Matthew J Bellisario 2012
“Dearly beloved, let us love one another, for charity is of God. And every one that loveth, is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God: for God is charity. By this hath the charity of God appeared towards us, because God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we may live by him.” (1 John 4:7-9)
It is often an accusation made against the Catholic faith, that we are trying to “work” our way into heaven. Those outside the true Christian faith, who make up the many Protestant sects, often pit faith against works, as if the two are ever separated. When we as Catholics speak of works however, we are not talking about the work of man on his own under the Old Law, but man infused with the grace of God. It is true that man generally speaking can never find heaven by working as if man’s works in and of themselves are able to attain salvation. Works however, infused by the charity of the Holy Spirit, work in man in order to bring about his salvation. This work is not divorced from the faith that inspires it, which is given to us only by the grace of God, as a free gift, unearned and therefore are not works to be boasted upon aside from the work of Our Lord in us. Why then does the Protester bewail the fact that the true Christian desires to see God’s work in their lives? Why do they neglect the work that is rooted in charity, which also brings about man's salvation?
From the beginning of the Protestant Revolt, the pretended “Reformers” adopted a false notion of faith, one that largely excused them from sinful actions. Not that they really embrace sin as a good thing per se, but that they view it as an inevitable state of man. This attitude was fostered by the cowardly rebel named Martin Luther. After spending some time in a monastery, which he apparently never really wanted to be in the first place, he realized that he did not have the faith to truly live a pious life. He often exhibited anxiety over his sinful inclinations, and finally he found an excuse to dismiss all of the pious living demanded by the Christ and His Gospel. He found that the easiest way to excuse his own faults was to point out the faults of others. So he nailed his demands to the church in Wittenberg, and proceeded to create his own gospel. It was a gospel that selectively quoted passages of Scripture that apparently aligned with his new “faith alone” doctrine. The other passages that he could not reconcile he either reinterpreted to his own liking, or ignored them altogether. For example, he did not give as much authority to the Epistle of James as he did to Epistle to the Romans. Yet he misinterpreted many passages such as Romans 4, doing away with the distinction of works under the old law divorced from faith, and works in charity which are just and righteous in Christ Jesus.
Luther in effect did away with the active charity portion of Christianity. He now relied only what he considered to be “faith,” while dismissing the fruits that faith was supposed to bring about in the life of a Christian. This made it easy for Luther to excuse his own sinful desires and actions. For example, he broke his vows that he made to God in his monastic profession, and then encouraged others to do the same, even if they had to lie in the process. He gloated in the fact that he married a nun who also broke her vows. Since in Luther’s view, God only covered the sinner by atonement, he largely disregarded the deification of man, made possible only by God’s grace and work in man. The theology of the cross was lost, is not only the perfect sacrifice for our sins, but it is rooted in God’s charity. If we examine this further we can begin to see the underlying repulsion that Protestants have for the crucifix. Their man-made theology has no room for Christ on the cross. Luther’s theology, although often contradicting itself, rested largely on the fact that man was a sinner, and no good works could change that fact. If you read through his many theological works, his madcap theology changes from one to the other. For example in his Commentary on Romans he seems to understand that faith and works cannot be separated. Yet when we read his Commentary on the Parable of the Sower he seemed to miss this point. He also seems to change his definition of faith from one writing to another. Did he forget the good work of Christ on the cross which now also works in us? His theology often left little room for God to change anyone, and that was probably largely due to the fact that he saw little change in himself. As we all know, it often takes time for God to change us, and of course, when we are infused with God’s grace, we try as best as we can to try and cooperate with His grace, in love. As the great Saint John of the Ladder once wrote, “Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly, the angel who guards you will honour your patience.” It was this patience and courage, held in light of God, that Luther lacked, and it destroyed his outlook on Christ's salvific work in man.
Some have falsely claimed that this notion of co-operating with God’s grace is a type of semi-Pelagianism. This is not the case, since Semi-Pelagianism teaches that man and his freewill was the origin of God’s grace, and not a gratuitous unearned gift which God first bestowes upon man. The true Christian faith has always maintained that the gift of faith is not earned, and it is only the free gift of God to man. How grace operates in man once he has been given true faith is out of the realm of Semi-Pelgianism. The true Christian teaching is that once man has received, by the grace of God, the gift of faith, then man also in some capacity has the ability to live and act within that faith to produce good works, yet these works are not his own per se, but inspired and guided by faith, which is in reality, the love of God, or charity working in man. It is by this charity that man is also saved.
