There is an idea in Protestant thought that has been called the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” This teaching is the belief that once someone has been “born again,” their “having been saved” (that is to say, their declaration of true faith) is so authentic that it puts them forever into a different relationship with God. This moment of conversion to a new spiritual life creates, they believe, a permanent condition of salvation (an eternal security in one’s “being saved”). They will sometimes say things like, “My friend got saved the other day.” In our day, it is usually the Baptists who seem to hold and profess this teaching that once someone is “saved” they can never be lost to God, but the idea is not uniquely theirs nor was it originally theirs.
Remember that Martin Luther (the ex-priest who began the whole Protestant Reformation) rejected the papacy, in part, because of the Catholic emphasis on “works.” We are told that as a monk, Fr. Luther was scrupulous and fearful for his own salvation, but he would lose his scrupulosity once he rejected his Catholic Faith. Instead, Luther placed a tremendous emphasis on this radical “new-found” Protestant faith that he assessed to be superior to his old Catholic faith. Luther taught that this radical, new faith alone could save one. Luther went so far as to teach that in this condition, he could even “sin boldly,” for no sin could separate a saved person from God, not even if he murdered or committed adultery a thousand times a day. Still, Luther was not the only Protestant who emphasized this teaching. Another important Protestant at the same time, John Calvin, also taught this doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Calvin mixed this notion of salvation’s assurance with his teaching on predestination, declaring that God had chosen His elect believers from the beginning of time, and it is thereby impossible for those chosen to be lost.
As Catholics, we should know that this is NOT our Church’s teaching! Catholics just don’t think of “being saved” (in the past tense). We look forward to our personal salvation and we accept Christ as the Savior of the world, and we hope to be saints, but Catholics do not believe that our personal salvation is a guarantee, nor do we believe that this Protestant doctrine of “once saved, always saved” can be reconciled with the teachings of the apostles. If St. Paul believed that once folks had accepted Jesus as the Messiah their salvation was thereby guaranteed, he would not have had to write so many letters to so many of the churches exhorting these new Christians to live a more authentic life, and he would hardly have had to say to the Philippians that they should work out their salvation with fear and trembling. To the contrary, the Catholic Spiritual life has always emphasized morality and (yes) works of charity as a part of our own ongoing conversion, and we have never taught that just because we’re raised as Catholics, or just because we may have had a fervent faith at some point in our lives, this somehow guarantees our salvation. As far as we’re concerned, it is impossible to say works and morality are unimportant to our salvation if you but look at Matthew 19:16-22 or Matthew 25: 31-46. But the bigger problem is that we as Catholics, particularly those of us who live in a predominantly Protestant milieu, have become influenced by this curious and particular Protestant doctrine, and so we Catholics in America are sadly becoming uncharacteristically presumptive of own salvation.
Serious Sin can Separate Us From God
So let us be clear. We Catholics still believe in sin. Admittedly, we may be the only ones left on the planet who still believe in sin, but we do. We believe in sin, and that we are sinners! This is the official teaching of our Church, but alas many reject the Church and have lost a sense of sin. These days even the worst possible sins are praised and lionized, people glory in their sins and throw parades declaring their sins to the world (which, of course, they deny are sins). We know that modern folks shamelessly live their lives in grave sin and without the least fear whatsoever of judgment, but again, please appreciate that our Catholic Church does notteach us to be so glib about sin, nor to be so self-righteous or so presumptuous that we are all going to heaven no matter how we live our lives. The Catholic Church still teaches that confession and penance are necessary for the life of the saints, that hell exists and that we can go there. God isn’t compelled to save us. So, as Catholics, we should know the commandments and we should fear sin.
Catholics Pray For the Dead
If Protestants think they “got saved” when they were twelve, Catholics pray for our dead loved ones for years after their deaths. Nothing demonstrates the stark difference in teaching than this. Still many contemporary Catholics have lost this pious practice of praying for the dead, which is exceedingly evident at our funerals. There is such a contrast in the rite as it is experienced in our parishes these days. The official chants and prayers of the Church’s liturgy are still clearly prayers for the deceased, asking that the Lord will show the deceased His great mercy. But often times the families of the deceased choose music and give eulogies that demonstrate their complete confidence that heaven is a foregone conclusion for their loved who is already singing with the angels. Now in some cases, like when a pious Catholic grandmother who prayed her rosary constantly, and who was always reading her Bible or volunteering at her parish dies – then this hope might be understandable. But keep in mind that if our grandmothers were really that pious and Catholic, then they would want us to pray for them, too! Simply put, we stand outside our tradition when we presume salvation for anyone. And yet the secularized members of modern Catholic families can be surprised to learn that the priest is praying for their loved one. But that is exactly what we priests do. We pray for the dead. And we pray for our fellow clergy when they die, too (even popes!).
