Is Salvation by Faith Alone?

Faith without works

Paul said in Romans 3:28 that “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”

Verses like this have given rise to the central Protestant doctrine of sola fide, or faith alone, which is the idea that we are “saved by grace alone” rather than faith plus some combination or interaction between faith and works.

In contrast, the Catholic Church has historically cautioned against an extreme version of sola fide, adding an additional nuance that,

“Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent.”

Others within the modern interpretative framework called the New Perspective on Paul, some scholars have argued that Paul’s discussion of faith independent of works was moreso focused on works understood as the boundary markers between Jews and Gentiles (e.g. dietary laws, keeping the Sabbath, and circumcision). 

Consider also Paul’s claim in Galations 2:16 that:

16 yet we know that a person is justified[a] not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.[b] And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ,[c] and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

Scholars in the New Perspective argue that the term “faith in Christ,” Pistis Christou, is better translated as the faithfulness of Christ and refers to the “finished work” of Christ through death, and not just an affirmation of propositional belief.

An argument for the faith plus some combination/interaction of works is further supported by James 2:14-17 where he says “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Catholics says that Jesus commanded us to be baptized by water and consume the Eucharist and so is a proper constituent of “faith in Christ” since that process inherently involves sanctification and inner reweal.

However, suppose an atheist, having spent their whole life rejecting Christ’s gift of salvation, is sitting on a park bench pondering life. Suddenly, the clouds part and the Sun shines wonderfully around the atheist and she has a sudden epiphany that makes perfectly clear the beauty and grace of Christ’s sacrifice. 

Right then and there she “accepts Jesus into her heart,” as the Protestants would say. She feels God’s love pour in and utterly saturate her heart in radiant warmth and she inwardly and excitedly thinks to herself, “I want to follow Jesus Christ!”

Literally buzzing with religious ecstasy, she jumps up and runs across the street wanting to get home to tell her family all about her encounter with Christ’s love. But immediately upon stepping into the street, she is hit by a bus and instantly dies.

The key question is: was she “fully saved” by the “mere” fact of accepting Jesus into her heart? Or did she merely initiate the process but it was still, in some sense, incomplete in her “sanctification” and “inner renewal” insofar as she had never been baptized or consumed the Eucharist?

I don’t I won’t disappoint you to say I do not have a decisive answer to this question, for I do not believe it is the sort of questions that admits of certainty in the same way we can be certain 1 + 1 = 2.

Personally, I could not care less about these sorts of doctrinal debates about the necessary and sufficient conditions of salvation.

Theological bureaucracy

I am far less interested in these questions of “technical theology” where we have to endlessly debate about whether our i’s are dotted and our t’s crossed,  whether we believe the exact right theological proposition, or performed the technical details of a divine rule in the proper sequence. Oh shit, did I forget to confess my sins before communion? Did that “technically” not count? Does God have an army of spiritual accountants keeping track of how orthodox all my beliefs and actions are?

Personally, I find this kind of approach overly technical and rigid and lacking in that more primordial dimension of inner wisdom that I associate with true awakened spirituality as modeled by Ancient Wisdom Masters such as Jesus Himself or the Buddha.

These sorts of technical debates of logic-chopping are a kind of intellectual ego-trip whereby we puff ourselves up at having “the best arguments,” the highest theological IQ, the most powerful and cunning faculties of Reason. This turns Christianity into a kind of theological bureaucracy concerned with the divine equivalent of TPS reports. 

Where is the humility? Where is the gentleness that will inherent the world? Tradition is one thing, but clinging to feelings of certainty about having once and for all arrived at the Ultimately Correct Set of Beliefs is nothing but hubris and arrogance.

Do we forget that God is infinitely transcendent to the categories of human reason? Do we forget He is infinitely bigger than anything we can possibly comprehend as naked apes who only recently came down from the trees?

Above all I find such emphasis on technocratic theology to be boring! Although I have no doubt these questions greatly animate many people, I find them completely spiritually vapid and tepid.

Instead of being in this tremendous frenzy to hurry up and nail down exactly what we “ought” to believe about Jesus, it seems few people are happy to sit in the mystery, to revel in the unknowing, to positively float in the mystery and joy of absent knowledge and mysterious presence.

The Power of Metaphor

But if not literal knowledge of absolutely true theological propositions, what else? What replaces literal knowledge?

Metaphorical knowledge. Archetypal knowledge.

When Shakespeare says, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” this is not false simply because the world is not literally a cosmic theater stage.

“All the world’s a stage” rings absolutely true to us because it exposes an essential truth of the collective unconscious and is understood via a primitive, archetypal knowledge of how the dramas of humanity correspond to the archetypal blueprints of tragedies and comedies.

Similarly, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing”

He is not literally saying he is transubstantiated into a vine and that if we consume a vine in a sacramental ritual that we will literally be eating him.

That is technocratic literalism gone too far. It misses the deep and metaphorical significance of how symbolism operates in spiritual and mystical language.

I believe that although the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures do contain plenty of historical truth, the bulk of the “magic” is made possible via the transformative power of metaphorical and symbolic understanding, which cuts through the shallow layer of literal truth and plunges deep into unconscious realms where most of our Soul is actively at work, the interstitial psychic spaces where our inner heart is truly transformed and sanctified.

In simple language, one might call this kind of metaphorical knowing “right-brained understanding” in contrast to “left-brained believing.”

I am far more interested in the mythological and archetypal significance of what Christ’s Salvation by Grace means for the development and well-being of my Soul at these deep interiors levels of right-hemisphere understanding. Because that side of ourselves does not traffic in assent to various theological propositions. It instead traffics in metaphors, symbols, images, fantasies, archetypes, analogies. 

This side of ourselves is not concerned with all the particularity of assenting to various credal doctrines. Rather, it is concerned with a total gestalt. An intuitive way of understanding the whole interconnectedness of reality, of how everything fits together into a holistic pattern. It is about pattern recognition not deductive reasoning. It is about automatic and deeply parallel processing, not linear logic.

It is about a nondual awareness that does not cleanly demarcate itself from the environment “out there.” It collapses the cognitive distinction between self and other, ego and environment, inner and outer. It is not about being a disembodied soul detached from the world but a living breathing soul deeply embodied and embedded into a world, a being-in-the-world as Heidegger said.

Being-in-Christ

Accordingly, I am more interested in a kind of being-in-Christ than I am having-a-propositional-belief in Christ.

A bureaucrat might retort that getting the technical details right is important for the well-being of my Soul because it’s these details that affect my eternal Life in Heaven!

To which I retort, any God that cares more about the technical ritualistic details of what the atheist-turned-convert did or did not do before her death is not the God I care about.

Kierkegaard said, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

The same can be said about theology. God’s salvation is not an intellectual puzzle to be solved, but an overwhelming experiential gift that is to be experienced first, and reflected upon second.

The God I care about, the Christ I care about, is concerned with poetry, myth, beauty, and goodness. The Christ I care about has an infinite amount of Grace and has the power to see into the joy of our hearts, is able to experience the revelatory power contained in the moment of the atheist’s epiphany.

Let me be clear: I am not saying “Catholicism is wrong.” 

It might very well be right. 

What I am saying is: I just don’t care. It just can’t be bothered with getting worked up about these sorts of questions. I care about them only because I see them tripping up so many Christians who seem to care more about what the technically correct way of believing in Christ is, and not how to live a life in imitation of the inner wisdom of Christ.

And let me be also clear: I am not secretly just an atheist who only cares about the psychological mytho-drama of religion and merely sees all this as a kind of literary symbolism.

To the extent that it’s even possible to categorize my worldview as concerned with “belief,” I “believe” in the reality of the spiritual world. I believe in the reality of Christ.

It’s just that my Christ, the Christ Who brings joy to my life as I meditate on the Jesus Prayer, the Christ that I say “thank you” to for the utter beauty of a tree waving in the wind or the breath of fresh air in my lungs, the Christ that gives me all the resources I need to find the Kingdom of Heaven within the dimensions of my own Soul, that Christ does not care about the technical, bureaucratic details that have generated all the schisms through the history of Christianity.

I believe the sacraments have real power. I believe in their importance symbolically, mythologically, and spiritually.

But am I confident that humans have within us the power to come to certainty regarding the precise necessary and sufficient conditions for salvation?

It’s obvious the Catholics utterly believe in the truth of their dogmas.

And it’s obvious the Protestants utterly believe in the truth of their dogmas.

False Dichotomies

Does one of these views have to be right at the exclusion of the other view?

A basic appreciation of Aristotle’s logic might make you think that A is either true or not true. It’s either A or not A. Baptism is either required, or not required.

Personally, I am a fan of paraconsistent logic that allows that contradictions and paradoxes can be true.

For example, I believe the statement “I am lying” is true, which is a paradox. But a true paradox nonetheless.

Similarly, I believe the statement “baptism both is and is not required for Christian salvation” is true.

This isn’t just a mere post-modern relativistic position. 

This is a recognition that at the level of the unconscious, the collective unconscious, the archetypes, the mythological and symbol levels of reality, the baptism has a certain force and power.

For the Protestant, the atheist on the park bench was “baptized” in the pure Grace of Jesus in that one moment of divine epiphany and acceptance. 

For the Catholic, a literal baptism itself holds real spiritual power and is not a mere “nice to have” ritual.

I don’t think I have to choose between these positions. One might say I contradict myself. To which I respond echoing Walt Whitman: very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multiples.

And likewise, as above, so below: I AM is large. God is large. Christ is large. Christ contains multitudes. The infinite power of Christ is able to overcome the limitations of any mere logical contradiction held within the ego-consciousness of humanity.

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