How can we say that charity saves man? First, if it were not for the love of God, all of us would be damned. Christ’s incarnation, life, passion, death and resurrection is the par excellence of charity. Likewise when God works in man, it is the love of God working in man that saves him. It is not some symbolic covering up of man’s sins, nor is merely an ignoring of man’s sins. It is the new man that God bestows upon us, and it id God who works in us in charity that creates this “new man.” Can man boast of these works? Saint Paul says no, yet we hear Saint Paul tell his listeners to yet strive to enter the gates of heaven. “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and of the spirit, perfecting sanctification in the fear of God.” (2 Cor 7:1) We see that St. Paul does not view that man is just covered up by the atonement of Christ on the cross, he is transformed by it. He is now a new creation, one who’s acts are in harmony with God, one that prefects them, and saves them. “If then any be in Christ a new creature, the old things are passed away, behold all things are made new.” (2 Cor 5:16) Justification in St. Paul’s eyes is not a one time event, made by a person’s one time claim to faith in Christ. “If you continue in my word, you shall be my disciples indeed.” (John 8:31) It is an ongoing process, which man is made pure to stand before God at judgement. Before we go further let us look to the words of Jesus, which also confirms that He works in charity through man. “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven....For I tell you, that unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:16,20)
Clearly Jesus never separates faith and works, nor does he excuse those who sin. In fact he tells Mary Magdalene not to just go in faith and not worry about her future actions, no, Jesus says, “Go, and now sin no more... I am the light of the world: he that followeth me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:11-12) Jesus does not imply a passing personal faith which consists of no works. In fact, just the command given by Jesus to act, in following and walking with Him, clearly shows that one must act in charity to have eternal life. Throughout the New Testament we see that works apart from Christ, are not works rooted in true charity. That is why charity is a critical factor in how God works in us for our salvation. Jesus also gives all of His followers the most important of all commandments, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matthew 22:36-39) If there is any passage of Scripture that clearly demonstrates that charity is at the heart of the gospel, this would be on the top of the list. When man receives the gift of faith, then he also receives the love of God, and that charity then works towards the love of others. Do we remember the words of Jesus when he said, “If you love me, keep my commandments?” (John 14:15) This can be done only in the action of God working in man, and therefore again charity is an essential in man’s salvation.
The demands made by Christ upon His disciples becomes even more clear in the Gospel of St. John, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you. In this is my Father glorified; that you bring forth very much fruit, and become my disciples. As the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you shall abide in my love; as I also have kept my Father's commandments, and do abide in his love.” (John 15:7-10) First, Jesus cannot command the impossible, and He clearly commands that His disciples abide in Him. That means that they must do something, they must act. They must listen to Him, abide in everything He says, and then keep all of the commandments and teachings that he gave them. We can see that this verse does not pertain to only a purification after one is “saved” in faith, but it pertains to one’s salvation. Verse 6 tells us, “If any one abide not in me, he shall be cast forth as a branch, and shall wither, and they shall gather him up, and cast him into the fire, and he burneth.” So it is clear that work rooted in charity is required for man’s salvation. It is bound to true faith in Christ. If one does not do the required asked of Him by Christ, he will not be saved. If one does not abide and follow the commandments, then one is cast into eternal fire. If one does not strive one is not saved. We see the same teaching in St. Paul taken to the extreme, “But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” (1 Cor 9:27) Saint Paul sees the need to act in order to bring his body into subjection to the will of God, which can only be done in charity. Yet it is clear that man does work in order to obtain, “So run that you may obtain.” What does he work to obtain? “And every one that striveth for the mastery, refraineth himself from all things: and they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible one.” (1 Cor 9:24-25) They strive for heaven, which is the incorruptible crown.
