The Heroes of the New Covenant by Bryan Cross
By Bryan Cross
Recently Juan Callejas wrote about the relics of St. John Bosco (Don Bosco) being brought on a tour of Guatemala. Juan described his own perplexity at the eagerness and excitement of Catholics upon the arrival of the saint’s relics.1
In the Protestant mind, the notion of venerating relics and asking for the intercession of departed saints is somewhat puzzling and strange for at least two reasons. First, in the Protestant mind, the deceased person is conceived as being in heaven (or hell), not here in his or her bodily remains. In the Catholic mind, by contrast, the saints in heaven are also still present, in a certain respect, in their bodily remains. Matt Yonke has explained this in his “Relics: A Reply to [Carl] Trueman,” so I will not recover that ground.
But for Protestants, another reason why this practice of visiting and venerating the relics of saints is quite mysterious and seemingly unnecessary is that from a Protestant point of view, Christ’s perfect righteousness has been imputed to all Christians, and yet at the same time all Christians sin daily, and “there is no sin so small, but that it deserves damnation.”2 All our righteousness is as filthy rags; all our throats are open graves.3 Simul iustus et peccator is applied not only to the individual, but to the whole community of believers such that believers are all ‘flattened’ with respect to deserving hell and meriting heaven. This doctrine entails that all Christians are simultaneously equally damnable and, by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, equally perfectly righteous. In this way Protestantism implies a kind of egalitarianism with respect to righteousness among all Christians. It entails that St. John Bosco was no more holy than yourself, so long as you have faith. So there is no point in making a big to-do about touching the relics of St. John Bosco; you can just touch yourself, or, what is the same, not bother touching anything at all.
This is why Protestants generally do not refer to a particular group of Christians as saints. In Protestant theology, all Christians are saints, because all Christians are under Christ’s blood and credited with His perfect righteousness. This is also why when James says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16) for Protestants the verse implies nothing about seeking the intercessory aid of any particular Christians. From the Protestant point of view, the verse implies that if I have faith, my prayer is powerful and effective. And if the need is urgent and I wish to knock louder at the gate of heaven, I need not find especially holy Christians to pray for me; I need only recruit as intercessors Christians who truly trust in Christ for their salvation, for by extra nosimputation such persons have nothing less than the absolute perfect righteousness of Christ.
In Catholic theology, by contrast, imputation is on the basis of infusion, and we do not all initially receive the same measure of justice, as the Council of Trent teaches:
and not only are we reputed but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to everyone as He wills, and according to each one’s disposition and cooperation.4
Not only that, but by the means of grace we can increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ:
Having, therefore, been thus justified and made the friends and domestics of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day, that is, mortifying the members of their flesh, and presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified ….5
Why is that? Because in Catholic doctrine, agape is righteousness. The presence of agape in the heart makes a person truly righteous.
He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. (Rom 13:8)
Love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:10)
For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal 5:14)
Because righteousness is agape, and because some persons are given more agape than are others,7therefore, some Christians are more righteousness than are others. This is why Jesus can even speak about the “greatest” in the Kingdom. When the disciples asked Jesus who would be the greatest in the Kingdom, Jesus did not reply by explaining that on account of extra nos imputation of His perfect righteousness, all would be equally great in the Kingdom. He taught that greatness in the Kingdom was based on greatness of humility8 and on the greatness of love by which one becomes a servant to others for the sake of Christ.9 Greatness in the Kingdom does not come down to faith per se or works per se, but to love.10 Jesus speaks of some one person who will be “least in the Kingdom of Heaven.”11 That would make no sense if spiritual egalitarianism were true. The author of Hebrews takes it as undisputed that “the lesser is blessed by the greater,” and uses this premise to argue that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham.12 There could be no lesser and greater, if spiritual egalitarianism were true. He speaks of some Old Testament heroes refusing to be released from their torture, “so that they might gain a better resurrection.”13 Such a statement would make no sense if all believers’ resurrections were equal. Jesus said that Mary chose what was better, in comparison to that chosen by her sister Martha.14 This would make no sense if all Christians were equally righteous, and all lawful actions were equally good. St. Paul speaks of the one who does not give his daughter as doing better than one who does, because then she can be wholly concerned about the things of the Lord, holy both in body and spirit.15
Not only are some sins greater than others16, and some punishments in hell greater than others,17 but also some acts are greater acts of agape than are others, and some Christians receive greater rewards in heaven than do other Christians, because they loved more, not only in their heart, but also in their actions. This message that we (Christians) will be judged according to our actions is part of the Creed, and is found in many places throughout the New Testament:
“For we shall stand before the judgment seat of God…. So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Rom 14:10,12)
“Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” (1 Cor 3:8)
“Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” (1 Cor 4:5)
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Cor 5:10)
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” (Gal 6:7-10)
“With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.” (Eph 6:8-9)
“And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth.” (1 Pet 1:17)
“By this, love is perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world.” (1 Jn 4:17)
Jesus, speaking to the church at Thyatira, says, “And I will kill her children with pestilence; and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.” (Rev 2:23)
And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.” (Rev 20:12-13)
“[L]et the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and let the one who is holy, still keep himself holy. Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.” (Rev 22:11-12)
The Church has never believed or taught that all Christians are equally righteous; such an egalitarianism is nowhere to be found in the Church Fathers, or in the Scriptures. The Church has always recognized that some Christians, such as the martyrs, have shown heroic virtue in their self-sacrificial love for Christ, and she has sought to give to those saints the honor that is rightly due to them. It would wrong not to honor those who deserve to be honored among us, just as it would be wrong not to honor the heroes among our police, fire, and military forces, just as it would be wrong not to honor our parents, as the Fourth Commandment teaches. So the distinction in righteousness between those Christians with heroic love for God and the rest of us, entails an obligation on our part to give honor to those whose lives especially demonstrated such heroic love for God. This, along with the Catholic understanding of the relation of body and soul, explains the Catholic practice of venerating the bodily remains of saints such as St. John Bosco.
In addition, because of the recognition that some Christians have greater agape than do other Christians, and because agape is the righteousness of God in us, and because the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, it follows that the intercession of those Christians who have greater agape is better than the intercession of other Christians. In other words, even while he was yet alive on earth, the intercessory prayer of St. John Bosco would have been more powerful and effective than is my intercession. That difference in the power of intercessory prayer is not erased when a saint dies, but is heightened, because now St. John Bosco has the Beatific Vision; he now sees God face to face, no longer through a glass darkly. Not only does he now have more agape than the ordinary Christian, he is now able to speak with God face to face, as are our guardian angels (Mt 18:10). And that also makes his intercession more effective, not because God is different in relation to him, but because he stands in closer relation to God. He prays with something greater than faith; he prays with vision. And this is why the Church Fathers sought the intercession of the departed saints, and spoke about doing so as though this were the continuous tradition of the Church.18
Egalitarianism can be motivated by a pride that wants no one to be greater than oneself. It can also be the result of a mistaken philosophical notion that God is most glorified when He has all of it. 19 But we do not find spiritual egalitarianism in the Church Fathers. They recognized that God is most glorified not in competition with His creatures, but through the renowned deeds of His saints. For the Fathers, the more glorious the saints’ love for God, the more glory God receives. And recognizing the saints as the heroes of the New Covenant, in conjunction with that line from the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in the “communion of saints,” entails that not only are we more greatly benefited, but God is more greatly glorified, when we seek the intercession of His beloved saints. From this point of view, the eagerness and excitement of Guatemalan Catholics at the arrival of St. John Bosco’s relics, is not hard to understand.
2. Westminster Confession of Faith, XV.4 [↩]
4. Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 7 [↩]