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What it means to be saved
FR. LEONARD M. PEUCH, O.F.M.
Someone asked me recently whether it was possible to know if one were saved.
To understand the question, you must remember the two-fold meaning of the expression, "to be saved." Normally, it means to have escaped hell and to have been admitted to heaven. At times, however, it expressed the belief that if you have obtained the forgiveness of your sins and are justified, you are thereby infallibly saved. Thus, if you could be sure that you were justified, you would be absolutely certain of your future salvation. To be justified and to be saved are practically the same, even if full salvation is yet to come. This was obviously the meaning of the question — i.e., could one be certain of being in such a state, according to God's sight, and hence certain of eternal salvation.
To give an answer it is necessary to examine two questions: (1) is it possible to be certain that your sins are forgiven and that you are justified; and (2) is there an infallible link between justification and final salvation?
The 16th century Reformers insisted that for anyone to be justified and forgiven for his sins, he had to believe firmly and without any doubt that through the merits of Christ, he was forgiven and justified. The Council of Trent rejected this kind of faith as a vain confidence and defined that, if no man may doubt God's mercy, or the merits of Christ and the efficacy of the sacraments, on the other hand no one, if he considered his weakness and lack of dispositions, could be certain with the infallible certainty of faith, that he possessed God's grace.
The clause excluding the infallible certainty of faith, hammered out and introduced in the Council's decree after long discussions between theologians of different schools, leaves room for a certain assurance, excluding prudent doubt, that one is justified.
One might be certain through a special revelation from God that all his sins are forgiven, as we read in the gospel (Lk. 5,20; 7,48) and in the lives of a few saints, although even then there might be room for illusion. Even apart from such a divine guarantee, one may conclude, both from what one feels and from what one does, that he is pleasing to God, without ever being absolutely sure that it is all inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Since we are to judge the tree by its fruit (Mt. 7,15-20), the surest signs that God's grace and the Holy Spirit abide in us, are the fruits they produce in the soul: "The fruit of the Spirit is: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, modesty, continency" (Gal. 5,22-23).
The greatest sign is fraternal charity, because it is the great commandment of Jesus and the proof we are his disciples (Jo. 13, 34-35), so that, "if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (1 Jo. 4,12) and then, "we know we have passed from death to life" (1 Jo. 3,14).
The surest sign of all is love of enemies — charity at its highest, because it is beyond purely human strength and cannot be inspired by natural motives, much less by the devil. Even then, although one has the best proof there is, that you are justified, that your sins are forgiven and that you possess God's grace, you are not saved yet. You will only be saved when you enter heaven, because as long as you live you may commit sin, lose God's grace, and incur damnation. One might say that to be justified is the same as to be saved, since one who is justified, and dies in that state, goes to heaven; and since grace is the beginning of that possession of God, which constitutes heaven.
Nevertheless, it would create an ambiguity, since to be saved means normally to be completely safe from eternal punishment. Only if it were impossible to lose grace after being justified, could it be said that to be justified is to be saved. Justification is only the beginning of salvation. Else why the warning of Jesus: "He who perseveres until the end will be saved" (Mt. 10,22; 24,13). Some begin well, he told us in the parable of the sower, and receive the word of God with joy, but when they have to face trials or temptations, they fall away (Mt. 13,20-21).
If one could be so assured of final salvation, why all the exhortations of Jesus to be vigilant so as not to enter into temptation, for the spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak (Mt. 26,46)? Why warn us to be ready to receive the master when he comes, not to do as the foolish virgins did? Why did St. Peter put the faithful on their guard: "Be sober and watchful, because your adversary the devil, like a roaring lion, goes about seeking someone to devour" (1 Pet. 5,8)?
Omitting the many exhortations of St. Paul to the believers to stand firm, as when he insists that Ephesians arm themselves spiritually for the war we must wage against powerful and evil spirits (Eph. 6,11-13), why does he remind the Corinthians, who had experienced so abundantly, it seems, the gifts of the Holy Spirit that the Hebrews also, coming out of Egypt, had had wonderful experiences and received wonderful gifts: "Yet with most of them God was not well pleased" (1 Cor. 10,5)?
If they were already saved, since they believed, why does he warn them: "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10, 12)? If ever a man could be certain that he was saved was it not St. Paul, after all the visions and revelations he had had from the Lord, to the point of being rapt up into paradise and hearing secrets that man cannot repeat (2 Cor. 12,1-4)? Why then did he feel the need to chastise his body and bring it into subjection, "lest perhaps after preaching to others I myself should be rejected" (1 Cor. 9,26-27)?
