We Christians are a confused lot. All of us would agree that we are saved by the cross of Christ, but many are fuzzy on the details. That extends to what we must do, if anything, to be saved.
Some would say we need not do anything. Many say we need only have faith. A few accuse others of trying to merit heaven by their works. Many say it is by baptism or perhaps only through baptism of those who have reached the age of reason. Others say that baptism is symbolic and we are saved only by accepting Christ as our Lord and Savior, typically responding to an “altar call.”
They can not all be right! Yet, there is some truth in all of these conflicting ideas.
The short answer is that the baptized are saved by grace through faith. Grace comes to us as God’s infinite divine mercy, fully merited for us by Christ. It is a pure gift which we are free to accept or reject. Grace is not forced upon us. We accept it — we “open the gift” — through faith.
Faith is believing, but alone without a living response would be but an empty declaration. Faith without works is dead. St. James is quite direct and powerful on this point (James 2:14-26). It is indeed, the only place in scripture where faith and works are mentioned together and only to stress the futility of “faith alone”. As St. James notes, even the demons believe in God.
This in no way implies that Christ’s sacrifice was insufficient or that we could merit salvation through our efforts. Rather, our faith must be fruitful (Matthew 7:16-20), reflecting God’s will:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’
Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’
Consider two men, both of whom self-identify as farmers. The first man is a avid reader about all aspects of farming and knows the topic thoroughly. His fields however, lay uncultivated and bear no fruit. The second man may be less of a farming expert than the first, but works in the fields – plowing, planting, harvesting.
Both of these men know farming, but which one would we call a farmer? So it is with Christians.
Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work.
As it is written: “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”