We Christians sometimes use special words to talk about what we believe. We talk about faith, grace, and works, and love, and hope too. These are all things that we need, things related to salvation. For instance, in hope we are saved [Romans 8:24], we are justified by grace [Romans 3:24] through faith [Romans 3:28], yet faith without works is dead [James 2:26], and without love, faith does no good at all [1 Cor 13:2]. Indeed, these terms are related to each other in specific ways, and they help us remember important things, such as the fact that we can’t earn our own salvation by careful choice of action, no matter what good deeds we perform. In the fifth century, Pelagius and his followers taught incorrectly that one could earn salvation through good deeds, without God’s help, and the Church declared that his teaching wasn’t Christianity. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-human belief, this “Santa Claus” idea of gifts being the things you get for being good. While it is true that it is important to do good, the fact is that we can’t earn our own way to heaven by the things we do. On the contrary, the Church has clearly taught and continues to teach that God’s love is unconditional: we don’t have to earn his love. He offers us life even if we’re a mess. Our role is to accept and embrace this gift of life, hang on to it, and live it out with his help.
Sadly, language about faith, love, hope, works, and grace, though it helps us understand the details, sometimes also gets in the way of understanding the “big picture”. The truth is that we are not saved by a word, a specific virtue or some mystical substance with a special name. We are saved by a person: Jesus. When Christians talk about “faith”, we mean the genuine belief that Jesus is real, he cares, he offers salvation, and he really is who he is and does what he promises. Genuine beliefs are beliefs acted upon, not just said, so we do things based on our beliefs. But we don’t do things (works) to try to earn God’s love, we do things because we believe God is real, we believe the life he offers us is real, and we act accordingly. God’s life is already offered to us: he loves us even though we fall short of his perfection: we are sinners and he loves us despite our sin.
Jesus proves his love on the cross. Here, he’s not interacting with perfect people, but flawed ones: some betray him, some slander him, some condemn him, some abandon him, some mock him, some beat him. But instead of getting angry and crushing them in justified wrath, he accepts the abuse and prays for his abusers. No matter how badly we treat him, Jesus does not stop loving us and offering us life. In his resurrection, we see that his offer is real, it’s effective: his life isn’t some tragedy, some story of a good man crushed underfoot by evildoers: he rose again! His life is vibrant life, irrepressible life, life that overcomes wrongdoing, suffering, and death. So do not be confused by the words. These are merely technical terms that Christians use to try to understand this astounding event of God breaking into human history to show his love to us, to share his life with us. The words are all about a person, Jesus, and it is this person who saves. Jesus is the one we have faith in. Jesus is the one we love. Jesus is the one we hope in. Jesus is the one whose presence in our lives shapes our actions. Not just a word, or a concept or idea, but a person: Jesus.
©Agapios Theophilus, 2017