How Are We Saved?
The short answer is by the grace of God, but there is more to it, of course, including Jesus’ sacrifice, our faith, and our actions.
There is an ongoing dispute about whether one can be save by faith alone or if faith must be accompanied by works. In some sense, the discussion revolves around whether it is possible to have faith without showing it (in deeds that reflect a love of God and others).
The Church teaches:
“Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life”
Christians believe in the necessity of God’s grace for salvation, but there are different ideas about what that means.
Catholics believe that God’s grace is efficacious. It doesn’t merely cover over our sinfulness, but truly transforms us and makes us holy.
In addition, Catholics believe that by accepting the gift of God’s grace, we are called to cooperate with it. So, we can play an active role in our salvation—but a role totally dependent upon God’s grace; we can’t save ourselves.
Catholics also believe that salvation is not a one-time event, but rather a process which usually unfolds over the course of one’s lifetime.
To understand why we need to be saved, we need to understand the root of our fallen natures, i.e., original sin.
Original sin refers to the sin of Adam and Eve and their eating the forbidden fruit. One can view it as a sin of pride–the desire not to serve the Creator but to become like Him, to be His equal (see the Book of Genesis, 3:5).
The guilt and effects of the sin of Adam and Eve were passed down to the entire human race (see Genesis 3:16-19). As Saint Paul wrote, “Sin came into the world through one man and death through sin and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” (See his Letter to the Romans 5:12, and his First Letter to the Corinthians, 15:21-23).
Man who was at one time the favored creature of God, found himself doomed to suffer in disgrace, utterly incapable of restoring the friendship with His Maker that had been severed by disobedience. (Yes, God has a long memory.)
Redemption (via Crucifixion and Resurrection)
However, in His infinite mercy God promised to send His own Son in the form of a man to redeem His lost children–to die for their sins (see Genesis 3:15). As Saint John wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (See the Gospel of John 3:16-17, and John’s First Letter 4:9-10.)
In turn, the Son of God, who was both fully-God and fully-man, would freely offer Himself as a Sacrifice to God, rectifying man’s defiance with an act of perfect obedience as Paul mentions in his Letters to the Romans 5:15, Colossians (1:19-20), and Hebrews 2:9.
To be effective the Incarnation needed to be real; so, the Son needed to truly take on human nature, to become Emmanuel, “God with us” (see Matthew 1:23, John 1:14, and John’s First Letter, 4:2-3). Had he merely become the semblance of a man, as some have maintained, His Sacrifice on our behalf would have been real, i.e., he would not have been losing anything, but as a man, he lost his life.
Because crucifixion was reserved for the most heinous criminals, the thought of worshiping someone who had died in this manner would seem ludicrous to many of his contemporaries. “We preach Christ crucified,” declared Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (1:23), “a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.”
However, to Christians the Cross is a sign of victory— the victory of righteousness over sin and of life over death (see Gospel of Luke, 9:23; Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 1:18; and his Letters to the Galatians, 6:14; Colossians, 1:24; and Hebrews, 13:13).2
Note, too, that the Crucifixion was prophesied and foreshadowed in the pages of the Old Testament, where the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (see Isaiah, 53:4-5 and 52:14 and Psalms, 22:14-18). In fact, Jesus quotes the 22nd Psalm from the Cross, reciting the opening line, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in Matthew 27:46. The Psalm’s 18th verse, “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots,” corresponds directly to the events of the Crucifixion and is cited in the Gospel of John 19:23-24. Exodus 12:46 and Zechariah 12:10 are referred to as well (see John 19:36-37).]
We see the Sacrifice of Christ prefigured in the image of Isaac trudging along dutifully with the wood of his offering upon his back (see Genesis 22:6; see also Saint Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 1:5:23:1). Christ’s meritorious death is symbolized as well in the bronze serpent mounted on a pole, which the Lord instructed Moses to fashion so that those bitten by snakes might look upon it and live (see the Book of Numbers, 21:8-9, and John 3:14-15).
