Jason’s Questions: #3 Should I Count on It Being Easy to Get to Heaven?

In this post, I’m turning to an issue that is, in my opinion, one of the most unfortunate theological misunderstandings of all time:  the Catholic/Protestant fight over the relationship between faith and works in making it to heaven.  On this one, I think there’s actually more agreement between the two camps than a lot of people realize.  There are, nevertheless, some practical implications of the Protestant use of the shorthand “faith alone saves” which prevent the Church from consenting to this proposition that was one of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation and that you’ll still hear from Protestant pulpits of many stripes to this day.[1] 

Here’s what I’ve taken as the standard Protestant position, at least in the more Reformed tradition, on faith and works:  true, saving faith naturally results in good works, but it’s the “faith alone” that will get the Christian to heaven.  This position, to my mind, is simply using the word “faith” to swallow up the word “works,” thereby rendering both words unclear and ambiguous.  This, in and of itself, renders the Protestant position suspect to me.  God is not a God of confusion, see I Cor. 14:33, and the Protestant position is nothing if not confusing—at least to this former Protestant who heard it and the various defenses for it all of his life.

The Protestant approach to the faith/works issue also tends to lead the individual believer to feel that, any time he doesn’t want to do good works, he must not have gotten the “real” faith back ten years ago when he “got saved.”  If one of the primary purposes of the “faith alone” doctrine is to give individual believers certainty that they’re saved (which, from my reading of Luther and the other Reformers, was certainly one such purpose), the doctrine fails to meet even its own test.  I’ve known too many Protestants over the years who are plagued by this very issue. 

Lastly, before turning to the Catholic position, the Protestant approach seemed to me utterly inconsistent with Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, which makes quite clear that what will divide the sheep from the goats is what they did and didn’t do (as Keith Green would put it).  Both the sheep and the goats, according to the parable, believed in Jesus, i.e., they “had faith.”[2]

What is the Catholic response to all this?  I think it’s pretty simple:  “faith” is “faith,” and “works” are “works,” and the two words signify different things.  One can have “saving” faith but not do good works, for all sorts of reasons, such as laziness, just don’t feel like it, having a bad day, etc.[3]  Not doing good works doesn’t mean you don’t have “saving faith,” but it does mean to the Catholic that the person not doing good works is doing something that’s bad.  But then, unlike the Protestant in the same position who might then have a tendency to begin to doubt the efficacy of that one moment in time he “accepted” Jesus back in the past, the Catholic can take some very simple steps to get back on the right path:  go to Confession, receive the grace imparted thereby, and go out and do better. 

At bottom, though, I think the main issue here is largely semantic, with Protestants and Catholics (in substance) saying similar things.  It’s rare to meet a Protestant who would say that how one lives one’s life doesn’t mean anything to where he’ll spend eternity, although then they’ve got to do a tap-dance to defend “faith alone.”  Indeed, I once heard a fellow Catholic convert say that, when he was considering Catholicism, he met with a Lutheran professor, and the professor told him that the whole faith/works issue from the Reformation was just an unfortunate misunderstanding that has been resolved so that the only significant divide between Lutherans and Catholics now relates to the nature of the Church.[4]

If the Lutheran professor was right, then why does the Church continue to make a big deal about the use of the phrase “faith alone”?  I can think of at least two reasons. 

The first reason is the one I’ve already indicated above.  Stating that “faith alone saves” and meaning, by that, that “saving faith” will naturally result in “good works,” can cause Christians great misery because, if they don’t feel like doing good works, they begin to question whether they were ever really “saved.” 

