Why Catholics don’t go around saying ‘we are saved’In Sunday bulletin, San Francisco priest explains age-old theological dispute over salvationSunday Readings (L4B)
MAR. 21, 2012 (http://calcatholic.com
) - The following is taken from the March 18 Sunday bulletin of the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in San Francisco. It was written by the shrine’s rector, Fr. Gregory Coiro, O.F.M. Cap.
Today’s second reading
from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians seems to contradict itself when it says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”
This is immediately followed by, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.”
If good works have no part in our salvation, as the first line seems to suggest, then why on earth would the second line exhort us to live in the good works that God prepared in advance? And since we cannot take isolated verses apart from the entirety of holy writ, how can this be reconciled with what St. James wrote in his epistle: “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
? (James 2:24)
It is an ongoing theological dispute between Catholicism, which holds that we are justified by grace and that grace is caused by faith and good works, and Protestantism, which believes that we are justified by grace and that grace comes through faith alone.
Notice that Catholics and Protestants agree that we are justified by grace. This means that achieving acceptance in God’s sight is his free gift to us; we cannot earn grace. Where we differ is on the question of how to obtain grace. From the Protestant perspective, the only way to obtain God’s grace is through faith, which is itself also a gift of God. In faith, one accepts that Jesus suffered and died, taking upon himself the sins of the world -- including my sins -- and suffered the penalty, the death that I deserved. Once we have been “born again” in this acceptance of Christ’s death and resurrection, we live our lives striving to do good which demonstrates that we have been “saved”…these good works, however, do not contribute to our salvation.
The Catholic take is that, through grace, we exercise faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, just as our separated brethren affirm. But for us, the acceptance of faith and the performance of works are virtually simultaneous. Being “born again” for Catholics takes place in a work -- reception of the sacrament of baptism. This is the introduction to the life of grace, which is sustained through other works such as the reception of the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
Jesus tells us that we will be judged by our good works, or by our failure to perform them, in his imagery of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. So it is necessary that we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger. These are not mere demonstrations of having faith but are themselves graced actions, which contribute to the process of being saved.
This brings up another area of dispute between Protestantism and Catholicism. Protestants, especially Evangelicals, talk about “being saved” as though it were something already accomplished. Indeed, many, if not most, Protestants hold to the doctrine of “eternal assurance” that says once saved, always saved. One cannot lose one’s salvation, not even through grave sin, according to this theological construct.
Catholics do not go around saying that we are “saved.” Our belief is that we are redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus but that we are working out our salvation in fear and trembling (cf Philippians 2: 12). Why fear and trembling? Because we hold within our grasp the ability to lose salvation by failing to live according to the Gospel; we could choose to be damned rather than be saved.
Catholic belief stresses the role of human freedom in the work of salvation. We are free to cooperate with grace in accepting the death and resurrection of Jesus; we are free to cooperate with grace by doing “the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them;” and we are free to change our minds, rejecting the gift God offers us by choosing to separate ourselves from him and the life of grace through sin.
That is why we need Lent. We need to focus even more intently on doing good and avoiding evil so that our capacity to receive grace, and live in it, grows and expands. We perform penitential works to express our sorrow for sin and our determination to be free from it, with God’s help.
While it is true that we are active participants, and not merely passive recipients, in the life of grace, we must never forget that the gift of salvation begins and ends with, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”