Most religions have some concept of salvation. This salvation might be expressed as life after death, heaven, enlightenment, Nirvana, or union with God. The way to salvation varies by the religion.
In some, the way to salvation runs through good deeds that purify the soul, which may include the performance of certain ritual acts specific to that religion. For others, salvation’s path lies along the death of desire. For Christianity, salvation is a gift of God received through faith.
Why faith? Why not good works or rituals, which are quantifiable? Why not intellectual attainment? For that matter, why not the utterance of secret and sacred words of power?
The Scottish New Testament scholar William Barclay suggested that anyone can exercise faith. One needn’t be smart, highly educated, or initiated into the mysteries of some secret sect. They can be impoverished or wealthy, young or old, male or female, slave or free. In other words, faith levels the playing field.
Barclay was clearly onto something. Most people cannot afford to go on pilgrimage. Multitudes are incapable of attaining the mental concentration necessary to meditate. Few will ever have access to the world’s deep mysteries. Faith, unlike these other paths of salvation, is open to all. It is genuinely egalitarian.
Barclay was onto something, but equal opportunity is not the only reason that salvation is by faith. Faith does something that meditation, ritual acts, and good deeds – the stuff of religion worldwide – cannot do. It was by breaking faith that humanity was lost. It is in the recovery of faith that human souls will be restored.
The biblical story is that the first humans broke faith with God. Because they failed to trust God, they were unfaithful to him. Because they were unfaithful to him, the faith they did have was diminished even further. They were caught in a self-reinforcing cycle that still goes on today.
By its very nature, unfaithfulness injures a soul. If I break faith with a spouse, a child, a friend – even someone I don’t know – I have delivered a soul-disordering blow to them. How many souls, I cannot help but wonder, have I thus damaged?
The connection the first humans had with their maker, the author and quintessence of life, was broken. They suffered a soul injury so severe that a part of them died. They were left faith-less and someone who has no faith – in God, self, or others – will eventually become faithless to God, self, and others.
Faith is connective. When we trust a person, we cannot help but connect to that person. It is by trust that humans connect to God, “whom to know,” as Jesus once said, “is eternal life.”
God’s choice of faith as the requirement for salvation was not arbitrary. Faithlessness broke humanity, and it is faith that will put it back together. Faith is so powerful that faith in a friend or even in a celebrity can be a salve for the soul. Faithful marriage and lifelong friendship possess extraordinary possibilities for soul restoration.
But only a faith connection with the maker of the soul can fully restore the soul—can save a person. God’s astounding faithfulness, expressed in the self-giving Christ, gives people someone they can genuinely trust. Faithfulness, wherever and in whomever one finds it, will enhance a life, but trusting the faithfulness of the infinite God will save it “to the uttermost.”
In the original Greek of the New Testament, “faith” and “faithfulness” are translations of a single word. They are two side of the same coin. The difference between faith and faithfulness is one of perspective. Trusting someone is called “faith.” Remaining trustworthy is called “faithfulness.” Remaining faithful to a person in whom we have no faith is problematic at best, and exercising faith in someone toward whom we are acting faithlessly is a psychological impossibility.
God, through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, makes it possible for us to have faith, and to be faithful. All this is captured in St. Paul’s brilliant line: “It is by grace you have been saved through faith.”