Monthly Archives: April 2014

Do you know for sure?

When I was growing up Protestant, we learned to do evangelism by asking, “Do you know for sure you’re going to heaven?” If the target answered, “No,” or “I hope so,” or “I try to do my best,” then we pounced. Obviously, this person didn’t know “the real gospel.”  We were quick to explain that Christ had paid for all of their sins. All they had to do was accept this gift by faith, then they could know for sure!

Do you know for sure

 It was a very effective pitch. Who wouldn’t want to know for sure they were going to heaven?  But I began to sense problems with this theology long before I became Catholic. To begin with, every Protestant I know admits that some people have “real faith,” and others have only shallow, or lightly held, or nominal faith. Many people express faith one day, but then fall away into grave sin or even into unbelief. Very few Protestants are willing to say that an unrepentant serial killer who dies an atheist is likely to go to heaven just because he “prayed to receive Christ” when he was six years old. Situations like this raise a major difficulty for Protestants: how do you know if you have “real faith,” or only the shallow, shifting kind? One former Protestant friend of mine put it this way, “Real Christians know for sure they’re going to heaven, and I might be one of them.”

Protestant history reveals a series of conflicts over how to resolve this problem. Some emphasize moral behavior as proof of “true faith.” Others communion with the Church and sacraments. Some prefer interior religious experience. But in spite of the appeal of “knowing for sure,” Protestantism has given no consistent account of how this happens. And they never will. The thing is impossible. We are talking here about knowing our own future. And God does not usually reveal to us our individual destiny. I can look all through the Bible and never find the sentence: “David Anders is going to heaven.”

Catholics approach this question in an entirely different manner. God has revealed certain objectively certain truths about our salvation. First, Christ died for all of us and wills all men to be saved. Second, Christ founded a church to communicate his saving grace and marks her off by clear signs: unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Third, Christ attaches his presence to the sacraments and promises that they always work. “Whoever sins you forgive are forgiven.” “Whoever has been baptized has clothed himself with Christ.” “If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever.”

When I approach Christ’s grace in the sacraments, I know for sure that here is there. I know for sure that they provide what they promise. And I can see clearly that I am there present to Christ. All the Church asks of me is faith and repentance.  Moreover, Catholics don’t have any difficulty discerning “true faith.” Faith means the decision to accept what God has revealed. Repentance (or contrition) means that I don’t want to sin again. The very fact that I have come to the church for forgiveness and healing is an objective evidence that I have that faith and repentance. I am in communion with Christ in the only way that I need worry about.

What I cannot know for sure – what I dare not presume – is that I will always remain in this fellowship. People do walk away.  The council of Trent taught that I cannot know for sure that I will never walk away. (Sixth Session)  But I don’t need to know this in order to live a hopeful, assured, Christian life  – confident in God’s love for me and in my place in heaven. As long as I remain in fellowship with Christ through the church, then I have Christ’s promise to sustain me, “ If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love.” (John 15:10)

There is an irony in the Protestant insistence on “absolute assurance.”  The Protestant looks inside for the evidence of eternal life. He examines his moral life, his conscience, his religious affections and experiences, looking for evidence that he has “true faith.” This is what Cardinal Newman called the tendency to “Self Contemplation.” Historian Perry Miller once quipped that Puritan Protestants may have gotten rid of penance and indulgences, but they threw themselves on “the iron couch of introspection.” As a result, the ground of their assurance is as inconstant as the human heart. By seeking absolute assurance, they destroy the only assurance we really need – the objective certainty of Christ’s promise in the sacraments.

There are other difficulties  with the Protestant view. Most importantly, the whole thing is founded on the unbiblical notion that we are saved by “faith alone.”  They also falsely assume that one needs “absolute assurance” in order to live a confident, hopeful Christian life.  They don’t understand the strength and comfort of the Church’s sacraments.  They suspect all Catholics are  scrupulous neurotics, endlessly fretting over salvation.  In my experience, the opposite is usually the case. I eventually saw these difficulties and I embraced the Catholic faith.   Now, if someone asks me, “Do you know for sure?” I can say, “I know for sure where Christ is, and that’s where I want to be.”

