Sunday, January 15, 2023

Matchless Grace

Where we left off last Sunday was with a vision – a glimpse of what life is all about, why God made us, what he made us for. We asked three related questions: “Where is the human journey meant to end? What will bring us true fulfillment and happiness? And what is any of this all about, anyway?” And we found that this journey of being human is supposed to lead us to seeing God as he is. In seeing God as he is, we'll know and have God in a way that satisfies us completely and comprehensively. We'll love him with his own love and be happy with his own happiness. That's why God made us, wanting to share his blessedness with creatures who are fit for it, and in sharing his blessedness, to somehow be made like him by seeing him as he is. That goal, seeing him as he is, is what later theologians called “the beatific vision” – it's the greatest delight there is in heaven.

So last Sunday, we spent our time together considering and getting excited about the destination we're supposed to get to. But, of course, the Bible is full of warnings that, just because we're meant to all reach this destination, just because it's God's desire that we all reach this destination, that doesn't guarantee that every person who ever lived is going to find himself or herself someday in heaven, someday seeing God as he is, someday becoming as much like God as it's possible for a creature to ever be. People on any trip can get lost – you can misread a map or miss a turn, you can get one place confused with another. People on a trip can even get waylaid by failing to follow the rules of their modes of transportation, like trying to get on a plane while you've got fireworks in your carry-on bag. And not only that, it's very possible to not even get started – to forget you've got some place to be, or to be clueless what mode of transportation you need to take at the first step.

And when it comes to the human journey, there are a couple big problems to face when getting started, reasons why so many people are ambling around unsure of what to do. And the first problem is this: The beatific vision is a supernatural good. Heaven is a supernatural place. And from birth, all our powers are natural. We can eat, drink, sleep, eventually walk and talk, run and think, and so on. But no amount of natural effort can add up to even one supernatural action. Natural means can't get you to a supernatural end – otherwise, they would be supernatural means! The beatific vision is all about God sharing himself. Getting the beatific vision isn't like surprising God when he's coming out of the shower. He has to reveal himself to you supernaturally, and before that can happen, he has to make you fit to see him as he is – and that, too, is supernatural.

It doesn't matter how many miles you walk, or which direction you start moving, but as long as it's just your own two feet taking you, you won't set foot in Australia from here. And when it comes to reaching the beatific vision, maybe a better analogy would be trying to run to the moon. That's one reason why Paul has to be very emphatic that it's “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9). A person can go around town being nice to everybody, donating to every worthy cause, rescuing cats from trees, and carrying out every other form of moral heroism under the sun – but as long as he's working from natural moral virtues that he got and refined himself, they just aren't proportionate to the goal we're aiming for. It's impossible to earn heaven by all the works, all the natural moral actions, a person can dream up. It just can't be done, by definition.

So that's one problem, and it's kind of a big one already. Put Adam and Eve in the garden, with no sin but also with no grace added atop their human nature, and they can't earn heaven, no matter how long they steer clear of forbidden fruit. But there's another spot of trouble here, which is that we're not in the garden. Sin has entered the picture. Sinners are, in Paul's memorable phrase, “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Sin does some very nasty things that get in the way of starting out on this journey. First of all, we have a debt that needs to get paid before we even leave our darkened caves – because until it is, we're fugitives from God's justice, and so long as we're on the wrong side of the law, we definitely aren't free to move. But as if that weren't enough, our will gets bent out of harmony with God's will, so it's stained and deformed, making it even more unfit for God.1 Not only that, but “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Ephesians 2:1). If you thought it was impossible to run to the moon before, try doing so a week after your own funeral!

Alright, so we're meant to be on this great human journey that's supposed to lead us to see God as he is, the kind of vision that's the highest delight of heaven. It's a supernatural goal that can only be reached by supernatural means, which means our natural powers can't even begin to make the first move – not because we're sinners, but because we're creatures. We'd need supernatural means to get there, just like we'd need a spaceship to achieve a moon landing – 'cause all the walking, running, and driving you can do won't get you there. And again, that's because we're creatures. But we also happen to be sinners, which means we've got a whole host of other issues blocking the first move. We're in debt (so we're under arrest and trapped), we're deformed (so we can't even run to begin with), and to top it all off, we're dead (which kind of makes the other obstacles look small, somehow!).

But God, says Scripture, was “rich in mercy. Because of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses” (Ephesians 2:4-5), he did something about our problems – all of them. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world. And so much could be said about that, I could preach it every Sunday of the year and not even scratch the surface of all there is to be said. But “God shows his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). He offered his infinite divine life sacrificially with infinite affection and devotion to his Father on the cross, and so created a mystery capable of resolving every problem.2 We won't do too much today to trouble ourselves with the mechanics, which surpass all understanding anyway. But the truly important thing is that the death and resurrection of Jesus has power to unstop our journey in its tracks.

