On the Broad and the Narrow Senses of “Salvation”: A Brief Biblical Review
“God crowns in us the gifts of His own mercy; but on condition that we walk with perseverance in that grace which in the first instance we received.” –St. Augustine in Tractates on the Gospel of John
Since the times of the Protestant Reformation, there has been a considerable amount of public uncertainty about the means by which a Christian arrives at a state of “salvation.” In this post I will attempt to clarify the broad and the narrow senses of salvation as they are understood by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Narrow Sense of Salvation: Agreement between Catholics and Protestants
Lest anyone be deceived, the Roman Catholic Church does not teach (and has never taught) that a person can achieve salvation through his or her own merits. The entirety of the merits of salvation belong to Jesus Christ. According to the narrow sense of scriptural salvation, we appropriate our justification before God by faith through grace. Sometimes, we refer to this step of salvation as the “first justification” or the entrance into a “state of grace.” Let’s examine a few biblical verses that speak of this narrow sense of salvation:
- Romans 4:5– “To one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”
- John 3:16– “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
- Ephesians 2:8– “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
These examples make it evidently clear that–in at least some sense–Jesus saves us through the gift of faith. Catholics affirm the validity of these verses, and they accept that they are saved, in this sense, through faith in Christ.
The Broad Sense of Salvation: The Source of Some Disagreement
However, during the Reformation Era, a controversy arose about a second set of passages that seems to refer to another sense of salvation. This sort of salvation commonly bears the name “sanctification,” “holiness,” or “second justification.” According to these verses, the believer must actually become holy in order to definitively enter into God’s kingdom. For this reason, Catholics do not typically acknowledge that they are saved by faith “alone.” Let’s take a look at some of these instances:
- Hebrews 12:13-15– “Make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.”
- Romans 8:13– “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
- Galatians 6:8-9– “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”
These examples demonstrate that, in some sense, something more than mere faith is required for eternal life with God. The grace given to us by Christ must transform us into His image. No longer content with our sinful past, we call upon Jesus’ Spirit to help us overcome our weaknesses. For most traditional Protestants, this second justification has nothing to do with salvation because their salvation is by faith alone, not by actually becoming holy. (Some Protestants may acknowledge that sanctification does naturally flow from justification, which is true for Catholics as well, but most Protestants do not accept the idea that sanctification is salvation in any sense.) For all Roman Catholics, this broader sense of salvation is crucial to spending eternity with God, as Jesus warns us that only those disciples who follow his commandments truly love Him. For Catholics, obedience is a requisite. The author of Hebrews writes, “Although [Jesus] was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:8-9). To be truly obedient, we conform our lives to His life through love. As St. Paul writes, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). When all is said and done, God will judge us by our love, for, without love, faith means nothing (1 Cor. 13:2).
I hope that this post has been helpful. May God bless you and may He bring unity between Catholics and Protestants.
David J.W. Inczauskis