Popular author, Scripture scholar, and EWTN host Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ, takes on a question that has divided Catholics and Protestants for centuries. His book, Saved: A Bible Study Guide for Catholics (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017) examines several aspects to salvation, including faith and works.
Fr. Pacwa spoke with Catholic Digest about the topic of salvation, which is sometimes misunderstood.
A: Once while I was exiting a grocery store in Nashville, two men from a local Baptist seminary approached me with just that question. I replied, “Do you mean having my sins forgiven by the saving blood of Jesus Christ who died on the cross to forgive my sins and who gloriously rose again to give me new life?” They answered “Yes, that’s it!” Then they asked where I went to church, and they were flummoxed when I told them “St. Ann’s Catholic Church.” If I didn’t have to leave due to the danger of my ice cream melting, I’m sure the conversation would have gone beyond those points of salvation we agreed upon — and lasted all evening.
Q: Does your book address the issues upon which Catholics and Protestants disagree?
A: I wrote Saved to demonstrate that gaining (and possibly losing) salvation is a very rich and multifaceted concept in sacred Scripture, and we Catholics would do well to meditate on it both for the sake of our own salvation and to more ably evangelize others with the fullness of truth that underlies Catholic teaching.
Each chapter treats a different salvation-related concept: repentance, faith, the role of the sacraments, the need to live a spiritual life, the place of good works, and final perseverance. Jesus began his public preaching with a summons to repent and believe; Catholics and Protestants agree on our need to examine our consciences, accept that our sins are immoral and disordered, and repent of them. But repentance by itself can be mere regret if we don’t answer Jesus’ call to a rich life of faith — accepting all that Jesus taught and placing a radical trust in him.
Jesus began his public preaching with a summons to repent and believe.
Further, most Protestant groups accept that Jesus taught his disciples the necessity of Baptism and the Eucharist, but they have wider differences in how they understand the meaning of these two sacraments. Catholics stick with the biblical teaching that “Baptism … saves you now” (1 Peter 3:21). And “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:53–54).
The next point is where evangelicals and other Protestants are uncomfortable. They reject [the necessity] of what Catholics call the “spiritual life” because they think that we are trying to save ourselves by some work of our own. Nonetheless, the very root of the spiritual life is commanded by Jesus: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Dying to oneself is not optional; it’s necessary. Scripture clearly teaches that we are not justified by faith alone. Jesus’ last parable before he died concerns the judgment of people according to what they do for the needy. If they care for them, they will enter heaven; if they neglect them, they will end up in hell (see Matthew 25:31–46).
Lastly, many Protestants believe “once saved, always saved” as opposed to Catholic insistence on the necessity of perseverance in salvation. Scripture is absolutely clear on this. The Letter to the Hebrews warns Christians of the possibility of turning away from salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Hebrews 6:4–6; 10:26–27).
Q: You mentioned the role of good works. This can be misunderstood not only by Protestants, but also by many Catholics. How do we avoid thinking that we must frantically “work our way into heaven” while still realizing that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17)?
A: The misunderstanding stems from thinking that we accomplish good by our mere human effort. Jesus clearly taught, “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The mistake of Luther, Calvin, and others is their denial of the role of free will, by which we cooperate with God in an interpersonal relationship.
Here’s an analogy: When I was 8, I wanted to buy my mother a Christmas present, but I had no money. My dad gave me a dollar for this purpose. I found a small cross necklace with a purple stone in the center. I was able to do the good deed of buying Mom a gift, but my father’s money made that good deed possible. Similarly, God grants us the grace we need to do good deeds for others.
Jesus clearly taught, ‘Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).