Preoccupation with salvation inhibits love
Our Lord spoke about eternal salvation. I do not mean to say that He didn’t. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus told Zachaeus (Lk 19:9). To the woman who washed his feet with her tears, he said, “Your faith has saved you” (Lk 7:50). As the Good Shepherd, he said, “I am the door; if any enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). And in describing the trials which would afflict his disciples, Our Lord said: “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Mk 13:13).
At the same time, the exact requirements for salvation are extraordinarily difficult to codify. I am not just referring to specific actions here. Some passages in Scripture suggest that a direct knowledge of and adherence to Christ is required, but others seem considerably broader in scope. Consider this introductory passage in St. John’s Gospel:
For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. [Jn 3:17-21]
If this passage seems obvious, we are not paying attention. Is an explicit acknowledgement of Jesus Christ required for salvation? Or is John referring to an implicit turning to the light—the good—insofar as this has been made known to each person in his heart? Both seem to be included here.
In Romans, St. Paul contrasts the Jews, who had the benefit of the Law, with the Gentiles. In so doing, he explains that what we might call an implicit acceptance of Christ can be sufficient for salvation, because what Our Lord will judge is the secrets of the heart. Paul writes:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. [Rm 2:14-16]
Putting Salvation in its Place
Fortunately, we do not need to figure out the details of salvation from Scripture, which reveals on almost every page that it was written for a pre-existing Church which already carried within it the fullness of Faith, presided over by the apostles and Peter. We have already learned by the Church’s Divine authority about baptism by desire and also that there is a difference between formal and substantial membership in the body of Christ. We know of course that fullness of life in Jesus Christ is an incomparable blessing and an assurance of salvation, but we also know that the litmus test of salvation is marked not according to what others expect we should know but according to those aspects of Truth and Goodness that the Holy Spirit really does give us to know in our hearts.
Startled by the potential damnation of those favored in society, the disciples feared the worst and asked, “Then who can be saved?” It should come as no surprise that Our Lord answered as He did: “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mk 10:26-27).
The Catholic Church is Our Lord’s salvific system. It carries on the mission of the incarnate Son of God, pouring out His grace in every age and every place in fulfillment of the command of “God our savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). Without Christ’s Incarnation, life, passion, death and resurrection, there would be no salvation for anyone. Without the Church, His salvific work would be incomplete. And certainly there can be no greater joy, and no greater blessing, than to benefit fully from Divine grace and truth through all the means Our Lord has established for our salvation.
The Church, then, being the means by which Christ’s redemptive power flows into the world, makes union with God possible, even for those who do not know her. Moreover, knowledge of and participation in the Church make union with God far easier and more certain.
But there is still no exterior set of “Catholic requirements” one can fulfill to assure oneself of salvation. To think like this is to live the faith prescriptively, as if it is some sort of labyrinthine game in which the key is to be able to figure out the rules: “Just tell me what I have to do to get to purgatory!” No, our union with God both here and hereafter depends on what is interior, what is rooted in our very souls. It depends on love. “Truly I say to you,” Our Lord fairly shouted at the premier game-players of his time, “the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt 21:31).
How Salvation Can Turn Sour
It is just here, in our tendency to find certainty in external prescriptions, that our preoccupation with salvation becomes cancerous. It is even worse when we focus on the difference between ourselves, who have fulfilled the “requirements”, and those who “have not”. Our Lord’s warning about tax collectors and harlots was drawn from His parable of the two sons. The son who said he would not do what his father asked was the one who actually did it in the end. But the son who had the formula down failed the course. Or to put this another way, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 7:21).
Ultimately the mission of the Christian is not to worry about his salvation but simply to give glory to God. It is not for us to try to figure salvation out as if it is based on an arcane point system, to be scored either through the Protestant caricature of “accepting Jesus” to gain confidence of salvation, or through the Catholic caricature of “pious observances” shored up by the indulgences they provide. Concern about our salvation is healthy only up to a point. Beyond that point it becomes a significant impediment to love.
It is a lifelong task, of course, to give proper glory to God in our lives. With each passing day, we must learn more about the many habitual ways in which we shut God out. The more of the truth about God and His plan for us that we can know, the more we can open ourselves to grace through the sacraments He has instituted and the prayers He inspires, the more we can learn to choose His will over our own until that becomes a way of life—the more all these things come to fruition in us, the greater union with God we will enjoy, and the more blessed we will be. This is not a matter of prescription, but of interior growth.
In the parable of the talents, Our Lord makes it very clear that it is what we do with the gifts He gives us that matters. We can multiply them for His glory, because they are His and we love Him. Or we can refuse the use of His gifts and bury them. He warns that the servant who does not bear fruit, even if he was given only a little, will have even that little taken away (e.g., Mk 4:25). But he also warns: “Everyone to whom much has been given, of him much will be required” (Lk 12:48).
Ultimately, salvation comes down to this word of Our Lord’s, which each of us can apply to his own soul: “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Lk 7:47). It is a cancer to worry about external prescriptions, or about discerning who has made the grade and who has failed. We were created simply to give glory to God, by using the gifts He has given us for acts of love.
Please also read my shorter follow-up piece, Living the Faith prescriptively, in which I attempt to clarify a few points raised here.
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Posted by: Victoria -
Jul. 11, 2014 4:27 PM ET USA
I could not agree with you more; well said! Focusing on our salvation puts US at the center. Focusing on giving glory to God puts the focus aright and leads us to love OTHERS. I must decrease; he must increase.
Posted by: extremeCatholic -
Jul. 10, 2014 10:51 PM ET USA
After reading this, I don't know why, but I immediately thought of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989): "Be Excellent to Each Other".
Posted by: koinonia -
Jul. 10, 2014 8:21 PM ET USA
Important reflections; but while one might take solace in the mercy extended by Our Lord, it is imperative that Christians remember that historically God has been a prescriptive God and his Church likewise. The image of Christ crucified proclaims love, but this violent testimony also bears witness to a dark, terrible reality that wars against it. Thus, so many martyrs sacrificed even their lives in sharing the incomparable beauty and love of the Word. His is a body visible for one and for all.