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Christianity is God’s revelation about himself and his relationship to humankind. This book will begin by focusing on some basic truths about God, creation, the fall of man from God’s friendship, and God’s plan to redeem the human race through Jesus Christ. As we review these truths, please remember that this book is not a catechism. It does not provide a full presentation of the Catholic faith, but rather emphasizes aspects of Catholic belief that are often misunderstood—both by Catholics and others. You will find this emphasis throughout the whole book. Most of what I say here is accepted by all Christians. But I will frequently single out and discuss questions that are in some way controversial. They are sources of misunderstanding between Catholics and Protestants and are even more difficult to deal with when the genuine teachings of the churches are misrepresented or understood imperfectly. Consequently, I take up these questions out of a conviction that a genuine commitment to Christian unity demands that such issues be faced squarely in order that misunderstandings on both sides of the dialogue be resolved and so that the Lord may draw Christians together in a unity based on his truth.
Some Basic Truths About Salvation
Three Persons in One God. The central belief of the Catholic Church is that God is one in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons are distinct, but equal in power, majesty, and divinity. The “Trinity” is the name that the early Christians gave to the one God composed of three equal and distinct divine persons.
God Alone Is to Be Worshipped. Catholic Christians believe that the one God alone—the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit—is to be worshipped and adored. The first commandment of the law of Moses still holds true for Christians: “I am the Lord your God. . . . You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:2, 3; Dt 5:6, 7). Jesus taught, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Mt 22:37-38).
Catholics may honor or venerate God’s creatures, but worship is reserved for God alone. The prayers of Catholics are ultimately directed to the one God. Catholics may honor other exemplary Christians of the past or present, and even ask them to pray for us, but the prayers of all God’s people finally are directed only to God. All official prayers of the Catholic Church, such as the Mass, are prayers finally directed “to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.”
God—The Creator and Savior. Catholics believe that God created everything out of nothing. The Nicene Creed proclaims, “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen or unseen.”
Why did God create? Simply to express his overflowing goodness and love. The Book of Genesis affirms that all God created was good—very good. As the “crown” or climax of his creation, God created human persons, male and female, in his “image and likeness.” This means that humans reflected God’s goodness, his wisdom, his power to love, and his dominion over creation.
Humanity also shared in God’s power to choose freely and to direct its own path in life. The Book of Genesis reveals that it was the human persons’ abuse of the power to choose freely that disrupted their harmonious, intimate relationship with God. Our first parents used their free will to disobey God because they were deceived by Satan (a fallen rebellious angel, the archfoe of God) disguised as a serpent.1 This first human rebellion against God, which Catholics call “original sin,” disrupted humanity’s intimate, loving relationship with the Creator, and introduced a seemingly permanent and irreparable rift between God and humanity. Henceforth, every human being on earth would be born into this fallen condition, this state of separation or alienation from God. As the apostle Paul wrote: “. . . through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned . . .” (Rom 5:12 NAB).2
Human beings can do nothing to reverse the effects of original sin, and to restore the human race to a loving relationship with the Creator. But what is impossible for man is possible for God. A ray of hope for humankind appeared as soon as the Fall occurred. In Genesis 3:15, immediately after the account of humanity’s fall, God told Satan that from the “seed” or descendants of the woman he had deceived would come one who would “bruise” or “strike at” his head. Catholics view this as the first foreshadowing or prophecy of the coming of a savior for the human race. The Old Testament recounts the unfolding of God’s plan to heal and restore humanity’s relationship with him. It foretells a savior, or messiah, who will bring about this restoration. Many of God’s people of the Old Covenant (the Jewish people) interpreted these Old Testament prophecies in political terms, expecting the savior or messiah to be a great king, like David, who would save them once-for-all from all political oppression and establish a lasting, unshakable kingdom for God’s people in this world.
Jesus—The True Messiah and Savior. When Jesus of Nazareth began his public ministry, he stirred the deep-seated hopes and longings of his Jewish hearers with the message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). Was this the Messiah who had finally come to establish the reign of God on earth? Christians answer, “Yes!” As his ministry unfolded, Jesus made it clear that his mission and the kingdom he proclaimed was not political. It was far bigger than that. He came to overcome the rift between God and humanity, restoring us to God’s friendship. He came to overcome all sin—the original sin and every sin that followed. He came to reverse all of the effects of sin: suffering, sickness, and even what unredeemed humanity fears most: death. He came to subdue and conquer all spiritual powers and forces opposed to God, including God’s archenemy, Satan. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the ‘reverse side’ of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation, and that salvation is offered to all through Christ” (CCC, 389). God’s plan would not be complete until all things, “things in heaven and things on earth,” were united in Jesus Christ and “put . . . under his feet [dominion]” (Eph 1:10, 22). Jesus’ mission has eternal, cosmic dimensions.
