaning that God is one being (albeit “supreme being”) amongst other beings. This unintentionally posits a sort of ontological competition between God and humans, a zero-sum game when it comes to grace and glory. Accordingly, human “cooperation” with grace, as presented in the Catholic tradition, is said to compromise God’s absolute primacy in the economy of salvation.
            Catholicism, on the other hand, grounds its notion of being in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas presents God, not as one being amongst others, but the sheer act of being itself, the very agency through which all creatures have their existence. This understanding sees human cooperation with grace not in competition with God’s being but exemplifying and magnifying it.
[4] Roger E. Olson, “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us,” Christianity Today (April 2017), 45.
[5] The Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), 15.
[6] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 112.
[7] Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien notes, “By any account, Yves Congar is the most distinguished ecclesiologist of this century and perhaps of the entire post-Tridentine era. No modern theologian’s spirit was accorded fuller play in the documents of Vatican II than Congar’s.”
[8] Lk 9:24; Jn 17:23.


  1. Thank you for this post, Michael! I am grateful for your ground-breaking role in the ministry of Young Life, and for the crucial part you are playing in this journey toward Christian unity. May the Lord open our eyes to see one another as brothers, may we be quick to listen and slow to speak, and may we commit to a hermeneutic of charity rather than suspicion.

    1. Quick to listen,
      slow to speak
      and slow to become angry,
      because human anger
      does not produce the righteousness
      that God desires.
      Js 1:19-20

      You're a true blessing Andrew!!!


  2. Good words Michael. If I start responding beyond that I might not finish for a few days. In my personal experience I feel a coming together here and there that I never thought I'd see in my life time. It's palpable to me. A big hug to you - Jim Rayburn

    1. Thanks Jim. I often wonder what your dad would think of all this. After all, he did have that amazing conversation with Catholic seminarians in Rome back in '68, something he called "the highlight of his European tour." I think he was onto something before I was even born!

      God's Spirit is the source and protagonist of our unity. To the degree that we are united with him we are united with one another. After all, as Louis Evely so aptly noted, "Let's beware of so perfecting the formulas of dogma that we lose interest in its content. Believing in God presupposes not that we've acquired notions or data about religious experience, but that we've met a person - a living person; it implies a drawing near, a contact, a conversion and a reaching out."

      I'm so grateful for your friendship, for you drawing near and reaching out. Blessings to you Jim.


  3. Thanks for this, as always, Michael.

    A cursory observation of Protestant churches show that congregations tend toward homogeneity. In general, we have an aversion to the "other." One of the things we're coming to grips with is that our congregations should look more like our neighborhoods -- a diverse mix of races, ethnicities, and social classes. The only way we can truly enter into the "other's" experience is by rubbing elbows with them (so to speak). In this regard, intentionality is key, as is humility, openness, and compassion.

    I could see some kind of intentional work between Catholics and Protestants "rubbing elbows" together. An awkward (and sometimes painful) process to be sure, but one that is necessary and of heavenly consequence.

    Always your brother at the other end of the bridge.

    1. A brother indeed. Thanks for your kind and thoughtful response Chris.

      The trend toward homogeneity is something that affects all congregations I think. We have the same inclinations unfortunately in the Catholic Church. Christian Cleveland does a good job describing the social psychology behind such phenomenons in her 2013 book, "Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart." Things like group polarization, outgroup homogeneity effect, and perspective divergence are those pesky human problems that stem from our concupiscence, something we're all infected with. "The very presence of divisions in the body of Christ indicates that too many of us are still fighting the identity wars of our adolescence and that we are relying on the same tried and true tactics."

      Fortunately, there are those like you who, through Christ, have conjured the courage for cognitive generosity, for true and active listening, and for a "vision of embrace." Miroslav Volf put it this way:

      In an embrace I open my arms to create space in myself for the other. Open arms are a sign that I do not want to be by myself only, an invitation for the other to come in and feel at home with me. In an embrace I also close my arms around the other. Closed arms are a sign that I want to other to become a part of me while I at the same time maintain my own identity. By becoming part of me, the other enriches me. In a mutual embrace, none remains the same because each enriches the other, yet both remain true to their genuine selves.


      Thank you for "creating space in yourself for the other". I consider myself very lucky to be one of those "others" and to walk with you bearing the image of God in a mutual embrace.

  4. Marlowe C. EmbreeMay 1, 2017 at 2:51 PM

    As a an evangelical who is by no means anti-Catholic, I would appreciate a Catholic response about the current status of the anathemas of Trent. This isn't a polemic question. I admire the irenic spirit of the most recent three popes, but what is the magisterium's view of someone like me?

    1. Thanks Marlowe for your honest question. The short answer to how the Catholic Church (and the magisterium in particular) would view you is this: We love you. We embrace you in Christ as an indispensable member of the one Body. Let us forgive one another and heal the sad wounds of division that have separated us.

      As a longer reflection, I might suggest reading the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification." Well worth it for folks like you with such questions. Addressing your question it remarks:

      "Opposing interpretations and applications of the biblical message of justification were a principal cause of the division of the Western church in the sixteenth century and led as well to doctrinal condemnations. A common understanding of justification is therefore fundamental and indispensable to overcoming that division. By appropriating insights of recent biblical studies and drawing on modern investigations of the history of theology and dogma, the post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogue has led to a notable convergence concerning justification, with the result that this Joint Declaration is able to formulate a consensus on basic truths concerning the doctrine of justification, In light of this consensus, the corresponding doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century do not apply to today's partner."

      Another way of saying this, I believe, is to say that the anathemas of the sixteenth century, issued by both sides, do not apply to the contemporary relationship between Catholics and Lutherans today. Which is great news indeed!


Thanks so much for your input. I pray that this dialogue may be a blessing to you personally and to the ministry you exercise in Christ.