Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > E-RC > Christology; Holy Spirit; Mission; (part 3)

full document
for printing


3. The Gospel Of Salvation
  CONCLUSION - select

3. The Gospel of Salvation

      Roman Catholics and Evangelicals share a deep concern for the content of the good news we proclaim. We are anxious on the one hand to be faithful to the living core of the Christian faith, and on the other to communicate it in contemporary terms. How then shall we define the gospel?

1) Human Need

      Diagnosis must always precede prescription. So, although human need is not strictly part of the good news, it is an essential background to it. If the gospel is good news of salvation, this is because human beings are sinners who need to be saved.
      In our description of the human condition, however, we emphasize the importance of beginning positively. We affirm that all men and women are made by God, for God and in the image of God, and that sin has defaced but not destroyed this purpose and this image (Gen 9:6; Jas 3:9). Therefore, as the creation of God, human beings have an intrinsic worth and dignity. Also, because of the light which lightens everybody, we all have within us an innate desire for God which nothing else can satisfy. As Christians, we must respect every human being who is seeking God, even when the search is expressed in ignorance (Acts 17:23).
      Nevertheless original sin has intervened. We have noted Thomas Aquinas' description of original sin, namely "the loss of original justice" (i.e. a right relationship with God) and such "concupiscence" as constitutes a fundamental disorder in human nature and relationships; so that all our desires are inclined towards the making of decisions displeasing to God.
      Evangelicals insist that original sin has distorted every part of human nature, so that it is permeated by self-centeredness. Consequently, the Apostle Paul describes all people as "enslaved," "blind," "dead" and "under God's wrath," and therefore totally unable to save themselves.
      Roman Catholics also speak of original sin as an injury and disorder which has weakened though not destroyed-human free will. Human beings have "lifted themselves up against God and sought to attain their goal apart from him."
18 As a result this has upset the relationship linking man to God and "has broken the right order that should reign within himself as well as between himself and other men and all creatures."19 Hence human beings find themselves drawn to what is wrong and o f themselves unable to overcome the assaults of evil successfully, "so that everyone feels as though bound by chains."20
      Clearly there is some divergence between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals in the way ave understand human sin and need, as well as in the language ave use to express them. Roman Catholics think Evangelicals overstress the corruption of human beings by affirming their "total depravity" (i.e. that every part of our humanness has been perverted by the Fall), while Evangelicals think Roman Catholics underestimate it and are therefore unwisely optimistic about the capacity, ability and desire of human beings to respond to the grace of God. Yet we agree that all are sinners, and that all stand in need of a radical salvation which includes deliverance from the power of evil, together with reconciliation to God and adoption into his family.