Jesus as Fully God and Fully Human. Who could accomplish such a mission? A mere man? By no means. Only God himself has the power to restore humanity and all creation to right order and a right relationship to himself. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth, a genuine, full human being (Heb 2:14, 17), is also truly and fully God. Jesus revealed himself to be the “only-begotten” Son of God the Father, fully equal to the Father in eternity, power, and glory. John’s Gospel calls him the eternal Word of God, who “became flesh” and “dwelt among us” as Jesus Christ (Jn 1:1-14). Later Christians explained that Jesus Christ is the “second person of the Trinity” made human—God incarnate.
Christians believe and proclaim that God the Son became human to restore humanity and all creation to union with God. The human person’s initial destiny in God’s plan, to live forever in perfect joy with God, is once again made possible by Jesus Christ.
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. (Jn 3:16-17)
How Catholic Christians Understand Salvation
The Good News: Salvation in Jesus Christ. The ultimate meaning of “salvation” for human beings is that we “should not perish, but have eternal life.” We are saved from sin, from the condition of rebellion and separation from God that finally results in eternal death, and saved for eternal life and happiness with God.
The Catholic Church has always affirmed that salvation is a gift that God freely offers humanity. God “. . . desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm 2:4). God “is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe” (1 Tm 4:10). Human beings cannot save themselves. Nor does the human race “deserve” eternal life, any more than we “deserved” to be created in the first place. Nothing that a person has ever done or ever could do on his or her own can “merit” or “earn” eternal life; God must offer it and confer it.
The good news is that God has offered this free gift of salvation to everyone. How does this salvation come to us? How does God offer it? First of all, the Catholic Church teaches that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The Catholic Church also teaches that Jesus saved us through his passion and death on the cross (Gal 6:14; Col 1:20, 2:14; 1 Cor 2:2), and that the blood of Christ shed for the salvation of the world brings a saving and healing power (Rom 3:25; Heb 9:13, 14; 1 Pt 1:2, 18-19; 1 Jn 1:7; Rv 1:5, 5:9, 7:14, 12:11).
How central is this to the faith of Catholic Christians? Take note that the central religious symbol for Catholics—found everywhere in Catholic churches, schools, and hospitals—is the crucifix—the image of Jesus Christ dying on the cross and shedding his blood for our salvation.
Is There Salvation Outside of Jesus Christ?
The Catholic Church does not teach and has never taught that a person may be “saved” (reconciled to God and brought to eternal life with him) by anyone other than Jesus Christ. No one is saved by Buddha, Mohammed, or the leaders or gods of any other religions. Nor, I might add, do Catholics believe that anyone is saved by the pope, Mary, the saints, or any other member of the Church. As stated previously, Jesus alone is the Savior of our race: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Recent official teachings of the Catholic Church illustrate this insistence that Jesus is the only way to salvation:
For Christ, made present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique Way of salvation.3
. . . as the Church has always held and continues to hold, Christ in His boundless love freely underwent His passion and death because of the sins of all men, so that all might attain salvation. It is, therefore, the duty of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.4
The specific purpose of this [the Church’s] missionary activity is evangelization and the planting of the Church among those peoples and groups where she has not yet taken root . . .
The chief means of this implantation is the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . This missionary activity finds its reason in the will of God, “who wishes all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tm 2:4-5), “neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12).
Therefore, all must be converted to Him as he is made known by the Church’s preaching5
For further study on what the Catholic Church teaches on this subject, I recommend Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter, “The Mission of the Redeemer” (Redemptor Hominis, issued December 7, 1990). Article five of that document states:
If we go back to the beginnings of the Church, we find a clear affirmation that Christ is the one Savior of all, the only one able to reveal God and lead to God. . . .
