I am frequently asked by Protestants why we Catholics don’t teach “assurance of salvation,” the belief that those who are currently saved are guaranteed ultimate salvation, no matter what. Someone cannot be temporarily saved and ultimately damned. Calvinists and many Evangelicals affirm this doctrine (under different names: assurance of salvation, perseverance of the Saints, “Once Saved, Always Saved,” etc.), and Calvinism actually requires it in order to work.
From a Catholic perspective, we can be assured that if we are faithful, we will be saved. But we have no guarantee that we will be faithful: that is, while we can be assured that God won’t reject His faithful people, we have no assurance that we won’t reject God.
Broadly, there are three major reasons why we Catholics can reject “Once Saved, Always Saved.” First, the passages that allegedly teach this doctrine are actually conditional upon us not turning away from God (and Scripture tells us this); Second, Scripture explicitly teaches that those who are saved can reject their salvation (and gives specific examples); and finally, assurance of salvation provides only illusory assurance, due to the insurmountable problem of “false assurance.” Let’s consider each in turn:
Many of the passages in Scripture are conditional, in that they apply unless something changes. Sometimes, this conditionality is explicit, but other times, it’s only implicit. And we see it both in negative proclamations (that someone is hellbound) and in positive proclamations (that someone is saved or righteous). Let’s consider both halves:
|Dirk Crabeth, Jonah and the Whale (1565) (detail)|
Negative Conditionality: If you say to someone living a life of sin, “You’re going to Hell,” you’re implying “…unless you change your ways.” Jonah proclaimed “Yet forty days, and Nin′eveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4), but Ninevah wasn’t overthrown after forty days. So why wasn’t Jonah a false prophet? Because his message had an implicit conditionality: Ninevah would be destroyed unless it changed its course. Even though Jonah never said that his message was conditional, it still was (and was understood to be: cf. Jonah 3:6-10).
Positive Conditionality: So then, the only question is whether this implied conditionality applies both ways. Obviously, if we say someone is headed to hell, that can change. But can it change if we say that they’re headed to Heaven? Scripture says yes. This is Ezekiel 3:18-21, very explicitly laying out both negative and positive conditionality:
“When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.
“Again, when a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before them, they will die. Since you did not warn them, they will die for their sin. The righteous things that person did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the righteous person not to sin and they do not sin, they will surely live because they took warning, and you will have saved yourself.”
All that strikes me as very clear: even when a person is described as saved or righteous, they can still fall away, all the way to eternal death (and their prior righteousness will be forgotten, just as the righteous man’s prior sinfulness is forgotten).
A second way that we know that assurance of salvation isn’t Scriptural is that it is contradicted by Scripture. Let’s consider three examples:
|Avanzino Nucci, Peter’s Conflict with Simon Magus (1620)|
Lack of Assurance in Scripture, pt. 1: There is a clear example in Scripture of someone falling away in just the way that Ezekiel 3 warns about. In Acts 8, a magician named Simon sees the miracles of St. Philip. We’re told explicitly that he believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13), which is the formulation for salvation (Mark 16:16). So Simon is saved. But then, he attempts simony (the buying of spiritual goods, a sin which bears his name) by trying to buy the ability to perform the Sacrament of Confirmation (Acts 8:19). Acts 19:20-24 reports the aftermath:
But Peter said to him, “Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
Peter doesn’t say “you’re saved, so these sins won’t keep you out of Heaven.” He says very much the opposite: that Simon’s bad actions have changed his trajectory downwards, and that he needs forgiveness. (I also like that Simon seeks forgiveness through the intercession of St. Peter, but that’s a conversation for another day). Whether Simon was ultimately saved or damned, we’re not told. And it’s not particularly important for our purposes: the point is that it’s possible that he went to hell, which disproves assurance of salvation.
