I was working with my confirmation class recently, and I said something that surprised them.
I asked what a “saint” is, and after some discussion, I told them it is someone who is either already in heaven, or who is sure he or she is going there.
“You mean there are saints who are still living?” they asked.
“Yes,” I replied, and pointed them to the various introductions St. Paul made to the readers of his letters, calling them “saints” as we find in Ephesians 1:1-2:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. NRSV
Then I told the class that I’m a saint according to that definition. “I’m St. Anthony. What do you think of that?”
Then they asked how I could be so sure that I’m going to heaven. That, of course was the perfect opening to discuss salvation by grace through faith. I told them it’s not on my own merits that I’m destined for heaven, but only on the merits of Jesus Christ, whom I’ve consciously trusted for my eternal destiny. I quoted Ephesians 2:8-9 to them:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. NRSV
I told them I’m not being presumptuous in any way – that the only thing I have done is trust in Jesus. He did all the work. The works we do after trusting our lives to Jesus are done in obedience to God’s will for us, not to earn salvation.
I also told them that once you’ve truly committed your life to Jesus, you can’t lose your salvation, nor can you do anything to add to it. This blew their minds, because we live in a works-based world. God’s way is grace-based – big difference! Unfortunately far too many faith traditions are also works-based: you either have to add to what Jesus did on the cross (penance, works of supererogation), or you can lose your salvation despite what Jesus said in John 6:39-40:
“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” NIV
So when Christians talk about salvation and going to heaven, that’s what they mean. As it says in the old hymn, "When The Saints Go Marching In":
Up there I'll see the Savior
Who redeemed my soul from sin;
With extended hands He'll greet me
when the Saints go marching in.
Will you be in that number, when the saints go marching in?