Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

What Does it Mean to Be Saved?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 01, 2011


A point that confuses both Catholics and Protestants is what Scripture means when it speaks of “salvation” or being “saved”. Protestants, following Luther, often think that being saved in Scripture refers to making it to heaven, without reference to membership in the Church. They further frequently suggest that all that is necessary to be saved is to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior, who covers over one’s sins. Catholics, on the other hand, have traditionally regarded salvation as coming through the Church, and sometimes believe that those who have not become formal members of the Church cannot be saved.

Both groups also frequently misapply common Biblical passages in the same way. For example, they cite Our Lord’s saying that “Many are called but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14) to prove that relatively few people are saved. Or they may cite the dictum “Strive to enter by the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Lk 13:24), and similar passages from St. Matthew’s gospel (e.g., Mt 17:13-14). The most important confusion in all this is that when the New Testament refers to the path to life, it is often referring not to heaven but to the Church; and when it talks about “salvation” or being “saved”, it may be referring either to gaining heaven or to entering the Church. (It is also worth noting that, in the Old Testament, the idea of being “saved” very commonly refers to rescue from the evils of this life.)

Turning to St. Paul

St. Paul wrote the textbook on salvation, but one must be careful of two things. The first is context. In some passages, Paul is clearly talking about membership in the Church; in others, he is referring to eternal life; yet he uses the same root term, which we translate by salvation, save or saved. The second is that Paul frequently shifts between what we may call a “focused” and a “factual” view (here I am following the terminology of an outstanding Scripture scholar, the late Fr. William G. Most).

For example, in the focused view he might talk about the impossibility of being saved under the Law, because the Law qua law has no saving power and does not lead to life. In this focused view, considering the Law as a system, it cannot offer salvation. But in another passage, emphasizing a broader actual, or factual, view of how grace works among men in all ages, St. Paul will teach that many Jews who do not know Christ do in fact attain heaven, and Gentiles also, because regardless of the specific system one finds oneself in, the Holy Spirit is at work, and some form of salvific grace—all of which is available by virtue of Christ—is given. It just doesn’t come through the Law (or, for gentiles) through any particular human belief or practice.

It is not possible to treat these questions thoroughly in one brief article. A book by Fr. Most that I have mentioned before, The Thought of St. Paul: A Commentary on the Pauline Epistles, provides the definitive commentary for this purpose, just as his earlier landmark work, Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God: New Answers to Old Questions, is the definitive study of how grace works.

But I can highlight a few key areas in St. Paul so the reader can trust these assertions generally. Take, for example, Romans 9:27, 10:10, 11:14 and 11:25-26. Here they all are, in order:

  • “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved’.” (Rom 9:27)
  • “For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.” (Rom 10:10)
  • “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous and thus save some of them.” (Rom 11:13-14)
  • “Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved.” (Rom 11:25-26)

The Meaning of “salvation” and “saved”

Conditioned as we are by our modern use of the word “saved”, these passages all seem to refer to eternal salvation. Yet note the contrast between the first and third passage, on the one hand, and the fourth on the other. In the first and third, Paul says only a remnant or “some” will be saved; in the final instance, he says “all Israel will be saved.” This is because throughout the preceding passages in Romans, St. Paul is using “saved” to refer to membership in the Chosen People, the People of God, which is now shifting from the Jews to those who respond to God’s “call”. This word “call” is always used by St. Paul to mean the invitation to become a member of Christ, that is, to join the Church. It is not that most of Israel will be damned and at the same time all Israel will attain eternal life. Rather, Isaiah's prophecy foresees that only a remnant of Israel will (initially) become members of the Church, but Paul sees further and records that, in God's Providential plan, the Gentiles will prepare the way for “all Israel” to enter the Church (though, of course, exactly what this means remains a mystery).

If we turn now to the second passage, we see that it is the key to the others. For in many places, St. Paul states clearly that unless we are like Christ (his great syn Christo theme) we will not inherit eternal life. It is never enough, as the Gospel of Matthew points out (7:21), just to say “Lord, Lord”. Moreover, Paul had clearly stated earlier in Romans that even some of the Gentiles would be saved without explicit adherence to Christ:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my Gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom 2:14-16)

So now we begin to see that Romans 10:10, like the verses cited before and after it, refers to membership in the Church: “For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.” In other words, by our formal confession with our lips we are brought into full communion with the Church. But some who do not confess with their lips will attain eternal life, and not all who confess with their lips will get that far.