Demonstrating His total dominion over death, Christ Jesus returned from the grave on the third day. Just as His death is proof of His humanity, His resurrection is proof of His divinity (see Matthew, 12:38 and 27:62 and John 2:19, among others.).
His dying is our redemption; His rising, our assurance we too shall rise again (see Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:11; his Second Letter to the Corinthians, 5:15; and Peter’s First Letter, 1:3-4). As Saint Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”
Christianity’s first eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ were women, most notably Saint Mary Magdalene (see Matthew 28:1, for example). That the initial testimony to the Resurrection, the Faith’s foundational truth, was entrusted to women is highly significant. At the time, the testimony of women carried little weight (Luke 24:10-11), it stands to reason that had the Resurrection been a fabrication, then it would have been constructed so that Jesus appeared first to a man, perhaps to Saint Peter or one of the Apostles—to someone, that is, whose testimony carried the most weight instead of the least.
The Grace of God
It makes sense that fallen men–us–are unable to approach Him in that condition. , He must first empower us with the gift of faith, which then permits us to serve Him (see John’s first letter, 4:19).
In that sense, salvation, is God’s gift to man as it would be impossible to merit or earn it on our own; see the Gospel of John 6:44, or Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians,12:3, or his letter to Philemon, 2:13.
Having been called by Him, and knowing that we are not perfect or always acting in accordance to Him, we must respond with repentance, or realization of our mistakes, and the cleansing act of Baptism. As Saint Peter wrote said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (See the Acts of the Apostles, 2:38, and Mark 16:16).
So, Baptism isn’t just a symbolic act, but a sacrament that conveys sanctifying grace, making us truly righteous (per Peter’s first letter, 3:21). The Bible clearly teaches we must be “born again” through water Baptism to enter heaven; see the Gospel of John 3:5, Paul’s letter to Titus, 3:5; and the Acts of the Apostles, 8:37.
Having been cleansed in Baptism, it is necessary for one to persevere in a state of holiness, for “he who endures to the end will be saved” (see Matthew, 10:22). So, faith must be fully alive and be expressed through works of love, for “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (See the Epistle of Saint James, 2:17, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians, 5:6.) The Lord reveals that at the Last Judgment salvation shall be granted or denied based upon one’s treatment of the poor, the least of His brothers (see Matthew, 25:34 and 7:21-24 and 19:16-21; John 14:15; and John’s first letter, 3:21 and 5:1-3). Saint James writes, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James, 2:24; emphasis added by us).
Actions Speak Louder than Words, but…
Scripture further teaches that the good we do on earth shall be rewarded in Heaven. To those persecuted for His sake Jesus declares “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” in Matthew 5:12, and “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” in Matthew 6:1; see Matthew, 5:46 and 6:19-20; Saint Paul’s letters to the Corinthians (5:10) and Hebrews (6:10); Peter’s first letter (4:8) and the Book of Revelation, 14:13.
Again, it is important to remember that the merit we receive comes not from the acts in and of themselves, but from the act of Christ’s saving death on Calvary. As Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” See John’s Gospel, 15:5, and Paul’s letter to the Phillipians, 4:13.
This (very) Catholic interpretation of Scripture and overall understanding of salvation is verified by the early Christian historical writings. For example, Saint Justin the Martyr explained in about 150 A.D., for instance, “Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve” (First Apology 12). Origen wrote in about 230, “Whoever dies in his sins, even if he profess to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in Him; and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the Epistle bearing the name of James (2:17)” (Commentaries on John 19:6).
By Faith Alone? Not quite.
Some try to show that faith alone is sufficient for salvation by citing Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” However, that sentence should be read in context.
