The title of this reflection is the essential question every man and woman needs to ask. In Part 1 of this series, we looked at Blessed Newman’s sermon, “Faith, the Title for our Justification,” in which he explores this question and wonders if faith is all that is needed for salvation.
In Part 2 we turn to the final objection Newman faces: if Scripture says that one must simply believe to be saved, how can we put conditions on it, such as receiving baptism? Do our conditions twist the plain meaning of Scripture? Or as Newman puts it, “Is Scripture, it may be said, for plain men or not?—does it speak to the artless, guileless, and simple-minded, or does it require a refined and cultivated intellect to understand it?”
Newman begins by admitting that there is a sense in which it is true, that simply “believing is [a person’s] power” to receive salvation. But here Newman proves how beautifully simple his reading of Scripture is in contrast with those who debate him. He reads like a little child or a saint. He assumes nothing, while those who claim to have the plain meaning assume more than the text offers.
Though faith is our title, our right, to justification, this does not imply anything about the “…time or mode of our justification.” To have a title is certainly the first important step to possessing it, but it is only the first step. In human affairs, if someone has a title deed to a house, they have it by right, but that does not necessarily mean they are living in it yet. Newman gives his own example:
“The infant children of Christians have a right to be made Christians; but are they made Christians merely by [sic] the right to be so made? if so, why do we baptize them? Faith, then, in the general scheme of the Gospel, is what their very birth and origin is in the particular case of the children of Christians. It constitutes a claim in our case that we should be made Christians…”
Newman closes this point by saying that the words of Scripture speak plainly of faith as our right to be justified, but we add to the words of Scripture if we say that by faith we are now justified.
That faith is the means to justification Newman explains by comparing it to prayer. Prayer is also considered a means, and we are told to continue in prayer until we have received what we ask for. We know that if we pray we shall obtain – as Jesus says, “Ask, and it shall be given you.” But when and how we shall receive the answer to our prayer is not promised, and the fact that we are told to persevere in prayer, and that we should “seek,” means we should not expect the answers to prayer to come instantly. Likewise, “Believe, and thou shalt have” implies more than one act of faith, and in fact means “to live in faith and to walk in faith is our title; and to begin [sic] to have faith is to enter the road leading, infallibly leading, to justification, by a series of events or conditions, of which faith is the first and sole on our part,” Newman argues. And while God does sometimes answer prayer immediately, and does sometimes justify immediately, we cannot expect this from the plain words of these Scriptures.
If we look to the examples of justification by faith given to us in the New Testament, we will see how they confirm this understanding. We see that faith is only the first step for those who are justified. St. Paul was struck by the light of Christ, but he was not immediately justified. Unable to see, he had to wait and pray until Ananias came to baptize him. Newman also calls to mind the Ethiopian Eunuch who read Scripture and then had it explained by Phillip and by this hearing he gained faith. But then he asked what would keep him from being baptized, because he knew this was not just a ritual but the justification he was seeking. Newman says tells us that Phillip says there is one condition – that he believe – and if he fulfilled this condition he could receive baptism. And since, as Newman states, no man puts conditions before worthless things, it must be that baptism is the very end that the means of faith brought the Eunuch to finding.
The early Church understood the sense in which faith was the title to justification. It was an accepted truth that those who died as martyrs were “baptized by blood” and those who died in faith before receiving baptism were “baptized by desire.” Baptism and justification were obtained by faith and rather than excusing baptism from these, it was taken for granted that God worked a miracle to baptize them apart from human action.
Newman concludes that it is clear now what this means for “disordered state of Christendom.” The grace of God is “lodged in a divinely appointed body, and spreads from it [sic].” Unless one is grafted into this body, one is not justified. Faith is the means to the grafting, but it does not accomplish it. Now, in the disordered state of the body, there are many men and women who have faith but not baptism, who by their own fault or unwillingly are part of schismatic sects or heretical bodies, and as such they have not entered into the “privileges of regeneration. The power of the Spirit, the cleanness and lustre of the new creature, the intercourse with heaven, the light of God’s countenance, the fullness of justification…” Despite this loss of privileges, all who sincerely call upon the Lord by faith shall be saved.
However, this disorder is mournful, Newman says, and we can see it: “We see the consequence of such an anomalous state all around us. How miserable is the inconsistency of even our good men! how excellent in some points, how very faulty in others! How clear and edifying seems the faith of many who yet are very poorly advanced in sanctification!”
How clearly we can see from this sermon that faith alone does not save. Faith is our title, our right to justification. But man is saved (justified) by the grace of the Holy Spirit working through faith in baptism. We should be grateful that God has grafted us into his Church and we should pray earnestly and daily that he would draw all others into it as well.