The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 12: The Father Plans for Each One"


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"I know this is terribly displeasing to you, but I don't really mean to break with you. I will do it." This is a picture of the attitude of some very confused souls towards God. Many prominent U. S. moralists condone this. Some say that when they find a couple practicing contraception, they ask if they are good to people in general; and if they find out that in many things they are doing well, they conclude that they do not really mean to break with God by the sin of contraception. But the Church has condemned this theory1-called the "fundamental option"-which claims that to commit a mortal sin, one has to practically stand up and declare: "I hereby intend to break with God, to reject Christ, to be willing to see Him die again."

To say: "I don't really mean to offend you"-and then do what is actually very offensive, does not remove the offense. Really, it is all the more bold. So the fundamental option is not only an error, it is silly.

This reminds us of another question that seems similar, but is not foolish. To see it, we need to think of two sets of data, and then look at how they fit together.

First, people vary enormously in their response to God's grace. Some, at one extreme, are out of the state of grace and in the state of sin for most of their lifetimes. They may be in the clear for just one brief stretch. At the opposite extreme are those who are in the state of grace for all or nearly all their life. They might perhaps be out for just one brief period. And of course, there are all degrees in between.

For the second set of data, we recall that there are natural causes at work in this world of ours, operating according to their own laws, which God gave them. Some of these are capable of bringing sudden death to any person, at any age. Of course, some events are more likely at certain ages, e.g., in the forties and fifties, death from a coronary is more of a possibility than it is for a teenager. On the other hand, a teenager is much more open to sudden death in an auto crash, as the insurance companies know so well.

So we need to ask some questions about how these two sets of things fit together. Namely: Will Divine Providence either order or permit sudden death to strike a man who is in that one brief period in which he is in the state of grace, so he will be saved? Conversely, will Providence either order or permit sudden death to hit one who is in the one brief period in which he is not in the state of grace, though normally he is?

It is obvious, that for these extreme cases, and for all points in between, there is a question to be answered, a decision to be made. Clearly it is Divine Providence, our Father, who makes the decision. If the decision is favorable, it is called predestination; if unfavorable, it is called reprobation.2

Some are frightened by the very word predestination. They have heard the foolish questions students sometimes ask in school: "Teacher, since God knows where I will go, how can I can help it; doesn't it have to be?" The question, as we said, is silly, for two reasons. First, the fact that God knows does not mean that He causes. Secondly, He really does not know the future. For there is no future for Him: since He is unchangeable, He cannot be subject to this constant succession of time in which a moment that was future, soon becomes present, then becomes past. No, for Him everything is present, eternally present. So, in the strict sense, He does not foresee, He just sees. And just as when we see something happening before our eyes, we need not be causing it, so He can know without causing it. Yes, to us the things seem future, but to the eye of His eternity, they are all simply present.

For centuries, practically since the beginning of the Church, theologians have tried to learn on what basis God makes these decisions about the intersection of death with the state of grace or sin. They have said that He must obviously decide to predestine or reprobate either before or after looking at human merits and demerits. Of course, those words before and after are metaphorical, for as we know, there is no time with God. What they really mean is to ask whether He decides these questions with or without considering how a person lives.

Throughout all centuries, all theologians have thought that both kinds of decisions-predestination (favorable) or reprobation (unfavorable)-have to be made in the same way, i.e., both must be decided with, or both without, looking at the person's life. For, they reasoned, if one is not predestined, he is reprobated-just two sides of the same coin, as it were.

As a result, theologians reached an impasse. Neither answer was acceptable or even possible, i.e., neither to say God decides with, nor without, looking at merits. Why? Because God could not say that He wills all men to be saved, as He did in 1 Tim 2:4, and yet decide the ruin or reprobation of someone-who is included in the "all"-without even looking at his merits and/or demerits. So reprobation without looking cannot be the right answer. Turning to the other proposed answer, God could not decide to predestine because of or in consideration of merits-for we will not have any merits unless God gives them, since every bit of good we are or have or do, is simply His gift. As St. Paul put it (1 Cor 4:7): "What have you that you have not received?" It is only resistance to God's grace that God does not give us.3

In 1597 both major schools of thought (Dominicans and Jesuits) were ordered by Pope Clement VIII to send delegates to Rome, to hold a debate before a commission of Cardinals. In time, the Pope himself began to preside. Finally, Pope Paul V consulted St. Francis de Sales, who was a great theologian as well as a Saint. St. Francis advised the Pope not to approve either side. The Pope followed that advice, in 1607.4 The time had not yet come when, by the will of our Father, the answer would finally become clear.

