So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
PHILIPPIANS 2:12 NASB
St. Paul the apostle and evangelist to the Gentiles looms large today in the world of Protestantism. The first is the example of his life which provides a template for many of the conversion stories we hear of a sinner who got saved and turned from his wickedness. I remember one memorable ex-Hell's Angel who left the outlaw biker world and accepted Jesus as his savior and went around telling everyone how he got saved. The second is the large volume of writings St. Paul left behind in the New Testament which has became fertile ground for the numerous misinterpretations of various Protestant ministers, sects, and denominations. The worst of those misinterpretations is the doctrine known as "once saved, always saved" or OSAS. This is the belief that a person who converts to the Christian faith will never lose his or her salvation even if that person continues to live a life of dissolution and wickedness. This particular doctrine is popular among Baptists and evangelicals except there is one big problem with OSAS. It isn't in the Bible. OSAS is a heresy and a dangerous heresy.
OSAS or the doctrine of eternal security finds its genesis in the teachings of John Calvin. Martin Luther believed it was possible to lose your salvation, but John Calvin rejected this. This became the fifth point of Calvinism known as the perseverance of the saints. Calvin taught that a person elected to salvation by God's predestination would demonstrate faith in that election and would persevere in that faith until the end of his days. Here are the words of John Calvin:
Therefore, while we all labour naturally under the same disease, those only recover health to whom the Lord is pleased to put forth his healing hand. The others whom, in just judgement, he passes over, pine and rot away till they are consumed. And this is the only reason why some persevere to the end, and others, after beginning their course, fall away. Perseverance is the gift of God, which he does not lavish promiscuously on all, but imparts to whom he pleases. If it is asked how the difference arises – why some steadily persevere, and others prove deficient in steadfastness, we can give no other reason than that the Lord, by his mighty power, strengthens and sustains the former, so that they perish not, while he does not furnish the same assistance to the latter, but leaves them to be monuments of instability.
Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.5.3I used to be a Calvinist in my twenties, so I am now one of those monuments of instability that Calvin mentions because I rejected Calvinism to become an atheist. Now, I am a Roman Catholic which makes me even more damned in the eyes of Calvinists. I have to laugh a bit at this. I remember when my Calvinist friend killed himself that there was some question about whether he went to heaven or hell when he died. These were seminarians, professors, and ministers asking this most basic question. So, finally, the one minister that buried my friend said that he was in heaven based on the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. If your good works can't get you there, your bad works won't keep you from getting there. Logically, he was correct. If salvation is by faith alone, you shouldn't be able to lose that salvation no matter what you do including mass murder and suicide. But salvation is not by faith alone. The logic was correct. but the premise was flawed.
For me, I believed in the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, but I was perplexed by my friend's suicide because I had the correct understanding of Calvin's doctrine which our confident minster did not. Calvin never taught OSAS. He taught the perseverance of the saints which is that those who truly believe will persevere in that faith until the very end. As a Catholic, I still subscribe to this. If you have faith, you will produce good works and remain in the faith until your death. The error Calvin made was in the doctrine of election. Those who had faith would never fall away because it was never possible. Those who did fall away never had faith. As a Catholic, I reject this.
I knew my friend. He had faith. He believed more ardently and strongly than I did. Yet, he killed himself. I cannot presume upon his fate because it is a sin. But his suicide put me in an abyss of confusion and despair because here was a person who had faith but did not persevere as Calvin taught. That event devastated me to the point that I concluded that religion was a poison and became an atheist. But I was wrong. Heresy is the poison.
OSAS is the poison of today. It is simply the sin of presumption. When Jesus commanded His followers to judge not lest they be judged, He was talking about presumption. We must never presume that anyone is in Hell. This includes Judas Iscariot and Hitler. The only fates we know about are those of the saints who through their lives, miracles, and the witness of the Church have made it to Heaven. They stand as beacons of hope that we can also make it by God's grace. But as for everyone else, we don't know, and we should not presume to know. In this life, presumption comes in the form of this eternal security heresy. The presumptuous hypocrite signed on the line that is dotted. Now, God has to deliver the goods. Nevermind that the hypocrite exhibits no sign of change and can't even be bothered to pray or go to church. Jesus has paid the price, so they can ride their La-Z-Boy recliners through the pearly gates.
Now, there are many Protestants who reject OSAS because even they can't stomach the presumption anymore. They all know of people like my cousin who has been "saved" four times usually while in jail or some drug treatment program. But this salvation fails to stick usually when its party time again. But this puts them in a perplexing situation about that faith alone stuff. Luther concluded that a person could lose their faith. Calvin concluded that they never had faith. Protestants and evangelicals fall on both sides with some going the Lutheran route teaching that faith and salvation can be lost with others taking the Calvinist route doubting that faith was ever there in the first place. Lastly, you have those antinomians who believe logically and correctly that if salvation is by faith alone then you can live anyway you like and still make it to Heaven. All of these people are in error.
The correct answer to this dilemma of OSAS is found in the quotation from St. Paul at the beginning of this essay. You have to work out your salvation with "fear and trembling." Some idiotic heretical Protestant type will try and play word games with what St. Paul says here, but there it is. Salvation is by faith, but it is not by faith alone. A person's conversion to faith is simply the beginning. They must follow through until the very end producing the fruits of repentance that Jesus commanded and expects from all of us. St. Paul never presumed that he was going to make it. Here is what he had to say about perseverance,
But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.
