The struggles of a catholic progressive


The notion that God has foreordained who will be saved is generally called predestination. The concept of predestination peculiar to Calvinism, “double-predestination,” (in conjunction with limited atonement) is the most controversial expression of the doctrine. According to Reformed theology, the “good news” of the gospel of Christ is that God has freely granted the gift of salvation to those the Holy Spirit causes to believe; what He freely grants to some (the “elect” individuals), however, He also withholds from others (the “reprobate” individuals).Calvin sought to provide assurance to the faithful that God would actually save them. His teaching implied what came to be known as the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, the notion that God would actually save those who were his Elect. The actual status and ultimate state of any man’s soul were unknown except to God. When assurance of election was rigorously pressed as an experience to be sought, especially by the Puritans, this led to a legalism as rigid as the one Protestantism sought to reject, as men were eager to demonstrate that they were among the chosen by the conspicuous works-righteousness of their lives.The relatively radical positions of Reformed theology provoked a strong reaction from both Roman Catholics and Lutherans. In 1547, the Council of Trent, which sought to address and condemn Protestant objections, aimed to purge the Roman Catholic Church of controversial movements and establish an orthodox Roman Catholic teaching on grace and justification, as distinguished from the Protestant teachings on those concepts. It taught that justification and sanctification were elements of the same process. Grace, usually dispensed through the sacraments, actually enables believers to become more righteous and worthy through the power of the Holy Spirit, apart from the imputed righteousness belonging to Christ, and to perform good works that contribute to one’s salvation. Various actual Protestant doctrines were framed as extreme and unprecedented; they were associated with older heresies and generally condemned by the Council, whose work formed the basis for the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation.In 1618 James Arminius departed from Calvin’s theology and put forth a contrary position that sought to reaffirm man’s free will and responsibility in salvation, as opposed to the immutable, hidden, eternal decrees of Calvinism. Arminius taught that God’s grace was preveniently offered to all, and that all people have the real option to resist the call of the gospel. It is possible for a believer to backslide and abandon the faith, losing the salvation that believer truly once possessed. These positions came to be known as Arminianism. With respect to the Calvinist Reformed churches, they were firmly rejected by the Synod of Dort (1618–1619), and Arminian pastors were expelled from the Netherlands.

Later, John Wesley also rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. His most comprehensive pronouncement on the subject was his sermon “Free Grace,” preached at Bristol in 1740. In Wesley’s position, the believer who repents and accepts Christ is not “making himself righteous” by an act of his own will, such as would alter his dependency on the grace of God for his salvation. Faith and repentance, rather, are the believer’s trust in God that He will make them righteous. Wesley appealed to prevenient grace as a solution to the problem, stating that God makes the initial move in salvation, but human beings are free to respond or reject God’s graceful initiative.John Wesley believed that God provides three kinds of divine grace:Prevenient grace is innate from birth. “Prevenient” means “comes before.” Wesley did not believe that humanity was totally “depraved.” He believed everyone is born with a modicum of divine grace—just enough to enable the individual to recognize and accept God’s justifying grace.Justifying grace today is what is referred to as “conversion” or being “born again.” God’s justifying grace brings “new life in Christ.” Wesley believed that people have freedom of choice—to accept or to reject God’s justifying grace. Wesley defined his term Justifying grace as “The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, and FREE FOR ALL.”Sustaining grace. Wesley believed that, after accepting God’s grace, a person is to move on in God’s sustaining grace toward perfection. Wesley did not believe in the “eternal security of the believer.” He believed people can make wrong (sinful) choices that will cause them to “fall from grace” or “backslide.” He said it is insufficient to claim God’s salvation and then stagnate, return to sinning deliberately, or not produce any evidence (fruit) of following Christ. Wesley taught that Christian believers are to participate in what Wesley called “the means of grace” and to continue to grow in the Christian life, assisted by God’s sustaining grace. Wesley’s opposition to Calvinism was more successful than Arminius’, especially in the United States where Arminianism would become the dominant school of soteriology of Evangelical Protestantism, largely because it was spread through popular preaching in a series of Great Awakenings. The churches of New England, with roots in Puritan Calvinism, tended to begin to reject their Calvinist roots, accepting Wesley’s expression of Arminianism, or overthrowing their historical doctrine entirely to depart into Socinianism or liberal theology. John Wesley was never a student of the influential Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609). The latter’s work was not a direct influence on Wesley. Yet, he chose the term “Arminianism” to distinguish the kind of Evangelicalism his followers were to espouse from that of their Calvinist theological opponents. Many have considered the most accurate term for Wesleyan theology to be “Evangelical Arminianism.” It remains the standard teaching of Methodist churches, and the doctrine of prevenient grace remains one of Methodism’s most important doctrines.

Roman CatholicRather than God’s property to be offered at His sole discretion, in Medieval Western Christianity at least, grace became a sort of spiritual currency, and the Church was its banker. Believers acquired grace by participating in the Church’s sacraments. The sacraments were effective in conferring God’s grace by virtue of their being performed, provided that the liturgist was authorized by the Church to perform them. The grace offered through the sacraments enabled Christians to lead better lives and to deepen their faith. In addition to sanctifying grace, merit was earned by good works; by this merit, believers can earn the right to rewards from God. This included the declaration by Trent that the faithful could be “accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life.” Conversely, sins reduce one’s merit before God and incur a debt to Him in the divine economy. According to Medieval Roman Catholicism, sufficiently serious sins not only remove merit, but also extinguish sanctifying grace in the baptized believer’s soul, which can be restored by the sacrament of penance. These sins are mortal sins or deadly sins. Less serious sins, venial sins, incur loss of merit. Believers whose accounts were overdrawn at the final accounting went to Hell; believers without enough merit for Heaven went to Purgatory, where they could work off the debt they owed to God.Fortunately, some saints achieved so much merit in their lifetimes on Earth that they got into Heaven with some to spare. This surplus was called works of supererogation, the Church’s treasury of surplus merit. The Church can offer the excess merit in its treasury to be applied to the deficits in merit suffered by its penitent sinners. Pope Clement VI proclaimed this to be a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church in 1343.


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