Salvation is, without a doubt, one of the most controversial topics in all of Christendom. Very few seem to have a handle on it. In fact, it has been found that those who struggle with how we are “saved” often fall into two diametricaly opposed extremes.
The first extreme contends that salvation is acheived simply by the vocal acknowledgement that we are sinners and the proclamation that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. This extreme contends that we are bound to no church authority on earth and that we are bound by the Bible alone (Which we are free to interpret however we choose). They also claim that salvation cannot be lost ever. For illustrative purposes, imagine them as being to the left of the theological spectrum, on the issue of salvation. Therefore, (again, only for illustration) We’ll call them the 21st century Sadducees.
The second extreme contends that salvation is only possible for those who do and say all the right things, pray the right prayers, wear the right adornments and go to the right church services on the right days. Get one thing wrong, and you go straight to hell so says this second group. This group’s believers often follow their leaders with fanatical zeal. Cult tragedies such as the Jim Jones and David Koresh matters result from this extreme. We’ll call them the 21st Century Pharisees.
Where does the Catholic Church fall into this spectrum?
If you ask the 21st century Sadducees, they would probably suggest that we are the 21st century Pharasees. They see our faith as rigid, legalistic and filled with idols and amulets and meaningless rituals and traditions. The 21st Century Sadducees, clearly, see us as trying to “earn” our salvation by saying, doing and wearing the right combination of things. Since they reject an outright church authority, they see us as substituting “man’s law” for “God’s law” (which they see as present only in the Bible). If you ask the 21st century Pharisees, you may get a plethora of answers. This group is as divided as they are rigid. Some will say that Catholics cannot be saved because the worship Sunday rather than Saturday. Others will claim we are doomed because we supposedly “worship” Mary. Still others, because we use “images”. As many claims as you could imagine will never cover the many reasons that are given as to why Catholics are not following the perfect, fragile, formula that leads to salvation.
The truth be told, the 21st century Sadducees represent only about 4% of Christendom. Even if we argued that the 21st century Pharisees equaled that, (probably a gross overestimation) that would put 92% of the Body of Christ in that vast expanse between the two extremes. One thing that can be said about the two fringe groups is that they do know what they believe. (however wrong they may be). However, many, many of the multitudes in between aren’t sure. There are many reasons for this confusion. One of the principle reasons is a misunderstanding of many of the terms we use to describe the salvation process. It is this reason that I will focus on. What will follow is a sort of “salvation vocabulary list”. Each term will be explained and, when possible, supported by scripture.
- Redemption: What Christ accomplished once and for all through his suffering and death. Through His passion, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of the suffering servant.
[Isaiah 53:1-6] Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Many people confuse “redemption” with “salvation”. Perhaps you can think of it this way; Salvation is the end to be attained and redemption is the means to the end. Redemption is not salvation but the vehicle by which we can get there.
- Sanctification: If redemption is the vehicle to salvation, then sanctification is the road the vehicle travels down. Just as many make the mistake of lumping redemption and salvation together, they often throw sanctification in the same mix. Sanctification can be thought of as “Saint-ifaction”; the process of becomming saints.
[Romans 6:19] I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification.
- Grace: Continuing our analogy, “Grace” is the fuel that goes in the vehicle. Many people mistakingly see grace as merely goodness or beauty. “She is a very graceful dancer” or “so nice of you to grace us with your presence.” However, Biblicaly speaking, Grace is a thing. It is tangible. Grace is a special gift that God gives us to accomplish that which we cannot accomplish on our own. Grace accomplishes two things:
- Cleanses us of sin (we call this “sanctifying grace”).
- Motivates us to act according to God’s will (we call this “actual grace”).
[John 1:16] And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace.
- Concupiscence: Though this word is not found in scripture, it’s concept is pretty much broadly accepted. It is man’s fallen nature. The natural leaning we have toward sin. Concupiscence is why we need grace and why, on our own, we are incapable of salvation.
- The Sacraments: Since our “auto” analogy seems to be working, let’s continue with it. The Sacraments are the gas pump and the repair shop. If the car is out of gas, (grace) it won’t run. It is, for all intents, dead. The sacraments give us the infusion of grace we need to get that transmission put back in and get the motor restarted (sanctifing grace) and reserve to help it stay running (actual grace). You can find out more on the sacraments here.
- Venial sin: The pot holes we are bound to hit in the road.
- Mortal sin: The theological equivalent of crashing that car into a tree. The car is dead and won’t run without being repaired. (see #5)
Some would argue that all sin is equal in God’s eyes. Not so, say the scriptures:
[1 John 5:16-17] If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.
- Justification: The arrival. The means of receiving salvation because of redemption, through sanctification by grace. This is why scripture tells us that justification is not by faith alone:
[James 2:13-24] For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment. What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
This is also why scripture tells us that it is not by works (our own efforts):
[Romans 3:28] For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.