Salvation and Sacrifice

Last night Fran and Rhiannon and I enjoyed the hospitality of three house church communities gathered for an intra-church conference this weekend in Lithia Springs. After a potluck dinner one of the church groups performed skits based on the wisdom of the letter to the Colossians. Much wonderful singing and heartfelt prayer and praise rounded out what was a delightful evening.

As an active practicing Catholic, my spiritual life is oriented toward monasticism and sacramentalism rather than evangelicalism, so it’s always an interesting experience when I participate in a non-liturgical style of worship, last night being no exception. Catholics don’t do a lot of personal testimony and sharing (that’s an understatement), so I find that evangelical worship can be quite intimate and revealing, even to a one-time guest like I was last night. At one point, one person shared an insight he had received about salvation. And in doing so, I received an unexpected insight of my own, into some significant theological differences that separate Catholics and Protestants.

This particular person talked about how one of his friends had been saved in 1975, which was the year he was born. His salvation experience, obviously, came later. But his insight was how salvation is not really about a particular location in space and time, but rather is always linked to Christ, who is the one doing the salvation: which means that all salvation experiences transcend their particular moment in history and place to find union in the eternality of Christ, who of course is the one “doing” the saving.

As a Catholic, I don’t think about salvation as an experience I underwent. Sure, I had a profound experience of God’s work in my life when I was sixteen, and a concrete experience of repentance when I was 43. In evangelical terms, either of those experiences could be seen as “getting saved.” But my understanding of soteriology just isn’t wired that way. Ask me when I was saved, and I won’t say 1977 or 2004 — I’ll say “oh, around the year 33 AD, depending on how accurate our dating of the events in Christ’s life is.” In other words, like all Catholics, I understand my salvation as anchored in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, which happened at one discrete moment in history. To emphasize the time (or times) when I consciously accepted the free gift seems, to me, to focus on the recipient rather than the giver.

Now, set that line of thinking aside for a moment and consider the conflict over eucharistic theology between Catholics and Protestants. For Catholics, the mass is a sacrifice: a continuation of the eternal gift of Christ, a participation in Christ’s gift of his body and blood in the bread and wine of the last supper. When Christ said “do this in memory of me,” Catholics interpret “memory” as a sacrificial act, similar to usages of the words memory and memorial in a sacrificial context in the Old Testament (Leviticus 24:7; Numbers 10:10). Protestants, however, reject this theology, believing it subverts the teaching in the letter to the Hebrews that Christ’s death was a full and complete sacrifice that never needs to be repeated.

So both Protestants and Catholics see the once-and-for-all event of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection as extending beyond itself into time. But they do so in different ways. Where Catholics place emphasis on sacrifice-as-memorial, thereby justifying the idea that each mass is a continuation of the perfect sacrifice, Protestants place emphasis on salvation-as-experience, which leads to the idea that a person needs to have an experience of conversion or repentance in order to be truly saved.

I’m not interested in a dogfight over whose theology is right and whose is wrong. Rather, I think both Catholics and Protestants might find blessing in taking a step back from holding on to “our” theological positions so tightly, and considering how those with whom we disagree may actually be exploring the same mystery, in different ways. The mystery of which I speak concerns how a single mythic/historic event (Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection) can have both eternal and temporal meaning; how a single historical event can transcend its own particularity to infuse the entire cosmos with a renewed relationship with God (or, to put it in integral terms, a new level of sacred consciousness). Catholics approach this mystery through the sacrifice of the Eucharist; reformed Protestants approach it through the experience of salvation.

Salvation and sacrifice: eternally remembering. Maybe we are like blind men trying to describe an elephant?

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Peter

    As an ex-Catholic Protestant, I am reading Carl’s post here with interest. For some years now I have been aware of the inadequacy of the “magic spell” formula-based “salvation-experience” theology of many of my evangelical brethren. In fact, I can ask (along with Carl) whether my experience at 17 at the back of a Catholic chapel, surrendering my whole heart to Jesus, or my evangelical Jesus-people born-again confession and re-baptism about 5 years later, or my more recent experience of repentance through good gospel preaching, should be labeled as my “salvation” experience–and I can be content to answer, “None of the above.”

