…so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3: 15)
This sentence, along with some others, can be easily misinterpreted to indicate that, as long as we believe in Christ Jesus, we will enjoy eternal life, i.e. we will be saved. This was Martin Luther’s famous “sola Fide” statement that has been not only condemned by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, but it also debunked by the Bible itself.
On the Fourth Sunday of Lent of the liturgical year B, we have also another sentence from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that seems to indicate that we are saved by Faith: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
But on the Catholic plate of the scale we can place an endless variety of texts that stress the crucial importance of good deeds (works) to make it to heaven.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
The necessity of good works should remind us that our entrance into the Kingdom prepared for the blessed since the foundation of the world is only for those who attended to the needs of the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters when they were hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick or in prison. (cf. Matthew 25:31-46)
And we remember the parable of the three servants: working hard, the first servant doubled the talents given him for a total of ten. Again, the second, working hard, doubled his for a total of four; but the one who buried the lone talent given him wound up been thrown in the darkness outside where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).
So then […] work out your salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12b)
And one more text just for good measure: I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” said the Spirit, “let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them.” (Revelation 14:13)
To set the score straight: faith alone is lifeless, but reliance on good deeds done by us is…delusional and unfair. It is so because of a brutally realistic utterance made by Jesus during the Last Supper that keeps us from boasting. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) There is no wiggle room at all for personal credit for good deeds done by us. Our good works are the debt of love that we owe each other. (cf. Romans 13:8)
For by grace you have been saved. True. Keeping with the analogy of the vine and branches, grace is the sap that runs from the vine (Jesus Christ) and allows the branches (us) to bear good fruit. Grace is the Holy Spirit applying his divine power to fill us with his gifts which enable us to bear good fruit.
The passage from the Gospel of John that is offered to our consideration, today, goes on to tell us what would happen if we were to sever ourselves from the divine vine that is Christ Jesus. We would hate the Spirit’s light because we would be busy doing evil deeds in the darkness. We would go out of our way to make sure that the truth of our evil choices and of our cold indifference to the sorry plight of our brothers and sisters is never exposed to the light.
Martin Luther claimed to be an erudite doctor of the Holy Scripture but he was blinded by self-importance to a pattern that is repeated in the Bible from cover to cover. It is more than obvious to anyone who is open to the truth.
Throughout the history of salvation, God appeals to the freedom that he has given to his chosen people as a community and as individuals. He proposes life and salvation in various forms: as a victory, prosperity, joy, blessings, a land flowing with milk and honey, a numerous progeny, etc. provided that his people or individuals believe in his promise, trust in his word (faith), but also keep his covenant, obey his commandments and carry out his orders (good works). However, in his infinite knowledge of the human heart, the Lord presents, at the same time, the alternative of condemnation and defeat and death as the result of foolish choices prompted by in-fidelity (no fidelity, no faithfulness).
In its essence the pattern does not vary: faith in God and obedience to his commands result in salvation. Infidelity and disobedience result in condemnation and death.
This is very clear, but it does not offer the complete picture of what it means for the Father to give us his only Son out of insanely merciful, totally undeserved love.
Already in the Old Testament, this incredibly mercy-filled love was foreshadowing that, in the fullness of time, the Father would have given us his only Son. For example, in 2 Chronicles 36: 14-21, we see what happens when the chosen people makes the wrong choices; but in verses 22-23, we see once again God’s merciful love in action. Yet any display of merciful love in the Old Testament pales in comparison with what is offered to us.
We, who have seen the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus; we who have gazed countless times on the Son of Man lifted on the cross, should feel compelled by such a display of love to live the truth and come to the light so that our good works may be clearly seen as done in God.
In our Catholic Churches we can readily fix our eyes on Jesus crucified. Thus, it should be immediate for us to make the connections between our past bad choices and multiple transgressions on the one hand and having been spared eternal death in his blood on the other.
Then, keeping our eyes fixed on him, it should be deemed a very light burden for us to be led by the Holy Spirit to pay up our debt of love to each other in joyous and prompt labors of love.