There is a word in Evangelicalism that has always made me a little uncomfortable: “Saved.” This often comes up in contexts like when someone mentions a person who goes to a church in a different denomination and it is asked “but is he saved?” This also comes up in personal testimonies: “I got saved when…”
It made me uncomfortable when I was younger partly because it sounded kind of rude to say that non-christians are “not saved,” and also because it wasn’t terribly clear to me what that meant.
When I started to mature in my faith, it remained an uncomfortable phrase for me for two new different reasons. First, it wasn’t clear to me if when I began to grow in the faith is when I “got saved” or if that happened at some indeterminable point when I was younger. Second, I was hanging around Roman Catholics who never really used the terminology, except in critiquing Protestants who presumptuously go on about “being” or “getting saved.”
And now it still irks me to hear that phrase used. Thankfully, most Christians I know tend to ask “does he believe?” rather than “is he saved?” but it still comes up from time to time. The meaning of “saved” is clearer to me now than when I was a child – it refers to the doctrine of salvation.
But to what aspect of salvation? Something many Christians often forget to take into account when using the words “salvation” or “saved” is that it is a very big concept. It includes regeneration (the Holy Spirit’s entrance into one’s very being, giving new life, commonly known as being “born again”), justification (God’s act of judging one innocent of sin), sanctification (the process of becoming holy), and entrance into God’s presence and eternal kingdom (which takes place at the final judgment). Now, different strands of Christianity have given different details about the order in which these events take place, and I don’t intend to tackle that here. But what is commonly agreed is that “salvation” includes all of these things. Salvation is, therefore, for a Christian, simultaneously something that has already happened, something that has begun and is still happening, and something that hasn’t happened yet, and won’t happen until Jesus comes back.
So when people loosely throw around phrases like “I got saved when…” not only do my theological warning lights get agitated, but so does my vocabulary department. Nobody alive has been saved yet. Not completely. If you’re still alive in this life, then you obviously haven’t entered into the final heavenly kingdom of Christ yet, regardless of how far along you might be in the in the process.
This is how I reconcile the Catholic practices of praying regularly for salvation with my more Evangelical sense of justification (that God declares me innocent of my sins when I come to true faith in him). We Christians may well trust that God’s Spirit has regenerated us (that we’ve been born again), and that our faith has been credited to us as righteous, but we know full well that we haven’t been completely sanctified, nor have we yet entered into glory. And yes, although God has promised these things to us, we have not yet actually received them.
But, some might ask, why pray for something when you know it’s coming? There are two responses to this question. The first is that God wants us to pray according to his will. In other words, the content of the prayer that God most desires from us is actually stuff that he already has in mind to do. It is certainly his desire to give salvation to his people, so praying for that is precisely the right thing to do. The second response is a bit starker, though: do we really know we’re saved?
Can a Christian know with absolute certainty if he or she is saved? I’m not content to answer either yes or no without some qualifications. To say no would be contrary to Scripture – John wrote his first epistle to reassure Christians of their salvation. But to say yes outright would be rather presumptuous, don’t you think? After all, what is the proof that someone has been born again? The Holy Spirit is given to us as a deposit. And what is the proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? Ah, suddenly we’ve run out of objective answers. There is subjective evidence: the gifts and especially fruits of the Spirit, by confessions of faith, and by love for God expressed by obedience to his commands. Make no mistake: all of these signs can be faked. Countless men and women have been “Christians all their lives” and suddenly come to a revelation of God’s love for them or their hardness of heart towards God, and are finally “born again” or “truly converted.” We must remember that those are experience-based observations. Perhaps they were already believers, and simply just came to a greater depth of faith. But perhaps they really had been going through the motions for all those years before, without them or anyone else realizing it.
I don’t say this as a scare tactic to make all Christians second-guess the state of their souls and the souls of their friends, but as a sober reminder that we do not fully comprehend the mystery of our redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and that we must always acknowledge the truth of God’s justice and mercy with humble hearts, knowing full well that we are sinners on a journey from death into life, and never presume to have “gotten far enough along to get into heaven” in our earthly lives, because our sanctification will never be complete before we die. Our battle with sin and evil will continue to the grave, and even beyond according to some. Our assurance and hope is in Jesus’ return to right all the wrongs in the world and to conquer death, which will be the last enemy left standing.
May we all, in this season of Lent, take up arms in this spiritual war with renewed vigor, vowing to fight alongside our fellow saints, living and dead, to vanquish the sin and evil that permeates this world and continues to haunt our own souls. Remember that the only offensive weapon we carry is the Sword of the Spirit, which is wielded through prayer. And boy, is there a lot to pray for!