Today we honour the memory of Saint Teresa of Ávila, the Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun and promoter of the Counter Reformation. With Saint John of the Cross she reformed the Carmelite Order and in 1970 became the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church. Saint Teresa is an outstanding example for us to follow as we persevere in our Christian vocation.
There is an old song whose words sing out the happy refrain, “The best things in life are free.” St. Paul would echo that sentiment as he speaks of the great gift of our salvation. In a world where we are taught that hard work and the sweat of our brow are necessary to achieve success in life, it’s difficult to believe that something as important as the salvation of our souls is absolutely free. But it’s true. The reward is great, but there is nothing we can do to earn it. Neither can we obligate God to give it to us. It is nothing less than a free gift of love.
The idea of being justified by faith as opposed to works has been debated in theological circles ever since Martin Luther made it an issue in his Protestant Reformation. The concept of being justified and reaching heaven by faith alone was the primary point of disagreement between Lutherans and Catholics in the sixteenth century. After years of dialogue, Catholics and Lutherans issued a statement of agreement in 1999 entitled the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In it, they declared what has always been the linchpin of the gospel message: We are justified by faith in Christ and not by what we do. That justification must manifest itself in works of charity, obedience, and mercy, but it was acknowledged that these works do not earn us God’s favour.
Ever since Adam and Eve’s encounter with Satan in the Garden of Eden, human beings have had a propensity to sin. In his mercy, God sent His Son into the world to accomplish for us on the cross what we could never do for ourselves. It is only through Our Lord’s incarnation, death, and resurrection that we are justified and cleansed of our sins. God did this because he loves us, not because we proved ourselves worthy.
Our Lord modelled the kind of life God wants us to live. He showed us how to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the outcast, protect the innocent—not because of any great reward awaiting us, but because in responding to such an outpouring of divine love, we must do the same.