24 July 2007

Assurance of salvation

One of the Big Issues that I'm grappling with as I evaluate the Catholic and Reformed views on salvation is the issue of assurance of salvation. The confidence in the mercy of God to handle human weakness and frailty as we grow in Christ during this life here on earth is a big deal and has been for many saints who've gone before from St. Augustine to Martin Luther to John Wesley.

I'm struggling with the Catholic view on one being able to lose their salvation or "state of grace" as they tend to describe it. In a nutshell, there are two kinds of sins: venial and mortal. Protestants are generally unfamiliar with this idea, instead believing that "sin is sin" and while some may have more serious earthly consequences, all sin is equal in terms of eternal ramifications. But Catholics cite 1 John 5: 16, 17 as the Scriptural reason for the distinction they make:

16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.

In Catholic translations of the Bible, they actually use the phrase "mortal sin" to describe "sin leading to death." This isn't a big deal as the word "mortal" is used this way all the time (i.e. "mortal wound" for instance means "a wound that results in death.) Furthermore, to truly be a mortal sin, the action committed has to be a grave or serious matter (in other words, murder as opposed to breaking the speed limit or telling someone they're new haircut is nice when you really think it's not), the person committing it has to know that the Church considers that matter to be grave or serious and finally, the action has to be done with full consent. In other words, you didn't do it rashly without thinking, or by accident, or under duress.

So while it isn't easy to commit a mortal sin, Christians certainly do it. It doesn't have to be the blatantly obvious things like murder. There's lusting in one's heart which is adultery according to Jesus. And obviously, unless someone had a gun to their head, they did it of their own volition. Now here's the issue for me: in the Catholic view of things, mortal sins are named such because they actually remove the Christian from a state of grace. In Protestant language, the person in that moment loses their salvation. And should they die before going to confession and receiving absolution for that sin, they will be condemned to hell for all eternity.

Now to be sure, Catholics aren't the only Christian group that believes one can lose salvation once obtained. Almost all Pentecostal denominations, Methodists and a host of other denominations believe that a Christian can choose to reject the faith and turn their back on God, resulting in them losing their salvation and going to hell when they die. But if you ask them how a Christian would lose salvation, you would rarely if ever get an answer that intimated that one could bounce back and forth, in and out of "being saved" with the commission of a single sin except in the most extreme circumstances. Most would describe it more as a process where the believer sins and doesn't repent and over time, his or her heart is hardened by their sinful actions and lack of remorse and repentance to where they essentially leave the faith. On rare occasions, they may be so bold as to directly state "I renounce my faith", but saying the words would not be a prerequisite...their heart is what is the determining factor.

If losing one's salvation is this easy, how does one who believes this way not live in constant fear? What if our earthly fathers did this? There would be several million more teenagers out there living on the streets if they kicked their rebellious teen out the the family and out of the house everytime they willfully disobeyed their parents on matters the father considers serious. But of course, our earthly fathers (which are meant to be a representation to us of our Heavenly Father) don't do that. We may be disciplined and it may be severe. But it would take a consistent and deliberate and unremorseful pattern of rank disobedience and defiance for most parents to even consider "the nuclear option" and kick them out or disown them. And it would probably involve things like drugs or heavy drinking, endangering the family in some way, bringing lovers over to have sex in the house and so on.

So how is it that our Heavenly Father would condemn someone to hell, whose life pattern was one of striving to grow in Christ and live a faithful life, for committing one serious sin then dying before repenting of it? And for Catholics, the list doesn't have to be the biggies like murder, adultery or homosexual sex for instance. It could be deliberately missing Sunday Mass or some other Holy Day of Obligation (like Ash Wednesday) without a good reason such as being too sick to attend. It could be using a condom when having sex with one's wife. It could be lusting after an immodestly dressed woman (or man). Heaven forbid that someone could have otherwise been a faithful Christian but make a poor choice in a moment of weakness then die in a car accident before the conviction of the Holy Spirit set in and they repented or made it to confession.

