When I began my ministry in Arkansas, I found myself being asked a question that is commonly asked in these parts: Are you saved?
My first reaction was to wonder what was meant by asking me this question. I do believe that I am already saved, as the apostle Paul teaches us in Romans 8:24 and in Ephesians 2:5-8, but I also believe that I am being saved, as Paul teaches us as well in his letters to the Corinthians and Philippians (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; Phil. 2:12). And I strive to keep alive the gift of hope that I will be saved as Paul teaches in his letters to the Romans 5:9-10 and 1 Corinthians 3:12-15.
In Paul’s words, I am working out my salvation everyday in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12) with the firm hope in the promises of Christ (Rom. 5:2; 2 Tim 2:11-13).
Yet some Christians believe that all they have to do is “accept Christ as their personal Savior,” and it’s done. But Scripture teaches that our final salvation depends on the spiritual state of our lives at the moment of our death. Jesus himself addresses this when he states, “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13; 25:31–46). Whoever dies in the state of friendship with God will partake of the glory of heaven (eternal and perfect communion with God).
Therefore, a person who dies in a state of enmity and rebellion against God will not be able to share in God’s divine and eternal glory.
But this is a point often misunderstood: by saying this, I am not denying the perfect and redemptive salvation accomplished by Christ for the entire human race. Rather, I assume in line with Scripture that my participation in what Christ achieved for us all is contingent on my personal response.
It is true that Christ died once and for all and is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, but it does not mean that there is no process by which this is applied to us as individuals. Otherwise we would have been saved and justified from all eternity with no need to repent or have faith or anything else. We would have been born saved (past, present and future), with no need to be reborn again through faith and baptism.
Yet as we nourish our minds and hearts with God’s divine word, we come to our senses, and in humble attitude and sincerity of heart we repent, we surrender to God’s divine mercy and love and we amend our lives.
We become like the prodigal son, who, after realizing how much he truly lost by leaving his father’s side, came to his senses, returned to his father and was reconciled and able to enjoy the life he once had before but with a much greater attitude, an attitude of thanksgiving and of love.
This is why the Catholic Church holds that “the good works of the justified are always the fruit of grace. But at the same time, and without in any way diminishing the totally divine initiative, they are also the fruit of man, justified and internally transformed. We can therefore say that eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits. This doctrine results from the interior transformation of man.”
Accepting Jesus Christ is only the first step in our faith journey. Living out that faith is the remainder of our journey. Paul understood this in his letter to the Philippians (2:12) by working out our salvation with fear and trembling, that is, with a sense of awe and seriousness in God’s service. If he believed that salvation was a certain element through faith alone he would not have directed them to work out their salvation; instead he would have merely assured them of their place in heaven.