At the heart of Christian faith is the message that we are ‘saved’. Indeed the very name of Jesus comes from the Hebrew phrase ‘God saves’. But what does ‘salvation’ mean? What are we saved from?
In the Scriptures there’s more than one word for salvation (‘redemption’, ‘atonement’, ‘justification’, etc.) which is a good sign that we’re dealing with a mystery – a reality which was intuited by the first Christians and which they were seeking words to describe.
Perhaps to best grasp what this deep Christian intuition is about – that we need to be ‘saved’ – we need to reflect on our own human nature, and its relationship to God. We are creatures – we are loved into being by God, but we are not God. We're limited, finite, imperfect. And yet, as St Augustine put it, we are made for God – our destiny is to be united to God (‘You made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You’).
But there is a problem – we, the creature, in our finiteness, cannot bridge the gap of being between ourselves and the Creator, who is Infinite. That gap can only be bridged by God. It is God’s initiative to reach out and gift human nature with divine life. This is in fact the great message of St Paul – that all is grace, that all is gift: that we can’t earn salvation, nor do we need to. The beautiful mystery at the heart of Christian faith is that God makes the offer of self-gift to us – we merely have to respond and open our hearts and accept the gift.
This is what we mean by salvation. Of ourselves we are unable to unite ourselves to God, who is our destiny. Our very being cannot attain its purpose. But the Good News is that God, who is Love, reaches out to us, gifts us with the very being of God, makes us capable of achieving our eternal fulfilment and destiny (union with God): saves us.
‘Salvation’ is but another name for our experience of God as Trinity: the God who is Father, reaching out in love through the Son, who by the power of the Spirit takes on human flesh, and who by his self-gift in returning to the Father draws us, in the same Holy Spirit, into the life of the Father.
‘Salvation’, ‘grace’, God’s saving self-gifting to us’ – this is the mystery, and the Good News, at the heart of our Christian faith.
(c) Fr Colin Blayney