After quoting Acts 4:10-12, the Pope concludes:
. . . salvation can only come from Jesus Christ. . . . No one, therefore, can enter into communion with God except through Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Also examine the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Council’s opening message, addressed to all people, proclaimed:
We believe that the Father so loved the world that He gave His own Son to save it. Indeed, through this same Son of His, He freed us from bondage to sin, reconciling all things unto Himself through Him, “making peace through the blood of his cross” [Col 1:20], so that “we might be called sons of God and truly be such.”6
In short, a thorough study of the official statements of popes and councils of bishops through the last twenty centuries will affirm that the basic kerygma (proclamation) of the Catholic Church has always been the same as that of Peter on the day of Pentecost: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). What about the salvation of those who have not yet committed themselves to Jesus Christ? The Catholic Church makes no firm judgment about their salvation, but leaves open the possibility that God may save some persons who, through no fault of their own, have not accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ. The last judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46 speaks of the judgment of “the nations” on the basis of works of charity; belief in Jesus Christ is not mentioned. Romans 2:12-16 says that “gentiles without the law” will be judged according to God’s law “written in their hearts” or “conscience.” These appear to be exceptional cases, however. The Second Vatican Council insisted that
. . . though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him (Heb 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (cf. 1 Cor 9:16), and the same time a sacred duty, to preach the gospel. Hence, missionary activity today as always retains its power and necessity.7
Thus, Catholic Christians must avoid two extremes in considering the salvation of non-Christians. They should avoid presuming that those who don’t believe in Jesus and his gospel will necessarily be condemned, but neither should Catholics presume that these people will be saved without accepting the gospel. What the Catholic Church teaches unambiguously is that humanity’s salvation comes only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that it is the Church’s mission and solemn duty to proclaim this “Good News” to all people.
Receiving God’s Gift of Salvation
Catholics believe that salvation is a free gift, flowing from the grace (or “graciousness”) of God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God . . .” (Eph 2:8).
A gift, however, can either be accepted or refused. This is also true of the gift of salvation. Catholics believe that while God offers all people the grace to believe in him and do good (see 1 Tm 2:4), each person must freely choose to accept that gift. Being made in God’s “image and likeness” means that we have a genuinely free will—the power to accept God’s saving grace or to reject it. This free will has been weakened by sin, but not destroyed; it is influenced by social and psychological forces, but not totally controlled by them. The Bible indicates that man has free will by the fact that Jesus and all the authors of Scripture constantly exhort and challenge people to repent (literally in the Greek, “to change your mind”), to believe, and to do good. The gospel message implies that anyone, by the grace God freely offers to all, can make a decision to change and become a follower of Jesus Christ. Some people who hear the gospel repent and believe; others don’t. Catholics believe that this happens because God has given every person the ability to make a real choice to accept or reject the grace he freely offers.
How does a person receive God’s gift of salvation? The Bible mentions a number of aspects that are part of our response to God’s gift. Catholics try to consider all of these aspects in order to make the fullest possible response to God’s word. Taken together, these elements of our response, found in Scripture, give a complete answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?”
What Is Faith? Jesus’ first recorded command was “. . . repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15), and the New Testament clearly states that salvation is received by faith in God through Jesus Christ. Catholics firmly believe in the importance of faith in accepting God’s gift of salvation. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” Jesus said, “he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn 5:24). Many other New Testament texts affirm that faith in Jesus Christ leads to salvation. (See Mk 16:16; Jn 3:16, 6:28-29, 11:25-27, 20:30-31; Eph 2:8-10; 2 Thes 2:13.)
What is faith? The New Testament shows faith to be much more than an intellectual assent to the proposition that God exists or that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. This assent may be a first step, but it is not sufficient for salvation. Even evil spirits recognize and acknowledge Jesus’ true identity. An unclean spirit cried out: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). James declared, “Even the demons believe—and shudder” (Jas 2:19).
The faith that leads to salvation is an act of acknowledging our utter dependence on God and committing our lives totally to him. When Jesus spoke about faith, proclaiming, “. . . believe in God, believe also in me” (Jn 14:1), he meant, “give your whole life to me; follow me; obey me; become my disciple.” True Christian faith means entrusting your whole life to God. It is a commitment to put God first and to do whatever he commands or asks. As the Second Vatican Council explained:
By faith, man freely commits his entire self to God, making the full submission of his intellect and will to God.8
The Catholic Church today emphasizes the preeminence of faith in its official teaching. The “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” sums up this teaching well:
The Church’s mission is concerned with the salvation of men; and men win salvation through the grace of Christ and faith in him.9
Many Christians today equate “faith” with a “decision for Christ”—a conscious, personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of your life. This terminology is used mostly by evangelical Protestants, but Catholics agree that all mature Christians must make a conscious choice to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and to commit themselves to follow him. Catholics make such a public recommitment every year when they renew their baptismal promises during the Easter liturgy. The practice of regular, even daily, personal “acts of faith” in Jesus Christ is a part of Catholic tradition.
