Is salvation a matter
of balancing the good and the bad?

The following series of letters were published in The Times (of Malta)

Defending God's Church
Malcolm Lowell, Balzan. July 1 [Excerpt]

One day, we know not exactly when, we must all meet our Maker and go through our life story, hoping that the good we have done will outweigh the bad and that we will be judged mercifully. Of one thing I am as certain as my human limitations permit me to be - that our private failings will be judged as such but those actions and words which are made public and have been used to influence people against the Church and, God forbid which give scandal to young children whose minds and opinions are still in the formation stage and easily manipulated will not be so easy for even our God of boundless mercy to forgive. Let us all be very careful what we say and do, especially in public. These are very serious matters.

Joseph Mizzi, Attard. 8 July

Malcolm Lowell (Defending God's Church, July 1) advises that we ought to be very careful what we say and do, especially in public. Why then does he carelessly present a totally skewed picture of the message of the bible on salvation? He wrote: "One day, we know not exactly when, we must all meet our Maker and go through our life story, hoping that the good we have done will outweigh the bad and that we will be judged mercifully".

Nothing could be further from the truth. The bible declares that salvation is a matter of grace, received solely by faith in Christ, and apart from any merit of our "good"! "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Ephesians 2:8, 9).

Where did this idea of weighing personal good against bad come from? Certainly not from the Scripture! Sin is cancelled by the blood of Christ for those who, laying aside all confidence in their own sanctity, rest their salvation in the hands of the one and only Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Judgement in the Bible
Paul Galea Curmi, Birkirkara. July 13

Malcolm Lowell (July 1) need have no qualms about his contribution being contrary to biblical teaching.

In Matthew 25, 31-46, we find a very pictorial description of the Last Judgement given by Jesus Christ himself.

And the basis of the judgement is simple: our charitable acts (or lack of them) towards our neighbour. "Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me'" [Mat 25:45].

And the conclusion, too, is definite: "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" [Mat 25:46].

The good and the bad
Mario Jaccarini S.J., Msida. July 19

Malcolm Lowell was right and scriptural in writing (July 1) that we have to give an account of our deeds, hoping that in God's mercy, the good done will outweigh the bad. All the good we do depends on God's grace who, by the death and resurrection of his son, saved us from sin and hell. As I understand, Mr Lowell, this dependence on God's grace was implied by him when he used the words "hope" and "judged mercifully".

He was implying that ultimately we do not place our confidence in our good deeds, which anyway we perform by God's grace, but on the same grace, which we have been given in Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, we can also reject God's grace. Still we do have to give an account of all our deeds.

All this can be seen in many parts of the New Testament like in Jesus Christ's parable of the last judgement (Matthew 25:31-46) where those who love their neighbour are rewarded and those who neglect him are punished. So also in Matthew 7:21-23, the Lord tells us that not those who call him Lord, or prophesy or cast out devils in his name, but those who do the will of the Father will enter the Kingdom.

St Paul clearly mentions the judgement that Mr Lowell wrote about, for example in Romans 14:12 and 2 Corinthians 5:6-10. I conclude with the last verse of the latter: "For all the truth about us will be brought out in the law court of Christ and each of us will get what he deserves for the things he did in the body, good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Judas' kiss and salvation
Joseph Mizzi, Attard. July 29

Mario Jaccarini SJ (July 19) portrays salvation as a matter of hoping that "the good done will outweigh the bad".

His disclaimer that "we do not place our confidence in our good deeds" is not very reassuring. If his basic thesis is correct, we would better start confiding in our good works for it is their weight that supposedly tips the balance to eternal life!

Good works, like a kiss, could be the sign of opposite things. A kiss could signify pure and sincere love; it could also be an act of hypocrisy and treachery.

True Christians are characterised by the godliness and love that spring from a renewed heart and the presence of God's spirit in them. Their obedience to Christ is the natural way of expressing their gratitude to the one who died for them to secure their eternal redemption. These good works are their identification badge on the Day of Judgment.

Of all people, the disciples of Jesus shun sin and pursue righteousness for the glory of God. Yet they would not dream of relying on their own goodness for salvation.

"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us." (Titus 3:5). They do not attempt to cover their guilt with a pile of religious deeds. Only the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin; in Christ alone they entrust the salvation of their soul.

Paradoxically, good works could also reveal a lack of faith in Christ. For instance, the Catholic Church teaches that prayer and good works are forms of penance (defined as a vindicatory punishment and satisfaction for sins). The joyful privilege of communion with God in prayer is mutated by religion into a form of punishment! The system would not allow the penitent to enjoy God's full and gracious pardon. The penitent is hindered from trusting completely in Christ because he is compelled to make reparation for his sins by prayers and other personal works.

We ought to question our deepest motives. Are my works a Judas kiss, betraying the grace of Christ? Or a kiss of love and gratitude to my Saviour? As for myself, "I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain" (Galatians 2:21).

God's grace
Fr Mario Jaccarini SJ, Msida. August 4.

I am afraid Joseph Mizzi (Judas' Kiss And Salvation, July 29) quotes only part of my letter (The Good And The Bad, July 19) and then attacks my whole position on the basis of that part. One must take a piece of writing as a whole not in part and this holds true especially of Holy Scripture which must not be quoted selectively.

