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Against a Facile Assurance of Salvation, the Need for Mystery

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 21, 2013

It is likely that too many Catholics think too little about their own salvation, but perhaps not only for the most obvious reason. My own first thought is that such a dearth of due diligence concerning salvation is a result of secularization. We are part of a culture which more or less continuously orients us away from God. We are just too worldly.

But my second thought is of another reason, namely a faulty assurance of salvation—an unjustified conviction that we don’t have anything very much to worry about. Since Christ died for our sins, we tend to think that we are now in one of the following two situations: Either Christ’s sacrifice is all-sufficing, so that the requirements of the Law have been fulfilled and we can now simply love and do what we will (a misinterpretation of St. Augustine); or we are now quite capable all on our own of doing what is necessary to please God (a sort of Pelagianism).

Either way, many of us seem to go through life thinking salvation is rather automatic, or at least entirely within our own power. This is a far cry from St. Paul’s admonition to the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12). Nor did the great Apostle to the Gentiles apply this only to others; he also took it to heart himself:

I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. [1 Cor 9:23-27]

If an apostle who put all of his trust in Christ had this attitude toward his salvation, what about us? Blessed John Henry Newman identified an important part of our problem when he noticed that both of these incorrect attitudes toward salvation rob our moral relationship to God of its mystery:

He who believes that he can please God of himself, or that obedience can be performed by his own powers, of course, has nothing more of awe, reverence, and wonder in his personal religion, than when he moves his limbs and uses his reason…. And in like manner he also who considers that Christ’s passion once undergone on the Cross absolutely secured his own personal salvation, may see mystery indeed in that Cross (as he ought), but he will see no mystery, and feel little solemnity, in prayer, in ordinances, or in his attempts at obedience. He will be free, familiar, and presuming in God’s presence. [Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. v, sermon 10, January 19, 1840]

But why should mystery play such a critical role?

This is something the mystic grasps easily, perceiving God as “mysterium tremendum”, an unfathomable mystery so far beyond man’s imagining as to inspire only awe. Here we are, mere mortals, created out of nothing and continuously sustained in being by the One whose existence is His essence, the One who simply cannot not be! We are in fact created and sustained in a wild torrent of infinite love which we are not yet permitted to experience directly—that is, to see God face to face—lest we die.

Moreover, weak and stumbling and utterly dependent on this Love, we still have absolutely no claim upon it apart from the claim established for us by that same Love, through the sacrifice of God Himself. Through His Only-Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, God took the full horror of sin and separation upon Himself, becoming for us “a worm and no man” (Ps 22:6). An inconceivable condescension! So now, measured against this sheer unfathomable otherness of God, measured against that perpetual fire of raging love, how can we be complacent about our worthiness to enjoy eternal life, our worthiness for so fierce an embrace?

Truly has it been said that familiarity breeds contempt. Sometimes we need to step back and take a hard look at how much we take for granted. We absolutely must be diligent about pleasing God. According to His Church, not one of us can possess absolute assurance of his salvation. Rather, if we seek to live in His love with an informed and clear conscience, then we may have confidence in the promises of Christ. Or, as St. Paul put it, “Our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world, and still more toward you, with holiness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Cor 1:12).

Yet this state is not won without effort, and it must be closely guarded. In exactly the right sort of fear and trembling, the Psalmist cries: “But who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!” (Ps 19:12-13) Might we not, then, very easily fall slowly or even quickly from grace through our daily shrinking of God’s love into the cold thimbles of our human conventions? Did not Our Lord condemn exactly this?

And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?... So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” [Mt 16:3-9]

Yes, we very frequently reduce Love itself to conventional behavior, to contentment with the norms of our own time and place, to complacency about salvation, to a forgetfulness—not necessarily of God altogether, but of his ineffable glory, his terrifying holiness.

It is precisely the sense of mystery, so often lost in the constant modern calculations we substitute for grace, that reminds us of who we are and who God is. Even a moment’s reflection should stir it up. But most of us, I venture to suggest, have a lot of stirring to do.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - May. 23, 2013 12:22 AM ET USA

    I question this: "According to His Church, not one of us can possess absolute assurance of his salvation." The truth of the statement depends, I suppose, upon what you mean by it. If it is to repudiate the protestant notion of "once saved always saved", then I think it correct. But if you mean that one cannot be assured of God's promise of salvation to those who repent and love him, then it is false. We are Saved in Hope (Spe Salvi) says the Church, and in that I will put my trust.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 22, 2013 7:17 AM ET USA

    A timely contribution for some serious reflection. It is said that to whom much is given much is expected. For those who have a fine foundation in the Faith by God's grace, and for priests and prelates who have charge of souls, this reality must be ever before us. The words above are not those of a nay-sayer; rather, we must know in these times of sensitivity and easily-hurt feelings that they are animated with charity and shared by a friend.

  • Posted by: howland5905 - May. 21, 2013 10:21 PM ET USA

    Thanks for this reminder of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a reminder never to take Him for granted. Sadly don't we all to some extent, perhaps a perilous extent, presume upon His mercy? Should we all not wonder, "What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?"

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 21, 2013 9:23 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this. What you say about this facile assumption is pervasive today and, as I see it, very damaging to the faith. Unfortunately, it is often fostered by Catholic priests at funeral services. I know this is a difficult part of their ministry and that they simply want to bring solace to the grieving, but they must refrain from the temptation to pronounce the deceased in heaven already. Just yesterday I witnessed an instance of this and I think I was perhaps alone in feeling uneasy.