Now some would say that God doesn't "kick us out," rather, we walk out on our own. I have a hard time believing this is what's happening. Again going back to the example above...when you disobeyed your parents on some serious matter, were you honestly leaving your family and disowning them? I'm not trying to minimize the wrongness of what you were doing, but did your parents, even when they were mad and decided to implement some seriously tough love in the form of discipline, ever take it as a decision to turn your back on the family and remove yourself from it entirely? Or did they take it as an occasion of momentary, episodic rebellion or disobedience that required correction, not abject condemnation?

Coming from more of a Lutheran or Calvinist view of salvation, I do believe in eternal security, but even if I simply held the view of more Arminian Protestants, there is still some assurance that God doesn't kick you to the curb right away. Sin breaks fellowship with God and there are certainly possible consequences to that...missing out on provision or blessings, living with guilt and the accompanying spiritual turmoil, God handing out some kind of direct discipline and chastisement or even a desensitizing to sin that makes it easier to give in the next time and take you further down that path toward rejecting Him altogether. But I wouldn't live in mortal fear that I had immediately lost my salvation. I would trust that God would be convicting me of sin and working to restore full fellowship with me, not that I would cease to be one of His children any longer.

How do Catholics deal with this?


whose_body said...

(This is Bennie.) I think, from a Catholic point of view, committing mortal sin is by its very nature something that kills grace in us. Grace is what we need to be whole and to be able to see God's face. If, by doing something, we take away this support and this gift that fills us, then the only way we could see God's face when we die is if God pretended we hadn't done what we did -- or changed the past -- or changed our will. (And I don't think we know that God wants to do any of this, though the last one, because it may be possible, he may want to do.)

Of course, we don't ever know what happens in the last moments, when body and soul are separated. Repentance is possible in ways that we can probably not guess. Pronouncing a negative judgment is foolhardy. But there is a real possibility to die in a state without Jesus' grace (and to be dead, to not be able to change one's own will).

I personally don't fear the concept of mortal sin, because to me it seems far more livable than the alternative. If there is a way to turn aside from the path to see God face to face, then it follows that the path is of utmost importance. And, deep down, this is something I believe, whether I can explain why or not...

You may find some of Teresa of Avila's thoughts on losing salvation to be interesting, by the way. (She is, interestingly enough, a "Doctor of the Church". She's important.) Rowan Williams, (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, never tires of finding something in them. Put very roughly, she says that there is a path that, if you do not leave it, you are safe -- that is, saved. And if the path, because it leads to Jesus' face, is so dear to you, then there is no need for fear. The path is, of course, love. Love casts out fear, and the more perfect it becomes, the more it eclipses the fear.

This does not negate the real possibility of Christians in hell. But it acknowledges, at the same time, the height of the path (love). And how growing in that is just as real.

Red Cardigan said...

Hi, Ragamuffin. I've been reading your blog tonight and am really honored that you've got a link to mine!

I think the importance of understanding the Catholic concept of mortal sin really goes back to those three conditions. Put in plain language, they are this:
The sin has to be something really wrong.
You have to know it's really wrong.
You have to freely choose to do it anyway.

Most of the "big sins" can be found listed in the Bible. These are things that serious Christians try to avoid anyway, and seek to repent and be forgiven if they commit them, even if they don't think salvation is hanging in the balance.

As for things like missing Mass without a good reason on Sunday or a Holy Day, most Catholics who choose to do this, knowing the Church teaches that it's seriously wrong, have already made something of a decision to make their faith less important in their lives.

But it's important to remember for a sin to be truly mortal, truly killing the life of grace so to speak, all three conditions have to be met. A person who thinks Holy Days are optional and who has never had that misconception corrected isn't held accountable for missing one, for instance. A person who commits a sin of the flesh habitually may have his culpability lessened by the force of habit (though it's important to seek confession anyway). And a person forced against his will to do something seriously wrong has no culpability.

