works and grace

Christian ecumenism can be a virtuous pursuit of mutual understanding. Sadly, it more often is a kind of flight from understanding in the name of good feelings. This is not to say that Christians, and Catholics in particular, should shy away from serious discussions with members of other denominations. But it is important, if only out of respect for our interlocutors, that we recognize and address the very real disagreements we have regarding fundamental issues related to life, both here and in relation to the hereafter.

These (hardly groundbreaking) thoughts were brought to my mind on perusing a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran opponent of the Nazis who was executed for his role in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a great humanitarian and an important theologian. He had visited Rome as a young man and explicitly rejected the possibility of conversion. As he developed his theology it became clear why he would not be able to join the Church, for he fully embraced Lutheran ideas of salvation by grace alone. Indeed, he repeatedly and explicitly castigated the notion that we mere mortals might know God, let alone join Him in any meaningful sense through our own work.

At one level Catholics should have no trouble joining Bonhoeffer’s condemnation of the prideful claim that man can save himself through his own efforts. This is the Pelagian heresy against which the Church has inveighed for centuries. But the distinction between works and grace, recognized by most Christians, is one Bonhoeffer, in keeping with Lutheran doctrine, emphasizes beyond the breaking point. Works, on this view, become the product of grace, important only as expressions of divine will. Catholics, too, recognize how important signs of God’s grace truly are—for example in miracles, to which we can look as emanations of His love. But Bonhoeffer rejects the value of human works, and human knowledge, altogether as an element in salvation, or, indeed, of coming closer to God in any fashion.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

One aspect of this vision is the war against the sin of pride, so often waged by men of good will working in the area of faith. For Bonhoeffer, even the words of a minister of the Gospel are not of worth in and of themselves. The best sermon imaginable by man may fall on deaf ears, and the worst be made an object of righteous inspiration, if God so wills it. One does not fulfill one’s vocation, or achieve one’s nature, through one’s own efforts, but only if and when one is grasped by God (for reasons a mere human cannot understand) and made an instrument of His will. To believe otherwise, Bonhoeffer claims, is to set oneself up in the place of God, as the creator of good works, when we cannot even know the good. Only God knows the good. Only God can do good, though He may choose to do it through man.

Stated thus baldly, no Catholic can subscribe to a Lutheran conception of grace, or of the God behind it. It is useful to hear it, however, as a means of examining our own understanding of the nature of God, His creation, and the importance of good works. The differences between Catholic and Protestant understandings in this realm cannot be eliminated, or even papered over in any meaningful way. Still, they are worth considering as a means of better self- and common-understanding.

The manner in which Bonhoeffer criticizes human works and his idea of being grasped by God involuntarily go to the heart of why I, at least, am Catholic. For it is not, I would argue, a matter of “earning” heaven, but of saying “yes” to God. The Protestant belief in predestination is of great importance, here, and brings with it deep theological issues having to do with the freedom of the will—both God’s and man’s. That said, it brought to my mind something smaller and more directly concerned with how each of us as persons can hope to act with meaning in this world and seek communion with God in the next. Clearly we cannot “deserve” God’s love. Born in sin and sinning throughout our lives, we are dependent on God’s grace, his free gift of love. But how will we know when this gift is offered to us? And how will we know to accept it, rather than reject a love and a mercy that may be severe, especially when contrasted by the corrupt pleasures so easily had in this life?

It is here that works, along with reason and recognition of the order of God’s created universe, become important. We cannot “earn” God’s love but, alas, too often we reject it. And it is up to us to use the gifts God has given to us—including our inherent rationality as well as the Church and the aids to faith and reason it provides—to orient ourselves to the good. Through hard work we can develop our character (habits of virtue or vice that go far toward determining who we are) such that we will recognize and say “yes” to God’s will. The saint does not achieve salvation through mere right conduct, but the saint’s conduct, both spiritual and physical, help him to surrender fully to God and do His will. In doing the right thing for the right reason we orient ourselves toward what is right and thereby recognize and accept God.

In rejecting works Bonhoeffer also rejects religion, terming it a dead thing that gets in the way of the person’s relationship to God. But Catholics understand that religion is that which binds us, not merely to one another, but to God. Through liturgy, through the sacraments, and through the teachings of the Church, we are granted the ability to become better, to conform our lives to the order of creation in a manner that keeps us open to God’s grace and enables us to recognize His will. As, for example, the sacrament of reconciliation is effective only if the penitent truly is penitent, with all that implies, we can only receive God’s forgiveness by being open to it.

CatholicismMoral norms, often disparaged by Bonhoeffer despite his own highly ethical upbringing and its clear impact on his virtuous life choices, are important for salvation because they orient us toward the good. Good works help develop within us habits that enable us to distinguish between good and evil; good works make it more likely that we will choose the good, even when it brings with it pain and death. This, I submit, is not some prideful claim to earning one’s own salvation, but rather a recognition of both the dignity and the weakness of the human person. We have within us an impulse toward the good, which we too often ignore. We have written on our hearts a knowledge of God’s will, which we also too often ignore. By both thinking and doing right we can embrace the good, opening ourselves to the grace offered by God—who is beyond our full knowledge but who has created within us a soul capable of recognizing His will.

I would not expect this understanding of the role of good works in a good life (here and hereafter) to be convincing to Bonhoeffer, or any Lutheran. But it is, I think, quite distinct from the Pelagian heresy. And the role of the Church, her sacraments, and her teachings in leading us, in part through our works, to acceptance of God is something without which I would not live.

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