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.”

6 thoughts on “Do you know for sure?

  1. Reply
    Rose - April 24, 2014

    Thank you Dr. Anders.
    Your articles have been immensely helpful to my husband and me as we have been researching the Catholic faith more carefully. We were “reformed Baptist” turned conservative Presbyterians living in south Alabama and having a hard time finding a church in our little town that could fit our family. Out of desperation for a liturgical church which would baptize infants that hadn’t grown super liberal over time, we started looking into the teachings of Catholic Church. I read a post by another Called to Communion contributor and then the next day a Catholic friend shared your conversion story with me. Everything you said resonated so clearly with me and your discoveries about justification matched my own observations. We read several of your other articles and they were instrumental in our conversion, especially the ones in which you shared your discoveries about John Calvin and Martin Luther.
    I love the Catholic faith because it is so gloriously objective! This post is such a helpful reminder that we don’t have to run around chasing our tail in an introspective game of “he loves me, he loves me not” trying to figure out if we have REAL faith or REAL repentance or if maybe we just aren’t sorry enough and we are really just reprobates who are deceiving ourselves into thinking we actually have faith when we don’t! Oh how well I remember those mind games and how glad I am to be free of them! My exposure to Federal Vision theology helped me to break free from some of that dangerous introspection and lay hold of the “objectivity of the covenant”, but my growing understanding of Catholic theology and the beautiful sacrament of reconciliation have helped cut through the rest of the foggy glass and the sun is really shining in. My husband and I were received into the church at the Easter vigil and are immensely grateful for your testimony and writing ministry. Thanks for your work.

    1. Reply
      David Anders - April 24, 2014

      Rose,

      Thank you so much for your note. Congratulations on your reception into the Church!
      Blessings,

      David

  2. Reply
    BobCatholic - May 7, 2014

    Christ’s grace is a perfect method of getting to heaven.

    However, it is up to us to accept and follow.

    A chain is as strong as its weakest link. On one part of the chain is Christ’s grace. That makes the chain strong. Then there’s our faith and following as another link. As long as that chain is intact, we go to heaven. But the weakest part of the chain is our faith and following.

    We are the weakest link.

  3. Reply
    Monique - June 6, 2014

    Dear Mr. Anders,
    I have had the opportunity to listen to you on EWTN on a number of occasions and am most appreciative. Answering questions brought forth by non-catholics has helped me (a catholic convert) learn more about the faith and also assists me in finding my own voice to stand on solid ground when I am met by challenges of fundamentalist bible believers. Although in my early years I have no recollection of practicing any forms of religious practice within my family and would not say I was raised in a religious home, the message that catholics were “idol worshippers” and depended on “works” was nevertheless imparted to me. I was “saved” as an adolescent and accepted the Lord to prevent my soul from burning in the fires of hell (thanks to my older cousin) and confirmed this at a fundamentalist church where my uncle was a lay minister.
    I have attended the catholic church throughout my 27 years of marriage although I did not convert until 17 years ago. Even after I entered the church I was consumed with questions and felt guilty and unsure about whether or not I would really go to heaven unless I held onto the (false concept) of once saved always saved by my “covered by the blood” prayer and the idea that nothing I could do is worthy enough and believing in “works” would render my salvation void.
    I remember hearing from my uncle never to call a priest by the title “father”. “Father” was only appropriate for our heavenly father (God). Also to confess sins at “confession” was to deny belief in a personal savior. To believe a priest could absolve me of sins was to give a man supernatural powers and tasted of “the work of the devil”. I was also led to believe the Pope might be “the antichrist” and to pray to Mary was an unacceptable practice to which I dare not partake of.
    These concerns have haunted me although I wanted deeply to remain open to the church. I am grateful that the Lord continued to speak to me often through the teachings and programs made available on EWTN and to have your testimony that has helped me distill why I felt so unsettled for such a long time. I truly believe the holy spirit has been at work in my life and Jesus has patiently waited for my eyes to truly see the gifts he gave to the church and thus to me.
    I have struggled in conversations with my mother who has in her elder years become more fundamentalist in her views and consistently pulls out her concordance to “prove” the King James Version of the bible is the only word of God. She has hinted lately that the Old Testament is only for the Jewish people and the New Testament is for the gentiles (us). She follows a program of bible group study and refuses to even attend a bible study with her friends because they are not using the King James Bible. She believes the words in the “catholic” bible and other bibles are changed and waters down the “real truth”.
    I must admit it becomes difficult to testify when I can not find the passages to refute her when she begins to drill me on this “one prayer salvation” idea. I also recognize the importance of context Especially since some passages are best understood in conjunction with other books in the bible.
    I believe with my whole heart and soul that I am a catholic and want to be a disciple for the church and Jesus. Is there a concordance or other reference book that might be helpful for me to consult when I am at a loss for explaining? Do you recommend any particular books that might help? I would like to reach out to her (and others) gently and in a manner that does not invite defensiveness.

    Thank you for your work and willingness to share your personal journey.
    Monique

    I

    1. Reply
      David Anders - June 6, 2014

      Dear Monique,

      Thank you for your kind message. There are many good books that might help you.
      Have you read Karl Keating’s book Catholicism and Fundamentalism?

      Or how about David Currie’s Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic?

      Or Scott Hahn’s book Rome Sweet Home

      Finally, you might be helped by some of the videos I did with Marcus Grodi. They are available at this site.

      Thanks again,

      David

  4. Reply
    charles ferlisi - June 12, 2014

    Dr. Anders, thank God so much for you being here. And I thank you so much for your work. It is one of the tools to help me and my family attain Salvation. God Bless you and your family.

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