The following is part of an ongoing series by Dr. Norman McCrummen. We’ll be publishing another one of his reasons every week, so stay tuned! Read previous installments: Introduction – First Reason – Second Reason
I am Catholic because I respect and embrace the Church’s teaching on the gift of salvation. I say “gift” because Saint Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them” (Ephesians 2:8–10).
Salvation is as big a subject as a human being can consider because salvation is what the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection accomplished. It is the Father’s supreme gift to sinners. It should not be a divisive subject, but sadly it is. People of various denominations are sensitive about what defines salvation, how it is received, and for whom it is intended.
Within certain Christian groups there’s a lapse of memory (primarily hyper-Calvinists) that God does indeed will “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all” (First Timothy 2:4–6).
The Scriptures are not vague regarding salvation as “the goal of faith” (First Peter 1:9). Scripture states and the Church teaches that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are now justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness” (Romans 3:23–25).
In her wisdom the Church does not rest the doctrine of salvation on three or four verses; rather, she presents all the facts of salvation. The Church teaches, as did the Apostles, that salvation comes (1) first through grace (without which there is no hope of salvation) then (2) through faith (which includes repentance and trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior), and then (3) through the regeneration of the mind and soul (the relinquishment of self to the power of the Holy Spirit) by which (4) love becomes pre-eminent and produces good works.
The Church teaches that God’s intention is for the human person to be as free as Christ Himself is free, that is, to be saved from the bondage of sin and to live holy and charitable lives; but because man chooses to sin, his freedom to be holy lessens considerably. The battle is ongoing because even they who believe what God has revealed, who understand that the commandments exist for their welfare, who want to follow God’s expectations, even they do the evil they do not want to do, and do not do the good they desire. How then can a person be saved? The Church points unflinchingly to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and to the Holy Spirit who empowers people to turn from sin and embrace the salvific work of Christ on the Cross.
The Catechism expresses this truth in these words: “By his glorious Cross Christ has won salvation for all men. He redeemed them from the sin that held them in bondage. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (Gal. 5:1). In Him we have communion with the ‘truth that makes us free’ (John 8:3). ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Cor. 3:17). Already we glory in the ‘liberty of the children of God.’ (Rom. 8:21)” (paragraph 1741).
There is the further assurance that “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin’” (paragraph 1722).
In adherence to the Scriptures, the Church teaches that salvation is not a matter of a one-time admission that Jesus is Lord and afterwards living as though He were not. Salvation is both justification (being made right with God by grace, through faith in Christ) and sanctification (being made holy by the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life). Salvation begins with the atonement Christ accomplished on the Cross and continues to the present in the surrender of self to God’s salvific plan revealed through Scripture and the Church. Salvation is a life-long journey of faith, a daily confessing of sin, a daily surrendering of self to Christ by whose power one may humbly and authentically imitate Him. The goal of salvation is to be in this life as clear a reflection of Jesus as possible, and in the life to come to be embraced by Jesus.
Day after day the believer works out his or her salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12); that is, he or she grows in faith through good and bad experiences, through stumbling and learning to trust in God’s love and compassion; and after failing again and again to discover that one’s faith has deepened and that one can take another step (and another) in his or her trust of God and in one’s love for Christ and neighbor.
There comes a moment (or a season) in which the believer senses keenly the presence of God’s Spirit and hears with new ears that Jesus died for the sins of every human being; and though perhaps having heard that truth many times, the believer receives it as God always intended, that is, as addressed directly to him or her, a sinner. So great is the gratitude that engulfs the forgiven sinner that he longs to kiss the Cross.
Renewed, he wants to know more and to do more. He turns to the Scriptures and learns there are those in his own city, perhaps at his gate, who desperately need to experience the love and mercy of Christ. He discovers that the Church continues to emphasize what Jesus taught in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. The believer discovers there’s no excuse for slacking in doing good works; that to refuse to be charitable is to insult the One whose generosity made possible the sinner’s salvation.
In the journey of faith, the believer finds that the Catholic Church has never discounted the Letter of James (as did Martin Luther) because of its insistence on good works; in fact, the Church has upheld all the teachings of Christ and the Apostles because they are just as sacred as those commandments which, for whatever reason, may conform more easily to a person’s disposition.
In the discovery of the depths of God’s truth, the believer embraces gradually, and ever more tightly, the truths of God (revealed in Scripture) and the Church’s faithfulness to those truths. In that discovery, the believer is grateful to an extent impossible to fully express.
One may ask what those layers of truth are. There are many. Here are several:
Matthew 25:41–46: “Then he [Christ] shall say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison, and you did not visit me.’ Then they will also answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Luke 16:19–31: In this parable Jesus tells the story of a rich man who ignored Lazarus, a poor man covered in sores who lay at the gate of the rich man and who longed for crumbs from the rich man’s table. The rich man was sumptuously dressed and feasted every day. When the poor man died he “was carried away by angels to be with Abraham.” But when the rich man died he went to Hades where he cried out to Abraham for a drop of water, so hot were the flames of Hades and so dry was his tongue. But Abraham said, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
The parable penetrates the reader’s imagination, for who has not believed himself too busy to feed and clothe those who are but minutes or miles from one’s home? Charity — that self-giving love, agape in Greek — is not an option for a follower of Christ. To be a Christian is to do the works of Christ not merely when convenient, but as a way of life. The believer is conscious that what he owes Christ is a demonstrable love that originates in the memory that the cross is the supreme expression of love: charity at its purest, sacrifice at its humblest, generosity at its zenith, forgiveness at its fullest.
