Persevering Most Assuredly: One Reason to Prefer Luther over Calvin

Apr 6th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts, Featured Articles

I guess I’m starting to wonder whether any of the major players ever really disagreed with each other on the question of assurance of salvation. Everybody seemed to agree, at least at various points in their reflections, that you might not have (do not have?) strict certainty regarding (a) whether you are currently justified (or “saved”), or (b) whether you are a member of the ‘elect’, in a sense which entails that you are a recipient of the grace of final perseverance. (By ‘strict certainty’ I mean a kind of epistemic certainty implying the impossibility of being wrong given the internal evidence before you – given, that is, the evidence accessible to your consciousness and/or instrospective awareness – and not necessarily a form of certainty which deals in psychological feelings of confidence or certitude.)


The question of assurance should of course be distinguished from such things as (c) the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints and (d) the possibility of being justified at one time and failing to be justified at a subsequent time. These are straight-up theological issues, about which people disagree. So for example, Luther would deny the Perseverance of the Saints if understood in such a way as to entail the impossibility of being justified at a time and then failing to be justified at a subsequent time. So would Augustine and Aquinas. Calvin, on the other hand, I take it, would see the class of elect persons as coextensive with the class of persons who have at any time been justified, from which the Reformed doctrines of the Perseverance of the Saints and the impossibility of becoming unjustified subsequent to having been at any time justified follow.

To lay it out a little more explicitly, the topic of ‘perseverance’ is metaphysical or (broadly) theological, and the topic of ‘assurance’ is epistemological or psychological. Discussion of the former requires a distinction between the following theses:


1. Perseverance of the Elect: All of the elect of God (those who’ve been predestined by God for salvation) are recipients of the grace of final perseverance – all will be justified, grow in sanctification, persevere to the end and be saved.

2. Perseverance of the Saints: Any person who has at any time been justified will ever remain justified, will grow in sanctification, and will persevere to the end and be saved.

Perseverance of the Elect does not imply Perseverance of the Saints, or “once saved always saved.” For it can be true that all of the elect will be justified and persevere to the end (and thus finally be saved) even if it is also true that some persons will experience the grace of justification (“be saved”) but will not persevere to the end and thus will not finally be saved. People in this latter class are not among the elect. (They may be among the ‘elect’ in the sense of having been baptized into the Body of Christ; they are not among the ‘elect’ in the sense of having been predestined to final salvation. These are two different ways of being ‘elect’, as Calvin pointed out: those who’ve been elected to final salvation are a proper subset of those who’ve been elected in any sense.)

Since ‘elect’ in the salvific sense simply means “those folks God has predestined for final salvation,” the Perseverance of the Elect is definitionally true and consequently nobody denies it. Perseverance of the Saints, on the other hand, appears to have been first formulated by John Calvin, and people disagree about it.

Another thing: Perseverance of the Saints is sometimes wrongly correlated with a particular view of Divine sovereignty, or a particular view of predestination. Some people speak as though any strong view of Divine sovereignty or predestination – such as those we discover in Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin – automatically implies the Perseverance of the Saints. But it doesn’t. God can sovereignly justify a person and then (sovereignly) allow that person to be choked by the worries of the world and fall away. This can happen without mitigating in the least Divine sovereignty or the supposition that all and only those predestined to final salvation will ultimately be saved.

And then there’s the issue of “assurance,” which requires a corresponding distinction:


3. A person who is justified at a particular time may have strict certainty that he is justified at that time.

4. A person who is justified at a particular time may have strict certainty that he is a recipient of the grace of final perseverance (that he is among the elect).

These are distinct too. It’s possible that a person who is justified at a time is able to have strict certainty that he is justified at that time, without its being the case that he can have strict certainty that he is among the elect. If, however, a person endorses the Perseverance of the Saints (let’s say, if they are strictly certain that the Perseverance of the Saints is true), and if they also possess strict certainty that they are justified at a particular time, then it is plausible to think that they could have strict certainty that they’re a recipient of the grace of final perseverance as well: they could, in other words, infer from their present justified condition (concerning which they have certainty) that they are among the elect, because they’re certain about “once saved always saved.”

The crux of the theological dispute thus concerns the question whether justification can be lost, or, if you like, whether the class of elect persons is coextensive with the class of persons who have at any time experienced the grace of justification. However, even after answering that question we wouldn’t yet have answered the epistemological-cum-psychological questions about “assurance.” For it could be that the Perseverance of the Saints is true, but nobody can have certainty as to whether they are in fact justified (or, alternatively, the degree of certainty they have concerning their present condition is insufficient to underwrite the inference that they will never fall away). It could also be the case that the Perseverance of the Saints is false – that one can be justified at one time and then fail subsequently to be “saved” – but that, even so, we can have certainty that we’re justified when we are justified, despite the fact that we cannot have certainty concerning whether we are among the elect. 1

I used to think that Calvin provided the strongest combination all the way around – strongest in the sense of giving us the strongest combination of possibilities – because he endorsed the Perseverance of the Saints, which Luther and the others didn’t, and also because he endorsed the possibility of certainty concerning (i) our present justified status and (ii) our membership among the elect. I came to think, through time, that Calvin didn’t really have the resources to explain how we get the kind of assurance I thought he ascribed to Christians, and, indeed, I chalked this failure up to a faulty epistemological orientation in Calvin which can be found in a number of his philosophical and theological contemporaries as well. 2

But I’ve since come to see that Calvin’s position is perhaps more nuanced, and that he might not really have attempted to provide (or insist upon) more assurance than anyone else did. (More below.) However all that may be, I’ve come to believe that Luther and Calvin are sort of inverse images of one another with respect to perseverance and assurance: Luther doesn’t give us “once saved always saved,” but he gives us greater assurance of our salvation than Calvin; Calvin gives us “once saved always saved,” but he gives us lesser assurance of our salvation than Luther.

On this point I’m afraid I must demur from the ordinarily trenchant analysis of Louis Bouyer, who writes the following concerning Luther in the critical section of The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism:

…in spite of the conservatism Luther and Lutheranism have always shown in the matter of the liturgy and the sacraments, it is beyond doubt that Luther closely linked the subjective side of justification by faith … with a denial of the objective value of the sacraments and of all the other means of grace. Once faith is present, there is salvation; but there is nothing in the sphere of salvation existing apart from faith itself, and faith in its turn has no transcendental object, no content outside itself. All this can be supported by the most categorical passages from Luther; it was to be systematized little by little down to its ultimate consequences by Protestant writers, although the early scholastics of Lutheranism saw the dangers of this position and eluded its logic. This view, in fact, reduces the sacraments, the Church, and defined dogma to the status of mere signs, easily dispensable, lacking even any content of their own. They are made into mere psychological stimulants or supports of a wavering faith, which a clear and firm faith can do without. 3

I simply don’t recognize this orientation as characteristic of Luther. In fairness, it could be that Bouyer’s really aiming to trace out the eventual results of a germ which is found incipiently within Luther; and I do think his description gives an accurate portrait of some strains of Protestantism. Luther, though? Not so much.

In part I deny this picture of Luther because it doesn’t sufficiently incorporate Luther’s very interesting remarks about “alien faith” and the “alien Word.” 4  But I’m also indebted to the interesting discussion in Philip Cary’s “Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin.”  There Cary forcefully argues that the foundation of assurance for Luther was entirely distinct from what he calls “reflective faith,” which requires us to believe that we have sufficient faith in the Gospel to be saved, and which he assigns to Calvin and the later Evangelicals following him. For Luther, in other words, our assurance isn’t grounded in the quality of our religious interiority, or our psychological confidence in the strength of our personal faith, or whatever: it is grounded in the objective trustworthiness of God, who specifically promises to each one of us individually that we will be saved in our baptisms, through the voice of the Church. Thus Luther’s argument for assurance wouldn’t be “Whoever believes will be saved; I believe; therefore, I am saved,” but rather: “Christ told me, ‘I baptize you in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’; Christ never lies but only tells the truth; I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).” Here is Cary:

Notice how very different the baptismal formula is from the major premise of the standard Protestant syllogism. Logically, it’s not a conditional statement. It lays down no conditions about what I must do or decide or even believe in order to make sure the promise applies to me. The promise applies to me because it says so: Christ says “you” and he means me. So the promise of the Gospel, on Luther’s reckoning, is inherently, unconditionally, for me. Faith does not make it so but merely recognizes that it is so, a recognition that happens because we dare not call Christ a liar when he tells us, on that one momentous occasion, “I baptize you…” That is why the minor premise is not about my faith but about the truth of Christ. This is absolutely essential, and Luther makes a very big deal about it …

