Have you been saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior? Have you been born again? These questions may be familiar to us, normally coming from sincere Christians who are not Catholic, and who have had a powerful religious experience that they are eager to have us share. These questions may very well raise within us additional questions: Jesus is my Savior, but when exactly did I accept him in a personal way? I believe I have been saved from the darkness of sin and death, but when did that moment actually happen? I have been born again, but isn’t that what we Catholics call baptism? Is there another rebirth required?
The answer to these questions lies in recognizing the difference between our Catholic understanding of salvation and the understanding that is shared by many Protestant Christians, particularly those that we might call fundamentalist Christians. Fundamentalist Christians tend to see salvation as something that happens at a particular moment in one’s life - what might be called a moment of conversion, a moment when one consciously and profoundly gives one’s self over to Christ as Lord. Catholics, too, believe in the need for conversion, but have always understood conversion to be an ongoing, lifetime process. This way to understand conversion to Christ is at least as old as the writings of St. Paul. He writes to the Philipian Christians (2:12): “So then, my dearly beloved, obedient as always to my urging, work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation, not only when I happen to be with you, but all the more now that I am absent.”
Paul did not believe in a particular moment in one’s life when salvation happens. Paul saw salvation as an ongoing process. The salvation won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection is something that Christians continue, throughout their lives, to enter into more deeply. The people to whom Paul was writing had already “accepted Christ,” but Paul nonetheless urges them to “work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation.”
Like the Philippian Christians, we too have been baptized, but we regard baptism as much more than the ritual where water was poured over our heads. For Catholics, baptism is not so much an event, but a process. Just as marriage is not completed after the exchange of vows and rings is over, but lives and grows each day of the couple’s lives, so a Christian’s conversion finds ritual and public expression on the day of one’s baptism, but the reality of baptism and conversion to Christ continues to unfold throughout one’s life. This is precisely why each year, on the feast of Easter, Catholics solemnly renew their baptismal promises.
During our lives we may experience profound moments of religious intensity, moments when we feel suddenly and deeply touched by the Holy Spirit and God’s overwhelming grace. Such graced moments may indeed cause us to be more intensely devoted and committed to our faith, but such sacred moments are not to be identified with the moment when we were saved or born again. God’s offer of grace is not a once-and-for-all event, but is constantly happening. And grace is not a quantity of something, but a relationship, and as Paul would remind us, a relationship that constantly grows, requiring our careful attention.