Winter seems to have finally caught up with us here in Hamilton. The crazy weather we’ve been having has taken a nose – dive, and the snow has fallen with it. I look around at the world, covered under a deep blanket of snow. It reminds me of our sinfulness and God’s salvation. The prophets described the cleansing of our sins as being made white like snow (Isaiah 1:18), and indeed, at first glance, the world did look white, pure, and peaceful. The trees, formerly black bark and leafless, now seemed to glow with a radiant splendour. But when I looked at the trees closely, I saw that the bottoms of the branches were still black and leafless. The snow hadn’t actually changed the tree into something beautiful, but covered the tree with something beautiful.
When I was a Protestant, this is how I looked at salvation. When we come to Jesus, and “ask Him into our hearts” as the saying goes, Jesus bestows His righteousness on us, and we wear it over our sinfulness like a cloak. Then, at the judgement, God declares us righteous, because He sees not our sinfulness, but Jesus. No intrinsic change has been made in us. We are “justified by faith” and God “reckons it to us as righteousness.” In this scenario, it is no more than a legal fiction. Then, my protestant pastors, teachers, and theologians would tell me, the work of “sanctification” begins, where we gradually become more and more like the cloak-that-is-Christ that we’ve put on. We become more and more holy–but, they stress, this process of becoming more holy is a separate event from our salvation, which is our justification.
To me, though, that seems like being a tree covered by snow. So the question becomes, I think, what happens to the deathbed Christian, the thief on the cross, for example, who is “covered” by Jesus’ righteousness, but no inward change has taken place? What happens when his sinful humanity still under the snow meets God’s consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29)? It’s one thing to have our righteousness “imputed” to us as some sort of “legal fiction” loophole. But when that fiction meets reality, it must be exposed. In that sense, it seems to me that Protestants are more in need of a doctrine that they got rid of — Purgatory — than Catholics are!
In Psalm 51, which David composed after having his affair with Bath-Sheba and then killing her husband, he cries out to God in repentance for his grave sin. In verse 9, he says, “Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; / wash me, make me whiter than snow” (italics added). David isn’t content with being even as pure as the driven snow, as the saying goes. He wants to go deeper, to go farther. “Why? Because snow is white, but it quickly turns black and filthy with any dirt,” as St. Ambrose points out. And, at best, snow only covers us. It cannot change us (unless it gives us frostbite, and that’s not a change for the good). David cries out for something deeper. He knows that he needs a change from the inside out, just like all of us.
Catholicism teaches that when we are saved, we are both justified and sanctified. The two, in the Bible, are interchangeable terms–two sides of the same coin. God declares us righteous based on Jesus’ victory on the cross, but He also literally infuses us with Jesus’ righteousness. It actually becomes our own! Granted, it is an ongoing process that never ends until we’re dead (or after, in Purgatory), but Catholics, unlike many Protestants, do not believe that Salvation is a one-time event in our lives, but a lifestyle and a process. It has a definite beginning, which is baptism. It is at this point that we are born again, according to the Bible. It is here that, not only does the righteousness of Christ cover our sins, but actually, literally, washes them away!
Ezekiel prophesies about this in his 36th chapter: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put My Spirit within you and make you live by My statutes, careful to observe My decrees” (Ez 36:25-27). God tells His people that He will wash them with water, removing their sins and giving them His Spirit.
This passage is explicitly fulfilled when St. Paul discusses God’s salvation with St. Titus, in the third chapter:”But when the kindness and generous love of God our Saviour appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of His mercy, He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life. This saying is trustworthy” (Titus 3:4-8a).
This “Bath of Rebirth” is what Jesus was talking about in John 3, when He was talking to Nicodemus: “Jesus…said to him, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?’ Jesus answered, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’” (John 3:3-5).
According to St. Paul, Baptism takes the place of Jewish Circumcision (Colossians 2:11-15), and is our entry into the New Covenant. Through this sacrament, we are forgiven our sins, born again, and made heirs of the Kingdom. But we must continue in the faith that we were baptised into. This is why our salvation is a process. Initially, it’s all about God’s grace, and not our works. He gives us the grace of forgiveness of sins, and the grace to accept that forgiveness in faith, and the grace to act out that faith in our works. But, that grace comes with the responsibility to use it, to participate in our own salvation, as St. Paul writes, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12b). But God doesn’t expect us to do that alone, as the next verse says, “For God is the one who, for His good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work” (v.13).
All that is to say, snow looks pretty, and adds some flavour to the bland death of winter, but it is no substitute for the inward change that Spring brings, when the trees burst forth with New Life. May we all, “like [trees] planted near streams of water,” burst forth in the New Life that Christ has given to us, and “yield [our] fruit in season” (Psalm 1:3)!
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