The Gift of Salvation

Jun 7th, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts, Catholic Life and Devotion

Despite my objections to some of Dr. Leithart’s recently expressed opinions about the Catholic Church vis-a-vis his own Reformed catholicity, I regularly visit his website for the purpose of gathering in the little jewels of wisdom scattered along his literary shore. I found a particularly striking gem this morning, which called to mind something that I have long thought about the gift of salvation.

In his post, “Gift V. Commodity,” Dr. Leithart quotes Margaret Visser, from her book The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude:

In opposition to the invading force of cold, calculating, purely material Commodity relations now stood the ideal of the Gift, freely offered by the giver, unearned by the recipient, warmly expressive of love, tending to arouse gratitude, generative of return gifts, creative of a cycle, a dance, of reciprocal affections.  Markets are about quantifiable results; gifts are concerned with people’s feelings and intentions. Commodities earn profits; gifts, expressing and encouraging personal relationship, give increase.

This is excellent insight, though Leithart’s own qualifications regarding the nature of the market are worth considering. Many years ago, I realized that I had been thinking of “my salvation” more as an objective commodity than a personal gift, more as a possession than a reciprocal relationship. But being adopted into God’s family by the grace of Christ crucified is not like being given a high definition television by a complete stranger or a receiving a million dollar check from Publishers Clearing House. Rather, salvation is more like Ephesians Chapter 2 (covenantal) and Revelation Chapter 5 (liturgical). Several years after making that discovery I became Catholic, entering into the fullness of the Church’s sacramental life that comes from Christ, which is a gift that keeps on giving.


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  1. Dave Armstrong made a great post on the term “gift” as used by St Paul. Dave is quoting Cardinal Newman, who points out that in Scripture the term “gift” means something tangibly given. Thus when Paul speaks of righteousness and grace as “gifts” given for salvation this can only support infused justification, since “external favor” is the opposite of something tangibly given.

    His words are as follows:

    Cardinal Newman argued that the word gift in the New Testament (charisma — Strong’s word #5486) always meant a real, internal thing that affected human lives (thus it is also when used for justification and salvation). He wrote in the section mentioned at the top (section 5):

    For instance, in Rom. v. 17 we read, “They that receive the abundance of grace, and of the gift of righteousness, shall reign in life by One, Jesus Christ.” The word gift here used certainly must mean a thing given; implying that the righteousness of justification, whatever it turn out to be, is a real and definite something in a person, implanted in him, like a talent or power, and not merely an act of the Divine Mind externally to him, as the forgiveness of sins may be.

    But the preceding verses contain a still more convincing statement, on which indeed one might not be unwilling to rest the whole question. St. Paul says, “Not as the offence, so also is the gift … the gift is of many offences unto justification.” Here, observe, he distinctly declares that justification is the result of a gift. Now the word used for “gift” in the original, is the very word used elsewhere for extraordinary gifts, such as of healing, of tongues, and of miracles; that is, a definite power or virtue committed to us. Nowhere else does the word occur in Scripture without this meaning; indeed, it necessarily has it from its grammatical form. For instance, St. Paul says, he “longs to see” the Romans, “that he may impart unto them some spiritual gift;” again, that “the gift of God is eternal life.” He enumerates as gifts, prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, ruling, and showing mercy. Speaking of continence, he says, “Every man has his proper gift from God.” He says, there are “diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.” He exhorts Timothy “not to neglect the gift that was in him,” but to stir up, to re-kindle, “the gift of God which was in him.” St. Peter too speaks of our “ministering” our “gifts as good stewards.” [Rom. i. 11; vi. 23; xii. 6-18. 1 Cor. vii. 7; xii. 4. 1 Tim. iv. 14. 2 Tim. i. 6. 1 Pet. iv. 10.]

    If, then, by a gift is meant a certain faculty or talent, moral, intellectual, or other, justification is some such faculty. It is not a mere change of purpose or disposition in God towards us, or a liberty, privilege, or (as it may be called) citizenship, accorded to us, but a something lodged within us.

    This being the case (apart from the analogical exegesis already provided above), if justification is a gift, it is infused, not simply declared in an extrinsic, external, legal fashion.

    Pretty cool.

