The extraordinary claim of Catholicism is that God became a man to save human beings from the devastating consequences of sin. It is no wonder then that the subject of salvation is of great interest and importance for theologians and lay Catholics alike.
The study of salvation is called soteriology. I hope that the following work will provide an introduction to this significant subject. I will define and examine soteriology and discuss how Christ made salvation possible. Lastly, I will discuss what it means to be saved, what is necessary for our salvation, and the connection between faith and works.
Christology is that part of theology that concerns itself with the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. It also includes such aspects of Christ’s life as the incarnation and resurrection.
Under the umbrella of Christology is soteriology. Soteriology treats Christ’s work of salvation. As such, it studies God’s plan, purpose, and actions in saving humanity from the effects of sin. Soteriology also encompasses the fall of man and sin in general. Also included within the purview of soteriology is the study of why human beings require a savior and how human beings are justified and sanctified.
How Christ Effectuated our Salvation
Before explaining how Christ has made salvation possible, it should be made clear why human beings require redemption.
Prior to original sin and in accord with God’s plan, human beings existed in a state of righteousness with God. Original sin was an act of disobedience against God, which had two effects. The first is to destroy that state of righteousness, thus removing humanity from its blessid union with God and condemning humanity to the second death, eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23). The second effect is to incur debt with God by acting against His will.
However, because human beings are now sinful, they cannot satisfactorily pay the debt owed to God for sin. It is conceivable that God could have unconditionally forgiven humanity for original sin. However, to do so would have been an affront to Divine justice.
The solution is the God-man, who is Jesus Christ. Because Jesus has a sinless human nature, He can make atonement for humanity. Because Jesus has a Divine nature, He can forgive sin and reconcile human beings with God. It is through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection that salvation is made possible. Jesus takes upon Himself our sin and pays the price owed for sin by His death. The resurrection means that Jesus has defeated death and provided the pathway to eternal life (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Simply put, Jesus has reconciled God and man through His death and resurrection and made salvation a gift offered to us by God (Romans 5:15-18).
Yet, it is evident from scripture that we must cooperate with God in order to be saved (Titus 2:11). This cooperation is a process, and it is to this process that I turn to next.
The Process of Salvation
To best understand the Church’s teaching on salvation, it is helpful to view salvation as a process encompassing three stages. The first step is justification. Justification occurs as a result of God freely offering His grace to us (Romans 5:20). Because of God’s grace, one becomes a child of God at his baptism. In being baptized, one dies to himself and is born again in Christ.
The second stage is sanctification. This is the process whereby one grows in righteousness and involves living according to the spirit and not the flesh (Galatians 6:7). This stage does require our cooperation with grace. For to live according to the spirit is to engage in prayer, fasting, and acts of charity. As the word cooperation connotes free will, human beings are always in a position to reject God’s gift of grace.
The third and final stage is to persevere in God’s grace. Saint Paul puts it this way “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14).
This process provides the template for our salvation, but what does it mean to be saved? It is to that topic that I turn to next.
What Does it Mean to be Saved?
It is not uncommon for non-Catholics to ask whether Catholics are saved. It is also not uncommon for Catholics to struggle with the answer.
The difficulty lies in the fact that salvation is not a one-time fixed event.
Ultimately the Catholic response to whether we are saved can be stated thusly; I am already saved (Romans 8:24). I am also being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 2:15). I have the hope that I will be saved (Romans 5:9–10, 1 Corinthians 3:12–15).
While the work of Jesus has made our salvation possible, the application of that salvation to each individual requires human cooperation with grace.
What is Necessary for our Salvation
A false yet most frequently repeated criticism of Catholic soteriology is that the Church teaches a doctrine of salvation by works. This accusation has been consistently condemned. “If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or by the teaching of the Law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Session 6; canon 1).
Catholic theology reflects the biblical teaching of the relationship between the grace of God that is needed for our salvation and the good works that God requires as evidence of obedience to His commands (Matthew 6:1-21, 1 Corinthians 3:8, 13-15).
God offers His grace to effectuate our salvation. Human beings are free to accept or reject this gift. An acceptance of this gift means that we cooperate with the will of God.
Since salvation concerns itself with our ultimate destiny, there can be no more important subject than soteriology.
In the preceding paper, I have endeavored to provide an introduction to one of the most important subjects in theology. I have defined soteriology and shown how Christ has made salvation possible. I have suggested that salvation is a process and conveyed what it means to be saved. Finally, I have reviewed what is necessary for our salvation.