Now to say that God speaks the truth is, of course, to make a kind of profession of faith – but not in the Calvinist mode, because it is not reflective. We’re not required to talk about our faith, to know we have faith … We are required, of course, to believe … But that, of course, is what faith essentially does: it believes in the truth of the Word of Christ. The problem with reflective faith is that it must do more: if reflective faith is required, then believing in God’s Word is not quite enough, because we must also believe that we believe …

What faith says, fundamentally, is “God speaks the truth.” Only secondarily, and not fundamentally, faith may also say, “I believe.” But faith may also say, “My faith is weak” or “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” or “I have sinned in my unbelief and denied my Lord, like Peter the apostle.” Faith may confess its own unbelief. What it cannot do, if it is to remain faith at all, is stop clinging to the truth of God’s Word.  For faith does not rely on faith, but on the Word of God. 5

He continues:

The logical distinction we must observe, then – and it is a crucial distinction – is between having faith and relying on faith. “There is quite a difference between having faith, on the one hand, and depending on one’s faith, on the other,” says Luther. “Whoever allows himself to be baptized on the strength of his faith is not only uncertain [because he doesn’t know for certain whether he believes] but also an idolater who denies Christ. For he trusts in and builds on something of his own …”

Don’t you agree? Isn’t it much easier to confess, “Christ is no liar” than to profess, “I believe” – especially if what you’re supposed to mean is: “I have true faith in my heart, I truly, really trust in God,” etc. For this reflective faith, faith relying on itself, is how faith becomes a work, something we must do and accomplish in order to be saved. And then it has exactly the same problems as justification by works. You can always wonder if your works are good enough, and if you’re honest, the answer will be: No, they’re not good enough. In exactly the same way, you can always ask: Do I trust God enough? Have I really, unreservedly, surrendered by whole heart in faith to Christ? Is my faith strong, sincere, unhypocritical, un-self-serving? And the proper answer to all these questions is: No. My faith is never good enough, and thank God, I am not justified by such works of faith but by the truth of the word I believe in. My faith is not good enough, but the one I have faith in is. 6

None of this implies that Luther held out the possibility of strict certainty concerning our salvation or our membership among the elect. Luther’s advice – and a pastorally adept bit of advice it is – was to say, “What do I care if I’ve been predestined? I’ve been baptized, and He who baptized me does not lie.” It isn’t that your baptism entails that you’re among the elect; that’s something you just can’t know. But the external Word coming to you from Christ is true, and Christ applies it to you. That’s the thing to cling to when you’re looking for assurance.

Now if this is representative of Luther’s orientation I fail to perceive any substantive differences between what Luther says and what Augustine or Aquinas or the Catholic Church generally says. The whole idea is that a person shouldn’t presume to have certainty that they will be saved or that they are among the elect on the basis of things about them – the quality of their works or the genuineness of their faith or whatever. That would just be spiritual presumption. Rather, the point is to look in a different direction altogether: not inwardly, toward me and my faith and my works, but outwardly, toward Christ and His Sacraments and His Word. Fundamentally, it is the Lord who is your Assurance, even as it’s the Lord who is your Righteousness. So you can and should place your confidence – your assurance of salvation – in the One who saves; but you can’t and you shouldn’t place your assurance of salvation in some quality of yourself.

Seen from this perspective, Luther’s celebrated concern to provide assurance for the troubled conscience terminates in a solution which is, happily, entirely consistent with Catholic teaching, despite the fact that “the Protestant/Luther’s position” on assurance is often set up in opposition to “the Catholic/Trent’s position.” I note with some pleasure that Alister McGrath has arrived at the same conclusion:

Trent’s point seems to be that the reformers seemed to be making human confidence or boldness the grounds for justification, so that justification rested upon a fallible human conviction, rather than on the grace of God. The reformers, however, saw themselves as stressing that justification rested upon the promises of God; a failure to believe boldly in such promises was tantamount to calling the reliability of God into question. 7

But of course the whole point of the Catholic position is that God’s reliability cannot be doubted, whereas whether you yourself have a sufficiently “bold” faith or sufficiently “good works” can be doubted. Thus your assurance of salvation ought to be grounded in the former, not the latter. And that’s what Luther says.

What of Calvin, and the other branches of the Reformation which failed to retain a Lutheran or Catholic sacramentology? Here the case is different. To be sure, you can be told to look outward to Christ. But what matters is not grace objectively, tangibly, sacramentally conferred, but rather whether you are a member of the elect. For recall: (a) no non-elect persons are ever at any time justified, (b) baptism does not effect justification (or membership among the elect), and (c) you can appear – to other people and to yourself – to have saving faith, even though you are not among the elect and therefore are not really justified.

As I mentioned, I used to think that Calvin held out the possibility of strict certainty concerning one’s status as ‘elect’ (and, indeed, Cary portrays him this way as well). 8 On the other hand, we may also see him as distinguishing between theological certainty and psychological certainty: the first has to do with divinely revealed truths which cannot be doubted, and the second has to do with items we believe to be true – such as, “I am saved” – but which aren’t divinely revealed dogmas. (Homework for the reader: To what degree does this approximate the Catholic distinction between certainty of faith and certainty of hope?) McGrath again:

Faith is not the same as certainty; although the theological foundation of Christian faith may be secure, the human perception of and commitment to this foundation may waver.

This point is brought out clearly by Calvin, often thought to be the most confident of all the reformers in relation to matters of faith. His definition of faith certainty seems to point in this direction:

“Now we shall have a right definition of faith if we say that it is a steady and certain knowledge of the divine benevolence toward us, which is founded upon the truth of the gracious promise of God in Christ, and is both revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

Yet the theological certainty of this statement does not, according to Calvin, necessarily lead to psychological security. It is perfectly consistent with a sustained wrestling with doubt and anxiety on the part of the believer.9

This makes Calvin’s considered view more readily defensible than I thought it was at one point. And it makes sense of the post-Calvin preoccupation with the question: “How can I be sure I’m among God’s predestined? How can I truly know I am saved?” You will notice, in precise accordance with Cary’s analysis of “the standard Protestant” answer (as opposed to Luther’s answer), that the Calvinists who grappled with this question rotated through a series of answers – each of which were centered inwardly, on the self. First, it was: “Well, Do I have true faith? If so I must be among the elect.” Then it was: “Well, maybe I’m fooling myself about my faith; so, Do I have good works? Am I growing in sanctification? If I am, I must be among the elect.” And then it was: “Well, isn’t it true that lots of people begin to bear fruit and fall away? And isn’t it possible that my works aren’t quite as good as I think they are? So, Do I have a regenerate heart, accompanied by certain specific religious affections or feelings? If I do, I must be among the elect.” And then it was: “Well, wait, look at all these ‘revivalist’ types who keep whipping people up into a frenzy of religious enthusiasm. What if my religious affections aren’t really inspired by a regenerate heart, either? The feelings aren’t enough. I must have true faith.” So, once more: “Do I have true faith? If so, I must be really among the elect;” and so on it goes.

Recall Cary’s “Standard Protestant Syllogism” aimed at delivering assurance to Christians: “All who believe will be saved; I believe; therefore, I am saved.” This is an instance of reasoning which is motivated by the conviction that assurance requires “reflective faith,” and we’ve already seen that the results of this approach can be pretty disastrous to the aim of providing assurance. But notice how the same syllogism continues to pop up in the following passages, the first from McGrath’s Iustitia Dei (volume 2), and the second one from A Life of John Calvin:

A second aspect of [Puritan federal] theology which claims our attention is the concept of ‘temporary faith’, intimately linked with the Puritan quest for assurance of election. Perkins’ discussion of the question: how may I know that I am among the elect? exemplifies both the Puritan preoccupation with, and response to, this issue. The earlier Reformed appeal to the present existence of faith as the basis of assurance was negated by the rise of the Bezan doctrine of limited atonement. The reprobate may seem to have a faith at every point identical with the elect, but it is merely a ‘temporarie faith’, which fails to apply the promises of God to the believer. The individual believer is therefore prevented from knowing whether his is a true or a temporary faith, and thus from knowing whether he is among the elect or the reprobate. Perkins produces the following syllogism for troubled consciences:

Everyone that beleeves is the childe of God
But I doe beleeve
Therefore I am the childe of God.

