Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ephesians 3: A Roman Catholic explains Ephesians 2:8-9; the mystery of unity

Our brother Tom McCormick responded to my musings yesterday about Roman Catholic interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9 by taking time out from his already hectic life as a busy lawyer, father and husband to respond:

Guy --

I’m not sure how our interpretation is different. As I read the passage -- "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, lest any man should boast” – this is what it means to me as a Catholic.

We believe that believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. We believe that faith is a free gift of God to man. God does not compel us to accept his gift. Faith involves a personal response to God’s gift. We do not give ourselves faith any more than we give ourselves life. We can reject the gift; we can lose the gift. We believe that grace is a gift, that our justification comes from the grace of God.

The faith/works dispute is one that’s outside my experience, and is clouded by centuries of emotion and sorrow. We believe that, as God’s creatures, we have received everything from him. Thus, we do not have a cognizable claim to deserve anything from him. If our effort earns any merit, it derives from God’s choice to work through us and our free decision to cooperate with him. We are called, as it were, to be distributors of God’s manifold gifts.

By “ritual works,” I presume you mean the holy mysteries, the sacraments. We do not believe that they “oppose the benefits of God’s grace.” Quite the contrary: we believe that they are signs of grace, instituted by Christ, by which divine life is dispensed. Baptism, for instance, is a sacrament. We believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. Jesus commanded his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Hence, the long-standing tradition of infant baptism in the Catholic church. (There is sophisticated, thoughtful exploration of how that might extend to good, worthy people who were not given the opportunity to know Christ, but that’s way outside the scope of my homework assignment.)

But, I do run on. … Here’s a link to a joint statement by Catholics and Evangicals on much that we do have in common in this area:

Tom has been a faithful reader and commentator on the One Year New Testament Blog since its inception, and I greatly appreciate his thoughtful, gracious response. Not surprisingly the issue of church unity (Gentile/Jewish believers in agreement on the substance of Eph. 2:8-9) plays a major role in God's economy - in fact it appears to be far more important than we can possibly understand. It has consequences to mysterious beings who are "not of this earth".

Speaking of the Greek/Jewish union, Paul writes that God's "intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms."

Who? God is the sovereign ruler of the universe of course. Is Paul speaking of the devil? God's own faithful angels? Abraham and Moses working in a new job description? Some other order of beings? "Mystery" is right, Paul.

And......WHY? What cosmic outcome is hanging in the balance of the Jew/Gentile unity in Christ? As Satan and God contended over Job's holiness in the midst of trial, is human history the stage for God contending with the enemy over the church's Gentile/Jewish unity? Consider that it was when the epitome of evil, Adolf Hitler, demanded in the 1930's that baptized, believing Jews be separated from the German state church, that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller stood firm for gospel unity. Bonhoeffer said: "The question is really: Christianity or Germanism? And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day, the better." Consider also that according to many eschatologists, Jesus will not return until Israel, or at least a remnant, embraces the gospel.

The cosmic, eternal consequences of our seemingly "every day" choices will be revealed in heaven, unhindered by earth's dark glass. I will rejoice and cry. Until then I choose to put feet to Paul's prayer "that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ."

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