Holiness Is God’s Work, Not Ours

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin

May the God of peace make you perfectly holy, and may you entirely, spirit, soul and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord  Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it. (I Thes 5: 23-24)

These words of St. Paul contain an important insight into the spiritual life, namely that holiness is God’s work, not ours. God “makes us” holy, he “has called us,” and he “will accomplish” this good work, St. Paul emphasizes. Note, all the actions begin with God.
The Apostle makes a similar point in other places too, for example: “I am confident of this, that the one who began the good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1: 6)
The teaching seems simple enough, but sometimes we get it wrong and think that holiness is something we can achieve, we can earn on our own, if only we work hard enough.
Pope Francis, in his letter on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, writes this: “The Church has repeatedly taught that we are justified not by our own works or efforts, but by the grace of the Lord, who always takes the initiative.” (#52)
Having said all of that, it’s very important to emphasize that we’re not just passive onlookers in the work of salvation. We’re not just sponges soaking up God’s graces; we’re not just passengers sitting at the bus stop awaiting the arrival of the “heavenly express.” Such ideas would be terribly presumptuous.
No, we have a significant role to play in growing in holiness. It’s up to us to recognize, receive and cooperate with God’s grace; to be open and responsive to the Holy Spirit working in our lives.
How do we accomplish that? How do we break open our hearts and minds to be open and responsive? There are several keys, I think that are especially helpful for Catholics, including: spending time in silent prayer each day; by going to Confession regularly; by receiving the Holy Eucharist frequently and worthily; and by developing a personal devotion to our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary.
Holiness is God’s work, not ours. Our challenge is to work with him, to allow him to bring to completion the good work he has begun.
Something to think about: Can you identify one thing you could do to open yourself up to God’s grace?