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