The Scriptures reveal that charity is the virtue of highest place. “Now abide faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (First Corinthians 13:13). And: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (First John 4:16).
James 2:14–18, 20–24, 26: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will ask, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith .… Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone .… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”
This teaching is troublesome for those who want to build a theology of salvation on a single, one-time confession of faith. Catholicism is adamant regarding the necessity of confession, never forgetting the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 10:32–33: “Whoever acknowledges me before men I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. Whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” The Church regards the necessity of confession as a truth among all God’s truths which, when all are taken together, form a mosaic of incomparable beauty and brilliance: the mosaic of salvation.
The Catholic Christian discovered long ago that isolating Scriptures is a dangerous work. It’s more often than not undertaken by Protestants to defend a certain theology. In her wisdom, the Church takes all truth in Scripture, avoiding none (“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9). The Church places each truth alongside the other of God’s truths (“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” John 6:56) and the mosaic begins to take form. (“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” Romans 6:3–4. “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Mark 16: 16) The mosaic becomes all the more brilliant as truth is placed perfectly beside truth. (“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” John 3:5) Piece by piece the mosaic takes breath-taking form. (“God has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8) When all the pieces are put together (“those who persevere until the end will be saved.” Matthew 10:22) the mosaic reveals the Father’s salvific plan for His children. (“Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Mark 10:21) The mortar that holds it all together is the unfathomable grace of our God and Savior, a gift no can earn, but all can receive with repentance and gratitude.
The determination of the Catholic Church to ignore no Scripture regarding God’s salvific plan brought me to a crossroads at which I had to make a decision. I was either to continue in Calvinism with its insistence on predestination or turn to other Protestant theologies, each declaring its way to be the perfect plan. It was a sobering experience to understand that while all Protestant denominations present certain verses of Scripture to clarify their understanding of salvation (usually ending with something like, “It’s that simple”), the Catholic Church embraces and teaches that the whole of God’s Word is God’s gracious salvific plan. The choice was before me: I found myself either having to accept or not that the Church’s theology of salvation is based on every sacred word as God’s desire for humankind and not on selected verses.
I should like to remind the reader that the Catholic Church does not teach that salvation can be earned through good works. There has always been the acknowledgment that because of Adam’s fall no man or woman can achieve, through his or her own merits, the unachievable. No one can live so meritoriously and altruistically as to be declared perfectly righteous by God. Grace alone enables human beings to do what is right and to choose what is right. If there’s still a Protestant or Catholic who is misinformed on this subject, read the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification agreed to by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. It was affirmed in 2006 by the World Methodist Council. I urge Protestants and Catholics to download the Declaration and read it carefully. At the heart of the matter is the clearing up of misunderstandings regarding justification (salvation).
The Catholic Church states in its Catechism that “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 obedient children of God” (paragraph 1996). “The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion .… Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high .… This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of the human intellect and will” (paragraph 1998). “The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace” (paragraph 2001). “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification…” (paragraph 2010). “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ .… It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who justifies us. It has for its goal the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life. It is the most excellent work of God’s mercy” (paragraph 2020).
One can see how terribly awry religious movements can become when correctives evolve into something worse than what they intended to correct. Out of the maelstrom of the sixteenth century have come five hundred years of misunderstanding and prejudice. It should never have happened. But, thank God, the Protestant Reformation is over. If one doubts it, read again the quotes from the Catechism and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
Another misunderstanding that should be cleared up is the Protestant belief (not held by all Protestants) that Catholic doctrine teaches that only Catholics can hope for salvation. To answer plainly: That is not true. The Catechism states: “The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter” (paragraph 838).
I suspect many Protestants haven’t considered that when they profess their faith through the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds they are professing the faith of the Catholic Church, the Church which under the guidance of the Holy Spirit wrote the creeds. Baptized Protestants are thus in union with the Catholic Church (in union with all Christians through faith in the saving grace of Christ) though obviously not in full communion. The Catechism puts it this way in the same paragraph: Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.”
All Christians know at some level that it is the will of the Father and His Son that there be no divisions among Christians. If a member of one of the thirty to fifty thousand Protestant denominations should doubt this truth, let him or her recall the prayer of Jesus: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20–24).
In paragraph 836 of the Catechism, the assurance is given that “All men are called to this catholic [lower case “c”] unity of the People of God …. And to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation.”
All baptized Christians have the privilege to celebrate what is held in common, chiefly Jesus Christ, and to pray that someday “they may all be one.”
My relief and gratitude knew no bounds when I discovered the completeness of the Church’s teaching on salvation: how full and rich and inclusive of all the Scriptures the doctrine rests; and how great is its emphasis on God’s prevenient grace.