The Means of Faith
Wesley Hill’s essay this morning in the Los Angeles Review of Books is troubling for the reality it exposes. Hill begins by relating a story from his college days when a classmate was in agony over her salvation status as a result of studying Jonathan Edwards. In contrast, another classmate who simultaneously studied Edwards, was about to be confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church, and Hill asked him why.
My friend was slow in replying. ‘When I was an evangelical,’ he finally said, ‘I was always wondering whether I was doing enough. Or whether I was studying enough—had figured out the Bible well enough—or praying enough. I felt that I had to sort out my theology and gauge whether I was ‘spiritual’ enough. But, being Catholic, I don’t have to figure anything out. I trust the Church to offer salvation. Communion is the body and blood of Christ, and when I receive it, I know I’m receiving grace.’
When the Roman Catholic Church’s practices offer assurances of grace and evangelical culture does not, something has gone terribly wrong. Hill is commending Philip Cary’s book on the subject, Good News for Anxious Christians, and argues that Protestants can recapture this calm through liturgical and sacramental practices. He’s right: too often evangelicals look inwardly for their own assurance of salvation, when the gospel is that Jesus is our assurance of salvation. When experience rather than the work of Christ becomes the ground of assurance, anxiety (or pride) is all that remains. The worship of the church, at least in its historic forms, was designed to root people in doxological encounter with Jesus; recovering that is recovering faith in Jesus instead of pressing for faith in faith.
Reminds me of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism where he argues that the Protestant work ethic and capitalism specifically was born from a lack of assurance of grace. Without the objective mediation of grace in the sacraments the Christian is left with only a subjective evaluation searching for proof, either outward in good works (and the moral organization of life through a vocational calling, as Weber sees it) or, as is more often the case today, inward in a therapeutic psychologizing of the faith. Make of the argument what you will. It was the first time I had ever thought about a Catholic understanding of grace offering greater assurance of salvation than a Protestant one.
Hope all is well with you brother. Many blessing on you and your family.
Aaron! It is good to hear from you. I suspect that there is some truth his thesis, especially in the de-sacramentalized segments of Protestantism.
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