Paul is condemning the spirit behind the works more than the works themselves, reprimanding Jewish Christians for presuming they will be saved simply by virtue of their observance of the law. This sort of legalistic thinking sets up a strict servant-master relationship with God, as though one may approach Him on Judgment Day and demand payment for services rendered, reducing salvation to a kind of spiritual business transaction! To combat this kind of thinking Paul wrote, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God,” which clearly signifies actions. See Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 7:19, and his letters to the Romans, 13:8-10, and Galatians, 5:6 and 6:15.
According to Paul, one’s faith is to be lived out through works of charity, “faith working through love” (per Galatians, 5:6). That Paul believed good works are essential to salvation is evident in the verse immediately following Ephesians 2:9, which states, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Furthermore, in his Letter to the Romans, he wrote, “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. … It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (see verses 2:6-9, 13).
Paul calls the followers of Christ to rise above the status of mere servants and become adoptive children of God (see Romans, 8:14); to be obedient to Him not out of obligation or fear, but out of love.3 The works Christians carry out, then, are not those of employees laboring for a wage, but of children lovingly tending to Their Father’s business. To neglect to do good, therefore, is to fail to love God.
Think of it this way: God is charitable, so to love God and act as he would involves being charitable to others. So, the two “greatest” commandments–love God and love your neighbor–mutually support each other.
‘Faith Alone’ in the Bible?
Ironically, though, as we quoted above, the one place where the phrase “faith alone” appears in Scripture is in the Letter of James, which states, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24, emphasis added), which, of course, is the exact opposite that some would have you believe.
No wonder some have tried to remove the Saint James’ Epistle from the Bible to support their presumptions about salvation.
Faith and Works
When Paul mentioned that faith is important, he did so to emphasize that acting right isn’t enough. It has to be done for the right reasons. James emphasizes the need to persevere in charity. Their teachings are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary.
It is not possible to separate faith from works as works are the completion of faith (see James, 2:22). In fact, per St. James, (2:17), faith without works is useless. We would argue, meaningless and void.
In sum, through His death, Jesus made satisfaction with God; He paid the full price of man’s for redemption. The Lord earned infinitely more merit than would be required to save every human being who has ever lived or ever will live; and nothing more is needed. And yet at the same time God invites man to participate in His work of redemption (see Paul’s letter to the Colossians, 1:24, and John’s first letter, 3:16), just as a human father might ask his child to assist him in his work, even though he could do the work better and more efficiently on his own.
God wants us to participate in His work, not out of necessity but out of love and the desire to bestow dignity upon us so that we are more than animals. To say that good works are required for salvation is not to belittle Christ’s sacrifice, but to utilize it. In that way, it is not by our own merits that we are called to, carry out, and complete good works, but it is through the recognition that it is through those efforts and what Christ won for us on the Cross.
- “He who suspended the earth is suspended,” wrote Saint Melito of Sardis in about 170 A.D.; “he who fixed the heavens is fixed; he who fastened all things is fastened to the wood; the Master is outraged; God is murdered” (Paschal Homily). ↩
- Saint Justin the Martyr (d. ca. 165) observed how the form of the Cross, “the greatest symbol of (Christ’s) power and authority,” is reflected universally throughout the human world, in the masts of ships, in plows and tools, and even in the human figure itself (First Apology 55). The early Christians regularly made the pious gesture known as the Sign of the Cross, which endures today as one of the most distinguishing marks of the Christian Faith. The biblical precedent for the Sign of the Cross is found in passages which have to do with the faithful receiving a protective mark upon their forehead, such as Ezekiel (9:4) in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation (7:3 and 9:4) in the New Testament. The support for the Sign of the Cross was strong and universal from an early date (see Tertullian The Crown 3:4; To My Wife 5:8; Saint Cyprian of Carthage, Testimonies 2:22; Lactantius, The Divine Institutes 4:26; Saint Athanasius, Treatise on the Incarnation of the Word 47:2; Jerome, Letter 130:9, et al.). ↩
- Pope Clement XI (1713) wrote, “God rewards nothing but charity; for charity alone honors God.” ↩