-cf Dr. Bryan Cross, PhD, was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, then became Reformed shortly after completing his bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Michigan. He then received an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary. In 2003 he and his wife and two daughters became Anglican. On October 8, 2006, he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He has previously taught at Saint Louis University, Lindenwood University, and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. He is presently an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Mercy University. His personal blog is “Principium Unitatis.”
“When seeking to attain an end, one must keep that end in one’s mind and heart, and ensure that one’s understanding of it is as accurate as possible, to ensure attaining that end. That is no less true in the Christian life, which has heaven as its end. But what is heaven? Is it a garden of earthly delights? A perpetual feast? A planet of our own? A return to the Garden of Eden? Protestant and Catholic accounts of heaven agree that the saints will be in the presence of God in resurrected and glorified bodies, without any suffering, death or sin. Protestant descriptions of heaven typically depict heaven as a place in which sorrow, pain, sin and death have been removed, so that with resurrected bodies the saints eat and drink and fellowship with the incarnate Christ and all the other saints forever on a renewed earth. The Catholic teaching concerning the Beatific Vision is typically not included in Protestant accounts of heaven. That is because Protestant theology has generally not conceived of grace as a participation in the divine nature, and thus has not seen heaven as a culmination of theosis or insertion by participation into the divine life. Hence in Protestant theology the happiness enjoyed by the saints in heaven is not God’s own happiness…
…In other words, the difference between the Protestant and Catholic conceptions of grace leads to different conceptions of what heaven is and what is our essential happiness in heaven. If grace is mere favor (Protestant), and union with God is only covenantal (Protestant), then the happiness of heaven is having Christ and the saints near us forever, and being free from sin in our souls, and free from suffering and death in our bodies forever. But if grace is a participation in the divine nature (Catholic), then the essence of eternal life is union with God in the Beatific Vision (Catholic), which is not everlasting existence (Protestant), but is eternity itself, namely, the “simultaneously-whole and perfect possession of interminable life.”1
Any Protestant conception of ‘heaven’ without the Beatific Vision is something like Abraham’s bosom or the Garden of Eden, and is infinitely surpassed by the supernatural happiness of the Beatific Vision, God’s own infinite happiness. But that supernatural end requires grace as a participation in the divine nature, not merely divine favor. (Cf. Scott Clark’s claim that grace is merely divine favor.)
-by Anna Krestyn, who is a freelance writer and Director of Religious Education at St. Lawrence the Martyr Catholic Church in Alexandria, VA. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in liberal arts from Thomas Aquinas College and worked as a publishing assistant at Catholic Answers in her native California before moving to northern Virginia to pursue pastoral work.
Protestants tend to think grace works extrinsically to the person
“One of the great divisions between Catholic and Protestant theology regards the understanding of how grace, the gift of God won for humanity by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, works on the human soul. This division essentially became a disagreement between the Catholic Church and the Protestant reformers of the 16th century about man’s justification, or means of salvation – a matter that remains a source of tension even today.
The Protestant reformers of the 16th century supported the idea that grace works extrinsically on the human person; it does not penetrate and cleanse human nature from within. Martin Luther, a central figure of the Protestant Reformation, taught that after baptism, original sin remained. Grace acts as a sort of cloak which covers the corruption of human nature and makes the person acceptable to God, though underneath he remains depraved. Luther is famously credited with having said that the justified soul is a “snow-covered pile of dung.”
What follows from this understanding of grace is the Protestant teaching that a person’s actions are worth nothing toward his or her justification, since they come from a sinful source. From this has emerged the doctrine of sola fide, or justification by “faith alone”. Evangelical Protestants identify the moment of justification as the moment when the person experiences, for the first time, genuine faith – this moment is what the well-known phrase “born again,” (John 3:3) means for them. Protestants consider good works and taking after the example of Christ as a process of becoming holy, which is distinct from justification.
The Catholic teaching, on the other hand, is that grace does indeed work intrinsically, and that in Baptism the person is truly made a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’ (Rom 3:22) and through Baptism,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches. And the Second Vatican Council re-affirmed that “[t]he followers of Christ … are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received” (Lumen Gentium, #40).
So baptism fully cleanses the human person of original sin, though the tendency to sin remains and keeps us in need of ongoing grace, especially through the Sacraments. And against the notion of justification by faith alone, the Church teaches that we are saved not only through faith but also through the expression of this faith in good actions. “My brothers, what good is it to profess faith without practicing it? Such faith has no power to save one, has it?” wrote St. James (James 2:14), in the epistle which Luther significantly called a “perfect straw-epistle” compared to the writings of St. Paul, who emphasized the need for faith.
During his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI offered a helpful re-casting of this long-standing disagreement between Catholics and Protestants about grace and justification. According to the Pontiff, “the centrality of justification without works, the primary object of Paul’s preaching, does not clash with faith that works through love; indeed, it demands that our faith itself be expressed in a life in accordance with the Spirit. Often there is seen an unfounded opposition between St. Paul’s theology and that of St James, who writes in his Letter: ‘as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead’(2: 26). In reality, while Paul is primarily concerned to show that faith in Christ is necessary and sufficient, James accentuates the consequential relations between faith and works (cf. Jas 2: 24). Therefore, for both Paul and James, faith that is active in love testifies to the freely given gift of justification in Christ.”
Love & His grace,
(1) Summa Theologica I. Q.10 a.1.