We were “dead in our trespasses,” and so in this death and resurrection, God can “make us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). We're deformed in will, and so in this death and resurrection, God can renew us and transform us, to “conform [us] to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). We're deep in debt, so Jesus emptied himself and “became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). And he canceled out “the record of debt that stood against us” by “nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). We're insufficient in only our natural powers, so a supernatural power has to take over our life – and that, too, is provided for in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Okay, so in what Jesus did on the cross and did in his resurrection, there's power to get over all these hurdles to starting our journey. But how do we get at that? Where does our life cross paths with the cross? How begins a human life the human journey? And to that, Jesus himself gives answer: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:3). Rebirth is the key! Rebirth is the new start! And Jesus explains in more detail what he means: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). For “do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). There, did you hear that? Our question was where a human life today might cross paths with the cross. And there's a biblical answer for you. Baptism is a baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. It unites us with the mystery of Christ, and gives us rebirth just as Jesus underwent resurrection. Paul later calls baptism “the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). And Peter preached: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39).

And so when we enter that mystery, our life – whether in infancy or adulthood – crosses paths with the cross. It finds new birth, forgiveness, and gifts and graces beyond telling. Paul says that we “receive the abundance of grace” (Romans 5:17). And there's so much going on here that it could be sliced up and explained in so many different ways – and it has been! I want this morning to offer just a small sampling from one angle.

Paul writes: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Those are three things all going on at once. “You were washed” – that's baptism, that's that “washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). But to be washed is at the same time to be “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Paul elsewhere writes that “we have been justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9). Justification takes its power only and entirely from the cross where Jesus died for us. It is his blood, his sacrifice, his surrender of his whole life, that can set us right. But it's not just the death of Jesus that's involved: he “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). It's his dying and rising, which we join him in through baptism where we're washed, that justifies us. Paul adds that we are “justified by his grace as a gift” (Romans 3:24). Justification isn't earned. It's a gift from God – a free gift, for “the free gift following many trespasses brought justification” (Romans 5:16). And “we have been justified by faith” (Romans 5:1) – more on that in a bit.

So from this beginning, from this new birth, God's grace steps in to give us justification. He raises us from our inner spiritual deadness, and he washes us free from the stains of our former life. He sets us on the right path for pursuing this great human journey that's meant to lead to his face. And it only happens when we're baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But Paul says one more thing is going on. “You were washed,” yes; “you were justified,” yes; but also, “you were sanctified” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Jesus suffered on the cross “in order to sanctify the people with his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). And so God “saved us... by the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit, so that, being justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7). It's a gift that Christ gives the Church, “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26).

It's not enough for God to raise us to new life, if that new life is just a natural human life, a normal kind of life, the kind of life that Adam and Eve could've had before the fall. Because while everything we've said up until now might deal with the problems of being in debt and being deformed and being dead, there's still that problem of being naturally insufficient to reach a supernatural destination. We need a kind of life in us that goes beyond the powers of human nature. And that's what God means to give us by this sanctifying grace. It's got to be true, as Paul says, that “where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more” – not merely compensating for sin on a one-to-one basis, but taking us even higher than the point from which we fell (Romans 5:20). Being justified by grace gets us back; becoming heirs of eternal life is higher still. Peter talks about it in the daring terms of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This grace makes us “participants in the divine life.”3 It elevates our human nature beyond itself, able to receive the gifts God wants to give.4

So with grace rebooting our system in justification, and grace rebuilding us with a new operating system in sanctification, now grace can start installing all the key system features. Because even when justified and even when sanctified, if we keep living out of the same old natural resources we used to be limited to, we still won't reach our destination. We need God to pour into us, infuse into us, new basic principles to govern our lives, a whole new way of living – principles that come from God, are motivated by God, and aim to get us to God. Old theologians took up the habit of calling those new basic principles “the theological virtues,” saying that they're installed by God alone.5 And the theological virtues are the things Paul says abide. “So now faith, hope, and love abide – these three!” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Remember that verse? Those are the key system features, the new principles that govern our new way of living – the supernatural living that can get us to God.

I mean, just take faith, for starters. “Through [Jesus], we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2), and “the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). “The life I now live in the flesh,” says Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). That kind of faith isn't something that anybody on the street can just choose to have one day. The capacity for it, the disposition for it, is a gift of God. Paul says so outright: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). It's a supernatural principle that will direct your mind, your intellect, to God.6 It yields a disposition towards believing everything God says and does – because it recognizes God's truth and authority. Submitting in reverence to God as to the primary truth, it leads toward assent to God as he reveals himself. And thanks to the inner light of faith, we're able and even inclined to believe things that our natural minds could never grasp. “The natural man” – literally, soul-driven man – “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Faith is the operating principle that lets us do that, that takes the blinders off. And faith, as a disposition, is something given by God right from the start. Faith itself is a gift of grace, and “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

