A friend of mine often wears what he calls his “favorite conversation starter” t-shirt. It features a bunch of Marvel and DC superheroes sitting on top of a building listening to Jesus regale “and that is how I saved the world.” This clever t-shirt is a conversation starter indeed, but not for the reason that you might think. For most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, know the story of how Jesus saved mankind. What they do not understand is how Jesus saves individual men. It is this distinction between the universal and the particular, between all men and each man, that has both evangelical and ecumenical implications. It is towards this distinction that we need to turn our gaze, not only to grasp it intellectually, but to embrace it more fully with our hearts.
The logic of the Word pitching His tent among us is twofold: atonement and redemption. He came to return to the Father all the external glory that was lost through mankind’s offense. But He did not just leave mankind in travail, but also redeemed us. This is how He saved the world. But not all members of the human race are redeemed so that simply being a member of the human race is not sufficient. There is still the question as to how you and I enter into the orbit of the redeemed. In Protestant parlance, the question is how does Jesus become my personal Lord and Savior?
How You and I Are Saved
The obvious, and somewhat simple answer, is faith. Although the answer is simple, all too often we equivocate on the word faith and do not truly grasp what it means. Faith, in the broadest sense, means to believe. According to St. Augustine believing means to give assent to something one is still considering because one does not have a finished vision of the truth. That is, rational inquiry into the object is not yet complete and therefore the person’s assent is not in the reason but in the will. One trusts the Source and therefore proceeds as if the object has been sufficiently proven.
Faith is not complete until it has an object. It is not enough to say “I believe” but one must say what he believes in. To say that one has faith in Christ, he must believe that “there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). That is the man trusts that all Christ did and said was true and that his act of redemption was sufficient to overcome his slavery to sin and power of death to hold him.
So far, the Catholic and non-Catholic Christian would agree. Faith is necessary for salvation but it may not be sufficient. Faith in Christ could exist prior to His appearance. This is the faith of the father of the Old Testament, “the faith of Abraham which was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:22). Faith by itself is not tied to the historical appearance of the Son of Man per se. In other words, faith’s object remains blurred until it is bound to the Passion of Christ.
To bring the power that flows from the Passion of Christ, that is our personal possession of His act of redemption, into focus requires something further. As Aquinas puts it, “the power of Christ’s Passion is united to us by faith and the sacraments, but in different ways; because the link that comes from faith is produced by an act of the soul whereas the link that comes from the sacraments, is produced by making use of exterior things” (ST III, q.62 a.6). The sacramental system is joined to faith so that there is not just a psychic connection between the believer and Christ but also a physical one.
Just as the physical encounter that St. Thomas the Apostle (and all the witnesses to His resurrection) had with the risen Christ that strengthened his faith, so too with the physical encounter with the Risen Lord in the Sacraments strengthens our own. That is the Sacraments do not diminish our faith but greatly supplement it. Aquinas says that the Sacraments are indispensable to a full life of faith for three reasons. First is because of our nature as spirit/matter composite. Faith, as an act of the soul, is strengthened by acts of the body. Second, our slavery to material things can only be remedied by a material thing that contains spiritual power to heal. Finally, because man finds in them a true bodily exercise that works for salvation (ST III q.61, a 1).
The Sacraments and the Link to the Incarnation
These same three reasons can also be given for why God should appear before men. As the “image of the invisible God” Our Lord comes only because of our needs. The Sacramental system is seen most properly as an extension of the Incarnation. Those who reject it, tend towards Gnosticism, that is, seeing themselves saved based on some secret knowledge they have been given. They reject the notion that material objects can be instrumental causes of grace just as the Gnostics rejected the Incarnation, thinking that the human body of Christ could not be an instrumental cause of saving grace. A sacramental system free view of salvation is an over-spiritualized salvation—one that is both theologically and practically unlivable.
This is why my friend’s t-shirt is so compelling—not because Christ is the greatest superhero but because it leads to a deeper truth. Christ does not merely offer us redemption nor make us super-spirits like angels, but into supermen. Faith unites us to Him, the Sacraments incorporate us into His life making us into something wholly other (or holy) than we are.