United to His Sacred Body: A Reformed Theology of the Lord’s Supper

lastsuppermural

Below is a term paper I wrote on the Lord’s Supper surveying traditional stances on the presence of Christ is the elements. After surveying each of the traditional views, I critique the “local presence” view and the “memorialist” view in preference to the Reformed “receptionist” view of the Lord’s Supper.

The title of this paper comes from the Heidelberg Catechism which says this about the Lord’s Supper:

Question 76: What does it mean to eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ?

It means …to be so united more and more to His sacred body by the Holy Spirit, who dwells both in Christ and in us, that, although He is in heaven and we on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone, and live and are governed forever by one Spirit, as members of the same body are by one soul.

Feel free to read it here:

United to His Sacred Body, A Reformed Theology of the Lord’s Supper

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He Descended into Hell?

Our church recites the Apostles’ Creed every other week. It’s a beautiful, ancient creed. I love its Trinitarian formula: God the Father is maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ, the begotten-Son, is redeemer. The Holy Spirit brings the saints together into one holy catholic church.

As beautiful and ancient as it is, many people are thrown off by one line which comes under the office of the Son. It says that after Christ had died and was buried, that “He descended into hell”.

Jesus descended into hell? What does that mean?

What usually comes to mind here is Christ dying and then going to the fires of hell to be further tormented by the devil. This imagery would reasonably detract many people. Is this what the creed really means by “he descended into hell”?

In this post I want to lay out the common historic understandings of this line. I will look at three views: The Reformed view, the Lutheran view, and the Roman Catholic view:

First, the Reformed churches have historically rejected any notion that Christ went to hell after his death and during his three days in the grave. Rather, the Reformed churches pose that Christ’s descent into hell refers to the anguish he experienced on the cross. Christ, being separated from the Father, bearing the sins of the world, experienced eternal torment for mankind on the cross.

The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44, says it this way:

Why is it added: “He descended into hell”?

That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which he suffered in his soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell

Christ has experienced hell that I might not. And of course this is true.

The Luther church, however, would disagree with this understanding of the creed. The Lutherans understand Christ’s descent into hell under the rubric of his victory over satan and demons.

Lutheran Henry Jacobs, in his Summary of Christian Doctrine, questions 39-43, says that “the Reformed Church regards ‘the descent into hell’ as a part of the humiliation; the Lutheran Church, as we shall see, regards it the first grade of the State of Exaltation”.

Jacobs classifies Christ’s descent into hell as part of his exaltation (i.e. victory over sin and death) as opposed to his humiliation (i.e. experience of wrath and the cross). How can this be so? Jacobs brings in 1 Peter 3:18-19 as proof that when Christ descended into hell, it was not to suffer, but rather to pronounce victory over the demonic spirits.

1 Peter 3:18-19 says,

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison

Jacobs explains:

We simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. We should not, however, trouble ourselves with sublime and acute thoughts, as to how this occurred. (Formula of Concord, 643)

So, during the three days in the grave, Christ descended into hell to “destroy the power of hell”. This was on the basis that Christ had defeated sin and death.

The Roman Catholic church differs only slightly from the Lutheran position. The Catholic catechism says:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there

Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him (632-33)

The Catholic church affirms with the Lutherans that Jesus went into hell, or Sheol, or the realm of the dead, however one sees it. But he went there “not…to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just”. Meaning, Jesus went to release the Old Testament saints into the beatific vision. According to this view, the Old Testament faithful could not enter into the divine vision until justice had been satisfied — the cross did just that. And so Jesus went to Sheol to preach victory and to release the faithful to heaven.

The Catholic church provides 1 Peter 4:6 as proof of this: “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does”.

The catechism says:

The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

It is important to note that the Lutheran church doesn’t deny that Christ released the faithful into the divine presence. Henry Jacobs explains that “we may regard it probable that the proclamation of victory announced to one class to their terror was made to another class, to their joy and triumph.” However, he prefaces that “we dare not think of those who departed in faith as until then ‘in prison.'” In other words, the Old Testaments saints may have been freed into the beatific vision, however, they were not in “prison” (1 Pet 3:19) as the demonic spirits were.