Unfortunately, some Catholics have neglected the importance of this conscious, personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Catholics sometimes assume that persons who are baptized, attend Mass, and receive the sacraments regularly have obviously accepted Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of their lives. Pastoral experience with U.S. Catholics shows that this is often not the case; many Catholics have not yet made a deliberate, adult decision to believe in Jesus Christ and give their lives fully to him. In response to this, the Catholic Church has placed a strong emphasis in recent years on evangelization (even of the baptized), on continual conversion to Christ, and on spiritual renewal. The goal of all of these is to lead all Catholics (and eventually all people) to a full personal faith in Jesus Christ.
It is also part of Catholic teaching to consider “faith” as a way of life rather than a major decision that happens once, twice, or a few times in one’s life. Catholics realize the importance of the initial conversion and commitment to Christ, but they also emphasize the challenge of living out faith in Jesus Christ every day, by God’s grace and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God provides the power (or grace) to live out our faith through many channels: through daily prayer, the sacraments, and our life and fellowship with other Christians. Thus, these means of God’s grace are also significant for our salvation, since they enable us to persevere in our faith and live it out day by day. Later in this chapter we will consider two of these “channels” of God’s grace: the sacraments and the Church. Even though many things play a part in receiving God’s gift of salvation, faith is primary for two reasons. First, a Christian’s good works flow from a firm belief and trust in God. Second, receiving the sacraments, observing Church teaching, and using the other means of grace are meaningless without a living faith in God.
At the same time, salvation is a process that depends entirely on God. None of the individual elements or means of salvation that are discussed in this chapter have any magical power to save us. We can do many good works and yet be alienated from God and resist his grace. We can be baptized without living our baptismal promises. We can go to Mass on Sunday and sin the rest of the week. Even faith is a gift of God, not something we earn. Faith cannot save us if we deny that faith by the way we live. Again, as James said, “Even the demons believe—and shudder” (Jas 2:19).
Faith and Good Works
Catholics believe that the life of faith is also a life of charity or “good works.” This life of faith is a life of love of God and neighbor that expresses itself in one’s thoughts, attitudes, speech, and actions. Therefore, let us examine the relationship between a Christian’s faith and good works, and their importance for salvation.
Catholics do not sharply separate “faith” and “good works” or charity. By “good works” Catholics do not mean the “works of the law” that Paul condemns, but rather the “works” of active charity or love that flow from living faith in Jesus Christ. Those who follow God will do whatever God commands or asks of them, and their “works” truly will reflect their faith. This is the point that James was making in his letter:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jas 2:14-17 NAB)
In other words, Catholics believe that true faith will express itself in a person’s “works”—the way the person actually lives. Is this understanding biblical? Jesus and the New Testament authors insist that people will be judged not only by their faith, but according to their actual conduct or works. Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:21). A number of other passages speak of the role of good works in salvation (see Mt 16:27; Rom 2:5-10; 2 Cor 5:10; Jas 2:14-26; 1 Pt 1:17).
Even the apostle Paul, who strongly corrects those who try to justify themselves before God by performing “works of the law” (strictly observing all the Jewish traditions), also states: “For he [God] will render to every man according to his works . . .” (Rom 2:6), and “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10).
In summary, when the Catholic Church speaks of good works as a “means of salvation,” it is expressing a belief found in the Bible: Genuine faith requires an active response, which is charity, love, or good works. Paul called this “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
The Catholic teaching about the role of faith and “works” in humanity’s salvation has often been misunderstood—by both Catholics and Protestants. Although it remains a source of division between Catholics and Protestants even today, many Protestants and Catholics may be surprised to learn what the Catholic Church actually teaches about this.
After the Reformation, the Roman Catholic bishops clarified their teaching on justification and salvation in the “Decree on Justification” issued at the Council of Trent in 1547. This decree affirmed, first, that salvation and justification, two terms closely related in the New Testament, are free gifts or graces of God that come only from Jesus Christ.l0 This grace or gift of justification comes before either faith or good works, since faith and works are only ways by which we accept God’s free gift or grace of salvation. As Trent stated this, we are “said to be justified gratuitously (i.e., by grace), because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit grace itself of justification, for ‘if it is a grace, it is not now by reason of works, otherwise (as the same Apostle says) grace would no longer be grace’ [Rom 11:6].”11 The first point, then, is that justification and salvation are free gifts or graces of God that are not earned by any work of human beings, even faith.
