[originally posted on 17 July 2002; expansion of a paper written in 1982]
The original part of the following essay dates from June 1982, when I was an evangelical Protestant. I have decided to keep the old paper intact, but to comment (in green) on portions which -- as a Catholic -- I feel need further elaboration or reinterpretation from a Catholic perspective. I hope this format will help the reader understand the commonalities and differences between Catholics and Protestants, and (as the case may be) to better comprehend my own change of mind within the Christian faith (as well as my growth in understanding as a Christian over twenty years): what theological beliefs were modified or discarded, and also the considerable number of doctrines or outlooks which remained the same.
Did you ever wonder about what exactly the gospel is and what Jesus' death on the cross meant? The word gospel means "good news," and refers to the attainment of a life of joy, fulfillment, love and peace as a result of God's revelation of His character and plan of salvation in the person of Jesus.
This is a rather broad notion of the word gospel. Rather, I would say that this is referring to the Christian walk as a totality, or Christian discipleship. A "life of joy, fulfillment, love and peace" is the hopeful result or the fruits of an acceptance of the Good News, not the Good News itself. I myself had this awareness of the above distinction twenty years ago.
Of course, for the gospel to have any validity, one must believe that God exists and that the Bible is His Word; that is, God's written message to mankind. There is an abundance of evidence supporting these two assertions from many fields of study.
Technically, one wouldn't have to believe the Bible was God's Word and divinely inspired in order to accept the gospel. All that would be strictly necessary was to believe that it accurately recorded the words of Jesus, as a trustworthy historical document, and then to accept the teachings of Jesus (or, for that matter, His disciples and apostles, such as St. Paul). After all, the early Christians didn't yet possess the New Testament. They accepted the gospel on the basis of verbal proclamation from eyewitnesses.
That Jesus made extraordinary claims for Himself (i.e. that He was God) is utterly beyond dispute; and His Resurrection is strongly supported by the historical evidence (if one allows for the possibility of it). Therefore, let's look at what the Bible teaches concerning salvation and eternal life. First of all, it cannot be stressed enough that God loves all of us and does not desire to punish us in any way: "How can I give you up . . . How can I hand you over, O Israel! . . . My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender" (Hosea 11:8). "God is love'" (1 John 4:8).
I would also add these verses: "The Lord . . . is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9); "O Jerusalem. Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" (Matthew 23:37).
God is also perfectly holy, however, and this makes necessary a turning away from sin (repentance), so that He can help us and we can begin to know Him: "No one in all the world is good; no one is innocent" (Romans 3:10). "All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6).
Catholics and Protestants agree that no one can save themselves (over against the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, which denied the absolute necessity of God's grace and His taking the initiative in all salvation) and that everyone has fallen short of attainment of salvation and righteousness due to original sin (with the exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary who was saved in a different fashion: by a miraculous removal of original sin in the Immaculate Conception). We don't believe that good deeds are filthy, or that man is a sinner by nature, so that even good things become evil. The above verses have to be interpreted in context. The interpretation implied above was an innovation of Luther, following trends in medieval nominalist theology, which was a corruption of orthodox Scholasticism.
Repentance is a regret over past sins and a decision to change for the better, with God's help: "It is a broken spirit You want, O God; remorse and penitence' (Psalms 51:17). If anyone sincerely wants to follow Jesus and become a Christian,
That is (in the Catholic perspective), to become a consistent, committed Christian in right relationship with God, following His commands and living righteously. This is a constant struggle, which is why we believe in sacramental confession, to renew the resolve of following Jesus wholeheartedly and without the hypocrisy of sin (by God's grace: which is offered in the sacrament). Catholics also believe that a person becomes a Christian at baptism. They must confirm their commitment upon reaching the age of reason (usually thought to be six or seven) and at confirmation (usually at age twelve). Receiving the Holy Eucharist after the age of reason gives Christians grace and power to live as they ought to live. One may know what God expects of him; the catch is being able to do it. Catholics believe the sacraments and prayer enable a Christian to live a holy life, consecrated to God.