So these are the three main interpretations of Christ’s descent into hell. While I do affirm the Reformed position, that Christ experienced hell on the cross, I must admit that that position has weaknesses. What about Peter’s description of Christ’s descent? What about “preaching to the dead”? For this reason, I also affirm that Christ did descend into Sheol, or hell, to pronounce his victory over sin and death. This pronouncement, I presume, both condemned the demonic spirits, and redeemed the Old Testament saints. It was the last phase of Christ’s mission, after which he was resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father.

Why I won’t convert to Roman Catholicism

In the past 6 months, I’ve read more Catholic theology than I have in my entire life. Now, why did I do that? Well, I did it because, to a large extent, I realized I knew nothing about Roman Catholicism except for the common stereotypes. I only really knew the common Protestant objections: pope, tradition, priests, works, Mary, icons, etc. But I had never really dug into the theology. And so, I bought some works by major Catholic theologians.

I have to say, I really enjoyed reading them. At the end of the day, I value theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, Scott Hahn, Thomas Aquinas, Robert Barron, et al. For all my differences, these guys really center on the big picture stuff. So I really enjoyed them.

I also really enjoyed getting to know the distinctives. Papal authority, priesthood, sacerdotalism, infused (vs imputed) righteousness, etc. This was an area which I had simply never studied. I feel better off for having studied these theologians.

With that said: I really don’t plan on converting to Roman Catholicism. I could never convert in good conscience. I want to list 3 reasons why I wouldn’t ever convert:

Exclusivity: 

The first reason I could not convert is because of how exclusive Roman Catholicism is. I’ve read of a number of stories from Roman converts, and the stories are all relatively similar. These people are happy Protestants, until one day, they realize the wide history of the Catholic church. They realize the size, the teaching, the rich theology. And they realize that their thinly-veiled Protestantism just can’t stand up to it. And so they switch. But what most if any of those converts do not realize, is that when they switch, they are saying something very negative about their past experience as Protestants: namely, that it wasn’t a valid or true Christian experience. Peter Leithart explains it this way:

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that. (source)

For a Protestant to make the move, they must by definition invalidate everything they had experienced before. That is simply not catholic in the real sense of the word: that is exclusivism. Peter Leithart goes so far to say that it is nothing else than sectarianism. To convert would be to say that my prior conversion was sub-biblical, that my baptism invalid, that my whole life was in some form out of the will of God. There is really nothing “Catholic” about that.

History: 

Of all that I’ve read, the main reason people convert is because of the deep history of the Catholic church. Put simply, Protestants do not understand the history of the church, and they are shocked by the long history of the Roman Catholic church. And for them, when they are exposed to this history, and the relatively shorter history of Protestantism, they opt for the older church.

The problem here is two-fold:

First, the history of the church is much less clear than Roman Catholics would like us to realize. The reality is that the early church did look different from the Protestantism of today; but it also looked different from the Roman Catholic church of today! Anyone who claims that the early church was the same, or even similar, to what it is today, is oversimplifying things. Many people convert because they feel that history is settled: the church of the apostles was Catholic. Not true. It is a historic fact that the Roman bishop (pope) did not have supremacy until the 3-4th century (link). It is a historic fact that transubstantiation was not dogmatically formulated until the medieval period. To make any claim on the early church is to muddy the water.

Second, and more important, many look to the early church as if they had it all figured out. The early church fathers were closer to the apostles, yes, but they did not have everything figured out. For instance, there was no formulated atonement theory until Anselm. The Trinity was not articulated until the 5th century. For goodness sake, it wasn’t until the reformation period that the church really began to think about and formulate the doctrine of justification!

My point here is that while we owe much to the early church, we shouldn’t glorify the period as if they had it all figured out. There was much more to be understood in terms of doctrine and practice. Both Calvin and Luther quoted the early church fathers frequently, and saw themselves in historical continuity to them. They wanted to reform and develop the Catholic churchnot brake from it. They wanted to be a voice in line with saints before them. This is why I see my Protestantism as connected to that wide history of the early church. You should too.

Theology:

Lastly, I am not a Catholic because of the theological distinctives which make up Roman Catholicism. This should be no surprise. I do not believe that their theology, particularly of church authority and justification, is correct. By church authority, I mean papal authority. Their claim that the bishop of Rome has universal jurisdiction is, in my book, historically inaccurate, and biblically unfounded. More particularly, papal infallibility is unsafe, because it binds the consciences of the laity to one man.

