Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Last time, in this space, we began looking at the Church's doctrine of Purgatory, and we left off with this excellent question:
What's the point of sanctification and Purgatory if you are basically a good person? Wouldn't a God of love accept us as we are?
We often hear "So and so is 'basically a good person.'" What do we mean by it? To find out, suppose someone says, "Einstein was basically a good scientist" or "Bach was basically a good musician" or "Babe Ruth was basically a good ball player." Does this strike you as rather weak? That's not surprising. When we say that somebody is "basically good" we are really saying "despite their mediocrity, they had some good qualities." That is why nobody says Bach or Einstein or Ruth were "basically" okay. We recognize that there was a lot more to these people than "the basics." They were special.
You are special too. Paul tells us "we are [God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." The term "workmanship" is translated from the Greek word "poiema" (from which we get the word "poem"). We are literally God's works of art, created in order to manifest fully the life of Christ in the world. Our destiny in Christ is not to be "okay" or "basically good" but to be saints and "partakers in the glory that is to be revealed" (1 Peter 5:1). As C.S. Lewis says, "the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship." This being so, it is not enough to say that God accepts us as we are (though he certainly does that as well). We must recognize that he accepts us for a purpose: namely, to make us participants in his glory. He intends to transform us into creatures who, in a way proper to creatures, are fully at home in the life of God. That is why Paul prays "that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God (Ephesians 3:16-19). For this to happen, there must be a change, not merely of our address from earth to heaven, but of our hearts from "okay" to "holy." We must not merely go to heaven, we must become heavenly to be at home there, just as Christ is.
Isn't it blasphemous to talk of being "just as Christ is"?
It would be blasphemous to talk that way if we did so on our own. That is why Adam and Eve got in hot water. They fell for the serpent's suggestion that they should try—on their own steam—to "be like God, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5). But the irony is that, had they but remained with God in trust, they would have found that God desired to give what they tried to steal. For according to Peter, God desires that we become "participants in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). That is why Jesus tells us we "must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), or, in other words, that we should "be like God." Indeed, everything Satan tricked our First Parents into trying to steal was just a cheap imitation of what God actually wills us to have. Wisdom, knowledge, power, love, true riches, assurance about the future and even communion with the whole Body of Christ both living and dead are all our proper heritage in Christ (Ephesians 1:18-19; 3:14-21). But to inherit these things is not merely to be forgiven, it is to be Christlike. Merely desiring forgiveness without desiring inner transformation is like "cleansing the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity" (Matthew 23:25). To be Christlike, we must be changed as well as forgiven. We must be purified and "without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that [we] might be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:27).
How on earth can anybody do that?
Nobody on earth can—on their own, that is. We cannot change our fallen selves any more than we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We cannot gate-crash Heaven anymore than Hamlet can barge into Shakespeare's house. If Hamlet is to meet Shakespeare-if we are to meet God, much less "participate in his divine nature"-it is necessary for the Author to write himself into the character's world since the character cannot get into the Author's world. That is what God did: he wrote himself into this world by becoming human while remaining God. He became a character in his own story. Because of this, we can now freely ask for help from the only person who is both fully human and fully God, the only one who is both of heaven and of earth: Jesus Christ (John 3:31). He came: to take away our sins by his death and to give us a share in his life since we are completely incapable of making ourselves sharers in his divine life. If anyone professes faith in Jesus Christ and is baptized, he promises, "my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (John 14:23). In short, we are dependent upon the grace and love of God in Christ to enter our souls and change us. That is why Paul tells us "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God-not because of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9) and Jesus says, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). In faith and baptism, our sins are forgiven, we are grafted onto that vine, our hearts are injected with the supernatural life of the Blessed Trinity, and we are given a share in the life of God that we never could have achieved on our own power. And that life, the moment it enters our souls, begins to change us.
If baptism and faith in Christ covers our sin and gives us God's grace, why then is sanctification necessary?
On that, more next time!