During altar calls at the House of Prayer, Pastor Merrill would say “If you don’t know, that you know, that you know that you’re going to Heaven, you need to come forward.”
Most of my Evangelical friends had responded to that altar call or one like it. They knew – with never a doubt – that they’d be in Heaven someday. God had removed from them the desire for intentional sin or the possibility that they could later turn their back on God and return to a life of sin. The person who did return to sin, my friends reasoned, must never really have been saved to begin with.
One explanation for the person who returned to sin came from my Presbyterian friends whose church tracks its lineage to John Calvin. In Calvin’s concept of predestination, I encountered the grim idea that some were capriciously and irrevocably destined to Hell while others, based purely on God’s whimsy, were restored to life and destined for Heaven. In this concept, it would always be possible for someone to respond to multiple altar calls, but never really be saved – because they simply weren’t destined for salvation
I don’t remember “getting saved” if that meant I had a specific spiritual birthday on which I responded to an altar call and said the sinner’s prayer. However, I can’t remember a time when I did not have a deep, abiding love of God and an acute awareness of the epic battle between His good and a real, demonic evil.
See: The edge of atheism
I never shared my Evangelical and Calvinist friends’ utter confidence in their salvation. I simply never possessed that complete self-assurance that “I knew, that I knew, that I knew” that I was saved. By the late 1990s I feared salvation was out of my control, that God did not know me. I lacked outward signs as ‘proofs,’ and I shared none of the total assurance.
All this was evidence to me that I was simply not predestined, in the Calvinist sense, for salvation. Call it merely bad luck. I was one of the drowned, destined to remain dead on the bottom of Lake Calvin. I could go through life talking like a Christian, walking like one, worshiping like one, earnestly desiring to be one. But my secret dread was that I could not be one. I worried that I would be the one Jesus did not know in Matthew 7:21-23
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ ”
This is where my head was when Heather and I walked through the doors of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church. Outside I was a defensively confident, Bible-proficient evangelical. Inside I was spiritually suffocating. I was not skeptical of God, I did not doubt that the problem I shared with mankind was sin, and I was confident God provided a solution through his son, Jesus Christ. However, I was unsure I could be saved, doubtful that God knew me.
The Sacramental Life
The first thing I learned about the Catholic Church was its sacramental nature. I learned that the seven sacraments – called Sacred Mysteries in the eastern church – are outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification – to make us holy in God’s eyes. The seven are Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. While several had direct parallels with the Protestant churches I’d attended, there were a few notable omissions. Calling out to me was the sacrament of Penance.
My Evangelical friends believe that the outward proof of our salvation is a life of righteousness and true holiness. And yet, they regard these as the involuntary result of being saved. Anything else, they believe, would be empty works of a dead man futilely seeking to earn salvation. I knew that I sinned and therefore failed to live in righteousness and holiness. To me, my sins felt like a grave matter. My evangelical friends, when acknowledging personal sin, seemed to treat such miscues as something no worse than the irritation of mosquitos at a family cookout. After all, they know that they are going to Heaven. There seemed to be no sense of eternal consequence if someone, once saved, happened to stumble into sin.
As Heather and I began attending RCIA classes at St. Elizabeth’s, we learned the Catholic understanding that we are both saved and being saved. We discovered something that now seems intuitive: Conversion is not a one-day event giving us a spiritual birthday, but a lifetime struggle – working out our salvation with fear and trembling – including both sorrow for sins and the joy of forgiveness through ongoing confession and repentance. Just as St. Paul exhorted his Greek friends, “… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)
Discovering the grace available in God’s sacraments was like pulling a great gulp of oxygen into lungs screaming for a breath of fresh air. The most difficult for me to accept was the sacrament of reconciliation, often known simply as “confession.” In truth, pride was my biggest barrier to confession. Speaking aloud my personal sins simply mortified me.
Yet I learned Christians had been doing so for nearly two thousand years. This can be found in the writings of the Didache and from Tertullian, Hippolytus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Ambrose and Athanasius.
