In the classical view, salvation is our transformation by grace into children of God, which thus completes our God-given nature; and yes, Catholics do believe in sola gratia…
I quite agree that, for Martin Luther, the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was, indeed, the abuse of the doctrine of indulgences that became especially endemic under Pope Julius II. However, we see from Luther’s writings that the issue went much deeper, and concerned the intrinsic character of grace and salvation. To explain the matter, we must first examine the classical Christian doctrine of salvation, which broadly comprehends the teachings of Latin and Eastern Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and which Luther would come to oppose.
Q.1 What is the classical doctrine of salvation?
The classical doctrine of the Church proposes what might be called a soteriology of transformation; that is, it sees salvation as our transformation, by the grace of Christ, into children of God, which thus completes our God-given nature. In the classical doctrine, therefore, grace is neither the same as nature nor totally separate from it. Rather, grace is the completion of nature, and both come from God.
Q.2 Was the classical position on salvation formulated all at once?
No, this position was not formulated all at once, but in dialogue and debate with competing theories. Among these were the Judaizers, who proposed that Christian salvation necessitated compliance with Mosaic Law; the Gnostic Docetists and Manicheans, who made Christian salvation a liberation from evil nature; the Neoplatonists, who considered salvation to be union into God through mystical practice; the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians, who considered salvation achievable through the right use of natural powers; the Protestants, who followed the Neo-Manichean side of Augustine into believing salvation to be a total liberation from fallen nature; and the Rationalists who followed Pelagianism into believing that salvation or human fulfillment came from the rational use of human faculties.
Q.3 Is the classical doctrine on salvation interpreted uniformly?
No, it is not interpreted in a uniform sense. For instance, the East, influenced by Neoplatonism, interprets the doctrine mystically, with Athanasius, following 2 Peter 1:4, calling it ‘divinization’, a mystical sharing of God’s inner life. On the other hand, the proto-Scholastics of the West explained it juristically, as the acceptance by Christ of the punishment for humanity’s sin; while the Jesuits and Dominicans of the Silver Age formulated it in a voluntarist and an intellectualist sense, respectively.
All of these, however, are orthodox interpretations of the classical position, whose mature form may be summarized thus:
Q.4 According to the classical doctrine, what does it mean to be made in the image and likeness of God? In other words, what is human nature, and how is it related to grace?
Our nature may be seen from 2 perspectives: First, it may be viewed from the perspective of our capacity, under which ‘humanity’ means our natural participation in God’s power to know and love. Second, it may be seen from the viewpoint of our purpose, our Divinely ordained destiny to share the inner life of God through communion with Him.
Our humanity, then, or our bearing the image of God, consists in (a) our God-given human rationality and freedom (our ‘nature’, Greek physis), which is completed by (b) our God-given communion with His inner life, which is called ‘grace’ (Greek charis).
Q.5 According to the classical doctrine, how does God work through our human nature?
In theological terms, God works through us in 2 ways:
First, through ordinary “concurrence” with our natural powers for natural ends, the way He works through all creatures according to their nature; and
Second, by moving us for the supernatural end of salvation, to freely know Him and obey His will, though such natural action can never attain to salvation without the gift of supernatural life.
Q.6 Even without Original Sin, would human nature always need the grace of God?
Yes, for the communion with God that completes our nature is possible only because God Himself freely shares His inner life with us, since a creature can never reach the Creator through its unaided effort. Hence, even without the Fall, human nature would be in radical need of grace; and, yes, Catholics and Orthodox do believe in sola gratia.
Q.7 Does Original Sin totally corrupt human nature’s ability to receive the grace of God?
No. Besides cutting off our communion with God, Original Sin weakened our human nature and made it less able to receive grace, but it did not totally corrupt our humanity’s capacity to come to God; for unlike the Devil who actually sinned with total freedom and knowledge, we inherit from Adam and Eve merely the effect of their sin. Rather, our human nature remains a channel to goodness, albeit imperfectly, of (in Hesychast language) the continuing energeia or action of God.
Q.8 Despite Original Sin, does our free cooperation with God matter in our salvation?
Yes. Original Sin only limits but does not destroy our natural preparedness for grace; hence, our free cooperation with God, to which He moves us, serves as an instrument of our salvation. Thus the Apostle Paul tells us:
“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you” (Phil. 2:12-13).
As the Council of Trent, therefore, says of adult converts, they
“are disposed to that justice when, aroused and aided by divine grace, receiving faith by hearing, they are moved freely toward God…”
Q.9 In summary, therefore, how does our salvation begin?
In summary, therefore, our salvation begins when God shares with us His supernatural life, by bringing us into communion with Him through Christ and by moving us to receive this communion. In terms of its process, salvation happens when (i) through baptism (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:3-4), God shares His inner life with us in Christ, and (ii) supernaturally acting through the nature He gave us, (iii) He moves us to freely receive and actualize this gift of supernatural life, whether before or after baptism. (Note that the Latin Scholastics used ‘sanctifying grace‘ to mean the gift of supernatural life, ‘actual grace‘ for God’s supernatural movement of our nature to receive His gift, and ‘merit‘ for the God-moved actualizing of sanctifying grace.)
Q.10 Does our salvation happen all at once?
No. Although the gift of grace through baptism reverses our inherited loss of communion with God, the weakness of our nature caused by Original Sin remains to keep this transformation incomplete and to limit our communion with God. However, the communion that we receive, even if it is limited at first, serves as both fulfillment and promise: it begins to transform us into God’s children, and it provides the seed for the completion of that transformation in the end.
Q.11 How is our communion with God deepened?
Our communion with God is further deepened when, through the acts of love to which He moves us, our nature is further transformed so that its capacity to receive His life in grace is increased. In the classical view, therefore, what are called our “justification” (becoming righteous) and “sanctification” (becoming holy) are not different acts but aspects of the same transformation by which God adopts us as children in Christ.
Q.12 Can salvation be lost after it is received from God?
Yes. Since we remain free, we can refuse to be moved by God, and we can even do acts, called mortal sins, that destroy or mortally wound our communion with Him (cf. 1 John 5:16-17). In the words of the Apostle Paul,
“I pummel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27),
And he warns us:
“See then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off” (Rom. 11:22).
Our ultimate salvation is therefore not guaranteed, “but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (St. Matthew 24:12).
Q.13 Is salvation a purely individual matter between a human being and God?
No, Christ saves us as one body that partakes of His life. By sharing His divine life with the Church, Christ made it His body, the completion (Greek pleroma) of His person and mediating mission (cf. Ephesians 1:23); and it is through her communal (especially her liturgical) life as the body of Christ that He transmits His life to every succeeding generation of believers. Thus, in baptism we are born again into Christ “by water and the Spirit” (St. John 3:5), and in the Eucharist, Christ shares His life with us (St. John 6:53-57). In other words, it is through us together as one body that Christ actualizes the salvation that He gave us on the cross.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).
For more, please see our post “What is the communion of saints?“
Q.14 According to the classical doctrine, will a believer lose salvation if his/her transformation by grace is incomplete?
No, since our communion with God is deepened and completed as one body of Christ. Therefore, if a believer, without losing this communion altogether through unrepented mortal sin, falls short of allowing God to fully transform him/her, this lack will be supplied from the fullness of the transformation (or the “merit”) that Christ works in His body through its different members (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:26). As we are saved together, so we complete each other, because Christ transforms us together, and it is He Who lives in us.
In the next post I hope to explain the theological development that led to the Lutheran movement. God bless you.