"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast."
— Ephesians 2:8-9
Around the same time I began painting St Francis Xavier, an innocent comment on a Baptist friend's Facebook post sparked a friendly debate about the nature of justification and sanctification. I was about four messages in when I realised I needed to do more reading before I could adequately articulate my understanding of the mechanics of salvation. I soon found myself on an unexpected journey of intense reading, praying, and writing as I dug into a question I have often taken for granted: What does it mean to be saved?
My friend was able to provide a quick formula and a handful of convincing bible verses. As I researched further, I kept running into the same wording, the same verses, the same slogans.
Although Protestants themselves don't always agree on what, exactly, is required for salvation, the most popular view goes something like this: we are sinners, incapable of saving ourselves, until God reaches down into our misery and, by merit of his perfect Son's death and resurrection, declares us righteous and forgiven (justification). This happens the moment we believe and trust in Jesus as our saviour. By faith alone do we receive this unmerited grace, which then inspires and convicts us to live a life that glorifies God. Sanctification is that ongoing process by which we are surrendering to God and he transforms us, making us holy. Sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christo. They are quick to remind us legalistic Catholics that heaven cannot be earned, that our works in no way add nor detract from this free gift.
I have been familiar with the main tenets of Christianity for as long as I can remember, and I actually agree with the overtones of this explanation. But after 25 years of living in the faith, I am coming to realise that it is one thing to accept and repeat ideas—and even to live by them—and quite another to really understand what those ideas mean.
This is my rambling attempt to explore the creeds we too often take for granted, and is not meant to be a theological tome. This essay in no way exhausts the incredible mystery found in Jesus Christ—indeed, it barely scratches the surface. If you have any thoughts about this topic that you'd like to share, please contact me!
The debt we cannot pay
I would agree with my Protestant brothers and sisters that any idea of earning your salvation is both false and silly. It's not like that TV show, The Good Place, where certain actions arbitrarily defined as "good" earn you points, while "bad" actions subtract points. Earn enough points and you'll make it to heaven! Oh boy, you kicked a puppy? 10,000 demerits for you!
But as ridiculous as that sounds, I would argue that the Protestant understanding of salvation is actually not that different—it just takes the points system to a different extreme.
The wages of sin is death, St Paul says in Romans. Paul was a business owner and often used financial terminology such as this in his writings. Jesus himself told parables that used money to illustrate the severity of our offences, such as the servant who owed ten thousand talents.1Matthew 18:23-34 (FYI, that's a lot of money.)
Thus, Christians often use the analogy of standing before a judge, completely unable to provide anything to offset the terrible debt our sins have incurred until Jesus stands in our place, offering his own righteousness in our stead. Boom. Bill paid, you've got your ticket to heaven. It's no wonder that Protestants argue that we cannot add anything to that—to do so would suggest that Jesus wasn't enough. Obviously, that is unacceptable.
And while I think the concept of debt can be useful in helping us to appreciate how our sins have serious consequences and our poor choices cannot be taken back, I don't think St Paul or Jesus intended for that metaphor to be taken literally. Does God demand that someone suffer as payment for our sins? Does he cast us into hell if we neglect to accept the compensation Jesus offers, or reward us in heaven if we do?
Is Heaven a place?
You Christians are so pathetic
Arguing about your imaginary God
And who is going to get into his imaginary clubhouse
If you've ever browsed the comment section of a Christian YouTube video, you've probably seen remarks like this. Hate to say it, but . . . they've got a point. Thinking about heaven like a glorified clubhouse is, I would argue, to completely miss the whole point of Christianity.
Non-believers also bring up fierce objections to the doctrine of hell. To them, it makes no sense to talk about a God who loves you so much he would die for your sins—yet if you fail to accept Jesus as your saviour or commit one mortal sin, he'll punish you in hell for all eternity. Yeah, seems super loving to me.
I will remind you that love is not something that God does—love is what he is.