  2. The Gift of the Holy Spirit Certainly is a gift that keeps on giving. The Good Lord never stops giving.


  3. Thanks, Nick.

    Once I saw that there are such things as free gifts which are not commodities, but inherently involve a real, reciprocal relationship with the giver, including duties and obligations, it did not take long (about a year) for me to conclude that the free gift of justification was not necessarily received by faith alone, nor only imputed.


  4. You just reminded me of another excellent article I read a while back that you would absolutely love because it totally fits the “reciprocal relationship” understanding of Salvation.

    The Article is Eternal Security? A Trinitarian Apologetic for Perseverance. Here is a great excerpt:

    The effect of the isolation of soteriology from Trinitarian dogma is most evident in the pervasive Protestant doctrine of “the eternal security of the believer,” also known as “once saved, always saved.” According to this doctrine, continual relationship with God is merely, albeit necessarily, symptomatic of salvation. This notion is contrary to the Catholic understanding of salvation as identical to perpetual relationship with God, through participation in His eternally relational life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    Eternal security proposes a radical separation of relationship with God from salvation by God, as is evident in the homily “sin cuts Christians off from fellowship with God, but never from the eternal gift of His salvation.” This homily at least trivializes the essential message of the Gospel, which is salvation through reconciliation to God (cf. Rom. 5:10-11; 2 Cor. 5:17-20). For Protestants to whom the Gospel is the message of eternal security, salvation through reconciliation with God is strictly instantaneous, since the second birth itself is the unrepeatable initiation into the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The Catholic faith also teaches the second birth to be the definitive and unrepeatable initiation into God’s saving grace (cf. Catechism no. 1272). However, in Catholic soteriology the initiation of salvation is indistinct from the initiation of perpetual friendship with God (cf. Catechism no. 277). According to eternal security, the second birth is the sole moment in which salvation is irrevocably granted, distinct from the initiation of friendship with God. Thus, divine friendship is a “benefit” of salvation, not salvation itself.

    This is the most succinct critique of Sola Fide that I’ve ever read.

  5. Thanks for this, Andrew. I hope the following isn’t too tangential, but your post and the ensuing discussion immediately reminded me of St Augustine’s interesting interpretation of the peculiar bit in John 14:12 (“…he who believes in Me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do…”). Here is Augustine, from Tractate LXXII of his homilies on John’s Gospel:

    But when He said, “Greater works than these shall he do,” there is no necessity requiring us to suppose that all of Christ’s works are to be understood. For He spake, perhaps, only of these He was now doing; and the work He was doing at that time was uttering the words of faith, and of such works specially had He spoken just before when He said, “The words that I speak unto you, I speak not of myself: but the Father, that dwelleth in Me, He doth the works.” His words, accordingly, were His works. And it is assuredly something less to preach the words of righteousness, which He did apart from us, than to justify the ungodly, which He does in such a way in us that we also are doing it in ourselves.

    (I know somebody will read this and think: “Leave it to a Catholic to read something about the Gift of Salvation and immediately start thinking about all the snazzy works we’re doing in ourselves….”) In any event, I like the way the “internally lodged,” infused gift remains gift, whilst not thereby being understood to entail passive reception of something like a commodity on the part of the justified. And, as someone who accepts an Augustinian view of justification, I appreciate the way in which his understanding of justification seamlessly informs his exegesis concerning the “works” we do here — whether or not he’s right to interpret 14:12 that way!



  6. Hey Neal,

    I like how St. Augustine could say that so off-handedly. Its not like he was trying to smuggle in works; there was nobody around who could possibly have censured that remark–it had no negative connotations. A lot of classic Reformed folks do a good job in this regard as well, I mean, with works and salvation and all. Its one of the reasons that I felt like becoming Catholic was not tantamount to turning my back on Baxter, et al, but rather carrying their wisdom (what little of it I knew) forward into the liturgical world of the seven sacraments, into the regular realm of the Steward of the King, like Chesterton “discovering” England, or like its France or Switzerland in 1279, but with my own little bit of all the effects of subsequent pain and division, carried to the Thing that carried on the whole time, and then lay it down upon the rock from which we were hewn.


