In our first foray into what the CCC teaches us about justification, it gave us the bird’s-eye, wide-angle-lens view of the doctrine. We learned that justification is the work of the Holy Spirit, a work of free grace; we observed that this means the common Protestant idea (that Catholicism is legalistic) is bunk which has been perpetuated for centuries with very little actual investigation by the critics. In today’s episode, we start to delve somewhat deeper; the CCC begins to dive in closer in order to tell us how the Holy Spirit applies His power for the sake of our justification:
Through the power of the Holy Spirit we take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin, and in his Resurrection by being born to a new life; we are members of his Body which is the Church, branches grafted onto the vine which is himself. [§1988]
Perhaps the first thing to notice is that the CCC does not intend to give us a sequence of events. Rather, it is telling us in summary form what happens in our justification.
- We take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin. See, for example, Romans 6:3 & 8: “You cannot have forgotten that all of us, when we were baptised into Christ Jesus, were baptised into his death. … if we died with Christ, then we shall live with him too.” (NJB; emphasis added) Paul says that we died with Christ. Now obviously He does not and cannot mean this in the usual literal, chronological sense: the Cross is two millennia past, and people who are not yet born obviously cannot die. The Catechism says that we “take part” in His death. We participate in it in a mysterious way; we share in His death in some sense that defies my ability to explain. We have a part in it, and St. Paul says that we died with Christ. It will not do, I think, to try and say that the Apostle meant this only in some figurative sense, because he goes on to say that if we died with Him, “then we shall live with Him too.” Clearly he does not mean that we live with Christ in any symbolic way, but rather he means it literally; so too then he means — however difficult it is for us to wrap our brains around it — he means that we have died with Christ in something more than merely a symbolic way.
- This point is important in how the CCC frames its summary. “We take part in Christ’s passion,” but also in His Resurrection (Romans 6:8 again; see also v. 5: “If we have been joined to him by dying a death like his, so we shall be by a resurrection like his”). We are joined together with Christ not only in His death, but in His Resurrection. By sharing in them both we enjoy the benefits of both.
- The CCC describes our union with Christ in the most intimate ways one can imagine: “we are members of His Body;” and “branches grafted onto the vine which is Himself.” What strikes me here, from an apologetic angle, is that the various members of a body or the various branches of a vine have no life in themselves. Take an arm from the body, and the arm dies. Cut a branch from a vine, and the branch dies. It is only by our union with Christ, as members of His Body and as branches of the True Vine, that we have life. It would be just plain silly, then, to suggest that arms attach themselves to shoulders, or that eyes put themselves in sockets, or that ears attach themselves to heads, or that branches graft themselves onto vines. None of these things can happen. Dead things like these do not have life in them so as to unite themselves to the Body, to the Vine. This being the case, it is silly to say that the Catholic Church teaches some means of salvation according to which men can supposedly save themselves. The Catechism teaches no such thing. It doesn’t teach that because we can’t do that. We cannot graft ourselves into the True Vine. We cannot make ourselves a part of Christ’s Body. Only God has the power to accomplish this.
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