August 22, 2010
How Many will be Saved?
A priest was teaching a group of young people on the topic of salvation. Two unruly boys stood up and gave the priest a small bottle: “Father, if you believe that Jesus will save you, we challenge you to drink this poison. Let’s see how true is your faith.” The priest was taken aback, but after a while he said, “You know, I have a better proposition: the two of you drink this poison, and I will prove to you that my faith is true because I am sure Jesus will raise you up from the dead!” (Adapted from W. J. Bausch).
One of the three foundational hallmarks of Protestantism is the principle of “sola fide” – we can be saved “by faith alone”. Once and for all, let us be very clear that this is a heretical teaching. In the New Testament, it was only St. James who mentioned the phrase “faith alone”: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). So, faith alone does not save; good works are necessary, according to St. James: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no works? Can such faith save him? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by works, is dead” (2:14, 17).
Where, then, did the Protestants get their sola fide teaching? The answer is Martin Luther. In his German translation of the Bible, Luther intentionally inserted the word “alone” (“allein” in German) to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 3:28 – “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith (alone) apart from works of the law.”
In the Gospel this Sunday, someone in the crowd asked Jesus: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” This question is understandable since the Jews in the time of Jesus believed that as members of the Chosen People of God, they have the certain guarantee of salvation. Consequently, not only were they complacent, but also they looked down on the Gentiles, the non-Jews. They were too proud and presumptuous so as to arrogate to themselves exclusively the gift of salvation. For them, only few will be saved.
The Protestants, on the other hand, hold the opposite view. Based on their sola fide principle, by faith alone, without even following God’s commandments and teachings, many and anybody will be saved. Such doctrinal error is the force behind the permissiveness and loose morality that we witness in our society today. We oftentimes hear this crooked reasoning: “As long as I have faith in Jesus as my Savior, it does not matter whatever I do. I will be saved.”
Both positions are terribly wrong and extremely dangerous – they lead to a seriously disordered spirituality, moral decay, pride and arrogance. How many will be saved? Jesus did not answer this question. Instead, he gave this strong admonition: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” This statement is definitely a warning against complacency and self-righteousness. Then towards the end, he said: “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” This is again another warning, and this time, against pride and arrogance.
Taking the Gospel message as its point of departure, the Letter to the Hebrews talks about discipline. For five times, this word is mentioned in today’s second reading. Following Jesus is not a stroll in the park. It entails a lot of struggle and hard work: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate!” To be able to respond to the demands of discipleship, discipline is necessary. After all, the words “disciple” and “discipline” are closely related. A “disciple” (Latin “discipulus”) is a learner of the “instruction” or “knowledge” (Latin “disciplina”) of the master. A disciple should follow the discipline of his master. So the Letter to the Hebrews advises us: “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as ‘discipline’; God treats you as sons.” Discipline, then, is God’s way of molding us in His likeness because He considers us to be His beloved children.
One attitude that stands out in this present generation is the refusal to submit to the discipline of the Lord. Most people nowadays do not want to hear the hard truths of the Gospel – the evil of sin, the need for conversion and confession, and the teachings on temperance, forgiveness, humility, and all the other Christian virtues. They come to church, not to hear what Jesus wants them to hear, but only those things they want to hear – freedom, independence, tolerance, comfort, and success. For many of them, morality is not a matter of whether something is right or wrong, but whether it makes them feel good or not. That is why they are easily offended by talks against abortion, contraception, divorce and same sex marriage. This situation is the result of what Pope Benedict XVI calls “the dictatorship of relativism.” We are now witnessing the growth of a society that has weak and loose moral fiber and no spiritual backbone. A quotation says, “When the going gets easy, be careful; you may be going downhill.”
Going back to the question, “will only a few people be saved?” The answer depends on how we respond to the teachings of the Gospel. George Bernard Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” The reason why we have all these amazing technological inventions is because of people who are “unreasonable”, who never stop working on their talents and resources to make this world more adaptable and comfortable to human life. If modern man, aided by God’s grace, is equally zealous and hardworking in his spiritual affairs as he is in the temporal and worldly matters, then we can rightfully say that yes, many will be saved. So the Lord now exhorts us: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” It is a lifetime endeavor, a constant struggle. Hence, the Letter to the Hebrews urges us: “Strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees,” for, as Jesus said, many will attempt to enter, but will not be strong enough.”
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
St. Teresa Church
New York, NY 10002