Beth Haile always writes excellent posts, and I benefit a great deal from reading them. I particularly enjoy her commentaries on the lectionary. In her most recent commentary, Haile recounts a story that her priest told during his homily. The story involves an encounter with an “Evangelical” Christian. Haile describes her reaction to the story as follows:
It was an uncomfortable story for me, and I imagine many others in the congregation. In Texas, there is a lot of evangelizing going on, and while the conversations can be pleasant, more often than not they end as this priest’s did, with the evangelizer asking if the person was “saved.” The priest related the man’s words, “Unless you have a personal relationship with Jesus, you are going to burn in hell!”
Haile proceeds to contrast the just mentioned view with the Catholic view, noting that, from the Catholic standpoint, “the question about whether a person is saved or not is really not a good question” and this for the very sensible reason that Catholics do not presume to know “who, if anyone is in hell.”
One implication that could be drawn from Haile’s argument, then, is that the source of discomfort and unpleasantness in encounters wherein Evangelicals seek to evangelize Catholics is profound theological disagreement with regard to the nature of salvation, and I think that there may indeed be numerous instances in which such is the case. The Catholic and the Evangelical simply believe fundamentally different things about what salvation is and how it works. However, in this post I wish to draw attention to an alternative set of cases. I think that it often happens that Catholics and Evangelicals agree with each other far more than the meanings they respectively assign to words allows them to recognize.
Whenever an Evangelical asks me if I am saved, I ask him or her to restate the question using clearer language. After repeatedly following this procedure, I concluded that often times the nature of the question the Evangelical intends to ask is similar to the question of whether or not one is married. One is either married or one is not. To be married is an absolute state not subject to gradation. There is no such thing as “kind of married” or “half-married.” I think that what a fair number of Evangelicals mean by the question “are you saved,” then, is “do you have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ,” as noted earlier by Haile. However, I think that to the Catholic mind the question “are you saved” is interpreted as “are you holy?” Returning to the marriage analogy, the Catholic does not hear the question “are you married” but rather “are you a good spouse?” More precisely, given the Catholic views regarding salvation and sanctification, the Catholic hears “are you a perfect spouse who has been cleansed from every fault and blemish?”
Notice the potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication here. To the Evangelical mind, the Catholic who states that he or she does not know whether he or she is saved is saying that he or she does not know whether or not he or she has a relationship with God. The Evangelical, then, is understandably perplexed by what he or she interprets as the Catholic’s total misunderstanding of the nature of God’s grace and love. But this is not what the Catholic who properly understands his or her own doctrines intends to say. As Haile rightly observes, the Catholic “emphasis on good actions is not about earning God’s grace, but rather, accepting God’s grace as merciful love and offering that same merciful love to those around us.” The Catholic, on the other hand, thinks that when the Evangelical confidently proclaims his or her salvation he or she is attesting to a capped off level of moral perfection and holiness he or she has already, and rather easily, attained in this life. But the Evangelical who properly understands his or her own doctrines does not intend to say that. Rather, the Evangelical understands holiness as a legal fiction God imputes to us through faith in the Blood of the Lamb. Whether this initial fiction must become a reality through the appropriation of Christ’s grace in order for salvation to be complete is the real point of disagreement. However, the discussion rarely makes it that far, because the two sides have not understood each other well enough to properly understand the nature of their disagreements. Sometimes I wonder whether they really care to understand.
This being stated, I do not think that there is anything wrong with the question “are you saved” just like I do not think there is anything wrong with the question “are you married.” They are both perfectly reasonable questions to ask someone and they both request simple yes or no answers. I don’t think Catholics should hesitate about saying “yes, I am saved” when that means incorporated into the Body of Christ through the superabundant grace obtained on Calvary, forgiven for my sins, and returned to right relationship with God through Christ. However, Evangelicals should recognize that, just as “are you married” is a very different question than “are you a perfect spouse,” so “are you saved” is a very different question from “have you benefited from Christ’s grace as much as you should have? Have you attained holiness?” Perhaps from there the two could move to a more edifying conversation about their respective views regarding the role of good works and character in the Christian life.
One last point and I am finished. I think that Haile is absolutely correct to contrast the Catholic view of hope with the “Unless you have a personal relationship with Jesus, you are going to burn in hell” point of view. One of the recognitions that inspired my own transition from the Evangelical faith in which I was raised to the Catholic faith is that the Catholic is more interested in pursuing heaven than avoiding hell. Intentional or not, the import of statements like the one recounted by Haile’s priest is that Heaven is desirable mainly as an alternative to damnation. This is an inversion. In truth, heaven is a reality so pulsating and actual that it demands the lion’s share of our attention. Heaven is the object of our journey. As a shadow is to a person, so hell is only intelligible as the deprivation of that joy for which we were created and to which all are called.
