Are you saved? It’s a question that often confuses Catholics. The most common answer I hear is: “Well, I’m a good person, so I hope to get to heaven.” Ah … nope. Wrong answer. What does salvation mean? What does it mean to be saved?
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
22 May 2019
Today, I was listening to a Patrick Coffin podcast with guest Dr. Michael Barber. The discussion was about how Catholics view grace, salvation, and what it means to “be saved.” Dr. Barber noted that Catholics are uncomfortable with this question often asked by Protestants: “Are you saved?”
He pointed out Catholics often think about salvation in terms of something that happens only after death. When they’re asked, “Are you saved?” they respond awkwardly by saying something like, “Well, yes, I hope to get to heaven.” Meanwhile, the Protestant eyes the Catholic with a confused, skeptical look and decides that Catholics probably aren’t saved and really don’t know Jesus. Or worse, the Protestant goes away thinking Catholics aren’t Christian at all—something I run into frequently.
A lot of the confusion on the part of Catholics is found in a de-emphasis on salvation and what it means to be saved. This goes hand-in-hand with a de-emphasis on entering into a personal and intimate relationship of communion with Christ. Further, it is, of course, connected to a misunderstanding of grace, its importance, and its effects on the human soul.
Salvation: Past, Present, Future
First, we can speak about salvation in three different tenses. For example, 1) I have been saved by the sacrament of baptism; 2) I am being saved in the present by grace working through faith and living my life in union with Jesus; and 3) I hope to be saved at death by virtue of dying in a state of grace as a friend of God.
Second, salvation, as stated above, is not only a future reality. It should be a present reality. And this is one of the major facts of the Christian life that Catholics are missing. Whenever a person is in a state of grace, and therefore possesses sanctifying grace in his soul, he is saved. Why? Sanctifying grace is by definition the presence of the Holy Trinity indwelling in the soul. When a person is in a state of grace, he possesses the life of God interiorly, within his soul: by virtue of this divine indwelling, he is truly changed and truly healed of the effects of eternal death brought about by sin. This means that living in the kingdom of Christ is something that can happen now—it can be a present reality. That reality is made possible by sanctifying grace.
Sanctifying grace itself is often misunderstood. Catholics often think they earn salvation by “being good” and “doing good.” They think grace helps them to do good things (which is not incorrect since we do need sanctifying grace to engage in supernaturally good works, and actual grace gives us God’s help to do the good), and that by doing these good things they will “get to heaven.” This semi-Pelagian view is self-evident in the way Catholics frequently respond to this question: “Why will God let you into heaven?” The answer is most often: “Because I’m a good person.”
God does not let people into heaven because they think they are “good.” The fact is, we are not good people. We are a fallen people, tainted by the effects of original sin. We are a rebellious, sinful people. Adam and Eve rejected God. Cain murdered his brother Abel. Sin is spread throughout the entire world. It is not possible for us to undo this disastrous situation or to save ourselves. Nobody can get to heaven on their own accord. Traveling to another world ten-thousand light-years away would be at least within the realm of some future technological possibility. But getting to heaven on our own? Not possible. Not ever.
We are a desperate people in desperate need of a Savior. That Savior is Jesus Christ. The new life he offers us becomes a reality by the sanctifying grace he confers through the sacraments of the Church.
That’s right. You don’t normally receive sanctifying grace in any other way. You don’t get it because you just “want it” or “would like to have it” or think you can earn it by being “nice.” You don’t get sanctifying grace by telling yourself “I’m a spiritual person.” It’s a free gift of God conferred on the faithful by virtue of reception of the sacraments of Christ celebrated in the Church.
The Sacraments of the Church
All the sacraments draw their power from the Paschal Mystery: the saving passion, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus. When the sacrament of baptism is received in faith, for example, sanctifying grace is conferred to the recipient. When the sacrament of Confession is validly celebrated in faith and with repentance, sanctifying grace is received (or increased). When the Eucharist is worthily received (in a state of sanctifying grace, which is required), sanctifying grace is increased by the consumption of the Risen Lord sacramentally.
Sanctifying grace creates a true change in the soul. It changes a person. It recreates; it restores. It makes the impossible possible. It gives you the ability to live in the kingdom of heaven. It integrates you into the kingdom of Christ, right here, right now.
Sanctifying grace, then, is not merely some “helping hand” we get that enables us to “do good things.” Sanctifying grace is absolutely essential to attaining salvation. It’s the sign of God in the soul. It’s the reality of being in an intimate and personal relationship with the Word made flesh, with Jesus, the Divine Logos incarnate.
Sanctifying grace is everything. We cannot bear fruit without it. We cannot be saved without it. I cannot remain grafted into Christ apart from it. If it is lost, I wither and die. No sanctifying grace, no indwelling Spirit. No sanctifying grace, no relationship with God. In its absence, I become a branch to be discarded, thrown into the fire and burned:
Jesus said to his disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (Jn 15:1-8)
Are You In A State of Grace?
Are you saved? If you’re in a state of grace, the answer is “yes.” Every Catholic who takes death at all seriously (only the insane would not) should make sure they can say, “I am saved” with moral certainty. If we cannot say these words—or we go around saying them because we think we’re a “good person”—then we are perhaps in peril of the loss of heaven, which means, by the way, damnation. We might well be one of the withered and dead branches scheduled for burning in hell. For that reason, if we are conscious of having committed a grave sin, it is absolutely imperative that we immediately repent, ask Christ for forgiveness, and then receive the sacrament of Confession at the nearest opportunity.
If you are asked, “Why will God let you into heaven?” The answer is, because Christ has shed his saving blood for me. I have faith in Jesus and seek his mercy. He has washed me clean with his gift of grace received in the sacraments of the Church. He is my personal Lord and Savior. I rely on him. I trust in him. I hope in his promise of eternal life.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.