Catholic 101: How are we saved?

“Have you been saved?”

Picture yourself seated next to someone on a flight. Before you can get your headphones in, they lean towards you and ask the question. “Have you been saved?” If you’re like me in this scenario, you give a quick “oh, yes, thank you,” and then throw those earbuds in as quick as you can and close your eyes for the duration of the flight.

But it is a question worth pondering over. Have we been saved? What does it mean to be saved? And what does the Church teach about salvation?

Given the plethora of Church teaching, you might be shocked to find out: the Catholic Church does NOT endorse one particular understanding of salvation. (Gasp!) It’s shocking, I know.

That’s not to say that the Church doesn’t have a lot to say about our salvation and how it is worked out. It does! But as much as we seek to uncover truth, we also have to understand the mystery of God’s work in our life and in our world as well. It’s too large a task to explore the entirety of Church teaching on salvation, but this article will offer a few helpful insights to reflect on.

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There is one central dogmatic truth of salvation that has been upheld by the Church: the rejection of Pelagianism. What is that exactly? Pelagianism is a 5th century heresy from the theologian Pelagius. Let’s not hate on him too much- he had good intentions (as most ancient heretics did). 

Pelagius was concerned about the low moral standards among Christians of his time, and he wanted to stress the essential goodness of human nature and the freedom of human will. He was so optimistic about human capacity to choose good (and evil) that he believed we have the freedom to earn our salvation by our own efforts. In other words, according to Pelagius, we can save ourselves. 

That might sound reasonable. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, right? Well, when it comes to our salvation, that’s just wrong.

The Church has definitively rejected Pelagianism and the proposal that we save ourselves. Pope Francis summarized this teaching succinctly in his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, “The Church has repeatedly taught that we are justified not by our own works or efforts, but by the grace of the Lord, who always takes the initiative” (§52). 

Our salvation doesn’t come from our own efforts. It begins with God, who always takes the initiative. So any Catholic understanding of salvation must be firmly rooted in the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus and the salvific work of his life, death, and resurrection.

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We profess in the Nicene Creed that Jesus came “for us…and for our salvation.” Okay, so salvation is all about Jesus. That’s the essential starting point. But there are lots of ways to go from there. 

How exactly does Christ save us? The creed does not elaborate on any particular model of salvation. Consequently, a variety of models exist from different theologians who have tried to make sense of this complicated concept. Many of these models overlap and can be seen as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. 

But some models of salvation are not helpful and can have a deep impact on our images of God and our understanding of how we relate to God. One such model, which continues to be prevalent in our thinking, is the penal substitution model. Gerald O’Collins, SJ, summarizes it like this: “Christ was a penal substitute who was personally burdened with the sins of humanity, judged, condemned, and deservedly punished in our place. Thus through his death he satisfied the divine justice, paid the required price, and propitiated an angry God.” Basically, Jesus was the sacrificial offering who bore all of our sins and died to appease an angry God.

This is not a helpful image of God. The penal substitution model portrays a vengeful God tracking our offenses and demanding recompense. Living out of this image impacts how we relate to God: we can become consumed by guilt and fear before God, like he’s a highway patrol officer waiting to catch us doing something wrong, throw us in prison, and punish us. 

But the image of God from the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), for example, portrays a very different God: a God who is loving and who shows abundant mercy. Rather than demanding recompense, the merciful father in the parable embraces and kisses his son and celebrates his return with a feast. It’s a drastically different image of God than the penal substitution model.

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So what does Jesus’ life reveal to us about our salvation?

Since salvation is rooted in Christ, what we understand about Christ’s work of salvation comes directly from what we know about Christ, including who he is and what happened during his life. There are three major moments in Jesus’ life that models of salvation often turn to: Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. Let’s consider the importance of those three moments.

First, in the Incarnation, Jesus was born into our world. From the earliest councils, the Church has affirmed Christ’s divinity (“God from God…consubstantial with the father”) and Christ’s humanity (“he became man”). That is to say, Jesus is both fully human and fully divine

This truth about Jesus is fundamental to our understanding of how he enacted salvation for all people. Peter Bouteneff explains the importance: “A mere human being can die voluntarily for others to great effect, but he or she is not the saviour of the world. And the ‘voluntary’ suffering and death of Jesus, if he had no human life, soul, passions or vulnerability, would be mere play-acting.” Thus, our salvation needs to come from someone who is authentically one of us (fully human). But it also has to come from God, who is much greater than us (fully divine). This is realized in the person of Jesus. 

