Wednesday, December 18, 2019

We are "Saved in Hope"

"Are you 'saved'?"

When Evangelicals ask this question to faithful, devout, and well-instructed Catholic Christians, the Catholics sometimes feel like they have been "cornered." On the one hand, the question seems intent on probing whether someone who claims to be a Christian is in fact a true disciple of Jesus Christ, a believer whose life is being transformed by the grace of God. On the other hand, the question feels "loaded" (not without reason): the whole doctrinal controversy over sola fide, sola gratiae, etc. seems contained in it.

When confronted with this question — at work, school, or social events, not to mention on the street or at one's front door — Catholic Christians often don't know how to respond. We definitely want to affirm with joy the free grace of God given to us through the Cross of Jesus Christ, who has delivered us from sin and death and made us a new creation. But we also want to avoid any impression that we think the grace of Christ is a "thing" given to us "in a box" that we can stick on a shelf without heeding it further.

We want to avoid presumption; we do not want to discount the importance of free will, or the role of good works and perseverance in attaining the fullness of our promised inheritance in Christ. Not only the Council of Trent and the whole tradition, but also the New Testament require this. The ancient faith handed on from Apostolic times — the faith of the martyrs, the Church Fathers, the great saints over the course of 2000 years — embraces the mystery of salvation with a fullness and richness that correspond to a vision of Christian life as engaging and transforming the whole person. Indeed, our Evangelical brothers and sisters who really pray and meditate on the Scriptures "know" this in their hearts and live it out practically, even if some feel the need to cling to certain polemically-generated theological formulations that oversimplify or fail to do justice to the "mystical depth" (and personal depth) of the whole Christian experience.

I mean no condescension by this last statement; people's articulated adherence to different "faith-traditions" (and the statements and outlook considered essential to their historic raisons d'être) emerges from complex historical events and personal experiences, in which profound truths are often interwoven with expressions, practices, attitudes, etc, of lesser value. As Christians who desire the unity that Jesus wills for all of us, we seek to grow together through prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who continually renews and purifies us in mind and heart.

But to return to the original question: "Are we 'saved'?"

Some Evangelicals assert that "accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Savior" means that I affirm as an intellectual conviction — with absolute subjective certainty, here and now, while I am still living this earthly life, while I still follow Jesus on the arduous "narrow path" of my life's vocation — that I will definitely go to heaven when I die. They claim that what I must believe, without question, is that I am among the final elect — they say that this conviction follows from believing that the omnipotent God, through the blood of Christ, atones for all my sins and constitutes Himself as my righteousness. In their view, to imply that any actions or cooperation might be required of me, that I must "live out my faith" in order to arrive at eternal salvation, indicates something less than total confidence in (and total submission to) the power of God in Christ.

The implication is that I am not a true Christian — that I do not "really" have faith — unless I am intellectually infallibly convinced that the whole existential drama of my life and freedom is over, that my place is absolutely secure without reference to what kind of a person I might become in the future, as if the perfection of my freedom is of no concern to God and irrelevant to my identity as a child of God. This is what some Evangelicals assert conceptually and debate theologically.

Obviously this is not the Catholic Christian teaching about faith. It is also difficult to see how it can be reconciled with the multitude of exhortations (and warnings) directed at believing Christians throughout the New Testament. Indeed this debate today is carried out quite frequently among Evangelicals themselves, across a spectrum of opinions from Luther and Calvin to Arminius, Wesley, the Pentecostal movement, and other contemporary views.

It is important to realize that Evangelical Protestants argue about these (and many other) points. Being a "Bible Christian" is much more complicated than it may appear to be. What is also important, however, is the observation that sincere, practical, prayerful Evangelicals — whatever theoretical position they may hold on these classical Protestant debates — generally live their lives with a real and vital love for Christ, a passion to follow Him and do His will, a de facto sense that their actions (good or bad, virtuous or sinful) really do matter in the eyes of God, and a healthy inclination to honor those who have served the Lord courageously and faithfully.

One concern that we might identify as a motivation for the "are-you-saved?-question" is the determination to insure that all glory is given to God. The questioner may also be trying to distinguish between someone who is a real believer and a genuine committed disciple of Jesus, and someone who is just an "admirer" of Christ and holds a loose, vague ideal of Christian "humanitarianism." Too many people think that Christianity is about a distant God, a more-or-less "mythical" Christ, and a strict moral code. Evangelicals see that such a mentality betrays the Gospel. They want to propose a vital Christianity in which the saving power of God in Jesus Christ and our total dependence on Him are affirmed without ambiguity and with all the strength they deserve. And to ensure the recognition that God's power is life-changing, that it really "matters" to life right now.

