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Chapter 20: The Relationship between God and Sinful Humankind

Question G: Why does God make humans cooperators in his redemptive work?

1. One must consider why God redeems in order to see why he makes humans cooperators in his redemptive work. God is a loving Father but not a foolishly indulgent one. Passages in the Old Testament concerning God’s wrath are too numerous to mention. He loves justice and hates wickedness (see Ps 45.8); he hates evildoers (see Ps 5.6); he hates those who worship idols (see Ps 31.7). This is no mere peculiarity of the Old Testament mentality; we are warned in the New Testament of God’s wrath from the first preaching of John the Baptist (see Mt 3.7) to nearly the last pages of the Christian apocalypse (see Rv 14.10).15 Thus, God can neither ignore nor tolerate the self-mutilated condition of fallen humankind.

Of course, “hates” and “is angry” are said of God in senses different from those in which they are said of ourselves. But this does not mean that these attitudes are simply excluded from God. Without imagining that we understand God in himself, in our relationship with him we must not be one-sided. To suppose God does not hate and is not angry leads to a dilemma. On the one hand, one can suppose that he does not love either and is not pleased with the gifts of those who love him. This position would destroy any possible personal relationship with God. On the other hand, one can suppose that God indiscriminately loves good and evil, is pleased indiscriminately by the gifts of those who love him and the sins of those who do not. This position would maintain a personal relationship with God at the cost of destroying the significance of human life, for in the end it would make no real difference what we did.

It often is said that God hates the sin but loves the sinner. This is true, but it must be understood correctly. In sinning, we determine ourselves wrongly; we really embrace the privation which makes the sin evil and make this evil part of ourselves. Hence, the sin God hates is not something altogether separate and apart from the sinner he loves. This is why God’s love of sinners does not simply accept them as they are, but is redemptive; if sinners do not resist, God transforms them by overcoming evil in them and bringing them to the wholeness of holiness which alone is unconditionally lovable.

2. If one understands evil as privation, it is easy to see why God really hates evil, is angry with sinners, and punishes them, and also why he loves sinners, is pleased when they acknowledge their guilt, and mercifully redeems them. God hates with precision: he precisely hates the evil which deprives evildoers of the good he wishes them to have (see S.t., 1, q. 20, a. 2, ad 4). Hating nothing he has made (see Wis 11.24), God rejects the evil by which sinners mutilate themselves without rejecting anything of the good sinners still enjoy.

3. God is jealous in his love and angry when his children alienate themselves from him by following other gods and other goods (see Ex 20.5; 1 Cor 10.22). God is angry with sinners because he loves them. Out of this love he redeems them. He spares all things because they are his; he works to separate sinners from their sins (see Wis 11.26–12.2).

4. Still, unlike an indulgent father, God does not intervene to prevent the natural consequences of his children’s wrongdoing. He allows us to bear responsibility for our sins. He does this because he respects our dignity. To do otherwise would be to treat us as children too immature to be responsible for our choices.

The indulgent human father, by denying the reality of evil and constantly intervening to assume responsibility for the actions of his children, takes from them their own responsibility, prevents them from learning by experience that life is serious, and so deprives them of the dignity of living as mature men and women. God does not do this. Rather, like the broken-hearted father who can hardly restrain himself from trying to help, but who holds back so that his children will be able to live their own lives, God punishes. This punishment is not the creation and arbitrary imposition of evils. It is the natural and inevitable unfolding of sin.

God created human beings and provided sufficiently for their well-being. He gave them the power to share in his own life, promised them freedom from the horror of death, and supplied guidance for living a humanly good life in this world. As the Council of Trent teaches, Man sinned and “through the offense of this sin, he incurred the wrath and the indignation of God, and consequently incurred the death with which God had previously threatened him and, together with death, bondage in the power of him who from that time had the empire of death (see Heb 2.14), that is, of the devil” (DS 1511/788).

This language is of a sort we do not often hear today. It is worth noticing that in other times Christians have found such language quite natural and pleasing. Why does it strike us so differently today?

The privation account of evil, which faith teaches, is opposed by two rival accounts: a radical dualism which gives evil the same sort of reality as good and a radical monism which makes all evil relative and ultimately only apparent (5‑C). According to faith, evil is real, though not real as the things God creates are, but only as a privation of goodness. Sin and its consequences are deprivations—brought upon sinners by their own freedom—of the fulfillment which they could and should have enjoyed.

Even among believers, this privation account of evil often is lost to clear view. In the Reformation and the period since then, many Christians have verged toward a dualistic theory of evil. While talking of sin, they also have talked of human corruption which even God’s grace does not repair, but only covers over. Christians who did not go so far as to think and say such things nevertheless tended in practice to divide the world into two groups: we friends of God and those enemies hopelessly lost because they do not belong to our ecclesial community.

While this attitude existed among Christians, secular humanists more and more rejected free choice and ultimate moral responsibility. They developed optimistic world views according to which evil is only relative, a mere passing phase. If religion and superstition could be forgotten, if knowledge and technology could be unleashed, if the present stage of evolution or dialectical unfolding could be hastened toward its goal, if neurotic feelings of guilt and hostility could be dissolved, if defects in the social structure could be put right—if some, or all, or some similar things were done, then there would be no more evil. Today even faithful Christians are greatly influenced by such optimistic world views.