"To will the good of the other is the very nature, substance, and essence of God. Accordingly, God doesn't love some and hate others; he doesn't fall in and out of emotional states, sometimes loving and sometimes hating." — Bishop Robert Barron, Vibrant Paradoxes, p.214
To be loving is a characteristic that one might expect of a benevolent person. But, as I will never tire of reiterating, God is not one being among many (not even a super-awesome-powerful being) but rather the sheer act of being itself—that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song. You could say that God is continually loving us into existence. In Jesus' own words, he is like the sun that rises on both the evil and the good. God doesn't love us because we've been nice, rather, whatever goodness we may have is the result of God loving us. This is the basic biblical principle of the primacy of grace.
Rocks and plants and animals respond to this divine love by simply being what they are, but God did something remarkable when he made us humans: he made us in his own image and likeness.2"Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness..." —Genesis 1:26 He endowed us with a mind and a will so that we could respond to his love. He invites us to participate fully and freely in that love—to be drawn up into the beauty, truth, and goodness that he is—not out of coercion, or mechanically, like a robot, but in genuine friendship.
"God's free initiative demands man's free response, for God created man in his image by conferring upon him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him." — Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.2002
But that freedom comes at a price: the ability to reject his love. Ever since The Fall, we have abused that freedom by failing to trust in the goodness of God's plan. We've tried to manipulate reality to satisfy our dysfunctional appetites instead of ordering ourselves towards the source of all goodness. And so, we have fallen far, far short of the glory of God.3"...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." —Romans 3:23 We've "missed the mark", you could say. This is sin. The result has been the devastating degradation of mankind and creation as a whole.
You needn't look farther than our ravaged planet to see how beauty becomes disfigured by our wrong choices. The truth becomes obscured and twisted. Goodness is ridiculed and vices lauded as virtues. The more we reject God, the farther we descend into hell in a very real way.
C.S. Lewis once said that the love of God lights up the fires of hell. By this, he meant that the suffering of hell is caused by the same power that produces the delight of heaven—that is, the love that God simply is.
"The difference between heaven and hell is the function of our freedom: in the first case, it opens itself to God, and in the second case, it turns away from God." —Bishop Robert Barron, Vibrant Paradoxes, p.215
When a bride is lying in her beloved's arms, she rests, knowing that she is seen and cherished and desired. This is a taste of heaven, of when we will be finally taken up into our divine Lover's arms, forever seen and cherished and desired. You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. (St Augustine) We catch a glimpse of heaven in the beauty of the earth, in the charity of another human being, in the truth we discover through philosophy and science and religion. We sense it in virtue and in every other genuinely good thing. Our hearts yearn to be filled. To the soul that opens itself up to grace, one can recognize God's handiwork throughout all of creation and allow these things to propel her towards the source and ground of all that is true and good and beautiful. She waits in faith and looks forward with hope.
But for the soul that rejects God's love, those same desires become inverted. We settle for a distorted beauty, vandalising and consuming and destroying. We twist and obscure the truth with lies and ideologies and false promises. We scoff at goodness, celebrating depravity and advocating for violence. If heaven is to be seen, satisfied, and united—then sin causes us to hide in shame; it is thankless and divisive.
"And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil."
— John 3:19
When we choose to worship false gods, when our desires become inverted, when we resist or even violently reject grace—this is what Catholics would refer to as mortal sin. For those offences which are considered so serious so as to risk salvation are revelatory of the trajectory of our desires. For when we die and our soul enters eternity, what will we find there but God himself?? To the soul that persevered in faith, entering his presence will be the realization of all she hoped for—Love will finally be seen! Thus, heaven is not a place but is a state of being—that of beholding absolute beauty, truth, and goodness in perfect communication with God for all eternity. Heaven is the infinite satisfaction of all properly ordered desires. Hell, then, is that final "no" from the depths of one's being, a definitive resistance to the fire that reveals and purifies. God does not cast us into a fiery pit like a capricious tyrant; we put ourselves in that state of torment when we absolutely insist on rejecting his love.
What about Jesus?
So, you might be thinking, sure, but even if I accept this theory of heaven and hell, where does that leave Jesus? Why did he have to die?
