Monday, August 22, 2011

Following Christ in Obedience - the Vocation of a Lay Person

“If however, you want to attribute both of these, the flowers and the fruit, to the one person according to their moral sense, understand the flower as faith, the fruit as action. Nor do I think that this will seem wrong to you, if, just as the flower by necessity precedes the fruit, so faith ought to come before good works. Without faith, moreover, it is impossible to please God, as Paul attests. And he even teaches that ‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’. Hence there is neither fruit without a flower nor a good work without faith. But then, faith without good works is dead, just as a flower seems vain where no fruit follows” (191).

The above passage was taken in full from Franz Posset’s book Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Bernard’s sermon on the Song of Songs. If you recall from my previous post, Posset argues that Martin Luther’s reformation theology was greatly influenced by the twelfth century Cistercian Church Father, St. Bernard – more so even than St. Augustine to whom Luther has often been compared. History books often explain that a major difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is that the former teaches that a person is justified by faith and good works while the latter argues that justification is through faith alone. But what is the real difference between the two? Surely, Protestants are not against helping others. So, what is the issue?

One must remember that Martin Luther was responding to the issues of his time. Living in the midst of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, a huge chasm had been built between the often wealthy, politically inclined bishops and cardinals on the one hand and the poor, highly uneducated lay people on the other. Authentic Church teachings were eclipsed by teachings that sometimes, unfortunately, reflected more the interests of the pope than those of God or the souls of his children. For a myriad of reasons, the lay people and even religious of Luther’s world were more familiar with a strict, unloving Jesus who obviously found pleasure in damning people than they were with the Christ of the Gospels whose sacrificial love reconciled the world to God. People were taught that only a few holy people (exceptional Saints) had found favor with God and were thus in Heaven. Everyone else had no right to presume that they could get to Heaven. Purgatory was the best anyone could hope for. Luther’s primary criticisms were aimed at a particular pope and his bishops who falsely taught that grace could be merited. In trusting in Christ’s mercy and following him in obedience through love, Christians were often taught that a person could only be relatively saved (spend less years in purgatory) through pilgrimages, almsgiving, and the buying of indulgences. In this context, it is understandable that someone like Martin Luther would fall into despair (besides he suffered from clinical depression as well). He felt like he never could do enough to merit heaven. And he was right. It struck Luther one day that a person is justified by ‘faith alone.’ But what does Luther mean by this statement? Let’s listen to him in his essay On the Freedom of a Christian:

“We may see the same thing in all handicrafts. A bad or good house does not make a bad or good builder, but a good or bad builder makes a good or bad house. And in general, no work makes the workman such as it is itself; but the workman makes the work such as he is himself. Such is the case too with the works of men. Such as the man himself is, whether [122] in faith or in unbelief, such is his work; good if it be done in faith, bad if in unbelief. But the converse is not true--that, such as the work is, such the man becomes in faith or in unbelief For as works do not make a believing man, so neither do they make a justified man; but faith, as it makes a man a believer and justified, so also it makes his works good…We do not then reject good works; nay, we embrace them and teach them in the highest degree. It is not on their own account that we condemn them, but on account of this impious addition to them, and the perverse notion of seeking justification by them.”

Luther and Bernard both agree that justification is through faith alone. God gives Grace to a Christian as a free, unmerited gift, and the Christian in turn responds in faith which is obedience to Christ. The difference between a person who believes in faith alone and one who believes in faith and good works is that the former seeks God’s face in the person of Jesus Christ and in attempting to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, inevitably does good works. The latter on the other hand only sees good works as a burden or an occasional necessity, only necessary for salvation in the next life. A person who believes in justification through faith and good works believes also that these works are extra special works that a Christian must do to fulfill Christ’s commandment in Matthew 25. Instead, a person who believes in justification by faith alone is freed from the law that condemns and instead turns to Christ who is the only one who can save. Instead of works being an extra, a Christian who trusts Christ in faith alone, actively engages in the suffering of this world like Christ did and continues to do. Instead of looking at good works as a way of entering Heaven, Christians should do these same things out of love for God and His people. Christ calls all people to follow him in obedience and that means that all people must follow in his footsteps. What does this mean for Catholics today?

Christian lay people must actively engage in the problems of their societies. It seems to me that too many "serious" Catholics are more interested in living their own private, pious lives than accepting the responsibility of living in the midst of a suffering world. Catholics should realize that followers of Christ must respond, and not just with prayers. Faith is active engagement in this world as a result of a complete obedience to Christ. I am reminded of Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who saw social-justice not as an extra good work - a once-in-a-while occurrence - but as something that must be the natural response of faithful Christians in this world. The term "progressive" that is often used to refer to "social-justice Catholics" makes me wonder. What are these Catholics progressing towards if not towards God? I really believe that unless all Catholics come to believe that each and every one of them is called to be actively engaged in the problems of this world, the chasm in the Church (between the so-called Conservatives and the so-called Progressives) will always remain. Then, the Catholic faith ceases to be defined as obedience to the Christ of the Gospels.

Too often, when a Catholic spiritual director finds promise in a Christian, he advises that person to become a religious or a priest. But maybe, people are approaching vocations incorrectly. Of course, the Church needs priests and religious but she also needs faithful lay Christians living in the secular world. For too long, the Church has been solely preoccupied with religious vocations without realizing that the vast majority of Catholics are lay people. Fortunately, at least in the last 50 years, more emphasis has been placed on the lay people and their call to holiness. A person does not need to be a monk or a nun to be Christian. In fact, the way I see it, a shift from the cloistered life to the active life may be necessary to respond to the signs of the times. Could not a doctor or a lawyer or a custodian or a construction worker be a faithful Christian too? Instead of seeing some Christians as the “prayerful” type and others as the “social justice” type I suggest we bridge the chasm and urge all Christians to worship the Christ of the Gospels in obedience. There are hundreds of millions of Catholic lay people in the world. There is so much that a lay person can and should do.


  1. Interesting. I have to read more about Luther - all I really know of him is what was in that Luther movie I saw. I did like the sermons he gave in the film :) I have noticed that many Catholics seem to feel that going to mass and getting the eucharist is all that's needed.

  2. Eucharist is not just something we receive (Christ's body) but also something we give (our own body).