2) The Person of Jesus Christ

      The radical salvation which human beings need has been achieved by Jesus Christ. Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are agreed about the centrality of Christ and of what God has done through him for salvation. "The Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world" (1 John 4:14). But who was this Savior Jesus?
      Jesus of Nazareth was a man, who went about doing good, teaching with authority, proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and making friends with sinners to whom he offered pardon. He made himself known to his apostles, whom he had chosen and with whom he lived, as the Messiah (Christ) promised by the Scriptures. He claimed a unique filial relation to God whom in prayer he called his Father ("Abba"). He thus knew himself to be the Son of God, and exhibited the power and authority of God over nature, human beings and demonic powers. He also spoke of himself as the Son of man. He fulfilled the perfect obedience of the Servant in going even to death on the cross. Then God raised him from the dead, confirming that he was from the beginning the Son he claimed to be (Ps 2:7). Thus he was both "descended from David according to the flesh" and "designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom 1:3-4). This is why his apostles confessed him as Lord and Christ, Son of God, Savior of humankind, sent by the Father, agent through whom God created all things, in whom ave have been chosen from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), the Word made flesh.
      The Incarnation of the Son was an objective event in history, in which the divine Word took upon himself our human nature. Within a single person were joined full divinity and full humanity. Although this understanding of him was not precisely formulated until the theological debates of the early centuries, ave all agree that the Chalcedonian Definition faithfully expresses the truths to which the New Testament bears witness.
      The purposes of the Incarnation were to reveal the Father to us, since otherwise our knowledge of God would have been deficient; to assume our nature in order to die for our sins and so accomplish our salvation, since he could redeem only what he had assumed; to establish a living communion between God and human beings, since only the Son of God made human could communicate to human beings the life of God; to apply the basis of the imitatio, since it is the incarnate Jesus ave are to follow; to reaffirm the value and dignity of humanness, since God was not ashamed to take on himself our humanity; to provide in Jesus the first fruits of the new humanity, since he is the "firstborn among many brethren" (Rom 8:29), and to effect the redemption of the cosmos in the end.
      So then, in fidelity to the gospel and in accordance with the Scriptures, ave together confess the person of Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary and became truly man, in order to be the Savior of the world.
      In our missionary task ave have not only to confess Christ ourselves, but also to interpret him to others. As ave do so, ave have to consider, for example, how to reconcile for Jews and Moslems the monotheism of the Bible with the divine sonship of Jesus, how to present to Hindus and Buddhist the transcendent personalty of God, and how to proclaim to adherents of traditional religion and of the new religious consciousness the supreme Lordship of Christ. Our Christology must always be both faithful to Scripture and sensitive to each particular context of evangelization.

3) The Work of Jesus Christ

      It was this historic person, Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully human, through whom the Father acted for the redemption and reconciliation of the world. Indeed, only a person who was both God and man could have been the mediator between God and human beings. Because he was human he could represent us and identify with us in our weakness. Because he was God he could bear our sin and destroy the power of evil.
      This work of redemption was accomplished supremely through the death of Jesus Christ although ave acknowledge the unity of his incarnate life, atoning death and bodily resurrection. For his death completed the service of his life (Mark 10:45) and his resurrection confirmed the achievement of his death (Rom 4:25).
      Christ was without sin, and therefore had no need to die. He died for our sins, and in this sense "in our place." We are agreed about this basic truth and about other aspects of the Atonement. But in our discussion two different emphases have emerged, which we have summarized by the words "substitution" and "solidarity," although these concepts are not altogether exclusive.
      Evangelicals lay much stress on the truth that Christ's death was "substitutionary." In his death he did something which he did not do during his life. He actually "became sin" for us (2 Cor 5:21) and "became a curse" for us (Gal 3-13). Thus God himself in Christ propitiated his own wrath, in order to avert it from us. In consequence, having taken our sin, he gives us his righteousness. We stand accepted by God in Christ, not because Christ offered the Father our obedience, but because he bore our sin and replaced it with his righteousness.
      Roman Catholics express Christ's death more in terms of "solidarity." In their understanding Jesus Christ in his death made a perfect offering of love and obedience to his Father, which recapitulated his whole life. In consequence, we can enter into the sacrifice of Christ and offer ourselves to the Father in and with him. For he became one with us in order that we might become one with him.
      Thus the word "gospel" has come to have different meanings in our two communities. For Evangelicals, it is the message of deliverance from sin, death and condemnation, and the promise of pardon, renewal and indwelling by Christ's Spirit. These blessings flow from Christ's substitutionary death. They are given by God solely through his grace, without respect to our merit, and are received solely through faith. When we are accepted by Christ, we are part of his people, since all his people are "in" him.
      For Roman Catholics the gospel centers in the person, message and gracious activity of Christ. His life, death and resurrection are the foundation of the Church, and the Church carries the living gospel to the world. The Church is a real sacrament of the gospel.
      So the difference between us concerns the relationship between the gospel and the Church. In the one case, the gospel reconciles us to God through Christ and thus makes us a part of his people; in the other, the gospel is found within the life of his people, and thus we find reconciliation with God.
      Although pastoral, missionary and cultural factors may lead us to stress one or other model of Christ's saving work, the full biblical range of words (e.g. victory, redemption, propitiation, justification, reconciliation) must be preserved, and none may be ignored.
      The Resurrection, we agree, lies at the heart of the gospel and has many meanings. It takes the Incarnation to its glorious consummation, for it is the human Christ Jesus who reigns glorified at the Father's right hand, where he represents us and prays for us. The Resurrection was also the Father's vindication of Jesus, reversing the verdict of those who condemned and crucified him, visibly demonstrating his sonship, and giving us the assurance that his atoning sacrifice had been accepted. It is the resurrected and exalted Lord who sent his Spirit to his Church and who, claiming universal authority, now sends us into the world as his witnesses. The Resurrection was also the beginning of God's new creation, and is his pledge both of our resurrection and of the final regeneration of the universe.

