Justification and Salvation

Biblical and patristic studies about justification and salvation

This section studies related to the doctrine of justification and salvation respect to Catholic doctrine, and the various Protestant objections are addressed.

the doctrine of Sola Fides, Protestant doctrine that rejects the collaboration of freewill as a collaborator of grace in the saving work is also analyzed.

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Talking with my evangelical friends about salvation

By José Miguel Arráiz

You can read it in Spanish, English and Portuguese.

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We reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Michael: Hi Joseph, in our first conversation, you quoted this Bible text: “He that believeth in the Son hath life everlasting” (John 3,36). Remember?

Joseph: Of course.

Michael: But... if Catholics know that biblical text, why can’t they be sure of their salvation and why do they think it takes more to save themselves, as to do good deeds and keep the commandments?

Joseph: Explaining this will take time. What do you say if I answer the first question, and another time, we can talk about the second?

Michael y Pauline: That’s fine.

Joseph: Before we start, answer me this question: why do you think this text somehow proves that the Christians who have come to believe in Christ have already secured their salvation?

Michael: I see it very simply: if from the moment that you believe you have eternal life, you don’t have to wait, and you don’t have to do anything to have it, because as the word says: eternal is "forever". Well, those who have faith are saved. The Bible is full of texts that tell us: “These things I write to you that you may know that you have eternal life: you who believe in the name of the Son of God.” (1 John 5,13); “He that believeth in the Son hath life everlasting” (John 3,36); “For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son: that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (John 3,16); “Amen, amen, I say unto you that he who heareth my word and believeth him that sent me hath life everlasting: and cometh not into judgment, but is passed from death to life.” (John 5,24)

Joseph: I think that without realizing it you've been right by pointing to the tense that these texts are conjugated. I mean that in all these cases, we are told, that whoever believes in this, in present, has eternal life.

Julia: That’s precisely what we say.

Joseph: Well, since the verb “believe” is conjugated in the present tense, it expresses an action of progress over time. What does this mean? The text should be understood in this way: “Everyone who believes in him (with believe - at present) has eternal life.” If it was conjugated in an aorist way[1], which refers to a specific point in time, you could understand it in the way that you do. For example, if the text says: “God so loved the world that he gave to his only Son, that whoever believed in Him had eternal life,” but it did not say that, it said: “God so loved the world that he gave to his only son, that whoever believes in Him (present), have eternal life.”

So, to have eternal life (at present) is conditioned to believe (also present). If you quit believing Christ's promise does not apply, because he doesn’t promise eternal life for the people who had believed, but for believing (present progressive), or what is the same, keep believing.

Another point that you overlook is that here, believe is not merely referring to a mental assent[2], but this “believe” is associated with fidelity. Therefore, in the Gospel Jesus tells us: “Not everyone that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 7,21). In the Epistle to the Hebrews we are told that Christ “being consummated, he became, to all that obey him, the cause of eternal salvation” (Heb 5,9). Paul clarifies: “There is now therefore no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not according to the flesh.” (Rom 8,1), making it clear that this faith involves obedience and fidelity.

Julia: But if your way of interpreting that text is right, why does Christ tells us that if we believe, we have eternal life? Remember what I told you: eternal life means life forever.

Joseph: While we are in this world, our eternal life is closely linked to faithfulness, and if there is not fidelity, it is no longer permanent. Look for example, when John speaks of someone who has begun to hate his brother, and for that sin no longer has “permanent” eternal life in him: “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer. And you know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in himself.” (1 John 3,15) John tells us what will happen to any fellow believer that even having believed before, take away from God and begin to hate his brother. By hating, you stop being faithful to God's love. The same applies to any mortal sin to interrupt the communion of the individual with God.

