The Path to Salvation
The pro-life movement is ultimately about extending the protection of the law to unborn babies; those of all faiths, or none, contribute meaningfully to that humanitarian cause. But for Christians, our pro-life witness must be subsumed into Our Lord’s healing work in bringing about the salvation of the world.
Jesus teaches that we will miss salvation if in our righteousness we fail to cultivate the habit of forgiveness. Consider his instruction: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus tells stories in which the Pharisees are exposed as hypocrites, but this is not one of them. Here, he builds on the reputation of the Pharisees for being diligently obedient to God’s law, yet observes that Pharisaic levels of righteousness will not save us.
The sinfulness in our hearts—the anger, the lust, the dishonesty—goes deeper than we ourselves can uproot, or sometimes even detect. Instead of Pharisaic righteousness, Jesus prescribes forgiveness. What we don’t give the Lord in obedience, we may yet give him by entering into the economy of forgiveness: receiving his extravagant mercy and then sharing it extravagantly with others.
Charles Williams, a member of the Inklings, an Oxford literary group associated with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote a “theological thriller” about a man who was oppressed and badly hurt by his fellow countrymen. As his persecutors face Judgment Day, the man demands of God that they be punished, insisting that he has the right to see them face the consequences of their sin! God agrees, and proceeds to send those who hurt the man into Purgatory, where they suffer punishment for untold thousands of years.
But from the perspective of eternity, all temporal things come to an end: Even ten times ten thousand years is but the blink of an eye before the eternal God. In Williams’ story, when the temporal punishment of the wicked men comes to an end, Divine Judgment approaches the man himself. Here we get the first hints of Hell, the threat of truly eternal punishment, as if God were saying, “Okay, now it’s your turn, you who demanded that everything owed you be paid. You demanded payment for a finite debt of a few decades; how will you pay the infinite debt you owe your maker?” Hence the title of the novel, Descent into Hell.
The Lord Jesus speaks similarly as he explains how we can surpass the Pharisees in their righteousness. When we get angry at someone, we disturb the peace of the world, thereby incurring a debt. We must take care to pay our debts before we leave this world. If others hold something against you, ask their forgiveness, and do as much as you can to repair the damage you’ve caused. If you hold a complaint against others, forgive them. In doing so, you make up for the damage you can’t repair, and for the forgiveness you can’t obtain.
Jesus uses the (now-archaic) analogy of a debtor’s prison: Once imprisoned, the debtor must depend upon the charity of others to bring his daily meals, and maybe contribute to paying off his debts so that one day he might be released. It’s much harder, and more painful, to settle debts from prison. Therefore, we’d rather our divine Judge not hand us over to the angels of Purgatory, where we will pay the temporal consequences of sin—let alone to Hell, where we may face the eternal consequences of sin.
Today in our Church and in our country, there is much anger, not the least of which occasioned by abortion rivalries. People are quick to point out how others have been stupid, mean, or ugly. We hurt each other, focusing on each other’s failures in order to feel better about ourselves—justifying ourselves rather than trusting in the justice that comes from God.
To you followers of Christ: Do not indulge in anger, do not even call your brother a fool. Instead, eagerly forgive and seek forgiveness, live in joyful gratitude for Jesus’ mercy, for his eagerness to pay off all our debts. Resolve to live in wholehearted love, humility, chastity, and truth, so that on the last day you may be found living not by the Devil’s rules, but according to the government of God. If we really want our world—ourselves and our opponents—to be saved, we must participate in the extravagant mercy of the Lord Jesus.
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