The Type of Faith that Truly Saves
Date Published: May 17, 2015
Gospel Reflection on the Sixth Sunday of Easter
Gospel Reading: Mark 16,15-20
Our Gospel reading this Sunday narrates the final moments Jesus spent in this world after his resurrection and before he was taken up to heaven. He gathered his disciples in one place and gave them an explicit instruction: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (v.15). This was addressed to all those who believed in Christ and, by extension, also to Christian believers of all times – past, present and future. The Lord continues to send us to every corner of the world to proclaim the Good News and will continue to do so to give humanity a chance to be saved.
The proclamation of the Gospel can be done in many ways, not only with words but also through action. In fact, the most effective way to evangelize and bring the Gospel message to others is by demonstrating that our words correspond with our actions and that both correspond with Jesus’ teachings and examples. People do get more easily attracted to life testimonies than to verbal preaching.
After the risen Lord had instructed his disciples to preach the Gospel, he immediately added: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned” (v.16). We can divide this verse into two parts communicating two very distinct teachings. The first half speaks of “believing” and “being baptized,” while the second half speaks only of “believing.” No mention of or reference to “being baptized” is found here, and this does not seem to be a careless omission on the part of the hagiographer. The condemnation mentioned in the second part seems to be the lot only of those who refuse to believe, and not of those who refuse to be baptized. For those who both believe and are baptized, on the other hand, salvation is guaranteed.
Distinguishing between the act of believing and the act of being baptized has an immense implication in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. First, it underscores the primacy of faith as the very key to salvation. In other words, believing is a necessary condition for salvation. It is faith that saves man (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church or CCC 161). And, second, baptism here is more of a corresponding outward expression of one’s having come to and willingness to embrace the faith. It is rightfully described as a “sacrament of faith” (CCC 1253). As a “sacrament,” it is an external sign of an inner reality, which is faith, or “a visible sign of some hidden reality” (cf. CCC 774).
Although the Catholic Church talks about the necessity of baptism for salvation (cf. CCC 1257ff.), at the same time it admits the possibility of salvation even for those who have not been formally incorporated, by baptism, into the church as an institution, provided that they truly believe in Jesus Christ or, at least, would have desired to be baptized if only they were given a chance to understand it (cf. CCC 1260).
There are instances where men and women do accept to believe in Jesus, but they refuse to accept the sacrament of baptism for one reason or another. For example, they don’t want to become a part of a religious institution or a “church,” which is one of the effects of formal baptism. And yet we cannot deny them the possibility of being saved simply because they refused to be formally baptized. In the early centuries, there were people who became martyrs even before getting formally baptized. Their acceptance of death in the name of their faith is taken as a concrete manifestation of such faith, and we believe that this was enough for them to be saved. Sometimes we say that, even when they were not baptized, they had received a “baptism of fire” (with implicit reference to early believers who were burned at the stake) or a “baptism of blood” (cf. CCC 1258).
Such a position of the Catholic Church, again, demonstrates the primacy and necessity of faith in soteriology. It is faith that ultimately saves us. Only the willful refusal to believe brings about condemnation or exclusion from salvation.
Now, if baptism is one concrete manifestation of faith, a “sacrament” or a visible sign, and is not the one and only outward expression of faith, then a person’s act of believing can be and must be displayed in some other ways. Our Gospel passage seems to underscore the need to manifest one’s faith in one way or another when it speaks of “signs that will accompany those who believe” (v.17). Again, believers are not expected literally to drive out demons, speak in tongues, cure the sick, and so forth. Faith can be expressed in different ways, depending on the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The important thing is that our faith finds resonance and bear abundant fruits in our concrete life. Otherwise, it would be considered as “dead” (cf. Js 2:17). Only when faith operates can it truly save us. (Fr. Czar Alvarez, OSA)