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!
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.”