Although we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2,12), we may have a firm hope "that he who has begun a good work in us, will bring it to perfection" (Phil. 1,6), because "God is faithful and will not permit us to be tempted beyond our strength" and will enable us to bear it (1 Cor. 10, 13). Nevertheless we cannot be absolutely certain of the final outcome, or even of our present stand: we cannot be completely assured of being justified. St. Paul himself would not judge himself: "For I have nothing on my conscience, yet I am not thereby justified; he who judges me is the Lord" (1 Cor. 4,4).
Coming back to our initial question: it is impossible to know with absolute certainty that one is saved. We are here considering salvation in its final outcome — that is, to be counted among the elect in heaven — or in its beginning, which is to be forgiven and justified.
We may, however, have a solid assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we are in the state of grace. Although we must always "strive more by good works to make our vocation and calling sure" (2 Pet. 1, 10) on account of the possibility of sin, we have solid grounds for believing in our final salvation, since God wants all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2,4) and wants to complete the work he has begun in us (Phil. 1, 6).
One might object that Saint Paul teaches that man is justified by faith alone, independently of good works. Since it is possible to be certain that one believes, it is therefore possible to be certain that one is saved.
We must first remark that Saint Paul did not write that man is justified by faith alone; the word, alein — alone, was added by Luther in his German translation of Rom. 3,28. It is true that faith is the cause of justification, but it is necessarily accompanied by other acts — a regret of the past, for example, and a total surrender to God's will for the future (see Acts 2,27-38).
Besides, we must take into account what kind of works Saint Paul rejects and who were the adversaries he had in mind: "Man is justified by faith independently of the works of the Law" (Rom 3,28).
His aim was to reject the need of keeping the Mosaic Law to be justified, as some Christian Jews claimed and tried to force upon the Gentiles coming to the faith, as we know from the: Acts of the Apostles and the Letter to the Galatians. In fact he goes much further and denies the possibility of becoming just by observing the Law, because one would be just by one's own doing and not by God's grace, and could boast of his justice, like the Pharisee of the parable (Lk. 18,9-14).
When Saint Paul says that man is justified by faith, he means that it is not what a man does that makes him pleasing to God, but the faith in all his words, which are all words of love.
The Reformers were right in their insistence that justification comes form faith, but wrong when they added, "from faith alone." In fact, faith is only the root. The Council of Trent gave the true description of the complete process of justification in adults: "They dispose themselves to justification, when, moved and helped by divine grace, they conceive faith through hearing (Rom. 10, 17), draw freely toward God, believe as true all he has revealed and promised, chiefly that the sinner is justified by God's grace 'through the redemption, which is in Christ Jesus' (Rom. 3,24); when, realizing that they are sinners, from the fear of divine justice (which strikes them usefully) they turn to the consideration of God's mercy, rise to hope that God will be favorable to them on account of Christ, begin to love him as the source of all justice, and as a consequence are moved to a certain hate and detestation of their sins, namely through the penance necessary before baptism; and finally when they decide to receive baptism, to begin a new life and to keep God's commandments."
Besides, the Council of Trent explained what it is to be justified. It is something much more wonderful than just to be forgiven without being changed in any way. It is much more than God throwing the mantle of Christ's merits over our corruption, which remains the same, as the Reformers described it.
Justification brings a real sanctification and interior renewal through grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It means much more than to be considered just; it is to be called and to be just in reality through that justice of God, who gives to each as he pleases (1 Cor. 12, 11), and by each one's co-operation.
Thus through the merits of Christ's passion, the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit and becomes inherent there, so that at the same time that his sins are forgiven, one receives faith, hope and charity. They are that best robe given to the prodigal son upon his return home (Lk. 15,22), the "wedding garment" to be kept unsoiled in order to be admitted to the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Fr. Leonard M. Puech, O.F.M. "What it means to be saved." In Spiritual Guidance (Vancouver, B.C.: Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty, 1983), 22-27.
Republished with permission of the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty.
The late Fr. Leonard M. Puech wrote a popular column for the B.C. Catholic from 1976 to 1982. Those columns were compiled and published by the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice, and Liberty as the book Spiritual Guidance in 1983. The VFAJL is interested in reprinting Spiritual Guidance. Anyone who would like to contribute to this worthy cause please write: Dr. Margherita Oberti, 1170 Eyremount Drive, West Vancouver, B.C. V7S 2C5.
Copyright © 1983 Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice, & Liberty