Our asking God to show His mercy to our deceased loved one is a good and holy thing. It reminds us that God will judge us, and that we need His mercy. In so doing, we have a truer understanding of God (the real God, and not some false god of our own making). The real God is not a genie. He does not come at our beck and call. He does not grant us wishes like a slave. And He does not open heaven for us just because we have said “open sesame.” God does not owe us salvation because of some formulaic declaration we made at the age of eleven when we “accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior.” The Lord is our judge. He has a choice to let us into heaven. He will assess our lives. He will separate the weeds from the wheat. He tells us that sometimes the seeds spring up fast, but wither out and do not persevere to the end. He tells us that perseverance is essential. He tells us that we will be judged by how we have shown charity and also by how we have lived our lives. The Lord comes to save sinners and He forgives sinners, but He always says, “Go and sin no more!” We need to understand this, because if we have a smug certainty of our salvation, then we often lose sight of the moral life. This is not good. Because, as Catholics, we are notsupposed to “sin boldly,” but rather we are called to boldly live the virtuous life!
The Moral Life is the Good Life
Keep in mind that the Catholic Church teaches us that the Lord can choose to save people who may have no faith in Christ at all. He is God. He can choose whomever He chooses. We should not ask the Lord to be fair. We don’t really want Him to be fair, because we are all sinners. What we want is for the Lord to be merciful! We throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Judge! But while we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, this does not mean that we should not strive for virtue. And the idea of the virtues goes back before the time of the Church. Never forget that there were generations of our ancestors who lived before Christ was born. Clearly, if they are to be judged by Christ, He will not blame them for not believing in Him who had not yet come! Even today, there are those who have never heard the name of Jesus, but they may be good people. There are those who hold to a moral life for reasons that are outside of the Catholic Tradition, and we should respect them, because a virtuous life is a good life. The early Church welcomed many Stoics into her rank and file in the earliest centuries of our existence. Stoics were individuals who lived by a philosophy that embraced the moral life because they believed it was a good life, even if their initial motivation was not Christian faith. We might think of these folks as something like the fictional character of Atticus Finch in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch lived a moral life and was a good man, but he was more a Stoic Sage than a Catholic Saint, and yet there are many parallels. Stoics were named for the Stoa, which was the columned school of ancient Athens that taught moral absolutes by which one should live in order to be happy. The old Stoic philosophers were attracted to Catholicism because of our emphasis on the moral life. Our Church held up moral absolutes and called the world to live by them in order to find a blessed life. Our teachings on the Christ also rounded out the Stoic’s philosophical inclinations and gave him hope and insight that his philosophy had lacked.
The Loss of Christian Morality Accompanies the Loss of Faith
The world that was once evangelized by the Church became more and more Catholic over time, but today there is a movement towards secularism. Many have wandered away from the Catholic Church in recent generations, and they do so in part because they are rejecting moral absolutes. You might ask what are moral absolutes? Moral absolutes would include the commandments, for example, and the Church’s moral teachings that evolve out of those commandments. When something is and always will be sinful, that is a moral absolute.
These days the commandments are offensive to our world, and the world rejects them and even moves them out of the public forum. Our modern attitudes lean more towards the more live-and-let-live motto wherein we seek our own pleasures. Our present culture is rootless. It is living in denial of its Judeo-Christian foundation. Modern folks are more Epicurean than they are Stoic. Our contemporary culture is one that seeks sensual pleasure and luxury and rejects the very notion of moral absolutes. We sin boldly, and we glory in our sin, and we object to whatever denies us our absolute freedom from any moral absolute. But this life doesn’t lead us to happiness. What it does lead us to are crowded prisons, high divorce rates, high abortion rates, high venereal disease rates, shameless extravagance, and an increased proclivity towards generational drug addiction. That is what our once-vibrant western culture is fast becoming. It can also lead us to conclude that if we’re not enjoying this life anymore, then life is worthless and we can end our own lives. This is the lesson we get from the world where the shameless lives of the American pop artists and actors are lionized! Our modern culture is amoral and immoral. Today, the only modern no-no is to be so bold as to declare that a moral absolute exists, because that would be “hate speech!”
