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Question

Dear Father Angelo,

I read Chapter 9 of the Letter to the Romans and it seems to confirm the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and irresistible grace. In particular, when Paul says: “So it depends not upon a person’s will or exertion, but upon God, who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, This is why I have raised you up, to show my power through you that my name may be proclaimed throughout the earth. Consequently, he has mercy upon whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills.” Here it would seem that God decides who to save by showing him mercy and who to condemn.

As a Catholic I always thought that in order to gain salvation three things were needed: 1) grace, because without the atoning sacrifice on the Cross, mankind would not have been redeemed; 2) faith, except the case in which God by his unquestionable judgment decides not to bestow it on an individual; 3) works, intended as an answer of love to the divine grace, since the true man of faith is not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but who, knowing that God exists, decides to obey His will and therefore to love as Christ loves. After reading the aforementioned chapter, however, it would seem that this is not the case.

What can you tell me about this?


Answer from the priest

Dear Friend,

1. It should be remembered that according to the Protestants, man’s freedom was extinguished by Adam’s sin.

In The Bondage of the Will, Luther says that human will is like a beast of burden placed between two riders: “If God sit thereon, it wills and goes where God will (…). If Satan sit thereon, it wills and goes as Satan will. Nor it is in the power of its own will to choose, to which rider it will run, nor which it will seek” (M. Luther, The Bondage of the Will, transl. by Henry Cole, 1823).

Wholesome faith and justification depend entirely on God’s choice and have nothing to do with our own autonomous decisions.

In the Augsburg Confession (art. 18) and in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (art. 18), P. Melanchthon argued that while civil justice is to a certain extent under the control of our free will, spiritual justice can only be the effect of grace.

The Formula of Concord states, summarizing the Lutheran position, that “the Holy Scriptures ascribe conversion, faith in Christ, regeneration, renewal, and all that belongs to their efficacious beginning and completion, not to the human powers of the natural free will, neither entirely nor half, nor in any, even the least or most inconsiderable part, but in solidum, that is, entirely, solely, to the divine working and the Holy Ghost” (Solid Declaration,2,25).

2. On the other hand, the Council of Trent states that, if faith is impossible without supernatural assistance, still its saving action is not delivered by grace without the free consent of those who receive it.

Human freedom, even though weakened by Adam’s sin, is nevertheless not extinguished, but only attenuated and weakened (DS 1521).

There is still enough left of it for the believer to voluntarily second the inclination of grace, as “man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it” (DS 1525).

3. The Council shows with two scriptural quotations that, on the one hand, freedom remains within us, and on the other hand that justification is borne out of the grace of God: “When it is said in the Holy Scripture: ‘Return to me, and I will return to you’ (Zech 1:3), we are reminded of our freedom; and when we reply: ‘Lead us back to you, O LORD, that we may be restored’ (Lam 5:21), we confess that we are anticipated by the grace of God” (DS 1525).

4. Vatican Council I repeated the Tridentine doctrine which sees in faith the free submission of man to the grace of God, which is not irresistible: “Therefore faith in itself… is a gift from God, and the act of faith is a work pertaining to salvation, by which man offers a free obedience to God Himself, by agreeing to and cooperating with His grace, which he could resist” (DS 3010).

The free nature of the act of faith was one of the great themes of Vatican Council II.

The Dei Verbum constitution describes faith as “obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God… freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him” (DV 5).

After all, “only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness” (GS 17).

5. It was necessary to state this premise, because Protestants read that passage of Romans 9 in a material way, without keeping in mind the other passages of the Holy Scripture where it speaks of man’s freedom.

6. St. Thomas, commenting on Rom 9:16: “So it depends not upon a person’s will or exertion, but upon God, who shows mercy,” writes:

“[A]n action is attributed more to the principal agent than to the secondary, as when we say that the hammer does not make the box but the carpenter by using the hammer.

But man’s will is moved to good by God, as it says above: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Rom 8:14); therefore, an inward action of man is not to be attributed principally to man but to God: “For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work” (Phil 2:13). (…)

[T]he answer is that God moves all things, but in diverse ways, inasmuch as each is moved in a manner befitting its nature.

And so man is moved by God to will and to perform outwardly in a manner consistent with free will. Therefore, willing and performing depends on man as freely acting; but on God and not on man, as initial mover.”

7. Regarding the other passage: “Consequently, he has mercy upon whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills” (Rm 9:18), here is what St. Thomas says: “[I]f God hardens the heart, He is the author of a sin—contrary to what is said in Jas 1:13: God himself tempts no one.

The answer is that God is not said to harden anyone directly, as though He causes their malice, but indirectly, inasmuch as man makes an occasion of sin out of things God does within or outside the man; and this God Himself permits.”

8. Regarding the three things you have always thought necessary as a Catholic, I must make a remark on the second. You say: “faith, except the case in which God by his unquestionable judgment decides not to bestow it on an individual.”

No, God offers faith to everyone, because he wants everyone to be saved.

He would contradict himself if, wanting everyone to be saved, he did not offer the means to save oneself.

9. You will agree that it is absurd to think as Luther thought, that is, that human will is like a beast of burden placed between two riders: “If God sit thereon, it wills and goes where God will (…). If Satan sit thereon, it wills and goes as Satan will. Nor it is in the power of its own will to choose, to which rider it will run, nor which it will seek.”

In this way, one would end up in hell by sheer divine arbitrariness.

I thank you for the question, I wish you well, I keep you in my prayers and I bless you.

Father Angelo