4) The Uniqueness and Universality o f Jesus Christ

      In a world of increasing religious pluralism we affirm together the absolute uniqueness of Jesus Christ. He was unique in his person, in his death and in his resurrection. Since in no other person has God become human, died for the sins of the world and risen from death, we declare that he is the only way to God (John 14:6), the only Savior (Acts 4-12) and the only Mediator (1 Tim 2:5). None else has his qualifications.
      The uniqueness of Jesus Christ implies his universality. The one and only is meant for all. We therefore proclaim him both "the Savior of the world" (John 4:12) and "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36).
      We have not been able to agree, however, about the implications of his universal salvation and lordship. Together we believe that "God... desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4), that the offer of salvation in Christ is extended to everybody, that the Church has an irreplaceable responsibility to announce the good news of salvation to all peoples, that all who hear the gospel have an obligation to respond to it, and that those who respond to it are incorporated into God's new, worldwide, multiracial, multicultural community, which is the Father's family, the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. These aspects of the universality of Christ we gladly affirm together.
      Roman Catholics go further, however, and consider that, if human sin is universal, all the more is Christ's salvation universal. If everyone born into the world stands in solidarity with the disobedience of the first Adam, still the human situation as such has been changed by the definitive event of salvation, that is, the Incarnation of the Word, his death, his resurrection and his gift of the Spirit. All are now part of the humanity whose new head has overcome sin and death. For all there is a new possibility of salvation which colors their entire situation, so that it is possible to say "Every person, without exception, has been redeemed by Christ, and with each person, without any exception, Christ is in some way united, even when that person is not aware of that."
21 To become beneficiaries of the obedience of the Second Adam, men and women must turn to God and be born anew with Christ into the fulness of his life. The mission of the Church is to be the instrument to awaken this response by proclaiming the gospel, itself the gift of salvation for everyone who receives it, and to communicate the truth and grace of Christ to all.22
      Evangelicals, on the other hand, understand the universality of Christ differently. He is universally present as God (since God is omnipresent) and as potential Savior (since he offers salvation to all), but not as actual Savior (since not all accept his offer). Evangelicals wish to preserve the distinction, which they believe to be apostolic, between those who are in Christ and those who are not (who consequently are in sin and under judgment), and so between the old and new communities. They insist on the reality of the transfer from one community to the other, which can be realized only through the new birth: "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Cor 5:17).
      The relationship between the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the whole human race naturally leads Roman Catholics to ask whether there exists a possibility of salvation for those who belong to non-Christian religions and even for atheists. Vatican II was clear on this point: "Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church." On the one hand, there are those who "sincerely seek God and, moved by his grace, strive by their deeds to do his will." On the other, there are those who "have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace."
23 Both groups are prepared by God's grace to receive his salvation either when they hear the gospel or even if they do not. They can be saved by Christ, in a mysterious relation to his Church.
      Evangelicals insist, however, that according to the New Testament those outside Christ are "perishing," and that they can receive salvation only in and through Christ. They are therefore deeply exercised about the eternal destiny of those who have never heard of Christ. Most Evangelicals believe that, because they reject the light they have received, they condemn themselves to hell. Many are more reluctant to pronounce on their destiny, have no wish to limit the sovereignty of God, and prefer to leave this issue to him. Others 90 further in expressing their openness to the possibility that God may save some who have not heard of Christ, but immediately add that, if he does so, it will not be because of their religion, sincerity or actions (there is no possibility of salvation by good works), but only because of his own grace freely given on the ground of the atoning death of Christ. All Evangelicals recognize the urgent need to proclaim the gospel of salvation to all humankind. Like Paul in his message to the Gentile audience at Athens, they declare that God "commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed" (Acts 17:30-31).