Unfortunately, as Perkins himself appears to have appreciated (in that he died in the conflict of a troubled conscience, uncertain as to whether he was among the elect), the similarity between the faith of the elect and reprobate excluded such an appeal as the basis of assurance. 10

So, if you’re not supposed to look to your own faith, but you still are supposed to examine something about yourself to ground your assurance, you look to your behavior: “It is precisely this difficulty which led to the later shift in emphasis away from faith to personal sanctification as the basis of assurance.” 11 And it appears that this strategy is perhaps truer to Calvin’s own thought as well:

Grace … is only given to the elect. This being the case, an obvious question arises. How can anyone know whether he or she is among the elect? Given that grace is invisible and beyond human detection, may its presence be discerned by its effects?

Although Weber argued that Calvin did not regard such questions as problematical, the evidence suggests quite the reverse. A struggle with unbelief, Calvin suggested, was a permanent feature of the Christian life … Although he indicated certain theological or spiritual means by which such doubts may be countered – for example, by looking to the promises of God as they are revealed in Christ – he also appealed to more practical considerations: good works. Although Calvin stressed that works are not the grounds of salvation, he nevertheless allowed it to be understood that they are the grounds of assurance

Anxiety over this question of election is subsequently a pervasive feature of Calvinist spirituality, and is generally treated at some length by Calvinist preachers and spiritual writers. The basic answer given, however, remains substantially the same: the believer who performs good works has indeed been chosen …

This idea was often stated in terms of the ‘practical’ syllogism, which rested upon an argument constructed along the following lines:

All who are elected exhibit certain signs as a consequence of that election.
But I exhibit those signs.
Therefore I am among the elect.

The syllogismus practicus thus locates the grounds of certainty of election in the presence of certain signs (signa posteriora) in the life of the believer. 12

But then, when it occurs to you that non-elect people can do pretty good works too, and that your own works might not be all that spectacular after all, you attempt to discern an internal quality bound up in some way with regeneration – feelings of love, and the like. 13 And then the cycle starts again, always spinning around the center.

But notice this interesting upshot: if I can’t have grounds for assurance that I’m among the elect, and if my baptism neither entails that I am elect nor that I have been justified, then, since a person can be justified at any time only if he is elect, I cannot even have assurance that I am, right now, in a state of grace, or a justified position, before God. It follows that Calvin doesn’t only fail to give us more assurance than Luther (regarding whether we’re elect), but that he fails to give us even as much assurance as Luther does (with respect to the question whether we are currently in a right relationship with God). In this regard, too, I think Catholic theology is likewise in a position to provide more assurance to believers than Calvinism.

But aside from these implications, I think there is something just intrinsically peculiar about the whole orientation on display here. What could be less justification-by-faith-ish than saying, “Well, my works are pretty good and my faith is pretty strong, so I am justified.” And what could be more justification-by-faith-ish than saying: “Neither my works nor my faith nor my religious feelings amount to a hill of beans, truth be known; but Jesus amounts to a whole mountain of beans, and I know right where to find Him.” Thus Cary:

The best answer to [the worry about assurance], I’d suggest, is not to go Calvin’s route but to stick with the sacraments and say “What do I care if I’ve been predestined or not?” Today’s sacramental faith is sufficient for the day. Today you can believe that God is not lying to you. Tomorrow’s faith will have to wait for tomorrow. The sacramental promise of your baptism will still be there, and the struggle to believe it (against worries about predestination, the weakness of your own faith, and so on) will still be there to be fought. That’s just how Christian faith goes, a continual struggle against unbelief in which … unbelief is in fact stronger than the faith of our own hearts, and we have no hope at all except the truth of God’s promise in Jesus Christ. But that’s enough. For precisely the experience of the inadequacy of my efforts to believe is what convinces me that I must put my trust in Christ’s word alone, not in my ability to believe it – and precisely this strengthens true faith. So Anfechtung is the right agony of conscience to have, rather than the distinctively Protestant struggle to come to the belief that I truly believe, and to experience my own inward sanctification and righteousness because of the work of the Spirit in me, and so on. Save me from such inwardness, I say. Give me Word and Sacrament instead. 14

Amen to that.

  1. A helpful resource for study is John Davis’ “The Perseverance of the Saints: A History of the Doctrine,” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34 (1991): 213-228, though I think that Davis, too, at times, fails to distinguish between perseverance and assurance as clearly as he could, and I think his brief discussion of Trent should be supplemented. []
  2. I shall have more to say about Calvin’s epistemological orientation in the near future.  For the present, I simply note that when he needs to, Calvin speaks as though he has direct access to the Truth, in such a way that any possible questioning of his interpretations or critiquing of his inferences are made to sound as though the critic is questioning, not the views of Calvin, but the very Truth of God.  Something similar is at play here: there is a tendency among some Calvinists to speak as though questioning the degree of certainty (concerning election or salvation) a person may be said to possess is tantamount to questioning whether God is really sovereign or reliable.  This is to confuse the metaphysics with the epistemology. []
  3. Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, Scepter (1956), p. 170 []
  4. Luther’s “alien faith” can best be approached through the sacrament of baptism: the infant is justified by faith in baptism, but she isn’t experiencing particular emotions or thinking articulate thoughts whose content involves religious, dogmatic propositions. We can say that the infant is in fact given “the Faith” when the Holy Spirit acts upon her through baptism; but it is the child’s parents and the Church at large who believe (who believe that Faith) for the child vicariously. Thus she is “saved” in that instance by an “alien” faith, which (so to speak) channels to her the “alien righteousness” of Christ in baptism.  For more on the “alien faith” and “alien word” in Luther, see Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Yale University Press (1989), especially pp. 232-244, and see also my “The (Marburg) Eucharistic Controversy and Luther’s ‘Alien Faith’.” []
  5. Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin, pp. 3-4. []
  6. ibid., p. 5. []
  7. Reformation Thought (2nd ed.), Oxford Blackwell (1993), p. 118. []
  8. See here “Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin,” pp. 6-9. []
  9. Reformation Thought, 117 []
  10. Iustitia Dei vol. 2, Cambridge University Press (1986), p. 114. []
  11. ibid., p. 115. []
  12. A Life of John Calvin, Oxford Blackwell (1990), pp. 240-241; cf. 242. []
  13. cf. Iustitia Dei, pp. 115-121 []
  14. “Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin,” p. 9. []
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  1. Great entry Neal. What is the motivation for good works from the Roman Catholic perspective? The idea that good works must come from our thankfulness to God rather than an attempt to remain justified makes sense to me. One of the first Catholic books I read was Peter Kreeft’s, “The God who Loves You.”

    On page 24 he describes the Catholic position on justification as being a free gift, and that if our love for God and neighbor is to be genuine, then salvation must be a free gift. Kreeft says, “Nobody wants to be loved merely as a means to build up the lover’s merit pile.” He goes on, “the whole point of justification by faith is God’s wonderful, scandelous, crazy gift of love.” Peter Kreeft gets this and I think he’s right. My impression of the average Joe Catholic is that they do not. They seem to be motivated by remaining in justification (going to Mass, Confession, ect). Would you agree that the Catholic Church has done a poor job communicating the truth that salvation is a gift?

    One last thing. A few weeks ago somebody (I think you or Bryan) said on a post that the power of something is displayed by the effects it produces. This opened my eyes to see that the Catholic position on infused grace can actually illuminate God’s grace more powerfully than the Protestant position. The idea God’s grace causes us to participate in working out our own salvation opened my eyes to see all of my merits as gifts from God. I think this prevents self-righteousness. Why, if the Catholic position on grace is so strong, which I believe it is, do so many Catholics not get it?

    Peace in Jesus, Jeremy

  2. Dear Jeremy,

    These are great questions. As to the first, I agree with you and Peter Kreeft in holding that the motivation to do good works derives primarily from love (charity) for God and neighbor, which is itself a gift of grace. This isn’t to say that a person could not be motivated to perform works of mercy, etc., for other reasons: recognition before men — in which case they get their rewards in full — or rewards from God other than the rewards of an increase in grace, charity, and loving communion with the Lord. (They could, in other words, have an overly mercenary approach to the thing, trying to rack up “points for the afterlife” like Weird Al says in that funny song.) So when we try to say what “the” motivation is for “good works” from “the” Catholic perspective, we need to be sensitive to the facts that (1) there’s a plurality of individual Catholics who may be motivated differently, (2) the same Catholic can be moved by different considerations at different times, and (3) there may be a complex of fine motivations for “good works” as well as some motivations that we would consider suspect. Since I’m inclined toward a virtue theory (in morality), I’d want to say that good works flowing from virtues or virtuous dispositions are on the up-and-up, and that good works flowing from the supernatural virtues (infused into our souls by the Lord) are ‘meritorious’, in a non-offensive sense of ‘meritorious’.

