Category Archives: Salvation

Saved By Grace!

You’re in a deep, dark hole. You look at your wife and infant child and say, “Never mind how we got here, we just need to get out!”

Like MacGyver, you look around for something to use. All you can find are some sticks and weeds. Desperately, you attempt to fashion a ladder, or at least a step stool, from these meager materials. It’s no use. It breaks under your weight.

Suddenly, you hear a voice from above. You see a ladder coming down towards you and a voice says, “Come to me!” “But, there’s a baby down here,” you yell. “Step up on the first rung and lift the child up. I’ll reach down and take him.” In an act of faith, you raise him up and someone grabs him. You think to yourself, “How did he know it was a boy?”

The voice says, “Now, you climb out.” You and your wife climb out of the pit, one rung at a time. Along the way, you slip many times, but a hand from above reaches down to you and says, “Keep coming.” You grab his hand, regain your footing and persevere. At the top, you embrace your baby, but not before embracing the man that gave you that ladder. You ask the man, “How can I repay you?” He replies, “You can’t. Just watch out for those pits. You can keep the ladder as my gift. You might need it again.” You notice a strange wound on the man’s hand.

The hole is the fallen state of humanity that we cannot climb out of on our own. The sticks and weeds represent the Mosaic Law that, no matter how hard we “work it,” is unable to save us (Ephesians 2:8-9). We cannot boast of our ability to build a ladder. The ladder that came down is the grace that saves us (Ephesians 2:8). It is the free gift of God.

The rungs of the ladder are the Sacraments of the Church. Baptism is the first step which initiates the journey upwards. We see the free gift of grace is available even to the infant, for Jesus says, “Let the little children come unto me, and forbid them not,” and the book of Acts indicates that baptism is for “the entire household.”

By climbing the ladder, we don’t “earn” Heaven. We cooperate with the free gift of grace that is given to us despite our unworthiness. We see why James says, “Faith without works is dead.” Yes, it takes “work” to climb the ladder, but this is not the “works of the Law” that Paul speaks of. It is what Paul calls the “obedience of the faith.” This is a ladder that is able to support our weight because it was fashioned not by Moses, but by the perfect God-man, Jesus Christ. We trust Jesus. Therefore, we trust his ladder. We don’t build the ladder ourselves.

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see!” What a beautiful ladder I see!

Are You Saved? Are You Certain?

It’s a bit like being stranded on a roof during a flood. You see the helicopter coming and shout, “I’m saved!” Well, you’re not in the chopper yet, and the chopper hasn’t landed yet, so, as old Treebeard would say, “Let’s not be hasty.”

Good essay here about how a Catholic can respond to the question, “Are You Saved?

Conversion: A Work In Progress

Humans are spiritual creatures.  It is written into our DNA to look beyond ourselves to spiritual truths.  History demonstrates our desire for spiritual connection.  Although many these days claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” we all have religious tendencies.  Left to our own devices, we will find something to worship.  We will create our own, individual belief systems by assembling our opinions, our values and our principles into “little religions.”  Therefore, none of us are really “spiritual but not religious.”  Either we follow God’s religion or we follow our own.

I put together a list that illustrates my own journey of awareness about God’s revelation to humanity.  It’s sort of what I perceive to be a “growth chart” of spiritual awakening.  There was a time when I considered myself to be “spiritual but not religious.”  That changed around number 11 or 12 on the list when I realized that religious people behaving badly did not make “religion” a bad word.  I realized it was not only possible but desirable to be both religious and spiritual.  It is a both/and proposition, not an either/or one.

I believe lots of people get stuck somewhere on this list.  For example, agnostics might be around number one to six.  Lots of Christians stop around number eleven.  Some may be at number thirteen without knowing they need number 11.  Really, we can get stuck anywhere on the list.  I’m not claiming to have personally reached the ultimate place in a journey of faith.  We’re all works in progress.  This list is just a sketch of where I have been and what I’m striving for by God’s grace.  It’s not perfectly chronological in order.  I’m far from where I need to be.  The point is, as soon as we think we’ve “arrived,” we haven’t.  Conversion is a lifelong process, not a single event.