Eternal Life

By contrast, in other passages St. Paul clearly has eternal salvation in mind when he talks about being saved or obtaining salvation, and when he does speak in that context, he gives quite a different picture. For example, we have his exhortation to the Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)

Here he is clearly referring not to membership in the Church but to the continuing an often difficult process of working toward one’s ultimate salvation—one’s entry into eternal life—through faithfulness to the spirit of Christ day by day. Nothing could be farther from the typical Protestant misunderstanding of attaining eternal life through a one-time acceptance of Christ as one’s personal savior.

The Epistle to the Romans is Paul’s masterwork on being incorporated into Christ. This, he teaches, is achieved by following the Spirit of Christ as the Holy Spirit writes it upon our hearts, whether or not we know enough to become a professed Christian or a formal member of the Church, explicitly. Of course he also presses the importance of the Church at every turn, an importance I have frequently stressed elsewhere. But Romans is an exceedingly difficult book, not only because Paul typically jumps rapidly from point to point (and this, surely, is partly because he dictated his letters, hence composing them orally on the fly), but because as need arises he switches between what we have called the focused and the factual view.

For example, in the passages in which Paul expresses his frustration that so many Jews are failing to remain part of the People of God by refusing to join the Church—and in contrasting this membership in Christ with being under the Law—Paul normally relies on the focused view. As we saw earlier, the Law as such cannot produce life. But in contrast, the Church as such is fail-safe. The Church cannot produce anything but life! Again, Fr. Most also refers to this as the “system as system” view. It reveals both the salvific power of the Body of Christ and the tremendous advantage of being joined explicitly to it in the Church.

But in the broader, or factual view, some in the Church will resist and ultimately reject the manifold graces God offers through the Church, and so they will be eternally lost. And in similar fashion, as we have already seen, some who are not formally members of the Church, will be substantially joined to her and achieve final salvation because, by responding to the Spirit of Christ offered by the Holy Spirit in their lives, they will mysteriously join themselves to Christ, and hence have some place in His Body the Church.

Carefully, Very Carefully

It goes without saying that this discussion provides an additional key lesson. How carefully must we approach the Word of God! We must approach it humbly, not insisting that it means what we come to it thinking it ought to mean. We must study it thoroughly. And we must be attentive to the teachings of the Church, to whom alone the Sacred Scriptures have been entrusted. In doing this last, we will find keys in Magisterial teaching for understanding difficult and sometimes apparently contradictory texts, such as (in this case) the teachings of Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis Christi, the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium, and Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio, all of which develop our understanding of how salvation works, and so make it easier to keep up with St. Paul in his earlier explanation of the same thing.

It also goes without saying, or so I hope, that we do well to reflect on what the Church teaches about the ways in which we can ultimately be separated from Christ, even though we retain a formal membership in His Church. Truly, we must all work out our salvation in fear and trembling, freely allowing God to work in us, for His good pleasure. And if we remain receptive to her teachings and her sacraments—to all the Church’s means of grace—then the Church cannot engender anything in us but holiness and eternal life. In this focused view, the two meanings of the word salvation merge.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 04, 2011 8:12 PM ET USA

    Augustine, no stranger to the concept of grace: "Outside of the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honor, one can have the sacraments, one can sing the alleluia, one can answer Amen, one can have the Gospel, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church." It is the new ecumenism, now devoid of the imperative to join the Catholic Church, that is problematic.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 04, 2011 8:57 AM ET USA

    Sometimes we Catholics are prone to obsess about the particulars- indulgences, sacramentals, daily Mass attendance etc. in working towards our salvation and to be less attentive to some fundamentals. Protestants speak of a "personal relationship" with Our Lord; and while many saints were elevated to great levels in this regard by cooperation with God's love, often we prove lacking in our comportment despite meeting or exceeding our participation requirements. I hope the point is not ill-taken.