Saturday, July 4, 2009

How Are We Saved?

A Protestant correspondent of mine wants to know: What do Catholics believe about salvation?

Believe it or not, "how we are saved" isn’t a subject that is emphasized as much among Catholics as it is in Protestant churches—it’s pretty much taken for granted by Catholics that the average layman doesn’t need to know the subject that much in depth. As a person who is involved in apologetics and teaches Adult RE, I can see the fruits of this mistaken attitude in that many Catholics cannot articulate the Church’s teaching on salvation. Many, in fact, end up leaving the Church convinced that the Church teaches a form of crass works-righteousness or a semi-Pelagianism. This isn’t helped by the fact that some of the churches they end up in have an equally distorted view of what Catholics believe and their erroneous misconceptions are reinforced. I was listening to a local Christian radio show recently in which a man was giving his testimony, saying he used to be a Catholic “but was now a Christian” and was happy he now didn’t have to worry about being “good enough” and “didn’t have to work his way to heaven.” He mentioned a lot of other things he said the Church taught that clearly pointed to the fact he was, if nothing else, a victim of poor catechesis.

On another level, I think it is possible to show that Catholics and Protestants don’t differ on this topic as much as people think they do. In the centuries since the Reformation, however, the terminology and teaching emphasis of each group has become so particular to each group, that, essentially, we are talking about the same thing but in different words! This is bound to be confusing in any conversation between Catholics and Protestants on this (or any other) subject, but in recent years there have been attempts by various groups to try to iron out the language difference, without smoothing over or ignoring real differences. I have two real good book recommendations: The first is by a Catholic, Jimmy Akin, and it is called The Salvation Controversy. The other is by an Evangelical Protestant named Mark Noll and is called Is The Reformation Over? Both of these books make the same point: that Catholics and Protestants have more in common than they think they do.

I think it’s also possible to make the argument that the original Reformers were not so much reacting against Church teaching on salvation, as they were against the poor catechesis and abuses of that particular time and place. If you look at what the Church really taught at that time (and not just the abuses) it essentially what the Church has always taught before then, and what it teaches now. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

161 Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. (John 16:16; Jn 3:36; 6:40 et al). "Since "without faith it is impossible to please [God]" and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life 'But he who endures to the end.'" (Dei Filius 3:DS 3012; cf. Mt 10:22; 24:13 and Heb 11:6; Council of Trent: DS 1532.)

Basically, the Church’s teaching is this: We are saved by grace alone, through faith. The Catholic understanding of faith includes both placing our trust in Christ AND obeying him—what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1 and 16). The Church teaches that everything having to do with our salvation is God’s grace. Even our original conversion is God’s initiative and an entirely unmerited gift of his grace—we cannot even take the first step without him. It is indeed 100% God’s work, but, respecting our free will, he allows us to cooperate in our own salvation through faith and charity.

Where works come in is as a response to God’s grace (obedience) and as a means to grow in sanctification. God sends us the grace (and the opportunity) to perform a good work. By being responsive to God’s grace, we please him because of our obedience, and grow in holiness. The holier we become, the less likely we are to fall into sin. Failure to respond to God’s grace is a failure to grow in holiness. If we continually refuse to respond to God’s graces, we run the risk of falling into serious sin. And, as you know, the Church teaches that if one dies in serious, unrepented sin, he cannot be admitted to heaven. It is important to remember that good works that are not done in faith and by God’s grace—on human power— do not avail anything. You do not get into heaven just by “being good.”

This is basically the place that works has in salvation: obedience and sanctification. The Church does not teach that salvation is attained by being “good enough” to get into heaven; it isn’t a “scale” that if you do more good works than bad you get in; we cannot put God in our debt by what we do. Here’s just one excerpt from the Catechism:

2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.

For a more in depth treatment of this, I’d highly recommend seeing the sections in the Catechism that addresses this subject (Sections 142—165; 1987—2029). Here is an article from Catholic Answers that may also be helpful:

Grace: What It Is and What It Does

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