This idea of the need to believe to be saved, not as a mental assent of a moment in time (aorist), but as a progressive present, can be clearly found in other biblical texts: “Yet now he hath reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unspotted and blameless before him: If so ye continue in the faith, grounded and settled, and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard, which is preached in all the creation that is under heaven: whereof I Paul am made a minister.” (Col 1,22-23); “But Christ, as the Son in his own house: which house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and glory of hope unto the end.” (Heb 3,6)

Viewed this way, it harmonizes perfectly with the rest of the texts of the Scripture, where loyalty is demanded until the end to be saved, and not like a mere act of believing:

“He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved.” (Matt 24,12-13)

“…Be thou faithful unto death: and I will give thee the crown of life.” (Rev 2,10)

“Now there is at Jerusalem a pond, called Probatica, which in Hebrew is named Bethsaida, having five porches. Him when Jesus had seen lying, and knew that he had been now a long time, he saith to him: Wilt thou be made whole?” (John 15,2.6)

“How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation? Which, having begun to be declared by the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard him.” (Heb 2,3)

“See then the goodness and the severity of God: towards them indeed that are fallen, the severity; but towards thee, the goodness of God, if thou abide in goodness. Otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.” (Rom 11,22)

“And every one that striveth for the mastery refraineth himself from all things. And they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown: but we are incorruptible one. I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air. But I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” (1 Cor 9,25-27)

“For it had been better for them not to have known the way of justice than, after they have known it, to turn back from that holy commandment which was delivered to them. For, that of the true proverb has happened to them: The dog is returned to his vomit; and: The sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” (2 Pet 2,21-22)

“He that shall overcome shall thus be clothed in white garments: and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life. And I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” (Rev 3,5)

In the Old Testament, we also find the same idea. First, we are told that Abraham was justified by faith, but then we are told that he was justified by his works. Besides, God makes it clear that when the righteous man turns from justice perishes: “Yea, if I shall say to the just that he shall surely live, and he, trusting in his justice, commit iniquity: all his justices shall be forgotten, and his iniquity, which he hath committed, in the same shall he die. And it I shall say to the wicked: Thou shalt surely die: and he do penance for his sin, and do judgment and justice, And if that wicked man restore the pledge, and render what he had robbed, and walk in the commandments of life, and do no unjust thing: he shall surely live, and shall not die. None of his sins, which he hath committed, shall be imputed to him: he hath done judgment and justice, he shall surely live. And the children of thy people have said: The way of the Lord is not equitable: whereas their own way is unjust. For when the just shall depart from his justice, and commit iniquities, he shall die in them.” (Ezek 33,13-18)

Julia: But then, why does the gospel tells us that “There is now therefore no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus”? (Rom 8,1)

Joseph: Note that ‘there’ is also conjugated in the present. It does not tell you that no condemnation for those who “were” in Christ, but those who “are” (present), and that means “while they are” and remain firm. If you keep reading the verse, you will see that immediately after he says: “who walk not according to the flesh.”

When I meditated on this, and inquired what the early church believed, I realized that the idea that you can’t lose your salvation was completely alien to the early Christians. Note that in the Didache, which is the oldest non-canonical Christian writings (year 60) contemporary to the Gospels, it’s written: “the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you be not made perfect in the last time.” (The Didache 16,1-2). St. Clement of Rome ordered by St. Peter himself, in 96 writes: “Let us therefore earnestly strive to be found in the number of those that wait for Him, in order that we may share in His promised gifts. But how, beloved, shall this be done? If our understanding be fixed by faith towards God; if we earnestly seek the things which are pleasing and acceptable to Him; if we do the things which are in harmony with His blameless will; and if we follow the way of truth, casting away from us all unrighteousness and iniquity, along with all covetousness, strife, evil practices, deceit, whispering, and evil-speaking, all hatred of God, pride and haughtiness, vain glory and ambition.[3],  and the idea of staying true until the end to have the saving keeps throughout his letter. St. Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John writes: “He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments[4]. St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St. Peter and St. Paul says that it is not enough only to have faith but persevere in it until the end[5]. The Shepherd of Hermas, dated mid-second century, tells us of a vision where he sees Christians who believed, but then lose their salvation by straying from the path of faith and obedience[6]. Also in the second century, we have with them at St. Justin Martyr[7], Irenaeus of Lyon[8], St. Theophilus of Antioch[9], and many others.

Julia: But all those Christians, although they were famous, they were fallible men who could be mistaken.

Joseph: Of course, but many of them were evangelized by the Apostles themselves, such as saint Clement of Rome, saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Polycarp. And just like them, the Christians understood it for sixteen centuries, until the arrival of Martin Luther when he began his Protestant Reformation, but even he could not convince everyone, and so there are today many evangelicals who do believe that salvation could be missed[10].

