Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I was minding my own business last week. A perfect stranger came up and asked me, “Are you saved?” I was taught by Sr. Mary Marian my first grade teacher long ago that public discussion of my spiritual life was the terrible sin of presumption and if I boasted about my personal spiritual merits they would all vanish in a puff of diabolical smoke and I would most likely go to hell for the sin of pride and besides you don’t know if you are saved until you have unpacked your luggage in the master bedroom of your celestial mansion on a street of gold in the New Jerusalem, and you had better pack lightly anyway because if by some slim chance you make it to heaven, you’ll still have to schlepp that thing through eons and ages of roasting in purgatory. As a life-long Catholic, how should I have responded to the perfect stranger’s question “Am I saved?”
Ms. Alma Perdida
I have no idea how you should have answered the perfect stranger and are you sure the stranger was perfect? Kidding aside, let us rephrase the question. I cannot answer for the state of your soul, but I hope that you and all Catholics would be able to answer that question in the affirmative, at least as we Catholics understand salvation.
When an evangelical Protestant says, “I am saved,” the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is often implicit in that statement. Jean (John) Calvin, was a young French lawyer who became the leading light of the Protestant Reformation from 1553 on, Fr. Martin Luther having died in 1546. Much of what Calvin taught can be summarized in the word “TULIP.” Total Depravity( Nothing good is left in humanity after the fall of Adam.) Unconditional Election (Saved or damned by God. Nothing you can do about it.) Limited Atonement ( Jesus died only for the chosen, not for the damned.) Irresistible Grace (One has no freedom to resist God’s overwhelming grace.) Perseverance of the Saints (Once Saved -- Always Saved).
When Protestant Evangelicals ask, “Are you saved?” They usually include this last part of the TULIP (Perseverance of the Saints, once saved -- always saved). This first question will often be introduced with another question “ If you die tonight, do you know where you will spend eternity?” If you say” Well, not really,” they will counter with “How would you like to know that if you die tonight that you will go to heaven?” to which you respond, “Of course I would!” They will then lead you in something called the Sinner’s Prayer which includes the words “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” It’s a fine prayer. I’ve said it often, but they will then inform you that you are now saved and no matter what happens, you are going to heaven. They will then move on to the next available sinner because you are now saved.
This may seem a little preposterous to a Biblically literate Catholic who recalls the Lord’s words “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” and “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.” (Matt. 25:41,42) It certainly seems that Jesus was of the opinion that reciting a prayer would not get you into heaven.
We Catholics have no problem with the Sinner’s Prayer, but we look at it as a beginning, not an end, and we would hope that having asked for forgiveness, the newly repentant sinner would also go to the Sacrament of Penance, in conformity with the words of St. James. (Confess your sins to one another. James 5:16) We believe that God never takes your freedom away and that if, once having known the Lord, you deny Him as did Judas, you are perfectly free to burn in hell, that is if you want to.
“No, No, No!” I can hear some people shouting. “You are saved by faith not works! Faith alone. Grace alone. Scripture alone! Salvation doesn’t depend on works! You can’t earn it!!!”
Well, I suppose the Catholic would answer, “If God gives me grace and I throw it in the garbage can, the Lord might just say, ‘Suit yourself.” Admittedly you can’t earn heaven, but you can accept it or refuse it. That seems to be the sense of Scripture. When a non Catholic evangelical says, “Once saved always saved! All you have to do is ask Jesus into your heart to save you” I always tell them, "Golly, I hope you’re right, because if you‘re right, every Catholic who says the Rosary is going to heaven because the sinner’s prayer is part of the Rosary."
Our Blessed Mother, that great Catholic Evangelist, taught us to say the Sinner’s Prayer when she appeared at Fatima “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy. Amen.” We say it five times every time we say the Rosary.” On the other hand if “once saved always saved” theology is wrong, there are untold millions of people roasting in hell because they thought that reciting a formula was enough to save them.