  7. Andrew, “hewn” is a favorite verb of mine, thanks for that.

    I completely agree — no smuggling or funny business, the point just wasn’t at issue, which is why he could take it for granted and use it to explain something else. By the same token, this is why simply looking up ‘justification’ or ‘works’ or whatever in a patristic index and skipping around to the major discussions on the topic isn’t the only or even the best way to get a sense as to how those fathers were thinking, and what role the concepts played in their conceptual economy. Nice post.


  8. Andrew: Yes, I wish CtC would do more short blog snippets for this mobile, on-the-go generation! As a wise investor would ask Facebook and what I’d pose to CtC, “what is your mobile strategy?” I was also a heavy Leithart blog reader right before taking a path back to the Catholic Church. What amazes me about him is the respect he has for a lot of Catholic figures such as de Lubac and Pope John Paul II. In one of his posts, he called JPII the greatest theologian the 20th century had ever seen. He, Mark Noll and most Anglicans are about as close to Catholicism in Protestantism as you could get. It didn’t sit well with my Reformed mind at the time, but then and there I knew that the Catholic Church had something to give.

    There was a lot in your original post and it described my adulthood with precision. Here is how you described how some viewed salvation as:

    given a high definition television by a complete stranger, or a getting a million dollar check from Publishers Clearing House.

    Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of American Evangelicalism views God’s blessings this way. God’s blessings usually equal material blessings would probably be a fair statement to describe a prosperity type ecclesial community. I had been a member of a prosperity gospel congregation for ten years.

    Rather, salvation is more like Ephesians Chapter 2. When I realized this, I became–Reformed.

    This is where I’d put a lot of conservative evangelicals, neo-Calvinists, and Reformed baptists. It’s a heavy de-emphasis on good works. Even those who adhere to Joseph Prince’s teachings quote Ephesians 2 heavily.

    When I realized that the Ephesians Chapter 2 community is like Revelation Chapter 5, I became Anglican.

    Delve deeper into your Reformed studies and you’ll see the salvation history through the lens of a covenant community. Anglicans and NT Wright, federal visionists, liturgical reformed, conservative Lutherans fit here. My former OPC emphasized the covenant aspect to salvation pretty well. Some churchmates, once gaining this understanding, told me, “I can’t even stand listening to John Piper anymore.” Now the question becomes, “which community?” That’s when I realized apostolic succession was key and the rest is history. Taking the journey home to Catholicism really requires us to ask some honest hard questions sometimes.

  9. Andre,

    Covenant theology, yes, that’s the ticket. When this story of salvation is informed by the biblical narrative, centered upon the Incarnation, and carried forward in time and space, then we are upon the way.


  10. You guys don’t appear to understand the Protestant detachment of justification from sanctification. It’s not because they are in any way separate processes. The whole process includes imputation and infusion (just as it does in the RC formulation). What it is intended to signify is that the gift is given “without strings attached.” This is how good givers give gifts. In fact, we tend even nowadays to see it as an essential element of true gift giving. We also frown on so-called “Indian Givers” who take back what they have bestowed if ever even one of their precious “strings” get broken. Oh, and we’re not given just a [loyal, unbreakable] bond of friendship, we’re adopted as SONS.

    Symptoms are only symptoms if one actually has the “disease.” There is no Protestant doctrine anywhere that doesn’t see union with Christ as a totally transforming and totally ongoing.

    The purpose of the distinction between justification and sanctification in Protestant soteriology is to make certain that we focus on the Giver rather than on the gift. It is mostly to safeguard an attitude of complete humility…with which we can then cry out, Abba, Father, …and continue with Sola Deo Gloria!

    In Neal’s quote [#5, above], Augustine is really doing little more than paraphrasing Philippians 2:12, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for ihis good pleasure.” Paul isn’t “smuggling” good works in there either. Some of you should take the time to read Article XX of the Augsburg Confession–which is, I believe, the longest article in the whole confession–and see that Protestants do not ignore good works in the slightest.

    Also, please read ALL of Augustine’s “On the Perseverance of the Saints” and see that (aside from those Calvinists who insist on a high degree of assurance of faith) there is not a hair’s breadth of difference between the Reformed and the Doctor of Grace on the topic. (And try to remember that Eternal Security [OSAS] is a dispensational Baptist notion that the Reformed appreciate about as much as the sound of fingernails raked across a chalkboard!)

