An important difference between the Roman Catholic and Reformation positions on salvation pertains to assurance, that is, how certain we can be that we possess a saving relationship with God. Catholics resist the idea that we can ever know whether we will indeed remain faithful to the end of our life.[i] It is only with the gracious help of God that a believer can persevere,[ii] always with the possibility of falling away from grace.[iii] The Catechism, which affirms that Catholics “can lose this priceless gift” of faith (CCC 162), explains, “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him” (CCC 1855). The Protestant Reformers affirmed instead that assurance of salvation is available to all genuine believers. This assurance is based on the power of the faithful God who elects, justifies, regenerates, adopts, sanctifies, and preserves his people. It is further grounded on the pledges and prayers of the Son of God and the sealing and transformative operation of the Holy Spirit. We should note that this position, common among many of the Reformers at the time of the Reformation, is also contrasted with several other Protestant groups including the Arminian, Wesleyan, and Anabaptist traditions. These traditions are closer to the Catholic view in holding that we cannot maintain certainty that those who are saved will persevere in faith until the end of life.
In the “Assurance of Salvation” section of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, written and signed by Catholic and Lutheran leaders in 1999, the signers affirm that the faithful can “rely on the mercy and promises of God” in spite of their weaknesses.[iv] The Catholic position initially sounds like a firm statement on assurance, sharing the “concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ’s promise, to look away from one’s own experience, and to trust in Christ’s forgiving word alone.”[v] But this is counterbalanced with the reminder: “Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings.”[vi] Thus, while the language sounds close to the position held by the Reformers, the substance of the Catholic position has not changed significantly. It is simply conveyed in a way that more explicitly appreciates God’s saving intention.[vii]
The difference between Catholics and Protestants on the subject of assurance may be connected to the deeper differences we have concerning the ground or fundamental reason of divine acceptance. On the one hand, if a person maintains the Protestant conviction that righteousness is forensically imputed—reckoned or attributed apart from works—then it is possible to be sure of one’s status as a child of God. The grace that justifies one before God enables one to persevere in faith, and one’s ultimate standing before God is not based on meritorious efforts. On the other hand, if one maintains the Catholic position that the righteousness of justification is defined as grace infused into the soul, there will always be a measure of uncertainty concerning one’s acceptance. Perseverance in justification will always depend upon one’s active cooperation with the internally imparted grace.
Historically speaking, Catholics have often feared that the (Reformed) Protestant notion of assurance potentially undermines any motivation to live a life of holiness: “Why worry about working out your salvation with fear and trembling if it is a done deal?” Catholic salvation holds that final justification is predicated upon good works, so to them assurance appears a form of presumption that gives way to a license to sin (i.e., cheap grace). Abuses in some Protestant churches have added to this conception.
Yet from a Protestant point of view, the problem with the Catholic position is the failure to provide believers with a sufficient amount of security. Numerous passages of Scripture affirm that assurance is the privilege of believers: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Moreover, Jesus promised: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). According to Scripture, the gift of our salvation includes assurance.
A second reason why Protestants understand assurance of faith differently from Catholics is because of the status of believers before God: “But to all who did receive him [Jesus Christ], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Salvation includes not just our justification but also our adoption. It results in a permanent change of relationship in which enemies are reconciled and in which believers become members of God’s family. Of course, this does not mean that believers are free from discipline. God chastens those whom he loves (Heb. 12:5–11) just as parents must sometimes discipline their children. But loving parents do not disown their children. They remain committed to them despite their children’s shortcomings. If this is true of human parents, how much more is it true of the God whose covenant love binds him to his people? Because we are justified and adopted, our salvation is secure and accompanied by assurance.
Finally, it is important to recognize the need to preserve a proper tension between confidence before God (on the basis of Jesus’ death and resurrection) and the warnings of Scripture against presumption and sloth. Paul tells Christians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), and this is an imperative we must take seriously. Paul then follows his command with a reminder of the reason why Christ’s followers could ever hope to obey it in the first place: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13). So while the Bible provides encouragement that God empowers his children to persevere, giving them assurance of salvation, it simultaneously cautions them to avoid the sin of complacency.
[i] Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 6th session (January 13, 1547), Decree on Justification, chaps. 9, 13; canons 15, 16; in Schaff, 2:98–99; 103–104; 113–114. According to this last canon, one exception to this denial of assurance of salvation exists: one has learned this by special revelation.
[ii] Ibid., canon 22; in Schaff, 2:115.
[iii] Ibid., canon 23; in Schaff, 2:115.
[iv] JD, 34.
[v] JD, 36.
[vii] The closing sentence of the Catholic position says, “Recognizing [the justified person’s] own failures, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation.” Ibid.
* portions of the above are drawn from my book, cowritten with Gregg Allison, The Unfinished Reformation.