Common Ground? – What Must I Do to be Saved?

What must I do to be saved?? The question of all questions, and truly the only question that ultimately matters. How do Catholics and Protestants answer this question when it is put to them? Are our answers one and the same?

Once again, there is such division on the Protestant side of this issue that it becomes very difficult to answer the question. On the minimalist side, there are those who look to John 3:16 for the answer to the all-important question “What must I do to be saved?”

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Believe, they say – that’s the sum total of the demand made upon you by God. Believe in Jesus Christ and you will be saved. And it sounds good; after all, there are many, many verses instructing us that we are saved by believing (154, by one count), which Protestants interpret to mean that we are saved by faith alone. Isn’t that what John 3:16 means, just believe?

Well, let’s just say that it’s not likely that this is the entire answer to the question, for the simple reason that Scripture itself points out a flaw in the argument. As St. James mentions, the demons believe in the One God. They know that Jesus is He, as evidenced by their reaction to Him in Matthew 8:29, Mark 1: 24 and 5:7, and Luke 4:34. Are they saved?

Quite clearly, belief is only the beginning. Former Baptist Steve Ray has this to say on the subject:

What is the whole teaching of the Bible on how we receive salvation, justification, new birth and eternal life?

By repentance (Acts 2: 38, II Peter 3:9)

By being baptized (Acts 2: 38, John 3:5 Steve, I Peter 3:21, Titus 3:5)

By the work of the Spirit (John 3:5, II Cor. 3:6)

By declaring with our mouth (Luke 12:8, Romans 10:9)

By works (Romans 2:6-7, James 2:24)

By grace (Acts 15:11, Ephesians 2:8)

By His blood (Romans 5:9, II Peter 1:1)

By His righteousness (Romans 5:17, II Peter 1:1)

By His cross (Ephesians 2:16, Colossians 2:14)

In other words, flipping through the pages of the New Testament, you will find many answers to the question “What must I do to be saved?”: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” “…if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation,” “He who believes and is baptized will be saved,” “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” “And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation,” “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” “But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” These answers are not mutually exclusive, and no one can pick out one and claim that it is the Answer above all answers! Clearly, all of what the Bible says on this subject must be taken into consideration. Faith is a part of the equation, and so are works. Baptism fits into the formula, as does perseverance. Obedience to God’s commandments is necessary, and so is a recognition that it is by grace that we are saved through faith! Many Protestant denominations are loath to admit all this, preferring a tidy package that better fits the doctrinal straightjacket they have prepared for believers, but the Bible indicates that more than just belief goes into the process of “getting saved.”

Note the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject:

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church. This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature. The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification: Therefore if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself. CCC 1996-1999

Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. “Since ‘without faith it is impossible to please [God]’ and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life ‘but he who endures to the end.'” Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man. We can lose this priceless gift, as St. Paul indicated to St. Timothy: “Wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith.” To live, grow and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the word of God; we must beg the Lord to increase our faith; it must be “working through charity,” abounding in hope, and rooted in the faith of the Church. Faith makes us taste in advance the light of the beatific vision, the goal of our journey here below. Then we shall see God “face to face”, “as he is”. So faith is already the beginning of eternal life: When we contemplate the blessings of faith even now, as if gazing at a reflection in a mirror, it is as if we already possessed the wonderful things which our faith assures us we shall one day enjoy. CCC 161-163

The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. CCC 1257

The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him: “Restore us to thyself, O LORD, that we may be restored!” God gives us the strength to begin anew. It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced: Let us fix our eyes on Christ’s blood and understand how precious it is to his Father, for, poured out for our salvation it has brought to the whole world the grace of repentance. CCC 1432

The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; the Second Vatican Council confirms: “The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord . . . the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments.” CCC 2068

As you can see, the Catholic Church covers the Biblical bases of grace, faith, repentance, baptism, obedience, works done through love, and perseverance in the Faith. As for the “confessing with the mouth,” we do that constantly, every time we recite the Creed or renew our baptismal vows. Protestant denominations, on the other hand, are a veritable cafeteria of possibilities when it comes to answering the question of “What must I do to be saved?” Different denominations teach very different things about how to get to Heaven, including:

  • Believe! (Free Grace, Plymouth Brethren)
  • Believe, repent, and accept Jesus as your Lord (meaning that you must obey Him) and Savior! (the most common understanding among Evangelicals)
  • Believe, repent, and be baptized! (Lutherans)
  • Believe, repent, and be baptized in the Holy Spirit! (meaning that if you do not “speak in tongues,” you are not “saved” – some charismatics take this position)
  • Believe, repent, be baptized, obey and persevere to the end! (Anglicans, Methodists, Church of Christ)

This issue beautifully demonstrates the fallacious Protestant claim that, while various Protestant denominations disagree on many doctrines, all Protestants agree on “The Essentials.” Well, brother – there is no doctrine more essential than this one! What must I do to be saved??  With no common ground among Protestant denominations on this issue, the myth of “unity on the essentials” explodes.

 Common ground on the issue of salvation? Not even among Protestants.


On the memorial of St. Scholastica

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Excellent piece Renée!

    I was thinking along some of the same lines but you nailed it. People (our separated brethren) really need to look closely at how much Protestants *actually* have in common. There are a few points of necessity — mostly to offer at least a plausible alternative to Catholicism (e.g. authority, sacraments, apostolic succession, visible Church, Peter, continuity…). Beyond that, they are highly divergent and more so all the time. You are right, nothing could be more important than how one is saved which is the entire purpose of the Church.

    I do not wish to sound harsh and in fact, respect and admire all Christians who seek the truth with all their heart. May God bless them. I long for full unity with them and that each one of them be further enriched by the fullness of faith — which most do not even suspect they are missing.

    A good first step is to study, at least privately by themselves, how little different Protestant communities have in common. Stop glossing over it. Gnaw on it. Pray on it. Read the Fathers. Be open. Be surprised.

    • To be honest, George, I as a former Evangelical was taught to be suspicious of folks like you (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists – any Protestant who belonged to a “mainline” denomination and therefore did not believe what we believed). People at my church gave testimonies about how they “got saved” out of those denominations. Jerry Falwell called them “old, dead churches.” Yet we insisted that we all agreed on the Essentials!

      Stop glossing it over – exactly right.

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