That's a good question, and one I found myself asking the last few months. Again, it's easy enough to say that Jesus died for our sins to satisfy the justice of the Father, but that popular interpretation poses a few interesting questions. On the one hand, it makes God sound like a petty dictator whose honour is so offended that he demands human sacrifice. On the other hand, if God was prepared to offer his forgiveness in the first place, why couldn't he have just done that from heaven? Why did an innocent person—much less his own Son—have to suffer such a tragic death?
This brings us back to the nature of heaven and hell, for sin is not about breaking arbitrary rules or racking up points against yourself, but is the terrible condition that we're in. "You have not yet considered the weight of sin," St Anselm once said. Just consider the last century, with its holocausts and genocide, the school shootings and child abuse, the pollution, corruption, and war. The wages of sin is death. Although it is within God's power to forgive us from a distance, he knows that simply cancelling a figurative debt isn't enough to bring about complete reconciliation and friendship with us. We require more than a legal fiction to be set free from the bondage of sin, just as a filthy, starving homeless man needs more than someone walking by and reassuring him that everything will be okay. The human condition is so deeply dysfunctional, its effects so catastrophic, that we need something from outside ourselves to enter into our awful state and conquer it from the inside out. We need a saviour.
"The Word became flesh and lived among us."
— John 1:14
In the mystery of the incarnation, the astonishing truth of God's relationship with humanity is revealed. For the God who can become human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature he has become is a God who is not in competition with his creation. The Word did not remain sequestered in Heaven, blithely dictating rules and passing judgement, but in the most stunning turn of events condescended to take on human flesh so that we could become partakers of his own divine life
Because Jesus is fully divine, God himself reveals the amazing nature of his love by inviting us into a personal relationship with himself. Because he is fully human, he can act as a representative on our behalf. Christ, by becoming the perfect man, opened for us the doorway to right relation and atonement. This allows for the exercise of our full humanity, instead of diminishing or marginalizing it. By becoming a person we could see and touch and know, he showed us the "narrow way" to the full and beautiful expression of human life in participation with God's divine love.
In the old testament, the Jews strived to live by the ten commandments. These rules were, essentially, the very basics of proper social conduct if one wanted to circumvent total self-destruction—don't kill, don't lie, don't steal, don't cheat.
But Jesus came to offer a completely new perspective: it is not enough to simply avoid sin. No, it was time to turn around completely, to stop asking what we could get away with, what rituals we might mechanically perform to appear righteous, and run towards love! (Read more in the Sermon on the Mount.) God himself was to be the standard which we would live by,4"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." —Matthew 5:48 the food that would sustain us,5"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." —John 6:51 the fulfilment of all desire.6"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." —1 Corinthians 13:12 A new kingdom was being established—one that would take precedence over every other human institution and relationship.7"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." —Luke 14:26 This kingdom would span across history, crossing borders, bringing together men and women of every race, religion, and social status.
But perhaps most unsettling of all—the Way, the Truth, and the Life was not to be found primarily in a particular philosophy or code of ethics or religious ideology, but in the very person of Jesus himself.8"Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'" —John 14:6
How serious was Jesus about this offer? Very serious, it seems, as we found out on Good Friday when he ventured into the very extremes of human brokenness.
I think it is fairly safe to say that there can be no greater transgression than to torture and kill the Son of God. Surely he should have said, "Enough is enough." Yet, on Calvary, betrayed by his closest friends, falsely condemned by a corrupt political system, ridiculed, mutilated, stripped naked, and impaled on the most barbaric and dehumanising instrument of torture of that time, he says:
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
— Luke 23:34
Here was the Son of God, forsaken, violated, straining against the nails in his hands and feet just so he could breathe, bearing upon his soul the sins of all humanity—even then, even then, he assures us that his love is greater than all this.
It sounds like such a cliché now, but no matter what evil we've done, no matter how much we are suffering, we have a saviour who has been there and beyond. He understands our struggles, he's experienced our sorrow. Through it all he continues to offer his love unconditionally and sets an example for us to live by:
"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin."