Part of the reason they failed to get the answer was that they were working in the wrong way, with the wrong method. The natural sciences give us a strong object lesson on method: for centuries scientists used the wrong method, and the results were poor, and often just erroneous. But in recent times they have shifted to the proper method, and so today we have a brilliant explosion of success in the sciences.

Now theology is the field of knowledge that tries to see what God has revealed. Clearly. we should first study the sources of revelation, Scripture and Tradition. Next, we need to decide what the sources mean. Scripture is not always clear, as we know, but God has given us a providentially protected teaching authority in the Church (Lk 10:16): "He who hears you, hears me."

The theologians who failed on predestination made two mistakes. First, as we said, they used the wrong method; they tried to solve the problems by metaphysics, a branch of philosophy. Now metaphysics is very good, and can do many splendid things. But it cannot solve all these questions. Why? Because in part they depend on free decisions of God. Metaphysics can only find what must be in the nature of things. It gets no answers when the factor of free will is involved in deciding the outcome.

Secondly, when they turned to Scripture, they misinterpreted every text they touched. The reason was that they did not pay attention to the context, to the general thought of the passage. If one ignores that, he can do utterly wild things; for example, a line in Psalm 14 says: "There is no God." But the full text says: "the fool has said in his heart: There is no God." Now theologians dealing with predestination were not so blatantly foolish. Yet they did fall into serious errors. The chief trouble was this: there are only a few places in all of Scripture that even mention the word predestination. All are found in two Epistles of St. Paul: Romans 8:28 to 9:33, plus two lines in the first chapter of Ephesians. But-and here was the trouble-in both places St. Paul was talking not about a providential decision that resulted in someone reaching heaven or hell; he spoke of a decision on who would get the special favor of full membership in the Church, the people of God. Now a man can be saved5 even if he does not have his name on some parish register. And he might be lost even if he does. Full membership in the Church is a great privilege and help, but whether one gets that membership or not does not settle the question of eternal salvation or ruin. So these passages really told us nothing at all about the question the theologians had in mind, predestination to heaven, or reprobation to hell. But theologians thought they did, and hence massive confusion.

Today, thanks to modern progress in Scripture studies, we see clearly what St. Paul was talking about, and hence we know that his assertion that God presdestines or rejects without regard to merits does not refer to our question. But we still want to find out what really is the answer.

If we approach Scripture without the old errors, and especially if we explore the Father analogy soundly and carefully-not just sentimentally saying, "A good Father would not condemn anyone to hell"-we can find the answer past centuries sought in vain.

In seeking the answer, we will have to find a way to pull apart the old dilemma that said that if God presdestines without looking at one's life, He also reprobates the same way. It must be possible, and it is, to have one kind of decision on predestination, another kind on reprobation. We will see presently how that can be done. But first, some preliminaries.

We already saw that in 1 Timothy 2:4 God said that He "wills all men to be saved." Some of the older theologians, whose ideas were not approved in the decision of Pope Paul V, had thought that God could reprobate someone without even looking at his demerits. But we already saw that if God did this, He could not also say: "I will all men to be saved." God would contradict Himself.

So we gather-and this is an important piece of the answer we will put together-that there is no reprobation without consideration of demerits.

This same fact is obvious when we consider so many other things we have already seen: God could not rationally provide in the New Covenant an infinite objective title or claim to an infinite treasury of grace for us-and then just reject us without any reason in sight (let us recall chapter 9). Further, we know that in Christ God has a really human Heart: but no human heart would act that way. And also we saw that Mary was made the Mother of all men, and the one who dispenses all graces: reprobation without even a look could never fit with her motherhood either.

Another major piece needed for our answer comes from the implication of the fact that God is our Father. St. Paul tells us in Romans 8:26-27: "We are Sons of God but if sons, also heirs, heirs of God, fellow heirs with Christ."6 Now of course, when children inherit from their father, they do not earn their inheritance: that comes simply from the goodness of their father. Similarly, in Romans 3:24, St. Paul told us that we are "made righteous gratuitously by His grace." That is, we are made right with God, and hence able to inherit from Him, gratuitously, i.e., without having earned it. Jesus earned it for us, but we did not earn it; we get it as a free gift.

So we reach the second piece of the answer: predestination, the decision to send us to our Father's house, comes without consideration of our merits. We simply do not earn it.7

Now if we put together the two things, we have the following result:

Predestination is without consideration of merits.

Reprobation is because of consideration of demerits.

Can we really hold both conclusions? We must, for as we saw, they are inevitable; each part flows inescapably from the Scripture passages we saw. So we must break wide open the old dilemma. Even if we could not see how to do it, we would still be logically driven to see the fact that our conclusions are true. For it is one thing to know a fact, another to know how it comes about.

