“What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). This famous line of the Philippian jailer to St. Paul has tirelessly reverberated through the hearts and minds of Christians and non-Christians alike. Indeed, what must we do to spend eternity with God in bliss and avoid eternal damnation? In recent times, this question has morphed into a bit of a trademark phrase, especially for many non-Catholic Christians. Nowadays ‘being saved’ more or less translates into the moment in one’s life when Jesus is received into one’s heart and he or she embraces the Gospel message. Sometimes it is accompanied by ritual, or it may be a transaction done in the privacy of one’s heart. Catholics, on the other hand, might wince when the issue is turned upon them. How is a Catholic to respond to the question “Are you saved?”
Rarely does one hear a Catholic today share about “the day I was saved”—especially in the way that their non-Catholic brothers or sisters mean it. Yet, ironically, the same Catholic professes personal faith in salvation every week in the Nicene Creed: “For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” Besides being clearly professed, it is also something clearly taught. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God, who ‘loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins’” (§457). Additionally, “it is in the Church that ‘the fullness of the means of salvation’ has been deposited” (§824). So how are Catholics called to respond to this all-important question? It is here that we can turn our attention to the wisdom of St. Luke to seek an appropriate answer.
You might be familiar with Luke’s Gospel for one or many of its unique contents that it has given to the Church (and the world, really). Perhaps you think of the many Advent and Christmas scenes woven into Luke’s infancy narrative (chs. 1–2) or the many parables such as the Good Samaritan (10:29-37) or the Prodigal Son (15:11-32); or perhaps like our staff here at the Emmaus Institute, you are fond of the Emmaus Road story of Resurrection morning (24:13-35). All of these and more are found only in the Gospel of Luke. But far more than a singular scene or parable in Luke is an underlying theme that bursts forth through every chapter of the book: salvation. N.T. According to N. T. Wright and Michael Bird:
If Luke-Acts has one central theme, it might be “salvation”—though that word has become such a Christian cliché that saying this may carry less weight than it ought. Luke-Acts is the story of the “Saviour,” the story of “those who are being saved,” and traces how salvation extends from Israel to the ends of the earth.1
The Greek root σῴζω (sōzō, “save”) in its various forms occurs 27 times in the 24 chapters of Luke’s Gospel. At least once per chapter on average we are hearing Luke talk about this provocative theme. Recall the Christmas salutation of the angels: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11), or the account of Zacchaeus the tax-collector, to whom the Lord says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:10). Jesus’ ministry, according to Luke, is a saving ministry—set in motion for the sake of all peoples. It is Luke’s keen perspective, then, that allows us to understand better the dynamic nature of Jesus’ salvation.
Many today think of salvation as an assurance of entry into heaven—the “cliché” that Wright & Bird mention above; but Luke paints a much broader picture of salvation than this. The Lord’s salvation doesn’t just assure us heaven: it delivers from disaster and oppression (8:36); heals physical affliction and disease (6:9-10; 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42); removes shame (7:50); raises up those who are forgotten, lowly, or ostracized (1:47-4, 71; 2:30; 19:9, 10); forgives sins (1:77); restores life, peace, mercy, and grace. This is a salvation that is far more than a future guarantee. It is a present reality, a whole-person restoration project, and it comes through the power and presence of Jesus Christ. As my former professor, Dr. Michael Barber, has put it: “In sum, we do not need ‘to go to heaven’ to be with the Lord. We already enter into that in this life through Christ.”2
Let us return to the story of Zacchaeus to clarify further our understanding of what Luke means by ‘being saved.’ It is a line we have already noted, but I would like to focus now on the first word of Jesus’ proclamation: “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:10). Jesus does not offer him a get-out-of-jail-free card for when he dies in the future. Rather, because of Zacchaeus’ faith, the gift of salvation was poured out upon him and his house that day—“today.” What I find most peculiar—and most moving—about this declaration is that this pronouncement of Zacchaeus’ “being saved” comes before Jesus has even died on the Cross! As quick as we may be to tie salvation to the Cross (and rightfully so in a broader sense), Luke has no problem describing the salvation of Jesus as a present reality, even before the Passion and Resurrection took place. In fact, this “today-ness” of God’s saving ministry is not only mentioned here, but in five other places in Luke as well:
“Today . . . a Savior is born” (2:11)
“Today . . . this scripture is fulfilled” (4:21)
“Today . . . we have seen strange things” (5:26)
“Today . . . I must stay at your house” (19:5)
“Today . . . you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43)
The salvation that Jesus offers is a reality to be experienced here and now, and it comes in the person of Jesus Christ. Think of old Simeon in the Temple who beheld the Child Jesus and exclaimed, “my eyes have seen your salvation” (2:30). Did Simeon see the Cross? Did he in that moment work out a theology of salvation as a guarantee of heaven? Or did he simply behold the person of Jesus? We would be a woefully negligent people if we constrained our understanding of salvation to the forgiveness of sins alone and/or a sparing from hell. Yes, salvation accomplishes these, but it is so much more—“salvation is more than mere fire insurance.”3
Let us allow ourselves the opportunity to expand our capacity to see and receive the salvation of Jesus as a present and healing reality, the very emanation of his presence being lavishly poured out upon us. Let us invite the salvation of Jesus into our sinfulness, our brokenness, our illnesses, our lowliness, and ultimately our entire selves. In this light, we can respond with confidence to our inquisitive friend: “Yes I have been saved; yes, I am being saved every day in my relationship with Jesus, and God-willing I will be saved to live with him forever.” As long as we are with Jesus, we are being saved.
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 605.
Michael Barber, Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), 33.