“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
That’s a question often asked by evangelical Christians. Answering ‘yes’ to this question means that you’ve received Jesus and His forgiveness for your sins.
Now, sometimes Catholics dismiss this question and this way of thinking about how one becomes a Christian. And the worries are real: Christianity isn’t a ‘say it once and done’ decision. It matters what you say, do, and think after you become Christian. Further, Catholics think we (ordinarily) need more than a prayer or statement of faith to count as a Christian. For us, the Sacrament of Baptism is the ordinary way of becoming Christian and receiving salvific grace. And we’ve got the Sacrament of Penance to bring us back to the sheepfold when we go astray after our baptism.
But is there something to this business about accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior? I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’.
This past Sunday was the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee for Byzantine Catholics. It is the Byzantine kick-off of a few weeks of preparation for the Great Lent. Yes, the Byzantines prepare for the preparation for Easter. The Gospel for the day was Luke 18:10-14, a story from Jesus about the Publican and the Pharisee who go to the temple to pray. A publican, in biblical times, was a tax collector, and tax collectors were thought of as scum-of-the-earth scoundrels by common folk. That’s because they’d overcharge people when collecting taxes on behalf of the Roman emperor and skim off the top whatever excess they charged. They grew rich, oftentimes at the expense of the poor. Pharisees, on the other hand, were well-respected, law-abiding men of God. So, which one—the Publican or the Pharisee—do you think Jesus praises? Surprisingly, it is not the Pharisee.
Why? The Pharisee enters the temple, and he opens his prayer with thanksgiving—but he thanks God that he’s not like those people: the adulterers, extortionists, or, yes, even that tax collector over there. He then lists all that he does for God, including fasting and tithing.
And then there’s the Publican, who is ashamed of himself. He knows he isn’t worthy to be in the temple, so he stands far off. With bowed head, he beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to be a sinner!” Jesus says that this man, the tax collector, is the one who went home justified, rather than the Pharisee.
The Church chose this reading for Byzantines just before the Great Lent because it puts into focus what Lent is all about: acknowledging that we are sinful and need a savior. Sometimes we can fall into the trap of being Pharisee-Catholics. That can take on a lot of different forms. One of these is the minimalist Catholic who thinks she doesn’t need to go to confession because she hasn’t done anything wrong, at least none of the ‘biggies’: “I haven’t killed anyone, stolen anything, or even missed Sunday Mass.” Another of these is the box-ticking Catholic, who may practice her faith much more rigorously than the minimalist but with a ‘taking care of business’ attitude. For her, living the faith is a matter of doing all the right things: she follows the 10 Commandments, the Church’s moral teachings, goes to Mass on Sundays, fasts from meat on Fridays, and maybe even prays her way through a daily Rosary, auctioneer-style.
I don’t mean to denigrate any of these practices in themselves. Obviously, following the Church’s teachings, fasting, and praying are of utmost importance, but there’s more to the story. And that’s where I think Protestants, with their Acceptance Prayer, remind us of something significant. It’s actually the same thing that Byzantine Catholics are calling to mind this week: The one who goes home justified is the one who admits that he needs a savior. If you think you’ve got all your bases covered by fasting, praying, and keeping the law—unlike those people—, then woe to you. The Pelagian heresy, a view condemned by the Church, includes the idea that we can save ourselves through our own acts; we don’t really need Jesus to be our Savior.
What the Protestants get right is that we are sinners in need of a Savior; we should be more like the Publican than the Pharisee. It’s only in admitting that we can’t be truly good (holy) on our own and need God to sanctify us that we create a context in which our acts of fasting, praying, and obeying Church teaching make sense. We don’t engage in all of these activities because they’ll somehow help us to pave a way to heaven. Instead, we do all of these things as a sign of our need for salvation and as a sign of our love for God. Zacchaeus, often identified with the Apostle St. Matthew, was a tax collector who admitted his need for a savior. After he finds Jesus, his life changes forever, and he leaves the ‘old’ man—the cheating tax collector—behind to follow the Lord. So, accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior is for Catholics, too. And when we admit that we’re sinners and receive God’s mercy, it’s our gratitude and love for God that inspire us to deepen our relationship with Him through obedience, fasting, and prayer.