Michael: But if we look at it in that way, how can they live in peace fearing they may lose their salvation? Christ came to teach us that even though we are sinners, in Him we have salvation and eternal life.

Joseph: We hope that He will be there to help us to lift, so if we sin, we turn to the sacrament of penance. What we must not believe, because it is unbiblical and it has not been the faith of the Church throughout its history, is that we have secured salvation even though we quit being faithful to God and His Word. If believe this, we would be deaf to all warnings of Christ and we could end up as the foolish virgins of the parable: “Then shall the kingdom of heaven be like to ten virgins, who taking their lamps went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride. And five of them were foolish and five wise. But the five foolish, having taken their lamps, did not take oil with them. But the wise took oil in their vessels with the lamps. And the bridegroom tarrying, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made: Behold the bridegroom cometh. Go ye forth to meet him. Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise: Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out. The wise answered, saying: Lest perhaps there be not enough for us and for you, go ye rather to them that sell and buy for yourselves. Now whilst they went to buy the bridegroom came: and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage. And the door was shut. But at last came also the other virgins, saying: Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answering said: Amen I say to you, I know you not. Watch ye therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour.” (Matt 25,1-13)

Jesus calls us to persevere until the end, to be prepared, not to trust that we already have our salvation. Remember that he told us: “Watch ye therefore, because you know not what hour your Lord will come. But this know ye, that, if the good man of the house knew at what hour the thief would come, he would certainly watch and would not suffer his house to be broken open. Wherefore be you also ready, because at what hour you know not the Son of man will come. Who, thinkest thou, is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath appointed over his family, to give them meat in season? Blessed is that servant, whom when his lord shall come he shall find so doing. Amen I say to you: he shall place him over all his goods. But if that evil servant shall say in his heart: My lord is long a coming: And shall begin to strike his fellow servants and shall eat and drink with drunkards: The lord of that servant shall come in a day that he hopeth not and at an hour that he knoweth not: And shall separate him and appoint his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 24,42-51)

NOTES

[1] Steve Ray, Evangelical Baptist convert to Catholic explains the differences between the Greek aorist and present times as follows:

- Aorist Tense: The aorist tense is characterized by its emphasis on punctiliar action; that is, the concept of the verb is considered without regard for past, present, or future time. There is no direct or clear English equivalent for this tense, though it is generally rendered as a simple past tense in most translations. The events described by the aorist tense are classified into a number of categories by grammarians. The three most common of these are (1) a view of the action as having begun from a certain point (“inceptive aorist”), or (2) having ended at a certain point (“cumulative aorist”), or (3) merely existing at a certain point (“punctiliar aorist”). The categorization of other cases can be found in Greek reference grammars. The English reader need not concern himself with most of these finer points concerning the aorist tense, since in most cases they cannot be rendered accurately in English translation, being fine points of Greek exegesis only. The common practice of rendering an aorist by a simple English past tense suffices in most cases.

- Present time: According to Dana and Manatee in their Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, “The fundamental significance of the present tense is the idea of progress. It is the linear tense . . . the progressive force of the present tense should always be considered as primary, especially with reference to the potential moods, which in the nature of the case do not need any 'present punctiliar' tense.” Narrowing it down further, they say, "There are three varieties of the present tense in which its fundamental idea of progress is especially patent. Under 'the progressive present: “This use is manifestly nearest the root idea of the tense. It signifies action in progress, or state of persistence.” In short the present tense expresses ongoing action in the present time.

[2] If mere mental assent were enough demons would be saved, as the Bible says: “Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe and tremble.” (Jas 2,19)

[3] Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians 35,4-8

[5] Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle to the Ephesians, 14,1-2

[7] Justin Martyr, First Apology I,12,1-2; I,16,8; I,21,6

[8] Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus haereses IV,37,1-2

[9] Theophilus, Theophilus to Autolycus I,14

[10] Within the traditional Protestantism emerged a trend known as Arminianism, which departed from the Calvinist tenets and recognize that salvation can be lost if the believer himself departs from the faith for free choice.

 

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