Second, the Council of Trent affirmed that the first and most important way to receive God’s gift of salvation or justification is through faith. The Catholic bishops declared:
We are therefore said to be justified by faith, because “faith is the beginning of human salvation,” the foundation and root of all justification; “without which it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:6) and to enter the fellowship of his sons.12
Third, the Council of Trent also noted that the Bible exhorts those who are justified by God’s grace to keep the commandments, to perform good works, and to be prepared to suffer as Christ suffered. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:58 says, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain,” and also Hebrews 6:10, “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints. . . .” Nonetheless, the Council of Trent insisted that
. . . although in the sacred Writings so much is ascribed to good works that even “he that shall give a drink of cold water to one of his least ones,” Christ promises, “shall not lose his reward” (Mt 10:42) . . . nevertheless far be it that a Christian should either trust or “glory” in himself and not “in the Lord” [cf. 1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17], whose goodness towards all men is so great that He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their own merits.13
The Sacraments and Salvation
Catholics believe that the sacraments are channels by which the grace of Jesus Christ comes to us. They too are part of God’s plan of salvation. Let us consider the significance for salvation of the two primary sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist (or the Lord’s Supper).
The Bible attests that baptism is the way a person becomes part of the body of Christ, the Church. At the end of his speech on Pentecost, Peter told his hearers what they had to do to be saved: “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” (Acts 2:38). Through baptism, converts to Jesus Christ first received forgiveness of their sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and became members of the community of Christians, the Church. But does baptism have anything to do with salvation? Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:16). He told Nicodemus that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). The Church of New Testament times responded to this teaching by immediately baptizing all new converts (see Acts 2:38, 41; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16). Paul explained that baptism unites believers to Jesus in his death so that they will also share in his resurrection (Rom 6:3-5). Baptism, then, is also a means to salvation.
Does the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper have any significance for salvation? Jesus told the Jews:
. . . unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (Jn 6:53-54)
The apostle Paul explained that eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood refers to partaking of the bread and cup of the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16), which Jesus commanded his disciples to do in his memory (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:23-26). The sacraments and their role in God’s saving plan will be discussed more fully in Chapter Seven.
The Church and Salvation
The Catholic understanding of the Church will also be discussed fully later, but here we will examine the importance of the Church for salvation. In its broadest definition, the Church is the community or body of persons committed to following Jesus Christ. Catholic Christians believe that the normal way to be saved is to become a follower of Jesus, and thus to become part of “the Church, which is his [Christ’s] body” (Eph 1:22-23).
For centuries, Christians accepted the teaching of St. Cyprian of Carthage, a great bishop-martyr of the third century, who said, “Outside of the Church there is no salvation.”14 Cyprian’s teaching was based on certain presuppositions that were shared by the authors of the New Testament. They presupposed that one was saved by becoming a follower of Jesus, and that followers of Jesus were members of his body, the Church. They also presupposed that the Church’s members would respect and obey their leaders, because Jesus Christ had given them authority to guide God’s people.
All this seemed self-evident to the early Christians. There was no salvation outside the Church because it was only within the Church that a person had access to the ways by which he could come into contact with Jesus, and thus be saved (see Acts 2 and 4).
Therefore, Catholics believe that the Church itself is an important means of salvation. Jesus himself indicated this when he told Peter that “the powers of death shall not prevail against it [the Church]” (Mt 16:18).
This does not mean that Catholics believe that a person must belong to the Catholic Church to be saved. In fact, as recently as 1949, the Roman Catholic Church vigorously rejected an opinion, attributed to Fr. Leonard Feeney of Boston, that only Catholics could be saved. (Fr. Feeney later clarified his views that were then found to be in accordance with Catholic teaching.)
St. Augustine, in The City of God, said that some persons would be saved who truly love God, even if they were not formally members of the (Catholic) Church. On the other hand, Augustine warned his fellow Catholics that some baptized members of the Church would not be saved if they did not love God and live in charity.15 Church membership may be a great help to an individual in attaining salvation, but it is never an automatic “ticket to heaven.”
The Catholic Church’s official teaching is very similar to Augustine’s. The Second Vatican Council, after spelling out what it means to be a “fully incorporated” member of the Church, insisted:
He is not saved, however, who, though he is part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner, and not “in his heart.” All the sons of the Church should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word, and deed, not only will they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.16
This is a stern warning to “nominal Catholics.” They will not escape rigorous judgment by God on the last day simply because they are Catholics.