Second, we also profess that Christ “was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried.”  All four Gospel accounts affirm Christ’s crucifixion, despite the great scandal of this brutal and torturous death. Jewish messianic expectations, arising from the Hebrew Bible, awaited a new ruler from the line of David who would deliver the Jewish people from oppression. Jesus’s Passion ran counter to these expectations, and St. Paul writes about this apparent contradiction: “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).  Any model of salvation must account for the reality of Jesus’s crucifixion and unpack its implications on our salvation. 

Third, Jesus’s life did not end with his death, for we also profess that he “rose again on the third day.”  While the exact accounts differ in the Gospels, the underlying story is the same. N.T. Wright summarizes it: “the body of Jesus was neither resuscitated nor left to decay in the tomb but was rather transformed into a new mode of physicality, shocking and startling to the disciples and all subsequent readers.” The reality of Jesus’s resurrection cannot be ignored. In fact, it is revelatory of our own salvation. We profess our belief in the “resurrection of the body,” which means that our salvation will be more than just a spiritual resurrection. It will entail the resurrection of both our body and soul. Just like Jesus’.

Thus, the Resurrection, together with the Incarnation and Passion, clearly need to be foundational to our understanding of Christ’s work of salvation.

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What do the rest of Scriptures have to say about salvation? It can be helpful to look to New Testament sources to get a sense of how early Christians talked about Christ’s death and resurrection and its implications in our salvation. 

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes: “Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death” (8:1-2). Jesus’s death and resurrection bring us deliverance from sin and death, which no longer have a final claim on us. “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55).

Death and sin are conquered by Christ, and we are brought into new life through him and with him. “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Rom 8:11). We share in the redemption of new life together with Christ.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Only one problem. Sin, death, and evil continue to exist in our world as evidenced by the violence, poverty, and division that continue to afflict humanity. 

Thus, we have to find a balance between our understanding of the liberation already achieved by Jesus’s death and resurrection and the fullness of redemption which is clearly not yet here.  St. Paul expresses this as he writes: “we ourselves, who enjoy the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved” (Rom 8:23-24).  

The working out of our salvation through Jesus’s death and resurrection remains a mystery, but it must hold in tension both the already and the not yet of salvation.

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There are too many models of salvation to elaborate on in an introductory article. Let me conclude by introducing one other essential component to the conversation: love.

Jesus is the fullness of the revelation of God. And Jesus reveals the love of God: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17). This should matter when we think about how our salvation is achieved through Christ. 

Love is the central message of the Incarnation for it is the very reason God took flesh. Love is the central message of Jesus’s life and teaching, as evident by the parable of the prodigal son,  the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16), and the story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). Love is the central message of the Cross: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). And love is the central message of the Resurrection, as the disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus remark to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way?” (Lk 24:32)

The Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus all reveal God to us, and “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16). God is revealed to us, and sin and death no longer hold claim over us, as we hold in tension the already and not yet of our salvation. As St. Paul tells us, the evils of this world, whether anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or the sword, cannot separate us from the love of Christ (Rom 8:35-39). 

We cannot be separated from the love of God in Jesus, and, by the teaching and example of Jesus’s life, we come to know the proper way of responding to God, which is a response of love. This response of love to God and others is a manner of living out of the grace freely given to us by God, for we do not, by our own efforts, earn our salvation. (Sorry, Pelagius.) 

The precise manner in which our salvation is worked out through Jesus’s revelation of God and God’s divine love for humanity remains a mystery. Jon Sobrino writes, “This affirmation does not ‘explain’ anything, but it says everything. In Jesus’ life and cross, God’s love has been displayed. And God chose this way of showing himself, because he could not find any clearer way of telling us human beings that he really wills our salvation.”  

It is precisely this dynamic of contemplating God’s love and our own response that comprise the final crescendo of St. Ignatius’s “Spiritual Exercises.” As he invites the retreatant to reflect, he reminds us that “love consists in interchange between two parties,” and “love ought to be put more in deeds than in words.” Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection reveal God’s love for us and thereby save us from sin and death, and our only proper response is to return that love to God by our words and actions.

In this, we find our salvation.

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