Faith: The Pledge of Salvation

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I think when I was younger I assumed that Protestants defined themselves the same way that my Catholic textbook defined them.  I assumed that deep down, they really knew that Catholicism was the real Christianity from which they broke off but that they were somehow locked in a perpetual state of "protesting."  And, I assumed that their faith was somehow insincere. Looking back, I can now recognize that it was really my own faith that was quite insincere. 

One way to describe it was that I had faith in the Catholic Church but not in Jesus.  I assented to all the doctrines about Jesus, but there was no relationship.  I was committed to the idea of Jesus, but not to the person of Jesus.  And so I assumed that the faith of Protestants must be somehow rooted in selfishness, or at least self-deception.  Authenticity itself looks like fraud to a phony - I was the phony.

Once I received that gift of a personal faith, my attitudes towards other Christians quickly changed.  I could no longer dismiss their authentic faith in Jesus.  They had the same faith in him that I now had.  Heck, they had a stronger faith in Jesus than I had and challenged me to pursue him wholeheartedly.

At the same time, I was and am a son of the Church.  I believe in the central role that the sacraments (received in faith) play in our salvation.  Yet it seems equally clear to me that God would not overlook the sincere faith of other Christians and dismiss them on a "technicality."

As a result of these considerations, I have come to think of faith as the pledge of salvation.

THE TWO AGENTS OF JUSTIFICATION

When we consider justification (being made right with God), there are two agents involved - God and man. And there are two actions involved, one proper to each of these. On the part of man, there is the act of faith.  But faith in itself is incapable of producing justification for it is an act of man* (albeit one that is made possible by grace). Justification requires an action on God's part, an action that actually produces the change in man. Justification happens when the faith of man is met by the justifying action of God.

The difference between Catholic and Protestant/Evangelical views lies primarily with how and when this action of God takes place.  Catholic teaching has always affirmed that justification comes through Baptism.  Paragraph 1992 of the Catechism reads:

Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.

In Catholic theology then, there is a "gap" between the act of faith and justifying action of God through Baptism.  In other words, the initial act of faith makes one ready to receive Baptism, but it is Baptism itself that applies the merits of Christ by which we are justified.

By contrast, in the view of most Protestants and Evangelicals the act of faith is met in an immediate and direct way.  At the very moment of repentance and confession, justification is applied directly by God.  This theological perspective illuminates their pastoral practice.  Pastor Levi Lusko at Fresh Life Church, for instance, ends almost every sermon by proclaiming the saving passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus and inviting anyone in his audience (physical and virtual) to make an act of faith and receive the gift of salvation.  Given his theological perspective, this practice makes perfect sense.

As stated in my original post, my primary intention for this series is to enter into a theological dialogue for the purpose of considering Catholic pastoral practice.  As such, I want to focus on how I think Catholic practice can benefit from considering the Protestant/Evangelical point of view.

DOES CATHOLIC PRACTICE TRIVIALIZE THE ACT OF FAITH?

One way that I am challenged by Evangelicals like Levi Lusko is in the great weight that they place on that initial act of faith.  They recognize this as a momentous occasion, a time when an individual decides to turn away from sin and to place his trust in Jesus.

A great concern of mine is whether Catholic pastoral practice brushes past this moment too quickly. To be fair, I think this is fueled by a legitimate pastoral concern in light of our sacramental theology.  The sacraments play a critical role in our justification and ultimate salvation.  They are the vehicle for God's critical action in justification.

But precisely because the sacraments are "objective," because they work ex opere operato, they can give a false sense of security.  As Catholics, we tend to be uncomfortable with the idea that anything "subjective" - including the "subjective" act of faith - could provide any real security, especially the security of salvation.

While I could spout off a number of scripture verses about the sacraments that I believe many non-Catholic Christians tend to overlook, there are other verses that we as Catholics seem to turn a blind eye to in regards to the real power and weight of this personal act of faith.  For instance, consider this section from Romans that is often referenced by Evangelicals in conjunction with the call to faith.

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach), for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.  For the scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him.  For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:8-13)

"No one who believes in him will be put to shame" - these are strong words!  Can we not see the heart of the Father towards us in these words?  And so an authentic faith in Jesus turns out to be the most secure position for anyone.  Put another way, which is the safer place to be - to have faith and not be baptized, or to be baptized and not have faith?

FAITH AS THE PLEDGE OF SALVATION

I would like to find a meeting place between Catholic and Protestant/Evangelical belief on this, and I believe this can be found in the Church's teaching on "baptism of desire."  From the Catechism:

For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament. (paragraph 1259)

The word that stands out to me in the Catechism's description of baptism of desire is "assures" - their faith in Jesus and desire to be united to him through baptism assures them of salvation, assures them that God will provide for their justification whether by ordinary means (baptism by water) or by extraordinary means (baptism of desire).

This is why I have begun to think of faith as the pledge of salvation.  A pledge is something that is promised but not necessarily delivered immediately.  But when the one who pledges is trustworthy (God) we can have assurance that it will in fact be delivered.  Even if we disagree with our Protestant/Evangelical brethren about when and how God accomplishes the actual justification of one who has faith, the fact that authentic faith actually provides assurance of salvation is something that we can and should proclaim with one voice.

This notion of faith as the pledge of salvation will be the common undercurrent throughout this series of posts.  Up next, I will take a look at the common Evangelical teaching of "Once Saved, Always Saved."

This post is the second in a series on "Inviting the Act of Faith."  The full series can be accessed below:

  1. Part One: Inviting the Act of Faith: Introduction
  2. Part Two: Faith, the Pledge of Salvation
  3. Part Three: Once Saved, Always Saved?
  4. Part Four: Faith and Encounter
  5. Part Five: Going “All In” with God
  6. Part Six: What Does Rescue Look Like?
  7. Part Seven: A Major Lacuna in Catholic Ministry
  8. Part Eight: Practical Ways to Invite Faith