    What about the typical Catholic in the pew? Here, Jeremy, I have to admit I’m still getting a feel for things. When I was outside the Church, I took it for granted that the typical Catholic was merely a nominal, ‘cultural’ Christian, was pretty ignorant about their religion, and was maybe involved in externally laudible “works” so that they could “earn” their way to heaven, but was not “inwardly” attuned to God in any personal way. I guess this picture that I had derived mostly from my bias and contempt for the Catholic Church, and also from the fact that I did not (by design) rub elbows with any real live Catholics. What I have come to see, now, is that things are nowhere near that bad in the typical parish. (Allowing for my still limited experience.) Does catechesis need improving? Absolutely. Can homilies be pretty bland? Yep. Are some Catholics motivated to do “good deeds” so as to place God under obligation to reward them for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? Probably so, though I myself haven’t had a Catholic come up and tell me that before.

    On the other hand, I am continually impressed by the quiet holiness, grace, and goodness of the Catholics I’ve met, especially those I see on a regular basis at the few parishes in town during weekday Mass, Adoration, etc. These people don’t come close to exemplifying my preconceived notions about Catholics; they are there because they love Jesus. (Do some of them still need better instruction? Yes, probably some of them. But I would distinguish (a) needing some better instruction from (b) just not having any sense that all is from God and all is of grace. The two simply don’t line up. And for those Catholics who don’t spend a lot of time reading books, but who are regularly exposed to the liturgy and take part in, I would say many of them have a profound sense that “All glory and honor is Yours Almighty Father, forever and ever.”)

    Just before I got to the office today, I was at my parish in the Blessed Sacrament chapel for the morning office. And I glanced over the little book in which people address to God the prayers, praises, requests, and concerns that are on their hearts at the moment. “Lord, I love you, please never let me go.” “Dear Lord, thank you for your precious Son, please help all the lost to know Him.” Etc. Those were the sorts of little ejaculatory prayers written out on the page I glanced over today, and I find they are fairly typical. Catholics tend to be more “quiet,” perhaps less prone to call attention to themselves, than evangelicals are. There are cultural differences. But I think it would be a mistake to take these differences as indicative that the affections and motivations evangelicals experience are not experienced by the typical practicing Catholic.

    Hope that helps! Peace to you,


  3. Thanks Neal, It is good to hear about your experience in the Catholic Church. I appreciate the high level apologetics on this site, but I also like hearing about experiences in the Catholic Church as it still seems like such a foreign country to me. I actually had the rare opportunity to go to Palm Sunday Mass two days ago. Usually I am at home with Sunday School obligations at my local Church, but we were at the beach, so we went to Mass together. We sat next to a very young couple (not white either, which was weird for us considering our Church is 99.9% white). We got there early and I was amazed at their focus throughout the whole Mass. My two year old daughter was literally climbing over the pews and on top of them, the couple was friendly to her, but all their attention was on the Mass. I was very interested and I wanted to interupt them and ask twenty questions. This is just to say that I agree with you that I should not make sweeping generalizations.

    I have several good friends though, who left the Catholic Church after being exposed to RUF in college. They speak of RUF as the place where they “came to understand what Jesus did for them.” I’m sure they will be very perplexed when I tell them what I’ve discovered in the Catholic Church.

    It sounds like part of what you’re saying (virtue theory) is that good works, or the life of grace, is its own reward. In other words, part of the motivation for purity, is purity itself. Is this kind of what you’re saying? Thanks for sharing about your experience. I am all ears. Peace, Jeremy

  4. Jeremy,

    “It sounds like part of what you’re saying (virtue theory) is that good works, or the life of grace, is its own reward. In other words, part of the motivation for purity, is purity itself. Is this kind of what you’re saying?”

    While I won’t claim to speak for what Neil was saying, I’d like to add a bit here on virtue ethics. For me, this is something that’s taken a long time to sink in. The “reward” for doing virtuous things is that you become virtuous, which leads to happiness (in the classical sense of that term). So in a sense, doing good is its own reward because it makes you good (over time). But there’s a further (or rather) more fundamental question: “Why be good?” The answer to that, from a virtue ethics perspective, is that being good is the only *true* way to happiness.

  5. Good article. Calvin’s Perseverance doctrine is one of those that on face seems to be the most wonderful thing, but then when you study all of the assurance issues that the Calvinist Puritans faced (not to mention the manifold biblical texts warning against mortal sin) you begin to wonder what’s up. It can become a doctrine that completely turns back on the earnest believer, and becomes more of a terror than a comfort.

    I think about it (somewhat simplistically) like this: Would I warn my daughter about running out in the street and getting hit by a car if it weren’t a real possibility? If it weren’t possible, I would only be terrorizing her and A) pushing her to cast off the terrorizing notion of getting hit by a car or B) pushing her to accept the fact that I am only telling her because it is destined to happen. But if she can get hit by a car by running into the street, then I am a loving father to warn her. So it is with a good and loving God.

    I think at the end of the day all of these issues must turn the Christian back towards a living, working faith. Trust and obey, day by day. We’d all do well to remember the passage regarding the secret things of God.

    Great website all around…as a lifelong reformed guy thinking about going Catholic, I’m finding this a very helpful resource. You guys are very fair and balanced in your writing, which I truly appreciate.

  6. John,

    Thank you for the comments and kind words about the site. Your analogy makes the point very well.

  7. Neal,

    A challenging article. Thank you for your effort. Making a distinction between perseverance of the elect and perseverance of the saints helps tremendously. I think this would explain certain portions of the WCF where the elect are justified but the non-elect in the visible church have only “common operations of the Spirit” and are not actually justified.

    I believe this to be related to the Federal Vision controversy in confessional Presbyterian/Reformed circles. Here is a quote from the former-PCA minister (now CREC, I believe) Rev. Rich Lusk’s article on Hebrews 6 and perseverance. After noting that some will object to his exegesis of Heb. 6 by “insist[ing] that not every member of the covenant community is really a recipient of grace” he soon avers:

    “…promises about perseverance [in scripture] are not mainly theological axioms from which conclusions are to be deduced; rather, they are promises to be believed and claimed by faith. Scripture is not given first and foremost to provide logical exercises. It is given to feed and nourish our faith. We don’t deduce perseverance from a set of premises; we trust God in Christ to provide it. If we cannot figure out precisely how the pieces of the theological puzzle fit together (in this case, promises of perseverance addressed to the community as a whole vis-a-vis the threats of apostasy), so be it.” (“New Life and Apostasy: Hebrews 6:4-8 as Test Case,” in The Federal Vision, ed. Wilkins & Garner [Athanasius: 2004], 279).

    I’m not sure I’d say that scripture only does what he says, but I appreciate how he attempts to ground perseverance in God’s promise as the object of faith rather then in my ability to know whether God’s promise truly applies to me as an elect person (“Am I really and truly believing with an elect person’s faith?”).

    On the other hand, my question for you originates in my trying to understand what the Catholic Church teaches about the former doctrine, the perseverance of the elect. What is the difference between a Catholic who believes God and looks to him until the end and the Catholic who believes God but later falls away? Has God given something to the one but not the other? Is there some intrinsic difference between these people? Is God electing someone based on his foreknowledge of their perseverance? In short, I’d like to understand what a “strong” alternative to the Calvinist notion of election would be.


  8. “What about the typical Catholic in the pew? Here, Jeremy, I have to admit I’m still getting a feel for things. When I was outside the Church, I took it for granted that the typical Catholic was merely a nominal, ‘cultural’ Christian, was pretty ignorant about their religion…”

    This phenomena is hardly unique to the typical Roman Catholic you would find in the pew.

    In fact, most Protestants I’ve met hardly know anything pertaining to the theology of their own Protestant Faith, be it reformed or otherwise, and even as concerning its most fundamental tenets.

  9. Hi, Jeremy.

    I have no problem with the adage that virtue is its own reward, really. It is also a reward of graced-works that a person can grow in grace and sanctification, in loving communion with the Lord. This is why it makes sense to talk about meriting an increase in grace. However, when I mentioned virtue ethics, I was thinking primarily of your question about motivation and the correlative question of when “good works” should be favorably appraised, or understood as morally good actions. Yet the connection between eudaimonia (flourishing, happiness) and the virtues in the classical scheme of things should also not be overlooked, as Ryan points out.

