Let me continue my thoughts about how to deal with Fundamentalists and Evangelicals regarding salvation. As I noted in my previous blog post, Romans 10:9 seems to say the mere acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior is sufficient to assure your salvation. If the verse is taken in isolation, this interpretation looks plausible; but it isn’t the only possible interpretation, and it doesn’t square with other things in the New Testament.
In Romans 10:9 Paul could very well have included an implied condition in what he was saying (and in fact this is the Catholic position): You will be saved provided you otherwise do what God commands, such as avoid sin. This interpretation comports better with other passages in Romans, passages in which Paul writes against the notion of an absolute assurance of salvation.
Who hopes for what one possesses?
Look at Romans 5:2, and compare it to Romans 8:24. The first verse reads this way, in the Msgr. Ronald Knox translation: “We are confident in the hope of attaining glory as the sons of God”—that is, we hope we will get to heaven. Romans 8:24 says, “Our salvation is founded upon the hope of something. Hope would not be hope if its object were in view.” In other words, you don’t hope for something if its attainment is already assured. If you are absolutely sure of salvation, there is no reason to hope for it.
Paul is saying Christians hope for salvation, and that means even Christians might lose salvation. Only if we understand this can we make sense of 1 Corinthians 9:27: “I buffet my body and make it my slave; or I, who have preached to others, may myself be rejected as worthless.”
Who, in all of Christian history, has a better claim than Paul to being a born-again Christian? How many others have had a Damascus Road experience? But even Paul knew that he would forfeit his salvation if he let his passions take control of him.
Elsewhere he notes that our final state, of everlasting bliss or endless night, will be a consequence of our works:
He will award to every man what his acts have deserved; eternal life to those who have striven for glory, and honor, and immortality, by perseverance in doing good; the retribution of his anger to those who are contumacious, rebelling against truth and paying homage to wickedness (Rom. 2:6).
The goats too are Christians
In this Paul is only echoing Jesus. In Matthew 25 our Lord relates the parable of the sheep and the goats. Many people forget that even the goats are Christians—after all, Jesus is talking here about the kingdom which is the Church on Earth—but they are Christians who end up in hell. Why? Because, when given the opportunity and means to do so, they failed to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the imprisoned—that is, they sinned through omission.
This chapter can be used with devastating effect when speaking with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. The key is to have them see that both the sheep and the goats are Christians—the sheep those who have acted in charity, the goats those who have acted against charity. If even the goats are Christians, and if they end up damned, then there can be no absolute assurance of salvation.
Contradiction only apparent
How will the “Bible Christian” respond to the Catholic who brings up such verses? Usually he will dodge to Ephesians 2:8: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.”
And what, more likely than not, will the knowledgeable Catholic say in reply? He will quote James 2:24: “You see then how it is by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”
These verses seem contradictory, and each side will take refuge in its favorite. But the contradiction is only apparent, not real. Paul and James use the word faith differently. Paul means a faith that works in charity, that includes charitable works. James is writing against people who use faith in the narrow intellectual sense. In fact, he is writing against first-century “Bible Christians” who said all one need do is accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior.
They said an intellectual acceptance is sufficient for justification—for being made righteous in God’s sight. (You must be justified to be saved.) Not so, replied James. After all, “The devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). Lucifer, with a perfectly lucid intellect, knows what the truth is, but he opposes it. Mere knowledge is not enough, and bare, intellectual faith is not enough. But faith that works in charity is.
We agree: salvation isn’t earned
Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have been told the Catholic Church claims salvation is earned, and they desperately want to avoid succumbing to what they believe to be the Catholic position—that we are saved by being religious busybodies.
In this their instincts are right, but their understanding is wrong, because that’s not the Catholic position. We can summarize authentic Catholic teaching this way: Salvation is a free gift from God. It is wholly gratuitous. But, like any gift, it can be rejected, and it can be rejected even after it has once been accepted, the rejection coming through serious (mortal) sin.
We don’t earn salvation, but we do earn damnation: Remember, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). And what are wages? What we earn.
So how should we talk about salvation with Fundamentalists and Evangelicals? Exchanging verses should not come first. If that’s how we begin the discussion, the discussion is likely to end in a muddle. First we must explain, slowly and repeatedly if necessary, that “Bible Christians” misunderstand the Catholic position and that many Catholics (including those from whom the “Bible Christians” received their notions of Catholicism) also misunderstand it.
Then we state the position, and we must be clear about the role of good works: Performing good works keeps us from falling into evil works. Put another way, the more we increase in holiness, the less likely we will be to sin.
When a “Bible Christian” asks, “Are you saved?” here’s how to answer: “I will be saved—get to heaven—so long as I am in the state of grace. And I have a lively confidence that I will be saved, but not an absolute assurance, since that would be contrary to the Bible’s teaching. My salvation comes through faith in Christ, and it’s protected by good works, which keep me from those sins that can destroy grace in my soul.”