What Does it Mean to be Saved?

All are Redeemed, but not all are Saved

    “Never was there a worse sinner, and never was God kinder to one,” remarks the fictional character J. Blue in Myles Connolly’s classic novelette Mr. Blue.  Although intended as an epithet for his gravestone, the childlike Blue innocently encapsulates the entire mystery of salvation into a single, plain-spoken truism. There is not one of us who could not make that motto his or her own, for it is only the kindness of God which allows any person to be saved. Nothing we can ever do merits such extraordinary kindness. All salvation is God’s pure gift.

Of course many in our secular culture do not see it that way. Today’s world is profoundly skeptical of a benevolent God. The belief that mankind can and will save itself, solve its own problems, and create its own sanguine future has become the new gospel. God, if he even exists, would probably only get in the way of our bigger plans, so it is simply best if he were to step aside, or at the very least stay confined to that sequestered closet known as “private devotion.”

But is God’s salvation a purely private matter or a matter of much greater consequence to the world?  Even among Christians there is disagreement regarding the vital question, “What must I do to be saved?” Some say that good works are essential to salvation. Others insist that faith alone is sufficient. One says that we cannot be certain of our personal salvation while another claims to have absolute assurance of his salvation. Is it necessary to do anything other than believing to be saved? Or is belief even necessary if, as many people avow, everyone will be universally saved since a “loving” God could never consign anyone to hell?

In order to answer such difficult questions we must consider the difference between Redemption and Salvation, terms which are not actually synonymous. Simply put, Redemption applies to all of mankind, once for all, whereas Salvation is particular to every individual. Put another way, we have all been redeemed but that redemption is no guarantee of one’s final salvation. Therefore the apostle can say, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1Cor. 1:18)

Christ’s redeeming work on the cross atoned for the sins of every human being who has ever lived or will live in the future ─ good and bad alike.  God willed to redeem everyone by the suffering, death, and resurrection of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (Jn. 12:32)  And yet an apparent contradiction appears where Christ says in another passage, “I will declare to them solemnly, I never knew you, depart from me you evildoers.” (Mt.7:23) Again he cautions, “those who have done good deeds (go) to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation.” (Jn. 5:29) If all are drawn to him how is it that some will be rejected and condemned? The answer is that Christ, being eternal, is not subjected to the limits of time as we are. He sees and knows all things, even future events, as transpiring in the present moment. In the first instance he is speaking in the present age as the Redeemer who draws all to himself on his cross at Calvary. In the second instance he is speaking to a future event when, as the Divine Judge, he will separate the sheep from the goats.

The universal redemption Christ refers to in John, chapter 12 does not mean that every person will ultimately be saved, but only that the sins of all have been fully expiated on the cross. This perfect act of atonement becomes the obligatory pre-condition for attaining personal salvation. Of course we are free to reject it as well. Christ today may be a loving Redeemer, but at his future second coming he will appear in glory as the dread Judge described in Matthew 25:31-46.

Think of redemption and salvation as being different stages in God’s overarching plan encompassing the entirety of salvation history. An analogy might help. Imagine a giant barrier or wall, similar to the former Berlin wall, which for centuries had separated man from God. That wall was erected by sin, more precisely by the original sin of our first parents. But in order to restore communication between the two sides the wall had to go. Christ therefore demolished that barrier separating man and God. The work of redemption was now accomplished.

But simply removing the barrier does not guarantee that intercourse between the two sides will automatically resume. There is still a lot of rubble and debris lying around. For convenience sake, let us call the process of getting from our side to God’s side of the city salvation. Redemption happened the moment the wall was razed, thus reuniting a fractured city. Salvation occurs more gradually, on a case by case basis, as individuals pick their way through the wreckage and into the newly opened landscape. East and West Berlin are no longer segregated but neither is anybody forced to cross over to the other side. That part becomes a personal journey for each individual.

Because the other side is still unfamiliar territory one needs a guide to navigate its winding streets and alleys. Jesus Christ thoughtfully gave us such a guide to assist us in crossing over to the other side. His guide is called the Church ─ which becomes the primary vehicle of our salvation. The Church, without preference or distinction, offers every redeemed person the gift of God’s salvation, approached through the waters of baptism.  Baptism is only the first step in claiming one’s salvation, not unlike a citizen registering to vote so that he is on the books. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit,” (Jn. 3:5) Christ thereby emphasizes the importance of baptism. But even then one’s salvation is not automatic. It also requires that a person wants to be saved. You can’t be saved against your will. Baptism enables one to be saved, it does not guarantee salvation. It must be augmented by actions and a genuine desire to get to the other side of the city.

“Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 7:21) Notice that Christ demands something of us in order to be saved. He did not say that all who believe are guaranteed salvation. Instead he issued a stern challenge to every would-be believer. “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Mt. 10:38) Both of the above statements sound suspiciously like “works” which is why the apostle Paul can confidently assert, “You must work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12)

But who would willfully reject such an enticing gift as eternal salvation? Perhaps when the path becomes difficult and one loses any sense of direction in the labyrinth of alleyways, discouragement can set in so that many turn back to more familiar parts of the city. Likewise, some who might otherwise pursue the path of salvation are deterred by their own indifference. Too involved in their own pursuits to show any interest in what happens elsewhere, they never thought much about the wall even when it was in place. Now that it has been eradicated they just can’t seem to pull away from the daily fare of living to make any larger commitments. Meanwhile God is busy trying to encourage his people to come and visit this new part of the city where they could settle in far greater beauty and comfort. Unbeknownst to them, they have been living all along in the gray ghetto while just across town sweeping boulevards, fragrant gardens, and stately mansions proliferate.

In the grand scheme of salvation God plays an active and continuous role in mankind’s destiny, pushing along the plot. This “salvation history” points to a symbiotic collaboration between God and his people, both sides working towards the same end. Still, it is God who willingly carries the lion’s share of the load, “Through his suffering my servant shall justify many.” (Is. 53:11) Even so, the process of salvation often feels slow and grinding to our sensibilities, but faith encourages us to persevere. Ultimately, one’s salvation is umbilically attached to one’s faith in God and his many promises. God is the very author and cause of our faith, in fact. And without faith, his universal redemption of our world would bear no fruit. But faith empowers the redeemed man, building on his baptismal foundation, to confidently venture out into unknown regions of the city. God is not twisting our arm to go, but he certainly gives us every inducement to do so.

That is how the process we understand as salvation works. It is free in the sense that God provides all the compasses, maps, and gear we will need to find his home address. All we need to do is provide the internal motivation to cooperate. This is the sense in which we all must “work” to achieve our salvation. It is not that we “earn” it in any sense, but we must still get up off our couches to answer the door. Consider how a farmer plants many seeds but not all of the seeds germinate successfully. Only those that are rooted in good soil will grow and thrive. “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Mt. 22:14) And although some would blame God for the failure of certain souls to be saved, it seems quite presumptuous to impose upon God, who has already redeemed us, the added obligation of saving them against their wills. Besides, if free will is to have any real meaning, one must also allow for the possibility that salvation might be rejected.

Think of salvation as a winning lottery ticket sitting on the shelf. We have already won the million bucks but our ticket is just a worthless scrap of paper until we decide to get in the car and drive down to the lottery office to collect the reward. We did nothing to earn that million ─ perhaps the ticket was even given to us by a stranger ─ but the crucial reality is that until we provide the energy and motive power to claim it, it profits us absolutely nothing. That is how the game of salvation works.

We are all broken and sinful people, but for God this presents no particular obstacle. J. Blue’s innate recognition that “never was there a worse sinner, and never was God kinder to one,” is the essential first step in converting the dry fact of redemption into an opportunity to achieve one’s salvation. Then there are still some Christians who would interpret universal redemption to include universal salvation as well. But neither the Bible nor God’s Church teaches such a thing. Christ himself said, “Try to enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the path broad that leads to destruction.” (Mt. 7:13).

So if someone walks up to you tomorrow and asks, “Have you been saved?” what would your response be? The simple and honest answer is this. “At present I have only been redeemed, but I live in the constant hope of final salvation.” Nor is such hope unfounded, for St. John relates our Savior’s solemn promise, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” (Jn. 15:10) Nevertheless personal salvation cannot be assured in this life nor should we ever take it for granted. Even Christ’s chosen apostles fell into serious sin: Peter, Thomas, and especially Judas whose tragic end suggests to us that overconfidence can be fatal to one’s true salvation.

Redemption was a single historical act performed by our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. But salvation is a much more involved process, both encompassing Christ’s work of redemption while incorporating into its mystery countless human stories from the beginning of time to its very end. This story continues to grow and develop, just as it has been developing since the fall of Adam. It is all made possible by Jesus Christ who not only rose from the dead but proceeded to commission his Church, ascend into heaven, and send us his Holy Spirit to activate and guide that same Church until the end of time. As Scripture reminds us, Christ will return on that final day of judgment for a decisive reconciliation and disposition of every human who has ever lived. The wicked will be sent off to eternal punishment (Rev. 20:12-15) while the just will enter into the Father’s kingdom. (Rev. 7:9-17)

We will only know for certain we have been saved when we finally join our voices to that glorious throng of the elect. Then we will know true joy. “They cried out in a loud voice: Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb. These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:10;14)

Francis J. Pierson    + a.m.d.g.

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