Also, I believe their theology of infusion conflates justification and sanctification. What this means is that justification, for Rome, is the infusion of grace into the soul, which can ebb and flow, and can ultimately be lost by mortal sin. I think this is a grave error. This robs the believer of assurance, which is a biblical concept (Rom 8:15). And it places the believer’s final justification on their own shoulders rather than Christ’s. This, to me, is a huge deal.

Carl Trueman says this of Roman Catholicism:

The insight of the Reformation on assurance is key, theologically and pastorally. And… that it is one thing that every convert to Roman Catholicism must lose…That is a very high price to pay. Speaking for myself, all of the liturgical beauty of Rome, all of the tradition, all of the clarity of the authority structure (and the clarity is often, I think, more in the eye of the beholder than the Church itself) cannot compensate for the loss of the knowledge that I know I have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ that conversion to Rome requires (The Creedal Imperative, 125)

Trueman is right on. The owness in Roman Catholicism is on the person, not on Christ. That, to me, is not only unbiblical, but simply devastating. I wouldn’t be able to bear it.

I love much in the Roman Catholic tradition. However, with these reasons in place, I simply couldn’t convert.

If you want further study on this, please read these links, HERE, HERE

Sola Scriptura and Tradition

As a Protestant, I hold to the conviction that scripture is the only infallible authority for church and practice. This principle is commonly known as sola scriptura.

Scott Swain and Michael Allen say in their Reformed Catholicity that sola scriptura means that scripture “is the norm that norms all other norms and that is not itself normed” (p 42). They explain further, saying, “the process of receiving and transmitting apostolic truth has a terminus a quo, Holy Scripture, from which it flows and to which it is accountable.” (p 43)

What sola scriptura means, is that scripture is the only source of authority that is both infallible and unchangeable. It is the unique “norm” of churchly authority in that it is the only infallible authority.

The necessary corollary of sola scriptura is that the articulation of theology, creeds, ecclesial tradition, liturgy, et al, is necessarily not infallible. In other words, fallible men are attempting to express the truths found in the infallible scriptures. Swain and Allen explain this:

The various products and processes of church tradition are certainly fallible, and their existence and exercise are certainly accountable to their prophetic and apostolic foundation. (p 45-46)

In other words, because tradition or theological exercise is fallible, it is always subject to “chapter and verse” to validate their point. The Bible must be at the foundation.

Swain and Allen go on to explain that because the Spirit dwells in the church, she can and does have renewed reason to interpret scripture. Through the act of regeneration, the

‘gracious, sovereign movement of Word and Spirit outbids the fall.’ In its rescue and renewal by God, reason is raised and restored to its proper function within the economy of divine teaching. In terms of the present discussion, this means that everything that the Spirit does in us to illumine Holy Scripture, he does by us, by the instrumentality of created reason in its social and historical expression (p 37)

So theology and tradition is not a wasted effort. The Spirit does enable the church to interpret and explain the scriptures. However,

because [the church] has not yet received… the beatific vision (glorification), reason’s vocation is “inseparable from ongoing enquiry, from reformulating old questions, testing established beliefs, asking new questions, and so providing new resources for teaching.” Reason’s vocation is inseparable from a lively tradition of debate about what does and does not count as the faithful extension of tradition toward its goal, the knowledge and love of the Triune God (p 38)

What Swain and Allen are meaning to communicate here, is that the Spirit, as the church’s aid, produces real and meaningful tradition rooted in the scriptures. However, because the church is not yet glorified, not yet experiencing the beatific vision, the activity of the church in theologizing and traditioning is an ongoing, fallible process, as she grows up into maturity by the ongoing help of the Spirit.

Suffice to say, Protestants are pro-tradition. We see this in the articulation of creeds and confessions from the time of the church’s conception. However, we realize that the church has yet to experience her fulness, and is in the process of sanctification. Insomuch as she submits to the Spirit, she is able to articulate the theology of scripture in an accurate manner. Although, theology and tradition are subject to error because of the reality of sin.

Sola scriptura is this attempt to “ride the line” in an appreciation of historic creeds and tradition, while at the same time realizing that scripture alone is infallible, and that the church at times can “get it wrong”.

Unfortunately, there are two common reaction to the principle of sola scriptura. First, many reject sola scriptura because of its affirmation that scripture alone is infallible. The Roman and Eastern church chide sola scriptura because they feel it undermines historic tradition. Still others — usually from the evangelical side — misapply sola scriptura, and reject tradition or theology in any form, thinking it unhelpful and distraction.