I really hope they are right and we Catholics are wrong. We have nothing to lose, but if they are wrong there are lots of people going who think they are saved who haven’t ever fed the poor or given drink to the thirsty or anything else that Jesus expects. They aren’t saved, but are in fact preparing themselves for an unending barbecue in which they will be an hors d’oeuvre.
We Catholics would say that we are saved by accepting the grace of conversion. If we allow the Lord to be Lord in our life and to change what we do and who we are, then, even if the work is not perfect, unlike your perfect stranger, God will finish the work in us in, you guessed it, PURGATORY!!! (which is what I believe the Bible means, in part, by judgment.)
Wait a minute, the Bible says clearly “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16) So, we may ask what are works of the law that don’t save us? Surely you are familiar with that rollicking page turner, the Halakhic Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QMTT)? Who doesn’t like to curl up by a roaring fire with a good Dead Sea Scroll? I quote:
“And also concerning flowing liquids: we say that in these there is no purity. Even flowing liquids cannot separate unclean from clean because the moisture of flowing liquids and their containers is the same moisture. These are.... some of the precepts (“ma’ase” which also means “works”) of the law which we think are good for you and for your people...”
Let me clarify. From your reading of the book of Leviticus, Chapter 11, verse 30 you know that “The gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon are unclean. If one of them falls into a clay pot, everything in it will be unclean, and you must break the pot.” Let us assume that a skink falls into a clay pot and dies, and you, unwittingly pour water from a clay pitcher into the unclean clay pot, does the uncleanness of the clay pot leap up the stream of water and make the clay pitcher unclean so that it too must be broken? The Loons who wrote this particular scroll said “Of course!” The Pharisees said “Certainly not!” Jesus and the ex-Pharisee, Saul/Paul of Tarsus said “Get a life!”
This discussion should let you in on the theological bedlam that was tearing up the Jewish world at the time of the New Testament. When St. Paul said that one is not saved by works of the law, it is pretty clear that he meant not to worry any more about skinks falling into clay pots. From the rest of his writing, and Jesus said, it is pretty clear that sin is out and generosity is in.
There was never a question among the first Christians that virtue and generosity and obedience to the universal laws of God are integral to one’s salvation. That idea didn’t arrive in the world until one thousand five hundred years later, when a German priest (like this author, at least ethnically) comes along and decides that not being saved by works of the law means you don’t have to act morally to go to heaven. I quote him: “No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day.” (From a letter of Luther to Melancthon, LW 48:281) Remember the Lutheran/Calvinist doctrine of “once saved always saved?” I suspect that Jesus and Paul would have been horrified by Luther’s opinion and still are.
The great appeal of the Evangelical Protestant message is it’s “assurance of salvation.” You say a prayer, and then go home knowing that even if you are running guns to the Hottentots and regularly beating your dry cleaner, you are guaranteed heaven, no questions asked. Again, I hope that it’s true, but having read the Bible a few times, I suspect it isn’t.
I had a fascinating conversation with a great evangelical theologian a few years ago. Being a veteran of the Pentecostal movement, and still committed to the spirituality of Pentecost, I speak fluent evangelical-ese. Thus I was invited to appear on a Non-Denominational TV show along with my old friend and classmate, Brother Pfleger. My job was principally to explain the meaning of the hats that Catholics were wearing at some grand interment or installation of a bishop. They were very intrigued by the hats and why they came on and off at different times. I digress.
Well, I was a bit nervous at meeting the great Rev. Doctor Calvin Moody who, in a pre-popish warm up had just been explaining to the TV audience, that, sweetheart though she was, if Mother Theresa was counting on her good works to save her, she was frying in hell. I tired to make nice by mentioning all the Protestant sounding things I could. I even mentioned altar calls I had led. An altar call is the invitation to someone at a revival or prayer meeting to come up to altar to give one’s life to Christ. Protestants don’t have sacrifices, so I can’t figure out why they need altars. Again, I digress. The Reverend Doctor frowned a little and said that at a North Side Non-Denominational Mega Church and Missionary Bible School, they didn’t often have altar calls, lest someone think that by the work of coming up to the altar they might think themselves saved, and thus might have a false assurance of salvation.
