...so that we might be justified by His grace, and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
One day while going to Confession, I found a Protestant tract (pamphlet) wedged in the confessional screen. Its basic message was that we can be assured of our salvation as long as we believe in Christ. To paraphrase that tract, it argued that we can be assured of going to heaven, since God loves us (John 3:16). Even though we have sinned and are separated from God (Romans 3:23), Jesus Christ died for our sins (Romans 5:8). By repenting of our sins and receiving Christ into our heart, we are saved from hell (Acts 3:19; Rev. 3:20). That tract expressed several basic Christian truths, but it lacked the fullness of the Christian Faith. A few important points need to be clarified.
Let us begin with John 3:16...
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16, RSV]
This verse is a concise yet beautiful statement of the Gospel message. God so loves us that He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the Cross at the hands of sinful men in order to save us from hell (Romans 5:6-11). Our salvation is a free gift from God purchased by Christ. We cannot earn heaven least we boast (Ephesians 2:8). We are saved through Christ by believing in Christ. But what is "believing?"
Now John 3:16 is not a complete expression of the doctrine of salvation. We must understand it in the context and fullness of revelation. Only twenty verses later, it is also written:
He who believes (pisteuon) in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey (apeithon) the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him. [John 3:36]
The RSV, NAB and NASB Bibles translate the Greek verb, apeithon, as "obey." This verse connects "belief in Christ" with "obedience to Christ." Elsewhere St. Paul connects faith with obedience as in "the obedience of faith" [Romans 1:5] and with good works as in "faith working through love" [Galatians 5:6]. Also it is written, "By faith Abraham obeyed..." [Hebrew 11:8]. According to the Bible, "to believe" also means "to obey." We do not sincerely believe in Christ, if we disobey God's Commandments - i.e. commit sin (James 2:18-26). Sin is a break in faith (Numbers 5:6-7).
As a result of Adam's sin (Romans 5:12) and through our serious sins, we reject God and deserve hell - the loss of eternal life. It must be remembered that hell is not punishment from a vengeful God but the natural consequence of rejecting God - the Source of life and goodness. Our sins offend God's love. There is nothing we can do as finite (limited) creatures to repair this infinite (unlimited) offense. Fortunately due to God's mercy, Christ redeems us from hell through His Passion and Sacrifice on the Cross. As a free gift (Titus 3:5), God forgives us and offers us the grace to live with Him in friendship forever, beginning in the Sacrament of Baptism (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Acts 2:38). In the washing of Baptism, we receive Sanctifying Grace, which makes us right with God (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor 6:9-11).
Now we are surely redeemed by Christ in Baptism but we can freely choose to reject this gift through serious sin. As St. Paul writes:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23]
In this verse, eternal life is heaven, while death is hell - the opposite of eternal life. Heaven is a free gift from God, but we can still earn hell by committing serious sin (i.e. mortal sin). Obeying God's Law does not save us, but the Law does point to sins that can damn us (Romans 3:20). As an analogy, my civil liberties are a gift from my forefathers, but if I commit a felony, I may go to jail. Also in the Bible:
Make no mistake about this: no fornicator (those who have sex before marriage), no unclean or lustful person - in effect an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom (heaven) of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments. These are sins that bring God's wrath down on the disobedient.[Ephesians 5:5-6; NAB]
Another sobering verse from St. Paul is:
For if we deliberately sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgement. [Hebrews 10:26-27; RSV]
Please note that the "we" in this verse also included St. Paul - a faith-filled, baptized Christian! After Baptism if we sin deliberately and remain unrepentant, then we can lose the gift of salvation. In Baptism we receive Sanctifying Grace in our souls by no merit of our own, but afterwards we must cooperate with this grace or we will lose it (2 Cor 6:1). This cooperation with God's redeeming grace is the Catholic understanding of merit (CCC 162; 2025).
Fortunately God has given us the Sacrament of Confession (Penance or Reconciliation), so we can receive His continuing forgiveness for our sins committed after Baptism. Since we continue to sin after receiving Baptism (1 John 1:8-9), we must continually repent, confess our sins and turn our heart (will) back to Christ. Repentance is not a single event in our life, but must be an ongoing, everyday process for us. Yesterday we may have sincerely repented and been forgiven, but tomorrow through our weakness, we may stumble back into sin (2 Peter 2:20-22). We can be assured that Jesus will forgive us as often as we forgive others (Luke 6:36-37; Matt 6:14-15). Through this Sacrament, we receive Sanctifying Grace and Actual Graces which can help us resist future sins.
Jesus understands our weakness even after Baptism. This is the reason that He gave His Apostles the authority to forgive sins:
...He breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." [John 20:22-23]
Through the centuries this authority has been handed on to the bishops and priests as the Sacrament of Confession. Christians today need forgiveness for their sins as much as those in the first century A.D. In addition the authority to either forgive or retain implies oral confession (disclosure) of our sins since the priest needs to know the nature of the sins (Acts 19:18; Leviticus 5:5-6).
Even though our personal salvation is not assured, we still must hope in it. In the Bible, St. Paul uses the phrases: "the hope of salvation" [1 Thess 5:8] or "hope of eternal life" [Titus 1:2; 3:7]. If we were assured of heaven, then there would be no need for hope. Hope is not the same as assurance (Romans 8:24). According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God's love and incurring punishment. [CCC 2090]
The two sins against hope are despair and presumption (CCC 2091). The sin of despair is losing hope in our salvation by failing to trust God. The sin of presumption is losing hope by either relying on ourselves for our salvation instead of God or taking God's mercy for granted without fear. Denying our sinfulness or believing "once saved, always saved" can lead us into the sin of presumption. However, we must not go the other extreme and fall into the sin of despair. Hope is a delicate balance between confidence in God's promise and fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7).
God wants all of us to be saved from hell and come to know the truth (1 Tim 2:4). Through Christ's Church - the Catholic Church, we can come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 3:15; Matt 16:18). Through the Sacraments we receive God's saving grace as a free gift. But afterwards we must cooperate with that grace, since we have the free will (choice) to reject God at anytime through serious disobedience, i.e. mortal sin. After receiving God's redeeming grace in Baptism, we must continue to "work out (our) own salvation with fear and trembling" [Philip 2:12]. Through Confession, we can ask God for His continuing merciful forgiveness and more graces to help us resist sins in the future. As sinners we are not assured of our salvation. But Christians, who faithfully use the Sacraments -Channels of God's saving grace - without giving up, can certainly hope for salvation.
Reverend M. James Divis, S.T.L.
Most Reverend Fabian W. Bruskewitz, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Lincoln
June 14, 1996
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