Sin, cheap grace, and John the Baptist

Genuine prophets lash out against false religious security out of a love for the truth, but also out of a love for the individual who has allowed himself to become anesthetized by a false brand of religion.

Detail from "Saint John the Baptist Preaching" (1695) by Luca Giordano (WikiArt.org)

Editor’s note: The following homily was preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (December 4, 2022), at Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore (Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter).

We have completed one-fourth of our Advent journey; thankfully, we have a full four weeks this year. Advent is a season of hope, but a hope based on reality, which corresponds to the truth of who God is and who we are. Any other kind of “hope” is false hope and thus harmful, both spiritually and psychologically – which are really one and the same thing if we are dealing with a healthy form of spirituality and a valid method of psychology. In the final analysis, self-deception is so cruel because it cheats people of reality now and often for eternity. It is against this background that the Baptist’s statement today makes any sense: “Bear fruit that befits repentance.” Jesus will allow for no game-playing and has rather harsh words for those committed to just such activities.

Protestants frequently accuse us Catholics of plugging into “cheap grace,” by which they mean a less than honest and whole-hearted attempt to change our lives. Too often they are right. How should we deal with that charge? By seeking out and accepting only “costly grace.” The font of grace available to us cost Jesus His life; should it cost us anything less?

We “bear fruit that befits repentance” by endeavoring to live a virtuous life, by responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who came to us in Baptism and then sealed that relationship by granting us His seven-fold gifts in Confirmation. Responding positively to the Holy Spirit automatically means responding negatively to Satan, the world, and the flesh. If “Jesus is Lord” is anything more than idle banter, He must be Lord of every aspect of our lives or Lord of none; we cannot harbor areas “safe” from His Lordship, thus subtly admitting of the legitimacy of a Lordship divided more or less equally between Satan and Christ. The Kingdom that we await makes no provision for divided loyalties.

Evidence of reform comes when we are willing to declare our sinfulness, humbly confess those sins to another man who represents Christ to us, and then promise (and mean) that we intend never to do these things again. Going to confession without this mindset makes a mockery of the Sacrament of Penance, and that’s what non-Catholics are thinking about when they speak of “cheap grace.” Steering clear of the Sacrament altogether because “I know I’ll do it all again” is just as wrong because it is self-defeating and questioning of God’s will (and power) to save. That is a denial of grace. Accepting only costly grace is the answer that leads to union with the Lord, who inaugurates and consummates His Kingdom in the whole world and in each of us as individuals.

Now, once we have gotten our own personal act together, we shall be in a position to have an external, public witness, highlighted by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council as a work uniquely that of the laity. William Ullathorne, the diocesan bishop of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, once asked him what he thought the role of the laity might be. In unusually laconic fashion for him, he replied: “We would look foolish without them!” Of course, that was but a latter-day version of Moses’ retort to Joshua: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Num 11:29). Not infrequently, when bishops speak out on matters of moral concern, they are ignored by the elites who assert that the bishops do not speak for their people; indeed, that their people are much more in sync with the secular ethos. Unfortunately, they are often more right than we would like to admit.

It is always a source of great distress to me when otherwise serious Catholics tell me that no one in their workplace knows they are Catholic! Which means they are “closeted” Catholics – a veritable contradiction of the vocation given them through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. I am going to suggest this morning that anyone here living such an existence take for their Advent model the figure of St. John the Baptist, who looms so large over the Advent landscape.

Few characters in the Bible, indeed in all of literature, are more intriguing than John the Baptist. From his mother’s womb to his beheading, John embodied a commitment to the truth and to conversion, making him the greatest of all the prophets, as he prepared the way for God’s Son by his constant calls to repentance. Although John served as a bridge between the two testaments, he was no fence-sitter and thus bravely jumped into the world of the New Covenant, which would eventually be sealed in Christ’s Blood.

In recent years, we have heard the words “prophet” and “prophetic” bandied about quite a bit in certain ecclesiastical circles, all too often to describe those who rebel against the immemorial Catholic Tradition. Can we say “German Synodal Way” here? The true prophet, however, does not stand against the Church but against a culture which has lost its identification with a divine perspective on reality. The classical prophet was not a forerunner of Madame Zelda on the boardwalk, nor a hostage to the left wing of the Democratic Party. John the Baptist, then, was a man so sensitive to God’s holy will and law that he stood head and shoulders over the mass of humanity in his courage and conviction. He proclaimed his message (which was really God’s message) to great and small alike, so that prostitutes heard and accepted his invitation to reform their lives while the mighty Herod, at the instigation of Salome, lopped off his head for daring to challenge his immorality.

