A Book Review By Luke Heintschel M.A.
When I entered ninth grade in a public school, for the first time in my life I began to see significant differences between Catholic teaching and the teachings of non-Catholic Christians. Before that, I don’t think I noticed whether people I knew were Protestant. I did have some Protestant family, but for some reason it never occurred to me that there was any real difference between what we believed.
In ninth grade, though, I distinctly remember a friend asking whether I was “saved.” With no clue how to react to that, I was essentially dumbfounded. Here was a devout Christian, a friend of mine, and he was asking whether I would go to heaven. It was an odd experience, and I later found out that he believed that he was “saved” at one point in the past and could never lose his salvation no matter what. For him, it was the previous weekend when he experienced an altar call at his church. He was excited about God’s mercy, the gospel, and his inevitable prospect of heaven. I was taken aback.
Dr. Michael Barber had a similar experience, which he recounts at the start of his new book, Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know. I was thrilled to read this title, since the author has been a friend and mentor to me for quite a few years. It is the first in a new series from the Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press. I know Michael Barber as a brilliant scripture scholar and theologian, but Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know is precisely what the title says: it’s for every Catholic. Dr. Barber does not weigh down the discussion with dry academic prose. He has written a dynamic, engaging, and personal account of what Catholicism teaches about salvation. What’s especially refreshing is that he doesn’t water down the teachings of the Faith to accomplish this. He has a special talent for presenting theological concepts in a way anyone can grasp. Of course, our own Bishop Strickland started the St. Philip Institute to accomplish this very task: to take the dusty theology books off the shelves and give the teachings to everyone in the Diocese of Tyler.
What Salvation Is Not
Perhaps my favorite parts of this book are Dr. Barber’s treatments of common misconceptions about salvation. He shows us that salvation is not “self-help.” Salvation, according to Catholic teaching, is an entirely gratuitous gift of grace from God. We can’t do it on our own. He mentions that you probably won’t find the Bible in the “self-help” section of your local bookstore. Indeed, we are incapable of helping ourselves. Without God’s help (grace) we will be eternally slaves to sin. Grace isn’t just a “free gift,” though. Barber notes that it comes with (and enables us to fulfill) certain obligations to our Lord. We are especially obligated to repent of our sins and love God and neighbor.
Another very common misconception (among both Protestants and Catholics) is the idea that salvation is what Dr. Barber calls “fire insurance.” We want to get saved so that we don’t go to hell. We understand salvation as from eternal torment, but we don’t often consider what we were saved for. Barber shows us that the best part of being saved is not avoiding hell; it’s the great fulfillment of the deepest desires of the human heart!
Something else my Protestant friend asked me in ninth grade was whether I had a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. Again, I was a bit confused. I went to Church; I said my prayers. What exactly is he asking? I later came to understand that there’s a significant trend in Christianity to emphasize one’s personal relationship as opposed to religious practice, piety, and church membership—as if participating in religion was something contradictory to having a personal relationship with Christ.
Dr. Barber clears up this misconception quite eloquently. Drawing on Sacred Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the witness of the saints, he shows us that the Church, the community of believers, is actually quite important for salvation. He also shows the exact meaning of a rather controversial teaching: that there is no salvation outside the Church (CCC 846-848). The Church really does teach that. But Barber shows us that it doesn’t mean that all non-Catholics are necessarily damned. Still, we should do our best to bring everyone we encounter into the Church, through which Christ has promised salvation. Ultimately, salvation is our communion with God through Jesus Christ. If we attain that, then we will be in communion with everyone else in communion with God. This communion between all of us in communion with God is the Church.
Yet another misconception that plagues Christianity today is the idea that because of
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, God simply ignores our sins. Many people think that our salvation is something of a legal fiction: we are sinful, Jesus died for our sins, so God just looks the other way to let us into heaven. He pronounces us legally justified, or not guilty, even though we are sinful. This is most certainly not what Scripture and the Church teach. Dr. Barber explains that through our participation in the paschal mystery of Christ, God actually makes us just. His pronouncement of our justification is not a legal fiction: God’s grace actually makes us not guilty. What’s more, he actually makes us perfect. God enables us to be transformed by our union with his Son. Barber says that this is the point of grace: it elevates our nature beyond its capacity. By our union with the Son of God, we become sons and daughters of God. This is our salvation.
Not Just Apologetics
These are just a few of the fascinating points made in Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know. This book will go a long way to help train anyone who reads it in how to approach the topic of salvation in conversation with our Protestant friends.
As I went through high school, I frequently engaged in these sorts of conversations. I enjoyed studying the Catholic faith because I wanted to be on the winning side of friendly arguments with Protestants. Unfortunately, I wasn’t willing to let the Truth I was studying change my life. I spent much time talking about Jesus, but I hardly ever talked to Jesus. Years later, I realized how big a problem this was. We Catholics shouldn’t stop engaging in apologetics, but our apologetics are meaningless if we aren’t also working hard to make ourselves more conformed to Christ himself.
The value of this wonderful little book is not primarily in apologetics. Rather, this book will help all of us to become better Christians. It will help us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2), and to better love the Lord our God with all our minds (Matt 22:37). The careful reader of Dr. Barber’s new text will find out the answer to the question posed to Jesus by the rich young man: “What must I do to have eternal life?” By knowing what God has revealed for the sake of our salvation, perhaps we too, by the grace of God, will be saved.