. . . he or she must count the cost and be willing to totally submit every area of life to Jesus, to "deny himself and take up his cross" (Matthew 16:24). In other words, we must be willing to do what God wants us to do in every situation even when it is very difficult for us and incomprehensible. A Christian no longer controls his own life, but rather, lets God control it. This entails a trust in God's goodness and perfect knowledge of what's best for us (the simplest definition of faith). This is called "dying to yourself."
The Bible teaches the necessity of conversion: "unless you are born again you can never get into the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). This refers to a spiritual birth.
Yes, indeed, but Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Church of Christ, and some other Christian groups place this regeneration ("born again") at baptism.
Why is it necessary? Because "the person who isn't a Christian can't understand or accept the things of God. They sound foolish because only those who have the Holy Spirit within them can understand them" (1 Corinthians 2:14). To be born again, you must swallow your pride and humble yourself before God and recognize your total dependence on God.
This would apply to an adult who had never been baptized. Otherwise, a person would have to confess their sins if they were serious enough (what we call a mortal or grave sin) to have caused them to depart from a heartfelt devotion to Christ and a personal relationship with Him. We agree that a person must be indwelt by the Holy Spirit to understand the things of God. Catholics deny that salvation is a one-time event.
Having done this, you will receive the Holy Spirit, also described as "Jesus coming into your heart". This is what is called the Indwelling and it is what gives Christians joy and the ability to do all that God commands them to do (providing they are willing). No one could live as God wants us to without the constant help of the Spirit within, supplying power and strength. About this, Jesus said: " will only reveal Myself to those who love Me and obey Me. The Father will love them too, and We will come to them and live with them" (John 14:23) .
Again, Catholics place this event at baptism; it is renewed and confirmed at the sacrament of confirmation. Catholics believe in a conversion of heart; we simply think this is an ongoing process whenever we fall into serious sin. We must rededicate ourselves to God. For the Catholic, that takes place in sacramental confession, not in a one-time "altar call" which is believed to guarantee one's place in heaven, no matter what they may do or not do thereafter. That is not a biblical notion at all.
All these things would not be possible if Jesus hadn't sacrificed Himself for our sake. Jesus was the Man that God became: "In Christ, there is all of God in a human body" (Colossians 2:9). Jesus said "I and the Father are one" (lit., one essence, John 10:30). He said: "I am the light of the world; the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (John 8:12 and 14:6). This is the heart of the gospel. God knew that we could not earn salvation ourselves. The only way we cou1d be saved was to believe in the One who willingly gave Himself up as a sacrifice for our sins even though He was completely innocent. "He bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; by His wounds you were healed" (1 Peter 2:24). "God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
So, was the Lord turned into sin? Not so, but, since he assumed our sins, he is called sin. For the Lord is also called an accursed thing [Gal 3:13], not because the Lord was turned into an accursed thing but because he himself took on our curse . . . It is written that he was made sin, that is, not by the nature and operation of sin . . .; but that he might crucify our sin in his flesh, he assumed for us the burden of the infirmities of a body already guilty of carnal sin.
[The Sacrament of the Incarnation of Our Lord 6.60]
See my paper: Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue on 2 Corinthians 5:21: Was Jesus Christ Literally Made Sin on the Cross?. John A. Hardon, S.J., a leading Catholic catechist and theologian, in his Modern Catholic Dictionary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1980, 46) defines "atonement" as follows:
. . . Applied to Christ the Redeemer, through his suffering and death he rendered vicarious atonement to God for the sins of the whole human race. His atonement is fully adequate because it was performed by a divine person.This is the Substitutionary Death, or what people mean when they say, "Jesus died for you." Imagine it! God could have stayed up in heaven safe and sound, but He loved us enough to be tortured and horribly executed for our sake. Surely, this is what love truly means, and if we reject God's sacrifice and love, we will have to face the consequences: "He who believes in the Son has eterna1 life, but he who does not obey the Son has the wrath of God abiding on him" (John 3:36). We all deserve to die like Jesus did because of our rebellion against God, our Creator, but God, in His infinite love, chose to take suffering upon Himself in order for us to have eternal life. This is the most beautiful and moving thing about the gospel.