It is easy to condemn “social sin” and “the sinful structures of society”; it is much harder to see sin and to name it in individual persons. To rage against multi-national corporations doesn’t take much courage; for a bishop to warn a governor that he risks going to Hell for his part in the killing of unborn babies, ah, then one finds a worthy heir to John the Baptist. Silence bespeaks expediency, complicity, and cowardice, and John the Baptist never kept silent, for even in the womb he announced the truth of Christ (see Lk 1:44). He was bold and even brash when confronting the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (“You brood of vipers” [Lk 3:7]), like a churchman today who reminds people that they cannot take refuge in Sunday Mass attendance while remaining attached to sins of materialism, irresponsible gambling, excessive drinking, fornication, artificial contraception, pornography, other disordered forms of sexuality, or a host of other actions.

Genuine prophets lash out against false religious security out of a love for the truth, but also out of a love for the individual who has allowed himself to become anesthetized by a false brand of religion. Granted, John the Baptist wasn’t the type of fellow to be invited as religious window-dressing at a fashionable cocktail party. But he wasn’t interested in making people enjoy transient parties; he was intent on preparing people for the eternal banquet of the Kingdom.

Two strange sayings in connection with John the Baptist are attributed to Our Lord in the Gospels. The first asserts that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force” (Mt 11:12). What could Jesus have meant?

Exegetes and preachers have offered some ingenious interpretations over the centuries, but the one which has the most appeal for me is the suggestion that one must be passionate about God’s reign over humanity – the lukewarm and the disinterested, objective third parties do not inherit the Kingdom – only those committed enough to make of it a life-or-death matter. There is no free ride to the Kingdom; Bonhoeffer referred to “the cost of discipleship.” If it cost John the Baptist his head, can we expect to get off scot-free? Unrealistic at best, presumptuous at worst.

Nowadays, passion for religion is labeled fanaticism, rigidity, and psychosis – including by certain ecclesiastical leaders who are apparently embarrassed by those who hold lesser places in the Church, but with greater conviction. Well, maybe that’s a problem of the age. At any rate, passion for religion or commitment to the truth are just alternative expressions for the love of God. And if God is real, then He’s not only worth living for; He’s also worth dying for. So, yes, the violent like John the Baptist enter the Kingdom.

Secondly, Jesus declares that as great as John the Baptist was, anyone born into the Kingdom is greater than he (see Mt 11:11). Like Moses in many ways, the Baptist saw the Kingdom as closely as possible without fully experiencing it this side of the grave: No Church, no Baptism, no Eucharist, no Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit for John. He saluted salvation from some distance and so had to wait for eternity. Jesus is not downgrading John the Baptist as much as He is trying to make us aware of the knowledge and identity given to us once the Kingdom would break into human affairs through His paschal mystery.

We, insignificant and unknown people, are greater than John the Baptist because of what God has done with us, for us and in us through His beloved Son. We are a purchased people. We have been given the knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom. We know Jesus Christ and recognize ourselves as members of His mystical Body, the Church. “Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Mt 13:17). Indeed, as the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil puts it, “Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.” Greater than John the Baptist? What a humbling and exalted thought at one and the same time! Humbling, once we realize that this is all God’s work and not ours. Exalted, because we know that St. Augustine was right when he exclaimed, “God became man that men might become gods.”

Jesus also made one other interesting comment about John – and his audience. He was a light burning brightly in whom the people delighted for a while (see Jn 5:35). Two lessons are worth drawing out here: First, a candle does its job by burning itself out. Similarly, the preaching and living out of the Gospel are activities which call for the investment of one’s whole personality. When the Gospel has been timidly preached, it can never be fiercely lived. As an Anglican archbishop of the last century put it: After Paul preached, there were riots; after I preach, they serve tea! No, would-be prophets have to offer a light which is bright, clear, and constant; only then will people be willing and able to walk by its light.

Second, people rejoiced in John’s message – for a time. Their enthusiasm was short-lived because he began to hit home. The Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to remark that one generally becomes a popular preacher by talking about the sins one’s people don’t commit. Thus comes the frequent line after Sunday Mass, “Boy, you sure told them, Father!” Catholics should become nervous if the New York Times starts praising popes and bishops because, in all likelihood, it will not be that the Times is becoming Christian but that the hierarchs are becoming worldly. Committed believers have to be ready to accept the Gospel’s challenge to reform every day and in every area of their lives. When we say, “Jesus is Lord,” we cannot carve out areas of existence exempt from His Lordship.

