How Sin Keeps Me A Baptist

I’ve recently done some reading on Catholicism.  I don’t really know why.  I am a lifelong Baptist and happy to stay that way.  I think it all started with a couple of church history courses in my Master’s program.  The great church fathers so many of us evangelicals love to quote, I was startled to find, were . . . well . . . Catholic.  Ignatius, Augustine, and many others.  They unequivocally loved the Church of Rome and talked about her with fondness and passion.

I’d also grown up assuming Catholics were well meaning and many very faithful believers.    They were just a little naive in relying in medieval relics based on human tradition, not on the Bible.  My eyes were about to be opened.

As I progressed in my studies, I took a seminar on biblical ethics.  The locus for ethics is of course authority.  The question the class came back to again and again was, “In what way does the bible function as an authority over us?”  Is it even possible to read it without reading our own preferences into it?  How come when we all read it we end up with a finished product that looks just like us?  The work of Stanley Hauweras was especially impactful on me at this time.  Hauweras is adamant that we cannot read the bible on our own.  We can only read it and understand it correctly if we are already living obediently in Christian community guided by tradition.  But what church teaches something like that?  Let’s just say you can count them on one hand.

Therefore, for the last couple of years I read several different Catholic books from a variety of viewpoints.  I must admit.  The case for Catholicism is stronger than I expected.  I know it’s stronger than 99% of evangelicals realize.  The faith is captivating in many ways.

  1. The deep roots in history seem to offer some relief from the ever elusive search for “relevance” ensnaring so many evangelical congregations.  Maybe it started with Peter, maybe it didn’t, but either way, the Roman church is very, very, very old.
  2. The liturgy is appealing for some of the same reasons mentioned above.  Additionally, it seems to be an escape from the everyday world, a means to something bigger.  The Catholic church has an “otherness” quality to it.  It is not just a sociological fad or new growth strategy.  I think Christian Smith captures the appeal of liturgy best with his phrase “sacramental imagination,” something definitely absent from us “low churchers.”
  3. The Catholic emphasis on holistic community.  Evangelical individualism is tiring.  Evangelical emphasis on the head and the heart is tiring.  It’s just God and I by ourselves all the time.  Evangelical infatuation with the end times is intellectually bankrupt and damaging to life here and now.  The Catholic faith is one that takes the whole body to love and care for whole communities, drawing from a rich deposit of social justice teaching.

I could go on.  However, despite these admirable qualities, in the end Catholicism comes apart at the seams over the issue of sin.  Catholic teaching divides sins in to two types, mortal and venial.  Mortals sins are those which unless confessed will damn a person to hell.  You can read about what constitutes a mortal sin here.  What about this idea cause Catholic teaching to come apart?  Succinctly put, I cannot stop mortally sinning.  As I read through the list, I could identify several that are constantly afflicting my life and spirit.  With the help of the Spirit and Church, I confess them. I strive against them.  I am slowly being healed from them.  But they are always a part of me.  They will always be a part of me in some way or another until the I am completely made anew in the age to come.  As an example of what I mean, take a look at the “Offense Against Charity”

  • Indifference—This grave sin entails neglect or refusal on divine charity (a.k.a. divine love). Those who sin in indifference fail to consider the goodness of charity, and deny its power (CCC 2094).
  • Ingratitude—An ungrateful sinner fails or refuses to acknowledge and return the love and charity of God (CCC 2094).
  • Lukewarmness—Lukewarmness is negligence in response to God’s charity. It can also mean the refusal to give oneself to the prompting of charity (CCC 2094).
  • Acedia (spiritual sloth)—Spiritual sloth, a capital sin, is the refusal of joy that comes from God. An sinner who indulges in acedia may even be repelled by divine goodness (CCC 2094).

Is there ever I time when I am NOT indifferent, ingratitude, lukewarm, or slothful about something important.  No! Never!  My mortal sin per second rate must be in the dozens.  A sin is not merely a wrong action or thought I commit, is is inherent in who I am as a fallen human.  Only the FINISHED work on the cross that gives me any hope to keep moving forward.  It is that sanctity and security that compels my perseverance, not my ability to recall and confess every slothful neglect.  I think God daily for this truth.  I sing this truth weekly to my church.  I teach it constantly to my children.  I am learning to live it continually in my marriage.  By the grace of God I can ever more confidently say, “It is well with my soul.”  Can the Catholic every really by sure of this?   