    In a nutshell, whereas most contemporary ethical theories are act-centered (tending to make the notions of right and wrong acts the most fundamental concepts and the primary foci of analysis), virtue theoretic approaches are agent-centered. They make the notion of a right act derivative from the more fundamental concept of the virtuous person, so that there is an inextricable connection between right acts and acts flowing forth from the virtues of such a person.

    If that is the relation between “right act” and “virtue,” this still leaves open the question of the relation between the virtues and the good. On the classical Aristotelian picture, the virtues are always good for the human being, in that they are necessary for and ordered toward a full and flourishing human existence (eudaimonia, happiness). So the virtues are always good for the person who possesses them, yet their goodness is itself derivative: it is predicated on the tendency of the virtues to promote eudaimonia, and so is a teleological and derivative goodness. Some contemporary virtue theorists see the virtues as categorically good, without reference to their promotion of happiness, but the majority report follows what Ryan had in mind, when he mentioned the intrinsic connection between happiness “in the classical sense” and the virtues above.

    I hope this wasn’t too pedantic; but that was what was behind my cryptic remarks about virtue in my first response.



  10. John, thanks for chiming in. Welcome!

  11. Hi there, Barrett.

    You say:

    I think this [distinction between perseverance of the elect and perseverance of the saints] would explain certain portions of the WCF where the elect are justified but the non-elect in the visible church have only “common operations of the Spirit” and are not actually justified.

    This is an interesting thought. One of the ways it might be a little tricky to apply the distinction to the WCF is that, given the WCF’s theology, while it is true that there is a common grace in which the reprobate share, there is no distinction between persons who have at any time been justified (“saints”) and the elect (in the salvific sense of ‘elect’). So it seems to me that the Westminster divines and those following them would not wish to distinguish between the “elect” and the “saints” and the corresponding doctrines in precisely the way I have. At any rate, it would be pointless: since you can’t lose your justification, only those who have been predestined to final salvation (“the elect”) are “saints” (or “justified” at any time) in any case. So, if the elect persevere, then so too do the saints: it’s the same class of individuals.

    I hear what you’re saying about FV. I too appreciate the driving desire to be able to speak to the congregations as the Bible speaks – as St. Paul spoke to the Corinthians et al, for example. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints had perhaps made this a difficult thing to do in Reformed circles, with the result that the warnings to which you allude were either ignored or conditionalized away. So I think the impulse of people like Lusk, who don’t want to let a systematic template dictate what they can or can’t say, can or can’t take seriously, and the like, is an admirable instinct. Of course, I also think the bits and pieces in FV that are good and Biblical don’t really find a coherent and satisfying expression outside of the Catholic Church; but then you’d expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?

    Your last question is a very good one. Let me first say that, if by an “intrinsic” difference between the person who falls away and an elect person, you mean that the one who falls away was never really regenerate, justified, or in a state of grace, then no, Catholic teaching does not say this. In other words, you really can be justified by faith (in baptism) and then fall away, and when you are justified or in a state of grace you aren’t less justified or full of grace than the elect individual. The elect individual is, however, a recipient of the grace of final perseverance, whereas the one who falls away is not.

    So far forth, these are just definitional distinctions, and they don’t answer your questions concerning the relation between the Calvinist picture and “the” Catholic view. Two quick points about that. First, I think it is important to bear in mind that the dogmas of the Church do not always amount to theories. The dogmas rule certain things out: they set the boundaries, telling you which doctrines are inadmissible, and what you’ve got to affirm in order to maintain orthodoxy and catholicity. But they are nevertheless usually consistent with a plurality of theoretical approaches to the dogma in question. Thus for example, the dogma of the Trinity is not itself a theory of the Trinity. It tells you that Arianism, polytheism and Sabellianism are out, and it tells you what you’ve got to be able to affirm, but it does not lay out a theory of the Trinity.

    So too, there can be variations among different Catholic thinkers on these questions you are raising. Augustinians and Thomists might want to zig where the Molinists zag, so to speak, and you’ll find that the Augustinians (e.g.) are perhaps closer to Calvin than the Molinists are on some of these issues. I would recommend taking a look at the Davis article linked in footnote 1 above, and, for a quicker read which I think you’ll find enjoyable, you can take a look at J. Akin’s article on TULIP here. I think you’ll find his discussion of the ‘P’ part of TULIP a helpful starting point for further reflection.

    Thanks, and peace to you.


  12. Barrett,

    Aquinas notes that when Jesus was baptized, Luke says that it was while Jesus was praying that heaven was opened. He writes:

    Now after baptism man needs to pray continually, in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the fomes of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without. And therefore it is said pointedly (Luke 3:21) that “Jesus being baptized and praying, heaven was opened”: because, to wit, the faithful after baptism stand in need of prayer. (ST III Q.39 a.5)

    Elsewhere Aquinas says:

    Augustine says (De Persev. ii): “Why is perseverance besought of God, if it is not bestowed by God? For is it not a mocking request to seek what we know He does not give, and what is in our power without His giving it?” Now perseverance is besought by even those who are hallowed by grace; and this is seen, when we say “Hallowed be Thy name,” which Augustine confirms by the words of Cyprian (De Correp. et Grat. xii). Hence man, even when possessed of grace, needs perseverance to be given to him by God.

    I answer that, Perseverance is taken in three ways. First, to signify a habit of the mind whereby a man stands steadfastly, lest he be moved by the assault of sadness from what is virtuous. And thus perseverance is to sadness as continence is to concupiscence and pleasure, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 7). Secondly, perseverance may be called a habit, whereby a man has the purpose of persevering in good unto the end. And in both these ways perseverance is infused together with grace, even as continence and the other virtues are. Thirdly, perseverance is called the abiding in good to the end of life. And in order to have this perseverance man does not, indeed, need another habitual grace, but he needs the Divine assistance guiding and guarding him against the attacks of the passions, as appears from the preceding article. And hence after anyone has been justified by grace, he still needs to beseech God for the aforesaid gift of perseverance, that he may be kept from evil till the end of his life. For to many grace is given to whom perseverance in grace is not given. (ST I-II Q.109 a.10 co.)

    So for Aquinas, perseverance as a virtue is infused with sanctifying grace. But the gift of persevering to the end is a separate gift, for which we are to ask of God.

    The Second Council of Orange says:

    The assistance of God ought to be implored always even by those who have been reborn and have been healed, that they may arrive at a good end, or may be able to continue in good work.” (Canon 10)

    The Council of Trent says:

    If anyone shall say that he will for certain with an absolute and infallible certainty have that great gift of perseverance up to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Can. 14)

    If anyone shall say that he who is justified can either persevere in the justice received without the special assistance of God, or that with that [assistance] he cannot: let him be anathema. [Session 6, Can. 22]

    Surely those who ask shall be given, and God wants no one to perish. This is a gift that God wants to give. So God does not withhold this gift of perseverance from those who diligently seek it. As for why some diligently seek it, and others don’t, we are speaking of persons who are already in a state of grace, capable of exercising their free will. So this why question seems to be no less inscrutable than why Adam and Eve sinned.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  13. Have you read The Baptized Body?

  14. Dear Matthew,

    I sure haven’t. I’ve heard good things about the book and it’s on my to-read-whenever-I-get-the-chance list.


  15. I’ve been wanting to comment on this fine article. Neal, I’d like to thank you for publishing this. I especially appreciate the reference to Philip Cary’s article on the sola fide. I’d like to bring to everyone’s attention Cary’s lengthier article, “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant.” The essay is also available for download in pdf format from the site and is worthy of serious consideration.

    I completely agree with you, Neal, that Bouyer gets Luther wrong on sacramental objectivity. Having read and re-read many of Luther’s sacramental writings, it’s hard to understand how Bouyer could have so misunderstood Luther here. Yet it’s a common error. Newman also misunderstood Luther on this point.

    You write, “Now if this is representative of Luther’s orientation I fail to perceive any substantive differences between what Luther says and what Augustine or Aquinas or the Catholic Church generally says.”

    This may be true. I hope it is true. But I think that historical accuracy may compel us to acknowledge that Luther’s position represents something new within the Christian tradition. It certainly represents a significant break from the scholastic approach to theological reflection. Luther’s reflection on assurance and justification is worked out from within the relationship of the believer standing before and in the God who speaks to him unconditional promise of love and salvation. This God speaks to us through the proclamation of the gospel. He speaks to us in the sacraments of the Church. God speaks; the believer hears and believes. Luther will not allow theological reflection to depart from or stand outside of the personal Word who speaks to the Church in the first-person. I do not know of any theologian before Luther who practiced theological reflection in quite this way.

