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A Catholic Questions Assurance of Salvation

I have been a longtime Christian and Catholic, which I suppose to you all is like saying I’m a member of Army Intelligence – a contradiction in terms. I was a convert first to Christianity, then I (re)joined the Catholic church – and I’ve been reading my Bible for years. I would be the absolute last person to say that the Catholic Church taken as a whole has been completely without error, that all Popes have been infallible and pure, that all Catholic teaching has been perfect and spirit-driven – but I am sure that in your most honest moments, you would say the same about those you consider your brothers and sisters in Christ, whether or not you have a concept of a Universal Church made up of all of us who believe, constituting the Body of Christ on Earth. We are all of us sinners, capable of self-deception, and perfection is not to be found in any of us on Earth.

However, one egregious distortion I’ve seen repeated on your Web pages, and it’s something I keep seeing and hearing from some evangelicals, and have seen mentioned in the anti-Catholic section of your site, is this concept of “assurance of salvation” – the notion that once a person accepts Christ as Savior and is reborn in the Spirit, there is no way that that person is not going to Heaven, that nothing that person does can separate him or her from Christ. I’d agree that no EXTERNAL force can separate him from Jesus, but what about the motions of his own will? “Assurance of Salvation” to my mind is arrant nonsense and depends upon misinterpreting Scripture in a way that is completely outside the Bible. It encourages people to believe that it doesn’t matter what kind of life they lead, what kind of example or even scandal they demonstrate to non-believers, that no matter what they do they’re saved. This is a childish belief, and in itself is a scandal to many non-believers. It’s as much a mechanistic bit of nonsense as the apparent belief of some Catholics that attendance at Mass and reception of the sacraments is enough to get them into heaven.

I’m aware that Martin Luther first proposed this idea, and while much of what Luther said was true, and his criticisms of the Church were often valid, this was one of the loonier things he ever said. To my mind, the formulation of the Baltimore Catechism, taken no doubt from some ancient father of the church, is very good: “The two sins against Hope are Presumption and Despair.” To my mind this ‘Assurance of Salvation’ idea is Presumption.

And the way the evangelicals argue this point is, I would say, to turn a taunt often thrown at me, Jesuitical. If I propose the example of a person who one day accepts Christ fully, believes in Jesus and his promises, and is reborn, then over time that person of his own free will rejects the gift he has been given and by his own choice becomes evil, rejecting God, you’ll either tell me that a person who was truly reborn could never do that (rejecting free will) or more likely you will say that the person never was truly born again, that it was some sort of false or assumed conversion. That’s Jesuitical logic-chopping for you! The only way to know if it was a “real” rebirth in the spirit is to look at that person’s actions afterwards? To wait until the end of their lives? Then what happens to your assurance of salvation, since none of us knows what the future will bring and none of us can know that we will never fall away! (And I’d hasten to say, I don’t believe ‘Jesuitical’ should be used as a curse word – many holy and honest men have been Jesuits.)

Catholics, I think, have the most biblically-supported position here. Leaving aside the sacraments, which I know is like waving a red flag in front of a bull for many of you, an honest reading of the scriptures shows that salvation involves the participation of Christ and the cooperation of man – that it is not a one-shot deal. No less a person than St. Paul acknowledged that he had not finished the race, that he was not ‘there’ yet, and that there existed the possibility that he would fall by the wayside. And Jesus was careful to point out, through several parables, that not everyone who cried, ‘Lord, Lord’ would enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who did His will. Aren’t the parables of the sower and the seed, the sheep and the goats, enough to give you any pause or cast any doubt in this perverse belief?

Anyhow, I only say this because in my heart, I believe that the evangelicals have done the Catholic church a lot of good, by challenging them to strip away some of the accretions of the ages, some of the really un-edifying practices and habits that had taken the Church pretty far from the living Word of God in some areas. However, where you are in error, and this ‘Assurance of Salvation’ stuff is an error, and especially when you wrongly and in a distorted fashion use this erroneous concept in a way that I think is harmful and not in accord with Christ’s teaching, it should be pointed out and condemned.

Thanks for writing to us with your concerns.  There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding out there about salvation, and what role we play (if any) in our own salvation.  We’ll do our best to show the true biblical teachings on salvation.

First, let me say that we do not condone the idea of accepting Christ, then leading a life in which one makes no effort to follow Christ in his or her daily life.  Paul had some things to say on that issue, but we’ll get there in a bit.  Let’s try to look at this in an orderly fashion.  First, how does one receive salvation?  The Bible is clear that salvation is granted to us from God through our faith and belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11:25-26

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:21-24

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” Romans 3:27-28

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” – Mark 16:16

Okay, from these readings, it is quite clear that our role in our salvation comes through our faith and belief in Jesus Christ.  No “good works” are going to do us any good, because we cannot earn salvation.  This was hard for people in Jesus’ time to swallow too: “Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’  Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’ ” – John 6:28-29.  The doctrine of sola fide (salvation by faith alone) is still hard for some people to understand.  Even I sometimes grappled with the idea that I could be saved, sanctified, and justified simply through an act of faith and profession of belief.  But such thinking diminishes the almighty power and grace of Jesus Christ?  It hints that His sacrifice was somehow inadequate to save us from ourselves.   

So we have this assurance of our salvation, but no one should think for a moment that this gives us license to live in a worldly fashion!  Paul attempted to head off this line of thought:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin– because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace
.” Roman 6:1-14

You see, when we accept the gift of salvation, we become new creations in Christ.  As long as we live on this earth, we will never be immune from temptations and from our sinful nature.  Indeed, I have not yet met a Christian who completely ceased sinning after accepting Christ.  Yet when we genuinely submit ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, we don’t want to keep sinning.  If our belief and our faith is genuine, we will want to serve Him fully and live for Him daily.  And when we do stumble and fall, John tells us to confess our sins to God: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” – 1 John 1:9. [I should point you to Hebrews chapters 4 and 7 to reinforce the fact that Jesus is our one and only High Priest, and the only one to whom we must confess our sins.]  Because we may stumble and fall does not make us slaves to sin.  We confess our sins and continue in our service to the Lord, cleansed from our unrighteousness.  

When Jesus saves us, He is assured of our salvation, so we can be too: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” – John 10:28.  If I reject this verse, then I call Jesus a liar.  I will do no such thing!  Paul pounded this home as well in his letter to Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39.   

Gustin, true faith begets obedience.  Obedience is not perfection, but rather a daily attempt to be more “Christ-like.”  Thankfully, Jesus Himself has reassured me that my human failures will not separate me from Him, because He made too costly a sacrifice for my salvation to let me slip through His fingers.  That is where our assurance comes from, Gustin.  It is biblical, because it is true.  I pray that the truth of God’s Word will be made evident to your heart. 

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