Does the world want salvation? The victory of faith
Almost exactly two years ago, when I was writing on the Acts of the Apostles for my series on the books of the New Testament, I pointed out a striking translation of Acts 28:28, a translation used in the Liturgy of the Hours as the meditation point for the Invitatory Psalm 67:
“You must know that God is offering his salvation to all the world.”
For me, this translation of St. Luke’s words gave fresh impact to the Good News. However, the more common and complete renderings of this verse raise a separate question. They go something like this: “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles”—which amounts to the very same thing—followed immediately by a statement of result: “They will listen.”
But will they really? Will all the world, that is, the Gentiles, actually listen?
We know, of course, that in the centuries following the death and resurrection of Christ and the establishment of His Church, a great many of the Gentiles did listen. The apostles realized that Christ’s message was not just for the Jews and that a great many of the Jews would reject Christ, convinced that He was not their promised Messiah. In our present moment, I suspect, the great proportion of those who remain at least nominally Jewish do not expect a Messiah at all.
Yet from this Christians can draw little solace. Those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior are, in the overwhelming majority, descendants of “the Gentiles” or part of “all the world”, but there are few places any longer in the entire world where a vibrant Christian faith is a dominant, shaping factor in the life of the whole community, let alone the deliberately lived faith of a majority of the citizens. Of course, when Acts was written, the words “they will listen” were clearly prophetic. In the centuries following, huge numbers of Gentiles embraced Christ and entered the Catholic Church. The Church’s mission did indeed spread throughout the whole world (though with varying degrees of success).
But wait. In the regions in which Christianity gained the most traction, its very worldly success seemed to breed not an increase but a diminution of the Faith. Christianity frequently expressed itself in a set of cultural identifiers only to degenerate into nothing more than these identifiers. In time, the spirituality beneath these identifiers could no longer sustain them. Now, throughout the once-Christian West, the faith is dwindling away, much as it was lost in the great St. Augustine’s northern Africa beginning some fifteen hundred years ago. In some places Christianity has been swept away by effective oppression, for example by Islam. In others it has been swept away by what we might as well call effective affluence—eliminating Christians, in a sense, through their own worldly success.
So when we read the prophetic utterance, “they will listen”, we are forced to read it provisionally. Many have listened, certainly; but many have also forgotten what they have heard, and have since fulfilled a very different prophetic statement by Christ Himself, also reported by St. Luke:
Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill; men throw it away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. [Lk 14:34-35]
Frankly, I find this frightening. It is difficult to avoid understanding this as a judgment on those of our own time, including innumerable members of Christ’s own Church—including, perhaps, those of us who are faithful, yet apparently not faithful enough.
The offer remains
Yet the offer remains: “You must know that God is offering his salvation to all the world!” For (as St. Paul told Timothy so very plainly) God our Savior “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). And, in fact, there is “one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:5-6). Why then do so many, including so many in the Church herself, seem unaware of this stupendous mystery—utterly unfazed either by what this offer promises, or what this desire demands?
Salvation is ours for the taking, yet in our time—or at least so it seems—the vast majority cannot trouble to take it, because they really do not care if they have it. Does this mean, for example, that, those of us who do take it—those of us who receive the Faith gratefully and seek to live it vigorously—are to be compared unfavorably with those who sought to do the same in the second century, or the fifth, or the ninth—all centuries of remarkable Christian expansion? Are we to reproach ourselves as being no better than the Catholic North Africans, doomed to a steady decline after the invasion of the Arian Vandals who sacked Hippo in the fifth century while the great Augustine lay on his deathbed—these same Catholic North Africans who were all but swept away by Islam two centuries later?
We too, after all, are the heirs of several centuries of Christian decline. Does this make us spiritual losers?
It does not. Here we may take comfort from another teaching of Christ—also recorded by St. Luke—though we may have to apply it chronologically in reverse:
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. [Lk 13:2-5]
In other words (to draw one of several lessons from this passage), we must remember that even the ups and downs of all of human history are inscrutably encompassed by God’s Providence. Yes, we should use every circumstance to more closely examine our own vices and virtues, our own generosity in response to this salvation which we know we have received. And certainly we can see many reasons why Christianity is not currently popular in most of the world, and these reasons present many obstacles which we must do our best, each in his own sphere, to clear away.
But if cultural adversity to Christianity does not more quickly drive us closer to God, can we really expect that cultural success would do better? There is so much that we think we know but really do not know at all. We think we know, for example, that a far higher percentage of people received God’s salvation in thirteenth century Europe than are receiving it now in twenty-first century Europe. But we don’t really know this. And we no more know why Christianity advances so little today (and more often recedes) than why its progress seemed so easy when Patrick roamed Ireland in the fifth century, Augustine of Canterbury became the first Archbishop in England in the late sixth, and Boniface cut down the Thunder Oak of Thor in the eighth.
The most poignant question ever asked was asked by Jesus Christ Himself: “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” We need to look at the context of this dread question:
And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?
This is the first question each of us must answer, and the one on which everything else for us depends. But try as we might, we can answer it only for ourselves. We ought to examine ourselves daily, and do our best to cooperate with God “in offering his salvation to all the world”. We may pray that He uses our willingness for His purposes, and that He overcomes our unwillingness wherever He finds it. But in the end the great secret is that we really must live by faith.
St. Paul writes:
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory?” …But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. [1 Cor 15:53-58]
Note that when St. Paul asks, “O death, where is thy victory”, he answers that we do not take victory upon ourselves, but that it is God “who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” So the victory is Christ’s, not ours—not ours no matter how much we work at it, or how much we do or do not appear to succeed.
This is where I find my own answer: We do not participate in Christ’s victory even through something so good as a visible Christian success in this world. Rather, we participate in it through our faith and trust in Him. Moreover, we know this beyond any doubt from St. John’s first letter: “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world,” writes St. John. “And this is the victory that overcomes the world: our faith” (1 Jn 5:4).
Not our success, then, or at least not as measured by a rise in head counts or dominant cultures or powerful institutions. All these are hidden in Divine Providence. We can no more ensure them than we can understand them. What matters is personal fidelity. What matters, more precisely, is living each day in accordance with the only thing that ever does overcome the world: our faith Christ, who promised not that we would overcome the world, but that He already had:
“In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (Jn 16:33)
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Posted by: tjbenjamin -
Nov. 01, 2021 10:43 PM ET USA
Most people I know believe in God, believe in an afterlife, and assume they are going to heaven, because they are not obviously evil, “like Hitler.” They do not see parallels between, for example, the Holocaust during WWII, and modern-day abortion. So I don’t believe most people, at least Americans, reject salvation. They think as long as they are “a good person,” they are in fine shape. I have heard leaders within the Church say that is our goal, to be a good person.
Posted by: loumiamo4057 -
Oct. 23, 2021 7:01 AM ET USA
Dr Jeff, I wonder if you are being too charitable to those who seem not to want to achieve salvation, suggesting that they just don't care. I'm not certain of the answer to that question, but I have been thinking along these lines myself in the past month or so, and the conclusion I came to is that these people who do not want salvation instead want a good position in the hierarchy of the Netherworld in the life to come. That is about as charitably as I can write it.
Posted by: joy -
Oct. 19, 2021 8:13 PM ET USA
Thank you! This gives me food for thought and for consolation.