In my previous posts I have mentioned that in the Catholic view of salvation, sanctification is not optional. Nor is it a by-product of salvation. Rather, it is at the very heart of what it means to be saved. It is our transformation into the image of Christ and true freedom from the bondage of sin. Our salvation is not complete, nor are we ready for a life in heaven until we have been perfected in charity. St. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 ”For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.”
To illustrate the position of some Protestants that sanctification is not necessary for salvation, I will often show in class this brief clip called the “Good-o-Meter.” To be honest, if this video had been produced by a Catholic to explain a Protestant understanding of salvation by faith alone, I wouldn’t show it. But it wasn’t produced by a Catholic. My research shows it was created by Cross Pointe Baptist Church in DeBary, Florida, and it has lived a solid life on the internet ever since to teach what salvation is from their perspective. The youtube poster who uploaded this video describes it in this way – “This video accurately describes what it takes to get into heaven. Many people think it is based on their good works, but that is not what the bible says. It is based on grace through faith.”
In the video, the separation of justification from sanctification is very obvious. The one person among many who was saved obviously lived a life void of good works, and that was a primary message of the video – that they weren’t necessary in order to be justified. From the Catholic perspective this seems to ignore Christ’s warning that “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:19-20)
Sacred Scripture solidly supports the Catholic view that sanctification is not optional for salvation. This is a process that requires our participation, for it is a true yielding of our will and allowing the Holy Spirit to change us. Our ability to yield our will is itself enabled by God’s grace for we are not capable of doing this without divine assistance.
We can begin in Sacred Scripture by reading what Christ says in Matthew 5:48 that we must “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As with other topics, I often look to the John MacArthur Study Bible to get a perspective that would be different from how Catholics may understand a particular passage. From the Catholic perspective, this is not a suggestion Christ makes but a command. However, John MacArthur says this in his study Bible – “this is an unattainable standard of the law that we cannot meet; God could not lower it without compromising his own perfection so Christ meets this standard on our behalf.”
So is MacArthur right – is Jesus holding up for us a standard we can’t possibly meet so he does it for us? We would agree that Christ meets this standard on our behalf and offers it to the Father to reconcile us with God. We would however disagree with the view that this is an unattainable standard that we can’t meet, because everything that Christ does for us, he also does with us. Without divine assistance of course we would understand we could never become perfect. But we firmly believe the scripture that “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
MacArthur’s reference that this is an unattainable “standard of the law” that we cannot meet is an interesting one to me. The book of Hebrews speaks to the fact that our perfection was indeed not attainable under the Mosiac law in Hebrews 7:11 – “Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levit′ical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchiz′edek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?” The implication of this passage is that perfection is indeed attainable through the priesthood of Christ. St. Paul seems to view it this way when he says of himself “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12)
In Matthew 23:25-26, Christ offers this analogy – “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” This offers a great perspective from the Catholic view that sanctification and justification are intertwined and inseparable – “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” (CCC1989) Jesus clearly is not impressed by a renewal that is only exterior and an “appearance” of transformation. This is why we would reject a view of salvation that views God as declaring us justified simply because Christ “covers” our sins with his righteousness. Rather we see justification as Christ first “cleaning the inside of the cup” so that what is reflected on the outside is not a false appearance but truly a manifestation of his glory. This is the essence of sanctification by the Holy Spirit.
While the Catholic view is that as we grow in sanctification we also grow in justification so they are intertwined, John MacArthur gives us a clear contrast to this understanding. In Philippians 2:12 St. Paul writes “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” This is a very Catholic verse in our view. MacArthur’s commentary says that this “cannot refer to salvation by works but it does refer to the believer’s responsibility for active pursuit of obedience in the process of sanctification.” MacArthur recognizes here that sanctification is something we must actively pursue, or strive for. But he wants to separate it from salvation. As you may remember from previous posts, MacArthur believes in a doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, or Once-Saved, Always Saved. So in his view, once a believer comes to faith in Christ, they are fully justified and “saved.” Sanctification becomes something that occurs after salvation, something apart and separate. But if he is correct and St. Paul here is referring to our sanctification (which would be compatible with a Catholic view), St. Paul doesn’t separate this sanctification from our salvation at all when he tells us to “work out your own salvation.” And MacArthur does not address what occurs to someone who fails to actively pursue the process of sanctification.
If you’re Catholic you know that at Mass before we receive the Eucharist we pray the prayer of the centurion in Sacred Scripture – “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” (Matthew 8:8) Our servant is “our soul” and we express that passage praying that that “our soul” will be healed by receiving Christ in the Eucharist. As Catholics we certainly recognize that in our current condition of sin we are not worthy to receive Christ in this most intimate and profound way. But we also recognize that through this sacrament and in other ways he is working to truly make us worthy. Paul mentions this twice in the first chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians. “This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (2 Thessalonians 1:5). And “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfil every good resolve and work of faith by his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
There are other verses in Sacred Scripture we can review that support the Catholic view of sanctification and its role in our salvation. The book of Revelation speaks of heaven and tells us “But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:27). And the book of Hebrews speaks of those in heaven as “the spirits of just men made perfect.” (Hebrews 12:23) Completion of the process of sanctification is not optional but necessary before we join Christ and his saints in heaven. As St. Paul tells the Romans in Romans 6:22 “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.” He writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” Here we see that our salvation comes both from faith (belief in the truth) and through sanctification by the Spirit, and that only by sanctification do we receive its end – eternal life.
And perhaps my favorite verse of all regarding the necessity of sanctification is found in Hebrews 12:14 – “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” The Catholic understanding that sanctification is not optional and is indeed something we must strive for is rooted deeply in Sacred Scripture.
My next post will delve into the Catholic view of grace and its role in our salvation. A hint — grace is everything.