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?