Thursday, December 8, 2011

What do the Blessed Mother and Billy Graham Have in Common?

Saint Augustine, Doctor Gratiae, the great
theologian of grace. 
Well, the word that is getting attention today is “prevenient” as in “prevenient grace.”  It is used in the “prayer over the gifts” in the revised translation of the Roman Missal.  I must have had three phone calls and a dozen emails asking me about it—including at least four messages from priests who don’t know the doctrine of prevenient grace.  What are they teaching in seminaries nowadays?   If there is anything good that might come out of this revised translation it might be that people have to learn their theology.  If you know “Consubstantial” you have your Christology half learned; if you know “prevenient” you have your Christian anthropology (the theology of grace) pretty much done.  And if you have Christology and Grace under control, you have pretty much what you need to know.  Other than ecclesiology everything else is commentary.  And actually, ecclesiology is simply an expansion of Christology.  Prevenient Grace is that gift of God that precedes any good work on our part, even an act of faith, but come totally gratuitously from God and empowers us to believe, to yearn for holiness, and to seek a righteousness in the sight of God.  You see, given our fallen nature—or what we Christians believe to be our fallen nature—we are incapable on our own of any choice for the good.  God loves us as we are—in our sin, our brokenness, our weakness, whatever one may call it—and God begins the process of salvation by giving us that which we need to be saved.  Anyway, that is pretty much what the Council of Trent says about it, though in somewhat different words.  Trent does call it prevenient grace however.  The interesting thing  both about Trent and the new translation is that the concept of prevenient grace is really more a preoccupation of Protestant theology than Catholic.  This is because Catholics almost invariably fall into a Pelagianism that affirms that we can do good on our own.  I am amazed how many priests have an exaggerated concept of free will.  According to Saint Augustine, a favorite of Pope Benedict, Martin Luther, and my own, the human will is not free except as it is aided by grace.  Without grace we would always choose sin, with grace—and only with grace—the will is free to choose between sin and the Will of God.  The Will will not choose evil—it will always choose what it perceives to be “a good;” but it is only with grace that it is free to choose God’s good rather than the perceived good our own self-interest would otherwise select.  Anyway, I love the idea of prevenient grace.  First of all I love the word.  When else do you hear it?  And it is such a neat word. Very, very, Latin—from pre and venire.  It is the affirmation that God loves us just as we are even before we can come to him in repentence.  He doesn't love us because we have repented but rather gives us the grace of turning to him because he loves us.  As the old Methodist piano thumper sings: 

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Hath broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Thank you Ms. Charlotte Elliott for writing this hymn back in 1835.  Billy Graham heard this song as sixteen year old boy and “gave his life to Jesus.”  When he began his ministry of revival preaching, he used this hymn as his altar call song that would move people to come up and surrender themselves to the Lord.  Dr. Graham used the hymn title” Just as I Am” as the title of his 1997 autobiography.  So what do the young Virgin of Nazareth and the young Baptist of Charlotte, North Carolina have in common: prevenient grace.  And we would never have known that except for this revised translation.     

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