The path to heaven
This is No. 6 in the series. Please read my introduction and explanation here.
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The frightened Philippian jailer, recognizing the activity of an almighty God in the great earthquake that released his prisoners’ bonds, fell down before Paul and Silas and asked life’s most eternally significant question.1 It’s one that most of us have or will ask at some point in our lives. How does the Catholic Church answer it?
For a topic so important and universally broached, the subject index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has relatively few entries. One could hope that the reason for that is that the answer is so simple, it doesn’t require multiple paragraphs under various subheadings to express it. Unfortunately, one would be hard-pressed to find a clear, satisfactory answer in all of the Catechism.
The closest thing to a simple answer that I found is paragraph 1724 which reads, “The Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, and the apostolic catechesis describe for us the paths that lead to the Kingdom of heaven. Sustained by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we tread them, step by step, by everyday acts. By the working of the Word of Christ, we slowly bear fruit in the Church to the glory of God.” Though leaving much unanswered (How faithfully must we stay on the path? How much fruit must I produce?), what this statement affirms is the Catholic Church’s teaching of salvation by works. The answer to, “What must I do to be saved?” is basically, you must earn it by leading a satisfactorily obedient life that God will see fit to reward with his eternal presence.
The Church acknowledges the necessity of faith in Christ (161) and will say that we are saved by grace through faith, an apparent agreement with the Evangelical position. But grace itself is earned (making it something other than grace). “Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.” (2027)
How much is needed? Can a Catholic ever be sure of his or her eternal destiny, based on Church doctrine? No. Even a full life marked by obedience and works of charity can be unrecognized and discarded at death if one’s final act was to commit one mortal sin. (1861)
But what does the Bible say…the one the Catholic Church upholds as the very Word of God? “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”2 How can we know it if we’re trusting in our works and don’t have a clue as to the minimum requirement? How can we know it if we are clueless also as to what kinds of sins we may commit that are grave enough to damn us to hell?
When the Philippian jailer implored Paul and Silas for a remedy for his perceived, precarious position, they didn’t give him conditional requirements, a list of commandments, a tenuous promise, or an application for church membership. They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
The New Testament is filled with attestations to the teaching that we are saved by grace through faith alone. I listed some of them in my post of a few days ago. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”3 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”4
Catholics often misunderstand the Evangelical position on salvation, charging that we believe that works don’t matter. They do, but as evidence of salvation, not a means of earning it. When James says, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,”5 he’s not saying faith isn’t sufficient. He’s saying that supposed faith is not life-giving if it doesn’t result in works. It’s not saving faith if it’s not demonstrated in the life of the professed believer. It’s just a dead profession from one who is still dead himself.6
If we have to be good enough to enter the Kingdom of God, what was the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection? What’s different about and why did we need a New Covenant? Catholics have told me that Jesus opened the gates of Heaven but we still have to walk through. But what was barring us from entry was our sin, and Jesus paid the penalty for that. So that now, “since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”7 Jesus’ body is likened to the Temple curtain that separated the Jews from the Holy of Holies. It was rent when he offered up himself to the Father on the cross, and now the way is open to all who put their faith and trust in him. We needn’t do anything else.
What must I do to be saved? You will likely get a convoluted, conditional, and mostly unsatisfactory answer from just about every Catholic. But a simple and straightforward one from the Word of God himself: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
All numbers in parentheses are source paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
1 Acts 16 2 1 John 5:13 3 Romans 11:6 4 Ephesians 2:8-9 5 James 2:17 6 Ephesians 2:1 7 Hebrews 10:19-22a
You quoted from Acts and ignore what Christ said in Luke 10:25-28. Your belief makes Paul and Christ contradict each other. Paul, according to you, taught salvation by faith alone while Christ demanded obeying commandments as pre-requisite of eternal life. In Matthew 25: 34-40 those who enter heaven are the righteous (verse 46) – they did righteous things (1 John 3:7) that entitle them to enter heaven. They do not enter heaven based on their faith in Christ alone. For sure Scripture, being the very words of God, cannot contradict each other. But your belief in salvation by faith alone, unfortunately, fails to reconcile them.
When I was evangelical they also told me good works are evidence of our true faith in Christ. They are not meritous – we do them because we are saved, not for being saved (because faith in Christ already secured it). Yet Scripture says God rewards us for our good works (Proverbs 13:13, Psalms 18:20, 2 John 8, Revelation 22:12 etc.) and He even rewards us with eternal life for our good works (John 5:28-29, Romans 2:6-7). My question for you is: if good works are evidence of our faith, what is the minimum amount or frequency of our good works one must do to produce enough evidence? This question may never cross your mind but you need to define this minimum requirement. Otherwise one may say that he/she does good work, say on weekly basis, and claims that he/she has enough evidence for his/her faith. It sounds like salvation by works – indeed your salvation concept is by faith plus works, despite being marketed and propagated as salvation by faith alone. Reformer Martin Luther, the inventor of “by faith alone salvation”, freely admitted that works are necessary for salvation (if you wish I can provide you with the source).
You problem with (2027) is classic. First notice the phrase “moved by the Holy Spirit” and that is the condition of “meriting” grace – in other words it is grace that merits grace, NOT that we merit grace. If you still don’t get it then a good example is: suppose a missionary went overseas to preach the good news. Catholics believe he/she was first moved by Grace from God given by the Holy Spirit through Christ (it does not come from his/her free-will) and through his/her missionary work the missionary “merits” grace of salvation to others. Catholics understand that merits from good works are God’s gift, they are not something we deserve. It is stated clearly in the Catechism if you look diligently.
Catholics do believe in predestination of the Elect for heaven but He does not predestine any of us to hell. The Elect have assurance of salvation yet unless it is revealed by God we cannot know who and how many they are. Catholic belief that one would end up in hell with just one mortal sin, even if the person has full life marked with obedience and works is indeed scriptural – just read Ezekiel 18:24. In 1 John 5:16-17 talks about mortal (or deadly) and non-mortal sin, which is in Catholic teaching but not in evangelical teaching.
To Catholics justification is a process while to you and other spiritual descendants of Reformers it is one-time event and by faith alone. This is the reason why you fail to understand Catholic teaching – you look it from your point of view, not from the Scripture even you produced lots of verses. To you and other readers, especially evangelical readers, for more detail you may read my post on the difference between Catholic and Reformer’s view on Justification at:
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