That’s essentially it. The French poet, Léon Bloy, wrote “Life, in the end, has only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” In other words, life’s ultimate tragedy is one’s failure to let love be his guide—and end. Without love, writes St. Paul, you gain nothing (1 Cor 13:3). Indeed religious faith requires love in order to be efficacious as true faith; that’s why even the eternally damned demons believe—and shudder (James 2:19).
Christ gave us one commandment: to love. What’s love? “To love”, writes St. Thomas Aquinas ” is to will the good of the other.” To will the good of the other; and to persevere in doing so.
But hold on a minute: what about faith? Doesn’t faith ensure one’s heavenly reward?
Indeed faith is necessary for salvation. St. Paul in particular writes in a number of places that we are justified—or by grace made properly disposed to enter heaven as sons and daughters of God—by faith. One classic passage is Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” Back to that particular passage in a moment. But it is true and undeniable that St. Paul presents faith (especially explicit in his letter to the Romans and Galatians) as the primary avenue by which a person becomes justified.
But what is faith? That’s the million dollar question. Faith, my friends, is a hotdog. Well not literally but you’ll see what I mean in a minute. First let me make my next key point: faith, as St. Paul uses it, is a whole bunch of things rolled up in one; and Steve Ray’s hotdog analogy gets right to the heart of what I mean. It goes like this:
“Consider this: if you go to a restaurant and ask for a hotdog, and the waiter dropped a frozen hotdog on the table, what would you think? You would be shocked and angry! But you asked for a hotdog and a hotdog is what you got. But you expected the waiter to have some cultural literacy — to know that a hotdog was shorthand for a plate, silverware, a napkin, a hotdog in a bun, chips, ketchup, and everything else that goes with a “hotdog.”
Faith saves us—yes. But faith is in-formed (or made what it “is”) by love, and love is action; and the Scriptures tell us a few specific actions that are required to be saved, or inherit eternal life. It’s not a matter of earning one’s salvation: that has been done once and for all by Jesus Christ on Calvary (Heb 7:27, 10:10). But we must accept the gift and “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). The process of receiving the gift is a process, which is why we notice St. Paul using past, present and future tense when referring to our salvation:
“For by grace you have been saved…” (Eph 2:8)
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18)
“If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor 3:15)
We are saved once and for all, objectively. We here on earth are being saved, individually. The final decision is all up to Christ, the Judge of Judges. This is why St. Paul admits:
“I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Cor 4:4)
St. James encourages us to “let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The writer of Hebrews coaches us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb 21:1). Jesus himself assured his disciples who would face unimaginable persecution and temptation to abandon their faith: “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22).
Now what are some of the specific actions required to fully accept that gift of salvation won for us through Christ’s cross and resurrection?
Jesus gives an essential summary in St. Matthew’s Gospel—plain and simple it will come down to this:
“Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
But we are incapable of persevering in these acts of love and mercy on our own. We need help. That’s what the sacraments are for; and that’s why the sacraments, too, are essential for our salvation:
First and foremost is baptism. Baptism is the gateway sacrament through which we are saved by grace (Eph 2:8-10). The Church excludes nobody from receiving this initial infusion of grace; not even infants whose real faith we anticipate at their baptism (see Acts 2:38-39). According to our first pope, “Baptism, which corresponds to [the flood in Noah’s time], now saves you” (1 Pet 3:21). Here St. Peter is just echoing what he learned from the Lord. According to Jesus shortly before his ascension: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:16).
We believe that baptism results in not just the completion of a public symbolic action; but along with the earliest Christians, we maintain that baptism actually changes the baptized. It restores supernatural life to the soul. The body is washed physically; and the soul is washed spiritually. This is why St. Peter preaches in his first sermon after Pentecost:
“And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
This is also why St. Paul compares baptism to dying with Christ and rising with Him (see Romans 6; Colossians 2). He writes to Titus:
“he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)
Alright. So baptism leaves the baptized sinless, all cleansed of original and personal sin. So what if the baptized person sins again? Well, that’s what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is for—another action of love required to remain in the favor of God. St. Paul writes in Romans:
“Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.” (Romans 11:22)
These words seem to hearken back to the words of Lord in St. John’s Gospel:
“If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:6)
Thus if we find ourselves beaten by sin after baptism, it is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation—or confession—that we can be made new again; white as snow just like at baptism.
In the upper room after His resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples and gave them authority to forgive sins on his behalf (see also 2 Cor 2:10):
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
St. Paul refers to this privilege as “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18), this gift of God which allows the disciples to forgive the sins of others “in the presence of Christ” (2 Cor 2:10). The agnostic-turned-Anglican-turned-Catholic, G.K. Chesterton, wrote:
“When a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world….He is now a new experiment of the Creator. He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old…..He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old.”
Confession of one’s sins to a priest is a beautiful; but it is not an easy thing. Nonetheless it is essential and one’s failure to put himself at the feet of Jesus via this sacrament can have eternal consequences. We have only this life to confess our sins and obtain new life within us as a result. St. Cyprian writes around 250 A.D:
“I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord” (The Lapsed 15:28)
Confession is like getting out of bed in the morning. It’s difficult; but it’s necessary in order to obtain fullness of life
Lastly, among the many things wrapped up in the life faith is the reception of our Lord’s glorified body and blood in the Eucharist. Jesus leaves no room for speculation about the importance of the Eucharist:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53)
And if there was any question at all about Jesus meant in his controversial Bread of Life discourse (see John 6), the Christ, on the night before He died held up bread and said “this is my body” and did the same with wine, calling it His blood (for more on the Eucharist see my previous article here and here).
Furthermore, the Eucharist is the New Passover. Thinking back to the first Old Covenant Passover, you’ll recall that a male, unblemished lamb was to be slaughtered, bones left unbroken, blood sprinkled on the wood of the doorway, and you had to eat the lamb. If you didn’t eat the lamb, you didn’t complete the prescribed ritual—and death was the result.
When Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” according to St. John the Baptist is crucified, there too do we find a male, spiritually unblemished victim, his blood sprinkled on the wood of the cross, and according to the words of Jesus—”unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
That’s why St. Paul writes:
“For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Cor 5:7, KJV)
Some Final Thoughts
When St. James writes (much to Martin Luther’s annoyance) that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” he was in no way intending to discredit or contradict St. Paul. He was unveiling saving faith is it truly is, explaining that “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). Just as a soul animates a body, love animates faith. In other words, our salvation comes down to an act of the will: obedience moved by love. That’s why St. Paul places the phrase “obedience of faith” as bookend at the beginning of the first chapter and the end of the last chapter of Romans, his great theological treatise. That’s why the author of Hebrews praises the faith of the Old Testament saints, but describes their acts of obedience of love (see Heb 11). As Blessed John Cardinal Henry Newman wrote: “Faith is the result of the act of the will, following upon a conviction that to believe is a duty.”
Faith is an act of the intellect and the will, empowered by love. All of these are essential: faith, love, obedience; but the greatest of these is love. Without love even faith amounts to nothing in the grand scheme. Love is the prime mover of all things. Love saves.