“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”. Ephesians 2:8
The catechism has asked our name and asked what we believe our Godparents did for us in baptism, and then it asks, “Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe, and to do, as they have promised for thee?”
The answer learned by heart, the answer echoed back to the question, is, “Yes, verily; and by God’s help so I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. And I pray unto God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.”
“By God’s help so I will”. Being able to do so, says the catechism, is possible because of two things: “that he hath called me to this state of salvation” and “I pray unto God to give me his grace”. God calling us and God giving us his grace.
The idea that God had called us to the state of salvation comes from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans Chapter 8 Verse 29-30, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified”.
There is no mistaking Paul’s belief that God doesn’t just know what is going to happen, but that there is a plan underlying the way things turn out. The argument is taken up again in the Letter to the Ephesians Chapter 1 Verse 5, “In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will”, and in Ephesians Chapter 1 Verse 11, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”.
In the previous question, about what our Godparents did for us, the catechism spoke of us believing “all the Articles of the Christian Faith”. For the compilers of the catechism, the “Articles of the Christian Faith” included a belief in predestination, a subject that is always very difficult.
We believe the God whom we meet in the New Testament is a God who is working his purpose out in all that happens. Predestination has been part of our faith. If it was not, we would have to ask, if God does not know the future, then how can he be God? But how can we hold on to our traditional beliefs in God in the face of the overwhelming evil in our world? The church has often given trite, and sometimes flippant, answers, thinking it enough to simply repeat forms of words.
How do we say that although God has foreknowledge, there is also freewill in the world, and that evil is not part of God’s plan? Can you have a world where predestination and freewill go together?
We have seen before that help can from an unlikely source, from the work of Hermann Minkowkski, Albert Einstein’s mathematics professor. Minkowski saw space and time as being not separate, but being one thing. He talked of them as being space-time, according to which says science writer Marcus Chown, “the Universe can be thought of as a vast map. All events—from the creation of the Universe in the Big Bang to your birth at a particular time and place on earth—are laid out on it, each with its unique space-time location . . . But the map picture poses a problem. If everything is laid out—preordained almost—there is no room for concepts of past, present and future”.
Einstein was to write, “For us physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion”. What he seems to say is that space and time were complete in a single moment. If one was able to look at the Universe from the outside, one would see not only the whole of space, but also the whole of time, for the two are one. Space-time is like a book in which everything is written.
For a Christian, the idea of space-time would seem to suggest that God, looking from the outside, would in a single moment, see the whole of creation and the whole history of that creation. God has foreknowledge because he looks at a map where everything has happened in an instant; seeing the whole map, he knows the destiny of each person.
Minkowski’s idea allows for predestination and for freewill; it means that life in that space-time map is what we make it, that when God calls us, “to this state of salvation”, it is our choice whether or not we listen to God’s call. We can say, “I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Saviour”, knowing that everyone is able to make their own choice.
Being called to salvation is only possible because of what God has done for us, because of his grace, and this is acknowledged in the catechism, which says, “And I pray unto God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.”
Predestination and grace in a single answer are a lot to take in; perhaps it is a good thing that the catechism was about learning by heart and not attempting to explain or understand.
To pray for God’s grace unto our life’s end is in accord with words from the Letter to the Ephesians Chapter 2, Verse 8, where Saint Paul says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”. Grace is given to us. Writing in the Second Letter to Timothy, Chapter 1 Verses 8-9, Paul talks about us being called and the gift of grace, he says, “join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time”.
Before the beginning of time: God’s grace is there before the beginning and will be there after the end, it is fitting we should pray for it all through our lives. It is fitting we should pray for it because it is very easy to lose sight of God’s grace, to feel that if only we did more or we tried harder, then we would somehow be closer to God. It might say in Ephesians Chapter 2 Verse 8, “it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no-one can boast”, but Christians are very good at boasting. The church is very caught up with ideas of numbers and success, it is not very good at grace, it is not very good at teaching grace.
Grace means that God loves us for nothing; something that is not easy for us to accept. It challenges our natural pride; it makes us think about our faults and failings. This might have been an easier when we were young, when we might have been taught the catechism, it is not an easy thought when we are adults, when we feel that we live upright, decent and respectable lives. Yet the question we must answer is whether or not we pray for this this grace, this free gift to us. We cannot earn our own salvation, it comes only by grace.
Learning by heart has much to commend it, for literacy and numeracy, and in knowledge of the Bible, but one of the problems of the catechism was that learning by heart did not bring understanding. Things that were important became just words on a page, or words to be recited. Being called to a state of salvation and being aware of God’s grace were often just things that were said, not things that changed people’s lives. Teaching the faith in our own time, it is important to know and to understand, to hear the call to salvation and to pray for God’s grace to receive it.