He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, March 20, 2017

Fair Questions: How are we Christians saved?

Some time ago, a friend was asking questions about the old debate about the role of faith and works in our salvation.  It's pretty clear from Sacred Scripture that both faith and works are involved.  After all, we "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2) and we are "justified not by the works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ." (Galatians 2)

There are many good explanations of how we are justified and saved (examples here, here, and here).  These sorts of exegetical and philosophical explanations of justification and salvation are valuable, and we should want to have good answers to these questions as faithful Christians.

Nonetheless, for the person living the Christian life, the more important question is: how does this actually work?  Or, how do faith and works intersect in our lives such that we are justified and saved?

And can we understand it theologically without learning a lot of technical jargon?

I think that we can, and I hope my use of an analogy from natural relationships to supernatural relationships (while recognizing the limits of such analogies) will be helpful in doing so.

In our most godly relationships, we give of ourselves freely to the other, rooted in a love purified by God's grace. We do this in imitation of God who loves us freely, pouring out His grace upon us whether we reciprocate His love for us or not.  In the godly relationships that we have with other people, we cannot earn their love, nor can they earn our love; it is truly a gift.

This reciprocal gift, given over and over again, is efficacious for our development in joy and peace and ultimately in holiness. The more holy the person with whom we cultivate this godly relationship and the more we give of ourselves in the relationship, the holier we become as we grow closer to them (albeit not perfectly holy).

No one has earned anything in these godly relationships.  It was all a gift made in the spirit of love. It's just that the natural result of relationships of mutual self-giving love is an increase in holiness in proportion to the holiness of the persons in the relationship and in proportion to their reciprocal self-giving.

God is perfectly holy, and so when we cultivate this reciprocal self-giving relationship of love with God, by the generous gift of His grace, the natural and supernatural result of this relationship of mutually self-giving love is perfect holiness (in proportion to the perfect holiness of God and the incomprehensible abundance of His gift of grace).

We are thus saved, not by earning it through our own works, but rather through accepting and entering into the natural and supernatural process which God has given to us so that we may finally rest our restless hearts in Him alone.

Our faith in Christ our God spurs us constantly to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling as we regard with profound gratitude the gift of His only-begotten Son who came so that we might be adopted into the Heavenly household as sons and daughters of the Most High.

Related: Does the existence of Hell contradict God's unconditional love?

Note:  The above is an image of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is a replica of an icon at Mount Sinai where Abba John Climacus lived and worked with his fellow monks to ascend the ladder to Heaven.


  1. Sam, I am honored that you considered my question blog-worthy. Your answer has helped a little to solidify my own understanding of Catholic soteriology. The Church seems to teach that our good works do not merit the grace of salvation in the strictest sense.

    I used to have a lot of trouble when I heard Catholics talking about "merit" because it seemed perilously close to saying that we earn our way into Heaven. But when the Church speaks of our works "meriting" a reward, it seems to have in mind something similar to what most evangelical Protestants believe about the "Judgement Seat of Christ," (often citing passages such as I Corinthians 3:13-15). Catholics and Protestants seem to agree that none of us can merit the initial Grace of God that brings us from darkness to light, from death into life. However, most Protestant understandings of salvation seem to assume that salvation is fairly static thing: Salvation is something I "have." I carry around salvation in my pocket every day, and while it might be possible to lose it (unless you're a Baptist), that salvation that you carry around in your pocket only has a very loose connection with your own personal holiness. The Catholic understanding assumes salvation is something more dynamic. It is a process, a dance. We respond to Christ's initial offer to dance; he moves us from death into life. Every gift of grace that Christ offers requires reciprocation from us--not to placate Christ or to endear ourselves to Him, but rather to return love for love. The more we do this, the healthier our souls become. This makes it even easier for us to respond in love to Christ the next time that He calls us. Although Catholic theology has the binary categories of "saved" and "damned" that are used in Protestant theology, it does view them as simple binaries. One who is saved can still accumulate bad habits ("venial sins") that make it easier for him to reject grace, and one who has not yet received the sanctifying grace of Baptism can still cooperate with God's grace in other ways that gradually lead him or her to the salvation that is in Christ, though they may not yet have laid hold of that Grace.

    1. Jack, thank you for the eloquent reply. I'm glad it was helpful to you. You're exactly right that the Catholic Church thinks of salvation more of a dance of love which, through the grace of God which we accept, is entered into and culminates in our salvation. For the devout Catholic, it is true that she has been saved, is saved, and will be saved. Salvation exists in the fullness of time; it is not solely a discrete event in a timeline.

      That said, I also want to offer some additional points about merit and respond to something you wrote.

      "The Church seems to teach that our good works do not merit the grace of salvation in the strictest sense."

      I would suggest that the Church teaches that our good works do not merit the grace of salvation in any sense whatsoever.

      She teaches that our merits are far too little to accomplish such a thing, and it is only through the divine gift of the superabundant merits of Christ which are vicariously applied to the satisfaction of our debt of sin that we have any hope of salvation (see the NewAdvent Catholic Encyclopedia article on Indulgences for more about merit).


      Where I think some folks (perhaps not you, Jack) get hung up is on the idea that we need to perform certain good works as part of the salvific process. And I think I might be able to address those concerns by way of analogy.

      Let's consider the gifts we might get from our parents. Maybe a teddy bear when we're young, or a book, or a video game console. These require only minimal responsibility from us to take care of. On the other hand, the greatest gifts which parents give to their children, such as a pet, or a car, or a trust fund for college, these require a large responsibility to take care of them as part of accepting the gift. If the greater gifts often have the greater responsibility associated with them, how much more the responsibility for the gift of salvation?

      We don't suggest that the parent's child has earned the gift of the pet dog, or new car, or trust fund for college just because they're responsible for taking care of these gifts, do we? Would we suggest that they're even trying to earn these things if they do in fact take very good care of the gift they've been given?

      Of course not. And neither should we think that the Christian who proposes that we have a responsibility to do the works needed to take care of the gift of salvation is trying to earn their salvation or that it's possible to earn their salvation by those works.

      Does that make sense?

  2. That's a very helpful analogy, Sam. Thank you.