Second, if you just hear the statement, “faith alone saves,” it has the tendency to make you think that all that matters in getting to heaven is what you believe so it becomes vitally important to be “right” about everything (or you may think that, as long as you prayed a prayer and walked an aisle at one point, you’re set).  You don’t normally wait around to hear the rest of the Protestant explanation of how “faith” really includes “works.”  This has a tendency to turn the whole Christian life into a headgame that never ends, which is exactly the impact it had on me.[5]  Also, because I don’t believe anyone wants to believe in a system that so apparently consigns vast numbers of our fellow creatures to Hell (for not having exactly the “right” faith), Protestants begin the exercise, discussed in my last post, of creating ever-shrinking lists of “essentials.”[6]

Now here, I have to issue a warning.  The next part of this was hard to write, and it may be hard for some of my readers to read:  due to the shrinking of the Protestant “essentials” list, the standard evangelical answers to some of the hard questions of life are becoming increasingly vague, all the while sounding ultra-spiritual.[7]  Want to know whether it’s important to insist on a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2?  “Just love Jesus.”  Want to know whether you should be a Calvinist or an Arminian on issues of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will?  “Just love Jesus.”  Want to know whether it’s a good idea to use IVF?  “Just love Jesus.”  Want to know whether you can get remarried after a divorce?  “Just love Jesus.”  I could go on, but I’ll stop now.

I understand some of the subjects I’ve raised here are provocative.  That’s the point.  These are issues that hit all of us (including me and others I’ve known throughout my life who’ve struggled with these very issues) exactly where we live.  For myself, I got to the point where I concluded that, if my “faith” didn’t give me meaningful answers to these (at least to me) obviously important questions so that my “works” could match what I believed, what good was it?  And, if it isn’t apparent, “Just love Jesus” as an answer here is simply a cop-out.  I’ll even go further than that:  it’s taking Our Lord’s name in vain because it’s making His name meaningless. 

Is it hard “work” to research the reasons for the Church’s answers to the questions I’ve posed above and others?  Yes—so was getting through college and law school.  The following is the question I ultimately asked myself on this issue:  what makes me think it would be easier to get meaningful answers to these significant questions about how I live in this world, which I know in my bones somehow bear on the question of where I’ll spend eternity, than it is to get the hang of something as insignificant (in comparison) as the American legal system?  I also increasingly came to the belief that God has given me the gift of literacy, and, like all the other gifts He has given me, He expects me to use it.  See the Parable of the Talents, Matt. 25:14-30.  Easy, high-level answers, while very attractive, didn’t seem to be His way of operating throughout the entirety of Scripture.  And God certainly didn’t take the easy way out in dealing with Man’s sin when He came down from Heaven to die for us on the Cross.

Our Savior took the hardest way imaginable to save us.  And that was the ultimate fact that tipped the scales for me in accepting that the Church was right, and those who disagreed with Her wrong, in making a big deal about such a little phrase as “faith alone.” 

[1]               I do recognize that there are Protestant denominations that do not take a “faith alone” approach.  For the most part, the churches I’ve been in, however, with the exception of the instrumental Church of Christ, did subscribe to this.

[2]               I do understand the Biblical interpretation issue here is more complicated than simply referring to the sheep and goats passage.  There is, of course, all that Paul had to say about “faith” and “works” in Romans and in places like Ephesians 2:8-9, and no Catholic worth his salt would suggest it is possible to be saved by works “alone.”  On this issue, the Catholic Church also affirms the role of God’s grace in coming to faith:  “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.”  Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) No. 153.  It is also clear in some of the Pauline passages, such as Romans 3:28, that Paul is talking about the “works of the [Old Testament] Law.”  For more on this, see here.  The “works of the Law” seem to me to be quite different than plain old “good works,” and it also seems clear to me that the works that James spoke of in chapter 2 of his epistle were of the latter variety.  Without those kind of works, “faith . . . is dead.”  James 2:17.

[3]               The Catholic Church does recognize that faith is not mere intellectual assent to a proposition:  “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God.”  CCC No. 150.

[4]               For more on this, see also the Lutheran and Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification here.

[5]               Add to “faith alone” Luther’s admonition to “sin boldly,” and you’ve got a real mess.  More reckless words than these have never been spoken.  And, yes, I recognize Luther expanded on what he meant by this.  His expansion, however, suffers from the same incoherence and confusion I identified above when the word “faith” is taken to include both “faith” and “good works.”