5) The Meaning of Salvation

      In the Old Testament salvation meant rescue, healing and restoration for those already related to God within the covenant. In the New Testament it is directed to those who have not yet entered into the new covenant in Jesus Christ.
      Salvation has to be understood in terms of both salvation history (the mighty acts of God through Jesus Christ) and salvation experience (a personal appropriation of what God has done through Christ). Roman Catholics and Evangelicals together strongly emphasize the objectivity of God's work through Christ, but Evangelicals tend to lay more emphasis than Roman Catholics on the necessity of a personal response to, and experience of, God's saving grace. To describe this, again the full New Testament vocabulary is needed (for example, the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, adoption into his family, redemption, the new birth — all of which are gifts brought to us by the Holy Spirit), although Evangelicals still give paramount importance to justification by grace through faith.
      We agree that what is offered us through the death and resurrection of Christ is essentially "deliverance," viewed both negatively and positively Negatively, it is a rescue from the power of Satan, sin and death, from guilt, alienation (estrangement from God), moral corruption, self-centeredness, existential despair and fear of the future, including death. Positively, it is a deliverance into the freedom of Christ. This freedom brings human fulfilment. It is essentially becoming "sons in the Son" and therefore brothers to each other. The unity of the disciples of Jesus is a sign both that the Father sent the Son and that the Kingdom has arrived. Further, the new community expresses itself in eucharistic worship, in serving the needy (especially the poor and disenfranchised), in open fellowship with people of every age, race and culture, and in conscious continuity with the historic Christ through fidelity to the teaching of his apostles. Is salvation broader than this? Does it include socio-political liberation?
      Roman Catholics draw attention to the three dimensions of evangelization which Evangelii nuntiandi links. They are the anthropological, in which humanity is seen always within a concrete situation; the theological, in which the unified plan of God is seen within both creation and redemption; and the evangelical, in which the exercise of charity (refusing to ignore human misery) is seen in the light of the story of the Good Samaritan.
      We all agree that the essential meaning of Christ's salvation is the restoration of the broken relationship between sinful humanity and a saving God; it cannot therefore be seen as a temporal or material project, making evangelism unnecessary.
      This restoration of humanity is a true "liberation" from enslaving forces; yet this work has taken on an expanded and particular meaning in Latin America. Certainly God's plan of which Scripture speaks includes his reconciliation of human beings to himself and to one another.
      The socio-political consequences of God's saving action through Christ have been manifest throughout history. They still are. Specific problems (e.g. slavery, urbanization, church-state relations, and popular religiosity have to be seen both in their particular context and in relation to God's overall plan as revealed in Scripture and experienced in the believing community through the action of the Spirit.

Appendix: The Role of Mary in Salvation

      Roman Catholics would rather consider the question of Mary in the context of the Church than of salvation. They think of her as a sinless woman, since she was both overshadowed by the Spirit at the Incarnation (Luke 1:35) and baptized with the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14 f. and 2:1-4). She thus represents all Christians who have been made alive by the Spirit, and Roman Catholics speak of her as the "figure" or "model" of the Church.
      The reason why we have retained this section on Mary within the chapter on "The Gospel of Salvation" (albeit as an Appendix) is that it is in the context of salvation that Evangelicals have the greatest difficulty with Marian teaching and that we discussed her role at ERCDOM II.
      The place of Mary in the scheme of salvation has always been a sensitive issue between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. We have tried to face it with integrity.