When I was enlisted in the Air Force, I was stationed in Texas. It was my first time outside of a mostly Catholic environment. I heard the “Are you saved?” question often throughout those four years. This essay is the best explanation about it that I’ve ever read. Thanks!
Thank you for reading it and for commenting. I’m glad you found it helpful. Also, thank you for your service!
This is a really nice, thoughtful post, Andrew! Maybe we can have some evangelicals weigh in (and by the way, if you are an evangelical reader, welcome!). I am not a convert and certainly not an expert on evangelical theology (though I married one) but I think that even IF we clarify the language (and the spousal metaphor is helpful), there are still substantive, perhaps irreconcilable differences between Catholics and evangelicals on the question of salvation. Many of the evangelicals I speak to are insistent that actions have nothing to do with salvation. Salvation is only a question of, to use your analogy, whether or not you are married. The only relevant issue as far as salvation goes is the personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The way it has been explained to me is that upon accepting Jesus into one’s heart as your Lord and savior, you become a saved sinner. You are still a sinner and always will be, but when God sees you, he sees the righteousness of his son and so regards you as righteous. For the Catholic on the other hand, salvation involves an ontological change whereby the sinner is made righteous. This is, of course, through God’s grace, but for the Catholic, actions really do matter because through God’s grace, they are meritorious as far as salvation goes. God doesn’t just regard you as righteous or see you through the lens of Jesus’ own righteousness; rather, He makes you into what Christ is.
Part of the difference too I think pertains to the question of just how sinful (or separate from God) the person is to begin with, prior to entering a relationship with Jesus. Speaking to evangelicals, I get the sense that the separation is infinite. A person is pretty much damned unless they accept Jesus in their hearts. Catholics, I think, see the person prior to a relationship with Christ as somewhere in between damned and saved. Nobody is totally separate from God’s grace, which is why agnosticism with regards to a person’s final destiny (even a person who rejected Christ on his or her death bed) is so important.
Thanks again for your response and for helping me understand evangelical culture better!
Thanks for your comment, and for your original post with which this conversation, or at least this piece of the conversation, originated. I, too, would like to continue the discussion whether among fellow Catholics, Evangelicals, or whoever has something to say on the subject. I certainly did not mean to imply that there are not real and important differences between Catholic and Evangelical views of salvation(and theological anthropology), such as those to which you rightly refer. There are. My point was that too frequently one is not afforded the opportunity to engage in, to borrow a phrase from Gaudium et spes, “prudent and sincere dialogue” over these disagreements, because neither party has made the effort to arrive at an authentic understanding of the views of the person on the other side as actually held by that person. I think this is why these exchanges tend to be “uncomfortable,” as you note in your post. One can see the same dynamic at work with respect to devotion to saints. C.S. Lewis pointed out that there is a kind of caricature of the Catholic view on this subject that leads to “an infinitely silly picture of Heaven as an earthly court where applicants will be wise to pull the right wires, discover the best ‘channels,’ and attach themselves to the most influential pressure groups.” Until this phantom doctrine is set to the side, one cannot advance to a real consideration of the Catholic doctrine regarding prayer with and through the saints. Regarding salvation, the caricatures are familiar enough. The Evangelical caricature of the Catholic is that of a kind of fretting and nervous person frantically praying an extra rosary or two before bed so as to secure a tiny slice of God’s approval and security through the duration of the evening. Perhaps, the person mentioned by your priest has such a view? However, we Catholics must make sure not to do the same thing to them. I’ve known Catholics who seem to regard Evangelicals as theologically ignorant and insincere hedonists who have fun sinning all day before consoling themselves with acts of the imagination they flatteringly regard as prayer. I think a pivotal part of working for reunion is overcoming such distortions – on both sides. If doing so does not lead us to a unity of doctrine, it may, at least, bring us to a unity of understanding (I stole this phrase from one of my students!), which would still, in my view, be a significant advance.
Then we can heartily agree! I know I get frustrated by conversations with my Evangelical neighbors over a difference in language, and you’ve done a great job in your post clearing the way to more fruitful dialogue. And I think your point in this response to my comment is a good one: Even if we end up still disagreeing, at least in having the conversation, we might find that there are more things that we do agree on than we previously thought. And that would be something to cheer for indeed!
One more point: Prudent and sincere dialogue cannot take place when either party begins the conversation trying to convert the other party. If the goal is conversion and not conversation, then we really aren’t having a conversation in the first place.
I agree and empathize. More than once I’ve thought I was having an honest theological conversation with someone -usually at a coffee shop – and then…the stock language becomes increasingly apparent and prevalent, then the pitch, then the pamphlet…