Swain and Allen explain these two overreactions to the principle of sola scriptura:

We will suggest that two classic errors are evident in sola Scriptura as described by [many]. We might identify these targets as a theology at once both Donatist and deist.

First, there is a Donatist shift… [I]n the fourth and fifth centuries the Donatists believed that the church was pure, and, therefore, they opposed the return of those who had caved in to pressure during periods of persecution. They insisted that such disloyal church members could not be restored to good standing, precisely because they had a very elevated sense of the church’s holiness. A Donatist tendency can be seen in purist approaches to the church’s faith and practice. Here theological reflection cannot be helped by a flawed and fallen church. The church is divided, sinful, and marred by deformities. Thus, the call is to reflect critically and individually upon the practices of the church from outside those practices, rather than from within them… [Many] certainly describe a sola Scriptura Protestantism that is Donatist in style—wherein tradition can only be valid if perfectly aligned and generated by the Holy Scriptures. In so doing, zeal for biblical purity may well lead to overlooking the fullness of God’s involvements in ecclesial history and even his providential and spiritual leading of an imperfect but genuine church; her traditions, creeds, liturgies, practices, and spiritual authority may be dismissed because they are not hand-delivered in immaculate and resplendent glory.

Second, the modern era also births a deistic approach. Here theological practice is entirely and exclusively human activity with divine agency bracketed off to the past. Mark Bowald has argued that “most contemporary accounts of biblical hermeneutics are deistic.” 20 Nothing remains but a divine deposit left for the pious Christian or, perhaps, the objective scholar, to unearth and appreciate. The involvement of God is entirely described in the past tense: God did reveal, God did speak, God did give us an inscripturated Word. The present tense is entirely immanent, however, and involves only our own activities: receiving, reading, studying, questioning, critiquing, and so on. Method becomes important—whether historical or practical, hermeneutical or rhetorical. Because God is presumed not to be involved in the present horizon of communication, everything hangs on negotiating the text wisely and objectively. (p 56-57)

This explanation is incredibly helpful. On “donatist” side (usually an argument from Roman or Eastern churches), if tradition is fallible in any way, it is to be rejected. Tradition must either be infallibly declared, or rejected altogether. On the “deist” side, God has spoken, and does not speak any longer. And so traditioning or theologizing is a wasted effort. The only way to engage God is to “objectively” interpret the Bible. “No creed but Christ” mentality.

Both misunderstand sola scriptura. As Swain and Allen explain, sola scriptura

was not intended by its original advocates in the time of the Reformation as an absolute rebuke to tradition or a denial of genuine ecclesial authority. It was a spiritual characterization of the nature of that authority and the role of that tradition. (p 49)

Sola scriptura places a context to tradition and scripture, and how they relate together. Put simply, tradition, while good and important in regards to the maturity and growth of the church, is not infallible and always subject to the authority of scripture.

Calvin on the Papacy

Calvin’s section on ecclesiology is his longest of the four section in his Institutes. In his ecclesiology section, Calvin has a long discourse on the illegitimacy of the papacy as a church authority. He covers both the theology and the history of the papacy. I want to overview Calvin’s theological arguments against the papacy.

Calvin first introduces the claim that Peter was designated the first pope in Matthew 16. His response is two-fold.

In speaking of Peter’s office, Calvin firstly addresses how Matthew 16 should be interpreted: “you are Peter, and on the rock I will build my church”. Calvin’s response here is that the authority given to Peter at that moment is elsewhere later given to the rest of the apostles. In this way, Christ is giving authority to the entire church figuratively in the person of Peter.

Calvin says,

Christ, they say, appointed Peter as prince of the whole church when he promised that the keys would be given him. But what he then promised to the one, he elsewhere confers at the same time upon all the rest and, so to speak, delivers it into their hands [Matt 18:18; John 20:23]. If the same right was granted to all that was promised to the one, in what respect will Peter be superior to his colleagues?… For speaks Cyprian: “In the person of one man the Lord gave the keys to all, to signify the unity of all; the rest were the same as Peter was, endowed with an equal share both of honor and of power…” …Augustine says: “If the mystery of the church had not been in Peter, the Lord would not have said to him, ‘I shall give you the keys’; for if this was said to Peter alone, the church does not have them. But if the church has them, Peter, when he received the keys, was a symbol of the whole church” (Institutes, 1106)

So Peter embodies the church in this passage. It is interesting that Calvin cites both Augustine and Cyprian as proponents of this interpretation. Calvin also points out that Jesus gives Peter this authority only after he makes a faith claim: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Calvin says that “Peter, in his own and his brethren’s name, had confessed Christ was the Son of God [Matt 16:16]. Upon this rock Christ builds his church” (ibid, 1107). In this way, Jesus confers his authority to all who make that same confession. So then we are all given this authority.

