When I was 13, I was standing in a drug store buying candy with a group of my Catholic buddies when a Protestant friend of mine asked the question, “Hey, Bill, are you saved?” I laughed, and my Catholic buddies joined in the laughter, and we embarrassed my friend who tried hard to explain how serious this question really is. But we just didn’t get it.
As Catholics, we knew “salvation” came after we died, and we knew the only way to get past the pearly gates was to go to confession to a priest ahead of time and we fully intended to do that. My friend said, “No, I’m talking about right now. If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you’re saved!” Now I was embarrassed that I even knew this kid and I couldn’t wait for him to leave.
Today, I know St. Paul would have understood my friend. Paul says very clearly, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom.10:9). Every Protestant understands that. Paul wasn’t talking about waiting until a person dies; he was talking about right now. And by “salvation” he meant living in grace through faith.
Living in grace, however, meant something very different to us. We called it, “the state of grace” and it had very little to do with faith. As Catholics, we knew we had to avoid mortal sin because mortal sin pushed us out of the state of grace. For teenage boys, that meant sex, and if we committed this sin (which, of course, we always did) we needed to get to confession as soon as possible. If we died suddenly before reaching our priest, we would go immediately to hell for all eternity. If my Protestant friend had asked, “are you in the state of grace?” I would not have laughed. It was not a question we asked each other but I would have understood immediately what he meant.
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Are Protestants and Catholics fundamentally different? Is there any Protestant who says he can sin all he wants as long as he believes? Or any Catholic who keeps his priest’s number in his iPhone, just in case?
Traditional Protestants (following Martin Luther) have always emphasized faith as being the one thing that brings “salvation.” Tent-revival-preachers are famous for producing “born-again” Christians who cry out, “I believe!” and who are then assured of their salvation.
Traditional Catholics have a similar revival system; it’s called a “mission” and it usually takes a week of evening sermons by an unusually vibrant priest whose goal is to get as many people as he can into that confessional box, who will promise not to commit those sins again. As James said, “Faith without works is dead” (James. 2:26).
I have come to realize, however, that real faith produces real love and real love produces real works. When I watch a group of men and women from Habitat for Humanity building a house for a homeless family, I don’t question their faith. I don’t conduct a preliminary examination to determine their belief in the virgin birth, resurrection, and ascension, and fire them if they flunk the test. Whatever the object of their faith happens to be, one thing’s for sure: the object of their love of neighbor is this homeless family.
They can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim or people who have rejected all organized religions. When I see this group of well-dressed businessmen and women shedding their tailored suits for coveralls and picking up hammers and boxes of nails and climbing a ladder for a rooftop repair, I’m looking at Christianity.
And it looks great to me.
Google for my latest book: https://www.amazon.com/Oh-My-God-Bill-Cummings/dp/1937943380e/