Salvation: What It Is and What It Isn’t

BOOK PICK: Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know

(photo: Register Files)


By Michael Patrick Barber

Ignatius Press, 2019

189 pages, $16.95

To order: or (800) 854-6316


Catholics declare every Sunday their belief that “for us men and for our salvation” Jesus became incarnate.

But what does “salvation” mean — and what doesn’t it? Scripture scholar and theologian Michael Barber tells you.

Some Catholics have a very minimalistic understanding of salvation, i.e., not being damned. Barber wants to rescue readers from so limited a notion of salvation.

He also makes clear that I need to be saved.

“If we are being totally honest, I think we Catholics will admit that we prefer to speak of salvation in general rather than personal terms. Talking about Jesus as ‘the Lord’ and ‘the Savior’ is not strange to us. What sounds un-Catholic to our ears is referring to Jesus as ‘my Lord and Savior.’ Why this should be is mystifying. Mary herself speaks of God as ‘my Savior.’ Are Catholics uncomfortable with talking like the Virgin Mary does? The reason we avoid talking about salvation should be fairly obvious. We do not like being reminded that we need saving. We are fine with the notion that Jesus is the Savior. But do I need to be saved?  That is another thing altogether. To speak that way means admitting that I might be in danger. … [S]alvation leads to the topic of sin. We do not like to think of ourselves as sinners.”

We like thinking of ourselves as okay and as “good people,” but, unlike immaculately conceived Mary, we’re not quite used to looking at ourselves in our lowliness.

We need salvation, which means we need to know what it is and what it isn’t.

The titles of Barber’s 10 chapters focus on what salvation is not, allowing him to elucidate what it is. It’s not “fire insurance,” i.e., a get-out-of-hell ticket, although we have to reckon with the possibility of eternal loss. Nor is it “just a legal transaction,” as Protestants hold, whereby God’s grace does not really change us but only the way God looks at us. Salvation isn’t “just personal,” because while Jesus saves me, he does so in the community we call His Mystical Body, i.e., the Church. It’s not “a spectator sport,” i.e., while salvation is God’s grace, he also wants us to pay our widow’s mite of good works. It’s not “inevitable,” i.e., we need to work on our salvation in fear and trembling — because we can fail. Finally, it’s not “just about the future,” as if this world is some sort of throwaway test track, qualifying for the prize of pie in the sky after you die.

Barber repeatedly underscores that salvation is a communal affair and not just individualist; it is transfigurative through and through (and I like how he connects this with the doctrine of purgatory); and it requires participation through good works, not just as a sign of faith, but a response to God’s saving graces, like the wise servant who invests what he’s given to show a return, not just burying his talents (and head) in the ground.

This book is well-grounded scripturally and it grapples thoroughly and on solid scriptural grounds with the image of “salvation” advanced by Protestantism, e.g., forensic justification based on sola fides. I wish Barber would have given more attention to today’s “Nones.” Religiously uninvolved people, particularly younger folks claiming an evanescent “spirituality,” often don’t see why salvation even matters to them: What do they need to be saved from (except maybe neurotic Christian guilt)?  Barber takes a stab at it in Chapter One, underscoring that salvation is neither “self-help” nor therapy. It’s not something you can fix yourself. A little more explicit discussion of the overarching question of why the human Humpty Dumpty needs salvation could help.

John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia. All views are exclusively his.