Faith and Life

Gift and Merit

I had read something the other day which noted very simply that salvation is a free gift and not something we ‘deserve’ or ‘achieve’ through our own efforts. It really is very simple but it is something we frequently forget altogether. And in that forgetting, the way we live – and the way we engage with those around us – is completely changed.

When we believe that salvation depends upon us and what we do, then we begin to see ourselves – not Christ – as the source and the means of our salvation. We become our own saviour. Salvation, we wrongly believe, is ours to earn through what we do and how well we do it. Aside from being entirely wrong, this has another problem associated with it – the way in which we do things, the way we follow the rules and the perfection with which we consider ourselves to have done so, become all-important to us. We take our eyes off Christ and place them squarely on actions alone – our actions. Yet is it not our actions which count here, but the action of Christ – especially His death upon the Cross.

A further issue with actions is that they are external and, therefore, visible. Yet, external actions can bear no resemblance whatsoever to what goes on in the human heart. This is why Christ, in the Gospels, speaks of those who – externally, at least – do all the right things, say all the right prayers and are never away from the temple; and yet He calls them “whitened sepulchres” because He sees only too well that this external action is disconnected from what is in the heart of those people. The danger is that we repeat their mistake.

Seeing only the visible actions of another leads us into the very real danger of judging them based solely on what we observe. We forget about that potential disconnect between the external and internal fora. It is often said that if we get to Heaven, we will be surprised at who we will find there – and I believe this. Here is why. I imagine the person upon whom I look down most harshly, seeing only what they do externally and judging them accordingly based on this one visible facet. Yet, I have no awareness that although this person may struggle greatly with sin and all sorts of matters, still their heart is turned always toward God in desire for Him and with the intention of doing better, no matter how badly they fail along the way. I see what I consider to be their sin, while God sees only what He knows to be their effort and perseverance. God rewards the effort, not the result.

The Catechism speaks at some length about justification, grace and merit and those sections are well worth reading carefully, as they can throw a clarifying light on some of the ideas we may have. The Catechism (para.1996-1999) tells us –

“Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to His call to become children of God.. Grace is a participation in the life of God… This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for He alone can reveal and give Himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.. The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of His own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification.”

And so it is all gift, given by God ‘free and undeserved’. But there is more, for the Catechism goes on to tell us very clearly  that “God’s free initiative demands man’s free response” (para.2002). These free gifts, then, have a very definite purpose. And so, while it is the case that our redemption and salvation come from God, Who alone is their source – still, we need to work in co-operation with the grace of God.

I will think about all this today and I will determine not to focus on external actions, but on the freely-given grace which makes such actions possible, and on what is going on internally; and I will do so not only in regard to myself but to others, also. Consequently, I will do my very best not only to avoid judging others but – more than that – to try to see the good in them and the grace of God at work within them.



A Catholic writer living in the United Kingdom

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