a) The interpretation of Scripture

      It raises in an acute form the prior question how we use and interpret the Bible. We are agreed that biblical exegesis begins with a search for the "literal" sense of a text, which is what its author meant. We further agree that some texts also have a "spiritual" meaning, which is founded on the literal but goes beyond it because it was intended by the Divine-though not necessarily the human-author (e.g. Is 7:14). This is often called the sensus plenior. The difference between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals lies in the degree to which the spiritual sense may be separated from the literal. Both sides agree that, whenever Scripture is not explicit, there is need for some check on the extravagances of interpreters. We are also agreed that this check is supplied by the context, both the immediate context and the whole of Scripture, which is a unity. Roman Catholics, however, say that Scripture must be read in the light of the living, developing tradition of the church, and that the Church has authority to indicate what the true meaning of Scripture is. Thus, in relation to Mary, Roman Catholics concede that devotion to Mary was a post-apostolic practice, but add that it was a legitimate development, whereas Evangelicals believe it has been unwarrantably imported into the Roman Catholic interpretation of Scripture.

b) Mary and Salvation

      In one of our ERCDOM II sessions, entitled "The Place of the Virgin Mary in Salvation and Mission," an Evangelical response was made to Pope Paul VI's 1974 Apostolic Exhortation Marialis cultus ("To Honor Mary"). Evangelical members of the dialogue asked for an explanation of two expressions in it which, at least on the surface, appeared to them to ascribe to Mary an active and participatory role in the work of salvation.
      The first (1.5) describes the Christmas season as a prolonged commemoration of Mary's "divine, virginal and salvific Motherhood." In what sense, Evangelicals asked, could Mary's motherhood be called "salvific"? The Roman Catholics replied that the explanation of the term was to be found in the text itself, namely that she "brought the Savior into the world" by her obedient response to God's call.
      The second passage (1.15) refers to "the singular place" that belongs to Mary in Christian worship, not only as "the holy Mother of God" but as "the worthy Associate of the Redeemer." In what sense, Evangelicals asked, could Mary properly be described as the Redeemer's "worthy Associate"? It did not mean, the Roman Catholics responded, that she was personally without need of redemption, for on the contrary she was herself saved through her Son's death. In her case, however, "salvation" did not signify the forgiveness of sins, but that, because of her predestination to be the "Mother of God," she was preserved from original sin ("immaculate conception") and so from sinning. Positively, she could be described as the Redeemer's "associate" because of her unique link with him as his mother. The word should not give offence, for we too are "associates of the Redeemer" both as recipients of his redemption and as agents through whose prayers, example, sacrifice, service, witness and suffering his redemption is proclaimed to others.
      The Evangelicals made a double response to these explanations. First, they still found the language ambiguous, and considered this ambiguity particularly unfortunate in the central area of salvation. Secondly, they felt the whole Roman Catholic emphasis on Mary's role in salvation exaggerated, for when the apostles John and Paul unfold the mystery of the Incarnation, it is to honor Christ the Son not Mary the mother. At the same time, they readily agreed that in Luke's infancy narrative Mary is given the unique privilege of being the Savior's mother, and on that account is addressed as both "highly favored" and "blessed among women" (1:28-42). If Evangelicals are to be true to their stance on sola Scriptura, they must therefore overcome any inhibitions they may have and faithfully expound such texts.
