Some Christians believe that in order to be saved, all one has to do is believe in Jesus. They say that all our sins, past, present, and future, were all forgiven when Jesus died on the cross. So if we believe in Jesus, we automatically go to heaven when we die. This idea is called “sola fide.” In other words, they say that our actions here on earth, including acts of compassion toward the poor and disadvantaged, ie., our “works,” do not help us get to heaven. Christians who subscribe to this idea tend to cite a number of verses in St. Paul’s letters. Okay, what did Jesus say? Jesus’ words that seem to address this are found in the Gospel readings at Mass for the past two Sundays. The first instance is the parable found in Matthew 25, the story of the “talents” given to a Master’s servants. Two of the servants performed works with their talents while the third buried his in the ground. When the Master returned after a journey (think Christ’s second coming), he was quite pleased with the first two and said “Come, share in your Master’s joy.” But to the third, he said “Throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” The second instance is where Jesus discusses the end times, also in Matthew 25. To those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the ill, and visited the imprisoned he will say: “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared since the foundation of the world.” But to those who did not do these things, he will say: “Depart from me you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” It seems in both instances that those who were cursed did, in fact, believe in him but did not perform works of mercyOne might ask what Scripture passages from St. Paul’s letters support the sola fide idea. In the interest of brevity, I will cite one such verse, one that seems to appear in most of the debates I’ve seen. It is from Ephesians 2: “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.” To say that this supports sola fide indicates to me that “works” here has been taken out of context. If one considers the entirety of St. Paul’s discussion (including other letters), we see that he is talking about works “of the law,” probably meaning circumcision and other requirements for Jews under the Mosaic Law, not compassionate works of mercy toward the poor and disadvantaged. My conclusion is that Jesus’ death did indeed open the pearly gates for us, but we still have work to do. The verse cited from St. Paul says that we obtain salvation by grace through faith. Part of what we must do, then, involves the sacraments, which are rites instituted by Christ to give us this grace. Look for more on the sacraments in this blog in the weeks ahead.
Happy Thanksgiving to all my faithful readers. The photograph is of a wild turkey taken at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge near Onawa, Iowa.