“Are you saved?”
That’s a question often heard from well-meaning Christians who want to help others know Jesus Christ. As Catholics whose faith is centered in Him, we can appreciate their good intentions and admire their willingness to talk about God.
Even so, many Catholics may have trouble understanding what their question is really all about. What exactly do people mean when they talk of being already “saved”?
Christians with this query often view salvation as a past event that took place when they made a confession of faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Many of them also believe that this act of faith now guarantees them a place in heaven, no matter what they may do for the rest of their lives. They will never have to face the punishment of hell for their sins.
The teaching of the Catholic Church helps us understand that this is actually a mistaken notion of salvation. Jesus Christ came to give us much more than a kind of eternal fire insurance policy. Salvation in the fullest sense is an ongoing process that won’t be complete until after we die. And in the meantime, it’s still possible to turn away again from God.
When someone asks us, then, whether we’re “saved,” perhaps the best short answer is this: “Well, I’m doing what the Apostle Paul tells us to do in the Bible: I’m ‘working out’ my salvation day by day” (see Phil 2:12).
If we want to follow up on that statement, we can assure the inquirer that we do in fact have faith in Jesus Christ, that we recognize Him as our Savior and Lord, and that our goal is to be counted one day among the saints in heaven.
But why end the discussion there? If you want to take it a step farther, try this approach. Say, “Now I have a question for you: We both know that Jesus saves us from sin. But what are we saved for?”
This query shifts the focus of the conversation. Exploring the answer together can help the other person grasp more fully and accurately what it actually means to be saved.
What Is Salvation?
According to the Catholic understanding of salvation, rooted in Scripture, we aren’t just saved from sin. We’re saved for eternal life with God.
Why did God create us in the first place? He made us in certain ways like Himself, able to think and choose, so we could be sons and daughters who live in friendship with Him. God created us for Himself, for nothing less than to know, love, serve and enjoy Him — now and forever.
Through sin, however, we’ve rebelled against God and rejected His friendship. As a result, His likeness in us has been marred, and we’ve separated ourselves from Him. Since He’s the Source of all that’s good, such separation can lead only to misery in both this life and the next.
Because God loved us so much, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from such a terrible fate. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus offer us, through the forgiveness of our sins, escape from eternal punishment.
But that’s not all. He also reconciles us to God, opening the door to a full restoration of our friendship with Him.
In this way, Jesus begins the process of a complete renewal of God’s likeness in us, a healing of the brokenness that comes from sin. So salvation isn’t just a way to avoid hell, nor is it just a past event.
On the contrary: Salvation in its fullness is God’s new creation. To save us, He remakes us in His likeness — a lifelong process requiring our cooperation — so that we can once again think and love as He thinks and loves. This process finds its completion only in heaven, where eternal life is enjoyed in perfect harmony with Him.
Those who are joined there with God forever in the deepest possible communion of love will achieve their greatest destiny. They will fulfill their deepest longing. They will become what they were made to be.
Consider this analogy.
We’re like the survivors of a shipwreck in a storm out in mid-ocean. We’ve been rescued from drowning and welcomed onboard the ship we call the Church. That ship is now taking us to a safe harbor — our home in heaven with God.
But we’re not home yet.
You could say, then, that we’ve been “saved” in the sense of being rescued and taken aboard a safe vessel. But we can’t really speak of being “saved” in the full sense until we reach our destination. We must humbly admit that we haven’t yet arrived at final perfection.
Meanwhile, we also must recognize the sobering possibility that — God forbid — we could choose someday to jump overboard again.
Salvation isn’t guaranteed just because of something we’ve done in the past. We continue to have a free will, which is part of God’s likeness in us. So we still have the ability to turn away from God again.
It’s a chilling possibility. But it shouldn’t make us perpetually worried that we’ll be damned despite our best efforts to grow in grace. We can be confident that God desires our salvation, and He’s faithful to help us. If we’re tempted to forsake Him, He’ll grant us the power to resist that temptation.
Even so, the choice is still ours.
In fact, we make choices every day that draw us closer to God or lead us farther away from Him. That’s why simply believing in Jesus isn’t enough. Friendship with God, like friendship of any kind, is more than just getting acquainted. It involves making a series of choices to love, over the long term, so that a committed relationship grows.
Faith is useless, then, without good works. God must have our active cooperation, because both our mind and our will — the full likeness of God — must be renewed if we’re to be saved in the end.
If you talk over these points with Christian friends who ask whether you’re saved, you could open up for them a whole new way of thinking. Be sure to show them that this understanding of salvation is found all throughout Scripture — such as when St. Peter tells us to “long for pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation” (1 Pt 2:2), or when St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I preached to you the Gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast.” (I Cor 15:1-2)
What if the conversation ends before they are convinced? Even then, the time you’ve spent thinking about what salvation really means can deepen your faith and bring you closer to God.