If you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him… Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.
At the root of it, most (or all, I would hope) Christian teaching, regardless of denomination, says the same thing: Love God. Do good. Get your Heavenly reward.
When I was “between” churches—after Evangelicalism, but before Catholicism—I couldn’t quite explain the difference between each church’s teachings. When trying to explain how Catholicism is different, I’d end up saying the same things I’d just rejected in the old church. I tried to write down the difference before, but that still doesn’t get my point across. So I’m trying again.
C.S. Lewis says it better I could.
The entirety of the Old Testament is proof enough that we can’t save ourselves. We make mistakes; we get prideful and angry; we outright deny God (even if we don’t mean to). I think we all understand this. But what irks me about a prayer of salvation, this “sinner’s prayer,” is that it’s entirely self-centered. When taught how to street evangelize, it was a challenge to encounter a Catholic. We marveled that they didn’t know the answer to “Do you know where you’ll spend eternity?” But as I learned later, it’s not that Catholics don’t know. It’s just a weird question. Because the point of worship isn’t to decide where I spend the afterlife. We don’t do good deeds for a mere reward.
But I’ll play both sides of the argument for now, because neither is necessarily wrong.
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Any good Evangelical has heard that Ephesians verse over and over again. Our works don’t save us; that’s why Jesus came to Earth. As proven by the Israelites, we’re incapable of being wholly good. We’re flawed beings who need God’s grace. Only by faithful belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus can we even hope to have that gleam of Heaven.
If that’s true, why does James claim faith without works is dead?
Because what’s the point of God’s saving power if we don’t do anything with it? Our Earthly duty isn’t to save ourselves from the fiery pit of hell. We’re to “go into all the world and preach the gospel.” (Mark 16:15) We’re to help the needy and teach of Jesus’s power. Like C.S. Lewis says, we don’t do these things for the reward. We do them instinctively, because He’s working through us.
It’s tough to explain. In the end, we’re saying the same thing: we can’t save ourselves, and we’re to do God’s work. But it’s more about the primary focus—is your worship focused around saving yourself, or on worshipping God?
I didn’t have a bad experience in my old church. I’m still friends with them, and attend service with Mom on occasion. It’s a high-energy, familial group. But there are teachings I don’t agree with. There’s a great push to accept Jesus’s love, because that’s how we’re saved. It’s not technically wrong, but the priority is skewed. When they ask “Do you know where you’ll spend eternity?” you answer “Yes!”, because you said the prayer of salvation. But take a moment to consider, What am I accepting? What does it mean?
My core beliefs aren’t any different than before, but I shifted to a more logical perspective. I followed the guidance of the Our Father and focused first on God, and then on forgiveness. We all need saving. But we have to first understand what we need saving from.
An aside: Confession. When I converted, people asked, “So you tell a priest all the bad things you’ve done?” Yeah. Or, I should (once I admit them to myself). The sinner’s prayer would have more punch if there was a sense of personal confession. Think about your specific human faults—against others, yourself, and God. Then, “I’m a sinner” means something. It’s no secret that humanity is flawed. But facing the Confessional helps you understand why. Not for the whole of humanity, but for yourself.
So, love God. Do good. Get your Heavenly reward. But loving God comes first. If you love God, the rest will easily follow. Your works don’t save you, but if you’re not doing works for God, then are you really saved?