The little boy is playing happily on the kitchen floor. Mommy is busy above, at the counter, far over his head. Things are being retrieved from the cupboards and fridge, but the little boy pays scant attention for he has lately become fascinated with tracing the design on the vinyl floor with his toy car.
He is interrupted when his mother stoops and takes his little face in her hands, riveting the child’s attention. “I am making a cake.”
Mother points to the mixing bowls and ingredients lined up on the counter. “See?”
She rises and extends her arms toward him. The gesture is quickly matched by the child who is scooped up to survey the counter. “Here is the flour. Here is the sugar. These are the eggs. I bought them at the store yesterday. See this chocolate. I have to melt it on the stove and put it in the batter. I am making this cake for your Aunt Clara. She likes chocolate cake. You want to help me?”
The mother moves some of the stuff on the counter to make room for the little boy. As she measures the ingredients, she takes his hand and folds his fingers over the spoons and cups and helps him tip each one to pour its contents into the mixing bowl. She wraps his little hands around the egg and holds them in her own. She gives the egg a sharp rap on the edge of the bowl and he squeals with delight as she pulls his hands apart and the yolk and white slide down into the batter. She even lets him push the button that turns on the mixer. Finally the batter is poured into the baking pans, the mixing spoon has been licked and one very chocolaty little face has been cleaned.
This charming and familiar domestic scene has a graceful point.
We Catholics believe that grace is all God… and all us. First, it is all God. It is God who takes the initiative, God who sets the stage, God who begins the narrative, God who gets our attention, God who elevates our vision, God who invites, God who leads, God who guides, God who enables, God who starts and God who finishes. And it is all us.
We cooperate, we pay attention, we look, we listen, we obey, we trust, we work. We really do.
Real eggs make a real difference in a real cake. And our human actions make a real difference in this world. But still, it is all grace.
This is important to understand because there is an unfortunate strain of Christian thought, which, in seeking to extol the grace of God and emphasize the falsity of the notion that we can “earn” salvation through our own good works, goes too far — to the point of denying that we human beings are effective actors with a role in salvation, our own and that of others. As we draw closer to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (1517) we can expect renewed challenges to the proper and balanced Catholic understanding.
Because of the emphasis the Catholic Church places on exhorting the faithful to do good works, some of our fellow Christians mistakenly accuse the Church of having a theology of “work-based salvation” or even they would say, a damnable “another gospel” according to Galatians 1: 6-9.
However, to say that we are real actors, that we perform real actions, make real decisions to cooperate with the grace of God and that assisted by His grace, we really do works that are really good does not nullify the grace of God. We can no more initiate the work of salvation in our souls than that little boy could have taken himself to the store and bought the eggs for the cake or read the recipe and lined up the ingredients. And we can no more continue the work of salvation in ourselves, by ourselves, than that little boy could have measured the ingredients and mixed them together. Finally we can no more bring the work of salvation to completion than the little child could have filled the cake pan, put it in the oven, and taken it out at the right moment.
Does this mean we do nothing, that we are ineffective? No. We cooperate with God’s grace and He allows our actions to make a real difference, just as every ingredient the little boy, helped and guided by his mother, added to the cake really contributed to the final product.
If we reject the idea that good human acts performed by God’s gracious assistance are both really effective and good, it is a short walk across the street to deny that evil human acts are really effective. If good human acts make no difference, why should evil acts? This is why the other side of the coin of saying that human acts contribute nothing to salvation is to say that human acts contribute nothing to loss of salvation. In short, that it does not matter what we do. While few Christians (thankfully) live like they really believe that, Antinomianism was a logical outgrowth of Protestant ideas about grace and faith.
At some point today, God will bend down to us, invite us to place our hands in His and let Him guide us to make a difference in this world and in the holiness of our own souls. By His grace our work will make a real difference.