Love and The Christian’s Justification III: New Creation and Grace

“[B]eing a Christian…is to be transformed”, writes Joseph Ratzinger, “it must involve repentance and not just some embellishment added onto the rest of one’s life. It reaches down into our depths and renews us from those very depths”.[1] There is something in the life of the Christian that is unique; how one lives—ultimately in relationship with God—is the message of Christianity. Love is the atomical unit of what it means to be Christian. Jesus Christ is Love victorious. In the Roman culture of Jesus’ time, “Victory” itself was beginning to appear as a deity. In fact, the emperor’s identification with “Victory” would be the rule of measure for future emperors. The life of Jesus of Nazareth shows us the true personification of victory, and it is He, and He is Love. Christ shows us that the true victory-deity is the God of Love, and He is “Victory” because He conquered death through love. The reason why I bring this up is because it is imperative to understand that love is stronger than death. Jesus Christ has conquered sin, and as such a genuine transformation of the human heart is possible: holiness is possible, happiness is possible, life is possible! Christianity is not just a cover-up in the person of Jesus, but an actual transformation of the self, a legitimate participation in the “divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4) because of Jesus Christ. To understand justification, we must understand how Christianity is about transformation: hence justification cannot be separated from sanctification.

Here is where a greater distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism arises. The Protestant believes that grace is imputed. In other words, one is covered with life of Christ, and in that way we are justified—God sees not us, but His Son. So, God treats one as if he is clean knowing that it is in truth merely imputed. Hence, to the Protestant, justification is not unlike a legal declaration. God declares us good and so we we are—though only declaratory, not metaphysically and ontologically.

Perhaps a brief hypothetical situation will illustrate why this understanding is unsatisfactory. Suppose that Jenny is married to Ben; she thinks that she is living a very happy life and has a wonderful relationship with her spouse. However, Jenny is completely unaware that Ben cheats on her once a week. Is Jenny happy? Of course not. For her to have a happy relationship, what she needs are in fact elements of a good relationship: fidelity, love, humor, etc. Likewise, for a man to have a relationship with God and live in the divine realm as was in the beginning, what this requires are in fact elements of a good relationship with God. Now, closeness with God, in Jesus Christ, is brought to a totally new level—a level of reality. Jesus Christ really is the Mediator Dei. Hence, it is possible to actually be close to God in a metaphysical and ontological way. The grace of God is powerful: it does not cover up, but actually does perfect its receiving subject. Jesus Christ, by His life, death, and resurrection, really does open up for man a new way of being, an elevation of life into divinity (cf. 2 Pet 1:4; what Augustine calls “deification”). Man, in Christ, becomes a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17)—really.

Thus, Christianity is about life. It is about a new life in Jesus Christ. Certainly, it is about “what one believes” in the colloquial understanding of that phrase. But, precisely because of that—and because of Who one believes in—Christianity’s concentration is Love. This is why in the early Church, the lifestyle of Christians was their distinctive mark. “See those Christians, see how they love”, as Tertullian says. Or in the letter to Diognetus, the author writes: “[T]here is something extraordinary about their [Christians’] lives…Christians love all men”.[2] Saint Paul says it is a “newness of life” (Rom 6:4) that the Christian has; Peter identifies it with the unique characteristic of Christianity, namely, hope: “Blessed be…God…who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3, emphasis added).

This implies, too, that a both and hermeneutic is necessary for understanding faith and love. This new way of being, the Protestant may attest simply to faith, that it is fruit of one’s faith. However, I think it is a deeper relationship and reality. Recall from the previous post: faith is the direction of life, the orientation of one’s being. To believe (“credere”) is to trust: it is trusting that God exists, and He is our stronghold; it is trusting that His only Son came to the world and by His blood has offered man expiation and a restored path into God. And this trust does not cause the Christian to love; rather, it is the Christian’s love, pure and authentically rooted in the Divine. It is this trust that the Christian communicates when he spreads the message of Jesus Christ throughout the world. However, this understanding also includes the fruit that is love: in the elevation of the self toward God, man necessarily, by the closeness of the divine light, loves truer and deeper.

Ultimately, the Catholic position is that grace is transformative, that love is greater than sin, and that the road to perfection—following Christ—is possible. Moreover, because justification involves an authentic transformation—a new orientation of the heart—it cannot be separated by a thick wall from sanctification. And all of this is not dismissing the necessity of God’s grace, like many Protestant’s assume with Catholicism. If anything, the Catholic doctrine uses grace more so than Protestantism.

[1] God Is Near Us (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 86

[2] Office of Readings for Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Easter