I love my Catholic brothers and sisters.   We are on the same team.  We serve one Lord.  I am ever more thankful for their valuable contributions, for safeguarding truth through the dark of vicious ages, for pooling a deep reservoir of concern and care for the world, for the unified witness upheld for so long.  I’m excited about the new pope and his  championing of the “least of these.” But it is only on the basis of the perfect high priest who went through the heavens and now pleads for me before the throne that I may boast.  My boasting cannot rest on confessing a far from complete list of my wrongs.  As flawed and shallow as modern evangelicism can be, it is the centrality of this truth, the Good News, which powered the Reformation and drives it still.  It is why I am proud to be a Baptist and a Baptist I will remain.

I haven’t finished thinking about this yet.  I have many questions about biblical authority, sacramentalism, and unity.  Life and faith are certainly journeys without end.  It’s also entirely possible I am mischaracterizing Catholicism’s harmitology.  I don’t think so, but I’m open to discussion.  It’s a conversation I’m wanting to have here, not more division.

Peace,

Ben

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12 thoughts on “How Sin Keeps Me A Baptist

  1. Thanks for this. I wonder, though, if your post is not conflating “grave matter” (one of the conditions necessary for a sin to be considered “mortal”) with “mortal sin” as such. The Catechism holds that for a sin to be considered mortal, it must involve “grave matter” but it must also involve “full knowledge and complete consent,” which must be “sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice” (CCC 1859). I think it’s the “deliberate consent” element that would keep you from your “mortal sin per second” rate being extraordinarily high. Are we, as fallen human beings, prone towards indifference, ingratitude, etc? Of course! But, as Christians, we also try to fight against those impulses. I seriously doubt that you are giving complete and deliberate consent towards these impulses several times a second! Further, in confession one is only bound to confess those mortal sins that one remembers, but one is forgiven for all mortal sins that one may have committed: “When Christ’s faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon” (“Council of Trent” cited by CCC 1456). And there is early precedence in the church for this; one can look, for instance, at the “Order of Penitents” in the 4th century [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Penitents].

    Thanks again for your thoughtful and respectful post!

    1. Thanks for posting. I was hoping someone like you would respond. I’m honestly just trying to gather information. So let me see if I understand…if I go to confession, it demonstrates my repentance and thus covers even those sins involving “grave matter” which I cannot remember or temporarily forget? In essence by going to confession in “good faith” one is proving to be the taxpayer and not the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable?

      1. Yes. I like the comparison to the taxpayer and Pharisee, BTW, I think that gets at it nicely. The idea essentially is that if mortal sin represents a true turning away from God then contrition and confession for whichever mortal sins one can recall represents a turning back towards God and the Church. I believe that, in the event that you go to confession and, after the fact, recall a serious sin that you failed to confess, you should mention that sin in your next confession (though you would technically have already received absolution for it).

      2. I confess that I’m a wading a bit out of my theological depth here, but here is how I understand the idea: (My apologies for how long this ended up!)

        The Catechism notes that there is a “double consequence” to mortal sin (1472; citing Council of Trent). The first is an eternal consequence, the loss of our communion with God. It is this consequence which is reversed in the Sacrament of Confession in which we are returned to communion with God and Christ’s body in the Church. But there are also finite consequences, which are not necessarily removed by confession (they can, I believe, be removed by “perfect contrition” accompanying one’s confession).

        Both the eternal and the finite consequences are the result of the sin itself, as Thomas Aquinas notes: “[S]in comprises two things. First, there is the turning away from the immutable good, which is infinite, wherefore, in this respect, sin is infinite. Secondly, there is the inordinate turning to mutable good. In this respect sin is finite, both because the mutable good itself is finite, and because the movement of turning towards it is finite, since the acts of a creature cannot be infinite. Accordingly, in so far as sin consists in turning away from something, its corresponding punishment is the “pain of loss,” which also is infinite, because it is the loss of the infinite good, i.e. God. But in so far as sin turns inordinately to something, its corresponding punishment is the “pain of sense,” which is also finite” (Summa Theologica I-II Q.87 a.4).

        It is to this second consequence—the “finite consequence”—that indulgences, merit, and penance are oriented. Each of these things help us along in our struggles to free ourselves from the inordinate attachments we’ve developed through sin. Penance—often times involving fasting and other deprivations—helps us reduce our inordinate attachment to the world and increases our awareness that we are ultimately reliant upon God. There is suffering, but the suffering serves a purpose by helping us more fully turn towards God—at the end of the day, penance is about God and our awareness of him, not about us and our own abilities and actions. The Catholic concept of Purgatory is understood along similar lines.

