Keep Your Catholic Faith: How Do We Get Saved?

Marcy #1:

Everyone knew Marcy shouldn’t have married him. Greg was an asshole. Everyone could see this a mile away, and, truth be told, Marcy could see it, too. But she loved Greg. And Greg, as best he could I suppose, loved her. He didn’t treat her that well, but you could see he was at least sincere and promised to the moon that he would be a better man. Their wedding day, all things considered, was a happy one. You thought for a moment, watching them stare lovingly into each other’s eyes, that things might just work out.

And they did… for awhile. Greg cleaned up quite a bit – got a job and started going to AA. Marcy meanwhile, pretty soon out of the gate, was expecting a child. But a couple years in, after their little boy was born and she got pregnant again, Greg started falling back into his old habits. He stopped going to AA meetings and began getting drunk more often. It became maybe once every two months, then once a month, then once a week – nearly always on a Friday night and, as was rumored among people who knew him, with a girl on his arm most of the time.

This habit went on for quite awhile: Friday night he went out, got smashed, was gone most of the day Saturday, and rolled in Saturday evening. He wouldn’t talk much, mostly holed up in his room. Sunday, with the most authentic puppy-dog face he could muster, he’d tell Marcy he was wrong and that he would change – that he loved her as much that day as the day they were married. Then, Friday night, he’d be back out again.

Friends told Marcy she had to leave. She gave him a chance – more than a thousand chances, in fact. He was the one leaving her, really. She needed to protect herself and her son and whomever this new baby might be.

But she never left Greg. And Greg never changed. She had more children, and life was hard – really hard. And in the end, he died in his 50’s – to the quiet and stifled delight of many – possibly including Marcy herself.

 

Marcy #2:

Everyone knew Marcy shouldn’t have married him. Greg was an asshole. Everyone could see this a mile away, and, truth be told, Marcy could see it, too. But she loved Greg. And Greg, as best he could, I suppose, loved her. He didn’t treat her that well, but you could see he was at least sincere and promised to the moon that he could be a better man. Their wedding day, all things considered, was a happy one. You thought for a moment, watching them stare lovingly into each other’s eyes, that things might just work out

And they did for awhile. Greg cleaned up quite a bit – got a job and started going to AA. Marcy, meanwhile, was pretty soon out of the gate expecting a child. But a couple years in, after their little boy was born and she got pregnant again, Greg started falling back into his old habits. He stopped going to AA meetings and began getting drunk more often. It started at once every two months, then once a month, then once a week – nearly always on a Friday night and, as was rumored among people who knew him, with a girl on his arm most of the time.

The habit went on for quite awhile: Friday night he went out, got smashed, was gone most of the day Saturday, and rolled in Saturday evening. He wouldn’t talk much, mostly holed up in his room. Sunday, with the most authentic puppy-dog face he could muster, he’d tell Marcy he was wrong and that he would change – that he loved her as much today as the day they were married. Then, Friday night, he’d be back out again.

No one needed to tell Marcy this situation couldn’t go on forever. After awhile, she began to clue in that Greg was never going to change and that all his talk about “love” and “sun, moon and stars” stuff was bullshit.

So one Friday night, as he was grabbing his jacket and keys to go hang out with the guys, she laid it on him.

“You used to love me once, but you don’t anymore. And I’m telling you that if you go out one more time like this, that’s it. Either choose me or choose whatever girl you plan on being with tonight, but it can’t be both. You don’t mean it when you tell me you’ll change. I won’t believe it until you show me – until I see it with my own two eyes.”

The ultimatum was better than he deserved, but he didn’t take her seriously. He said he’d be back early that night, and, of course, he wasn’t. And when he walked through the door Saturday evening, he found his home cold, dark, and empty. And he never saw Marcy again.

_______________________

A lot of times, when the average man on the street thinks about God, he thinks of Him in the abstract. God is an idea we ponder or a toy for philosophers to bat around on a breezy afternoon. But what if God was real? Someone like Marcy? The question of salvation, of how you get to Heaven, in some ways comes down to the kind of God you think you’re dealing with. Is He someone who will let everyone from Pope Francis to Hitler through the door, or does He have limits?

Painting in incredibly broad brushstrokes here, many Protestants claim that all that is required to be saved from Hell and go to Heaven is to put one’s trust in the death of Christ on the Cross for our sins. Believe, and that’s it. Yes, good works will flow from believing in Jesus, but they are merely the sign of salvation, not part of what actually saves you.

Catholics, on the other hand, hold that, yes, belief is essential, but we also need to cooperate with God’s power – what we call “grace” – to gradually grow into holy people.

In light of this, Protestants will accuse Catholics of imagining a God who only loves us with strings attached. We Catholics somehow have to “work our way to Heaven” because God won’t give it as a free gift for believing in Jesus. And so Catholics, it is assumed, live in constant fear and trembling of a wrathful God ready to smite at any moment.

This isn’t quite accurate, but for the moment, let’s assume the accusation is true. Why should there not be strings attached to God’s love? Should Marcy, in the story above, stick with Greg despite his clearly having checked out? Is there nothing required of Greg to maintain the relationship? Nothing for him to do? Is it enough for him simply to say that he loves Marcy and is sorry for what he’s done when over and over again he betrays her?