    As I see it, the principal difference between Catholic and Reformed soteriology is the notion of the perseverance of the saints (which the Catholics lost somewhere along the way). Something that can be taken away is a loan and not a gift. Not only does RC soteriology trivialize the power of the infusing work of the Holy Spirit but cheapens the biblical emphasis on the fiercely protective, jealous love of the Father for his own. (And before you bring up those who turned away in the Old Testament and were destroyed or dispersed, remember Romans 9: “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.”)

    My Good Shepherd never turns his back on his lambs, but when one is missing, stops at nothing to find them and return them to the fold.


    P.S. Andre [#8], Moving sideways into NPP and covenantal nomism is not what I would call “delving deeper” into Reformed studies! Has it really infected the OPC now, too? I thought they were much more careful than that. The PCA put the hammer down on FV though it is by no means yet eradicated from their midst….

  11. Andre (re:#8),

    I’m actually stunned (meaning, very, very surprised) to read that you associate Reformed Baptists with a “heavy de-emphasis on good works.” Have you read much of the work of John Piper, Mark Dever, Wayne Grudem, and others in the Reformed Baptist movement? These men are deeply serious about the importance of good works in the Christian life. As a Catholic “revert,” and a former member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (where Mark Dever preaches), I cannot tell you how many times we were exhorted to do good works as Christians– and very rightly so. We were also told that if there is a noticeable lack of good works in a Christian’s life, that person should seriously examine him/herself, as to whether he/she is truly a Christian. At the same time, we were told that the Bible teaches “justification by faith alone”– but that the faith which truly justifies one before God will, by definition, be a faith which is *shown* through faith in Christ alone *and* through the joyful doing of good works.

  12. andre!
    how’s it going on this side of the tiber?

  13. Eirik (re:#10),

    I am very familiar with what you describe as “the Protestant detachment between justification and sanctification.” I was taught that understanding well when I was a Protestant. See my comment #11. I don’t accept that “detachment” anymore, as a Catholic, but I do understand it.

    You wrote:

    Symptoms are only symptoms if one actually has the “disease.” There is no Protestant doctrine anywhere that doesn’t see union with Christ as a totally transforming and totally ongoing.

    Do you know of the “Lordship Salvation” debate– the very debate among Protestants which led John MacArthur to write his book, “The Gospel According to Jesus”? There are, unfortunately, more than a few Protestants who believe that one can somehow have Jesus as one’s “Savior” without accepting Him as Lord over one’s life (which would logically lead to obedience). Do I believe that those Protestants are correct? Absolutely not. They do exist though. If one wishes to contend that such a notion is not truly “the Protestant doctrine of sanctification,” then we must ask, where does one find *the* Protestant doctrine of sanctification? Protestants do disagree among themselves on this issue.

  14. Christopher,

    Lumping the likes of Zane Hodges in the “Protestant” category deprives the label of any significant meaning. I understand how common it is to do so. But honestly, we might as well speak of Protestantism as holding that believers are “little gods” (as Kenneth Hagin maintains) or that each person of the Trinity can be further subdivided into three, for a total of nine (as Benny Hinn once did), or that the Trinity consists of three “manifestations” rather than “persons” (as T. D. Jakes still does).

    Something tells me we shouldn’t be linking the early Anabaptist leaders into the same grouping as the magisterial Reformers who drowned them!

    It just doesn’t make for productive discourse if every Christian who isn’t Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox is thrown into a grab bag marked “Protestant.”

    I’m basically willing to make common cause only with other Christians who are in the same ballpark as I am theologically. Something on the order of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals: conservative Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, and Anglicans (i.e., magisterial Protestants still within the orb of orthodoxy).

    We find THE Protestant doctrine of sanctification in the major confessions: Augsburg, Westminster, Heidelberg, Belgic, 39 Articles, etc. They’re uncannily unified, so you won’t be left guessing. Protestants don’t disagree one iota…except with Catholics and other non-Protestants.

    For now, I will take your word for it that you truly “understand” sola fide although honestly I don’t see how. It has not been my experience that cradle Catholics, converts, or reverts can give a satisfactory reply to its definition. I mean no disrespect. As Emily Dickinson observed: “Renunciation is the choosing against itself, itself to justify.” The taking on of a new mindset skews our objective evaluation of the rejected old perspective.

