A Fresh Look at Salvation
At first glance, many Bible verses seem to support the Protestant understanding of salvation. The Protestant might say, “There are several passages that pit faith against works in order to demonstrate that salvation is—and can only be—a free gift, a grace (c.f. Ephesians 2).”
There is much to laud here; however, this notion is incomplete.
I will never fail to declare that salvation is a grace given by God. I, without God’s grace and mercy, cannot merit salvation. Catholics, at least from the insider perspective, do not see themselves as meriting salvation apart from Christ’s free gift.
That said, allow me to briefly explain why I disagree with the Protestant view. I will aim to do so in a slightly fresh way.
When the Scripture speaks of salvation by faith through grace, apart from the works of the law, it is referring to the means by which we are transferred from a state of condemnation to a state of grace. John 8:24 and John 11:25 are great examples of this instance. John and Paul are saying, “You Jews cannot be saved by the works of the Mosaic law. You Greeks cannot be saved by the works of the moral law. You are all sinners in need of a Savior. Merely believe in me, and I will save you from your present state of condemnation.” For this reason, Paul often writes about this type of salvation in the middle of speaking about Jews, Gentiles, circumcision, Abraham, etc. He wants to demonstrate that ALL can come to Christ in faith. Upon reflecting on this fact, we realize that SHEER grace brought us into a state of grace, justifying us from our former selves. Moreover, baptism and faith are often together in the Scriptures because baptism is a sign of the shedding of the Greek-ness or the Jew-ness (both states of condemnation) and the gaining of status as the new creation.
About this sort of verse, the Council of Trent correctly asserts, and I will quote at length so that you get the idea in all of its particularities:
“The holy council declares first, that for a correct and clear understanding of the doctrine of justification, it is necessary that each one recognize and confess that since all men had lost innocence in the prevarication of Adam, having become unclean, and, as the Apostle says, by nature children of wrath, as has been set forth in the decree on original sin, they were so far the servants of sin and under the power of the devil and of death, that not only the Gentiles by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated or to rise therefrom, though free will, weakened as it was in its powers and downward bent, was by no means extinguished in them. Whence it came to pass that the heavenly Father, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, when the blessed fullness of time was come, sent to men Jesus Christ, His own Son, who had both before the law and during the time of the law been announced and promised to many of the holy fathers, that he might redeem the Jews who were under the law, and that the Gentiles who followed not after justice might attain to justice, and that all men might receive the adoption of sons. Him has God proposed as a propitiator through faith in his blood for our sins, and not for our sins only, but also for those of the whole world. But though He died for all, yet all do not receive the benefit of His death, but those only to whom the merit of His passion is communicated; because as truly as men would not be born unjust, if they were not born through propagation of the seed of Adam, since by that propagation they contract through him, when they are conceived, injustice as their own, so if they were not born again in Christ, they would never be justified, since in that new birth there is bestowed upon them, through the merit of His passion, the grace by which they are made just. For this benefit the Apostle exhorts us always to give thanks to the Father, who hath made us worthy to be partakers of the lot of the saints in light, and hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love, in whom we have redemption and remission of sins.”
Now, I would imagine that Protestants and Catholics would agree about what the Council has written up to this point, but there is a divergence after this part.
Roman Catholics, to be true to the parts of Sacred Scripture that attest to her doctrines, assert that, though we initially receive justification by grace through faith (which we express in baptism), faith alone does not continue to justify us until the end. In this sense, I mean to say that faith alone means truly believing that Jesus is Lord and Savior. To preserve our state of grace, we must persevere in faith, hope, and love. Thanks be to God that we now can do so because we have been made new. With this in mind, all the glory goes to Christ, for he made us new in the first place! There is a difference between a Christian who obeys the commandments and an unregenerate person who obeys the commandments: in the first case, the glory is to God, who fulfills the law in us, and in the second case, the man cannot justify himself without the Holy Spirit, who washes and sanctifies.
It is from this perspective that Catholics analyze the Scriptures: namely, that abiding in God’s love is necessary for salvation. We abide in his love by doing his will, obeying the commandments. We now have the power to effectively obey His commands because, as Paul writes in Romans, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (5:5). Those verses that speak of us failing short of the glory of God refer to the unregenerate, not to the regenerate, for the regenerate are no longer slaves but sons. The Father is jealous for the glory of his sons, but he is not jealous for the glory of his slaves. The laborer works for wages, but the son obeys his Father (Romans 3-4).
That said, it would be remiss of us to ignore the sections of Sacred Scripture that speak about abiding in salvation through means other than sheer faith. We receive eternal life by grace through faith, but we abide in it through faith, hope, and love.
In John’s gospel, Jesus declares that we must abide in his love by obeying his commandments (John 15). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus affirms the idea that we must love our neighbor and God in order to have eternal life (Luke 10). In Ephesians, “The wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient” (5:6). Notice that this interpretation makes sense, for Paul at first speaks of salvation by faith through grace, but, now that he is speaking of the lives of the regenerate, he urges them to OBEY by avoiding impurity, fornication, stealing, gossip, and idol worship. Likewise, Paul, in Galatians, speaks of salvation by faith alone in the first four chapters, but by salvation through obedience and doing good in five and six. Lastly, in the Book of Revelation, you will find that God is constantly calling his people to repent BOTH for their lack of faith as well as for their lack of hope and love. Who are God’s saints ultimately? “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (14:12). Additionally, there is hellfire for those who “did not repent of their deeds” (16:11). The case of the church in Ephesus is paradigmatic: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4-5). We must repent for our lack of love, and we must do the works of God. On the day of judgment, Jesus will ask us if we know him. John reveals to us how we “know” Jesus: “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments” (1 John 2:3). For other examples of this sort of thing, please see the following: John 3:36, Matthew 24:9-13, 1 John 3:14, and Matthew 7:21.
In sum, if, when Protestants say “faith,” they mean obedience to the commandments of God as well as belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, then we agree entirely. However, if by faith, they do not include the obedience of his commandments in your regenerate state, then I think they are rejecting Sacred Scripture itself. Obedience is necessary for the regenerate. And thank God that, if we disobey, we can always repent with a contrite heart.
May God preserve his Church in faith, hope, and love.
David J.W. Inczauskis