Catholic Christians also want to affirm this. I don't want to pretend there are no real theoretical and practical differences here, but simply to point out that there is much we have in common.

So, ... are we "saved" by grace? Now?

"In hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance" (Romans 8:24-25).

What is St Paul's phrase? We are "saved in hope" — and hope is a gift from God that generates a living adherence in us, the trust engendered within a relationship with Jesus. Our salvation is "within a relationship" that does exist "now." We are also empowered to live our lives within that relationship. God "saves us" by embracing us as real human persons; He embraces our whole personality, which precisely "now" is that of a free-person-living-within-history. Salvation is the work of His grace, but He does not save puppets. He saves persons, and His power is at work "inside" the life of the person, "within" the very freedom itself of the person and within the history in which possibilities for freedom — for self-giving love — continue to unfold.

"Everything is grace..." These are the words of one of Catholic Christianity's greatest witnesses to the Gospel: Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

Everything really is grace, because our Christian life as it grows through the personal history of our earthly vocation — and all our good works — are the fruit of grace, the grace that is transforming us and enabling us to participate in the life of God. Grace precedes, accompanies, and brings to fulfillment every good action but in a way that makes them also really "our own" acts.

God creates us as free persons, and in Christ He recreates us as redeemed persons in relationship with Himself (a "relationship" with the Trinity as children of the Father through Jesus in the Holy Spirit).

It is a "new life" in the Spirit that begins now. We are certain of Jesus Christ, of His presence in our lives, of His saving love for us. We Catholic Christians need to speak personally about Jesus as the center of life, and look at our own lives and find how this relationship shapes our lives. And if our lives lack that vital interest, that affection for Christ — that adherence that changes the way we see reality, the way we judge things and value things — then we need to ask Him to convert our hearts and open our eyes. Dialogue with non-Catholic Christians can be an occasion to reflect more on how much we really depend — totally — on Jesus.

For me, one of the difficulties with the question "Am I 'saved'?" is that I feel like it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It implies that in order to have confidence in God, I have to find some kind of absolute certainty inside my own narrow self-understanding, my own convictions about myself, my own subjective attitude which is so often mediated to my consciousness through a jumble of psychological issues, shifting emotions, and so many other limitations involved with being human.

Ultimately the confidence and strength of my life are not drawn from (or dependent on) ideas about myself, impressions, emotions, or any process of self-discovery.

My confidence is in God, because of Jesus Christ.

I know that I belong to Jesus Christ. He died on the Cross for me, He rose from the dead for me, He is my Lord, my Savior, my Redeemer, my Hope. HE is the meaning of my life. I was created to belong to Him, to be His brother, and through Him to be an adopted son of the Father in the Holy Spirit.

I want to look at Jesus, and I pray for the grace to remember Jesus and trust Jesus.

Jesus is here for me and He is ever faithful. I trust in Him. I don't "see" and there is much that I need to "endure with patience," but in hope I look forward to fulfilling my personal vocation in the time — the "history" — that it encompasses in God's plan. My hope is in the working of the Holy Spirit who comes to lead me and empower me — in the whole of my human personal reality — with an awakened and increasing freedom to be conformed to Christ, to love God and other persons through a genuine gift of myself. By this path of faith working through love — a path planned by God, given by God, and enabled and sustained by God as the path of salvation in Jesus Christ for me as a person — I hope to arrive at eternal fulfillment in Him.

I hope in Jesus who is my Salvation. I rejoice in that hope, even as I long to see His face, and I pray and beg Him to remind me again when I forget. I do not seek to be either presumptuous or anxious about myself, but rather to live in relationship with Him, to press onward toward Him, trusting in Him, staying with Him, turning back to Him if I forget and wander off, always depending entirely on Him, Jesus, my Lord, my God who came into the world to save me, and who comes as the Risen One, through the Holy Spirit, into the history of my life to accompany me step by step on the road to the Father's house.

I don't know if my Evangelical interlocutors would regard this as an answer to the question "Are you 'saved'?" I would be glad, however, if they recognized that I am a Christian, and that I am their brother.

[This text is a work "in progress" that will be continued....]