The Protestant conception of God can very easily make God a slave to the Christian. The relationship can twist very quickly from being a love relationship to a business one. God becomes our cosmic vending machine – someone we use, abuse, and perhaps discard when we don’t need Him anymore. In Martin Scorsese’s recent film, “Silence”, there is a character who exemplifies this. He becomes a kind of Judas figure and betrays his priest for money, but then tries to be absolved through the very same priest later on. He also denies God over and over again when the going gets tough but always wants to be forgiven afterward. At what point do we just admit his piety doesn’t mean anything? The Catholic conception of salvation doesn’t let the Christian off the hook so easily.

But don’t think that because God might not be as obstinately gracious as the Protestant picture of Him, that somehow means we Catholics don’t think God’s love is unconditional. It is, but it is only in truly obeying and loving Him in relationship that we experience the full effects of that unconditional love. He never changes, but we can. And so, like in the second story, if we abuse our relationship with God by committing mortal, or grave, sin and don’t repent, we forfeit that relationship. It is not God who has changed in His love for us. It is we who grow cold and closed off to Him.

That may sound harsh on the face of it. Apparently, if we’re not good enough, we will be separated from God forever. That’s a frightening thought for the Christian. But mortal sin – the kind of sin that shatters our relationship with God – is a lot harder to commit than it might seem. For a sin to be that serious, it has to meet three criteria:

1. It has to be a sin that is serious.

2. The person committing it has to actually know it’s a grave sin. If you don’t know whether or not it’s a mortal sin, it’s not a mortal sin.

3. The person has to do it deliberately, with his complete consent and not under compulsion. And keep in mind, it might be considered “compulsion” if the person doing it is so in the habit of doing that particular sin he does it without thinking or with great resistance can’t keep from doing it. (check with your local priest)

In my experience, to commit a sin that separates me from God, I’ve got to really want it. Maybe my experience is uncommon, but I think the average Catholic, trying to live a good Catholic life, is not going to be living in constant fear of this. That doesn’t mean I haven’t committed my fair share of mortal sins, but even then, if I’m truly sorry for what I’ve done and fully intend to go to confession the soonest I can, the Catechism teaches that God will be merciful.

That’s really getting into the details, but the central point here is that I must try in my relationship with God. As Mother Teresa put it, saints are just sinners who kept trying. Effort needs to be put forth on my part. My trying may be feeble. I may be stumbling all over the place. I’ll definitely need all the grace and power I can get to keep walking. But keep walking I must, otherwise the lip-service I pay God means nothing.

Because for the Catholic, believing in Jesus means believing in everything He taught, both in Scripture and through the church today, and trying to live by it. If we’re like Greg and don’t give him even a little effort that tells Him we really want Him,  why should He stick around?

But of course, all of this is only to say that the Catholic position makes sense. A whole other very important question is whether or not all of this is in the Bible. That I will try and get to in the next post in this series.

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8 thoughts on “Keep Your Catholic Faith: How Do We Get Saved?

    1. Thank you for saying that. I know I can’t do the protestant side justice with such a short post, and every protestant friend I have loves Jesus and is trying to live a holy life. they have a lot of thought-provoking things to say to me, too! 🙂

  1. Great post, Jon! I loved the anaology–and was surprised by it after reading the two scenarios! I love that Marcy’s name is so close to “Mercy”… perhaps if you changed her name the stories would play out differently? If she were the purest form of love–all merciful–and Greg truly WANTED to change, could her love and spirit be so captivating that it would pierce his soul and change him, either over time or in an instant? That once his eyes were unveiled to the true beauty that she possessed, would he then have a conversion? Of course, I can’t help but think of how purgatory plays into this topic as well… do Protestant believe in purgatory? Please forgive my ignorance.

    I realize I just went on a tangent and your point was cooperating with His love and mercy–rather than taking it for granted. Sorry about that. I so enjoy reading your posts! Very thought provoking indeed!

    1. Irene! I’m glad you’re on here. 🙂 Maybe some Anglicans believe in purgatory? I’m sure Ren could tell you. There’s so much we could talk about when it comes to all of this. I kept feeling like there were things I wanted to say but couldn’t stuff them in. I like that idea of Marcy’s love being “captivating.” I think that’s what it is with conversion. You fall in love with Christ first and, because of that, you then want to change. Thank you for commenting!

  2. Here is something that I found online quite a few months ago and copied it because it really explained a lot to me…Just thought I’d add this quote with the source as it really helped me to see things differently. It’s not so much about the “how,” but I think it’s helpful.

    “Are you saved?” asks the Fundamentalist. The Catholic should reply: “As the Bible says, I am already saved (Rom. 8:24, Eph. 2:5–8), but I’m also being saved (1 Cor. 1:18, 2 Cor. 2:15, Phil. 2:12), and I have the hope that I will be saved (Rom. 5:9–10, 1 Cor. 3:12–15). Like the apostle Paul I am working out my salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), with hopeful confidence in the promises of Christ (Rom. 5:2, 2 Tim. 2:11–13).”

    http://www.catholic.com/tracts/assurance-of-salvation

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