The Progress of Salvation

“Are you saved, brother?” That question, often asked by a certain kind of “reformed” Protestant, can be answered in different ways, depending on the precise meaning given to the word “saved.”

We might answer, “No, I’m not dead yet,” or, “Yes, inasmuch as Christ has already merited my salvation, which awaits the grace of final perseverance and my cooperation with it,” or the more subtle, “Yes, but my salvation is not yet complete, so it is better to say that I am being saved.”

While the kind of street apologetics that often accompany such discussions leaves little room for grammatical argumentation, we should say that the use of the past participle “saved” implies a finished or perfected work. Now, Christ’s part as the meritorious cause of all salvation is most certainly finished. Yet, even on Christ’s part, and on the part of the Father and the Holy Ghost, the completion of salvation for any one of us who is not yet in beatitude remains unfinished because we remain dependent on God’s grace for our perseverance: “But he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13). As for my part, or the part of any one of us who remains on this side of the grave, the necessary cooperation has not been finished. Given all that, I repeat that it is more proper for those of us living the life of grace in the Church Militant — who are still working out our salvation with fear and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12) — to use the present participle in the passive voice by saying, “I am being saved.”

The work of salvation is the work of God in us, one He begins in us and perfects over time: “[H]e, who hath begun a good work in you, will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). Moreover, the perfection of that salvation is something explicitly spoken of by the Apostle in terms of becoming nearer: “And that, knowing the season, that it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed” (Rom. 13:11).

We can look at salvation in at least three distinct senses: First, as merely potential, such that it can be said that even the unbeliever is saved in potency because the price of his salvation has been paid, though it has not yet been applied to that particular unbeliever subjectively. If he dies in that sad state, he will not have that potency made actual. Second, we can understand salvation as incipient and progressing in this life, as in the case of the Catholic in the state of sanctifying grace, who is building up treasures in Heaven (cf. Matt. 6:20); using the language of Philippians 1, already cited, this is that good work begun in us by God. Third, we can consider salvation as complete, which only happens when the person in question enters celestial beatitude, when God Himself has perfected that good work “unto the day of Christ Jesus.”

It would be a problem for a Catholic to say that in no sense can someone claim to be “saved” in this life. Our Lady was still in the wayfaring state in Nazareth when she called God “my Savior” in her Magnificat (Luke 1:47), and the New Testament is teeming with references to God and Christ as “our Savior.” How can we call the Trinity or Jesus Christ “our Savior” if we are in no sense saved? In Saint Francis Xavier’s “Prayer for Unbelievers,” featured in the once very popular Novena of Grace, reference is made to “Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord, Who is our health, life, and resurrection … through Whom we have been redeemed and saved….” The word “saved” is found in every translation of that prayer I could find. Saint Francis Xavier was perfectly orthodox, and it may be safely assumed that he was not under the influence of John Calvin when he composed the prayer. He evidently meant “saved” in the first or second sense I gave it above.

Jesus Christ’s work on the Cross is most certainly complete, as has already been stated: “Knowing that Christ rising again from the dead, dieth now no more, death shall no more have dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). But Our Lord’s work in me is not finished in this vale of tears — for I am not yet finished, in the sense of complete, or perfected. We Catholics regularly speak in terms of progress in the spiritual life, which, like the lives of our bodies and our minds, is something dynamic, admitting of progress and setback, growth, and even termination. If, God willing (and my will seconding His Will), I go to Heaven, I am finished at that point; my salvation is complete. Then and only then can I say that “I am saved” in the third, full, and final sense of those words.

This economy of salvation is intimately bound up with the notion of Purgatory, for if we exit this life not yet “perfected” and ready for Heaven, where nothing “defiled” or “impure” can enter (cf. Apoc. 21:27), how then, can we be saved? Similarly, this economy is also bound up with the Catholic doctrine of merit and the clear Biblical teaching that we are saved by both faith and good works, which Saint Paul and Saint James respectively state with reference to our father Abraham as the model of the just man.

There is a very trite and popular saying to the effect that “God’s not done with me yet.” Search the phrase on the Internet and you will find a great variety of books, songs, sermons, and the rest. For all its triteness, the phrase is something that any member of the Church Militant (or Suffering) can say. The “once saved always saved” Calvinist, who believes himself incapable of falling away or losing his salvation, would be compelled to say that God is indeed done with him, for he needs nothing more to enter immediately into heavenly beatitude — nothing, that is, except bodily death.

Those who would like more apologetic arguments against the heresy of “once saved always saved” are invited to read the article, “The Devil’s Doctrine.”

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Beyond the realm of the merely apologetic, we faithful Catholics ought to cherish and cling to the words, “salvation,” “saved,” and all other forms of the word (e.g., my personal favorite, the adjective “salvific”). Why? Because these are our concepts, for there is no salvation outside the Church. And though we readily grant that our salvation is not yet fully accomplished, if we are living the life of grace, complete with the observance of God’s moral law, the reception of the sacraments, prayer, and good works, we are indeed being saved. At its height, such a life is one of the Beatitudes, which Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us are an anticipation of the happiness of Heaven.

All during Eastertide, the Apostle admonishes us that “Therefore, if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God: Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3). As long as we are in this vale of tears, we must fight, for the world, the flesh, and the devil are ever at us, but we must with some frequency draw our attention away from our immediate surroundings and initiate an “up periscope” from our terrestrial submarine, like the monk of old who frequently stopped amid his toils to look up and “take aim” at Heaven. Something is missing if we do not make those upward glances and pine away for our Homeland, painfully nostalgic for the Undying Lands that are our inheritance as the baptized.

However much we ought to build up the Kingdom of God on earth — as per Jesus’ last command immediately before He ascended — so much the more ought we to strive for our own personal participation in that Ascension, which will take us, through “the progress of salvation,” to the very perfection of the Kingdom of God in Heaven.

And I, John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men: and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people: and God himself with them shall be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more. Nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away. And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new. —Apoc. 21:2-5