So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead....You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Some Christians claim that we need only to believe or trust in Christ in order to be saved, i.e. made fit for heaven. They claim that obedience to God's commandments is good but not necessary for our salvation. Our sin, i.e. disobedience to God, does not affect our salvation. As Luther wrote to Melanchthon: "Sin greatly, but believe more greatly." Even though Luther was exaggerating, it is the belief of some Christians today.
To support this claim they may quote the words of St. John the Baptist as found in the King James (KJV) Bible:
He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. [John 3:36; KJV]
No connection between salvation and obedience is made. It appears to be a good support for their claim, until other accurate translations of the Bible are consulted. According to the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New American Standard (NASB) Bible:
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. [John 3:36; NASB]
This rendition of St. John's sacred words sheds a different light on the issue of salvation. In another Bible verse, it is written:
And having been made perfect, He (Jesus) became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation,... [Hebrews 5:9; NASB]
In this verse, no explicit connection between salvation and belief is made but only between salvation and obedience.
Now other Christians may quote St. Paul:
... that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved... [Romans 10:9; NASB]
According to this verse, they claim that by calling upon the Lord with sincere trust in His resurrection we will be saved. Fortunately, there is much truth to this viewpoint; however, it must be properly tempered with our Lord's own words:
Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. [Matt. 7:21; Also see 1 Thess. 4:3-8]
If we truly and sincerely trust that Jesus is Lord, then we would surely obey God.
Still other Christians may quote Jesus, Himself:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. [John 5:24; KJV]
However only five verses later, Jesus also says according to the KJV Bible:
And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. [John 5:29; KJV]
These two verses present two different aspects of salvation which neither should be ignored. To better grasp Christ's teaching on salvation, we must read more than John 5:24!
Many times St. Paul in his Epistles teaches that we are justified (i.e. reconciled with God and thus made fit for heaven) by faith (Rom 3:28...); however, he also writes about the "obedience of faith" [Rom 1:5; 16:26] and "faith working through love" [Gal 5:6]. St. Paul's concept of faith not only includes belief and trust but also obedience to God. This is the reason that he can write, without contradiction, to the Philippians: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." [Phil 2:12] Finally St. James in the Bible actually writes that faith without good works is dead (James 2:17,24; see front panel of this tract).
In the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul elegantly summarizes his teaching on salvation:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23; NASB]
Likewise the Council of Quiersy in 853 A.D. proclaimed:
The fact that some are saved is the gift of Him who saves; the fact that some are lost, is the merit of those who are lost. [Quoted from: W.G. Most, Catholic Apologetics Today (TAN, 1986) p. 114]
It must be rightfully understood that salvation -eternal life in Christ Jesus - is a free gift of God. However, the wages of sin is still damnation - spiritual death - since sin is opposed to God, the Source of life. Even though heaven is a gift, we can still earn hell.
Expressed in slightly different terms, salvation is a free gift that can be rejected or lost through our sins. Since salvation is a free gift, we cannot earn it through obedience, prayer, good works, love or even faith. However, like any gift, we have the free will to reject it. We can reject this gift through serious sin - willful disobedience to God. (2 Thess 1:8-9; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; 2 Cor 5:10) As it is written in the New Testament:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgement,... [Hebrews 10:26-27; NASB]
These are sobering words! As a closing thought, my civil liberty is a gift earned by my forefathers. However, by committing a serious crime, I may lose it and earn jail.
As faithful baptized Christians, we can confidently hope in the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ, as long as we do not reject it through mortal (deadly) sin (1 John 5:16-17; Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21; 2 Peter 2:20-22). As a result of Christ's redemptive act, God gives each of us enough grace to have faith, to do good works and to resist sinful disobedience; however, we can still willfully reject this grace (1 Cor 10:12-13; 2 Cor 12:9; Eph 2:8-10). Fortunately for Catholic Christians, we have the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) in which we can repent, confess and ask God for forgiveness and more grace, if we have fallen into sin (John 20:23; 2 Cor 5:18-21; Num 5:7; Lev 5:5; Acts 19:18; James 5:16). Jesus calls us to forgive one another without limit (Matt 18:21-22), but also promises to forgive us as we forgive others (Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4). Our Lord is a just but merciful God (Isa 45:21; Jer 3:12). As Christians, we must quit rejecting God through our sins and let Him save us by His grace until we finally reach heaven.
Reverend M. James Divis, S.T.L.
Most Reverend Fabian W. Bruskewitz, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Lincoln
February 2, 1994
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