Oh, how we need a Savior
I watched “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” the other day, the fictional story of a young son of a Nazi commandant befriending a Jewish boy through the barbed wire of a death camp in World War II Poland. It’s a somber though somewhat sanitized reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust, yet what struck me most was the realization of how very badly humanity needs saving.
Getting just a glimpse of the willing involvement of many German soldiers and others in the barbarous treatment and eventual extermination of millions of Jews, Hitler’s “Final Solution,” was very disturbing, and not simply because their hateful deeds are quite factual. More so because I saw myself in them. And lest you feel inclined to smugness…I saw you too.
I saw the human heart left to itself and all the wickedness it’s capable of. Can you say with any certainty that if you had grown up in Nazi Germany suckling anti-Semitic indoctrination that you would not have succumbed? That once indoctrinated to believe that Jews were less than human, and deserved to die because they were responsible for all sorts of evils in the world, you would not have despised the whole ethnicity and been willing to help corral them onto the train cars? Or into the gas chamber?
We are all capable of great evil under the right circumstances. Our problem isn’t just that we’ve all done evil, to one degree or another, but that we have a condition…a heart condition…that inclines us to it and renders us powerless to completely avoid it. That’s what we need saving from, and that’s why all our good works can’t justify us. We need a new heart, from which proceeds new life, and only God can give us that.
So when the Catholic Church teaches that we can merit salvation by “cooperating with God’s grace” in doing good works, they are preaching a doctrine of self-salvation that is in opposition to what the Bible teaches. Because with God’s grace or without, it’s still about the works, and the sinner trying to work himself into Heaven is acting as his own savior, rendering the salvific work of Jesus effectually ineffectual.
Salvation is by faith alone because we are powerless to change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. Stone is without life; flesh pulses, moves, and breathes. A saved soul has a heart made alive and indwelled by God’s Spirit. Can good works produce that?
Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, – John 7:38-39a
Salvation is a work of God which can only be availed of by faith. He will not force anyone to exchange a cold, dead heart for a live one. We have to want it. We must be a willing party to the exchange…that’s how much God values our free determination. A living heart animated by the Holy Spirit will produce good works. But good works cannot produce a living, Spirit-filled heart.