I have two close friends with whom I meet regularly for lunch. One is a fellow Catholic, and not a native Southerner. I’ll call her Beth. The other is a Protestant I’ve known most of my life. I’ll call her Bonnie. I love and trust them both. We have a lot in common; a love of books and art, children and grandchildren. We talk about all these, but sometimes our conversations center around a subject that so-called experts caution not to talk about in order to avoid disagreement: religion.
In this, we are open with each other. We dialogue, as they say. Beth, with her academic mind very apparent, and Bonnie, her blue eyes flashing all the wonderful traditions of the South. I think of myself as somewhat of a mediator in our conversations, a balance.
In one of our first conversations, when the three of us were becoming friends; Bonnie threw out a question to Beth, one most Protestants who are beginning friendships want to know the answer to. “Have you been saved?”
Beth, who can be quite curt at times, set a steady eye on Bonnie, and though she knew very well what Bonnie meant, answered facetiously. “Saved from what?”
As has become my habit, I stepped in because I know and love them both. “Saved from sin.”
“Well, I don’t know yet.” Beth smiled and gave Bonnie’s hand a pat. “I’m not dead.”
Of course, this struck Bonnie, as I knew it would. We’d debated the meaning of ‘being saved’ several times before Beth became our friend. Neither she, nor I, changed the other’s opinion.
“You don’t have to be dead to know you’re saved,” Bonnie said quickly. “You only need to accept Jesus as your personal savior. His grace has saved you already.”
This was new for Beth. Educated in Catholic schools, and growing up in a thoroughly Catholic environment, she’d never had to confront another point of view. “I know His grace saves us,” Beth agreed, “but not all at once. We’re sinners. We keep sinning. We need the justification of good works.”
Bonnie brushed a hand through the air and, of course, resisted. “The blood of the Cross has covered our sins. We need nothing else except to believe it. And if we do, we’re born again. Salvation is a free gift, a trusting relationship in the one who died for your sins. We don’t earn it through good works. I’m sure of that.”
Bonnie and I had discussed this, too, before Beth came along. My viewpoint had been that, like Protestants, Catholics also believe salvation is by grace alone, because all people who will be saved are saved by Christ as the one who initiates our salvation, and the one who brings the work to completion. So I pipe in, “Catholics agree that salvation is a free gift; we do not earn it through our works, and we must trust God who started the work in us. But salvation must be brought to completion. That’s what Beth is saying. Salvation is more of a process.”
“Yes,” Beth agreed. “As I said, I’m not dead yet so I don’t know if I’ll be saved. As long as I’m still alive, God is working out my salvation with me through the grace of His Holy Spirit within me. There is His initiation and then there is my lifelong response; not a one-time occurrence, but an ongoing relationship made possible by what Jesus did on the cross.”
“Well that makes no sense,” Bonnie said with more than a little fire in her voice. “You must be saved and made righteous in front of God before the Holy Spirit can dwell in you. Grace, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the fruit of having already been saved.”
“But Bonnie,” Beth responded, “even after a person is born again, he still commits sin. God cannot co-exist in our soul with sin. It’s possible to choose against God and stop the salvation process. That’s why we Catholics have the sacrament of Reconciliation, where you might say we’re born again, too. Over and over again.”
“No,” Bonnie reaffirmed. “Once a person is born again and saved, he cannot lose his salvation. After all, grace isn’t offered to everyone, only those who confess the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Read Rom 9:15-18.”
Beth bristled a little now. Her brother, who was raised a Catholic, had suddenly proclaimed himself as an Atheist and she worried over his soul. “You read 1 Timothy 2:3-5. God wants everyone to be saved. Even those who have never heard the name of Jesus are offered grace enough that salvation becomes a possibility. Still, good works are necessary. Good works are inspired by God and have merit because it is God inspiring them, and even to some degree, doing the works in a believer.”
“Are you saying that a person who is not doing good works may not have grace operating in him?” Bonnie asked, lifting her chin. “I think that’s a denial of faith. God’s trees are evergreen. Once a person is saved, he has grace. He cannot lose his salvation.”
At a seeming impasse, each of us took a sip of our sweet tea, waiting for the lunch we ordered to be brought to our table. Then I offered, “As Catholics we believe that Grace is defined as God’s life entering into the soul at Baptism, erasing all traces of the original sin, and personal sins that were committed by those of us baptized as adults before we received the Sacrament. Baptism gives us a new life through Jesus. It brings us back to God, and changes us.”
Beth jumped in. “But there is one thing that baptism does not change–our inclinations towards sin. Our physical bodies continue to be weak in nature. Because of that, there is a constant battle within us between what God created us to do and what we desire to do.”
By now, our lunch had been set before us, and the conversation quickly turned to that, and then to children and grandchildren.
Our conversation showed some definite differences in Catholic and Protestant beliefs. But it’s important to point out that Protestants and Catholics share many commonalities. We agree on the divine inspiration of the Bible. We believe that Jesus is true God and true man. We agree on the doctrine of original sin and the need for grace for salvation, and that Christ’s death on the cross is why we are saved. We agree on fundamental dogmas such as the Virgin birth, the Resurrection and the Trinity. We can learn from one another. We can work together on common cause projects. We can pray with and for one another. We can, and must, keep open our communication, and never doubt the possibility of salvation for the other.
Because we are Christians.
Because we are made in the image and likeness of God.
Because He is with each of us. Always.
Any comments from Protestants or Catholics are welcomed.