5. God created Man in his own image, able to act freely and responsibly, like him not only in being but in causing. The causality of human persons bears not only on other things but themselves, for in choosing freely human persons are, in a limited but true sense, self-makers under God (2‑B). God wished Man to live richly in this world, then to live still more richly in a heavenly communion in which created persons would dwell together with the Trinity in intimate friendship, forever sharing their goods with one another.

6. Once sin entered the world, this splendid plan could only be realized if sinful Man were somehow able to live a humanly good life in this world. Yet now humankind had to struggle with a nature wounded by sin against an environment similarly damaged. Given sin, a good human life must acknowledge its reality, will to avoid it, accept its consequences as well-deserved punishment, and strive to repair everything good it has distorted (see S.t., 1–2, q. 87, aa. 6–7).

7. In conclusion, by making us cooperators in his redemptive work, God makes our lives by his grace serve as a sacrifice and prayer, which he accepts and answers by his re-creative act. If he redeemed us without our cooperation, we would be deprived of our dignity by having redemption imposed on us. True, only God redeems, and he does this by creating all things anew. However, for the sake of human fulfillment, he makes us cooperators in his work: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2.10).

8. Thus, God redeems sinful Man by continuing to do him good, making known his continuing love, and also by recalling sinful humans to friendship, providing them the means to respond, and supporting them individually and in fellowship in living holy lives, which help to overcome sin and its consequences. God does all this in a preliminary way in the Old Testament, and definitively and completely through Jesus and his Church.

9. Because faith is necessary for justification and the overcoming of all the humanly devastating consequences of sin, fallen human beings have a further reason to believe which Man did not have in the beginning. Anyone who has made an act of faith and is tempted to abandon the way of Jesus because of its difficulty should realize that the act of faith and fidelity to it are not only morally required but are in one’s own interests. The alternative is failure to be fulfilled, now and eternally, both as a human individual and as one called to membership in the divine family. By contrast, even in the fallen human condition it is possible with faith to live a fulfilling life, a life heroic as Jesus’ was, and to share in his eternal glory.

By faith one enters into the new creation which God has begun with the resurrection of Jesus. Since one’s existence is new, one’s life must be renewed to conform to this new existence (see Gal 6.14–16). Everyone who professes Jesus’ name must abandon evil (see 2 Tm 2.19). God’s word demands that those who hear it adhere obediently to it (see Rom 16.26; Jas 1.23–25). The word of God is divisive; it demands a response, and everyone must render an account (see Heb 4.12–13).

Redemption does not mean one is translated at once to glory, nor that one is put to sleep. Life must go on, and it should be both humanly fulfilling and suited to one’s new status. We had lived foolishly, disobediently, as slaves of passion. But we are not slaves working for our own liberation (see Ti 3.3–7). We are freed by the grace of God to live a humanly fulfilling life: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2.10). Christian life is part of God’s gift.

By baptism one receives the gift of living faith; one is created anew as another Christ, as a child of God (see Gal 6.15). Dying to sin, one rises with Christ to new life; therefore, sin must be expelled from one’s whole person, which should be devoted to upright life (see Rom 6.11–18). The vital point is that by the gift of living faith one becomes a child of God with a hope of forever sharing intimately in his life. “And every one who thus hopes in him [Jesus] purifies himself as he is pure” (1 Jn 3.3). One ought to live a life worthy of the calling one has received, a life worthy of a child of God (see Eph 4.1).

Unfortunately, we human persons are not very consistent. We accept the gift of redemption and the hope of glory, yet continue to act as if we still were slaves of sin, of death, of the law, and of the devil. Thus we must be warned: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7.21).

We are comforted to read that when one believes that Jesus is the Son of God, “God abides in him, and he in God” (1 Jn 4.15). We conveniently forget that faith without works is dead (see Jas 2.14). We are comforted to read that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12.3). We conveniently forget the words of our Lord Jesus: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you” (Lk 6.46).

The demand to live the life of the child of God one is and to live the life of human fulfillment for which one has been liberated is not arbitrary. It is a logically necessary consequence of one’s acceptance of redemption and new life in Jesus. If we do not live the life of good deeds which God offers us as part of his loving gift, we are tragically untrue to ourselves. The ought of every Christian moral norm is the same as the fundamental ought in “One ought to accept redemption.” It appeals to one’s reasonableness, and it is a guide to one’s own true self-interest.

15. The significance of Scripture’s use of “hatred” and “wrath” in reference to God often is explained away by saying that such dispositions are attributed to God anthropomorphically. This is true, but anthropomorphic expressions still need to be understood, not dismissed. Otherwise, all the personal traits of God—for example, that he is a loving Father—will be dismissed, for all of them are anthropomorphic. The problem is to purify words used of God of their unsuitable connotations and elements of significance, while retaining some real significance. In this case, “hatred” and “wrath” signify absolute opposition between God’s holy will and evil, and God’s wrath is real because evil is real, even though it is a privation, not a positive reality. What must be excluded is any disposition on God’s part to alienate and destroy creatures mutilated by evil. Rather, his hatred of evil is subordinate to his reconciling and healing love of creatures mutilated by it; he eliminates the privation by restoring the subject of evil to wholeness. See Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, O. Michel, “miseō,” 4:683–94, esp. 686–87; Gustav Stählin, “orgē: E. The Wrath of Man and the Wrath of God in the NT,” 5:419–47.