But the same Father theme we have studied so much will also show us with surprising ease how to break open the dilemma. We begin by thinking of an ordinarily good father (and mother too) in an ordinary human family. His basic starting attitude to his children is that he wants them all to turn out well. That is obvious. But next: does a child say: "I know what I have to do. I must dry the dishes, cut the grass, and so on, and then I will get my father to love and care for me"? The thought would be outrageous, foolish. Even an ordinarily decent father takes care of his children not beause they are good, but because he is good. But there is something else: a child, even though he cannot and need not earn the basic love and care of his parents, yet can earn punishment if he is bad. And-though it is rare, it is real-if he is bad enough long enough, he can earn to be disinherited, to be put out of his father's house permanently and to lose his inheritance (cf. Rom 6:23).

The attitude of our Father in heaven is precisely parallel. His initial attitude is found, as we know, in 1 Timothy 2:4: He wants all to be saved, to turn out well. But then-if we may use a human way of visualizing-He looks ahead to see who will resist His grace. When He finds some who resist grace greatly enough, He knows they simply cannot be saved. For grace is the indispensable means of salvation: if someone throws it away so much, he throws away the only thing that could save him. So then, reluctantly, the Father decides He must reprobate that one-but He does it only with consideration of demerits flowing from the resistance to grace.

What about the others, those in whom the Father does not find such resistance? Those He predestines, decides to keep. Why? Not because He has seen merits in them-no question has been raised of merit. Nor is it because of the lack of a ruinous resistance. No, the reason is simply this: from the start, He really wanted to save everyone (1 Tim 2:4). These are not stopping Him.

So, the Father analogy shows us how to break wide open the ancient dilemma that caused the impasse. It shows us that predestination is without consideration of merits, while reprobation depends on demerits.8

We did not say clearly how much resistance is required to bring reprobation. We must now examine that. In dwelling on the new covenant, we found that Christ established for each individual an infinite title to an infinite treasury of grace and forgiveness. So, obviously, the resistance must be such as to cancel out all of that. That means the resistance must be both grave and persistent.

To see how grave and persistent it must be, we return to a problem we raised at the start of this discussion namely: Does God ever send someone to hell for his first mortal sin? With an infinite claim to grace going for him, it might seem that that would not be possible. The person might say: "I can afford a long life of sin, so long as I pull up just at the end." But that cannot be right, for Jesus warned us to watch and pray. So there must be something more to discover.

Now we said that God will reprobate in view of foreseen grave and persistent resistance to grace. (We know, as we said, that He does not foresee, for all is present to Him.) Therefore, suppose some man-we will call him Ike-has just committed his first mortal sin. But God knows that this is really the beginning of a long chain of sin that will add up to grave and persistent resistance, which will mean that Ike must be reprobated. Could or would God ever-we do not know if He does this often or rarely-decide: "It would be a kindness to take Ike out of this life right now, after one mortal sin. First, Ike is going to be lost anyway-to take him now means his ruin will be less. Second, by taking him early, he will have less chance to do harm to other souls." So God takes him, after one mortal sin, and he is lost. And the warnings of Christ retain their full value.

But we still must ask: Can even persistent resistance outbalance, as it were, the infinite title Ike has going for him? God wishes it would not, for certain. But yet Ike can make himself hardened, by repeated sins, so that he is unable to perceive or accept even the first thing grace tries to do for him, i.e., the good thought. (How this can happen is described in chpater 19.) If grace cannot do even the first thing it needs to do, clearly, it cannot do the other things. So Ike is without grace. Yes, he has a title to it, and God wants to give it, but Ike is closed, hopelessly closed, so he cannot even begin to take in what God wants to give.9

Is there then no hope at all for Ike? Yes there might be. For just as in the natural order, there are miraculous things, things God does beyond the realm of natural laws, so also in the supernatural order, God can give a grace comparable to a miracle. He cannot do this routinely-for then He would contradict Himself. Someone could rightly say: "Why did you establish those laws if you mean to bypass them most of the time?" But on special occasions He can do that.

When would He do that? It seems that if someone, by heroic virtue and penance, puts as it were an extraordinary weight into the scales of the objective order (cf. chapter 4), then God can and will grant a grace comparable to a miracle, and Ike could be saved.

Early in this chapter, we noted that St. Paul spoke of a different kind of predestination, i.e., to full membership in the Church. He said that God does not consider merits in deciding who should get that special favor. But it is worthwhile for us to speculate a bit here. For St. Paul says only that on the negative side merits are not the reason for the grant of this favor. But, on the positive side, what reasons does God look at? There are some Scriptural indications.

First, St. Paul himself has some striking lines near the end of chapter 1 of First Corinthians. Earlier in that chapter, we learn that his Corinthians had become conceited, were boasting about which faction in the local church they belonged to. Probably they were also proud of themselves for becoming Christians at all.

St. Paul could not stand this pride. So, to deflate them, he wrote (1 Cor 1:26-27):

Look at your call [into the Church] brothers. There are not many wise men in the worldly sense [in your community], not many powerful men, not many of noble birth. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world, to shame the wise, and the weak things of the world . . . to shame the strong.

In other words: You people are proud because of your call, but really the fact that God calls you into the Church implies the opposite. He has deliberately chosen the weak, the nobodies, to show that no human has anything to boast of before God, to show that the power is His.

Other Scripture passages give the same sort of picture. When God first appointed Ezechiel as a prophet, He said to him (Ez 3:5-7): "Not to a people of difficult language . . . are you sent, but to the house of Israel. . . . If I sent you to them, they would listen to you, but the house of Israel will not want to listen to you, for they do not want to listen to me." It begins to appear that the house of Israel was more resistant to God's grace than pagans.

This appears further in the book of Jonah. He was sent to preach to the pagan city of Nineveh, and at once they welcomed him, and did penance in sackcloth and ashes. But prophets sent to the holy people of God met with opposition if not death.

Further, in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37), a priest and a Levite of the people of God refuse to help the wounded man, but a Samaritan, not of the people of God, shows mercy.

Again, when Jesus healed ten lepers (Lk 27:11-19), nine out of the ten would not even come back to say thank you. They were of the people of God. The one who did thank Him was a Samaritan.

The implication in all these passages is that the members of the people or God are, in general, more resistant to grace than outsiders. Now this carries a strong implication and fits a predictable divine pattern, namely: We know that God wills all men to be saved. We know that this desire of His is extremely strong, so strong that He sent His only Son to the cross, going beyond infinity, as we saw, to save all.

On the other hand, we know that, given human conditions, especially our weakness, it is inevitable that there will be persons who, in good faith, will fail to find their way into full membership in the people of God.10 First, some will simply be born before the Gospel is preached in their lands. Then, some who are born even in Catholic lands, will grow up in a Protestant family. Most naturally, they will think that what they have learned from childhood is right, and so in good faith will not come in.

We could dramatize this situation by imagining God looking over a giant checkerboard, before the course of history begins to run. He sees three classes of positions or squares on it: first are the squares in which a person will become a member of the Church in the full sense, and so will have all sacraments, the Mass, and all other external means of grace. Second are the places having some of the sacraments, but not all, and lacking the Mass: these are Protestant positions. Third are the places out in paganism where no form of Christianity has yet penetrated.

God sees, further, that some persons are more resistant to grace than others. In fact, some are so resistant that no matter what type of square He assigns them to, they will be lost. These, for the most part, we suppose He will put in the third class squares-that will leave the better squares open for those who may profit by them. This assignment will also avoid increasing the responsibilities (and so the ruin) of those who are so resistant. But He will see others who are resistant to grace, but not so severely that they could not be saved in any class of square. Some of these will need every help, all the external means of grace of the first class squares, otherwise they will be lost. Surely, He will assign such people to the first class squares. Still others are much less resistant to grace; they can be saved in the second class squares, or even in the third class squares. He will assign people accordingly.11

Not all those in the best squares are put there because of their greater resistance to grace: God picks some to put there for the sake of others. He intends to use them as His instruments to speak or to write, to do apostolic works, for the good of other souls. For although strictly He does not need any human, yet there is a sense in which He does, for while He could do these apostolic works directly Himself, that would be miraculous. He must not multiply miracles extensively, for it would be self-contradiction, frequently breaking through the normal laws He Himself has set in place. So to accomplish such works without miracles, He will use humans, who can do them without a miracle being involved-though without His interior graces to move those who work, and those who receive benefits from them, nothing would be acomplished.

Of course, there may be other types of cases too.

Obviously, He can make assignments in such a way that no one will be lost because of the type of square to which he is assigned. Since our Father so strongly desires that all be saved, we may be sure He will make such assignments-or, indeed, He may have a better way than the one we have pictured. But the point I wish to make is this: Our Father acts, again, like the father in a good family. If some children are sickly, they get the better care, for they need it. Those who are stronger get less, but still, all that they need.