What I did not understand until asking in RCIA was that, in confession, Catholic priests do not forgive sins, God does. In We Believe, Father Oscar Lukefahr stated it in a way I clearly understood: “When the Church forgives, Christ forgives. The priest is a sign of Christ’s Real Presence in penance. We confess our sins to Christ, and Christ forgives us.” Why did this make sense to me? Most churches I had attended believed in the laying on of hands practiced for healing. But I never heard a pastor claim it was his personal healing power. Instead, they were careful to note it was God’s healing power working through them. So, it wasn’t a great leap to expect the same from a Catholic priest in the confessional.
The oxygen rushing into my bursting lungs was grace. I found the atmosphere above that dismal Lake Calvin was God’s sacramental grace discovered in the last place I expected it – the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church teaches that all are predestined for God’s mercy, but some freely chose to reject God and his salvation. I learned from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that we are not simply pawns in a choreographed ballet written in advance by God. “To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of ‘predestination,’ he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace.” (CCC 600)
To me, this timeless nature of God is key. If we recognize that God is that which has no beginning and no end, it is clear time would mean nothing to him. However, we who are created, clearly have a beginning and are therefore constrained by time. However, our beginnings, middles and ends are as one to God.
I realize my evangelical brothers and sisters will have a difficult time accepting the word of the Catholic catechism. But, in the Bible, Peter tells us the same thing: “… do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8) And, in a letter to Timothy, Paul tells us God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:4).
I concluded from these writings that God has given us free choice of will including the ability to reject his loving mercy. Just as the prodigal son of Jesus’ parable chose to reject a loving father and later to humbly return, begging for forgiveness.
While my sins were not the sort that fed dramatic conversion stories, I knew they were real, significant and the battle against them continuous. I also felt God was gravely offended and that some of these sins could affect my salvation.
The Calvinists would tell me it wasn’t my fault; I simply was not elected for salvation. My once-saved-always-saved friends would tell me I must never have been saved to begin with. However, my Catholic brothers welcome me as a fellow pilgrim on a lifelong journey of conversion. This is a journey that has a start, and has an end, with many challenging miles in between. If we have a spiritual birthday, it is the day we began the journey.
We travel in a flock lead by the good shepherd. When we wander – becoming lost and frightened – he searches tirelessly for us. And, finding us cowering in fear, He sweeps us to his shoulders and returns to the flock. But, we have the power of choice, to flee the flock, rejecting the shepherd’s calls for us. If we insist on taking our chances among the wolves, he will not stop us. But, he’ll always be ready to come when we cry for help and rejoice in our return.
While I have no wish to undermine innocent faith, we are not God and cannot, therefore, “know, that we know, that we know” that we’ll be in Heaven. The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, condemned the belief that we can presumptuously know what only God knows. “No one, moreover, so long as he is in this mortal life, ought so far to presume as regards the secret mystery of divine predestination, as to determine for certain that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate; as if it were true, that he that is justified, either cannot sin any more, or, if he do sin, that he ought to promise himself an assured repentance; for except by special revelation, it cannot be known whom God hath chosen unto Himself.”
We cannot presuppose that we will choose to persevere in our faith today, tomorrow and until our end. While we live in a world of time and space, our all-knowing God does not. Time – the past, the present and the future – do not constrain his eternal presence or knowledge. God alone knows the number of his elect, and we cannot presume to know the exact width of the door to Heaven, other than that it is narrow.
However, I can confidently apply myself to the good works that God has ordained for me to do, knowing that, of my own will, I will fall short of the glory of God, without the forgiveness made possible by Jesus Christ.
One thing I can be confident of, God did not predestine me to eternal death. He created me. He knows me. And he wishes for me to persevere to the end, for eternity with him. And, we encounter each other in the crisp, clean air of his grace-transmitting sacraments; the great life-sustaining atmosphere of his church.
1 Thessalonians 5:9-10
God has destined us for acquiring salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us, that all of us, whether awake or asleep, together might live with him.
Scripture quotations are from The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.