Church Law and Salvation
How important, then, do Catholics consider obedience to specific teachings or disciplines of their church for salvation? Catholics and non-Catholics alike wonder whether Catholics believe that they will lose their salvation for missing Mass on Sunday, refusing to fast on a specific fast day, or rejecting an officially defined Catholic doctrine, such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
To answer this question adequately, it must be seen in a broader context of Catholic Christian belief. Catholics believe that Jesus gave his apostles authority to govern and guide the Church, and that this authority was passed on by the apostles to the elders who came after them. As we will discuss in detail later, the bishops were the primary elders who carried on the mission of the apostles and exercised their authority in the Church in the name of Jesus Christ. The bishops understood the words of Jesus to his apostles to apply to themselves as well: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16). The early Christians believed that the bishops’ authority was from God, just as they accepted that the authority of the apostles as a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Catholics today still believe that the authority of the bishops and the pope is God’s authority, given to them by Jesus himself through the apostles and their successors down through the ages. Therefore, a Catholic who obstinately rejects the official teachings or directives of the bishops (or the “chief bishop,” the pope) might be guilty of a form of rebellion against God, which would jeopardize the person’s salvation. In the early Church, those who rejected the bishops’ teaching were expelled from the community. This “excommunication” was a public pronouncement that the person was no longer in communion or unity with the Church because they were not in submission to the recognized elders and their teaching. Excommunication does not necessarily mean that a person will not be saved. The point, however, is that the rebellion against the Church’s teaching that brings about excommunication could very well indicate a deeper rebellion against God’s plan and his authority.
This understanding of the authority of the bishops to govern the Church presupposes a basic trust that the Holy Spirit truly guides and inspires them in their leadership. The bishops could not teach or require anything that directly contradicts the Word of God in the Bible, because one of their primary duties is to teach and defend the Word of God, and to interpret it faithfully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But what about when people taking a serious look at the Catholic faith—whether they are Catholics from birth or others investigating Catholicism—find themselves struggling to accept some official Catholic teaching? It may be a challenging theological doctrine such as the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, or a moral teaching such as the Catholic Church’s rejection of artificial contraception as a means of birth regulation. The Catholic Church recognizes that persons seeking to form their views and consciences through the teachings of the Bible and the Church may find themselves temporarily struggling to understand and assent to a particular teaching. In such cases, one’s salvation would not be jeopardized. However, Catholics who are earnestly seeking to follow the Lord will invariably come to recognize the purpose and wisdom of Church teachings and discipline, or the natural law of God, or at least be willing to accept it in faith and trust, even if they do not yet fully understand it or agree with it. They trust that Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church and its leaders and that the bishops’ united teaching is more reliable than the limited, private judgment of any individual member of the Church.
More positively, Catholics who are seeking to live a Christian life usually do not see the teachings of the Church as burdensome, but welcome them as aids and guides to living the gospel more fully. Catholics recognize these teachings as outgrowths or applications of biblical principles that enable them to worship and obey God more fully. For example, consider the obligation of Catholics to attend Mass every week on Sunday, the Lord’s day. This requirement is based on Scripture (Acts 2:46-47; Heb 10:25) and on many early Christian writings that consider worship together on the Lord’s day as an essential part of Christian life.
I personally see God’s wisdom in continuing to give authority to the human leaders of the Church. He has raised up leaders to interpret that inspired book, the Bible, and to apply its teaching to our lives. One is saved by hearing God’s Word and doing it—not only the Word that comes to us in the Bible, but also in his word that comes to us through the elders who teach and guide God’s people by the grace and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul often admonished Christians to respect and even to submit to the elders of the Church and those who are “over you in the Lord” (1 Thes 5:12; cf. 1 Cor 16:16, 18; 1 Tim 5:17; Rom 16:6, 12; 1 Cor 15:10; Heb 13:17). Hence, obeying the laws of the Church is also a way of obeying God, and is thereby important for salvation.
Knowledge of Salvation
There is a basic truth in the belief of many Christians that we can be assured of our salvation when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and commit our lives to following him. The Bible teaches that if we have committed our lives to Jesus Christ and have decided to live in his service, God gives us a firm hope and confidence that we will be saved. In many places, the apostle Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as the “first fruits” (Rom 8:23) or “down payment” of the salvation that Jesus Christ has won for us.
. . . we rejoice in our hope of sharing in the glory of God... and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given us. (Rom 5:2, 5)
I personally can attest that I have a firm confidence and hope that God in his mercy will preserve me from serious sin and rebellion and will finally bring me to eternal life with him.
