Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I wrote you a question a few months ago regarding baptism and your answer was very helpful. I am an Evangelical Protestant raised in the Baptist church. I attended Bob Jones University and Liberty University for college. (did this refresh your memory at all?) Anyway, I am searching the Catholic faith and am becoming more and more convinced of its’ being the true faith. I seem to have worked through many of the church’s teachings, however, I am now struggling with the fact that Catholics don’t seem to have an assurance of salvation. It seems that they are hoping to get to heaven based on how godly they live their lives. Of course, I believe that we as Christians must live godly lives but I also thought that becoming a child of God and obtaining salvation guaranteed your place in heaven. Didn’t Jesus die for this reason? Didn’t He offer salvation and its’ assurance based on His work on the cross and not our own merits?
I haven’t written much about “eternal security” mostly because I never believed in it even as an Evangelical. It wasn’t for lack of trying. It was one of the things I was told I was supposed to believe in, but the problem was that reality kept intruding. If I was eternally secure, then how come I kept sinning? The answer, “Because you didn’t really mean it when you asked Jesus to be your personal Lord and Savior” only had a limited lifespan. Either you despaired after the umpteenth experience of the Bullwinkle Syndrome (“This time for sure!”) or you took a deep breath, embraced “eternal security” and presumptously insisted that he had to save you anyway no matter how contemptuously you treated his grace. Despair and presumption both looked like pretty bad fruit to me, so I very soon started to suspect that the whole “eternal security” notion was rubbish. This was only confirmed when I consulted the New Testament and noted that it was always pretty clear that Jesus taught “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:6). So the possibility of the loss of salvation has always been on the table, as far as I could see since “to abide” means “to remain”. You cannot “remain” someplace you have never been. Therefore, it became obvious that Jesus is addressing believers about the possibility of losing salvation, not unbelievers about the possibility of never finding it in the first place.
Paul says pretty much the same thing when he tells us in Romans 8 “in hope you were saved” (a nifty title for a papal encyclical, by the way) and then says “hope that is seen is no hope at all”. In short, we have hope, not certitude, and we have not yet attained our heavenly goal. If we abide in Christ we will certainly see heaven. But we must abide. And that means we must obey him. Neither despair nor presumption will do. Indeed, these two sins are the enemies of Hope since they both claim to know what we cannot know: the end of the story. They direct our mind to phantoms: either the illusion that we know we are going to be saved so it doesn’t matter what sins we do now, or else the illusion that we know we will be damned so it doesn’t matter what virtues we practice. Hope directs us, not to the future, but to trust in Christ and obedience to him in the present moment.