The complete and full definition of something is often much deeper than the words that attempt to articulate it. In other words, how we define something may only express a mere part of the reality of the object being defined. That may be because we simply don’t know much about it yet. Or it may be that we simply can’t articulate a particular reality to the fullest extent using only words.
For example, we know that marriage is “the union of a man and a woman.” That is true. But does that express the full reality of a marriage? Of course not. And there are thousands of more beautiful words we can use to define marriage to help us more deeply understand its reality, but they still end up falling short in one way or another. Ultimately, the fullness of the reality of marriage can only be expressed by the marriage itself – not words.
But of course when talking and writing about things, we have to use words. And some theological conversations fall prey to similar types of inadequacies causing needless division in the Body of Christ. The topic of Salvation is one such conversation.
Trying to use a simple definition of salvation and then applying it to multiple, complex theological situations can get confusing. Not to mention that, as often is the case when dealing with metaphysical topics, trying to describe things that transcend space and time with our spacial and temporal language and understanding is a challenging thing to do. But we do the best we can. However, in doing so we have to be careful not to put our own human limits on God or to give in to the great temptation to over-simplify something simply because we don’t fully understand it.
Regarding salvation, just from scripture we can reason that we have already been saved (Rom. 8:24, Eph. 2:5–8), we are being saved (1 Cor. 1:8, 2 Cor. 2:15, Phil. 2:12), and that we should also hope to be saved (Rom. 5:9–10, 1 Cor. 3:12–15). So which is it? We can’t give in to over-simplification here. We must dig deeper and figure out how all of these are true together.
Is it correct to say that salvation happens in a single moment in the past? Sure. But is it a complete definition? No. Our personal salvation is also ongoing and something we hope to continue happening until completed and final in the future (That is…if you believe in what scripture says).
So, for instance, asking somebody “Are you saved?” is a confusing question because it ignores the full meaning and reality of what salvation is. It would have also seemed like a very bizarre question to the early Christians by the way.
If I’ve been baptized, then yes, I’ve been saved. I can answer the question just fine. But the reason Catholics don’t phrase it that way is because it falls short of the full definition of what it means to be saved. It is inadequate and presumes (therefore deceiving people) that salvation happens solely at a single point in one’s life. It doesn’t.
It’s kind of like asking a 20 year old, “Have you been to college?” The 20 year old could say “Yes.” And the questioner is left without knowing what that entirely means. So they’ve been to college, but did they complete college? Are they still going to college? Etc.
Or the 20 year old could say, “Yes, I just had my first class today – so I’ve been to college. But I’m also still going to college. And one day I hope to graduate from college. Oh, and my Father paid in full already!” And that would be a more complete and meaningful answer.
Salvation is the same way. Asking someone “are you saved?” is an incomplete question. And we need to recognize that it often carries a different meaning depending on who is asking it!
That’s one of the things I love about the Catholic approach to theology in general. It recognizes that words are not reality (the Truth) in themselves. They merely attempt to describe the Truth. Consequently, words will always fall short because they are not the thing itself.
So attempting to use words to describe the very rich, deep, and mysterious truths of our Faith is often inadequate. And in doing so we recognize that the full meaning of a particular thing may not be comprehensively explained in one, neat sentence, but may only express one true part of its fuller meaning.
In Catholic apologetics you’ll hear things like “both/and” and “either/or.” Catholicism is a both/and kind of religion. It is comfortable embracing mystery.
Scripture and the Tradition of Christ’s Church are clear that salvation is both a moment and a process. It has both happened and is still happening. That may seem like the Church is accepting a contradiction. But that’s not true at all. Just because something is presently beyond our reason doesn’t mean it is unreasonable. What is unreasonable is to limit God and His work with false dichotomies of either/or. Again, we can’t fall to the temptation that just because we can’t presently understand something entirely that we must over-simplify it to the detriment of the fullness of Truth. If we broaden our minds we can easily see how these beliefs can hold true.
Ultimately, “being saved” is not ever entirely past tense for us here on Earth. It is not only something you said once or did once. Or only something you think or believe. It’s not a magic trick we let God do on us. It’s not passive.
Salvation is an active process. Not because God needs us to act – but because He desires us to act. Our action is not necessary because Christ’s sacrifice is lacking. It’s necessary because that is how God allows us to participate in His sacrifice. The currency is Grace, but the economy is faith, hope and love – in action. It’s a cross we wake up every day and embrace over and over again with each step we take through life. It’s a grace we must continually cooperate with and allow to sanctify us unto the very end.
Anything less than that just misses the real, good stuff.