However, Catholic teaching makes a distinction between “firm hope and confidence” of salvation and certain unmistakable knowledge or assurance from God that one will be saved. The Catholic Church has always taught that no one can know with absolute certainty in this life whether he or she will be saved, except in the rare case that a person receives a special direct revelation from God. This teaching does not deny or question God’s power to save or to forgive our sins: Catholics believe that even the worst sinner will be saved if he sincerely repents and turns to God, even at the moment of death (see the story of the “good thief” in Lk 23:39-43). Rather, this teaching is based on recognition that any of us, at any point in life, can turn away from God and lose the hope of heaven (Ez 33:13-20). It maintains that we should not presume to know ahead of time that we will persevere in faith until the end. The Council of Trent expressed the official Catholic teaching in its “Decree on Justification”:
As regards the gift of perseverance of which it is written: He that “shall persevere to the end shall be saved” (Mt 10:22, 24:13) . . . let no one promise himself anything as certain with absolute certitude, although all ought to place and repose a very firm hope in God’s help. For God, unless men be wanting in His grace, as He has begun a good work, so will He perfect it, “working to will and to accomplish” (Phil 2:13). Nevertheless, let those “who think themselves to stand, take heed lest they fall” (1 Cor 10:12), and “with fear and trembling work out their salvation” (Phil 2:12) in labors, in watchings, in almsdeeds, in prayers and oblations, in fastings and chastity (cf. 2 Cor 6:3 ff). . . .17
This teaching is based on a number of passages in the New Testament that refer to the knowledge of our salvation. In the Gospel of John, Jesus promises salvation to all who truly believe in him (Jn 3:16, 5:24, 11:26, 17:3). He also says that “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn 12:25). He assures the apostles, who have lived out this call, that he is going ahead of them to prepare a place for them in the kingdom (Jn 14:1-4).
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells an inquirer that the way for him to obtain everlasting life is to keep the commandments, and then sell all that he has, give it to the poor, and follow him (Mt 19:16-21; Mk 10:17-22; Lk 18:18-23). Jesus assures Peter that everyone who has left behind their family and home for the sake of the kingdom of God will receive blessings in this age and everlasting life in the age to come (Mk 10:29-31; Mt 19:29-30; Lk 18:28-30). However, Jesus warns that it is necessary to persevere in this radical call, especially in the last days. He says, “. . . he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mk 13:13; Mt 10:22). Jesus also said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). These passages indicate that it is possible to fail to persevere to the end.
Catholics believe that the person who believes in Jesus to the extent of giving up everything, who literally “loses his life” for the sake of the kingdom of God, and who perseveres in this call to the end of his life, is assured of salvation. In fact, the Catholic Church officially recognizes certain persons as “saints,” men and women who are believed to be enjoying eternal life with God, because the evidence about their lives shows conclusively that they have met all of these biblical “requirements” for salvation. But we who have not reached the end of our lives on earth cannot have the same assurance about our own salvation. Even though we may now have a strong faith and be laying down our lives completely for him, no one of us can be absolutely certain that we will not fall into sin or rebel against God before the end of our lives. This is equally true of every member of the Church: lay people, religious, priests, bishops, and even the pope.
Even the apostle Paul did not claim absolute certainty about his own salvation. Who could have had more reason for being sure about his own salvation than St. Paul? Who had a more dramatic and radical conversion experience? Who could claim to have given up his whole life and destiny for the sake of the gospel more completely than Paul? But the apostle Paul refused to make any final judgment about his own salvation.
I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God. (1 Cor 4:3-5)
Elsewhere, Paul compared life in this world to a race or a fight, and himself as the athlete competing in it. Although Paul had great confidence and hope of his final victory, he made it clear that he had not yet attained his goal. He wrote:
. . . I long to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ [Jesus]. Brothers, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus. Let us, then, who are “perfectly mature” adopt this attitude. And if you have a different attitude, this too God will reveal to you. Only, with regard to what we have attained, continue on the same course. (Phil 3:10-16 NAB)
In 1 Corinthians 9:26-27, Paul uses the same metaphor:
Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Paul is not the only New Testament author who wrote of the need for perseverance in faith until the end. The author of the letter to the Hebrews makes the same point. Chapters three and four of Hebrews remind Christians of the disobedience of the Hebrew people after God had called them out of bondage in Egypt; the result was that they failed to enter the Promised Land and instead died in the desert. Could the same thing happen to Christians today? Apparently, for the author of Hebrews says, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Heb 4:11).