Catholics accept all of this, as far as it goes. We only add that righteousness, wrought by God's grace, but requiring our cooperation, received particularly through the sacraments, the Mass, and prayer, is necessary for eschatological salvation (the attainment of heaven). The sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was completely sufficient to save us, but we have to repent and cooperate in order to receive its benefit: it has to be applied to individual persons, who have the free will to reject the great gift.
Jesus, in His words and actions, was our example of moral perfection. He perfectly revealed God's character and love for us, and taught us what God expects of us. After He died, Jesus rose from the dead to prove that He was God, as He claimed, and to conquer death, our greatest fear, for all time. This was the greatest conceivable event in history, from the human perspective, because it offers so much hope for an afterlife which will last forever.
"If you confess that Jesus is Lord, and believe He was raised from the dead, you shall be saved" (Romans 10:9).
Yes, in a proverbial sense. But, taken in conjunction with many other Scriptures, this does not teach that salvation is a one-time, irrevocable event. Paul often speaks of vigilence, lest one fall away or become "disqualified." He even applied that terminology to himself. Furthermore, "belief" and "confession" in the Hebrew mind meant also "obedience" -- it always included behavior as well as mental assent or acceptance of propositions. In other words, faith and works cannot be totally separated, as taught in the book of James.
Contrary to popular opinion, God forgives us unconditionally (if we believe in Jesus): "If we confess our sins to Him, He will forgive us and cleanse us from every wrong" (1 John 1:9).
Yet we must persevere till the end, as the Bible teaches in many places. See: Assurance of Salvation.
We cannot "earn" salvation: "Because of grace you have been saved through trusting Christ; it is a gift from God, not a reward for the good we have done" (Ephesians 2 :8-9).
This is true. But works are also necessary in some sense: works which themselves are entirely caused and enabled by God's free gift of grace. Paul notes this in the very next verse, which Protestants (myself included, in 1982) often neglect to cite with this passage:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (RSV)We are regenerated and reconciled with God when we believe in what Jesus has done: "When someone becomes a Christian he becomes a brand new person inside. A new life has begun. God brought us back to Himself through what Jesus did. For God was in Christ, restoring the world to Himself, no longer counting men's sins against them but blotting them out" (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).
If an adult has never been baptized, and repents and decides to wholeheartedly follow Jesus as a disciple, and gets baptized, then he is regenerated at baptism, as an adult. Catholics believe reconciliation with God takes place at every confession to a priest, which is why we also call this procedure the sacrament of reconciliation. Either situation has great similarity to the evangelical "salvation" or "conversion" or "born again experience." We simply don't believe it is a one-time act which suffices for salvation ever after.
The Christian life is tremendously fulfilling and exciting. We can intimately know the Creator of the universe! The Spirit in us teaches us, helps us in all our struggles and produces in us "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22).
The Catholic, of course, adds that the apostolic teaching authority of the Catholic Church is necessary for guidance in the spiritual life, and correct theology.
Even though Christians aren't exempt from suffering, God causes "all things to work together for good to those who love Him" (Romans 8 :28). Paul exclaimed: "Overwhelming victory is ours through Christ" (Romans 8:37). The joy of knowing Jesus cannot be described! Does this sound too good to be true? Well, it is true, as millions can testify. Isn't this the kind of life you want to have? If you're disgusted with the hypocrisy of Christians, just remember that they are on1y human like you are. They have the same shortcomings and the same faults as anyone else; and don't listen to anyone who claims to be perfect - there's no such thing as a perfect Christian. Likewise, if a Christian does not show forth love and joy, he or she is simply not right with God, and not open to what God has for them. Please consider seriously what you've just read . . . Read the New Testament . . .
And learn more about what Christians have believed all through the centuries - a set of teachings passed down from the apostles and preserved most fully in the Catholic Church. If you are convinced of the truths of the Catholic Church, then become a Catholic and receive the Lord Jesus, Who is truly present in the Eucharist, every Sunday. And learn about the communion of saints, the special role that God reserved for the Blessed Virgin Mary, the pope, and other Catholic distinctives. My website and blog offer ample opportunity for anyone to become acquainted with the biblical, historical, and rational basis for all these beliefs.