Slicing Salvation In Half

A YouTubing priest who loves religion answers a young man who hates it:

Fr. Barron does a bang-up job explaining why this video has gone viral. The video, he notes, is the result of the American emphasis on ‘freedom’. Properly understood, freedom is a great thing. Freedom from oppression, indignity, bondage, and sin are all noble pursuits. But in today’s lingo, ‘freedom’ usually boils down to ‘liberation from rules, obedience, commands, structures, and–most importantly–anything that rankles my comfort.’ Since religion can be challenging, and since it doesn’t always console and affirm, it’s often thrown under the bus by proponents of this pseudo-freedom.

That’s an interesting insight, but even more intriguing are his remarks regarding ‘justification by faith’ and the success of this video. Adding a little clarification to what Fr. Barron said, Catholics actually agree with Protestants that we’re “justified by faith through grace”–so long as “faith” is understood not just as intellectual assent but as faith-working-in-charity.

As Fr. Barron points out, this understanding of faith is particularly evident in Matthew 25, which shows faith must be tied to action. Yet the core idea of ‘justification by faith’ resonates throughout Scripture, especially in the writings of St. Paul:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” – Ephesians 2:8

“For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” – Romans 3:28

(Note: When St. Paul is devaluing”works of the law”, he’s referring to the Old Testament Levitical requirements, not good works in general.)

So both Protestants and Catholics agree that we’re justified (saved) by faith. The split occurs then when Protestants claim we’re justified by faith alone, sola fide, where faith is nothing more than interior assent. As Fr. Barron suggests, the operative word here is “alone”, which stands as the proverbial line in the sand between Catholics and Protestants–and between religion and spirituality.

Most Protestants are unaware that the word “alone” is actually an artificial addition to Scripture. It was inserted into Romans 3:28 by none other than Martin Luther, the leading Protestant reformer. Luther popped the word into his personal translation so as to align Scripture with his own beliefs. Here’s Luther’s own reasoning:

“You tell me what a great fuss the Papists are making because the word ‘alone’ in not in the text of Paul…say right out to him: ‘Dr. Martin Luther will have it so,’…I will have it so, and I order it to be so, and my will is reason enough. I know very well that the word ‘alone’ is not in the Latin or the Greek text.” – Martin Luther, as quoted in Rebuilding a Lost Faith by J. Stoddard

Which takes us back to the YouTube video. As Fr. Barron explains, the young poet really channels the spirit of Luther as he echoes the sixteenth-century claim that faith alone is enough. You don’t need any of those messy additions like charity, churches, sacraments, or commandments.

Catholics say otherwise–and they have for 2,000 years. Catholicism says that true faith is not merely personal belief, though that’s important. Instead, it’s grounded in the Incarnation.

Therefore our faith–and our salvation–is wrapped in the mess and grime of the physical world. It now permeates our institutions, our hierarchies, our art, and our theology and is inseparable from so-called religion. The Incarnation binds all this together as Fr. Barron explains in Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith:

“Catholics sense the Incarnation in the oil, water, bread, imposed hands, wine, and salt of the sacraments; they appreciate it in the texts, arguments, and debates of the theologians; they sense it in the graced governance of popes and bishops; they love it in the struggles and missions of the saints; they know it in the writings of Catholic poets and in the cathedrals crafted by Catholic architects, artists, and workers.”

Most of all, we sense the Incarnation in salvation. When Jesus became man, salvation became physical. He connected personal faith to the grit of religion and established a Church to hold both together.

Through adding the word ‘alone’, Luther cut these two in half. Four hundred years later, a YouTube poet is wielding the same sword and he’s slicing salvation down the same line.

(If you’re looking or a great book on the Catholic and Protestant views of salvation, check out Jimmy Akin’s Salvation Controversy. I’m about halfway through it an it’s helped clarify many sticky theological questions. Jimmy is a clear, careful writer who, as a convert from Protestantism, know both sides of the fence.)