Someone showed me a video online a few weeks ago and I have not been able to get the scene out of my mind. It was a recording of a Christian street preacher talking and debating with variety of students on a college campus in Texas. The dialogue I witnessed was shocking and upsetting, not because of the occasional anti-Catholic comments made by the evangelist and not because of his sometimes insensitive method of sharing the Gospel, but because of the gravely distorted understanding of the role of Jesus’ saving work held by many of the outspoken students. The preacher was emphasizing the importance of repentance and turning away from sin, avoiding immorality and striving for holiness.
In response, a handful of the students in the gathered crowd were loudly vocalizing their opposition to his message. To the preacher’s call for conversion, they responded with shouts of, “We are all sinners but because Jesus died for me and I have faith, I am saved,” and “Jesus died for my sins, why would He still judge me?” Others chimed in with, “God loves me and died for me. He accepts me as I am” and “Jesus died on the cross for my sins, so my sins do not matter. I can live how I want.”
The doctrine at the heart of the students’ misunderstanding about sin is often referred to as “once saved always saved” and, though some could argue these students misunderstand the doctrine, they do demonstrate how it can lead to dangerous views on salvation. The doctrine of eternal security is most commonly seen among Evangelicals but, even among those Protestant denominations rejecting this teaching, there can be overlap with their doctrines on salvation. For example, Lutherans deny the doctrine of eternal security but similarities are seen in the words oftheir founder, Martin Luther:
Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [‘sin boldly’ in some translations], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death and the world…No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day… (Letter to Melanchthon, 13, full text here).
I Can Live As I Wish?
Fortunately, the vast majority of non-Catholics I know who hold “once I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior I cannot lose our salvation no matter what” strive for holiness not because of their doctrine but in spite of it. The faithful Protestants I have met are morally upright living in a way that far surpasses their own theology of salvation by faith alone and eternal security. However, when taken to its extreme end, it is not difficult to see how the idea of “once I believe in Jesus my salvation is secured” could quickly deteriorate to the notion heard among many of these college students: “I believe in Jesus, He died for my sins, I am saved and so my sins no longer matter. I can live how I wish”.
Because grace abounds can we remain in sin? The false notion one can continue to live in sin because one has faith in Jesus in many ways was anticipated by St. Paul. Recognizing the free gift of grace merited by Jesus on the cross, Paul is emphatic in his letter to the Romans: because grace abounds, this does not give us free reign to continue to yield to sin (6:15-16). Rather Paul tells us we must be slaves of obedience to God and to the standard of teachings handed on to us (6:17). And Paul tells us because Jesus freely offered His own life as a sacrifice for our sin then the divine life (sanctifying grace) can dwell within us and we can be obedient to the law of Christ (8:1-9).
Scripture’s Stern Warning
Several times in the New Testament Christians are compared to the Israelites wandering through the wilderness with Moses on their way to the Promised Land (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Hebrews 3-4). We are reminded of the many times they were guilty of practicing idolatry and immorality, lost faith and were disobedient to God. We are given a stern warning: as they lost their inheritance of the Promised Land, all Christians could have the same fate if we allow evil to remain within us, if we are disobedient to God or if we have an unbelieving heart (Hebrews 3:12,14; 4:11; 1 Corinthians 10:12). This is a challenge to all of us, but, thanks be to God, because of Jesus Christ, we can “draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) in order to receive this supernatural power to help us be faithful, avoid sin and enable us to enter our eternal rest in heaven.
The Call to Repentance
Nowhere in Scripture will we find God revealing the insignificance of a sinful life. Rather, time and again God calls us to repentance. The term “repent” means more than simply saying “I am sorry”. The Greek term often used for repentance in Scripture is metanoia (see Acts 26:20; Romans 2:4), meaning to experience a profound change of heart and mind, a radical conversion. Pope Benedict XVI, in his speech on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, 2009, explained Paul was a perfect example of metanoia, as he demonstrated how we are to entrust ourselves to the power of Christ’s forgiveness and allow ourselves to be taken by His hand so that we “can come out of the quicksands of pride and sin, of deceit and sadness, of selfishness and of every false security, to know and live the richness of His love.” To truly experience repentance – this metanoia – we must hate sin and always be striving for holiness.
Necessity of Obedience
Paul does not teach a doctrine of faith alone and eternal security but rather emphasizes having an “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5) providing many examples of what exactly is required to enter heaven. “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13). “To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7). “Whatever a man sows that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will…reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will…reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-9). Paul warns that those who do not know God as well as those who do not obey the gospel will suffer eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). Additionally, one who does not strive for holiness disregards God (1 Thessalonians 4:7-8) and will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). These passages, among others, are explicitly clear –how we live our lives here on earth has eternal consequences.
Contrary to the idea of ‘I believe in Jesus and am saved, I can live how I wish’, Jesus emphasizes the necessity of our obedience to God in addition to faith in order to inherit eternal life in heaven. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven but he who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21). “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). After listing charitable works including feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and giving drink to the thirsty Jesus says, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”, and He reveals the inheritance of the kingdom of God will only be given to those who did these acts of love who (Matthew 25:31-46). Finally, Jesus tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), but Jesus continues, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life but the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36). God calls us not simply to make an intellectual assent of faith but to be obedient to Him. This summons would be impossible on our own but when moved by grace – God’s own divine life within us – not simply obedience but perfection and holiness are possible.
Grace Truly Transforms Us
When we are united to Christ and receive grace we are transformed. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul describes this regeneration using the Greek word metamorphoo, where we get the English metamorphosis, and this word means to change the essential nature of something. This transformation begins in baptism when we receive grace, are “freed from sin” and are called to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-7). This new man infused with grace can echo the words of Paul, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). But for this to be sincere, we are to avoid sin. Paul tells us if we are children of God, we are not to “desire evil”, “indulge in immorality” or “put the Lord to the test”, otherwise the end result will be destruction (1 Corinthians 10:6-10). He also tells us, “You cannot drink from the cup of the Lord and the cup of the demons” (1 Corinthians 10:21), but “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (10:31). There is nothing in these revealed words to even suggest our sins do not matter but quite the opposite.
Sin is contrary to love of God and as such we can lose our salvation It is true God desires all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), but we must not deceive ourselves thinking sin, even among believers, is without consequence. Scripture clearly demonstrates the reality salvation can be lost this side of heaven not because God wills our damnation but rather because we can freely choose this path. St. Peter powerfully writes:
Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first…the dog turns back to his own vomit and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire (2 Peter 2:20-22).
Grace allows us to resist the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, but, as St. Peter points out, if we reject this divine assistance and return to living a life of sin, we are in a worse state than even those who have never believed in Christ.
Sin separates us from God and has eternal consequences, especially when we are Christian and have been given the grace to avoid sin. Each day, Christ calls us to be His disciple and gives us two choices: life or death. Life everlasting is rewarded to those persevere in grace choosing goodness and obedience to God while those who persist in wickedness and disobedience to God have freely chosen eternal perdition (Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Didache 1:1). Recognizing this reality, we must avoid the sin of presumption: ‘because I believe in Christ and because of God’s mercy I will be saved, I can live how I want.’ We also need to resist the other extreme – despair: ‘I am so wretched and sinful, there is no hope for me.’ Rather, by uniting ourselves to Christ, we can be infused with grace and if docile to this divine transformative power, God will enable us to love, have faith, be obedient and be made perfect so we can, by the mercy of God, enter our heavenly home and achieve our ultimate salvation.