Here is the process:

1)      Look around at creation and realize it couldn’t have “just happened” without an intelligent designer and call that designer “God.”

2)      Realize that God transcends us.

3)      Understand that we are eternal beings, but imperfect beings (sinners).

4)      Realize that we can’t fix our own imperfection and become like God.

5)      Wonder if such a God cares about what happens to us and the rest of creation.

6)      Wonder if God knows how it feels to be human, or if God is aloof.

7)      Realize that Jesus is God in human flesh.

8)      Realize that God does know how it feels to be human because God became human.

9)      Realize that through Jesus, God came to seek us out.  We didn’t need to climb up to God.

10)  Realize that the perfect life, suffering and death of Jesus is the answer to humanity’s imperfection (sin).

11)  Realize that Jesus (God) desires us to trust him with our eternal souls and lives, not our own efforts.

12)  Understand and accept that, because he loves us, Jesus did not want to leave us to our own devices, so he made sure there would be an antidote to conflicting opinions.

13)  Realize and accept that Jesus called his antidote “the Church” and gave its hierarchy his own authority.  Accepting Jesus includes accepting the Church, because they are the same authority.  The Holy Spirit guards and controls the hierarchy’s teachings and also preserves the written Word.  To accept Christ and reject the Church is contradictory.

14)  Realize that Jesus did not want to leave us orphaned and promised to be with us.

15)  Understand that, in order for Jesus to actually “be with us” he has to be completely with us, not partially with us “in spirit” as if he were on the telephone or a video conference.  Jesus still has a physical body and still wants to literally “be with us.”  His love for us is that profound.

16)  Understand and accept that the way Jesus chooses to keep his promise to “be with us” is by humbling himself in the form of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist.  The power of the Holy Spirit accomplishes this.

17)  Realize that the religion of Catholicism is actually about being with and loving Christ and each other.  God is love, and Catholicism is the fullness of God’s religion when lived out in holiness and love as Jesus intended (not as a set of rules to earn Heaven apart from God’s grace).

Asking The Wrong Question

Catholics are often caught off guard by the question, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior?”  That question may cause confusion for the Catholic because it is presented in a phraseology the Catholic is generally not familiar with.  The questioner may observe a look of confusion on the Catholic’s face, or hear an answer that is other than what has been predetermined by the questioner as the “right” answer.  What follows is typically an assumption that the Catholic has no personal relationship with Jesus and needs to “get saved.”  I think the wrong question is being asked.

First of all, where in the Bible does one find the phrase, “Accept Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior?”  It is not in the Bible.  So, it’s not really a good place to start, anyway.  There is, however, a lot in the Bible about repentance, belief, faith, baptism, confession and obedience.  So, it would be better to start with one of those topics.

Ask Catholics the question, “Who died to save the world from sin?”  “Jesus,” they will say, “look right there at that crucifix.”  Good.  “Do you believe that Jesus died to save you personally from your sin?”  “Yes,” the Catholics will say.  Good.  “Who is greater, Jesus or Mary?”  The Catholics will say, “Why, Jesus is greater.  Jesus is God.  Mary isn’t God, she’s a created being, a human.”  Good.  “Are Catholics supposed to follow the commandments of God and do good works?”  “Of course we are!  What good would it do to be a Christian without following God’s commandments?”  That sounds like good sense.  “What if you sin?  Does God forgive you when you repent?”  The Catholics say, “Yes.  If we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  (OK, I admit most Catholics will not be able to quote that Scripture verse, but that is what they believe!).

So, asking the proper questions unveils a very real, personal relationship between the Catholic and Jesus Christ.  But Evangelicals and Fundamentalists that “witness” to Catholics tend to not ask the right questions.  Obviously, it is possible for a Catholic to get all those questions right in the head but not the heart.  The same could be said for the Evangelical or the Fundamentalist.  Only God knows whether the answers to the questions are genuinely from the heart.

