Thus declares the antagonist of Flannery O’ Connor’s story, Wise Blood. He’s tapping into the general shallowness of our thought about salvation and what it means for us. If you can fill up your car with gas and drive off wherever you want, why do you need salvation to feel good about your life? We tend to forget about our sins and our need for a savior -and what those things even mean- in times when we feel alright about ourselves and our situation. This becomes an obstacle to us because it causes us to misunderstand and misrepresent our position in relation to God, ourselves, and other sinners in the world. We think that salvation is about becoming a basically good or nice person and having a happy life. It’s an easy mistake to make because salvation includes those things in a qualified way, but having been Justified means entering a qualitatively different situation with respect to God, not being in a position where we are merely quantitatively nicer or better people.
Because of sin, the default status of all humanity is damnation. Without God’s intervention every single person would end up in hell. God owes salvation to no one, and it would not damage His justice in any way to watch all of humanity descend to damnation. That said, thankfully God has chosen to intervene in history in a marvelous way and has chosen to save us through His Son.
By the free and absolutely unmerited (by us) gift of grace, Jesus Christ invites us to take on his identity as the Divine Son through Baptism and be Justified in our relationship with the Father. His grace really makes us worthy to be in the presence of God once we finish the process of being sanctified, either in the course of this life or in purgatory after our deaths.
Without the grace that Jesus offers to me through Baptism (which I could never, ever be worthy of receiving, no matter how good I was) I would go to hell. This can be said in an absolute sense. First, why do we say this, and second, do you and I actually think and act as if we believe that was true? Isn’t there some threshold of human goodness that I could reach wherein God would judge me worthy of heaven, even without the grace of being justified?
Scripture is very clear on this: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 3:23-24) This means that because of what we are, we are not the type of being that is able to be with God on our own. We simply cannot be good enough to be worthy to be united to the source of all goodness forever. The best and nicest person you’ve ever met is still not good enough to be with God. (Everyone should read the Canons of the Council of Trent on Justification)
We struggle with this because we like to think of God’s judgment as a kind of scoresheet where he adds up our good deeds and our sins and if our goodness outweighs our badness, He will reward us with heaven. This means that if I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job at being good, I can relax about salvation, because hey, God just has to reward me for being such a nice guy.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what heaven is. We err when we think of heaven as some sort of playground of enjoyment of goods other than God. God, being the source of all goodness, will fulfill every desire and eliminate all sorrow to be sure, but heaven is nothing other than personal and intimate union with the source of goodness, truth, and beauty Himself. As a lowly creature, even one made in God’s image and likeness, nothing that I could ever do would make me worthy of that. “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48) This is a tall order! The point here is that only God can possibly make me good enough to be with God, and nothing I could ever do could make me deserve to have Him do that for me. Left to my own devices, without God’s intervention to make me worthy of Him, the state I would occupy is called Hell, which is really nothing other than failing to be united for God forever. This would cause me suffering because being with God is what I was made for.
Keeping this in mind can help us with a couple of things. First, it helps us not to be so judgmental to sinners because we know that in the final analysis, God won’t judge us on how well we did in some kind of competition for things humans consider to be virtues (even if they’re right). This is because both all the sins in the world and all the virtuous altruistic acts in the world are equally worth beans in comparison to justification in Christ. That’s right, on a purely human level, the most evil person you can think of and the nicest, most philanthropic and virtuous person you can think of are both equally incapable of saving themselves from damnation. This is a hard saying, but its an incredibly important truth. Now, you might say that someone who is already doing good before meeting Christ is perhaps preparing their soul for His grace. This is very possible. But’s also possible that all of his philanthropy and human accomplishments might make him too prideful to accept free grace. Conversely, the sinner who seems very far from God might be teetering on the verge of realizing his incapacity for making his own happiness and his need for a savior. Is this not what happens repeatedly in the Gospel? “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you.” (Matt 21:31)
The other way that remembering the truth about our justification can help us is to enable us to give an answer to those we meet about what we really believe. Many atheists and other non-believers often give us the objection that our religion seems to be merely a system of morality with theological language. They have natural human ethics and morals, therefore they have no need for any religion in order to ‘be a good person.’ We must explain that Who we believe God is necessitates that we accept His free gift to make us worthy to be with him. Is this convertible with being a good person? Yes, but not by the same standard. We can freely grant that someone could be very, very good by human standards; by the standards set by reason. But we believe in a God who is not a being is being itself. Therefore, the level of goodness that being with God requires of us is so beyond our natural abilities that even if an atheist were to be a ‘good person’, they would still be unworthy of God. What God promises us is so much more than being a basically good person; even more than simply being forgiven for our wrongs. God promises us perfect union with Him forever. Only He can accomplish this. Good News is, He already has.
Let’s examine ourselves: Do you need to be Justified? Or do you just need a fill-up on your self-esteem so you can be on your way?