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How do I get to heaven?

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The goal of our temporal life on earth is eternal life in heaven after death. For as Jesus said, "What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Mk 8:36). What we believe and how we act in this life will determine whether we go to heaven or not. So, the most important thing to know in this life is how to merit eternal life in heaven.

First and foremost, we must recognize that attaining heaven is a gift from God that none of us deserves. But God graciously offers the gift of salvation to each and every person, based on the redemption Christ won for us on the cross. However, just like any gift, we are free to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation. Scripture and the church teach that we need to personally accept this gift in a threefold manner.

The first element of our response is faith. Faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as creator, redeemer and sanctifier is the foundation and root of our justification, without which it is impossible to please God. But our faith is much more than mere intellectual acceptance of church doctrine and doing certain acts of piety (see Lk 18:9-14). Faith is trusting so much in God’s plan of salvation, in his plan for our life, and in his love and mercy that we continually repent of our sins, reject our selfish ways, and seek a prayerful and trusting relationship with God. According to the Second Vatican Council, "By faith, man freely commits his entire self to God, making the full submission of his intellect and will to God." This is conversion, which is the lifelong process of moving from self-centeredness to self-donation. Seeking fulfillment of our own selfish desires (e.g., fun, fame and fortune) becomes relatively unimportant.

The second element of our threefold response to accept God’s gift of salvation is a commitment to service and acts of charity done out of love of God and love of others (see Mt 7:21-23; Rom 2:6-7; 2 Cor 5:10). Genuine faith requires an active response, namely, good works of loving service to God and others (see Lk 10:25-28). St. Paul called this "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6). The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are some practical ways we lovingly can serve God and others and so merit eternal life in heaven (see Mt 25:31-46; Jn 5:29; and especially Jas 2:14-26).

The third element required for our salvation is the sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist. Jesus said, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mk 16:16). He told Nicodemus, "Unless a person is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:5).

Catholics hold that the bread and wine, during the consecration at Mass, truly become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. We see this clearly in the Bible when Jesus stated, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day" (Jn 6:53-54).

After making this astonishing statement, many of Jesus’ disciples rejected him and walked away (Jn 6:66). Remarkably, Jesus did not seek to bring them back by saying they misunderstood his meaning or that he was speaking only symbolically. No, Jesus let them walk. Clearly, Jesus meant what he said quite literally.

We have been given the precious gift of the Eucharist as spiritual food for our growth in holiness and salvation. As we mature in faith, the spiritual nourishment and strength we receive in the Eucharist becomes more meaningful, important and even essential in our life. Through the Eucharist we receive the divine grace that enables us to lovingly serve God and others and perform the acts of charity that are essential to our salvation.

Just like three legs are needed for a stable tripod, faith, good works of loving service to God and others, and the sacraments are the elements of the threefold response necessary for our salvation. Catholics possess confident hope in our salvation (see Phil 2:12-13, 3:12-14; Mt 7:13-14; Rom 5:2, 8:24-25). While we do not presume to pass a final judgment on ourselves in advance, we do have great confidence that God has given us the means to receive the grace necessary, especially through the sacraments, to persevere in faith, to act upon that faith in loving service to God and others, and so be saved. God will do his part if we do ours.

Hemler is president of the Catholic Apologetics Institute of North America.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021