Catholic Show And Tell

When someone says, “Evangelization,” most people probably imagine some combination of preaching, door knocking, handing out Bibles and tracts, and asking people if they have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  Or, if one is less inclined to boldly approach people with questions about their inner spiritual life, there is always “lifestyle evangelization” which allows one to quietly go about living without all the awkward, confrontational aspects of talking to others about Jesus.  The hope is that someone will be inspired to turn to Jesus by observing a pious Christian life.  How do Catholics evangelize?

Saint Francis of Assisi is usually credited with having said, “Preach always.  Use words when necessary.”  We are to evangelize with a combination of lifestyle and words.  If we are not living a life of genuine, Christian love, then our words lose credibility.  We also need words to describe why we live as we do.  We need to be able to articulate Catholic Christian ideas.  We need to show and tell the world why it is important to be a Catholic Christian.  Anyone can be nice.  Atheists and Agnostics can be nice.  Why be a Christian?  Why be a Catholic Christian?  Now more than ever, it is necessary to use words.

Peter, our first Pope, said, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:” (1Peter 3:15).  We don’t have to be out in the town square with speakers and a microphone, but we need to be ready to use words.  We need to know the Catholic Faith well enough to provide more than a blank stare or evasive maneuvers when someone asks us what we believe.  We need to know what we believe, why we believe it, and what difference it makes.

During my Evangelical Protestant phase things were a bit different.  All I needed to do was summon up enough courage to invite someone to church (not always easy for an introvert like me).  The preacher would generally take it from there.  The service was primarily focused on the sermon.  Most sermons contained at least some reference to the human need for salvation through Christ and, at the end, an invitation to pray “the sinner’s prayer” or come forward and “accept Christ into your heart” (like at a Billy Graham crusade).  The preacher did all the heavy lifting.  All I had to do was get a person to go to the service with me.

The Catholic Mass is not an Evangelical service.  Although the Bible is read and a sermon is preached, the focus of the Mass is the Eucharist.  Christ instituted Christian worship at the Last Supper.  The Last Supper was the first Mass.  Mass is the 2000 year old celebration of Christ’s sacrifice for believers to participate in, not an evangelical service designed to recruit nonbelievers.  Unless a Catholic is able and willing to explain the Mass to a visitor, that visitor is likely to be rather confused by the experience.  If more Catholics became adept at explaining the Mass, it would be more effective to invite people to church.  This, of course, necessitates Catholics themselves understanding the Mass.  Many simply do not understand.

Catholics need to get serious about living out the Faith.  As Pope Francis recently said, it does no good to simply wear Christianity as a label.  Catholics need to learn the Faith before we can live it out and effectively share it with others.  We are not ready to “give answers” if we don’t know the answers.  We can’t expect the clergy to do all the heavy lifting.  The Second Vatican Council was focused on getting the laity involved in spreading the Gospel, not just doing readings or distributing Communion or being ushers.  Catholics need to read the Bible and the Catholic Catechism.  We need to study our Faith either at home or in classes.  There are countless resources available to us in the form of books, DVDs, Bible studies and the internet.  We have no excuse for ignorance of our Faith.

We need caring and sharing.  We have to genuinely care about people and care about the Faith in order to share the Faith.  When we care about a person, we desire to know more about that person.  If we care about Jesus, we will seek to know Him more.  The best way to know Jesus is to know the Church.  As Saint Joan of Arc said about Jesus and the Church, “They are simply the same thing.”  Know the Catholic Church, know Jesus.

The best way for Catholics to evangelize is to begin by knowing what Catholics believe, why we believe it, and what difference it makes.  We can invite people to Mass, but first we must prepare to explain the experience.  If we have children, we must teach them what the Mass is about.  The best way to learn something is to teach it.  We don’t need to be theologians or clergy to evangelize others.  But we at least need to know the basics of what we are doing and why we are doing it.  Understanding the Mass is a good starting point.  By evangelizing others, we might find ourselves converted.

At the end of every Mass we are told to “go.”  Let’s go and make disciples.  Let’s do Catholic show and tell.

