Question #1- If we are “saved by grace through faith,” what role does works play in our salvation?
This is a very good question, and it naturally arises from Paul’s great thesis in Romans, which he further develops in Galatians and Ephesians. Nothing about salvation by grace through faith, however, suggests that works are unimportant. James says in 1: 22-24, 27:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like…. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
James’ statement reiterates what God said repeatedly to Israel throughout the Old Testament:
He [God] has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
And to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6: 8)
Salvation carries with it responsibilities, as well as privileges: with faith comes works. Salvation is not something that is added to one’s life; it is a radical repositioning—enabled by God’s grace—in one’s relationship with God. Paul uses very vivid terms to describe it:
We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
(Romans 6: 2-4)
Once we are “saved,” we die to our old life and begin living a new life in Christ. To change the metaphor, being “saved,” we are adopted as sons and daughters into the family of God. And that requires a new mode of behavior. We cannot turn to Christ without turning from sin. Once “saved,” God expects us to live a life worthy of his sons and daughters; that is, a life that honors our Father, not one that shames him. Once “saved,” God expects us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, defend the victim and live a life of “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5: 6). Living life in this way involves a process of sanctification, a life that becomes centered in God and that is ever-more holy. It is our destiny as children of God. As Paul said in Ephesians 2: 10— “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Many people get salvation and sanctification in the wrong order, thinking that a life of good works and holiness results in salvation. It does not. Salvation results from placing our faith in Christ, from trusting in his atoning work on the cross, and from putting our lives in his hands; sanctification is the living out of a “saved” life.
This relationship between faith and works has proven difficult for Roman Catholic and Protestant dialogue since the Reformation. Fortunately, the issue has been resolved. After more than thirty years of discussion, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church have issued Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, signed on October 31, 1999, that states: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”
Question #2- Can we be certain of our salvation?
If salvation hinges on faith in Christ, then one might reasonably ask: “If I have come to Christ and confessed my belief in him as my savior; if I truly put my trust in him; if I strive to live out my faith in a live of active love; can I then ever lose my salvation?”
We learn much by thinking of salvation as a relationship with God, not as a reward. When we are adopted as sons and daughters into the family of God, he assures us that he will never reject us. Jesus tells us in John 6: 39-40:
I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise him up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
And again in John 18: 9 Jesus says, “I have not lost one of those you gave me.” When the good shepherd starts out with 100 sheep, he arrives home with 100 sheep. The Apostle John echoes Jesus’ words in 1 John 5: 13, the concluding remarks in his first letter: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know [my emphasis] that you have eternal life.”
Confidence in our Father is the primary message of the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15: 11-32. The younger boy in the parable is a son, yet he turns his back on his father and goes his own way, falling into sin and disgrace. Although his father has every right to disown his son—indeed, to have him stoned to death—he doesn’t. When the son arrives back home, his father embraces him with love and open arms. Although the son had turned his back on his father, his father had not turned his back on him: he is still his father’s son, regardless of what he had done.
We may be confident that, like the father in the prodigal son story, God, our Father, will never reject us. As Paul says in Romans 8: 38-39:
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is not to say, however, that one cannot lose one’s salvation. In Hebrews 6: 4-6, our author says:
It is impossible for those
who have once been enlightened,
who have shared in the Holy Spirit,
who have tasted the goodness of the
word of God and the powers of
the coming age,
If they have fallen away
to be brought back to repentance,
because to their loss they are
crucifying the Son of God all
over again and subjecting him
to public disgrace.
I have emphasized the verses by spacing to highlight their meaning. If a genuinely saved person who has been enlightened, who has received the Holy Spirit, and who has tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the coming age; if such a person—willfully, definitively, and with full knowledge—rejects Christ, the source of his salvation, then his salvation is lost. It is not something God has done; it is something he has done.
There is nothing about salvation that supersedes a person’s freedom to accept or reject Christ, the basis of his salvation. God loves us and he will never reject us: of that we may be certain; but we may reject him. If we do so willfully, definitively, and with full knowledge, we would continue to be his son or daughter, just as our own children would continue to be ours if they rejected us, but we will spend eternity exactly as we chose: apart from the Father.
Question #3- What about Purgatory?
The Bible is silent on the question of Purgatory. Although the Roman Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of Purgatory, there is no explicit mention of it in the common canon of Scripture. The concept of Purgatory developed in the Roman Catholic Church between A.D. 1150 and 1200. Although Origen, St. Augustine, Gregory the Great and some others flirted with the idea of some type of purification between death and the final judgment, the noun purgatorium did not enter the Latin language until the end of the twelfth century. In the technical sense, Purgatory as a place did not exist in Church thinking until then. It sank its deepest devotional roots in the medieval monastic tradition, particularly among the Cistercians, became systematized in the scholastic thinking of the thirteenth century and was popularized in art and literature. Purgatory exerted such a pervasive—and sometimes negative—influence on the Church (for it sometimes resulted in the abuse of Church authority to get souls out of Purgatory) that the Council of Trent (1545-1563) expunged the idea of Purgatory from Church dogma, making the location of Purgatory and the penalties inflicted there matters left to individual opinion. After Trent, Purgatory moved from the concrete to the abstract, from a place—in the Dantesque sense—to a state, or condition of the soul.
In our generation, Vatican II addressed the issue of Purgatory quite clearly:
In fidelity to the New Testament and Tradition, the Church believes in the happiness of the just who will one day be with Christ. She believes that there will be eternal punishment for the sinner, who will be deprived of the sight of God, and that this punishment will have a repercussion on the whole being of the sinner. She believes in the possibility of a purification for the elect before they see God, purification altogether different from the punishment of the damned. This is what the Church means when speaking of Hell and Purgatory.
(Recentiores episcoporum synodi, in Vatican Council II, More Postconciliar Documents, ed. by Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing Co., 1982), vol. 2. p. 502.)
If you would like more information on the concept of Purgatory, see Jacques Le Goff. The Birth of Purgatory, trans by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. It is the single best work on the subject that I have read.