What does salvation mean?
For a good part of my life, this particular doctrine was the subject of countless hours of contemplation and spiritual struggle. For some deep, divine reason salvation was my otherworldly wrestling partner, refusing to be bested, yet somehow still blessing me with its power to name and claim me as its own. Over the years I studied and searched and raised supplications in an attempt to master its truth. But it has only been in my yielding to its mystery that my efforts have brought me a more peaceful albeit limited understanding of what this great reality holds for me.
As I have grown in wisdom and years, I have focused less on the doctrinal complexities of redemption and more on my relationship to the One from whom salvation flows. Viewing my position as a believer through the lens of Christ’s love has allowed my experience of salvation to become like an old coat that has grown more comfortable and familiar with time. As I have dug deep into the mystery of why the Son of God should ever walk the road of Calvary for a man like me, one constant thought has shone through time and time again.
Salvation is a journey I walk with the One who has walked it with me.
The Once-and-Done Deal
Some Christian denominations view salvation as a legal declaration – a once-and-done agreement that takes place between the Savior and the saved. The sinner, through faith alone, admits his sin and falls before the Throne of Grace to receive mercy from Christ who declares the person freed from sin. Once the deal is done and the debt paid, the rest of one’s life is spent in sanctification as the believer now shares the Good News of Jesus with others and wins souls for Christ.
I admit this is somewhat of an oversimplification, but to these Christians, this declaration of salvation is an irrevocable bond that cannot be broken. They hold that God, in His Sovereignty, predestines who will be saved and then calls His elect into the Kingdom. If a person falls away, the belief is he was never saved in the first place. The proof for this belief, they say, comes from passages like John 10:27-30:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (Loc. cit., RSV2CE)
Confusion and True Conversion
For me, the sticking point on the Catholic view of redemption was that we could lose our salvation through sin. I asked myself how a good and holy God could allow one of His children to leave the faith. It seemed it would be better knowing the deal was done and that I had a seat on the train bound for glory like my Protestant friends believed.
Still, there was the whole problem of election. Did God simply choose some and reject others because He felt like it or because He knew which people would hear His call and respond in faith? What if He had chosen to reject me and I just never knew it?
Surprisingly it was in attending a Protestant baptism ceremony that the clouds of confusion began to clear. I remember watching as several friends stood before the congregation to share their testimonies of how they came to conversion. As I listened to their stories I learned that they all had been baptized before, certain they had come to Christ; but now they had had a true change of heart.
While I was not disparaging the sincerity of their spiritual steps of faith, I had to ask myself the question: If my friends had been wrong about their salvation before, how could they be sure that they were truly saved now?
The Journey’s the Thing
As I examined my own ideas about salvation, I came to realize that I had been trapped in my own self-doubt, held prisoner by the enemy, with my eyes fixed not on my Savior but on my own status as a believer. I was so caught up in whether or not I was saved that I was missing the joy of the journey I was taking.
I began to refocus on my relationship with Jesus and His great love for me. Rather than seeing salvation as a doctrine I had to understand in order to find security, I began trusting in the One who had carried me all this way and would carry me still.
The words of Jesus in John’s Gospel have been a particular comfort to me in my journey of salvation. John presents Jesus as the wonderful God-Man who stooped down to put on flesh and walk with humanity. When He was about to return to His Father, He left us a powerful promise that believers could carry with them as they journeyed through life:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. (John 14:15-20 RSV2CE)
Baptism, Salvation, and the Journey Unfolding
Because Catholics believe Baptism is a sacrament, a sign that touches us with the power of salvation (cf. 1 Peter 3:21), and not an ordinance to be carried out in response to belief, I can rest secure in the journey before me. I know that I experience the life of the Triune God within me. I have been buried with Christ and now share in His resurrection life (cf. Romans 6:4). His Holy Spirit guides me in the way of salvation. God has given me a deposit of grace, guaranteeing what is to come (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22), and that is my strength and my joy as I walk the path of salvation with Him.
Still, I cannot rest on this great gift and neglect the privilege: I have to “work out [my] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). The trials, the joys, the sufferings, and the satisfactions of my faith are part of the process of perfection that God grants to all His children. Yes, we can stray from the path, but His grace is forever available to us through the Church in the sacrament of Confession. We are continuously blessed for the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do (cf. Ephesians 2:10) so that we may demonstrate our faith and complete it by our works (cf. James 2:22).
Once and Done, Yet Faith to Faith
Our journey of salvation is an exercise in becoming. We experience redemption as a priceless moment of transformation and yet it is an ongoing process of moving from faith to faith (cf. Romans 1:17), drawing us ever closer to that final vision in heaven where we will receive our reward for the deeds we have done to the least of our brothers and sisters in Jesus’ name (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). We press on to take hold of the prize before us (cf. Philippians 3:12). We move ever forward like a career soldier who fights for the cause of Christ, a committed athlete who trains to win, and a diligent farmer who brings in the abundant harvest (cf. 2 Timothy 2:4-6).
Salvation is a life-altering experience where we peer into that perfect law that brings freedom (James 1:25) as we persevere and take action to bring about the Kingdom of God. We must never be self-satisfied about our faith-filled passage from this world to the next, and yet we can rejoice in the truth that salvation is a lifelong experience of grace re-forming us as God’s children, purifying us and making us whole. Let the glorious gift of this journey of salvation renew and recreate us in the image of our Savior, day by precious day! God bless!