Even though we were dead because of our sins,
he gave us life when he raised Jesus from the dead.
It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved.
Ephesians 2, 5
St. Paul perceived salvation as embracing the three aspects of time: past, present, and future. In the original Greek, the statement “By grace you have been saved” reads χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι (chariti este sesōsmenoi); χάριτί or “grace” comes from chairo which means “graciousness, of manner or act.” The present indicative active – 2nd person plural – existential perfect verb form ἐστε or “have been” indicates a collective “ongoing existence” that has resulted from a past event. What has resulted from the past and continues to exist in the present is being “saved” or σεσῳσμένοι. The present indicative active verb carries with it the affirmation that “You exist” or more precisely “You are saved.” The perfect participle σεσῳσμένοι literally means “saved, delivered, or shielded.” Thus, the persons who are saved or delivered through God’s gracious act (grace or favor) continue in this state of existence as a result of a past event that is safeguarded from being nullified.
With respect to the past result that continues in the present, St. Paul is referring to the reason for our salvation and its condition: removal from guilt and the remission of sin. Christ’s formal redemption of the world continues. The grace of justification and forgiveness that our Lord alone has merited for humanity is the permanent result of his passion, death, and resurrection. God has reconciled the world to Himself through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (Rom 5:10-11).
It is when we are baptized that we actively receive the grace of justification and forgiveness for our own interior renewal. This grace has been merited for us by Christ alone in strict justice and not by any preceding merit of ours. (2 Tim 1:9; Titus 3:5). The ongoing and dynamic process of justification and sanctification begins here in our journey of faith. By the redeeming merits of Jesus Christ, we are transformed internally from the state of being born a child of Adam into the state of being reborn in the Spirit. What happens here isn’t a single event in our life of faith, which is now complete and eternally guarantees our individual salvation from that point on, but the beginning of an ongoing process of growing in holiness and striving for spiritual perfection despite the occasional falls from grace and acts of contrition following one’s baptism (2 Cor 7:1).
For we are the aroma of Christ to God
among those who are being saved
and among those who are perishing.
2 Corinthians 2, 15
By reading, “those who are being saved” in English, we might have the impression that St. Paul is addressing a community of believers who are in the act of being saved, but haven’t conclusively been saved yet, or that to be saved is an ongoing number of actions in sequences of time rather than an acquired and existing state that is ongoing because of a single act. We mustn’t confuse the ancient Greek present tense with the modern English present continuous tense. The present tense verb in NT Greek doesn’t necessarily mean a continual or objective kind of action (saving someone from drowning) that is momentarily continuing within a restricted time frame until it concludes (Aktionsart). As we saw above, the grace of justification and forgiveness that our Lord alone has merited for humanity is the permanent result of his passion, death, and resurrection. Christ paid the ransom for sin once-for-all and reconciled humanity to God at a moment in time that occurred in the past with a complete and lasting effect.
Therefore, the verb that Paul uses (“being saved”) is in the present tense. In koine Greek, we have σωζομένοις (sōzomenois). The apostle is addressing those who are “saved or rescued and safeguarded.” Still, when reading the NT in the original Greek, we must consider the author’s vantage point on the action or on “being saved” (aspect). Greek verb tenses indicate the subjective portrayal of that action or state by the writer, which is called aspect. The aspectual tense mark of a Greek verb helps us see what the subjective portrayal of the action is but not without the aid of the analogy of Scripture. Let’s proceed to see what Paul is saying to those who ‘are saved’ and how their salvation might not be without any qualifications or conditions.
By doing so, we will discover that Christ has formally saved us all in a collective sense but instrumentally our salvation is still something we must “work out” for ourselves and finally attain in a distributive sense. We read in the King James Bible: ‘Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil 2:12). In other words, we must cooperate with our Lord by saving ourselves from drowning with his principal help now that he has taken charge of our eternal destiny by his single self-sacrifice.