    Luther and the Catholic Church are in full agreement that God is absolute and infinite love and mercy. Luther and the Catholic Church are in full agreement that God is faithful to his promises. But I am not sure if any Catholic theologian before Luther ever understood the gospel as unconditional promise performatively enacted in Word and sacrament. I’m not even sure if anyone ever really thought about it. Certainly theologians have reflected upon and attempted to describe the process of salvation, as if one could stand outside the communication event of the gospel and scientifically examine this process. When theology is done in this way, then the gospel inevitably becomes a conditional word–God is love, but within the synergistic relationship we enjoy with God we must do many things to secure our final salvation. Who before Luther ever declared, “Believe, and you have it!” St Augustine would have heard these words as underwriting unfettered antinomianism and presumption.

    Luther’s approach to assurance represents, I suggest, something fresh, new and important, yet at the same time enjoying deep continuity with the catholic tradition (see David Yeago, “The Catholic Luther“). His crisis was one brought about by the failure of preachers and theologians to proclaim the gospel in an unconditional mode. Sadly, this remains true in many parts of the Catholic Church. In an Advent sermon preached to the papal household a couple of years ago, Fr Cantalamessa declared:

    “When one speaks of faith in St. Paul one thinks spontaneously of the great theme of justification by faith in Christ. And on this we wish to concentrate our attention, not to outline the umpteenth discussion on the topic, but to receive his consoling message. I was saying in the first meditation that there currently exists a need for kerygmatic preaching, suitable to incite faith where it has never existed, or where it has died. Gratuitous justification by faith in Christ is the heart of this type of preaching, and it is a shame that this is, in turn, practically absent from ordinary preaching in the Church.

    In this respect something strange has occurred. To the objections raised by the reformers, the Council of Trent had given a Catholic response, that there is a place for faith and for good works, each one, it was understood, in its place. One is not saved by good works, but one cannot be saved without good works. Nevertheless, from this moment in which the Protestants insisted unilaterally on faith, Catholic preaching and spirituality ended up accepting the nearly exclusive and thankless work of calling to mind the need for good works and of one’s personal contribution to salvation. The result is that the great majority of Catholics have lived entire lives without having ever heard a direct announcement of gratuitous justification by faith, without too many ‘buts.’”

    “Without too many ‘buts'”–when God speaks his love to us personally, in the first-person, he does not speak with “too many ‘buts.'” He does not place conditions upon his love and forgiveness. He simply gives himself to us in the fullness of his grace. And this is what makes authentic assurance, as opposed to epistemological certainty, possible for the Christian believer.

    I bid you all a glorious and happy Pascha.

  16. Dear Fr. Kimel,

    Wow. You wrote, “He does not place conditions upon his love and forgiveness. He simply gives himself to us in the fullness of his grace. And this is what makes authentic assurance, as opposed to epistemological certainty, possible for the Christian believer. ”

    I can’t tell you how many friends of mine would be utterly shocked at your last entry. In debating many friends and pastors regarding my new love of the Catholic Church, many argue that, most Catholics simply hope that they are “good enough” for God rather than seeing salvation as a gift. I wish the Catholic Church would speak a little louder in proclaiming that salvation is a gift.

    Thank you for your participation on the blog. – Jeremy Tate

  17. FYI: A couple of years ago I did a series of blog reflections on the preaching of the gospel as unconditional promise. This is topic with which I have wrestled ever since I read Thomas Torrance and Robert Jenson in the late 70s. I pulled together these reflections into a single page. They can be found here: Unconditional Gospel?. Perhaps they might help push the conversation along.

  18. Dear Father Kimel,

    First, thank you for calling attention to “Why Luther Is Not Quite Protestant.” Cary is always such a pleasure to read, and I have found his writing on Luther, Lutheranism and the Reformed tradition particularly illuminating. These articles were in fact extremely helpful to me as I was trying to get better hold of how precisely Luther and Calvin (and the Calvinists) differed on justification.

    I’m most thankful for your remarks about the historical theology, however. And I see that my remark (“I fail to perceive any substantive differences…”) needs qualification on a couple of levels. The first qualification, of course, is that I’m no historical theologian; so my seeing or failing to see things can’t straightforwardly indicate the presence or absence of anything in the work of these men. But the second and more important qualification is this: what I principally wish to say is that where Saints Augustine and Thomas deny us (strict epistemic) certainty concerning our membership among the elect, etc., it is plausible to see Luther in agreement with them: to the extent we can be said to have a stronger kind of assurance through Luther than through Augustine (e.g.), it isn’t because Luther was thinking of exactly the same media through which such assurance might be obtained and then showing us how to get more of it. This is a weaker, and somewhat less interesting, claim than the claim that Luther’s positive ideas about first-personal assurance as you have laid them out above are so many rehashings of what was already in Aquinas and Augustine. This would take a lot more work to show than what I’ve attempted, and you are probably right that historical accuracy wouldn’t bear it out. So in this respect, Luther should perhaps be seen as offering a genuine and important advance. (This I think is both unsurprising and untroubling; the man was a theological genius, and I entirely agree that much of what he said represents a legitimate continuation of the Catholic tradition.)

    Where to go now? Well, here is what I really want to say. Put Augustine and Aquinas aside, and put Trent in view. Whereas it is probably too strong to claim some sort of material equivalence between what Luther said and what Trent said about assurance of salvation, we can with justice (I hope!) hold that Trent’s formulations may with propriety be interpreted in such a way that Luther’s insights may be accommodated and embraced in good conscience by the Catholic faithful. This is because what Trent says does not rule out what Luther said, on the interpretation of Luther you just provided.

    There is an analogy here with the doctrine of purgatory, as you well know. Your articles (“Protestants and Purgatory” and “Purgatory as Self-Knowledge“) represent attempts (successful ones, I think!) to show how the dogmatic formulations concerning purgatory, indulgences, and the like, may with legitmacy be interpreted through a personalist-eschatological lens, of a sort we see operating at the popular level through Kreeft and others, but also in the Catechism, and in John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s teaching as well. Such interpretations move away from what the juridical language (in which the doctrines of purgatory and indulgences are cast) tends prima facie to suggest, by focusing upon the transformative encounter with Christ and the abiding reality of the communion of the saints after death. This does not, I think, simply amount to a sneaky about-face on the part of contemporary Catholics, who wish to distance themselves from the lurid ideas of their less sophisticated predecessors. For we can find elements of the personalist framework in the doctors and saints of ages past, even if the preferred mode of theological expression in official documents tends rather to suggest an emphasis on retributive punishments (in purgatory) or transfers of surplus funds (in the case of indulgences). So the analogy I have in mind depends on this recognition: it is probably too strong to claim that there is a material equivalence between contemporary Protestant formulations of purgatory (those we find in Lewis, Wells, Brown, and others) and the formulations of Florence and Trent, because those formulations may be interpreted in ways that Lewis and Wells et al. may find objectionable — they may, for example, be used to support the claim that purgatory isn’t only or primarily about “sanctification,” but is rather about (or at least also about) retributive paybacks for wrongs done. Nevertheless, we can say that the formulations in question do not force the Catholic to accept this interpretation of purgatory, and are not materially inconsistent with what Wells and Lewis (or for that matter Kreeft and Benedict) say about purgatory.

    So I am okay with Augustine and Aquinas (e.g.) not lining up precisely with Luther on assurance, at least as regards his positive contribution to the question. What is more important to me is that Trent be materially consistent with (if not materially equivalent to) Luther’s orientation, so that the Catholic can in good conscience accept the substance of what he had to say, or something near enough. Does that make sense?

    Thanks for referencing your previous work on this. When things slow down for me a bit I’ll be sure to give it a careful read.

    Blessings to you in this Easter season,


  19. Neal,

    “So in this respect, Luther should perhaps be seen as offering a genuine and important advance. (This I think is both unsurprising and untroubling; the man was a theological genius, and I entirely agree that much of what he said represents a legitimate continuation of the Catholic tradition.)”

    “What is more important to me is that Trent be materially consistent with (if not materially equivalent to) Luther’s orientation, so that the Catholic can in good conscience accept the substance of what he had to say, or something near enough.”