Calvin’s second argument against the establishment of Peter as pope, is the fact that in the biblical accounts, Peter had no more authority than the rest of the apostles. Calvin points out that Peter was nowhere treated in a special light.

Calvin says,

[I]f we gather all the passages where it teaches what office and power Peter had among the apostles, how he conducted himself, and also how he was received by them… you will find nothing but that he was one of the Twelve, the equal of the rest… (ibid, 1108)

Calvin then references the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, over which Peter does not preside; rather James does. Also, in 1 Peter 5:1 ff, Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder”, not as the universal bishop. Calvin refers to several instances in Acts where Peter is subordinate, not superior, to other leaders (ref ibid, 1108).

Calvin also references Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, where Paul both recognizes Peter as one of several leaders — not the leader — and rebukes him!

Calvin says,

But if none of these passages existed, still the letter to the Galatians alone can easily banish all doubt from us. There for almost two chapters Paul contends solely that he is Peter’s equal in the office of apostle. Hence, he recalls that he came to Peter, not to profess subjection, but only to attest their agreement in doctrine before all; that Peter also demanded no such thing, but gave him the right hand of fellowship so that they might labor together in the Lord’s vineyard; that no less grace was conferred upon him among the Gentiles than upon Peter among the Jews [Gal 1:18, 2:8]. Finally, he recalls that when Peter did not act faithfully, he corrected him, and Peter obeyed his reproof [Gal 2:11-14]. (ibid, 1108-09)

Calvin is right. The entire introduction of Galatians centers on proof of Paul’s equal authority as an apostle among the others.

Moving on from Peter, Calvin then addresses NT ecclesiology. Calvin rightly points out two things: first, that in all of the passages which speak of a “head of the church”, it is Christ which is given, not Peter. Secondly, in all the passages which speak of church authority, the papacy is left out!

Calvin first addresses Christ as the head of the church. He says,

[The church] has Christ as its sole Head, under whose sway all of us cleave to one another, according to that order and that form of polity which he has laid down. They do signal injury to Christ when they would have one man set over the church universal, on the pretext that the church cannot be without a head. For Christ is the Head, “from whom the whole body, joined and knit through every bond of mutual ministry (insofar as each member functions) achieves its growth” [Eph 4:15-16]… (ibid, 1110)

Calvin is right on this one: Ephesians and Colossians describe Jesus as that one unity of the church, the Head of the church. Calvin next describes the positions given in the church, and notices the the papacy is not included.

He says:

By his ascension Christ took away from us his visible presence; yet he ascended to fill all things [Eph 4:10]. Now, therefore, the church still has, and always will have, him present. When Paul wishes to show the way in which he manifests himself, he calls us back to the ministries in which he uses. The Lord (he says) is in us all, according to the measure of grace which he has bestowed upon each member [Eph 4:7]. For that reason, “he appointed some to be apostles… others pastors, others evangelists, still others teachers, “etc [Eph 4:11]. Why does Paul not say that Christ has set one over all to act as his vicegerent? For that the occasion especially demanded, and it ought in no way to have been omitted, if it had been true. Christ (he says) is present with us. How? By the ministry of men, whom he has set over the governing of the church. Why not, rather, through the ministerial head, to whom he has entrusted his functions? (ibid, 1111)

So then, Paul nowhere mentions the papal authority. And I think Calvin is right to interject that had the papacy been established, it would surely have been present in lists of ministerial authority like Ephesians 4.

With this, then, Calvin theologically denies the legitimacy of the papacy. And I think for good reason. While I appreciate and even love much about Catholicism, I believe arguments for the papacy on biblical grounds is difficult sustain.

Catholicism verses Protestantism: What’s the main difference?

difference

I have been studying Catholic theology lately, examining the major disagreements it has with my Protestant theology.

While there are major differences, things like the sinlessness of Mary, or the veneration of saints and icons, or papal authority, this was not the largest difference I saw. And to be honest, there are explanations for these practices that aren’t altogether outlandish (though I would still disagree).