I asked, “So you can have a false assurance of salvation?”
The Rev. Doctor said, “Oh, yes, you can have a false assurance of salvation!”
To which I replied, “So then you can never be entirely assured of your salvation.”
He said, “Oh, yes you can have complete assurance of salvation.”
To which I said, “But it could be a false assurance.”
To which he said, “Yes, indeed. Now you understand.”
To which I said “I understand completely,” and quietly thanked God I am a Catholic, who can go to confession, do my best to resist sin and trust Jesus.
So, it seems that even evangelicals don’t quite believe there is a complete assurance of salvation and it would seem that the Lord Jesus and St. Paul didn’t really believe that one is saved by Faith Alone, despite Luther’s correcting them on this point.
So, can a Catholic say “I am saved!” Darn tootin’ a Catholic can say I’m saved, and he can say it with a good deal more assurance than a Calvinist evangelical can. St. Paul wrote “For in hope we have been saved” (Romans 8:24) Let me give you an example. You are walking through the woods. You come into a clearing and find that you are sinking in quicksand. As you are about go under, you hear a rustle in the bushes and out comes someone with express intention of pulling you out. You shout “I’m saved!” Technically you aren’t saved until you are out of the quicksand embracing your savior, but you have the right and even the duty to rejoice in your narrow escape, while you still only see your deliverer.
You are already saved in hope, if not in fact. He extends his hand to you. That’s grace, a pure gift. You lift you hand to grasp his hand. That’s faith. You are trusting that he will not yank back his hand at the last minute as a cruel joke. That’s exactly what Calvin’s god would do. He would say to some, “I have no intention of pulling you out. I just came to see you die.” Calvin taught that some were made to prove God’s mercy. Others to prove His justice. Hitler was a pussy cat next to Calvin’s god. Hitler could only make his victims suffer for a time, not an eternity, like the fierce god of Calvin.
So we Catholics are saved in hope. We trust Jesus and not some formulaic prayer. We believe that God’s gift of the Holy Spirit can transform our way of life so that even our works are pleasing to God and reflect His own love for humanity.
The aforementioned evangelist might ask you if you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. How much more personal can you get than eating someone’s flesh and drinking their blood? Every time we go up to the communion rail to receive the Lord, we are giving our life for Him. We are saying in effect, “Just as you are giving me Your very life, Your body, blood, soul and divinity in this sacrament, I, too, swear to lay my life on the altar, to live for You, Lord, and, if need be, to die for You.”
We have the most intimate and personal relationship with Jesus, the Son of God and the son of Mary. We do not, however, have a private relationship with him. Some people who talk about a personal relationship seem to mean a private relationship with God. They don’t need sacraments or popes or confession. They confess their sins directly to God, forgetting that St. James tells us in the Bible that we should confess our sins to one another. (James 5:16) They needn’t go to a boring church. They can worship God in the beauty of nature on Sunday morning, or perhaps in the beauty of 18 holes of golf, or even in the splendor of the K-Mart because God is not limited to rituals and buildings. They sing that dear old hymn “He walks with me and He talks with me, and he tells me I am His own...” The Catholic version of that hymn is “He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I had better be in church on Sunday morning and make sure I’m there before the opening hymn starts....” Our relationship is personal and shared. We love the Lord and we love His bride, the Church.
So yes, dear Alma, there is nothing wrong with the sinner’s prayer, provided you see it as a beginning and not an end, and you certainly should be grateful to the Lord for having saved you, and you should trust the Lord and pray for the grace of perseverance, but considering the times it is all the more important for 1 billion, 200 million Roman Catholics to be able to share their faith publicly, and to be ready to invite people to meet the Lord.
To be continued……..