John knew this as a preacher, but he learned it first by being a penitent. What held everything together for the Baptist was a permanent attitude of penance. He never hesitated to demand austerity in his listeners because he lived it himself, manifested even (or perhaps especially) in his garb and in his diet (see Mt 3:4). When a nun in lay clothes and earrings lectures on social justice, it rings just a bit hollow since one can logically ask why she doesn’t get rid of the secular outfits, give the money to the poor, and live as a public witness of her message even in the silent sermons of her habited presence. When a priest condemns the lifestyles of the rich and famous, his talk is less than convincing to a congregation which knows that he frequents the very same places as the rich and famous. When parishioners in suburbia call for pottery chalices and burlap vestments to bring about a Church of the simple and poor, one can only be either amused or revolted at the crystal and damask on their own dining room tables.

Jesus said John was violent; that he was a light. But He also said we are greater than he. The study of his character and a whole-hearted living of the Advent season can make that saying of the Lord come true as well.

In one of Newman’s Advent sermons—“Worship, A Preparation for Christ’s Coming” (Dec 2, 1838)—the then-very young Anglican clergyman made these salient points regarding the days of this holy season:

They are times when we may humbly expect a larger grace, because they invite us especially to the means of grace. This in particular is a time for purification of every kind. When Almighty God was to descend upon Mount Sinai, Moses was told to “sanctify the people,” and bid them “wash their clothes,” and to “set bounds to them round about”; much more is this a season for “cleansing ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” [Ex 19:10-12; 2 Cor 12:1]; a season for chastened hearts and religious eyes; for severe thoughts, and austere resolves, and charitable deeds; a season for remembering what we are and what we shall be. Let us go out to meet Him with contrite and expectant hearts; and though He delays His coming, let us watch for Him in the cold and dreariness which must one day have an end. Attend His summons we must, at any rate, when He strips us of the body; let us anticipate, by a voluntary act, what will one day come on us of necessity. Let us wait for Him solemnly, fearfully, hopefully, patiently, obediently; let us be resigned to His will, while active in good works. Let us pray Him ever, to “remember us when He cometh in His kingdom”; to remember all our friends; to remember our enemies; and to visit us according to His mercy here, that He may reward us according to His righteousness hereafter.

The dawn of a secular new year is often accompanied by hearty resolutions to change one’s mode of living – regrettably, noted more in the breach than in the observance within a few short days or weeks. Might I challenge you good folks today to do two things. First, lay claim to the graces Cardinal Newman highlighted and, then, make a resolution at the outset of this new year of grace, this new liturgical and ecclesiastical year: With the example of the Baptist shining before you, abandon your “closeted” Catholicism. Indeed, make this the Advent when you came dancing out of that damnable closet.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 260 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

6 Comments

  1. Hello Fr. Straviskas,
    First of all, Awesome article! And happy Advent Season!

    “Two strange sayings in connection with John the Baptist are attributed to Our Lord in the Gospels. The first asserts that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force” (Mt 11:12). What could Jesus have meant?”

    Matthew 3:8 They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. When he saw that many of the Pharisees and Sadducees were stepping forward for this bath, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come? Give some evidence that you mean to reform. Do not pride yourselves on the claim, ‘Abraham is our father.’ I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these very stones.”

    It is the, Baptized by John the Baptist, faith alone, born again, Christian Pharisees who were, verbally, forcing their way into the ‘kingdom of God’ heaven, which Jesus and John spoke about. The reason Jesus uses the term ‘violent’ is because it is this issue that, Baptized by John Pharisees, will kill Jesus over. The Pharisees wanted to be seen as the chosen few in possession of ‘the kingdom of God’ heaven over others, yet Jesus is constantly tells the Pharisees they are going to hell and the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes are going to heaven. So the Pharisees kill Jesus over this issue.

    The Luke 18:9 Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Prayer of the Self-Righteous Christian Pharisee, “O God, I thank you [eucharisteo] that I am not like the rest of humanity…”. By using the term ‘Eucharisteo’, Jesus is identifying the self-righteous Pharisee as a, Baptized by John the Baptist, ‘Faith Alone’, Christian.