1 Corinthians 9:27 Douay-Rheims
This verse alone shows two things. The first is that Paul had faith. The second is that it was possible for him to lose that faith and salvation. You will not find the La-Z-Boy chair in any of St. Paul's letters. You will find many assurances of God's faithfulness in forgiving us and perfecting us. God will never let us down. Those verses are the ones that the hypocrites use to justify their belief in OSAS. But they neglect their part to work towards their salvation.
The Gospels are replete with commands to produce the fruit of repentance. Jesus curses the fig tree for not being fruitful. There is the parable of the stewards commanded to produce a return on the talents given to them with the the unprofitable steward being cast out. The same story is repeated in the parable of the wise and the unwise virgins with the unwise virgins being locked out of the feast because they had not prepared. There is the wedding guest who came to the celebration in his rags and was tossed out. The Gospels clearly dispel the OSAS heresy, but this is why the vast majority of Protestant churches don't preach sermons from the Gospels. They always go to Paul because they can more easily twist his writings than they can the clear teachings of the Gospels.
The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is by faith and works. It is not faith versus works. It is both. As St. Josemaria Escriva put it, "Conversion is the matter of a moment. Sanctification is the work of a lifetime." When someone converts to the faith, they have opened the door to God's grace to work in them. When they close that door through mortal sin, they are cut off from God's grace. God's grace is what produces the fruit in a believer's life. No one can enter heaven without being conformed to Christ. Basically, you have to become a saint to enter heaven. This is why St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24, " Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win." You don't win the race by merely putting your name on the entry blank. You don't win the race by simply standing on the starting line or running part of the way or quitting or even finishing. You win the race by winning.
At this point, the person who believes will despair. How can I possibly win this race? I am a sinner. I am weak. I can't make it. These are all true. In our own power, we have no hope. We cannot save ourselves. The idea that we could save ourselves comes from that other heretic named Pelagius. If we are to become saints, God will have to make the change. St. Paul says in Philippians 1:6, "For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." God can do what you cannot do.
The thing that worries people is that they mistrust themselves. They have no confidence in their own strength. This is a good thing. This is that fear and trembling that Paul mentions. This is humility. But this fear should not drive us to despair as it did with Luther. It should drive us to Christ and the sacraments. The fact is that God has given everyone free will, and this free will is not forfeited when one converts to Christianity. As St. Augustine put it, "God who created you without you, will not save you without you." At any moment, you can step off the train and get back on the road to hell. The choice is always yours, and you make this choice each and every moment of your life.
My advice to everyone is to take the freedom that God gives you and offer it back to Him. Original sin took away our freedom, and Christ gave us our freedom back. Here is St. Paul again,
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 6:20-23 NASB
The entire chapter of Romans 6 is worth your reading and study because it lays it out clearly. We are free in our choice to be slaves to sin or to be slaves to Christ. But this choice only becomes permanent at the end of our lives. At every step, we can choose to return to the slavery of sin. This is what mortal sin is about. St. John writes,
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. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.
1 John 5:16-17 NASB
This is the difference between mortal sin and venial sin. Think of these as felonies and misdemeanors. Someone who goes five miles over the speed limit is not nearly as evil as someone who commits murder or treason. Likewise, mortal sin is so severe that it results in spiritual death. When committed, the person becomes virtually desensitized to the evil they have done. Think of the episode of King David when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then committed murder to cover his crime. He was confronted by the prophet Nathan who declared, "Thou art the man!" David recovered his senses in that act of charity, and he repented. But it cost him something. Forgiveness is never cheap.
Mortal sin and venial sin show that we can lose our salvation. Let's put it more simply. At any point in your life, you can choose to stop loving God. Mortal sin is the choice to stop loving God. A man who forgets to take out the garbage may disappoint his wife, but he hasn't stopped loving her. But if that man has an affair with his secretary, he clearly does not love his wife. Likewise, with God, we may stumble, but we still love God. But if we murder people or slander them or commit other serious acts, we have stopped loving God. God will not make you love Him. But He will never stop loving you.
OSAS is the belief that God will make you love Him either now or in the afterlife. God is not going to do this. God loves you, and He wants you to love Him back. Love God with all your being and spend the rest of your life perfecting that love. But if you hate God, you can never enter into that blessed state of loving Him forever. It isn't rocket science.
The believers in OSAS can be rather disgusting in their presumption. They treat the gospel and conversion not as the opportunity to change but merely as fire insurance and a security blanket. They are like the example I gave of that adulterous husband who thinks he can have his doting wife and his hot secretary and everything will be fine. Yet, here are the words of our Lord,
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.
MATTHEW 7:21-23 NASB
Who are the ones who practice lawlessness? That's easy. Those would be the ones who preach OSAS and faith alone. They are the ones who say "Lord, Lord" but live like the devil. But if you love God, you will obey His commandments. You will do anything not to offend Him who loves you so much that He died for you. I feel sorry for those people who believe in OSAS to their peril, and I pray that they will be delivered from their delusion and ignorance. I also pray that I never hear those words said to me, "Depart from me." May God forgive us all for the offenses we have done against Him. May He help us to love Him in purity of heart and deeds. May we persevere in the love and faith that He has put into our hearts.