Time and Salvation

Eternal salvation is the single most urgent matter facing humanity. Whether or not we live the life of grace here and of beatitude hereafter does objectively matter more than any other concern we face either corporately or individually.

Anyone with a sensus catholicus should know that this is the most important question. Its urgency explains the heroics of the martyrs and the zeal of the great missionaries like Saint Paul, Saint Francis Xavier, and the North American Martyrs. It also explains the dedication of the great religious founders of orders both active and contemplative — for monasticism, too, is a pursuit of God’s glory and man’s salvation.

The dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus is, therefore, a teaching of vital importance — a matter of everlasting life and death. The great heresy of our age, in my opinion, remains indifferentism. Apathy, which is not a heresy per se, is an underlying condition for theological indifferentism. It is also perhaps modern Western man’s most common response to religious questions. It is the atmosphere we breathe.

For all its urgency, the work of salvation is not something to be pursued with that false zeal that we might term “frenzy.” Violent agitation, manic enthusiasm, and delirious excitement are the marks of false religion — and, at times, of a false approach to the true religion. Our God is the God of peace, whose grace works best in us amid serenity and ordered tranquility.

Peace of soul is a necessary condition for the life of virtue.

When, because the order of his loves is well established, the would-be apostle is at peace with God, himself, and his neighbor, his zeal is no less militant for being calm. It is calm because it is confident — not in human means and enterprises, but in God’s goodness and mercy.

The following ten meditations on “Time and Salvation” are by no means intended to curb anyone’s zeal by suggesting that the work of salvation (and therefore of conversion) takes time. They are, rather, intended to inform that zeal so that it is better focused. “You can’t push a rope,” a friend of mine is fond of saying. When we know we are working with God’s grace, we are less likely to attempt such pushing; we can take a calmer and more placid approach to the evangelism of our neighbor as well as to the work of our own salvation.

  1. God is eternal — outside of time — yet He is not, of course, ignorant of time. Just as God’s immensity envelopes all of space, so God’s eternity envelopes or contains all of time. God has a clear, omniscient view of each passing moment of our time. In its strict sense, as it applies only to God, the word eternity means, according to Father Bernard Wuellner, S.J., author of the Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, “duration of being without beginning, succession, or ending; ‘the whole and perfect simultaneous possession of limitless life’ (Boethius).”
  2. According to Aristotle, time is not a substance but is one of the nine categories of accident. An accident is something that exists in another, not, like a substance, something that exists in itself. Time, therefore, was created only secondarily, as a result of God’s creation of subsistent, material things. To affirm this is not to make the reality of time inconsequential.
  3. When we come into this world at the moment of our conception — when our time begins — we are each tainted by original sin. Should we die in that state, Heaven is cut off to us and justly so. The concept of Limbo — perfectly conformable to the data of divine revelation — is sufficient to vindicate both God’s justice and His mercy.
  4. Those who die in actual mortal sin are damned forever — not only with the pain of loss (which those in Limbo have), but also with the pain of sense. God foreknows who these are, but He has not created them for damnation. He gives them sufficient grace to be saved.
  5. Those whom God foreknows to be among the elect — the predestined — are to attend to the all-important matter of salvation in time. They are offered grace in time and accept or reject it in time. Sacraments take place in time, as do temptations, occasions of grace, meritorious good works, prayer, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and all else that pertains to human salvation.
  6. The work of salvation is not, at first, our work, but God’s. “Let us therefore love God, because God first hath loved us” (1 John 4:19). “In this is charity: not as though we had loved God, but because he hath first loved us, and sent his Son to be a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). “But God commendeth his charity towards us; because when as yet we were sinners, according to the time, Christ died for us…” (Rom. 5:8-9). Only after God has commenced it without us can we begin to cooperate with His salvific action in our souls. From then on, our salvation becomes a partnership — a cooperation between God and us. He magnanimously condescends to work with His own creatures whom He gratuitously elevates to the status of His children by grace. God is the First Cause of human salvation; we are secondary causes. Saint Thomas’ profound theology of operating and cooperating grace explains this well. On our part, all of this is temporally bound, and whether or not we cooperate — and to what degree — often changes (even drastically) with time. Our very mutability is both a blessing and, not a curse, but a challenge.
  7. The time of our death is unknown to us. With each “Hail Mary,” the interval between “now” and “at the hour of our death” grows shorter. Eventually, these words will signify the same exact moment. While the precise moment that this will happen is hidden from our eyes, of a certitude, it will happen precisely when God wills. It is a dogma of our faith that, at that moment, all opportunity for conversion and merit ceases.
  8. At the beginning of each liturgical year, the Epistle for the First Sunday of Advent (Rom. 13:11-14) reminds us that “our salvation is nearer than when we [first] believed.” Salvation, therefore, is progressive in character, which is why Holy Scripture speaks of human salvation as a process: “[H]e, who hath begun a good work in you, will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). To “perfect,” is the same as to complete or to fulfill. Saint Paul describes Heaven as “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem… the church of the firstborn… the spirits of the just made perfect…” (Heb. 12:22-23). It takes time for all those latent potencies of grace and glory to be put into act. The just who have begun but not yet, at the time of their death, finished cooperating with God in actualizing those potencies will be “finished off” — perfected — in Purgatory.
  9. All of time — from the first fiat of creation till that terrible moment when the Angel swears by Him who lives for ever and ever that “time shall be no longer” (Apoc. 10:6) — is exactly as long as God wills it to be. All through the history of salvation, there have been times that are clearly times of preparation and times that are clearly times of fulfillment. We see this especially during the liturgical season of Advent, which truncates all of history B.C. into four weeks in preparation for Christmas: “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4).
  10. The wise man sees time in the light of eternity. He knows that his life on this earth is a preparation for it. Living virtuously, prayerfully, sacramentally, and cooperating with grace: these constitute the best remote preparation for the moment of death. We may not be granted time for any proximate preparation (which would include Penance, Extreme Unction, and Viaticum). To quote Brother Francis:
    • — “Every day is a figure of all life and of all time; but the ever repeated cycle of the day is a figure of eternity.”
    • — “All merely temporal issues will amount to exactly nothing in an interminable eternity; events can acquire permanent significance only as they bear on the salvation of persons.”

We were created by God for a purpose — a supernatural end in Christ. By all indications, the majority of those among whom we live are oblivious to that purpose. It is, therefore, incumbent upon each of us to swim against the current and renew our sense of purpose daily.

“In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin,” said the wise man (Ecclus.7:40). Let us pursue our salvation with peaceful, persevering urgency. We do not know how much time we have.