“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” We often hear our Protestant friends say this, and there’s a chance that even you have said it. It does serve as a nice retort to those who think Christians are self-righteous and haughty, and can even be a useful reminder to us to not be discouraged when we sin. We are after all a forgiven people, and none of us are perfect.
As with so many things said by our separated brethren, while they have a hint of truth, they are only telling us one aspect of the story. The Propers for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost provides some additional parts of that story. The collect begins by asking God to give us “an increase of faith, hope, and charity.” The Introit asks God to hear those voices crying out to him this prayer.
The Collect brings to mind what are known as the “Theological Virtues” of Faith, Hope, and Charity. In the eyes of St. Paul, these are the most important virtues a man can have. Everything else he mentions, while a good thing, will fade, but only faith, hope, and charity will remain. (1st Corinthians 13) What’s so special about these virtues?
First, as the Epistle makes clear, these come from God, not man. They can’t be obtained by anything we do. What can we do that will help us believe in God more? While we can study for the next five decades, that doesn’t give us faith. It might prepare us for faith, but faith is ultimately a gift that God rewards. The only thing we can do is ask. Likewise, is there anything we can do which can provide hope for others in salvation? Almost every idea man has tried for salvation has often had disastrous consequences. While the secular world has often been generous by donating their time and money, they often look upon Christian religious and missionaries with a sense of bewilderment for exercising what we call Christian charity. (See for example St. Maximilian Kolbe willingly dying in the place of another.) Instead of coming from our own efforts, all of these virtues come from God providing them to us. The Scriptures speak of faith being “provided to those that believe.” A believer cannot conjure faith from his own craftiness.
If these virtues come from God, why do we need an increase of them? Shouldn’t the smallest iota of faith be able to move mountains? While this is no doubt true, we often have far smaller than that iota of faith. In the Gospel Christ provides healing to ten people, but only one of them continues to follow Christ afterwards. Think about that. In all of salvation history, maybe ten percent of the people God had blessed stick around afterwards. What are they doing when they stick around? They are cultivating that which they have received. The leper wished to be cured so he could participate in the worship of God. Now that he’s been cured, he can worship, and he seeks out God to worship in Jesus Christ. Everyone else received faith, hope, and charity, but went their separate ways after. They didn’t cultivate God’s gift, and instead defiled it with their sins after. When we ask for an increase in these virtues, we are asking to be able to not only cultivate them, but to increase them at the expense of our sins. The more room the heart makes for Jesus, the less room there is for sin.
We receive these virtues through the sacraments, especially the sacraments of Baptism, Penance (Reconciliation/Confession), and the Eucharist. Baptism is the means by which these gifts are first imparted to us. Baptism is the “water of regeneration” according to St. Paul in the Epistle to Titus. In Confession, we are forgiven of the times we trusted something other than these virtues, and provided with an infusion of these virtues so we can instead choose God.
While these sacraments are important, let us also think about the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, we receive the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, and the fulfillment of the Passover. In him is not only the source, but the fulfillment of our faith. When we receive the Resurrected flesh of Christ in the Eucharist, it is a sign of hope that one day we too will be raised from the dead. For as St. Paul says, every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord. When He returns to raise us up, no longer will we need to partake of that cup. Finally, we see in the Eucharist the supreme act of charity in a savior who died for us, and tells us to take up our cross and follow him. The Eucharist provides the grace to carry out what receiving the Sacrament requires.
These virtues are not just gifts however. These virtues transform the soul of the believer. It is not enough to just be forgiven. As the Gospel points out, ten people are forgiven constantly, and most don’t return. The only ones who return to God after are those, once being healed, place their trust in God, the “refuge from generation to generation” as the Gradual describes him. For those who have the Lord as their refuge, we are a forgiven people who are (slowly but surely) made perfect, and will one day be perfect in heaven with Him, forever and ever.