Writing in the present tense, what Paul has in mind is the ongoing process of being made holy and righteous as opposed to habitually living in the state of sin like those who are “perishing” (Present participle: ἀπολλυμένοις /apollymenois “are destroyed” or “do destroy”) in their obstinacy. Their baptismal commitment marks the next life-long stage of their justification and sanctification. In their journey of faith, the Corinthians who have received the grace of justification and forgiveness in their baptism may merit by right of friendship with God, as a reward, more grace and an increase in sanctification and charity as they grow towards a more perfect image of God in the conduct of their lives through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Sanctification is the essence or formal cause of justification. For us to be just before God we must be inherently holy and righteous. We couldn’t be the “aroma of Christ” or Christ-like as members of his mystical Body unless our righteousness personally belonged to us by the infusion of sanctifying grace into our souls (2 Cor 13:15). And this requires work on our part in collaboration with the Holy Spirit. We are ultimately responsible for and deserving of the eternal reward or punishment that we receive. Christ does not save us by his work on the cross alone, though he alone has made it possible for us to be saved by his grace which he alone has produced for us by his redeeming merits.
To be just in God’s sight is to be intrinsically holy by the power of the Spirit who dwells in our souls. Thus, if we commit a mortal sin (i.e., the act of adultery or bearing false witness against our neighbor), we risk forfeiting the salvation Christ gained for us since our souls would no longer be in the state of sanctifying grace until we confess our sins and make an act of contrition and do penance through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. For this reason, we must repent of our post-baptismal sins to be restored to friendship with God. ‘We must look to ourselves that we lose not the things which we have wrought (a meritorious increase in grace or bearing fruit) but that we receive a full reward’ (1 Jn 2:8). John underscores the importance of cooperating with divine grace to ensure the instrumental application of our salvation and its attainment by persevering in grace to the end, now that our Lord and Savior has made this possible for everyone by his passion, death, and resurrection.
Certainly, Paul didn’t believe that justification is a static, single event in the lives of Christians which happened in the past and was completed by their baptism through faith in Christ. For him, it was an ongoing process that required human collaboration with the work of God in the Holy Spirit and involved constructive transformations of the soul and daily renewal (2 Cor 3:18; 4:16; Eph 4:22-24; Phil 2:13). Our own salvation is something we must faithfully “work out in fear and trembling” lest we fall from grace and revert to our former sinful ways at the cost of our salvation. We should have no reason to fear eternal condemnation and tremble by the thought of it if all we had to do was simply put our faith in Christ’s redeeming merits and accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.
The grace of justification and forgiveness is a gift. This grace is not, however, a license to sin (Rom 6:1). So, it’s imperative that all baptized members in the Body of Christ persevere in faith to their last day. Jesus himself warns us that we must endure to the end if we hope to be saved now that he alone has produced for us at one time the gift of salvation. (Mt 10:22; 24:13; Mk 13:13). We mustn’t allow ourselves to be destroyed or to destroy what Christ has gained for us like those who are perishing.
This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is;
time is running out. Wake up for our salvation is nearer now than
when we first believed. The night is past and the day is at hand. Let
us, therefore, cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Romans 13, 11
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul speaks of salvation as pending future attainment that’s approaching ever nearer from the time his flock first professed their faith in Christ. Salvation, therefore, is something they must continually hope for in their pilgrimage of faith. It isn’t something they have already obtained individually in their personal lives and can’t ever lose notwithstanding the conduct of their lives. The apostle is concerned that they continually apply the Gospel truths in their daily lives to ensure that they finally receive what they hope for. Apparently, some members of the Roman church have reverted to their pre-baptismal sinful habits and behaved unworthily as disciples of Christ.