Love Means Sometimes Having To Say You’re Sorry Out Loud

Imagine that you were born in a primitive part of the world that had no access to technology.  Imagine that you had never seen a cell phone or a television or a radio.  Then one day, a stranger showed up in your land.  Somehow, this stranger knew your language, and he told you about the place he was from and some of the people he knew.  Intrigued, you said to the stranger, “I would like to meet some of those other people, too.”  “Of course,” said the stranger, “I will ask them to come join us.”  Then, the stranger pulled out a little, square, black object from his pocket and began to speak to it.  After putting the object back into his pocket, the stranger said, “They will be here tomorrow morning to meet you.”

Confused, and thinking this person might have a screw loose, you said to the stranger, “I thought you were going to talk to your friends about coming to visit.”  “Yes,” said the stranger, “I just spoke to them.”  “No, you didn’t, you spoke to that thing in your pocket.”  “Well, that is a phone.  It allows me to communicate with my friends.”  “You mean you don’t have to speak directly to your friends?  You can speak to that little phone and it does everything for you?”  Well, no,” explains the stranger, “I was actually speaking to my friends through the phone.  The phone is an instrument through which I speak directly to my friends.”

After a crash course in basic technology you begin to understand how the phone operates.  Once you understand about radio waves and electronic speakers, transmitters and receivers, you can see just how much sense it makes.  At first it seemed like the stranger was a confused, crazy person talking to a little black box.  Now it seems like a good idea.

In a similar way, non-Catholics (and even some Catholics) think it is unnecessary and even silly to confess one’s sins to a priest rather than going “directly to God.”  What is misunderstood is that Catholics are going “directly to God” when they confess to a priest.  The priest is merely God’s chosen instrument.  God realizes that we, being physical and spiritual creations, benefit from actually speaking our sins out loud to another and hearing the words of absolution audibly spoken back to us.

When Jesus walked the earth 2000 years ago, His followers got to use their physical mouths to speak to Him and their physical ears to hear Him say, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Jesus did not communicate to them strictly through telepathic or “spiritual” means.  He spoke and listened like a man to other men and women.  2000 years later, Catholics still have access to this gift through the priest.  Jesus is right there the whole time.  Jesus listens and Jesus forgives through His instrument, the Priest.  This is the system established by Christ.  It is the way Christians are to find forgiveness (especially for mortal sins) apart from “emergency” situations that I will not cover here.  Suffice it to say that the normal way to drive a two lane highway is to not cross the solid, center line.  In certain emergencies, crossing the center line might be necessary.  The normal or “ordinary” way for Christians to find forgiveness for sins (particularly mortal sins) is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  But there is no reason to avoid the Sacrament for venial sins as well (even though these can be forgiven apart from the Sacrament of Reconciliation).

In a sort of reversal of the phone analogy, people today see the Sacrament of Reconciliation as “obsolete technology.”  In other words, why pick up the “phone” to call someone when you can just instantly “be” with that person (i.e. Jesus in spirit).  “We can talk directly to Jesus anywhere!  Why do we need this ancient, “go-between” priest nonsense?”  This attitude is an outgrowth of the “Jesus and me” theology that is so prevalent today.  This theology emphasizes a one-on-one relationship with Christ at the expense of the corporate, familial, sacramental reality of the Church.  This can be seen in the attitude that says, “As long as I’m not hurting anyone else, it’s ok.”  But sin is not just between the sinner and God.  Sin hurts the entire Body.  If one member of the Body is sick, the whole Body suffers.

We humans tend to deceive ourselves and justify our sins.  It’s too easy to “talk to Jesus” about things and not be truly honest with ourselves.  We can too readily fashion Jesus into who we want Him to be.  We don’t like to confront and admit sin.  The priest can help us discern if we are being too hard or too easy on ourselves.  So then, why not just talk to a trusted friend or a therapist?  We can derive some psychological benefit from doing so, but Christ did not give the authority to “bind and loose” to your friends or to therapists.  Christ did not say to your friends or your therapist, “Whosoever sins you forgive are forgiven and whosoever sins you retain are retained.”  Christ gave that authority to specific men in His Church and to their successors.