We can see, then, that when His Son said that even the hairs on our heads are numbered (Mt 10:30), i.e., that the Father takes individual care of each one, He meant it. We can see too that we who are given the first class squares have no reason to be proud. Rather, the implication is that, at least for the most part, we might not have been saved at all without such advantages, that we are the people most resistant to grace out of the entire human race.

There is still more. We have been speaking of full membership in the Church. This means, of course, that there can be lesser degrees of membership. We can gather this fact very definitely from comparing two kinds of statements of the Church. On the one hand, we have several texts, even a solemn definition from the Council of Florence (1447), that there is no salvation outside the Church.12 On the other hand, Pope Pius IX taught that "God . . . in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments, who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault."13 Vatican II agrees: "They who, though no fault of theirs, do not know of the Gospel and Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with a sincere heart, and try with the help of grace to carry out His will, known to them by the dictates of conscience, can attain eternal salvation."14

A full study of the Fathers of the Church on this point occupies the appendix to this book; it shows that sometimes they speak like the Council of Florence, and at other times, usually the very same Fathers, they show a very broad concept of membership in the Church. For example, St. Augustine wrote this:

The very thing which is now called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, nor was it lacking from the begining of the human race, until Christ Himself came in the flesh, after which the true religion, that already existed, began to be called Christian.15

We know the fact that somehow this requirement of membership in the Church can be satisfied even by those who have never heard of the Church. What of the how? St. Paul in Romans 2:14-16 gives us a great help: "The Gentiles who do not have the law [revealed religion] do by nature the things of the law. They show the work of the law written on their hearts." And St. Paul adds that according as they do or do not follow that law in their hearts, they will or will not be saved at the judgment.

This law written on hearts really means the work of the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of Christ, who makes known to them interiorly what morality calls for. Modern anthropology agrees: even primitive peoples show a remarkable knowledge of the moral law, even in some detail.

So a person may be following the Spirit of Christ without knowing that it is that which he is following. But then, in Romans 8:9 St. Paul tells us that "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him." So, of course, if a person has and follows that Spirit, he does belong to Christ.16 Now in Paul's language, to belong to Christ is the same as being a member of Christ-but to be a member of Christ means to be a member of the Church. It may be in a lesser degree, something short of the full membership of which we spoke, so that the person may not have even heard of the Church. Yet this following of the Spirit of Christ brings that substantial membership which is needed and which suffices.

So our Father does make the needed provision even for these persons. St. Paul in Romans 3:29 asks: "Is God the God of the Jews alone?" He means this: if God did not make provision for the salvation of non-Jews, He would act as if He were not their God. Similarly here, if God did not make some provision for people to have a substantial membership in the Church even without hearing of the Church, He would act as if He were not their God. But He is their God. He has made excellent provision for all.


1 Cf. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, Dec. 29, 1975. #10.
2 Instead of reprobation, some theologians say: predestination to hell.
3 We are able to resist or to nonresist; cf. chapter 18.
4 DS 1090.
5 The word save is used in three senses in Scripture: (1) rescue from temporal evils-found mostly in the Old Testament; (2) entry into the Church-cf. e.g., Rom 11:25-26; (3) reaching heaven. Here we refer to final salvation.
6 Cf. also 1 Cor 6:10; Gal 5:21; Eph 5:5; Rom 6:23.
7 The Council of Trent (DS 1582) defined that the good works of a person who has already been justified (has reached the state of grace without meriting it) do merit eternal life. This is true. We here insist that justification itself is without merits, is given out of the goodness of the Father, gratuitously (cf. Rom 3:24). That justification is as it were a ticket or title to eternal glory, and is a merit in that sense. This fits with the Father's love of objective order, and of titles within it, as we saw in chapter 4.
8 For a fuller treatment, cf. W. Most, New Answers to Old Questions.
9 If a person decided to "live it up," relying on the infinite titles for him, and pull up at the last moment, it would be presumption, which normally causes hardening, which makes real repentance almost impossible.
10 There are lesser degrees of membership, which still suffice to fill the requirement of membership in the Church for final salvation. On this cf. W. Most, Catholic Apologetics Today, chapter 23, and the appendix.
11 It is quite possible that some will be saved more easily in the 2nd or 3rd class squares, where they have to face less strong explicitly taught requirements, e.g., the teaching on contraception.
12 DS 1351.
13 DS 2866.
14 Vatican II, On the Church #16.
15 St. Augustine, Retractations 1. 13. 3. PL 32. 603. For many Patristic texts, see W. Most, Catholic Apologetics Today, chapter 23, and the appendix.
16 Following the Spirit includes an implicit wish for full membership. Cf. Pius XII, Mystici Corporis. DS 3821. "A wish which they do not recognize" is inscio voto.