    If what is being sought here is an attempt to subvert Catholic Tradition and Teaching to those of the Reformers, then why become Catholic at all? Why not remain Protestant?

    I fail to see why one should come into the Church when one does not entirely accept the bulk of Her Tradition & Teachings but still remain stalwartly faithful to those of the Reformers.

    This seems to me a rather lukewarm approach & acceptance of genuine Catholic Faith, for which I have greater respect for both the Protestant & Catholic who, in comparison, remains as such in faithfulness to their respective traditions & faith.

    “I wish the Catholic Church would speak a little louder in proclaiming that salvation is a gift. ”

    If one ever pored over the writings and preachings of the Doctors of the Church, one would know just how much the Church has historically taught thus; the only difference is that we are not so presumptuous so as to assume that just because we call the Lord as ‘Lord’, that we automatically deserve entry into the Kingdom (Matt 7:21). We hold to an understanding of the Faith as traditionally taught in both Scripture (such as in James and Matt 25:31-46) & Tradition.

    To somehow overthrow what has always been taught since the time of the early Christians (which this understanding has emanated thus) is not a ‘legitmate continuation’ but, in all actuality, a subversion of what Christianity orignally taught. Period.

  20. Neal, you may find of interest a conversation I had with the Lutheran ecumenist, George Lindbeck, back when I was struggling with the claims of Catholicism. As you no doubt know, Lindbeck, like Jenson, believes that the Lutheran dogma of justification is best understood as a meta-theological hermeneutical rule rather than a positive description of the process of salvation. I asked him how this hermeneutical understanding was received by the Catholic participants in the ecumenical dialogues of which he had been part. He said that it had been warmly received by the Catholic participants and that no objections to it were advanced on the basis of the canonical anathemas of Trent. The simple historical fact is that the hermeneutical construal of justification was not addressed by the Council of Trent, nor has it been addressed subsequently by the Magisterium. Reforming Catholics, therefore, may continue in good conscience to propose the meta-linguistic rule to the Church, even though Thomas Aquinas would probably have found it incomprehensible.

    I continue to wrestle with all of this in my mind and heart.

  21. “It is also a reward of graced-works that a person can grow in grace and sanctification, in loving communion with the Lord. This is why it makes sense to talk about meriting an increase in grace. ”

    I suggest you refer to Jesus’ preaching concerning Talents, which also is to be found in Matt 25 as well.

  22. Dear Roma,

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify.

    Please take note of the qualifications (express and contextually implied) within the remarks of mine you’ve quoted. If I say that “much” (perhaps “some” would be better?) of what Luther said represented a legitimate continuation, this does not mean that I believe Luther’s thought as a whole can be understood in this way. And if I say that Luther’s orientation (about assurance) can be understood in a way that does not run counter to the Church’s teaching, this does not mean I believe that a full-blown Lutheran orientation is perfectly consistent with the Church’s teaching. I don’t believe these things, and don’t wish to argue for them, okay?

    Perhaps I sound a little too fond of Luther here, and have managed to raise legitimate suspicions of subversion. If so I apologize. But please note that a person can be a theological genius (or just really smart, if you like) and also a heretic; a person’s thought can represent a legitimate continuation of Tradition in some respects, or on some points, and an illegitimate departure from it on others. What would be wrongheaded, I think, would be to infer from the fact that Luther was importantly wrong about some things, that he must have been wrong about everything. So what I’m interested in doing here is noting where Luther said some valuable things, things that are okay by the Church, even while recognizing and affirming that he went wrong elsewhere. Does that help clarify somewhat?

    As to my aims and motivations (and those of the folks here at Called to Communion), let me be clear that we have no interest in subverting the teaching of the Church or remaining stalwart followers of the Reformers or what have you. I admit that I am still learning, and if I say something that misrepresents the Church’s teaching I’ll gratefully acknowledge my mistakes and receive correction. Speaking personally, a major aspect of the trajectory that led me into the Church concerned precisely the issue of magisterial authority, and, frankly, I didn’t wait till everything had been ‘proved’ to my satisfaction before I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church last Pentecost. There were still things I was fuzzy about, didn’t yet understand, and so forth. But I’d seen enough to know that I owed my allegiance to the Church and needed to submit to her teaching, even on those points I hadn’t yet fully investigated and didn’t yet have completely ironed out. So at least as regards the motives I believe were moving me (and do move me now), I can affirm that I do accept the authority of the Church, and am not “holding out” for the Catholic Church to quit being Catholic. If I were, as you rightly point out, I wouldn’t have a very good reason to become Catholic; or at least the reasons I did have and acted on would not have been the reasons I acted on.

    I hope that helps to clarify where I’m coming from; I do appreciate the concerns you are raising.

    Two other brief items. Thank you for the Matthew 25 reference. I am not sure whether you intended it as a corrective (to my procedure) or a friendly addition. If the former, it may be well to keep in mind that there is usually a plurality of ways of making the same point, or supporting the same doctrine. My remarks to Jeremy about why “meriting an increase in grace” makes sense should therefore not be taken to imply that Christ’s words in Matt 25 are irrelevant to the question, or to exclude other ways of supporting the claim.

    Last, please exercise kindness and patience toward those who are just beginning to expose themselves more fully to the historical teaching of the Church, the Fathers, the doctors, and so forth. It is a somewhat daunting task. And it may not be entirely productive or useful to rebuke people who are trying to get a better grip on this long and complicated history for not already knowing everything about it.



  23. The Catholic Church has moved well past knee-jerk rejection of Luther and over the past fifty years has engaged in a positive, though certainly not uncritical, reading of his works. This fresh reading of Luther is reflected in the Lutheran/Catholic Agreement on Justification, which enjoys some level of magisterial authority (as difficult as it might be to specify this level of authority). Those who wish to read Trent rightly must now do so in conversation with this document.

    The Catholic Church is a considerably larger and more diverse community than is sometimes presented, especially in internet apologetical argument. She is most certainly not to be completely and fully identified with the post-Tridentine and Western construal of faith and practice, as if the historic Eastern Church has nothing to contribute to the discussion or as if the continuing study of the Scriptures has nothing to teach us or as if Therese of Lisieux has not been authoritatively declared a Doctor of the Church or as if the Catholic Church has not officially affirmed an ecumenical doctrinal statement on justification by faith.

    The late Fr Richard Neuhaus offered these wise words: “The Church’s teaching lives forward, and no definition, including that of councils, is entirely adequate to the whole of the truth.”

  24. Neal,

    I was just concerned about the possibility of a partial conversion that might ultimately result in dire regret as opposed to a full conversion based on a total embrace of the Catholic Faith.

    That said, I’m sure it’s not so unusual to suffer doubts concerning the Faith — everybody does to some extent, I suppose, be they Protestant or Catholic especially in times of trial.

    However, what I fear most concerning this specific matter before us are converts who may be merely converting to the Catholic Faith based solely on (though perhaps in some cases not all too exclusively but in large part due to) ‘hype’ rather than a genuine desire for and, above all, with one’s whole heart.

    A partial conversion, which concerns the former, is fleeting and depends heavily (and primarily) on feeling that may momentarily happen only to exist in that narrow space of time and might very well eventually cease to linger thereafter.

    A full conversion, such as that of the latter, which I hope all might come to embrace is one not unlike the kind that the early christians ended up embracing in times past to the point of even martyrdom, which thence forward, all subsequent & future Catholics ended up following their example of Faith even unto their own deaths, such as all the saints and martyrs of Christendom that came before us in that early church.

    Of course, that is a full conversion that even those who are actually Catholic need to embrace and not only the converts.

  25. Fr. Kimel,

    The historic Tradition & Faith of the Catholic Church did not cease to be or, all of a sudden, come to embrace ‘Salvation as a Gift’ only after it had ultimately engaged in ecumenical activities as the one you’ve cited in the aforementioned, as if the Church herself had held onto heretical doctrines until it had finally come to see the light from the likes of Luther several centuries later, as the indomitable Chuck Colson would have you believe.

    The triumphalism of certain Catholics should be frowned upon — yes; however, this likewise should be deemed the case as with respect to Protestantism as well, most especially as concerning the erroneous nature of a certain of its doctrines which would have us embrace things which are actually remarkably opposed to authentic Christian Faith as that passed on from generation to generation, a patrimony ultimately inherited from the early and apostolic church.

  26. Fr Kimel,

    Thanks again for your remarks. I think you put more clearly what I was trying to say. Also, thanks for the previous comments about justification by faith as a metalinguistic hermeneutic. This is an area of great interest, and I hope we can have discussions about it here in the coming days.