Dr Mizzi doesn't seem to leave place for the possibility of our not cooperating with God's grace. My point was that, although we are saved by God's grace, there is also need of our cooperation or at least our not rejecting God's grace. This is shown by the many exhortations which the Lord gives us to love God by doing His will and to love our neighbour in deeds and not just words. I must quote again the words of Jesus: "It is not those who say to me, 'Lord, Lord', who will enter the kingdom of heaven but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Matthew 7:21).

On the other hand, we have also to keep in mind that we have no rights in front of God because our good deeds are His gift, as is shown by the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.

Finally, it is not right for Christians to quarrel among themselves but, I am afraid, it seems to me that Dr Mizzi loses no chance to start such controversies against Catholics.

Grace Cannot Be Merited
Joseph Mizzi, Attard. August 12.

Why should I bother to defend myself against Mario Jaccarini's (August 4) puerile ad hominem gibes? Much rather would I defend the truth of the Gospel and exult in the grace of God.

Fr Jaccarini misses the point completely. The question is not whether a person could resist the grace of God, nor even whether a person could be saved apart from good works (of course he couldn't!).

Here is the crux of the matter. Is it possible for a sinner to be justified before God on account of the merit of his good works; or, to put it simply, am I accepted by the Divine Judge because my personal "good" outweighs the "bad", as the Jesuits affirm.

No, not unless a sinner can be saved without the grace of God. For the apostle Paul defines "grace" as the antithesis of the "merit" earned by works. "Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness" (Romans 4:4, 5).

The Bible insists that only he who "does not work" but "believes" is justified before God. Justification is not the reward for our works. On the contrary, justification is the free and gratuitous gift of grace which we do not merit.

Believers do good works out of gratitude to God's amazing love. Their purpose is not to merit grace, nor are works the basis of their acceptance before God. The once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the only basis for the believers' right standing before the Creator. "Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him" (Romans 5:9)."

God's grace
Joe A. Serge, Ontario, Canada. August 13.

Fr Mario Jaccarini may be zealous for God and genuinely believes salvation is influenced through cooperation with God by good works (August 4) but that's not found in the Scripture.

Good works are the natural offshoot of a sinner saved by grace. For on a rugged cross on Golgotha's hill, Jesus paid in full the penalty we justly deserve for our rebellion against God's law. Sheer grace. The will of the Father is that we believe in the Son's saving work on our behalf. It is to no avail to call Jesus "Lord, Lord" but refuse to cling to Christ alone for our salvation.

The concept that good works help us get to heaven betrays man's carnal pride saying the creature has something to offer to the Creator to merit eternal life.

The Scripture says: "All of us have become like one who is unclean and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf and like the wind our sins sweep us away" (Isa 64:6). Fr Jaccarini further suggests mere man has the power to resist God's saving grace and that flies contrary to the Scripture's teaching that the Holy Spirit regenerates and turns to Christ the elect whom God predestined for salvation before time began.

"And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified" (Rom.8:30). The hymn I Sought the Lord, sings the praises of God's awesome, irresistible grace: "I sought the Lord and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me; it was not I that found, O Saviour true; no, I was found, was found of thee" (anon. 1878).

Faith, hope and love
Adrian Camilleri, St Paul's Bay. August 26.

According to Joseph Mizzi (August 12), "The Bible insists that only he who... 'believes' is justified before God".

Actually, the Bible insists on rather more than that. It speaks of three "theological" virtues, Faith, Hope and Love, and all three are absolutely necessary for salvation. Mr Mizzi, however, aligns himself with a tradition that emphasises the first, Faith, at the expense of the other two. This is thoroughly unscriptural. Doesn't St Paul say, for instance, "We are saved by Hope" (Romans 8:24)?

As for Love, St Paul could not have expressed himself more strongly: "If I have all Faith, so that I can move mountains, but have not Love, I am nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:2). In the same place he writes: "Now remain these three: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love" (13: 13). When Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment of all, He replies, "To love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength; and to love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these" (Mark 12: 30, 31). St Paul tells us: "Love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10). St John writes, "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him" (1 John 4: 16).

Recognising the centrality of love in the Christian message enables us to see the question of "good works" for the red herring it is. When we do good, we must do it for love, full stop. Love of God or love of our neighbour (which is also love of God). If we do it to gain merit, we are not doing it for love but for a false motive, so our action counts for nothing.

Merit and Salvation
Joseph Mizzi, Attard. September 10.

Adrian Camilleri (27 August) debunks antinomianism, the heretical teaching that a sinner can be justified before God by barren, solitary faith. That is the kind of “faith alone” that evangelical Christians like myself also repudiate and condemn.

The Bride of Christ, redeemed by the blood of her Saviour, is adorned with many precious jewels: faith, hope, love, patience, kindness, holiness, good works and other spiritual virtues.

Thus if we ask “who” will be saved, the unequivocal answer is, “Only believers whose life is characterized by love and good works.”

But if we ask “how” we are saved, the Bible points to faith alone as the hand that receives the gift of salvation; it also excludes our works as the meritorious cause. “To him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5).

Of course the apostle Paul is not excluding works altogether. Elsewhere he emphatically speaks on the necessity of godliness in the life of every believer. Deeds are the fruit of faith, but their purpose is not to merit justification. It all about motives: some perform works to merit grace; Christians do them out of love for their Saviour.

Interestingly, Mr Camilleri concurs at this point. He boldly states that “if we do [good] to gain merit, we are not doing it for love but for a false motive, so our action counts for nothing.” That is precisely what the Catholic Church does not teach. The Catholic Church still curses us who, having trusted in Christ alone for salvation, work and live for God’s love rather than to merit eternal life.

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