“If one were to do a cursory read of the Synoptic Gospels, one would get the impression that we are saved by giving alms” (Dr. Nathan Eubank)
I was speaking with someone the other day and mentioned that I taught theology. He was a devout Evangelical and taught bible study in his church. We got into an energetic conversation and asked me about the Catholic view of salvation. He said, “You Catholics believe you’re saved by your own works, right? But we believe God saves us and makes us righteous. That we’re saved by faith in the blood of Jesus.”
I thoroughly enjoyed our exchange and was unusually clear of mind that evening, I said something like this (meaning these very general points that I later amplified in my journal). It kind of runs all over the place, but that’s how it went.
No, not really. For us, to be saved is God’s work. Just like it was God’s work to create us, it’s God’s work to re-create us. Which is what salvation is, right? Being re-created, becoming a new creation. God’s love is such that after we fell away, sinned, died and rotted in the grave, God’s righteous justice was overcome by his love intensified into mercy — which is really love on steroids. [He liked that] God’s response to our rebellion wasn’t just to end our rebellion and make us good and righteous servants again. It’s this love-mercy, far beyond justice, that drives God to justify, sanctify and glorify us.
In addition to restoring justice, He chose to raise us up from being servants to being beloved sons and daughters, made us into his Temples, gave us a share in his own divine life by allowing us to eat the Flesh and drink the Blood of his Son. Hopelessly in love with his own enemies, us. We talk about a prodigal son, but really God’s the prodigal Father. Way excessive in his response to our waste of his gifts. Destroy and squander my gifts? Okay! I’ll give you a thousand more!
Yes, for us Catholics it’s God who saves us. But when God saves us, we believe, he doesn’t just “do it all” for us, like he did when he created us out of nothing. He’s made us in his image and likeness, which means that we resemble him. We resemble him, for example, whenever we practice justice, mercy, compassion, humility, forgiveness, love, sacrifice, fidelity. We’re living, breathing icons he’s painted with all the colors found on the palette of his beauty. And as his image we are also his priests, the nexus of God-creation, which means whenever God acts in this world justly, mercifully, compassionately, humbly, etc., we, his image always get caught up in his work and brought into the act. When God acts, we get activated. If we act in concert we’re saved, if we act contrary, we’re judged. And baptism only sinks us deeper into God’s action, our priesthood and makes us not just like him but, in Jesus, unites us with him.
In his letters, St. Paul loves to use the Greek prefix syn all over the place, which means “with.” We are syn- with God, Paul says we are syn-ergoi, “co-workers” [1 Cor. 3:9]. Like the English, synergy. Always acting with God and God with us. Jesus is really God’s syn-, God’s permanent commitment to a syn- strategy. God desires to enlist us in his renovation project, salvation. Faith is our “in,” our free acceptance of this divine draft.
A Catholic theologian from 1600 years ago, named St. Augustine, said: “God made us without us, but he will not save us without us.” So we Catholics don’t say we are saved by our own works, as if God is somehow so impressed with our amazing-ness that he rewards us with an eternal Pat on the Back. But we would say that doing good works IS what saved people do, the fitting sign that salvation is at work in us. “By your fruits you will know them” [Matt. 7:16]. We are being saved in doing good works and we are saved in order to do good works. Doing good works is exactly what an image of God DOES, in imitation of the good-working God [who even works on the Sabbath! John 5:17]. Being saved is not simply an escape route, is not just about getting out of punishment or drawing a get out of jail free card. It’s about becoming human in the way God made us to be. That’s Jesus, who yesterday, today and forever IS the way humans are meant to be. Being saved is about doing life the Jesus-way, giving way for Jesus to live is us so we can finally be human again.
And the New Testament is unanimous: to be human in the pattern of Jesus means to love while carrying a cross for the sake of the one who placed the cross on your shoulder. That’s nuts! That’s love on steroids. To be human God’s way is to live selflessly, to love enemies, speak well of detractors and bless cursers. In shorthand, Jesus died on the cross to save us so we could look like Jesus on the cross. We’re saved by the blood of Jesus SO we can become blood donors, life-givers, martyrs of charity. These saved are the saints made worthy of imitation [1 Cor. 11:1], who love with the love with which God loved us in Christ on the cross.
St. Paul in Galatians [5:6] said: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” The better way to express this as a Catholic would be to say not that we are “saved by good works,” but that we are “saved by faith working through love.” Faith without love is dead, and love without works is hollow. Working love saves [Matt. 7:21]. Loveless works of the law are clashing symbols and don’t save, but once you inject works with love, which is the premier sign that God is in you at work [1 Jn 4:16], all your works are saving and saved [1 Pet. 4:8].
Especially love for the poor, which is heaven’s chosen means for all eternal treasury deposits [Luke 18:22].
Open-handed, he gives to the poor;
his justice stands firm for ever.
His head will be raised in glory (Psalm 112:11).
That’s what we believe, in a nutshell.
We talked for a bit more and exchanged business cards to talk more again. I hope we do!
If I had access to wifi for my phone at that moment, I would have saved lots of words, skipped all of that theologese, and simply said, “For Catholics, being saved means this” — and then hit play: