Of course, every benefit was secured at the cross in the sense that we, who were dead in our sins (see Col 2:13), are restored to life spiritually.
However, evangelicals are most concerned about the question of grace, and how grace is received and applied. Many evangelicals are suspicious that Catholics think that grace is only applied or “received” when we do certain “works.” This is not our teaching.
The grace of forgiveness of sin is offered freely to all who will seek it from Jesus. And while saving grace does summon us to works prepared for us by God (see Eph 2:10), our works are the result of grace, not the cause of it.
Where evangelicals struggle in understanding grace is that they have a very juridical sense of what took place on the cross and how it is applied to us. To them, at least those who hold that classical Protestant view, justification and salvation are merely imputed. That is to say, they are legally declared of us, but do not actually change who we are. Martin Luther spoke of the righteousness we receive as a justitia aliena (“an alien justice”).
We are not actually made just, we are only said to be just, because Jesus took the punishment we deserved, and He paid the price. But the justice we receive is “alien” because it belongs to Jesus and does not really make us just. To them, the Blood of Jesus “covers” our sin, but we are still wretched and depraved. So we are declared innocent and have innocence legally imputed to us by Jesus, but classical Protestantism still considers us depraved. Our depravity is only covered. Some in classical Protestantism have used the image that we are a dunghill, covered with snow. In Jesus, the Father overlooks our sin, as if we were covered with snow, or covered with the Blood of Jesus, but underneath we are still sinful, still a dunghill.
The Catholic theology of grace, however, sees grace as truly transforming us. Our sin is not merely covered, it is actually taken away, and we are really made holy. It is true that we tend to slip back into sin, but confession, holy Communion and living the life of faith are graces that assist us to become what we truly are, holy and righteous in God’s sight (see Eph 1:4). We actually are those who are to share the glorious freedom and nature of the Children of God (1 Jn 3:2).
Finally, then, at the cross we are saved from the deadly effect of sin. But more than saved, we are sanctified. And this sanctification is more than some mere legal imputation, it is an actual transforming work of grace that is begun in us and will be brought to completion (see Phil 1:6) so that we might become the very “holiness” of God (Lk 1:75; 1 Thes 3:13; 4:7; 2 Cor 7:1). These blessings reach us by grace working through faith, and cause us to walk uprightly in righteous deeds prepared for us by God (Eph 2:10).
Rev. Msgr. Charles E. Pope is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.