WATCH OR READ: What Does Salvation Even Mean?

We are saved from sin and for life in the family of God. In order to enter into this reality, we have to come to grips with the reality of the problem of sin, as well as the true grandeur of what God has done for us.

Believers tend to have a greater cognizance of the reality of sin — of original sin and its ongoing influence over our lives. For the secular world, however, sin is often explained away in terms of a bad example, lack of education, or an inadequate social structure. While these explanations have some truth in them, they don’t do full justice to the reality of the problem (see CCC 387). After all, sin is not merely an intellectual problem — we often know what we should do and still fail to do it.

The Reality of Sin

Original sin refers to the fallen nature we inherit — a deep dysfunction within the human race. The animal world tends to operate on instinct, acting in accordance with its particular animal nature. For example, a wren generally builds its nest year after year according to its kind. In contrast, consider the vast diversity of human dwellings at present and throughout history. This diversity of human behavior shows that while sometimes instinct is operative, we clearly also have the presence of reason and free will — something lacking in the animal world (and hence the uniformity of animal behavior according to instinct).

The Addiction of Sin

This difference gives rise to both the possibility of human grandeur and human depravity (i.e., animals won’t ever paint the Sistine Chapel, but nor will they perform the extreme acts of wickedness that have marked human history).

In creating free human beings, God took the risk of love: for us to encounter him in a relationship of love, we must be free; but this freedom comes at a price and a risk — giving rise to the possibility that we might misuse our freedom.

When we consider original sin, The Lord of the Rings trilogy offers a powerful analogy — for the ring, though attractive, quickly takes over many a life (the power of the ring is like the power of sin). Sin is like an addiction, a force that draws us in, promising instant happiness, but yet leading to an unsettled and unfulfilled heart.

Conscience Is Not Enough

If the unbeliever looks deep within his or her heart in a searching manner, they will likely notice that they often have desires which are not in line with right reason — hence, it is often difficult to do the right thing. When our reason is at odds with our passions and desires, we have two options: we can realign our desires with right reason; or, as happens more often than not, we can devise “reasons” to justify doing what we want to do (i.e., rationalization).

This common phenomenon shows just how precarious the clarity and power of human conscience truly is: on the one hand, we can rightly see in it the voice of God; on the other hand, we can very easily twist and distort its ability to see the truth and follow it through. In other words, it’s all too easy for our consciences to be dulled over time and get “used” to sin. Consider the first time you did something that beforehand you couldn’t possibly imagine yourself doing; while it was really hard the first time, the prick of conscience gets a little softer and a little less poignant with each subsequent time — to the point where, after a while, it may no longer bother you at all.

The Reality of Salvation

In becoming man, God enters our mess — he becomes one of us in Jesus Christ; he enters into our dysfunction and dies our death. Jesus becomes the bridge between God and man, sharing in our humanity in order to infuse it with his divinity.

There are two issues which God wishes to attend to: we need to be forgiven of our sin and healed of the wounds caused by our sin. Our choices are not merely external to us; our sin wounds us in the process — for we are constantly becoming a certain kind of person through our choices. Whenever we feed a habit — good or bad — it gets stronger each time. Sin, as an addiction, grows in its dominion over us each time we give into it.

To use an analogy, if our sins are represented by nails in a piece of wood, then forgiveness is signified by the removal of the nails. But even after the nails have been removed, we are still left with holes in the wood — these holes then represent the way in which sin wounds us.

If forgiveness is signified by the removal of the nails, then God’s filling in the holes signifies his work of healing in our lives. For God wishes not only to forgive, but to heal and ultimately transform.

Why the Cross?

God could have simply declared us forgiven; he didn’t have to die on the Cross as a matter of strict necessity. The fact that he did so is because the true and living God wills to get into our mess — he doesn’t just announce decrees from afar. The Cross demonstrates two powerful things: it shows us the true gravity of sin — for the wages of sin are death. Sin is a disintegrating force — it destroys the harmony within our souls, as well as leading to the dissolution of our bodies (the separation of body and soul). Salvation, then, restores the unity within ourselves and overcomes the ultimate evil which we perpetually face — death itself.