Another difference that some might point out is how the Catholics view the sacraments. According to the Catholic Catechism, Catholics understand the sacraments to be “‘powers that comes forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving”. In other words, Jesus himself gives life to his church in the sacraments. So in baptism, Jesus himself effects regeneration. In confirmation, Jesus gives the fulness of the Spirit. In the Eucharist, Christians quite literally are nourished by Jesus’ body. And this is because, according to Catholic theology, the church is a continuation of the incarnation of Christ. And through his body, in the sacraments, he saves his people. Nevertheless, Protestants, healthy ones at least, understand the importance of the sacraments, and that Jesus really does impart grace through them (although we would understand them differently of course).

I wouldn’t even see grace as the primary difference. All too often, Catholic theology is seen as works-based, religious, dry. However, every Catholic I know would deny that. In fact, grace is central to Catholic theology. The Catechism states that salvation “has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men”. Who could disagree with that? Grace really is present in Catholic theology.

So then, what is the big difference? 

To me, the thing that makes Protestants and Catholics diverge; the rub, as it were, is what “justification” means. Justification means two different things in Protestant and Catholic theology — did you know that?

For Protestants, justification is the declaration that sinners, though they be sinners, are righteous because of the righteousness of Christ. Because Christ was obedient in our place, on our behalf, we are given, or imputed Christ’s righteousness. We are saved by the righteousness of another, not our own. As Luther says, justification is the gift of an “alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith”. We are saved not because we are actually righteous (though we will be righteous in glory), but because Jesus is. So that is Protestant “justification”.

But Catholics do not see justification this way. Though they would still hold to justification, they would define it as the transference from being a child of wrath to being a child of God. And in this transference, rather than Christ’s righteousness being imputed, his righteousness is imparted, or infused within us. What they mean is that the merits of Christ are literally infused into our nature, thereby making us not legally righteous, but actually righteous. Andrew Preslar writes,

[J]ustification is an act of God by which the merits of Jesus Christ, sanctifying grace, and charity are communicated to sinners, who are thereby made just. This infused charity fulfills the righteous demands of the law, being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) in baptism, by which we are united with Christ, who has made complete satisfaction to the Father for our sins (Romans 6:3-4). In concise, theological terms, the Catholic Church teaches that regeneration, sanctification, and incorporation into the Body of Christ are essential aspects of justification, such that the latter cannot be defined in legal, extrinsic, and individualistic terms alone (source)

The Catholic Catechism writes, “justification conforms us to the righteousness of God”. This is very important here. Catholic theology rejects “legal… terms alone”, and says that justification is the act by which by God infuses the life of Christ in us, thereby allowing us to be righteous in the real sense of the word now.

Now here’s the important part: for the Catholic church, because the merits and righteousness of Christ are literally infused, it is now the role of God’s justified church to cooperate with God’s grace and live out a righteous life, thereby meriting eternal life. Final salvation, for the Catholic church, depends on us living out the righteousness of Christ infused within. This is why the sacraments are so important. The Eucharist is Christ giving us more grace to live out a righteous life. Confession is given to absolve any mortal sin which extinguishes the righteousness of Christ infused in us. Impartation or infusion of Jesus’ righteousness, means that we can now live out the law and merit eternal life.

Now let me be fair: this isn’t salvation by self-merit. In Catholicism, final salvation is not dependent on us living out our own righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ infused within. In this way, it is still grace-given righteousness.

However, as a Protestant, I can’t help but notice how the burden is truly on you. As the Catholic Catechism states,

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life

The Catechism clarifies, however, saying,

The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace

While Protestants do have a robust doctrine of sanctification and perseverance, we will not say that growth is tied to our final justification. Justification and sanctification are not bound together in Protestant theology. But for Catholics, justification is a work that God begins freely in us by baptism, but is then merited through sanctification, or cooperation in Christ’s righteousness infused.

As Catholics would say, justification is by faith, but not by faith alone. It is by faith working through love, living out “the divine life” as sons of God.

So, Protestants say justification is imputation. Catholics say that justification is infusion. Small wording change, but to me, this creates the biggest difference in the end.

Want a Catholic’s perspective on the difference? Here is Robert Barron on the Council of Trent, which was created in response to the Protestant Reformation. To get the gist of it, skip to minute 8:45: