The popular media has made much of a controversy among Protestants on the criterion for salvation. Is everyone saved, or is explicit recognition of Jesus required for salvation? How can an all-loving, all-good God condemn people who through no fault of their own do not know Christ? On the other hand, how can one overlook the Scripture's insistence that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation? Both sides seem to have the truth, and yet their positions appear utterly incompatible. We will explore this truth of salvation, first by examining the human person and his relation to truth. Then we will examine a third side to the story (a side that gets little press because it overleaps the controversy), the teaching of the Catholic Church. Before concluding, we will examine the criterion of salvation for non-believers and, in turn, for believers.
The internal faculty of human beings that connects them to the truth is the conscience. Conscience tells us what is right and what is wrong. It is the proximate `voice of God' and we must follow the dictates of conscience whenever it is certain. This is the first rule of the conscience.
Saint Bonaventure teaches that ``conscience is like God's herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God's authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.'' Thus it can be said that conscience bears witness to man's own rectitude or iniquity to man himself but, together with this and indeed even beforehand, conscience is the witness of God himself; whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man's soul, calling him fortiler et suaviter to obedience. ``Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man.'' (Veritatis Splendor no. 58)
However, as we often experience in day-to-day life, conscience is not infallible: it can we wrong. So, we must add to the first rule of conscience, a second rule: every person has a responsibility to form his own conscience according to the truth. Thus, when one's conscience is dubious or plainly mistaken, one must seek out the truth to correct one's conscience.
62. Conscience, as the judgment of an act, is not exempt from the possibility of error. As the Council puts it, ``not infrequently conscience can be mistaken as a result of invincible ignorance, although it does not on that account forfeit its dignity; but this cannot be said when a man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin.''[GS 16] In these brief words the Council sums up the doctrine which the Church down the centuries has developed with regard to the erroneous conscience.
Certainly, in order to have a ``good conscience'' (1 Tim 1:5), man must seek the truth and must make judgments in accordance with that same truth. (Veritatis Splendor no. 62)
Now in the modern day, the freedom of conscience is much talked about but little appreciated. The reality is that it is above all a positive freedom: the freedom of the human person to adhere to the truth. It is also therefore a great responsibility:
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons--that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility--that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. (Dignitatis Humanae, Declaration on Religious Freedom of the Second Vatican Council, no. 2)
For the Catholic Church salvation engages the depth of the human heart. Faith is of course necessary for salvation, but the necessary corollary of faith is baptism, the sacrament that initiates believers into the life of Christ. In baptism, the Church includes those who, while not formally baptized, have given their lives for Christ (called baptism of blood), and those who die before being baptized, but with a sincere desire for baptism along with charity and repentance for their sins (called baptism of desire). (cf. CCC nos. 1258-1259) Nevertheless, it may well be that God has other provisions for some, because the ways of God's grace and infinite mercy remain a mystery to the finite mind of man.
The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ``reborn of water and the Spirit.'' God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. (CCC no. 1257)
Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity. (CCC no. 1260, cf. no. 1258 on baptism by desire)
But for the Church, faith is more than a legal state of accord with God obtained by belief in a man named Jesus who lived two thousand years ago. Jesus is more than a man-- he is the Son of the Eternal Father through whom the cosmos was made. He is the archetype of all that is, and especially of the summit of visible creation, man. Thus, faith in Christ represents not only belief in Jesus, but also a special relationship to Truth-- the truth about one's self and the rest of the universe.
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too many achieve eternal salvation. (Lumen Gentium 16)
Salvation is possible for all. Now it should be clear that what we are saying is not that everyone is saved, but that everyone could be saved if it were up to God. St. Paul says as much when he writes that ``[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.'' (1 Tim 2:4) Here we touch on a great mystery: that while salvation comes from the grace of God and is in fact impossible without that grace, it also requires free cooperation from the recipient of that grace. (At the core of the mystery is the fact that free cooperation requires the prior grace of God.) Otherwise, if salvation did not require the soul's free consent, if God purposefully destined some souls to eternal damnation, how could anyone justly assign any blame to the damned? Moreover, wouldn't it be the height of arrogance to claim to have resolved the infinite mystery of God's grace?
God justly has requirements for the salvation of non-believers. Even human beings without the benefit of revelation can come to know the existence of God and of the moral law, as St. Paul writes:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. (Rom 1:18-23)
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom 2:1-16; interestingly, in these two chapter of Romans St. Paul summarizes Wisdom 13-19)
The ``law unto themselves'' is man's participation in God's eternal law, sometimes known as the natural law. Significantly, St. Paul has not mentioned faith in Christ as a condition for knowledge of this natural law: it is a law knowable by all men without respect to creed. As St. Paul says, it is written on men's hearts, though it can be clouded by sin.
The import of St. Paul's words to the issue of salvation becomes a little clearer when we realize that the ``wrath of God'' is the evil that men do, resulting from the denial of the Truth of God and man's relationship to him (this occurred primarily in the sin of our first parents). In the second chapter St. Paul discusses the eternal consequences of evil actions: ``For he will render to every man according to his works'' (Rm 2:6). In brief, sinful actions come from rejection of God and truth. Eternal condemnation comes from sinful actions.
As to God's specific requirements for each individual, it is not for mortals to know. Significantly, St. Luke, who was a disciple of St. Paul, reports in his gospel the words of Jesus:
It is finally God alone who sees into men's hearts and what truth they have been given in life, and it is he who will judge on this basis. It is not for human judges to divide the sheep from the goats.
And that servant who knew his master's will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more. (Lk 12:47-48, cf. Lk 19:26, Mt 25:29, Mk 4:25)
Of course, none of what we have said removes the responsibility of Christians to proclaim the truth to others. Clearly, those who live in Christ have the fullness of truth and a greater happiness than anyone else, even in this life: ``You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.'' (Jn 8:32)
Faith brings to completion what the natural law begins:
The beginning of freedom is to be free from crimes [committed by one's self]... such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, fraud, sacriledge, and so forth. Once one is without these crimes... one begins to lift one's head toward freedom. But this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect freedom..." (Augustine, In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus, 41, 10: CCL 36, 363; cf. Veritatis Splendor, no. 13)
The stakes are much higher for believers than for unbelievers, because they have been explicitly given the fullness of the truth in God's commandments, so their actions explicitly accept or reject the fullness of truth.
All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Rom 2:12-13)
Moreover, believers have even less excuse because they are given grace from God and a special relationship to God that allow them to know better God's will and to facilitate the fulfillment of his will.
Some would rest comfortably on a profession of `faith in Jesus' for their salvation, but ``even the demons believe--and shudder'' (Jas 2:19). Faith does not ensure one's salvation. What is necessary is perseverance in the struggle to do good: ``But he who endures to the end will be saved.'' (Mt 10:22, 13:13) We must die in the love of God. This battle at the final moment of our lives requires a lifetime of preparation-- a constant, daily battle against ourselves:
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mt 16:24, cf. Mk 8:34, Lk 9:23)
Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ``today,'' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold to our first confidence firm to the end,... (Hebrews 3:13-14)
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. (Hebrews 4:1)
``To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfil every good resolve and work of faith by his power'' (II Thess 1:11)
If in place of `Jew' we read `Christian', these words of St. Paul reclaim their original bite:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things. Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Rm 2:1-11)
Even for believers, there is no room for complacent trust in what we have done in the past.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12)
Salvation is a matter of how we respond to the truth we are given in life. Only for those who have encountered the fullness of truth in Christ is a formal proclamation of belief in Christ necessary.
The Protestant dispute over the criterion for salvation misses the point, because both sides have a part of the truth but neither grasps the truth in its full depth. One side white-washes the reality of sin in the world by proclaiming universal salvation. The other tries to extract scientific certainty out of Sacred Scripture by reading it as a legal tract. Neither side grasps that the key to salvation is conscience-- the part of the human person that lies hidden to all spectators but God.
In an even larger sense, focussing on salvation misses the core of the gospel: love. If we love God and others as much as we can-- if we give identify ourselves fully with God in Christ, not counting the cost to ourselves-- we need not worry about heaven or hell, because God takes care of his own.
Other texts of interest: