How are we made right before God? While there are a lot of questions we deal with when it comes to our separated brethren in Protestant communities, I’d say this is the big one. How are we saved? While the ecumenical movement of the last 50 years has removed several barriers to understanding and reconciliation, some of these barriers cannot be removed, because they are issues where we have a fundamental disagreement. Chief amongst these is how man is saved.
Even if they are giving Catholics a fair hearing, Protestants believe Catholics place far too much of an emphasis on good works alongside salvation. While they view them important, they would never say good works are required for salvation. We Catholics believe differently, and we should be able to help explain to our Protestant brethren not only what we believe, but why it is Biblical. The prayers for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost help accomplish this.
The collect describes grace as something that goes both before us, and follows us. In other words, it surrounds us. This grace is God’s grace, and comes from God alone. In this part we agree with our Protestant brethren: there is nothing we can do to merit God’s grace. I can’t go out and do charitable works and then tell God “you owe me this.” In this sense, according to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we are indeed saved by grace, not by works. (Eph 2:8-9) Later in chapter 3 (today’s Epistle), St. Paul describes this salvation as giving us the ability to “comprehend with all the saints.” This doesn’t mean we know everything, it means that one of the fruits of salvation is that we see things with a new set of eyes, the eyes of faith.
St. Paul also says that God is able to “do all things that we desire or understand, according to the power that works within us.” For St. Paul, grace is the power that works within us. This grace makes a life possible beyond what we can even imagine. We human beings are a rather creative people. We’ve created everything from the Mona Lisa to the World Trade center. Men such as Steve Jobs became billionaires for figuring out what we needed before we even knew we wanted it. All of this pales in comparison to what God can provide. This is why we should be bold in prayer. Go ahead, ask for something crazy like the conversion of a friend. Ask for it confidently and frequently. Look to the example of St. Monica. She prayed without ceasing for the conversion of her wicked son. God did Monica one better. Her son not only converted to Catholicism, but became one of her pillars of theology, and his works led to the Gospel spreading to entire continents. Today, we do not know him as the hedonistic sinner Aurelius Augustinus, but as the Doctor of the Church St. Augustine. St. Monica prayed for something bold, and God gave her something even better.
While we agree with our brethren on this, we Catholics also go a step further as explained in today’s liturgy. While God grants us things beyond our understanding, His grace also places us on a path we could never comprehend before encountering Him. This is what the Collect gets at when it asks that God’s grace make us “continually intent upon good works.” For us Catholics, these good works are necessary for salvation, not because we earn salvation through them, but because those works are the evidence of our salvation and how we fulfill God’s will. God has given us the greatest of gifts, but He expects us to use it. Grace points us towards good works, but we must do them, otherwise we are wasting what He has given us.
When we stop and think about it, maybe those things beyond our desire and understanding are the good works we are called to. Through God’s grace, twelve men of diverse origins spread the Gospel to the corners of the earth, and to this day Christianity is the world’s largest religion. Grace saved Augustine, but also carried Augustine towards becoming a Doctor of the Church and one of the architects of Western Civilization. We may desire the salvation of our own soul, but God gives us way more than that. He saves our souls, and makes us instruments of his salvation for others. Like the Gospel, we sit in the lowest of seats in the prayers and petitions we give before God. God answers the humble by taking them from that low seat and giving them a position of prominence, a position of being an agent of his salvation to the world. When looked at from this perspective, how can we say that good works aren’t necessary for our salvation? They aren’t just good deeds done for the sake of good deeds, they are ways in which God brings salvation to others. If we turn away from those good deeds, we are turning away from God’s will. We are choosing to stick with what we understand and desire, and refusing to move forward. So the next time we are accused of believing works save us, point out that once we receive God’s grace, we have to do good works. Why? Because it’s what we Christians are called to.