    “Eucharisteo; with the dative it always stands where there is implied a kindness done, a favor, a charis, a grace for an undeserved gift received where it appears as thanks for any good experience.
    Charis; from chairio, to rejoice, or chara, joy, favor, acceptance, a kindness granted or desired, a benefit, thanks, gratitude, grace. A favor done without expectation of return; absolute freeness of loving kindness of God to men finding its only motive in the bounty and freeheartedness of the Giver; unearned an unmerited favor.”
    Quoted from: Lexicon to the Old and New Testaments, Copyright 1984 by Spiros Zodhiates, TH.D AMG publishers.

    Officially, the Church teaches that there were no Christians before Pentecost; However, this is not the way many of the, baptized by John the Baptist, people of Jesus’ day saw it. Many people were verbally forcing their way into heaven, by manipulating John’s Baptism to mean that they are now in possession of heaven, above others they judged as unsaved.

    Luke 16:16 The Law. “The law and the prophets were in force until John. From his time on, the good news of God’s kingdom has been proclaimed, and people of every sort are forcing their way in. It is easier for the heavens and the earth to pass away than for a single stroke of a letter of the law to pass.

    Matthew 11:11 “I solemnly assure you, history has not known a man born of woman greater than John the Baptizer. Yet the least born into the Kingdom of God is greater than he. From John the Baptizer’s time until now the kingdom of God has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

    The self righteous, baptized by John the Baptist, ‘Faith Alone’, ‘Born Again’ Christian Pharisee gives all the credit to God, that he is in possession of heaven over the tax collector he judges as unsaved. “Cheap grace”. While the, baptized by John the Baptist, tax collector places all the credit for his sinfulness upon himself and begs God for His mercy. “But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” “Costly grace”.

    Jesus says, “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

    In Mark 11:30 The Authority of Jesus Questioned. “Was John’s baptism of heavenly or of human origin? Answer me.””, I say the reason Jesus counters with this, is because He knows the Pharisees had, at first, accepted John’s baptism, in order to exalt themselves as in possession of the ‘kingdom of god’, above other people. Or in other words ‘cheap grace’. Without any reservation on where this grace was coming from through John the Baptist. VS Jesus’ ‘costly grace’, John 5:39 You search the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life. “I do not accept human praise; moreover, I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I came in the name of my Father, but you do not accept me; yet if another comes in his own name, you will accept him.

    • Dear Steven:

      You cause us to think and delve into the mysteries of God’s grace. Thank you for this blessing.

      In order know that we are saved by grace, God gives us works to perform so that we realize we are being sanctified, changed and conformed into His image. A very difficult process, all the same!

      We recognize our shortcomings and identify with the adversities our brothers in Christ face. We empathize and we forgive as God forgives us as we ask.

      May the Almighty continue to imbue with insight and discernment.

      Yours in Christ,

      Brian

    • The tax collector in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector admitted his sinfulness and was very straightforward in his admission when pleading for mercy. In the same way the very public statements of the Good Thief on the Cross were an act of confession. He acknowledged his guilt, the justice of his punishment, and defended Christ in the most public way possible. Neither of them had pride movements, felt banners, flags, and parades. Unrepentant sinners, hard of heart and stiff of neck, can be just as rigid as any Pharisee, and just as legalistic in searching for loopholes to justify their sins. How many kindred spirits would the tax collector and the Good Thief find in today’s Church?

  2. Wonderfully-proclaimed homily…a model for all in Holy Orders to use i.e. all bishops, priests and deacons. I’d have added one additional challenge to the listening Faithful: “Today, communicate to someone unlikely to already know, the fact that you are a Catholic and tell them why.”

  3. A difficult subject and one that cost Jesus His life. We are told that Jesus was temped on every count, yet He never yielded to temptation. He is the perfect blood sacrifice for the alleviation of our sins.

    We sin because we are sinners. Our only hope is jesus Christ and Him crucified. Jesus advised us to ask for our daily bread and the forgiveness of our sins. As we need to eat, so too do we need to confess our sins, daily.

    We repent, yet we find ourselves confessing again and again. It demonstrates ;the power of Jesus and His love for us. We approach God in the sinless perfection of the name of Jesus, casting our burdens and rejoicing in His magnificence, What a saviour we have!

    1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

    Psalm 32:5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah

    Psalm 51:2-5 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

    Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    Ephesians 1:7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,

    Luke 6:37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven;

    Ephesians 4:32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

    Acts 3:19 Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out,

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