In my last article for Catholic Exchange, I looked at one of the key differences between Catholic and Protestant understandings of salvation, and this time, I want to look at another way that we differ from our separated brethren on this important issue. For us Catholics, salvation isn’t assured until we die and get to heaven, and as long as we are here on earth, we can always fall into serious sin or even fall away from the faith entirely and lose the eternal life we currently possess. However, for many (but not all) Protestants, salvation is assured right from the start. They say that once someone believes and is justified, their ticket to heaven is guaranteed.
Now, there are numerous Scripture passages that support the Catholic view on this question (for example, Romans 11:17-22, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, and Galatians 5:19-21). The New Testament writers warn their readers again and again about the possibility of losing their salvation, so at first glance, it is tough to see how anybody can disagree with us about this. But it is not impossible. There is another way to explain those texts, so let’s dive into that explanation and see if it really holds up.
A Rebuttal and a Problem
Several Protestant scholars argue that these warnings are actually the means by which God assures that Christians persevere in faith and love, so while we could theoretically lose our salvation, God’s grace makes sure that never happens. In other words, telling us what would happen if we did fall into serious sin or lose our faith motivates us to remain steadfast, and that motivation is part (but obviously not all) of what keeps us from losing our salvation.
At this point, you might be thinking that this explanation is very clever, but the whole theory has a huge, gaping hole: there obviously are Christians who fall into serious sin or lose their faith entirely. There are plenty of Christians who convert to other religions, become atheists, or live like sin is no big deal, so as ingenious as this theory may be, it simply doesn’t jive with what we can see with our own two eyes.
“Not One of Us”
But it is not quite that simple. The theologians who hold this view argue that these people were never true Christians to begin with, and they contend that this is exactly what the New Testament teaches:
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19)
The people who “went out from us” have fallen away from the faith, so this text is (supposedly) saying that people who leave Christianity never truly belonged to the community of faith. If they ever did, they would have remained Christians, so the fact that they fell away shows that they were never true Christians to begin with. And we can extrapolate from this and say the same thing about people who remain in serious sin without repenting. They too were never really part of the community of faith because if they were, they would’ve persisted in faith and love.
Never or No Longer?
Once again, that is a pretty clever argument, and it seems to have a real basis in Scripture. So what can we say about it? Well, I would suggest that John isn’t actually saying what these scholars think he is saying. The text does not say that Christians who fall away never were “of us.” It simply says that they are not “of us,” and that could very well mean that they are no longer “of us.” In fact, that may be the most likely interpretation of the verse. If John wanted to say that these people were never “of us,” why didn’t he actually say that?
So our empirical observation that Christians can in fact persist in serious sin or fall away from the faith still stands, and that alone is enough to prove that the Catholic view is correct. But we’re not done yet. Even aside from the evidence of our eyes, there is another, equally fatal flaw in this clever explanation of Scripture’s numerous warnings about losing our salvation.
“Severed from Christ”
There are passages this argument can’t account for. To take just one example, consider this key text from St. Paul:
“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)
In this verse, St. Paul doesn’t say that his readers would be “severed from Christ” or that they would fall away from grace if they try to be justified by “the law” (the Jewish Law). No, he says that these people are already severed from Christ. He says, “you have fallen away from grace.” He is not talking about a hypothetical here. He is talking about something that has actually happened, and that is our smoking gun.
It is in fact possible to fall into serious sin and cut yourself off from Christ, so it is in fact possible to lose your salvation. As a result, on this issue, the Catholic understanding is firmly rooted in Scripture, and the view that our salvation is assured from the very beginning is a distortion of what the Bible actually says.