Hebrews 6 speaks even more directly of “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:4-5) who have now actually fallen away and are “recrucifying the Son of God . . . and holding him up to contempt” (Heb 6:6 NAB). The author goes on to encourage his readers that “. . . in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things that belong to salvation” (Heb 6:9). God is not unjust, the author says, and will not forget your love and service, past and present, to his holy people. However, in order to remind them that they have not already attained their goal of salvation, he concludes:
And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Heb 6:11-12)
The Book of Revelation also speaks of the need for perseverance to the end. The letters to the churches in chapters two and three encourage them to return to their “first love” (Rv 2:4) and not fall away. The letter to the church in Thyatira is particularly enlightening. The author praises the church for its love and service and endurance but then warns the community against tolerating a “Jezebel” who is seducing God’s servants. God says that he will give this Jezebel and her followers a chance to repent and “. . . I will give to each as your works deserve” (Rv 2:23). The author of the Apocalypse concludes, “He who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, I will give him power over the nations . . . and I will give him the morning star [Jesus Christ]” (Rv 2:26, 28). May we all persevere to the end and receive the reward of our faith and conduct—the Morning Star, Jesus Christ!
Peter, too, encourages Christians to wait in hopeful expectation for the Lord’s coming when “. . . the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pt 1:19). In his first letter he exhorts us to stand firm, hoping for and believing in the gift of salvation, until the Lord comes.
Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct. . . .
So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. (1 Pt 1:13-15, 2:1-3)
A correct Catholic understanding of salvation does not lead to anxiety about our eternal destiny, but reminds us that we must continually rely on God’s mercy and grace for salvation. While we cannot have absolute assurance of our salvation, we do have great confidence that God will give us the grace to persevere in faith and be saved—what Catholic theology calls “the grace of final perseverance.” We possess our salvation in hope; as Paul says, “. . . we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 5:2). He also says, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25).
Have You Been Saved?
Evangelical Protestants will sometimes ask a Catholic acquaintance, “Have you been saved?” Many Catholics find this a puzzling question. On the one hand, a Catholic wants to say, “Of course I’ve been saved. Why do you have to ask?” But on the other hand, the question seems to suggest that a person’s salvation is a once-and-for-all event that happens in a single moment, rather than a process or a “race” that continues throughout our lives.
I believe that an adequate (biblical and Catholic) answer to the question “Have you been saved?” involves making three affirmations. A Catholic can say that, “I have been saved”; “I am being saved”; and “I hope to be saved.” First, a Catholic can say “I have been saved.” It is an objective fact that Jesus Christ already has died and been raised to save me from my sin. The salvation of the world has been accomplished by Jesus Christ. This salvation has already begun to take effect in the life of everyone who has accepted Jesus Christ and been baptized. As St. Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation . . .” (2 Cor 5:17). In this sense, I can say, “Yes, I have been saved.” Second, Catholics need to say that “I am being saved.”
We must realize that we are still “running the race” to our ultimate destiny of heaven. We must turn to the Lord each day for the grace to enter more deeply into his plan for our lives and to accept his gift of salvation more fully. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). In this sense, I can say, “I am being saved.”
Third, a Catholic must also say, “I hope to be saved.” We must persevere in our faith in God, love for God, and obedience to his will until the end of our lives. We have hope and confidence that God will give us that grace, and that we will respond to it and accept his gift of salvation until the day we die. In this sense, “I hope to be saved.” Like Paul,
. . . [I hope] that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Phil 3:11-12)
by Alan Schreck
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"You're a Catholic. What do you believe?"
You’re on the spot. What do you really believe—about the Bible, Mary, the saints, the pope, the sacraments? You wish some well-informed Catholic friends were around to help with the answer.
Or perhaps you are asking the questions yourself. Catholic & Christian provides the answers you need. It is a readable and concise summary of often misunderstood Catholic beliefs, the teachings and practices that puzzle Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This is a book for all Catholics who want to know more about their faith.
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Alternative Headline An Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs
Product Type Media Books
Author Alan Schreck
Publisher Beacon Publishing
Number of Pages 262
Book Format Paperback
Excellent! Easy to read! Polite tone!
I have given away several copies of this book over the years. I have always received excellent feedback on it. "Catholic and Christian" is one of the most informative and easy to read books that explains the catholic faith. It is a very non-confrontational approach to explaining the truths and beauty of the catholic faith to someone that has questions or objections to teachings of the catholic faith. I've read dozens of books about the catholic faith and this book is at the top of the list. Get it. You will NOT regret it!
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