The world is a mess right now, there is no denying, and many in the Church have been compromised by our world. But the Catholic Church still upholds moral absolutes, and we still promote the moral life. Catholicism still teaches that the moral life is the best path to blessedness and real happiness. This demonstrates why, as Catholics, we have such a prophetic role in our world today, and why we will no doubt be rejected and even punished for our prophetic utterances that “sin is still sin.” But make no mistake, Catholicism is where we find the best path to sanity and sanctity! As Catholics, we hold to moral absolutes, but we also reject the notion of scrupulosity. This is a balancing act that we live in – the tension that characterizes our lives – and it is a milieu that makes for good literature (we might add) – that we know there is moral good but we struggle to live it: that we want to want that which we do not want. That we want chastity, but not yet! This tension defines our human condition. And let us just admit that as Catholics, we are very human.
Modern Humanity Insists on Freedom and then denies Responsibility!
Poor Martin Luther, back when he was a Catholic, was reportedly always on the brink of despair and he doubted God’s forgiveness. Instead of being overly confident, he was hopelessly paranoid. Assuredly his confessors tried to help him, but Luther ultimately rejected the forgiveness of the confessional and tore away from the Church to find his own reported security in “Faith Alone.” There were many grave sinners in the Catholic Church then (as now), so Luther could easily point to them and then dismiss and reject fifteen centuries of Catholicism as little more than misguided hypocrisy. We are not so glib, but admittedly we sinful Catholics make easy targets for these kinds of attacks. On behalf of my fellow sinful Catholics, please accept my apologies everyone. I suppose through the eyes of the world, we are all hypocrites because we are all sinners and yet we denounce sin, but this is nothing new. Catholics sin! Sorry.
But the pride that brought Luther to found a new denomination for “the saved” ultimately leads us to a world where the moral life is diminished as unnecessary, and sin becomes a forgotten and passé notion, because folks just believe they are already “saved.” Amazingly, Martin Luther even went so far as to reject free will itself! How can you believe that when you base your whole religion on Faith is incomprehensible to us, but let’s face it, the moral life is simply impossible (and even ridiculous) if you insist you’re not free to live it. Of course, we recognize that we humans like to excuse ourselves this way all the time. We want freedom, but not responsibility. We demand freedom from the rules, but then we are shocked to learn the rules were right, and this just makes us angrier. We declare that “we are simply being true to ourselves,” and “we have no choice but to live this way, because we were born this way.” “This is what our natures compel us to do.” We say “we are pro-choice,” and then we say “we are compelled and have no choice but to do this or that.” Nonsense! Here is the Catholic difference! We are free, but we are wounded. This whole Christian life can be looked at as training for heaven. The moral life is a life in training where we choose Christ again and again and again. We sin. We ask forgiveness. We improve. We persevere. And this is our ongoing conversion!
Study Catholic Teaching to Live the Moral Life
So as Catholics, we should watch how these worldly notions begin to infect our own way of thinking. So much of these notions come at us constantly. We need to study our own Catholic Tradition to appreciate the difference. How do we navigate in such uncertain and confused times? Well, for starters we need to read our Catechism (the part on the Ten Commandments, for example) to understand the true path of blessedness. Maybe we need to read it two or three times! But let us keep in mind that we Catholics live the moral life because of Christ. We live the life of the saints because we want to live forever with Christ. We live the moral life for the sake of our salvation! And yes, we fail often, and yes, we can even go to hell if we so choose. But we are called to heaven. We are called to walk a moral path wherein we must get up every time we have stumbled, and we start again. This is what the Bible is talking about when we are told to persevere! As Catholics, we go to confession, and we start again. That is the moral life – striving for holiness!
A young seminarian once asked an elderly priest, “When will my temptations of lust stop, Father?” to which the wise old priest answered, “About five minutes after you’re dead.” It is true that we Catholics may never stop sinning entirely, but we also must never stop striving to overcome sin, because we can make progress, and we should make moral progress! Thus, friends, do we work towards our salvation, because the moral life is a part of the life of the saints, and we accept, in humility, that we poor sinners, who so often reach for forbidden fruit, are nevertheless free to choose the good, and so let us choose Christ, again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, until we pray one day He chooses us to be forever His. Then we will know His salvation forever!