If we proceed to look at how the early Christians lived the Gospel, we will find that it corresponds to this leitmotif of faith and charity, working in man for his salvation. Saint Benedict gives us a gem to contemplate the fact that man somehow works in charity with God. “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that "the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and the evil in every place." But we should believe this especially without any doubt when we are assisting at the Work of God. To that end let us be mindful always of the Prophet's words, "Serve the Lord in fear" and again, "Sing praises wisely" and "In the sight of the Angels I will sing praise to Thee." Let us therefore consider how we ought to conduct ourselves in the sight of the Godhead and of His Angels, and let us take part in the psalmody in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.” Does man assist in the work of God? Yes, and of course this work always intends the desired end of man, which is his salvation. As man “works” in charity through God’s grace, that charity not only works towards the salvation of the man “doing” these works, but also toward the salvation of others around him. Saint Clement of Rome states, “Let us then strive to be found among the number of those that wait, that we may receive a share of the promised gifts.” If we look to the great Saint Antony of the Desert we come to understand the ways in which God works in us, “Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Remember Him who grants death and life. Hate the world and all that is in it. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh. Renounce this life, that you may be alive to God. Remember that which you have promised God, for it will be required of you on the day of judgment. Suffer hunger, thirst, nakedness; be watchful and sorrowful; weep, and moan in your heart; test yourselves, to see if you are worthy of God; despise the flesh, so that you may preserve your souls.” This striving also mirrors that striving that St. Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 9 and again in Colossians 3, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, lust, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is the service of idols.” We see that St. Paul tells us likewise to strive to rid ourselves of these vices, for they cannot remain long where true faith is found. Charity again works in man for his salvation. We can see that Saint Antony of the Desert likewise adopted the teaching of Saint Paul in this manner. This notion is for the most part, completely absent in the Protestant mindset. When was the last time you have seen a Protestant preach about fasting, suffering, or testing yourselves to preserve your soul? Why are there no Protestant monastics?
If we look further to the early Church and Saint Antony the Great, a story illustrates again how faith operates within works and charity. Even the gift of prayer is a work in charity, and we know that man cannot be saved without prayer. "When the holy Abba Antony lived in the desert he was attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, "Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?" A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Antony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, "Do this and you will be saved." At these words, Antony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved." So man is not saved by Luther’s often conflicting view of “faith alone.” Charity is at the core of faith and works, by which man will not and cannot be saved. Why does the Catholic faith embrace the “corporal” and “spiritual works of mercy?” Those works are rooted in charity, and are therefore not an optional part of the Gospel. We see that the Catholic faith puts an emphasis on spiritual reading, and other devotionals, which again, all work in charity. “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” (St. Athanasius)
All of he great Saints who loved God understood the value of works in charity. "Love God, serve God: everything is in that." (St. Clare) "The devil strains every nerve to secure the souls which belong to Christ. We should not grudge our toil in wresting them from Satan and giving them back to God." (St. Sebastian) "The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist." (St. Gregory the Great) Likewise we look to the greatest of all theologians, Saint Thomas Aquinas to gain a deeper understanding of how charity works in man, "God is effectively the life both of the soul by charity, and of the body by the soul: but formally charity is the life of the soul, even as the soul is the life of the body. Consequently we may conclude from this that just as the soul is immediately united to the body, so is charity to the soul.... Charity works formally. Now the efficacy of a form depends on the power of the agent, who instills the form, wherefore it is evident that charity is not vanity. But because it produces an infinite effect, since, by justifying the soul, it unites it to God, this proves the infinity of the Divine power, which is the author of charity."(Summa Theologica, Secunda Secundae, Q23)
Finally we will sum up our brief examination of the importance of charity in regard to salvation with Sacred Scripture. There are two passages which pierce the heart of those who mock the centrality of charity in God’s plan of salvation. The first is from 1 Corinthians, “And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2) It is clear here that even a faith strong enough to move mountains is worth nothing. With no charity, there is no salvation, no authentic good works, and no Christian faith. The final passage I want to quote is from the Gospel of Saint Matthew. If there is any doubt that works in charity are central in regard to man’s salvation, this passage leaves little room for those who hold to the “faith alone” heresy.
“And when the Son of man shall come in his majesty, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit upon the seat of his majesty. And all nations shall be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left. Then shall the king say to them that shall be on his right hand: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in:
Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee? And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.
Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you covered me not: sick and in prison, and you did not visit me. Then they also shall answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to thee? Then he shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me.
And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting.”