Already from the new birth, we begin – however vaguely still, however incompletely – to be able to know God, and this is the beginning of our spiritual fulfillment.7 But separated from the other theological virtues, we're told that “faith... is dead” (James 2:26). A dead faith can't help you be alive in Christ. So God has to install some more. “By faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5), and there's the second virtue. Just like supernatural faith, supernatural hope is something God has to give us. And Paul says he did! God “gave us... good hope through grace” (2 Thessalonians 2:16). This hope fills us with desire to reach what grace has promised and what faith has believed, especially the mysteries of the kingdom. “Hope enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Hebrews 6:19-20). “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2), and in the meantime, “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25), knowing that “hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5). This hope is a supernatural principle aiming our will toward God as being actually reachable. Hope is the anchor that latches on to the promise and, by a supernatural strength, won't let go, even when every natural power in us would. And hope, as a disposition, is given by God right from the start, in that baptismal package.

But “hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). And there's the third theological virtue, the greatest and most perfect of them all: love. Not just any kind of love – God-style love, the love that Greeks called agape and Latins called caritas or 'charity.' This kind of God-style love “believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Just like faith and hope, it's not something we're naturally capable of. It has to be given by God. It's a supernatural principle that directs our wills toward God, not just as reachable, but as united with him already, because this is the kind of love that God is. God gives us a gift we couldn't muster on our own, and that's to love him for who he is, and to love everybody and everything else through God's love for them – to be made capable of seeing them as he sees them, loving them as he loves them, because in love we're becoming united to God who is Love. Acting out of this virtue unites us with God in incredible ways.

So when we're born again, not only does God justify us by his grace, not only does God sanctify us by his grace, but God equips us with these three new basic principles of supernatural living: faith, hope, and love. And from the moment we're born again, we are disposed toward supernatural living. Of course, to actually apply them as first principles of our lives, we're going to need other supernatural virtues installed in us, programs that can implement faith, hope, and love as their language in different kinds of ways.8 And, what do you know, God pours them into our heart too, infuses them too, so that we have a supernatural ability to no longer be “slaves to various passions and pleasures” the way we would be if we were merely natural (Titus 3:3). And like the theological virtues, these other ones also remain alive in us whenever we abide in Christ and his grace. Not only that, but from the very start, God gives us gifts that make us responsive to the Holy Spirit when it comes to finding ways to translate these virtues into supernaturally empowered practice, so that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God,” like Paul says (Romans 8:14). But we're out of time to explore all that today.

What we need to see is that, in the instant we're born again, the moment we're baptized into Christ, we are given vastly more than we ever imagined. Supernatural life becomes liveable! An entire amazing set of graces and virtues and gifts gets installed into our hearts, into our souls. All the basic programs we need to be fit for our supernatural destiny are already there, waiting for us to begin our journey. Thank God for his matchless grace, which brings us all these gifts for beginning our great pursuit of a blessedness that outstrips everything we've seen or heard or imagined!

Gracious Father, you are the Giver of
every good and every perfect gift (James 1:17).  Graciously and lovingly, you showed your rich mercy by sending your Son to a world of sinners, to suffer and die for us who were dead in our sins, and to rise from the dead for us.  In him alone is faith well-placed, in him alone our hope is found, in him alone is love's true meaning revealed and set free.  By his death and life, you, Father, are infinitely pleased.  And you are indeed, as Scripture says of you, the God of all grace (1 Peter 5:10).  Your grace is marvelous, your grace is wondrous, your grace is surpassing, your grace is matchless indeed, for even from the moment of our baptism into your Son, we are washed, we are justified, we are sanctified, we are graced with the theological virtues of faith and hope and love, we are infused with supernatural moral virtues, we are granted the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so that, following his leading, we will be able to put into practice all these virtues and so live a supernatural life fit for heaven, the life of faith and hope and love.  None of this would be possible to us on our own two feet.  None of this is achievable by our natural powers.  But you have made us able to receive the supernatural.  Now, as your servant Paul has written, let us not receive the grace of God in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1).  As we glory in the immensity of your grace already given, help us to fly in this very grace toward your blessed face, that this supernatural life may soar to its fulfillment in our seeing you, knowing you, loving you, and being blessed with all your blessedness, in Jesus, through whom we pray for such purity of heart.  Amen.

1  Reinhard Hütter, Bound for Beatitude: A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics (CUA Press, 2019), 180.

2  Reinhard Hütter, Bound for Beatitude: A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics (CUA Press, 2019), 186.

3  Angela McKay Knobel, Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021), 49.

4  Reinhard Hütter, Bound for Beatitude: A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics (CUA Press, 2019), 244.

5  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I-II, q.62, a.1.

6  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I-II, q.62, a.3.

7  Angela McKay Knobel, Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021), 48.

8  Angela McKay Knobel, Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021), 53.

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