        Furthermore, in Catholicism, sin and redemption are never thought solely in individual terms. Conversion is, obviously, about us—but it’s also about the body of Christ as a whole. We are all connected—what harms one harms the other, what helps one helps the other. Here Catholicism draws upon Paul’s idea that in the Body of Christ, “If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Corinthians 12:26). It is from this that the Catholic Church derives the understanding of “the treasury of merit.” This idea suggests that, just as the sins of individual Christians have an effect on Christians as a whole so also do the good works of Christians strengthen the body. But, again, this is ultimately about God—for the great deeds of the saints are things that they were only able to do through Christ. Our connection to other Christians, including those who have died—what we call “the Communion of Saints”— allows us, if we are properly inclined, to benefit from their goodness: “In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.” (CCC 1475; citing Indulgentiarum doctrina). In the case of indulgences, the Catholic Church offers to contrite sinners some of the “treasury of merit” laid up by the saints; most of the actions to which indulgences are tied are themselves actions which by themselves already draw us closer to God (Bible reading, making of the stations of the cross, going on spiritual retreat, etc.) As with the Sacrament of Penance, the Catholic Church refers to the powers of “binding and loosing” [Matthew 18:18] granted to the apostles as ground for her ability to dispense these merits.

        Of course, the “communion of Saints” and its influence on our Catholics also pray to the saints to ask them for their prayers—just as we would ask our fellow Christians that we know on this earth to pray for us. In some ways, merits and indulgences are an extension of our daily experience of Christian life: the support, prayers, and good example of our fellow Christians help draw us away from our sinful attachments and towards God. So also, according to the Catholic Church, do the support, prayers, and good example of the Christians who came before us.

      3. Wow. I wouldn’t say you are out of your depth at all. Thanks for taking the time to thoroughly answer the question. I am again impressed by the depth and profundity of Catholic thought. This issue is still somewhat troubling to me but you’ve definitely given me a lot to think about .

  2. I too love those that believe in Catholicism..as Christ is central in their belief.. 2 of my siblings converted when they married. There are 3 issues mainly.(I don’t know all the intricacies of their beliefs) but 3 that i wonder about .1. Sin is sin to me …there are no particular levels I believe although the Bible does indicate in places that there are some (I can’t recall offhand) but that are more an abomination to him…2. Emphasis of praying to the mother of Jesus Mary …I can’t see anywhere in the Bible that teaches us this… 3. Although we are admonished to confess our sins to one another we are first and foremost to confess to God our sins and ask forgiveness and claim Jesus as our savior who will do so. (I’m simplifying) but it is in the Catholic faith necessary to confess to a priest for absolution… oh I’ll add a fourth …4.Catholics are not encouraged to read the Bible for themselves …at least at one point that was my understanding from my brother. The Priest is to read it and impart knowledge …. When it all comes down to it though many Christian denomination have their ‘traditions’ and ‘worship style’ and other ways that differ from the next denomination… Is God really disturbed or affected by what we humans decide in this regard. Is he somehow going to divide us into groups when we get to heaven accordingly… This last sentence is with tongue in cheek of course as we know this is not the case….Anyway my thoughts …Diane

    1. Thanks Diane. Those are all certainly legitimate concerns and share them. I do not claim to have the answers nor do I want to pretend to speak for Catholicism. I will briefly address the Mary issue. That honestly doesn’t bother me that much as an evangelical. It used to, but then it was explained to me that it is no different than having a family member or friend pray for you (of course that doesn’t mean some nominal Catholics do not go too far). It is ultimately Christ that is still the object. As to your final question, I know you answer in jest, but I don’t think heaven is the issue. THe issue is how God designed us to live here as healthy as possible. Is the bible enough or do we need the tradition and guidance of a 2000 year conversation? The answers are not so simple it seems. Thanks for reading!

  3. I love these conversations. I do wish we were around each other in person to have them! My mom taught Catechism for many years, I may just ask her for her thoughts. My parents left the Catholic church in the early 90s to attend a Non-denominational\Evangelical church.

    I think the Evangelical church as a whole should do better at understanding our history and past. I do also believe there is much good to be learned in Catholic thought and history.

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