God's mercy is greater than we can imagine. But the problem of sin is that many serious sins do become a pattern of turning away from God, which is why even one of them can destroy us.

Catholics who practice their faith seriously don't live in fear of going to hell due to mortal sin. The graces of the sacrament of penance are very strong, and if someone were to die before he could go to confession, but truly penitent and truly intending to confess his sin at the first opportunity, his intention and sorrow would most likely suffice.

In your example of a loving family, no, the Father doesn't "kick us out" for our transgressions, nor do we "run away from home." But if your child had done something seriously wrong (say, lashed out in temper and physically injured a smaller sibling) would you allow him to act as though nothing had happened, or as though he didn't need to say he was sorry and didn't intend to do it ever again? That's what Penance is for Catholics--the opportunity to confront our serious sins for what they are, to tell our Father that we're sorry, and to have a firm purpose of amendment. The Father's love and forgiveness are unconditional, but like the Prodigal Son we have to decide to ask for them--and He runs to meet us, to show us that we're truly forgiven.

(One more thing: Ash Wednesday's not a Holy Day of Obligation.) :)

Ragamuffin said...

Hey Red Cardigan! Thanks for coming over. I've been reading your blog for a few weeks now after Mark Shea linked to one of your posts and I've been enjoying it.

Thanks for that explanation. I'm not sure it satisfies me concerns completely but it is helpful. I guess the tough thing is still the notion that committing a sin of this nature one time is enough to remove a person from a state of grace (losing salvation). Now while I could understand a little better for obvious things like murder, rape and so on, deciding to miss one Sunday morning service in a blue moon because you got tickets to the NFL game that Sunday for instance, seems excessive. I know the Bible tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, but forsaking connotes a permanence or a pattern to me, not an episodic absence from church. So even if I could go along with the notion of one mortal sin causing a loss of salvation, it seems disproportionate in response for things like missing Mass or a holy day of obligation, especially since the Bible doesn't seem to place that kind of emphasis on such things.

Qatfish said...

Obnoxious shallow comment: Ash Wednesday isn't a holy day of obligation for American Catholics ;)

Ragamuffin said...

BOOOO! ;^)

Actually, Red Cardigan informed me of that error already. :^P

Aaron said...

Hi Ragamuffin
I know I'm late to the party here, but I've just been catching up with your archives.

Typically, going to Mass for Catholics is not a difficult thing. I'm not completely sure, but it seems like in a lot of Protestant churches, there are only a couple of services a week. I checked a couple of websites for local evangelical churches and they seem to only usually have 2-3 services, all between 8 and noon.

Catholic parishes, on the other hand, tend to have mass at least 4 times a weekend. There's usually one Saturday night, two Sunday morning and another Sunday night.

And if you're not anywhere near a church but there is a priest around, he can say an impromptu Mass pretty much anywhere for any number of people, as long as he has a chalice, some wine and some communion wafers. Generally priests who are traveling bring those with them.

I once had Mass in a secluded "under construction" area of Paris-Degaulle airport, since there was no other way for our group to get to Mass that day.

Sorry, that was kind of a long and winding comment. What I mean to say, though, is that Catholics do not have to live in constant fear of going to hell for missing Mass. There are plenty of opportunities* (to go to Mass, not to go to hell. Although I guess there are some of those too...).

Hope that makes sense!

*And if there are no opportunities, you aren't held responsible for something you can't help.

Ragamuffin said...

Hey Aaron,

I appreciate that the Catholic Church gives multiple opportunities for people to attend a Mass. I just tend to think that whenever we enforce mandatory rules, under pain of mortal sin, that aren't taught in Scripture, we get into a danger zone. This was part of the Pharisees problem: adding rule after requirement to the Law such that religion became about keeping all the little rules and not about knowing the One whom we are called to worship and obey.