    I confess that my Protestant orientation is highly experience-based (to use Carl’s terms). But I am currently being convicted about this by the Holy Spirit, to the effect that I am renouncing the use of my experience as the primary criterion for judging the truths of God. I had not realized until recently how many tentacles this error has developed in my psyche, or how deep this repentance needs to go.

    While I’m not sure I will head in the direction of Catholic or Episcopal Eucharistic celebration, I am coming to honor the objective reality of the sacrifice of Jesus, not only for me but for all the world–independent (as it were) of my own subjective appropriation of the mystery. For a veteran Kierkegaardian, this is quite a step!

    I think I still believe that the subjective experience of Christ on the part of each believer is the same as the objective reality of the Church, that these are two sides of the same coin. But I am less and less willing to demand that the reality of the sacrifice of Christ conform to my perception of my needs, or how I think it is supposed to work, or indeed to my perception in any way at all! Jesus is the reality, the head of the Body; I am blessed and content to be a living part, drawing my life from Him, sharing His life in common with all the other members–including, I hasten to add, Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant members, emerging and monastic and (according to one of my obsessions) God-deliver-us-all-from-our-labels brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world. I appreciate the exposure to this contrast of views. I hope to learn from my brothers on the “other side” of this difference, even while I continue to hold (loosely and without hostility) to the treasure I have been given on this side, and to volunteer to share it wherever there seems to be interest.

    I believe–and I think Carl agrees–that this is the only way that we can continue to grow.

    Your brother in Christ,

  • MikeF

    Spealing for myself, Carl, when I approach the mystery of the Eucharist, and especially when I try to speak or write of it, I feel very much like a blind man encountering an elephant!

    Thinking about “how a single historical event can transcend its own particularity to infuse the entire cosmos with a renewed relationship with God…” I always find myself thinking on the one hand of Dali’s Crucifixion, and on the other of Paul’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me… for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” (Gal. 2.19-20; Col. 3.3-4)

    If my own life is now “hidden with Christ in God,” then in that sense what I truly am in Christ is hidden (kekruptai – “encrypted”) from me, as is the means of grace by which I got there!

  • MikeF

    I meant “speaking for myself!” – but “spealing” is an interesting new word, anyway ;-)

  • judith collier

    peter, i am impressed with your search. as to “renouncing the use of my experience as the primary criterion for judging the truths of god”,i wish you well.i was a cradle catholic for 31 years when i read a line from a biography of st. therese of liseaux(sp.) she made a statement that took me into another world,she said,”all our good god wants is the love of his created”.i responded with everything in me.the lord gave me so many experiences with him i would have to write a book.i spent 15 years figuring out what all of this meant.i went to every church i could find, read appx.4 books a week only to realize 30 years later he just plain loved me. i can go to any church i want, worship anyway i want and let him have his way with me. you will end up wherever he wants you.right now i am here. judy

  • zoecarnate

    Great thoughts, Carl. Thanks again for joining us for the night. That was wild, seeing my worlds collide like that. : )

  • Zion Mystic

    “So both Protestants and Catholics see the once-and-for-all event of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection as extending beyond itself into time. But they do so in different ways.”
    ooh, i hadn’t thought of it that way before! interesting!

  • Peter

    Thank you, judy. Yes, he just plain loves me. There is no need for comment on that, just an exuberant whole-hearted blubbering (if needed) response to that, saying “I love You too” in every way possible, mostly (as Carl keeps reminding me) by showing love to others in what I say to them and do for them–and what I receive from them too.

    My experience of His love for me is the center of my life, the essence behind my existence.

    I guess maybe letting go of my experience as the primary criterion is a way of “decreasing so he may increase.” I appreciate your searching too, and am glad to hear that you are willing to go with Him wherever He wants to take you.

    Blessings and love,

  • judith collier

    I’m feeling so very stupid at this moment.Can it be possible to take 30 years to realize what vanity consists of? Who is it in the bible that speaks of his wealth, etc. etc. and then says he came to the conclusion that “all is vanity”? I’ve only lately had insight into vanity and i am drenched in it, i think! My total personality would undergo a change. I do know i won’t be able to rid myself of this but as i stay aware of the Holy Spirit’s work in me and respond i will learn much,much more. this should be interesting. I’ve been on a plateau for quite awhile now and i can tell something is starting to move me again. I don’t mean literally. Coming closer to the Lord or should i say being drawn closer is never ending. judy