Lack of Assurance in Scripture, pt. 2: St. Peter opens the second chapter of 2 Peter by warning that “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1). That’s a strong claim: Peter is saying that these false teachers were ransomed by Christ, their Master, but then denied Him, and brought destruction upon themselves. That’s exactly what perseverance of the Saints claims can’t happen. At the close of the chapter, speaking of this same group, Peter says:
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire.
Sometimes, this second passage gets explained away, by saying that these teachers weren’t ever really Christian, but just associated with Christians. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see in what way they “escaped the defilements of the world” or “have known the way of righteousness” or turned back (since they apparently never had a faith to turn back from). And it doesn’t even remotely explain why Peter would think that Christ ransomed them.
|Apostle Paul, Church of St. Trophime, Arles|
Lack of Assurance in Scripture, pt. 3: St. Paul calls believers to mortification, in 1 Cor. 9:24-27, to help ensure that we don’t lose our salvation. In the process, he even admits the possibility that he could lose his salvation:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
In my view, nothing in this passage makes sense if assurance of salvation is true (since all of the runners would be guaranteed to win). That’s true of several other Pauline passages, too.
For example, in the very next chapter, Paul uses examples of members of the Old Testament Chosen People who “were destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10) as the basis of his warning: “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). If perseverance of the Saints were true, the sort of fall that Paul warns against is impossible: the unsaved were never standing (and therefore, can’t fall), and the saved can never fall to their destruction.
To take another example, St. Paul warned the Christians of Galatia not to reject the Gospel by which they were saved (Gal. 1:3-7), and warned them against falling into the sins of the flesh, since “those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-20). Why warn them of this (specifically), if it is impossible for them to disinherit the Kingdom?
So there are numerous other Scriptural examples that can be marshaled, but the point is simple: if even St. Paul wasn’t assured of his (or his readers’) final perseverance, you shouldn’t be, either.
|Charles Templeton preaching in New York
(h/t Brad Templeton)
The last problem is a devastating one for the doctrine: there are people who, at one point in their lives, are professing Christians, and convinced of their own salvation, yet who later fall away. There are two major points to make here:
False Assurance, pt. 1: Charles Templeton was a prominent televangelist in the mid-twentieth century, the host of a weekly religious show, and a close friend of Billy Graham’s. If you were to ask him if he was saved, he would have undoubtedly said yes. So would those around him. But in 1957, he announced that he had become an agnostic. He went on to write a book called Farewell to God, and apparently died an agnostic (or an atheist). What good is assurance of salvation if we can’t tell whose assurance is real, and whose is false? That’s not much ground for certainty.
False Assurance, pt. 2: The problem of “false assurance” is so serious to the doctrine of assurance of salvation that Calvin had to make up an entirely new doctrine. He invented something called “evanescent grace” given to some of the damned to (inexplicably) trick them into thinking that they were saved. In Calvin’s words, “the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them.” I wrote about it here, but I’m sure you can see the problem: if nobody can tell the difference between real-assurance and false-assurance, then nobody is really assured in their assurance.
Imagine it in terms of two prison guards, one who always lies, and one who always tells the truth. You hear from one of them (you’re not sure which) that you can be assured of your freedom. Rationally, this shouldn’t give you any assurance, since you don’t know whether it was the good guard (representing saving grace) or the evil guard (representing evanescent grace).
There you have it: the Bible doesn’t teach “assurance of salvation,” or “perseverance of the Saints,” or “Once Saved, Always Saved,” or any variation thereof. The passages that seem to teach it are implicitly conditional, as Ezekiel 3 tells us, and as Jonah’s preaching shows. And there is a veritable wealth of passages showing people who were once saved, but then lose their salvation. Finally, the appeal of “assurance of salvation” is illusory, since it comes with the problem of “false assurance,” since not everyone who feels assured will be saved.
The implications of this are huge. If Calvinists and Evangelicals are right in their soteriology and their views on grace, then perseverance of the Saints would necessarily be true. Since we have just seen that the doctrine is false, it follows that the theological systems requiring such a doctrine are also false.