By Scott Powell
Have you ever been asked that question? How did you answer? What does the Catholic Church really teach about salvation? For that matter, what is salvation? Is it just about where we go when we die? This tiny little question is a lot more complicated than it may seem, so before we can answer rightly, we need a little background.
One of the major issues that came out of the Protestant Reformation was a false dichotomy between “faith” and “works”. Maybe you’ve heard of this before. The typical argument goes something like this: Many Protestants believe we are saved by “faith alone”, often referred to in the Latin as, sola fide. This is one of the things that Martin Luther originally argued in his dispute against the Catholic Church way back in the 1500’s. Many Protestants often accuse Catholics of relying on their good works in order to be saved, as though we could somehow “earn” our way into heaven through enough rosaries or trips to the soup kitchen. While he was incorrect, this was one of the perceived abuses in the Church that led Luther to revolt.
The problem is that both of these views—that we are either saved by what we do or by what we believe—are actually insufficient. What the Catholic Church actually believes is that we are saved by grace alone, or sola gratia.
Much of the confusion goes back to the New Testament books of Galatians and Romans. These beautiful letters contain some of Saint Paul’s most profound, but also most confusing theology!
Often times, when Christians talk about salvation, they have three Biblical terms floating around their heads: “salvation”, “justification” and “being made righteous”. Now for us, these terms may not sound all that different, but we must remember that Paul was not originally writing to us, he was writing to followers of Jesus in the first century, just as the Church was transitioning from a Jewish worldview to a Christian one. So, if we want to understand what Paul was trying to say, we have to think like they did.
Now here’s the key: for St. Paul, “justification”, “salvation” and “being made righteous” are not the same thing! Frankly, at least in these letters, St. Paul doesn’t seem to be nearly as concerned about what happens to us when we die as he is with the question, “How does one enter into the covenant family of God?”
This question leads us back to the Old Testament. Paul was a Jew—a Pharisee, in fact. This meant he thought in terms of Jewish theology. How did a first century Jew enter into the family of God? Well, according to the Old Testament, first you had to be circumcised (if you were a male) and then you had to keep the Law. Sounds simple right? But we must remember that when we say “the Law” we do not just mean the Ten Commandments. We mean those, plus the other 613 laws of Deuteronomy; things like what animals you could and couldn’t eat, how to wash your hands, with whom you could and couldn’t share a meal, along with many, many others! Those things, for the ancient Jews, were what St. Paul meant when he talked about the “works of the Law.” Now all of the sudden–in Galatians and Romans–Paul is declaring that we are not justified (that is, brought into God’s family) by “works of the Law,” but rather through faith in Jesus! (For examples of this, see Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16, 3:2, 3:5, and 3:10.) What Paul is trying to show his readers is that circumcision (which is the key “work of the Law”) is no longer necessary for entrance into the family of God.
In other words, because of Jesus, everything has now shifted! In the new covenant, Jesus makes clear that the way into the covenant family now is baptism! As Jesus says to his disciples in the Gospel of Mark, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Paul too, calls baptism “a circumcision made without hands” (Colossians 2:11) and goes so far as to say, “you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12).
Now, here’s the point—and one of the major areas where Catholics and some Protestants disagree. In the Old Testament, circumcision—the entryway into the covenant family—was usually performed on the 8th day of a child’s life. That means that most of these little Jewish babies didn’t really choose to enter into the covenant family. It was a free gift! They did nothing to deserve it, and their parents usually made the decision for them. Sure, you could choose to be circumcised later on in life if you were a convert, but the entrance into God’s family was still seen as a gift of pure grace on God’s behalf.
In the same way, many of us were probably baptized as infants. We did nothing to deserve it and someone else probably made the decision for us, but that was our entrance point—a true gift of pure grace from God. But that’s where the Catholic understanding becomes unique. Take me for example. I was born into a great family. There was nothing I did to deserve this and I didn’t choose to be born to my parents. In a sense, my entrance into our family was a pure gift. In a similar way, I was born into God’s family through a baptism that I didn’t choose and did nothing to deserve.
Here’s the rub. Being born is great, but it’s not enough. Almost immediately, we have to grow up. I couldn’t act like a baby forever. I had to grow and learn and share meals and holidays and begin contributing to my family, doing chores and the like. In the same way, while being baptized is the way in which we are born into God’s family, we can’t remain babies forever. We have to grow and learn and participate and ultimately become the men God is raising us to be! This is called the process of sanctification, or growing in holiness. This is why Catholics don’t believe (as some of our Protestant friends do) in the idea of “once saved, always saved.” I was born into God’s family through Baptism, but I can also reject that family membership and remove myself through sin. This is at the heart of the story of the Prodigal Son. In Jesus’ famous parable, the boy was really his father’s son, but he chose to take his inheritance (essentially declaring his father dead) and remove himself from the family. Essentially, what this tells us is that simply being Catholic will not guarantee us a spot in heaven. We have to live our lives as sons and daughters of God—we can’t ignore or reject it. The good news is that being Catholic—which gives us access to the Sacraments, the Tradition and the Scriptures—is meant to set us up for success! These things are the family riches which are meant to be taught, shared, and then passed down to the next generation. While it is possible for someone to go to heaven if they are not Catholic, the reality is that it is just harder to do without our spiritual parents, siblings and traditions, in other words, our family!
What’s the bottom line? The question, “Are you saved?” points to a future reality that just has not yet arrived. We’re not in heaven yet. Jesus died on the cross and rose again on Easter Sunday to offer salvation to all of us. Whether we accept that free gift, whether we live out our identity as sons and daughters of God, or whether we reject it, is up to us. So will I be saved? The simple answer is “I don’t know.” I hope so, but to do that, I have to choose every day to live out my sonship and not reject the life I’ve been called to. Sometimes I am successful; sometimes I fail. The beauty of the story of the Prodigal Son is that as soon as the son was willing to repent and turn back to his father, his father came running to meet him! In the same way, imagine how sweet it must feel for our Heavenly Father to see one of his sons or daughters—if they’ve wandered away—repent and come back home and join the family at the dinner table.