      Our discussion also focused on the use of the term "co-operation." For example, it is stated in Lumen Gentium chapter VIII that Mary is rightly seen as "co-operating in the work of human salvation through free faith and obedience" (II, 56), and again that "the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise... to a manifold co-operation which is but a sharing in this unique source" (III, 62). The Evangelicals agreed that the notion of co-operation with God is biblical (e.g. "workers together with him" (2 Cor 6:1), but pointed out that this refers to a divine-human partnership in which our share lies in the proclaiming, and not in any sense in the procuring, of salvation. The Roman Catholics agreed. The "co-operation" between Christ and us, they said, does not mean that we can add anything to Christ or his work, since he is complete in himself, and his work has been achieved. It means rather that we share in the benefits of what he has done (not in the doing of it) and that (by his gift alone, as in the case of Mary) we offer ourselves to him in gratitude, to spend our lives in his service, and to be used by him as instruments of his grace (cf. Gal 1). The Evangelicals were relieved, but still felt that the use of the word "co-operation" in this sense was inappropriate.
      Another word we considered was "mediatrix," the feminine form of "mediator." The Evangelicals reacted with understandable vehemence against its application to Mary, as did also some Roman Catholics. She must not be designated thus, they insisted, since the work of mediation belongs to Christ alone. In reply, the Roman Catholics were reassuring. Although the word (or rather its Greek equivalent) was used of Mary from the 5th century onwards, and although some bishops were pressing at Vatican II for its inclusion in the text, the Council deliberately avoided it. It occurs only once, and then only in a list of Mary's traditional titles. Moreover, in the same section of Lumen gentium (III, 60-62) Christ is twice called "the one Mediator" in accordance with 1 Tim 2:5-6, and his "unique mediation" is also referred to twice, which (it is added) Mary's maternal ministry . "in no way obscures or diminishes."
      The Final Document of the Puebla Conference of the Evangelization of Latin America (1979), which contains a long section entitled "Mary, Mother and Model of the Church" (paras. 282-303), was cited by Evangelical participants. Paragraph 293 declares that Mary "now lives immersed in the mystery of the Trinity, praising the glory of God and interceding for human beings." Evangelicals find this a disturbing expression, and not all Roman Catholics are happy with it, finding it too ambiguous (if indeed "immersed" is an accurate translation of the Spanish original immersa: there has been some controversy about this). Roman Catholics explain that the notion of Mary's "immersion" in the Trinity means that she is the daughter of the Father, the mother of the Son, and the temple of the Holy Spirit (all three expressions being used in paragraph 53 of Lumen gentium). But they strongly insist that, of course, she cannot be on a level with the three Persons of the Trinity, let alone a fourth Person. In addition, they point out that Roman Catholics' understanding of the role of Mary should be determined by the whole of chapter VIII of Lumen gentium, and other official statements of Roman Catholic belief, rather than by popular expressions of Marian piety.
      The fears of Evangelicals were to some extent allayed by these Roman Catholic explanations and assurances. Yet a certain Evangelical uneasiness remained. First, the traditional Catholic emphasis on Mary's role in salvation (e.g. as the "New Eve," the life-giving mother) still seemed to them incompatible with the much more modest place accorded to her in the New Testament. Secondly, the vocabulary used in relation to Mary seemed to them certainly ambiguous and probably misleading. Is it not vitally important, they asked, especially in the central doctrine of salvation through Christ alone, to avoid expressions which require elaborate explanation (however much hallowed by long tradition) and to confine ourselves to language which in plainly and unequivocally Christ-centered?
      At the same time Roman Catholics are troubled by what seems to them a notable neglect by Evangelicals of the place given by God to Mary in salvation history and in the life of the Church.



  1. E.g. Eph 2:1-3; 4:17-19; 2 Cor 4:3-4.

    Back to text
  2. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) 13.

    Back to text
  3. Ibid.

    Back to text
  4. Ibid.

    Back to text
  5. Encyclical: Redemptor hominis, Pope John Paul II (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1979) 14.

    Back to text
  6. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), 8.

    Back to text
  7. Lumen gentium, 16.

    Back to text



Index | Centro Activities | Course | Publications | Conferences
Week of Prayer | Library | Interconfessional Dialogues
Directory of Ecumenical Study Centers | Society of the Atonement
Guest Book | Credits | Site Map

1999-2004 © - Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Inc.
Remarks to Webmaster at webmaster@pro.urbe.it