Thus, Paul is exhorting these lapsed members to conform once again to their renewed way of life and persevere in grace before it’s too late. Their particular judgment may arrive at any moment when it’s least expected; so, it’s time for them to “wake up” and stop deceiving themselves so that they won’t be caught off guard and lose the salvation they hope for. There is no need for Paul to exhort the Roman Christians if they’ve already been assuredly saved upon their initial profession of faith in Christ (1 Cor 6:9-11). By calling them to “put on the armor of light” Paul means that they should continue to persevere in grace so that they might be reckoned as righteous and saved at the time of death. The apostle understood very well that one’s own salvation isn’t guaranteed but is hoped for despite the formal redemption of all the descendants of Adam. (1 Cor 4:4). How we conduct our lives is instrumental in the personal application of our salvation.
Early Sacred Tradition
“And pray ye without ceasing in behalf of other men;
for there is hope of the repentance, that they may attain to God.
For ‘cannot he that falls arise again, and he may attain to God.’”
St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians, 10
( A.D. 110)
“But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will,
and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from
all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness;
‘not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing,’ or blow for blow, or cursing for
cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: ‘Judge not, that
ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye
may obtain mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you
again; and once more, “Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for
righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.’”
St. Polycarp, To the Philippians, 2
“And as many of them, he added, as have repented, shall have their dwelling in
the tower. And those of them who have been slower in repenting shall dwell
within the walls. And as many as do not repent at all, but abide in their deeds,
shall utterly perish…Yet they also, being naturally good, on hearing my
commandments, purified themselves, and soon repented. Their dwelling,
accordingly, was in the tower. But if anyone relapses into strife, he will be cast
out of the tower, and will lose his life.”
Hermas, The Shephard, 3:8:7
“We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments,
and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of
each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is
anything at all in our own power…But this we assert is inevitable fate, that they
who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite
have their merited awards. For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds,
which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy
of reward or praise did he not of himself choose the good, but were created for
this end; nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil of
himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made.”
St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 6
“‘And other sheep there are also,’ saith the Lord, ‘which are not of this fold ‘
deemed worthy of another fold and mansion, in proportion to their faith. ‘But
My sheep hear My voice,’ understanding gnostically the commandments. And
this is to be taken in a magnanimous and worthy acceptation, along with also
the recompense and accompaniment of works. So that when we hear, ‘Thy faith
hath saved thee, we do not understand Him to say absolutely that those who
have believed in any way whatever shall be saved, unless also works follow. But
it was to the Jews alone that He spoke this utterance, who kept the law and lived
blamelessly, who wanted only faith in the Lord. No one, then, can be a believer
and at the same time be licentious; but though he quit the flesh, he must put off
the passions, so as to be capable of reaching his own mansion.”
St. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, 6:14
“Whoever dies in his sins, even if he professes to believe in Christ, does not truly
believe in Him, and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such
faith is dead in itself, as we read in the Epistle bearing the name of James.”
Origen, Commentary on John, 19:6
“For both to prophesy and to cast out devils, and to do great acts upon the earth
is certainly a sublime and an admirable thing; but one does not attain the
kingdom of heaven although he is found in all these things, unless he walks in
the observance of the right and just way. The Lord denounces, and says, ‘Many
shall say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name, and
in Thy name have cast out devils, and in Thy name done many wonderful works
And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that
work iniquity.’ There is need of righteousness, that one may deserve well of God
the Judge; we must obey His precepts and warnings, that our merits may
receive their reward.”
St. Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, 16
“Say not, none seeth me; think not, that there is no witness of the deed. Human
witness, oftentimes there is not; but He who fashioned us, an unerring witness,
abides faithful in heaven, and beholds what thou doest. And the stains of sin also
remain in the body; for as when a wound has gone deep into the body, even if
there has been a healing, the scar remains, so sin wounds soul and body, and the
marks of its scars remain in all, and they are removed only from those who
receive the washing of Baptism. The past wounds therefore of soul and body God
heals by Baptism; against future ones let us one and all jointly guard ourselves,
that we may keep this vestment of the body pure, and may not for practicing
fornication and sensual indulgence or any other sin for a short season, lose the
salvation of heaven, but may inherit the eternal kingdom of God; of which may
God, of His own grace, deem all of you worthy.”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 18:19,20
“But he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved.”