Protestantism and Catholicism- Core Difference of the Heart
Matthew J. Bellisario 2012
There are many theological differences between the Protestant sects that arose out the 16th century, and the ancient apostolic Church that Christ established through his apostles. As I spend more time in prayer and in reading the ancient Fathers of the Church, one core principle comes to the forefront of what divides these sects from authentic Christianity. It lies in the difference of what we actually believe about Christ and how He interacts with mankind. The basic synthesis of Protestantism lies in the false notion that after one’s “conversion” Christ now ignores the sins of the convert, and now covers the convert in a type of adoption by profession. In other words, most Protestants hold an idea that depicts Christ as dying to cover up the sins of man.
The true Christian faith does not adopt such a shortsighted view of Christ’s sacrifice. No, Christ’s sacrifice goes much deeper to the core of a person’s heart than a mere “covering up.” Grace is not a cloak which now hides and excuses the sins of man, but it seeks to transform the heart of man so that sin actually dies and is replaced by the love of God, which in turn makes man a partaker of Christ in e very real and concrete way. When we understand the Scriptures properly, which tell us that man was made in the image and likeness of God, we understand this to mean much more than an ideal image that Adam and Eve once held before the fall. We see the image and likeness of God coming truly into focus only after Christ became incarnate and gave Himself for the salvation of mankind. This was not done so that God would once again see man in his former glory days before the fall, but it was done so that man would be truly healed. This healing was not only a healing which would change man to be as he was before the fall, but to deify man so that he will attain an even higher level of life in God. Saint Maximus tells us, "A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God Himself became man. For it is clear that He who became man without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15) will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man's sake. This is what St. Paul teaches mystically when he says, '…that in the ages to come He might display the overflowing richness of His grace' (Eph. 2:7)
The grace that man is given through Christ and His Church allows man to actually participate in the divine life of God. (Psalm 82:6) We will be like God as the scriptures tells us, and yes,we are even to be transformed not only to cease sinning, but to do His will. Jesus told us that unless we do the Father’s will we cannot have eternal life. God’s will being done by us is not some abstract idea that falls under a cloak of ignorance or even a divine edict. We do His will because God actually comes to live in us as we struggle through our life in living our faith in Christ. This transformation sometimes takes many years but it must happen one way or the other in order for God’s work to be completed in us. In reality, the true Christian becomes perfected in a very real way. St Theodoros tells us, “Now the purpose of our life is blessedness or, what is the same thing, the kingdom of heaven or of God. This is not only to behold the Trinity, supreme in Kingship, but also to receive an influx of the divine and, as it were, to suffer deification; for by this influx what is lacking and imperfect in us is supplied and perfected. And the provision by such divine influx of what is needed is the food of spiritual beings.”
In dialoging with our Protestant friends we eventually always arrive at the “faith and works”, “man’s will vs God’s will” controversy. As we well understand, there is no real controversy at the heart of these realities. Faith without works is dead, and work without faith is blasphemy. These two ideas are married at their core, and they cannot be separated. An authentic theological approach to these two truths never separate the two. This false “faith works” controversy was only brought forth in any real capacity with arrival of the Protestant rebellion. Likewise we see no clash between man’s freewill and God’s sovereignty. Man is only saved by the grace of God, and yes, God approaches man first through no work or merit of his own. Yet God grants man in a mysterious way to exercise his freewill in accepting and struggling to accept God and the transformation He seeks to bestow upon him. (Philippians 2:12–13) Again, the true Christian accepts this mystery of God and sees them as being part of the same reality, while the heretic seeks to divide these two realities as he seeks to divide the Body of Christ.
The true Christian seeks and is given transformation in his or her life by the grace of God. God did not come to us merely to cover our sins, He came to radically eradicate the sin of man and give man a portion of the divine kingdom. As the Scripture say, Christ came to change the old man into a new man. We do not pour the new wine into old wineskins. This idea of God’s grace merely covering the old man was never taught by the Church Fathers. The change of man was not viewed to be a symbolic change, just as they did not view Christ becoming present on the altar as being symbolic. They viewed these as a stark realities which transformed their lives in a very tangible way. This change happens through believing what Christ teaches us through His Church, which leads us to participate in the divine life of the Church, in her sacraments, in her liturgical life, and in our life of prayer and penance.
If we read some of the ancient fathers we see this living theology cemented in their lives. Notice, they were not theologians who sat behind desks and wrote long theological treatises. They were quoted or wrote themselves out of an authentic life in Christ. They knew full well that the true theologians were the ones who lived the true spiritual life, which transformed them to become like Christ. One’s mere education obtained by merely reading books or studying scholarly sources did not constitute one’s ability to be a true theologian. Likewise they did not view just going to liturgy on Sunday as being enough to attain salvation. They understood that what we received in the Sacraments must be cultivated with diligence outside the walls of the church in their private lives. If we view the climate today in the Catholic Church, this seems to be the key that is often missed.
Converts to the Catholic Church often write books on apologetics and their stories of conversion to the Catholic Church on an intellectual level. They write and talk about how and why the Catholic Church is the true Church, which can be of some benefit to people. Yet most never engage in truly helping anyone to become transformed and attain salvation once they come to the Church. Many remain stuck in the Church’s externals and never find the pearl of great price that lies at the center of it all. Many so often wonder why they go to confession so may times and are never changed. They go to Mass weekly and go to confession frequently but so many never spend any significant time in prayer and penance at home. They do not practice the virtues of silence, penance and other aspects of the spiritual life. Hence this true transformation sometimes never takes place. This being said, do not take me in a negative way here. Let us be patient in our transformational journey and let us not be discouraged when we fall. We must continue on to examine Christ and our lives more thoroughly. We should read the Scriptures, the Church Father, and then not stop there for mere knowledge of what they believed, but put it into practice in a very real and tangible way. As we slowly but surely spend more time prayer, penance and the practice of the virtues we will cultivate that which is given to us within the walls of the church in her sacraments. Deification, our transformation in Christ is not an abstraction, it is not a figurative idea, it is not something that we read about on paper. It must be a reality for all Christians of the true faith.
Let us now turn to the Holy Fathers for a word to enrich our souls.
Saint Nilus of Sinai tells us that, "It is impossible for a believer to be saved, or to receive remission of sins and be admitted to the kingdom of heaven, unless in fear, faith and love he receives communion of the pure Mysteries of the Body and blood of Christ."
As we receive these gifts of grace in our churches the great St. Chrysostom tells us that we must pray. "Do not estrange your heart from God, but abide in Him and always guard your heart by remembering our Lord Jesus Christ, until the name of the Lord becomes rooted in the heart and it ceases to think of anything else. may Christ be glorified in you... Every man when praying converses with God. Each of us understands how great a thing it is, being man, to converse with God; but I doubt if anyone can express this honor in words, for it is higher than even the station of angels... Prayer is a doing common to both angels and men; and no wall divides the two kinds of being in this doing. Prayer separates you from those who lack the Word and unites you with the angels. A man who strives all his life to practice praying and serving God, speedily becomes akin to angels in life, honor, estate, wisdom and understanding...Prayer is the cause of salvation, the source of immortality, the indestructible wall of the Church, the unassailable fortress, which terrifies the demons and protects us in the work of righteousness... Prayer is a great weapon, a great protection.”