The second thing the Cross shows us is the unfathomable depth of God’s love. Since the Cross is not necessary in terms of strict justice, it is ultimately the gift of love — the gift of love from the Son to the Father on our behalf (as well as the Son’s gift of himself to us).

The Catechism points to four reasons why God became man, which can readily be applied to the Cross:

  1. to reconcile us to the Father (while the Cross is not necessary in terms of strict justice, it’s fitting that God would provide a way for us to atone for our sin — it’s fitting that God would enable us to make things right;
  2. that we might know God’s love;
  3. to be our model of holiness (the human vocation is to love and make a gift of ourselves, which is quintessentially manifest on the Cross [see John 15:13]); and
  4. that we might become partakers in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4 and CCC 457-460).

A New Birth

This last item points to the ultimate reality of what salvation is all about. While sin has to be dealt with, the final goal is for us to share in divine life (see CCC 654). Salvation is not a mere legal acquittal. Salvation is an adoption into the divine family, making us sons and daughters in and through the Eternal Son. In other words, salvation is familial — not primarily juridical.

For this reason, God wishes not only to forgive and pardon, but to heal and transform. In this latter movement, he heals and elevates our fallen nature to participate in divine life. Moral perfection in the natural order couldn’t earn one drop of this divine life — this sharing in God’s own trinitarian life.

Salvation is about far more than a judge acquitting a defendant. Salvation is about God becoming man and dying our death and rising to new life — and sending the Holy Spirit to empower us to the do the same. God empowers us to love in a divine way and pours his life into us. Salvation is about the gift of divine life in a new birth and the maturation of this life, as we are ever more fully conformed to Jesus Christ (see Romans 8:29).

He Became Human So We May Become Divine

By nature, we are mere servants and creatures of the Most High. By the grace of Christ, we become sons and daughters in the Son — such that God the Father looks down upon us and loves us as he loves his only begotten Son.

This is the reality of grace: it is not just God’s favor; it is the gift of divine life, enabling us to participate in a dimension of reality that would be otherwise inaccessible.

In other words, the movement of salvation is a matter of condescension and elevation — in Greek, katabasis and anabasis. Christianity is not about man’s search for God, but God’s search for man — about a God who is so madly in love with us that he emptied himself to unite himself to us in our dysfunction and misery (see Philippians 2:5-11). In Christ, we have the marriage of divinity and humanity; as we said above, he took on our humanity in order to infuse us with his divinity.

Elevating Human Nature

Sin separates us from God — not because God doesn’t want us to be with him, but because of the very nature of things: sin (or any vestiges of sin) inherently hinders our full communion with the all-holy God. God seeks to remove sin and its vestiges — to forgive and heal us — in order to facilitate greater communion with him and thereby our greater happiness.

He elevates our nature to participate in his divinity in order that we may be sons and daughters, friends of the Most High God (see John 15:15). By sharing his divine life with us, we come to share in his own blessed life — his happiness and holiness.

The elevation of human nature is like a stained glass window: it’s beautiful by itself without sunlight (i.e., human nature); but it’s incredibly more radiant when illumined by the sun (human nature elevated by grace).

Forgiveness, Healing, and Transformation

Similarly, we always remain human; but the grace of God heals and elevates our human nature so that we may participate in the divine perfection of God himself — just as a metal rod placed in a fire begins to take on the properties of the fire, even if it does not have these qualities on its own.

Too often, we reduce salvation merely to forgiveness of sin; it is far more than that — it is participation in divine life, one that also brings about deep healing which leads to a deeper, more fulfilled life in this age and the next. Sin, at its root, makes us sad and turns us inward. The grace of God forgives, heals, and transforms us into divine-like lovers, turning us outward and enabling us to make a gift of our lives in love — that he may increase and we may decrease (see John 3:30).

As a Father, God loves us just the way we are, but too much to leave us that way.

This appeared at Ascension.

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.