    Besides, my belief is that the tightly drawn distinction between justification and sanctification is the heart and soul of the Gospel. For those of us who not only “understand” but hold to the tenet, it is in effect that “pearl of great price, ” that “treasure in a field” for which we will pay the very last farthing, the very last drop of our life’s blood to procure and maintain. We sing our little hearts out for it! So, no, I don’t think you quite understand (or ever understood) that what you held in your hand was so precious…or you wouldn’t have given it up so easily….

    The true gift is still there for the taking!


  15. Eirik,

    If I might gently add, I can still have a good ol’ time defending a Protestant position. I could easily go under a pseudonym and make arguments for Protestant positions. So, being Roman Catholic has not clouded my ability to understand various Protestant positions — even to the point of making arguments for them.

    Isn’t the “pearl of great price” Jesus?

  16. Eirik,

    I ask this as a Protestant who disagrees with you.

    Please provide biblical justification for the assertion you made in #14:

    “…the tightly drawn distinction between justification and sanctification is the heart and soul of the Gospel”

  17. Eirik at 14:

    To address your PS:

    P.S. Andre [#8], Moving sideways into NPP and covenantal nomism is not what I would call “delving deeper” into Reformed studies! Has it really infected the OPC now, too? I thought they were much more careful than that. The PCA put the hammer down on FV though it is by no means yet eradicated from their midst….

    No, not in the OPC, last I checked. But I was a member of the OPC for six years and when FV started to appeal to me, I began my struggle with Protestantism as a whole.You also wrote:

    It just doesn’t make for productive discourse if every Christian who isn’t Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox is thrown into a grab bag marked “Protestant.”

    True that we have to define our terms and concepts before engaging in meaningful discussion. The actual purpose of this site is to begin dialog with those of a Reformed persuasion. Very rarely will someone jump on here defending a Joel Osteen, Kenneth Hagin, or Joseph Prince. So, while I wouldn’t call them “Protestants” in the fullest sense of the term, they would still be under that general banner of Protestantism from the perspective of a sociologist studying Christianity and its sects.

  18. Lake at 11: I have always understood the Reformed position that good works play no role in justification. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, it is a “single act” or monergistic. It is when God chooses you and declares you righteous, securing you for all eternity. I have sat under sermon after sermon stressing that “nothing you can do” will earn the grace of God. (Which is true!) But I understand the examples you are providing. Good works are always a fruit of justification in reformed tradition.

  19. Brent–

    Yeah, I know. I could do the same thing with Catholic arguments. But that’s not exactly my point. My heart wouldn’t be in it. I wouldn’t mean it. I follow Catholic arguments quite well, but since I don’t find them convincing in the least, I cannot say that I truly “understand” them. They remain incomprehensible, even incoherent. They do not jibe with my present perspective. You will either be the same (though vice-versa), or you haven’t really committed to Catholicism. The two soteriological systems are totally incompatible.

    Of course, Jesus is the “pearl of great price.” How does one come to Jesus? Through faith, and faith alone. That is as true for you as it is for me…whether or not you actually believe in it.


    For what it’s worth, I’ll throw out Romans 3:22-28 and Ephesians 2:4-10. No surprises there. I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at. It’s not exactly something that’s up for debate in Protestant circles (as I’ve defined them). Do you as a Protestant not subscribe to the five solas? Is sola fide not the “articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae” for you? Talk to me.


    Yeah, FV is a common starting point for moving towards the wet, cold, murky Tiber. I’m actually quite fascinated by Doug Wilson; he has a lot to give. But his ecclesiology leaves a bit to be desired. I understand that the vague non-Catholic definition of Protestantism is here to stay. It just has absolutely no historical validity; plus, I don’t want to have to answer for a bunch of lone ranger nut jobs. It’s a free country. Anybody who wishes to can call themselves Protestant (or Catholic, for that matter). You probably wouldn’t want me constantly to bring up Lefebvrists and sedevacantists and conclavists and whatnot.


  20. The gifts infused by the Holy Spirit are larger on the inside than out. These are gifts that you can never stop opening. So, one must either start opening, keep opening, or return to opening. (Can you offer more than one choice with an either/or statement? )

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