    Again, I understand your concerns. I am not sure I would identify “partial conversion” (so far as I understand you) with conversion-based-on-hype-or-unfounded-emotionalism. But in any case, I don’t think my entry into the Church was based on these factors.

    It’s interesting: this was precisely the reaction I anticipated that my Reformed friends would have, when I first sprung the news about my coming into the Church. It is typical to hear quasi-psychoanalytic “observations” to the effect that converts get seduced by smells and bells, but nothing substantive. They are deceived and self-deceiving; emotionally unstable and not particularly rational; that’s the idea. I suppose it is reasonable for a Catholic to worry about the same thing: if you convert, make sure it’s for the right reasons. I respect that kind of thought. I am not sure if or how my writing has given you the impression that my conversion was ‘partial’ or otherwise intellectually unrespectable, but if so I guess I’d respectfully disagree with your assessment. It took a couple of years of study, discernment, anxiety, and entailed the inevitable loss of longstanding friendships as well. So it isn’t clear (to me) that my decision was based on warm-fuzzies that all led in the same direction. C.S. Lewis pointed out some time ago (in “On Obstinacy in Belief”) that, contra Freud’s wish-fulfillment hypothesis, emotions and wishes and fears and a-rational factors generally can lead people away from theism at least as much as they can have the effect of leading them toward it. Something similar is true about conversion to Catholicism. Many of us here made the move despite the loss of respect, friendship, and, in the case of some, their vocations and hard-earned positions as pastors. My advice, if I may give it, would be to slow down a bit and take the time to get to know us, before diagnosing the psychological factors potentially operative in our decisions to become Catholic.

    All the best,


  27. It is a spiritually dangerous thing to diagnose the authenticity of another’s faith and conversion. It should never ever ever be attempted. If we do so, we may well find that it is our own faith that will be tested. God will find a way to challenge and destroy our pride.

  28. Neal: On the contrary, I bear great respect and admiration for those who have earnestly made the daunting journey be it from Geneva, Zurich or even Wittenberg all the way to the ancient Christian faith that resides in Rome. In fact, there is even one particular convert I know of who had a successful ministry as Protestant minister but, after conversion, was reduced to a mere greeter at a local Walmart and, yet, embraced his fate on account of his Catholic Faith. Such sacrifice is nothing short of inspirational.

    Fr. Kimel: It is also spiritually dangerous to adopt a faith one did not fully mean to embrace. There have been those instances of converts who actually ended up leaving the Catholic Faith altogether with even greater animosity toward it than before. As can be adduced from my previous comments, my intention is not ‘diagnosis’ but rather a word of caution for those such as these who might be converting for entirely wrong reasons and whose journey may ultimately end up in dire regret or even worse, result in even greater enmity toward the Church.

  29. In Fr Kimel’s defense, Roma, it is not entirely clear what you are (or were) wanting us to adduce from your remarks above. I assume that the warning you want to issue was motivated by something you read in the preceding discussion. (Else why issue the warning?) The obvious candidate for what triggered the warning is that something I said led to the diagnosis that my (our?) conversion was in some significant respect defective, my (our?) aims subversive. This would explain why you saw fit to issue the warning; and it would likewise make Fr Kimel’s warning about spiritual diagnosis pertinent. On the other hand, if you aren’t engaged in diagnosis of this sort, and are prepared to include me (us?) in the group of converts for whom you have respect, it isn’t obvious what led you to issue your warnings about defective conversions.

    Perhaps we can agree, at this point, that no offense or underhandedness was intended on either side, and call it a day?

    Peace to you,


  30. Neal,

    Thank you for linking me to this article. A few reflections:

    (1) I like how you are distinguishing between Calvin/Luther and later developments in those traditions. As we both know, there’s plenty of Calvin scholarship to the effect that Calvin wasn’t planting “tulips”, and I like what I’m reading about Luther here as well.

    (2) I think these kinds of dialogs are important as a means to move forward real ecumenism; a type of inverse ressourcement of the Reformed ilk.

    Are you implying that the later developments in the Reformed tradition are aberrations of what Calvin/Luther taught in so much that you can’t blame the development on the germ? In other words, where Newman sees continuity in Catholic development there is no such continuity in Reformed development?

    If so, this is an interesting thought and something I haven’t considered before. Though it kind of smells of a back-handed compliment; whereby a Catholic might say that “it’s okay Reformed folks you didn’t have the Magisterium to keep you on track”. A kind of theological fatalism argument. Or, one could argue for the limited availability of Calvin and Luther’s ideas and blame it on invincibly poor scholarship; the “it’s not your fault the internet wasn’t around” argument.

    I’m still kind of wondering though if the observation (I think it was Henri de Lubac), that the principles of Protestantism (the solas) undermine any authentic unity in that they promote the later developments rather than promote a ressourcement of Calvin and Luther like you are doing here, still holds. To put it another way, to get the kind of ecumenical effect this kind of scholarship portends, there needs to still be at the least a suspension of a commitment to the aforementioned principles whereby the theological and historical issues can bear more forcefully as the philosophical preoccupations lose hold.

  31. Hi, Brent.

    I didn’t mean to be offering any backhanded compliments or saying anything supercilious in the article. Sure, I think there are differences between later and earlier Reformed and Lutheran theologians, and between various such theologians in the same historical period. But I didn’t really mean to be pointing to permutations or developments in order to argue against anyone in particular. Just noting why I think Luther had the better take on assurance.


  32. Steve G @120,

    (I’ve moved my response here to keep the topic on the right thread)

    From The Baptist Faith & Message:

    “All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.”

    Being a former SB (for a stint), I agree that we believed that Jesus must be our Lord. In fact, I cannot find any Christian group claiming otherwise. But, that is not the point of the Lordship controversy. You see, being originally a Pentecostal, I never fully agreed with SBC theology for this reason. The reason, I think, is the same reason that Mateo is critical of SB theology. Let’s consider the following:

    1. We can have assurance of salvation
    2. All *true* believers endure to the end
    3. Those who *truly* apostatize were not *true* believers

    As you probably well know, all Calvin influenced creeds, statements of faith or confessions mimic this line of thought. The problem with this is two fold (and one of those problems relates to Lordship):

    The first problem is what I call, “not-so-certain certainty“. On the one hand, we are to believe that those who profess Christ and put their trust in him will persevere. On the other, we are to believe that those who do such-and-such and *truly* fall away never did. Hmmm…

    Now as one of the “elect”, I’m sure this gives you great comfort. Or maybe, as someone who has never given in completely to the dark side. Nonetheless, for many others this leads to spiritual paranoia or apathy. How is one to know if they have sinned so great that they have turned their back on Christ? Could they live for 5 years in sin, “grieve the Holy Spirit”, but persevere because they were *truly* saved? Could they die in such a state? Does the young gentleman who is shacked up with his girlfriend for 3 years assume he never truly put faith in Christ? What about his memory of public profession, baptism, service, and love for God? Some assurance, I say. Which leads us naturally to the second problem which is the heart of the Lordship controversy amongst Protestants. It would seem, even for many non-Calvinistic Protestants, that this poaches the concept of Lordship. It creates apathy, and actually leads men to believe that they can die in a state of mortal (or unrepentant) sin but still go to heaven<—–"Lordship controversy".

    On the ground, I get that the theology doesn't intend to devalue the concept of the Lordship of Christ. Yet, that is only what it asserts. We, along with various Protestant groups, would say that it causes great harm to the Lordship of Christ. So, this is not just some "Catholics not understanding Protestant theology" issue. This is an intramural disagreement and not just a matter of Catholics not getting it.

    For a well-written explication of the Catholic concept of "certain hope", I recommend the pastoral letter Spe Salvi by the pastor of the Universal Church, the successor of St. Peter, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.

    Peace to you on your journey,


  33. Brent,

    In my view, there’s no reason not to post your remarks on that other thread; if you think your interlocutor might benefit from the things I said here, then by all means send your interlocutor my way — link to my little blogpost. But your remarks are I think quite apropos as a response to Steve on the other thread. My $.02.


  34. Thanks Neal. I actually linked to this comment in that thread, signaling to Steve that I responded to him elsewhere (here). I’m sure he’s read it, if he was interested. Plus, I thought it would be good to not boggle down that thread with a discussion of the “Lordship controversy” along side a discussion of “the rule of faith”, “Marian dogmas”, sola scriptura….

    : )


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