Does Reason Have a Role in Our Salvation or Do We Just Have to Believe?

Faith is a gift from God. You can’t earn it, and you can’t reason yourself into it. But if you don’t use your reason first, you may never grab onto it. Reason has a vital role in Christianity. It has many vital roles, in fact, but a special one at the beginning of one’s religious life.

Through reason we can grasp the reasonableness of Christianity. This allows us to overcome stumbling blocks. Even non-believers can come to see that Christianity “hangs together.” Such a realization isn’t faith, but it is a necessary prelude to faith. Put another way, one cannot be argued into faith, but one can be argued past obstacles to faith.

If Pelagius were stood on his head, his name would be Calvin. It was Pelagius (355-425) who taught that human nature itself could perform all acts necessary for salvation. You could, said Pelagius, pull yourself up by your bootstraps – all the way to heaven. Not so, said Calvin (1509-1564). Your own acts are entirely worthless. Reason is unavailing since it can bring you closer to God. Worse, everything you do is a sin.

The Catholic Church says no to both. But it doesn’t just take a middle ground, splitting the difference. It takes a higher ground and establishes a higher truth. It says that a knowledge of God and the moral law is within reach of our natural reason, even if reason can’t apprehend important truths which are reserved to Revelation – such as the doctrine of the Trinity, which we’d never know about unless it had been revealed.

With this knowledge of God, we can undertake a natural preparation of the intellect, getting it ready so it will let the will respond properly when moved by grace toward faith. This is what is known as the motives of credibility. Through reason, we can get rid of the distractions and misinformation that keep us from acting on the grace God offers us.

Reason itself doesn’t produce faith, since faith is an act of the will which is initiated by and then cooperates with God’s grace. But reason can remove obstructions to our view. It’s here that apologetics has its value.

Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Rom 1:20). The ability to will and perform good works is instinctive to humanity: “For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law” (Rom 2:14). The good deeds of unbelievers are rewarded (Ex 1:21, Ez 29:18). Christ recognizes the natural love among unbelievers as something good (Mt 5:47).

Grace is a gift from God. Gift is just what the Greek word, charis, means. Grace is necessary for the beginning of faith, for perseverance in the grace already received, and for avoidance of sin. Paul ascribes all his virtue and the good results of his work to the grace of God: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor 15:10).

There are two kinds of grace. Actual grace doesn’t abide in the soul or sanctify it. You might think of it as a supernatural push toward the good given by God to the soul – a push that enables the soul to do certain things it couldn’t do on its own. Faith is due to actual grace and is the first step on the road to sanctifying grace.

Sanctifying grace, which elevates the soul so it is capable of living in heaven, is a permanent quality by which we share the divine life (Jn 14:6, 15:5), become partakers in the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4), receive adoption as the children of God (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:5, Eph 1:5, 1 Jn 1:3, 1 Pt 1:23), and are made temples of the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:1, 8:11).

We lose sanctifying grace through mortal sin, regain it through confession, and increase it through other sacraments particularly the Eucharist.

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