[6]               It is important to note here that I do not want even to suggest that simply having the Catholic faith and participating in the sacramental life of the Church, in and of itself, is a sure-fire ticket to Heaven.  I also don’t want to suggest that Heaven is necessarily unavailable to non-Catholics.  That is not the Church’s teaching.  For more on this subject, see CCC 813-848.  Indeed, one of the prayers said in the Rosary is, “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy Mercy.”

[7]               In this concentration on the “spiritual” at the expense of the physical here and now, Protestantism tends to be at least somewhat Gnostic.  I may expand on this thought in a later post.

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13 Responses to Jason’s Questions: #3 Should I Count on It Being Easy to Get to Heaven?

  1. Fr. Bryan says:

    Thanks for the article, Jason. I enjoy your writing style. Its very engaging and honest.

    There is a very famous evangelical/emerging Church pastor near my parish in Seattle and in my opinion he dodges a lot of difficult questions by reverting to the “Just Love Jesus,” way of thinking. His moral system seems to be, “If it isn’t explicitly condemned in the Bible then it isn’t really that important and is a matter of personal conscience.” While I appreciate the sentiment behind that I just feel as though it is pastorally insensitive in the end because some of these things ARE big deals in the lives of people trying to sort them out and they can be difficult to sort out. People should be able to ask these questions and get help towards forming their conscience from their Church beyond this approach that seems to me to be a bit dismissive. Furthermore this system denies that Christianity’s understanding of the world in light of the Revelation of God has grown and developed over time.

    Thoughts on this or am I out of line?

    God Bless you. I’m really enjoying this project of yours.

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for the comment, Fr. Bryan! The issue you raise toward the end of your comment will likely be one I address further in a later post, as I agree with you that the Protestant system has a problem dealing with the fact that we’re all still in time and can’t simply erase the last 2,000 years.

      God bless you in your ministry!

  2. Thomas says:

    I’ve found it very interesting how folks respond to “If you had to guess: what percentage of folks now living will eventually end up in heaven, what would your guess be?”

    • Jason says:

      I’ll have to punt on this one and say I can only pray the answer is 100. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely affirm the reality of Hell. Beyond that, I’m out of my depth. The late Holy Father (for example, here) as well as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus had a lot to say on this topic that I’ve found helpful.

      • Thomas says:

        Of course we pray “lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.”
        However, that is not the question and it’s not the reason many can not bear to answer the question. I hypothesize that 1) any given person does, in fact, have an opinion (or, if you prefer, a ‘gut feeling’) about what that percentage is and 2) any given person also has an opinion about the general range which would be ‘orthodox’ within their particular faith tradition.
        I suspect that reluctance to venture a guess, realizing that it is just a wild guess, arises when there’s a significant difference between 1) and 2).
        I do not think that “I’m out of my depth” is an adequate answer..we’re all out of our depth, I more than most I assume. The question is about one’s ‘gut feeling’ while recognizing that we do not know.

      • Jason says:

        I understand what you’re saying here. I guess I feel that I should assume we’re all (including myself) in great danger without the grace available through the Church but, at the same time, hope and pray for the salvation of all. I like what Chesterton says on this topic:

        Again, the same is true of that difficult matter of the danger of the soul, which has unsettled so many just minds. To hope for all souls is imperative; and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable. It is tenable, but it is not specially favourable to activity or progress. Our fighting and creative society ought rather to insist on the danger of everybody, on the fact that every man is hanging by a thread or clinging to a precipice. To say that all will be well anyhow is a comprehensible remark: but it cannot be called the blast of a trumpet. Europe ought rather to emphasize possible perdition; and Europe always has emphasized it. Here its highest religion is at one with all its cheapest romances. To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist existence is a science or a plan, which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian existence is a STORY, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he MIGHT be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man “damned”: but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable.

  3. Thomas says:

    Somewhat related to this general question of “Is it easy to…” is the currently fashionable question of how important is it to foster ‘self esteem’ [E.g., The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel; “How the cult of self-esteem is ruining our kids,” by Lori Gottlieb, The Altlantic Monthly, July/August 2011); and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua]

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