The Mystery of Faith

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Many Christians portray salvation as a simple affair: We are saved, they declare, by faith alone. The all-important role of faith is indeed Scriptural. It was emphasized especially by Saint Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16-17).

The question remains: What, exactly, is faith? Is it mental assent to a set of propositions, sealed by the statement, “I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior?” Or is it something else—something deeper, something fuller, something more mysterious?

It is worthwhile to consider what “faith” and “belief” mean in a human context: for instance, marriage. A faithful husband cherishes and protects his wife. A wife who believes in her husband serves and honors him. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord … Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it” (Ephesians 5:22-24).

We see, then, that “faith” and “belief” are not satisfied by passive mental assent. They demand the active gift of self. Saint Paul succinctly describes the decisive nature of this self-offering: “The wife has not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband has not power of his own body, but the wife” (I Corinthians 7:4).

If this degree of loving selflessness characterizes fidelity between man and woman, imagine the obligation which accompanies the creature’s relationship with his Creator. Faith in God is not simply of the tongue, but of the heart. The Lord was clear on this point: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so, you also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:27-28).

Faith in God is indistinguishable from love of God. This is the basis of Saint John’s spiritual catechesis. “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God. He that loves not knows not God; for God is love” (I John 4:7-8). 

It is love of God that distinguishes us from demons. For they too acknowledge the existence and dread the might of the Lord (cf. James 2:19). Demons know God; they fear God; they will even obey Him, when it suits them—yet love for God they have not, and so salvation is beyond their grasp.

We must consider what Jesus says about salvation in His own words. His conversation with the wealthy young man goes to the core of the matter:

And, behold, one came and said unto Him, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” 

 And He said unto him … “[I]f you will enter into life, keep the commandments.”

He said unto Him, “Which?”

Jesus said, “You shall do no murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and your mother: and, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The young man sad unto Him, “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?

Jesus said unto him, “If you will be perfect, go and sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:16-22).

Here we have what may superficially be deemed “works salvation.” However, the Lord goes on to say, upon the laments of the disciples that such perfection is exceedingly difficult, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Without the regenerative grace of God, which turns a heart of stone to a heart of flesh (cf. Ezekiel 36:26), the kingdom of heaven is beyond our grasp—even beyond our desire, perverted as it is by sin. “For it is God Who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). No amount of merit can “buy” eternal life, nor can base human nature, uninspired by the Spirit, begin to earnestly seek it. That is because God is Himself the kingdom of heaven; He is Himself eternal life. The more we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in this world, allowing Him to renew us in the image of Christ, the greater our experience of the Infinite One in the next world. “And every one that has forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” (Matthew  19:29).

What does it mean to assume the likeness of the Son? It means, first and foremost, to love God above all else and love our neighbor as ourselves. It also means repentance—literally, turning from the fleeting pleasures of the kingdom of men to the everlasting peace of the kingdom of God. “And He said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for My sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

Saint Paul identifies the faith of the prophets with the magnitude of their suffering: “And others had trial of cruel mocking and scourging, yea, moreover of bonds of imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; of whom the world was not worthy: they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:36-38).

The Apostle to the Nations knew that faith is lived day by day, that salvation is won every moment we participate in the life, death, and resurrection of the Incarnate Word: “For if we be dead with Him, we shall also live with Him: If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him” (II Timothy 2:11-12). Belief in our Lord presumes adoring imitation: “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another” (I John 1:6-7).

Writing with all wisdom, Saint Peter even implies that faith is not the end but the beginning of salvation: “And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacks these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 1:5-11).

It seems that friction among Christians regarding how one is “saved” flows from different views of what precisely constitutes salvation. Here the Holy Book is frustratingly obscure. What is the “kingdom of God”? What is “heaven”? What is “eternal life”?  Before such mysteries, the Beloved Apostle shrugged, “Now are we the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is” (I John 3:2).

Although our destiny remains largely concealed, we know that it involves becoming “like Him.” It involves growth and change and transformation. Salvation is not a place but a process, not a moment but a movement—beginning here and fading into the boundless enigma of God’s inner existence. “As we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly” (I Corinthians 15:49). Holiness does not “earn” the vision of the Divine, but influences its quality. “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you” (John 14:2).

Does this mean that a man cannot find the mercy of God on his deathbed? Does this mean that a spontaneous “altar call” confession is insufficient? Of course not! The Lord is as inscrutable as He is compassionate, as evidenced by Christ’s blessing of the crucified thief. What matters is giving ourselves to Christ with confident love. This gift of self may last a second or a century; it may wax and wane throughout one’s lifetime. What matters, surely, is sincere repentance and genuine humility.

Faith is a labor of love, a painful exercise of patience. This is the testimony of the saints, who worship God by offering their bodies up as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1). Salvation is not our own doing, but a synergistic effort driven by and dependent upon the Spirit of Truth. “[T]he Spirit Itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).

Alone, we would be lost. Then again, absent our consent, salvation is impossible, for love is a gift freely given and freely received.  “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).

We are saved by “faith which works by love” (Galatians 5:6). With these few words, Saint Paul agrees with Saint James, who thundered, “But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead … By works was faith made perfect” (James 2:20, 22). This is the message of Jesus, Who said that unless we have mercy, we are damned: “And his lord was wrathful, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto Him. So likewise shall My heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (Matthew 18:34-35).

In the sacred liturgy, the priest chants, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith!” The mystery of faith. Any pat explanation is almost certainly false, or at least woefully incomplete. Ultimately, all Christians will agree that salvation lies in the Triune God. Without Him, we would not be saved. Without Him, we would not even exist. The providence of the Eternal Father, speaking through His Word, acting through His Spirit, challenges our notions of freedom and destiny, grace and merit. “And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24). 

In the end, we must simply trust in the goodness of God, manifesting love in imitation of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh, Who two-thousand years ago told us that whatever we do unto the least of our brethren, so we do unto Him.

“When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory: And before Him shall be gathered all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats: And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry, and you gave Me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and you took Me in: Naked, and you clothed Me: I was sick, and you visited Me: I was in prison, and you came unto Me.

Then shall the righteous answer Him, saying, Lord, when saw we You hungry, and fed You? Or thirsty, and gave You drink? When saw we You a stranger, and took You in? Or naked, and clothed You? Or when saw we You sick, or in prison, and came unto You? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me.

Then shall He say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was hungry, and you gave Me no meat: I was thirsty, and you gave Me no drink: I was a stranger, and you took Me not in: naked, and you clothed Me not: sick, and in prison, and you visited Me not. 

Then shall they also answer Him, saying, Lord, when saw we You hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto You? Then shall He answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to Me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” –Matthew 25:31-46.

Philip Primeau is an associate editor at Catholic Lane. He also blogs at a-heart-of-flesh.blogspot.com. He may be contacted by email at philipryan.primeau@gmail.com.