Practice Makes Perfect
Let’s say a child is extremely gifted musically. She has perfect pitch, she has an instinctive ear for melody and understands music with an amazing God-given talent. Her gift is extraordinary and wonderful and it will take her to the very top of her profession as a world class musician. Despite all this the little girl still needs to practice. The practice isn’t the talent, the practice cannot take the place of the talent, but without the practice the talent lies dormant. It is the practice that makes the talent live. It is the practice which gets rid of the imperfections, the mistakes and the human failures. It is the practice which makes perfect, as the old saying goes. The good works of worship, prayer and Christian action are the means by which Christ comes alive in us and by which we become fit for heaven. Through good works practice makes the perfect Christian.
Because of this Catholics believe that good works are necessary. They are not necessary to earn our way into heaven; they are necessary to equip us for heaven. They are not necessary to please God, but to make us more like God. When we do something
good it actually accomplishes a real benefit in ourselves, in the world and in eternity. It is through our good works that we work with God to become more like his Son whose Spirit dwells within us. The good works are necessary because this process cannot be done in any other way. The good works are also necessary because by doing the good works we engage our will. We get involved. God has given us free will, and through our good works we use it to keep our side of the bargain.
All through the Scripture the heroes of faith are refined and purified by their actions of obedience. Through their obedience, pain and sacrifice they are brought to the perfection that God wills for them. The gospel says it it the pure in heart who see God and Jesus says in Mt. 5:48 that we are to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect. It is the life of faith which brings us to this purity and perfection. Somewhere along the line that life of faith includes, discipline, self-sacrifice and suffering. Unless we take up our cross, Jesus says, we cannot be his disciple. God plans not only to save us, but to make us like his Son. This purification can only be done through God’s power at work in us, but we have to co-operate with his power. Through our choices, our good works, and especially through our suffering we work with God to grow towards wholeness.
If our good works and the difficult circumstances of life toughen and purify us, then these same disciplines help to weed out the sin in our lives. In other words, it is through our good works, discipline and sufferings that we can counter the effects of sin. What do I mean by this? Let’s say we have stolen five hundred pounds from a neighbour. If we go to the neighbour and confess what we’ve done he may very well forgive us, but he will quite rightly still expect us to pay back the five hundred pounds. Paying back the money will be a good deed, but it may cause us some pain. It takes a good deed and some suffering to counter the effects of the sin of stealing. It is the same in our relationship to God. God forgives the fact of our sin through Jesus Christ, but we are still responsible for the effects of our actions. We still have to deal with the fallout from sin. You might be forgiven for breaking a vase, but you still have to pick up the pieces.
Suffering is another way this process of purification can take place. Through suffering we identify with the painful consequences of sin and by accepting suffering we can counter balance its deadly effect in our life. Jesus did this perfectly as Hebrews 5:8-9 says, ‘Although he was a son he learned obedience from what he suffered, and once made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.’ The same
truth applies to us. In a wonderful passage at the beginning of Romans 5 Paul says how he is justified by faith, but he rejoices in suffering because it is suffering which brings him a deeper hope and identification with Christ. Suffering helps to purify us, but in a mysterious and exciting way the Scripture says our suffering may also help other people spiritually. So St. Paul writes to the Colossians, ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body which is the church.’ In some mysterious way our human good works, self-denial and suffering help to complete the work of Christ in the world. Good works and suffering are not just the empty fruit of our faith. As Hebrews says, they are the substance of our faith. Furthermore, good works and suffering have value in themselves. They actually have a spiritually beneficial effect on others. They change the world and they change us. They don’t save us, but they make our faith real and through God’s grace they can help to transform and purify us.
When I was five years old I came home from church one Sunday night and told my mother I wanted to get saved. I must have heard something in the sermon that prompted my young heart to realise its need. I can remember kneeling down with my mother, telling Jesus I was sorry for my sins and asking him to come into my heart. This simple act of repentance and faith was the basis for my Christian life. I was told that I was now ‘born again’ and that I was bound for heaven, and nothing could take away my salvation. Being ‘born again’ or ‘receiving Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour’ is the bedrock of the Evangelical experience. This personal relationship with Jesus Christ is a valuable and important contribution to the whole Church—both Catholic and Evangelical. My acceptance of Jesus when I was five years old was a good thing, and part of our evangelical teaching stressed that while my salvation was certain I still had to grow in the faith. I needed to learn more about the Bible. I needed to pray, go to church and strive to obey the Lord’s will for my life. In this way the whole evangelical system properly encouraged a life in which faith was worked out in the person’s life.
I was told that because of my simple profession of faith I was saved for all eternity. The Protestant view of justification gives the true impression that because of Jesus’ work on the cross our salvation is accomplished for us. Different images are used for this. One of them is the judicial model which says God the Almighty Judge sees that justice is accomplished on the cross and so does not hold us guilty any longer. This is a valuable and good insight, and from the eternal perspective it is true. In one sense our salvation and perfection are already accomplished in Christ, but it is also true that it still our salvation needs to be ‘worked out in fear and trembling.’ Some forms of non-Catholic theology suggest that since our salvation is accomplished there is nothing further we can do, and our status as children of God is written forever in the heavenly register.
Extreme views in this direction wind up taking away our free will, and are contrary to the New Testament teaching. Grace may be at work in our life. We may have faith and choose to follow Christ. But if it is true that our free will may be used to choose Christ, it must also be true that the same free will may be used to deny Christ and turn away from him forever. The book of Hebrews, which tells us so much about the life of faith, also tells us that our salvation is not signed, sealed and delivered for all eternity. Perseverance is needed if we are to finally enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 7:20 says trees that bear bad fruit will be thrown on the fire. In chapter ten, the book of Hebrews warns, ‘If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth no sacrifice of sins in left…You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God you will receive what he has promised. (vv.26,36) In Hebrews not only says one may fall away from faith, but it may be impossible for them to return. In chapter 6:4 it says: ‘it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,… if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.’ In verses ten and eleven the writer of Hebrews stresses that the believer’s faithful work is necessary for him to retain his salvation. ‘God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure.’ Peter teaches the same thing. In 2 Peter chapter one he says, ‘Make every effort to add to your faith goodness …therefore my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’
God created us in his image. Part of this truth means that when he gave us the power to choose he gave each of us a tiny bit of his own power. We may choose to follow him to glory or we may choose to be separated from him forever. If we choose to open our lives to his grace then we have a sure and certain hope of heaven. Furthermore, if we co-operate with God’s grace, it gives us the power to be completely transformed. St Paul sums up this confidence in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 where he says, ‘Therefore if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.’ [Read More]