Salvation for non-Christians according to Jesus

{21:28} But how does it seem to you? A certain man had two sons. And approaching the first, he said: ‘Son, go out today to work in my vineyard.’
{21:29} And responding, he said, ‘I am not willing.’ But afterwards, being moved by repentance, he went.
{21:30} And approaching the other, he spoke similarly. And answering, he said, ‘I am going, lord.’ And he did not go.
{21:31} Which of the two did the will of the father?” They said to him, “The first.” Jesus said to them: “Amen I say to you, that tax collectors and prostitutes shall precede you, into the kingdom of God.
{21:32} For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him. But the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Yet even after seeing this, you did not repent, so as to believe him.

The parable answers the question as to whether a non-Christian, who possesses sufficient accurate knowledge about Christianity, can be saved without converting. It also answers the question as to whether faith alone saves.

The first son is not willing, in other words, he chooses not to believe in Christianity. But at some point, moved by repentance from sin, he “works in the vineyard”, meaning that he does works of mercy toward his neighbor. The first son loves his neighbor, while declining to take the name Christian. He might be a non-Christian believer, or even a non-believer.

The second son takes the name of a Christian, thereby asserting that he is willing to work in the vineyard; he even calls Jesus his “Lord”. But he does not live according to his own words; he does not live a life of love of neighbor. He does not truly imitate Christ. Therefore, his words and deeds of apparent love of God and apparent worship of God are empty.

The first son did the will of the Father in Heaven, even if, by his words, he denies Christ or denies God. For the first son loves his neighbor by doing good works in the vineyard of the Lord (the world). By loving his neighbor, he is loving Christ implicitly. So, in truth and in his heart, he has not really denied Jesus, but affirmed him.

The second son calls Jesus his “Lord”, and yet he does not do the will of God. He does not truly love his neighbor, and so he commits a mortal sin of omission of failing to fulfill the positive precept to love God and neighbor.

So which son has obtained salvation? The first.

Jesus gives us some examples of who is included in this category: worldly persons, like tax collectors and prostitutes. These persons, in Jesus’ time, would have been Romans who held pagan beliefs, or Jews who had fallen away from their own Jewish religion. These examples from Jesus’ time, though, are part of a parable. And so they represent a broader category of persons, not merely those of Jesus’ time. And this category of persons is essentially non-Christians and non-believers. They are saved by following “the way of justice”, in other words by repenting from any grave sins and by loving their neighbor.

The first son represents even atheists and agnostics, for they, like tax collectors and prostitutes, have fallen away from religion and from the exterior worship of God. And yet they, in a sense, believe with true faith, implicitly. For this first son does works of love of neighbor in the vineyard of the earth. And whoever has the theological virtue of love, necessarily also has faith and hope — even if that faith is not expressed in the proper beliefs. All true love of neighbor is also, at least implicitly, the love of God.

Therefore, non-Christians and non-believers can be saved without converting. Their failure to convert must not be an actual mortal sin (or, if it is, they must repent of that sin). They must enter the state of grace by baptism, or by a baptism of desire (or blood) by means of the love of neighbor. And they must die in a state of grace.

The second son represents Christians, including Catholics, who do not truly love their neighbor. Some of these persons are like the Pharisees; they immerse themselves in the things of religion, with many elements of exterior worship. Some of these Catholics write much about religion on the internet or in print. But they do not love their neighbor, and therefore they do not truly love God.

Tax collectors and prostitutes, non-Christians and non-believers, to this day, are on the path to Heaven, because they love their neighbor. Whereas the modern-day Pharisees, including some Catholics, are on the path to Hell because they do not love their neighbor.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
is now available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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4 Responses to Salvation for non-Christians according to Jesus

  1. Francisco says:

    The first son explicitly said “No” yet did the will of the Father.
    The other son explicitly said “Yes” yet failed to do the will of the Father.

    So, those who explicitly do not convert and enter into our Church, yet are sincerely and from their hearts are seeking to do what, to the best of their knowledge, is good and die in a state of grace, will reach Heaven by way of Purgatory (for in Purgatory they need to explicltly recognize and worship Jesus Christ and what they ignored in this life).

    But, it will be definitely better to say “Yes” and “Do” the will of the Father, so salvation not only be easier, but also there will be a better reward.

  2. Michael says:

    {21:29} And responding, he said, ‘I am not willing.’ But afterwards, being moved by repentance, he went.

    Could this statement also be interpreted as the first son, having been “moved by repentance”, actually accepted Christianity therefore became saved through his acceptance of Christ rather than soley by doing works of mercy? From my understanding, faith and works are necessary components of salvation, but with regard to the first son, it seems the focus is on his works and not so much on his faith.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong. I’m just trying to gain a better understanding.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The first son represents persons who are not Christian. Some are saved by repentance from the objective sin of rejecting Christianity, so they become Christians. Others are saved by repenting from the actual mortal sins of their life, which might not include rejecting Christianity (for not every objective mortal sin is also an actual mortal sin).

      Every human person who truly selflessly loves his neighbor is in a state of grace, and therefore has love, faith, and hope, the three theological virtues. The Centurion was said by Jesus to have great faith, even though he most likely held pagan beliefs. For the Centurion had great love, and so he had an implicit faith.

      The virtue of faith is not merely belief in certain teachings on faith and morals. A person can implicitly love God, by loving their neighbor, and so a person can implicitly have faith, despite the error of thinking that Christianity is not a true religion, or that God does not exist.

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