World Vision and the Elusive Quest for Protestant Unity

Protestant Charity World Vision announced a few weeks ago that they would now employ same sex “married” couples. World Vision president Richard Stearns explained that the decision was meant to serve Church unity. Since Protestant denominations disagree on the morality of homosexual unions, World Vision decided (allegedly) not take a stand either way. World Vision said they were following the same policy they apply to other controverted theological issues. They do not restrict employment in disagreements over the mode of baptism, for instance. Baptists and Presbyterians can both work there.

World Vision donors did not accept this reasoning. The Evangelical Charity quickly reversed its decision when they began to lose donor support. I first learned the news because of the uproar that it caused among conservative Protestants. Evangelist Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) issued a public condemnation of the initial decision. Other prominent Protestant leaders also came out against World Vision. They objected not only to the tacit acceptance of homosexual unions, but also to the reasons that World Vision gave for this acceptance. Conservative leaders argued that sexual morality is not like the mode of baptism. Sexual morality is absolutely essential to Christian faith and life. The mode of baptism, they argued, is not.

Viewing this as a Catholic, I was troubled by the World Vision announcement. There are solid, rational grounds for resisting the secular push for same-sex “marriage.” You do not have to be a Catholic or even a Christian to realize this. The World Vision decision was one more example of fuzzy thinking about a matter that is really quite simple. Sex is for babies. Marriage is for families. Societies sanction marriage to support families, not to give political cover to “lifestyle choices.” But I was also dismayed by the nature of the debate among Protestants. The conflict evidenced a deep confusion about the grounds of Christian unity and the nature of Christian belief. Supporters and opponents of World Vision were locked in conflict over how to define the deposit of faith. Both sides agreed on the authority of Scripture. Both sides acknowledge that Christians can disagree. But what do you do when Christians disagree?

Protestants have answered this question historically in very different ways. Early in the Reformation, leaders did not hesitate to argue that one interpretations is correct, or that everyone should conform to one creed. But over time, as denominations proliferated, the dream of doctrinal unity seemed more and more elusive. By the eighteenth century, many Protestant leaders (especially in America) settled on a “least common denominator theology.” What counts, they said, is what we all agree on.

The World Vision flap exposes the vacuity of that reasoning. The core of “what we all agree on” (for Protestants) has gotten smaller and smaller over time. And here’s a further irony. World vision applied a traditional Protestant principle, but with very untraditional results. There is no longer widespread agreement on the meaning of human sexuality, so World Vision concluded it must not be essential. The “conservatives” strongly rejected this conclusion, but on what basis? They admit disagreement on issues like baptism. Why not human morality? Scripture alone can’t answer this, because it’s a debate about how to read the Scripture.

Fortunately, Catholics have no difficulty answering these questions. We know for sure what counts as essential because we do not rely on Scripture alone. Christ left us a revelation in Scripture and tradition, but He also left us a living Magisterium to interpret the faith with authority. We are not dependent upon a vague consensus or a shrinking common denominator. We acknowledge the Church Christ founded, the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15)

The Catholic Church teaches the immorality of homosexual unions, but it also clearly defines the necessity of baptism, the structure of Church government, the nature of the Eucharist, and many other doctrines that Protestants teach are “negotiable.” This is not to say that Catholics regard all doctrines in exactly the same way. We acknowledge a “hierarchy of truths,” in which some doctrines are closer than others to the foundations of our faith. But that doesn’t make subordinate doctrines inessential or optional. The reason for Catholic clarity is the existence of a living Magisterium, the patrimony of tradition, and the dictates of natural law.

I am sorry that World Vision made the decision tacitly to approve homosexual unions. But I am also sorry that Protestant leaders do not see the difficulties with their doctrine of Scripture. More and more, they are going to have a hard time defending marriage and all the doctrines of the Christian faith. Fewer and fewer people take for granted the basics of Chrisitianty. Even fewer agree on what the faith means. More than ever, therefore, the quest for Christian unity will not be fulfilled apart from the promise of Christ: “You are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church.”