— Hebrews 4:15
We know how the story ends. Even death could not hold him! In the resurrection, Jesus conquered both sin and death, like a warrior who had infiltrated enemy lines and defeated them from within. It is finished. (John 19:30) The perfect sacrifice that we had hoped for, dramatised over the centuries and enshrined in ritual, was finally found in the person of Jesus. Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! (John 1:29) He has proved victorious!
So, yes, one could say that the Father was pleased with the sacrifice of his Son, but not sadistically, as though he needed to see someone suffer terribly to assuage his wounded ego. Rather, the Son, who always acts in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit,9"Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" —John 14:10 was pleasing in his willingness to go to the very limits of human dysfunction to manifest this saving grace. Jesus "paid the price" by offering the only thing that could act as a suitable counterbalance to the devastation of sin: Divine Mercy.
What does this mean for us?
Our intellect and good intentions can only take us so far—even an atheist can live a good life. There comes a point when we must step beyond the threshold of what reason can surmise and accept this radical gift of salvation—to believe what God says about himself. This is faith.
By accepting this gift, are we not then called upon to engage body, heart, mind, soul, and strength? For Catholics, believing and obeying are inextricable, for what Protestants might classify as a follow-up to justification is, as I see it, the very nature of being "saved". For justification is not a single transaction at the moment of conversion, like currency or points somehow exchanged on our behalf. Rather, God restores us to right order by inviting us into a state of receptivity to his transformative grace, exemplified and made available to us in the life and death of Jesus Christ. It is the actual reordering of our desires, a voluntary consent of the will to the love which he freely offers us. This love then fills and heals and refines us, drawing us ever higher into holiness and freeing us to delight in the very essence of God. Love awakening love in us.
Like a bride who is receptive to her husband in the act of procreating new life, so too the church, Christ's bride, is receptive to the initiation of God's saving grace, actively cooperating with the seed of good news and bearing it to full term. Our good works, then, are not just an obligation or mere proof of our moral status but are the tool by which God restores harmony in us and in the world. In surrendering all our powers and faculties to the kingdom of God and the pursuit of beauty, truth, and goodness, we are not only forgiven and redeemed—we actually become righteous. We become saints! Moment by moment, God is pouring out his infinite mercy, patiently liberating us from every sinful attachment so that we can be totally, eternally, His. This is what it means to be saved.
"Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you."
— Matthew 6:33
About this painting
It's no coincidence that God would launch me on this journey at the same time I began painting this truly remarkable saint who worked so tirelessly to bring the good news of God's salvation to countless souls.
You'll notice that the Church has never canonised anyone just because they went to Mass every Sunday, or because they faithfully scheduled confession every month. No! The saints are those souls who best exemplify the transfiguring power of grace—those men and women who, by surrendering to God's will in every capacity, have forever altered history by their inspiring witness and service.
The saints have guarded and upheld beauty in the arts and music. They've pursued truth through philosophy and science. They've cultivated goodness by founding and serving in schools, hospitals, and churches. From the echoing halls of the abbey to the tangled jungles of India, the saints are living proof that God does not want to crush us into meaningless subservience, but rather when we accept God's grace into our hearts, we become truly alive in the best possible way.
St Francis Xavier was a particularly impressive figure. He started out a typical young man—he enjoyed partying and often shirked his duties until the witness of his roommate, St Ignatius of Loyola, set his heart on fire for the Lord. Together, they founded the Society of Jesus and Francis set off for the wilds of India to preach the gospel. He walked through miles of jungle and snow barefoot to minister in poor villages, fearlessly confronted dangerous pagan leaders, travelled to islands habited by cannibalistic tribes, survived ocean storms, starvation, illness, and persecution, spent countless months travelling by ship between his various mission posts, lived in absolute poverty, baptized tens of thousands of souls—and in the end, died virtually alone and betrayed before he could bring the gospel to China. He’s one of those saints you can hardly believe existed except for the faithful who still live in those regions to this day (and his incorrupt body, which actually came to Alberta not that long ago). His courageous evangelism brought around 30,000 souls to Christ.
"The glory of God is man fully alive."
— St Irenaeus