I was a bit surprised the other day when I was informed by a Reformed blogger that we are called to “grow in grace.” This was news to me, as I thought only Catholics spoke of “growing in grace.” I googled the phrase and noticed that it is not uncommon in the Reformed confession to speak of “growing in grace.” Here’s the scriptural basis for growing in grace, of which, thankfully, my Reformed blog-writer informed me:
Therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled and to fall from your own stability. But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory now and to the day of eternity. 2 Peter 3:17-18
I think my surprise stemmed from the fact that Catholics do not regard ourselves as saved, justified, or pardoned at the moment of conversion. I sat a three credit course in grace, and the core message of the course seemed to be that grace is dynamic, not static. It is precisely because we are called to “grow in grace” that our salvation is a work-in-progress. The outcome is known to God, but we cannot take our salvation for granted as we are prone to sin.
As a Christian who believes that we are called to grow in grace, I have some difficulty with the idea of either infused or imputed justification. Whether imputed or infused, it would seem to me that growth in grace has something to so with salvation. Perhaps the question of justification arose in the sixteenth century in response to a) the medieval theology that we can “merit” grace or salvation, and b) theologically corrupt practices like the sale of indulgences.
The hypothesis that we can earn salvation through our own efforts was rejected by the Church a long time ago – in 418 AD at the Council of Carthage. But Pelagius proposed that we did not need grace to be saved, so this was an easy premise to reject. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas tackled the subject of grace in questions 109 to 114 of the Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Section. He has an entire, and somewhat inadequate, section on “merit,” in question 114.
It seems to clear that most Catholics and many Reformed Protestants believe that we can “grow in grace,” since Holy Scripture – 2 Peter to be specific – says we should do so. That would hardly be the only reference to growth in grace. Jesus says be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48). Perfection is to know the will of God all the time, and to act on God’s will, all the time – as Jesus did (Mt 7:21). We are not perfect, but we are called to “conform ourselves to Christ,” (Romans 8:29) which requires (unmerited) grace. Perfecting ourselves, so that we become the true image of God (Gen 1:26, Gen 5;1), also requires on ongoing cooperation in grace.
The parable of the sower, (Mt 13:1-23, Lk 8:1-15, Mk 4:1-20) also speaks to the need for perseverance in faith. The parable of the sower does not speak of growth in faith or grace, but it affirms that faith can be lost if it is not, quite literally, cultivated.
The next question is whether “growth in grace” is necessary for salvation, and what that implies. I think here, we face a multiplicity of answers. Even within one confession (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed) there is no unanimity on this question. One of my university instructors, after I asked for an explanation on the “Doctrine of Grace” told me rather dryly, “There’s no such thing.” What he meant was, the operation of grace is not completely understood, so it might be presumptuous to refer to our understanding of it as a doctrine.
The question of “merit” contributed to a division between the reformers and the Catholic church in the sixteenth century. It is ironic to note that the Catholic bishops at the Council of Trent sided with Martin Luther on the question of merit. To be specific, in January of 1547, the Sixth Session of the Council came out with a decree on justification. The decree’s position on whether works can merit grace sounds very Lutheran (or Pauline, as it should):
“but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.”
However, The Council of Trent then proceeded to reject a fundamental premise of early Reformed and Lutheran theology. But the anathema (in Canon 9 of the Sixth Session of Trent) is actually worded in rather technical fashion, such that the idea of “justification by faith” is categorically not rejected, assuming one drops the pivotal term “alone,” which is not found in the Greek, or original, version of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here is the R.C. position, provided at Trent on “faith alone”…
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”
On the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church officially stepped back from a theology of works-based merit at the Council of Trent. Admittedly, we do a lot of things that look strange to Protestants: we have icons, statues and paintings in churches. We ask the saints to intercede on our behalf. However, the Church, technically speaking, does not endorse a merit-based theology of salvation.
On the other hand, the Church looks at Romans chapter 2-5 in the context of other books of the bible. Examples would be the Parable of the sower, in all of the synoptic gospels, and the passage in 2 Peter. Justified by faith? Yes, the Church agrees with Paul in a non-specific sense that we are justified by faith, as faith is itself a grace, and a free gift from God. However, Catholics, taking a page from the Gospels and 2 Peter, argue that our faith can be wasted, lost, corrupted, weakened, or diluted if we do not “grow in grace.” As faith is a grace, we must persevere in God’s grace, as unmerited as all grace is.
I think one area where the Calvinist tradition and the Catholic tradition disagree is the question as to whether the gift of grace necessary for salvation is itself an ongoing or recurring gift, or whether it is a singular conversion. Because (ironically) Catholics do not take a position on who is saved and who is not, and because the R.C. church avoids the question of pre-destination (i.e. – while God knows, Catholics believe that we have no advance notice as to who is pre-destined), the tradition has always been to avoid speaking of conversion as a one-time event. Catholic theologians prefer to speak in terms of “growth in grace,” “conformity to God’s will,” and “endurance in faith, hope and charity” – the three supernatural virtues mentioned in Romans 5: 1-8, as well as I Corinthians 13:13.