I stumbled upon a Presbyterian blog which reminded me once more of how much work needs to be done in making sure people have some idea what Catholics believe – and don’t. The blogger, Benjamin Glaser, remarking on 1 Timothy 2, said:
Nothing separates us more from our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters (excepting of course JBFA [Justification by Faith Alone]) than the idea that we who have been born-again in Christ now have been given the ability to speak directly to God the Father through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
What? Catholics and Orthodox don’t believe that we can speak directly to God the Father through the Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus? This claim briefly left me speechless. It’s hard to know even where to begin.
Let me begin with a common view of Christ’s Mediation which I’ve heard from Protestants. While I’m calling it “the Protestant view,” it’s not one that all Protestants would agree upon; but it is surprisingly common. It goes something like this: prior to Christ’s Death on the Cross, the Jews couldn’t go directly to God. They had to go through a priest instead. But with Christ’s Death on the Cross, the veil in the Temple was torn (Mark 15:38), and now we can go to the Father directly, through Christ. As Hebrews 4:15-16 says,
For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have One who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the Throne of Grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
So we don’t need priests anymore! We have Jesus, the High Priest, and we can go to the Father directly through Him. But somehow, Eastern Orthodox and Catholics didn’t get the memo. We’ve kept the priests, and so we can’t go directly to the Father. When we want something, we have to ask the priests to ask the Father for it. As a variation, I’ve also heard that we’ll ask Mary or the the Saints to go to the Father for it, but aren’t able to go ourselves.
As you can see, there are some Scriptural passages which seem to support the view I outlined above. But it’s not hard to debunk it, if you’re familiar with the actual beliefs of the Old Testament Jewish people, or of Catholics and Orthodox.
Let’s start with the first premise: that prior to the Incarnation, Jews couldn’t go directly to the Father. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament proves this false. Old Testament Jews pray directly to God all the time, and did so even when they had the Levitical priesthood in place. To take a single example, in Judges 3:15 we hear that:
“Again the Israelites cried out to the LORD, and he gave them a deliverer—Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab.”
Sure, the Israelites would frequently go to Moses for intercession (e.g., Numbers 21:7), but they would also pray directly to God themselves. It wasn’t an either-or sort of thing. This ability to go directly to God was never lost. Look at how Jesus begins the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke 18:10:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
So everyone, from the tax collectors down to the Pharisees, already knew that they could go to God. So this should be the first clue that the Protestant view is wrong. If the Jews were already able to go to God directly, and did so frequently, then the tearing of the Temple Veil and Christ’s High Priestly function doesn’t mean what the Protestant view thinks it means.
In fact, in the parable I just quoted, it’s the Pharisee who goes before the Throne with an (unfounded) confidence, praying “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). In contrast, it’s the tax collector who “stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Luke 18:13). And Jesus points to the tax collector as the one with the appropriate posture before God (Luke 18:14). If Jesus’ mission was to try and convince people that it was okay to go directly to God, this certainly seems like an odd way to do it.
Likewise, contrary to Glaser, Catholics and Orthodox pray directly to the Father all the time as well. Let me take a few Catholic-specific examples (the same could be done for Eastern Orthodoxy). Start with the Mass: at the beginning of Mass, we confess our sinfulness, saying, “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters…”; after which, the priest and people each pray, “Lord, have mercy / Christ, have mercy / Lord, have mercy.” That’s a confession by the people, both directly to God and to everyone else, and then a prayer by the people, directly to Christ, our Judge. We see the same thing throughout the Mass. We offer up intentions to God, and the people proclaim, “Lord, hear our prayer.” There’s the Lord’s Prayer, also known as the “Our Father, ” in which we pray directly to the Father in the words of Christ. And so on, and so on.
And that’s just the Mass. In the Rosary, we pray the “Our Father” at least six times. In Confession, in the Act of Contrition, we pray directly to God for forgiveness of our sins. And of course, Catholics pray on their own, using both form prayers like the ones described here, and/or free-form prayers, where they just tell God whatever’s on their hearts. And of course, in the sign of the Cross, we offer up all of our prayers “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” boldly invoking the name of each Person of the Trinity as we go before the Throne. That’s the precise thing which Glaser (the Presbyterian I quoted) claimed we didn’t or couldn’t do.
What security should be ours in considering the mercy of the Lord! “He has but to cry for redress, and I, the ever merciful, will listen to him.” It is an invitation, a promise that He will not fail to fulfil. “Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the Throne of Grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The enemies of our sanctification will be rendered powerless if the mercy of God goes before us. And if through our own fault and human weakness we should fall, the Lord comes to our aid and raises us up.
If we can (and should, and do) go directly to the Father, why bother with priests or intercessors at all? A couple of reasons. First, because the Bible says to. 1 Timothy 2:1-2, part of the same passage that Glaser is quoting, tells us to intercede on behalf of all people. And the early Christians were constantly going to others to pray for them (Paul does it in places like Romans 15:31, Ephesians 6:20, and Colossians 4:4, for example). And second, because it’s more powerful (see James 5:16). After all, even Glaser talks about “the ability to speak directly to God the Father through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.” Now, speaking to the Father through Christ, ironically, is seemingly less direct than what the Old Testament Jews were doing (speaking directly to the Father). But there’s no question that it’s more powerful. While we can, and should, and do go before the Throne, we also can, and should, and do get others to go before the Throne with us — particularly when the One going with us is our Lord, Jesus Christ.