It is one thing to “be sorry” and another thing to “say you are sorry” (despite what the Movie Love Story might want us to believe).  I see this frequently in my counseling office.  People tend to be defensive and avoid admitting their faults.  Getting an apology from some folks is like pulling teeth.  So many marriages would be a lot happier if both partners knew how to apologize and how to graciously accept an apology.  As earlier stated, sin affects not only the sinner, but the entire Church, His Body.  Therefore, Christ wants us to make our apology and find healing through the Church, His Body.  He wants us to do the real work of humility and actually speak our sins out loud to the Church.  He wants us to make a full apology through His Church.

When Jesus healed the blind man, He made mud with spit and dirt, put it on the man’s eyes and then told him, “Go wash in the pool.”  Imagine the blind man saying, “Forget all this mud and washing nonsense, just heal me now, Jesus!”  No, the blind man did as Jesus instructed and was healed.  Jesus often gave specific instructions to those He healed.  Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever hears you hears me,” and “Whosoever sins you forgive are forgiven, whosoever sins you retain are retained.”  Yet, we often say to Jesus, “No, I don’t want to go through that process to call upon your Name, express my personal belief in You and find healing for my soul.  It’s too humiliating, too inconvenient, too old fashioned, too complicated, too messy.  I want to do it my way.  Just forgive me now, Jesus.  I don’t need Your apostles or their successors or any of Your Church getting in the way of my relationship with You.”

Visiting Where I Was Born Again.

This past weekend I was back in my hometown to celebrate a wedding and a birthday.  I needed to go to Church Sunday morning.  The default location was St. Ignatius, the Church I grew up in.  My parents still attend there, and it would be a chance to visit with them for a bit.  This time, however, I decided to do something different.  I was not baptized at St. Ignatius but at St. Clare, and my family attended there until I was in second grade.  Since I had not been there since I was a second grader, I thought it would be interesting to visit.

While approaching the church and school buildings, it struck me how small everything appeared.  Things are magnified to a child’s eyes, and my memory was a child’s memory.  Then I noticed the front steps.  I recalled an old photograph of my family standing on those steps with a baby.  The baby was me at my baptism.  I haven’t seen that photo in years, but I remember it.  And I remember the steps.

Upon entering the church a flood of memories hit me.  It all started to come back.  Except for the scale of things, I felt like I was looking through my six-year-old eyes.  The sights, the sounds and the aroma were familiar and welcoming.  It was like a reunion with a long lost relative.  As I took in the details it occurred to me that more than forty years had left so much unchanged.  The corner stone read “1914.”  The building was almost one hundred years old.  I was baptized there near its mid-century period.  I ran my hand along the railing that I could barely reach as a child.

Meanwhile, I was helping my wife juggle two-year-old twins and trying not to disrupt the Mass.  I had to carry my daughter to the back of the church to settle her down.  I paced back and forth while she gradually fell asleep.  Then I noticed the statue of St. Clare off to the side.  I gazed at her for a while and my eyes were drawn to the focal point of the monstrance she was holding.  When the priest lifted up the Holy Eucharist, it really hit me.  All those years that statue had been standing there holding that monstrance.  I had left, but she had not.  Yet, it was only a fraction of the time that Christ had been steadfastly present in the tabernacle of that church and in every Catholic Church for two thousand years.  He stayed with us, like He stayed with the travelers on the road to Emmaus, present in the Blessed Sacrament.

Jesus said to my heart, “You were baptized here, Thomas.  This is where you became my own.  When you left My Church, I awaited your return with open arms.  I have always been here for you, even when you didn’t care.  Though you may leave me, I will never leave you nor forsake you.  I love you, and I am happy you finally came home to Me.”  Then, I felt the warmth of my daughter asleep in my arms, and I knew the same promise was for her and her brother.  “I will not leave you orphans.  I am with you until the end of the age.”