Eternal Assurance and the Sin of Presumption
A correct understanding of the falseness of the doctrine of eternal assurance (sometimes called “once saved, always saved”) and the sin of presumption is vital for a Catholic apologist, as this is such a common position among non-Catholic Christians.
What is the teaching of eternal assurance?
There are many flavors of eternal assurance, but all of them share the belief that once one is “saved” (generally speaking, this is salvation by faith alone and / or based on a simple profession of faith) one cannot loose that salvation. The doctrine is based on a number of Scriptural verses misunderstood or taken out of context; generally speaking John 10:28 and 16:22 which speak of the fact that “no-one can snatch them [Christians] out of my [God's] hand”. This is understood to mean that salvation, once attained, cannot be lost.
There are certain flavors of eternal assurance which say that, if one ends up committing a mortal sin (or, as it is often called, “backsliding”) then one was never actually saved in the first place. It looked as if one was saved, but this was – in fact – not the case. The Catholic apologist should be ready to point out that this teaching either makes absolutely no sense or is simply the Catholic teaching (of potentially being able to loose one's salvation) dressed up as eternal assurance. In either case, such a view of eternal assurance is not hard to refute.
Scriptural interpretations by analogy and common sense
Verses such as John 10:28 and 16:22 can seem, on first reading, to support the notion of eternal assurance. But this is not the case – the Catholic apologist does not even need to seek out the many verses which deny eternal assurance in order to prove his or her point.
While it is certainly true that no-one can “snatch them out of my hand”, it is entirely possible for someone to willingly leave the fold of God's love. This is what sin is – a willing acceptance or doing of something that is not of God.
An analogy would be that no-one can snatch us out of a car driving down the interstate – but we can certainly choose to undo the seatbelt and leap from the car! It would be fatal, but so is choosing to sin (from a spiritual perspective).
These verses do not teach eternal assurance, but rather the doctrine that no-one can make us sin – all that people can do is tempt us to sin, but the final choice remains solely ours.
Bible verses which refute eternal assurance
Because the doctrine of eternal assurance is so bound up with sola fides and salvation by a single profession of faith, many of the verses which refute those doctrines are relevant to refuting this one.
In Matthew 24:13 we are told that those who persevere to the end will be saved – a clear refutation of the notion of eternal assurance. Romans 11:22 speaks on a similar theme. In Philippians 2:12 we are told to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” - not only does this refute the idea that works are of no avail, but also shows – when read in the context of the whole passage – that the idea of eternal assurance is foolish.
I Corinthians contains two particular passages – 9:27 and 10:11-12 which speak very clearly on this subject. In fact, I Corinthians 10:11-12 refutes eternal assurance explicitly – saying that those who think they are secure may fail! II Timothy 2:11-13 says that we must “hold out to the end” in order to be saved.
There are also passages which speak specifically about those who have received Christ and have then fallen away. Galatians 5:4, Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-27 refer to people who are Christians (and, therefore, saved) but then commit sins and, while remaining Christians, are not likely to inherit Heaven.
Additionally, if we were forgiven all sins, past, present, and future, it would make no sense for Christ to require us to pray, "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors," which he explained is required because "if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:12-15).
The illogic of eternal assurance
Eternal assurance is an illogical position for the same reason that sola fides is illogical – it denies free will and the very existence of sin. If one is eternally assured of salvation after stepping into some “group” of the saved, then what does it matter if we sin? It in fact means that sin does not exist – there are no moral absolutes and there is nothing that will offend God. This means we cannot choose God, and hence do not have free will. If there is no sin and we have no ability to choose sin or God, what need do we have for a savior? Eternal assurance in fact denies the very purpose for Christ's incarnation.
The sin of presumption
The sin of presumption is the name given to the belief in eternal assurance; it is presuming on God's mercy. It is not just a theologically incorrect position to hold, but is also one which is a sin because it makes one proud and think that one has no need of God's further assistance. The person thinks they are already permanently “saved” and so they do not need God, the Church or anything else.
The sin of presumption does not include making statements such as “when we are in Heaven . . .” or by talking about seeing God face to face and all the other benefits of Heaven as something which we know will happen. Catholics who are in a state of grace (and it is possible to know when you are in a state of grace as only mortal sin takes that away, and you are always aware of when you have committed a mortal sin) are assured Heaven at that moment. The sin of presumption refers to a belief that regardless of mortal sins one will still merit Heaven.
Because of the nature of the culpability for sins committed, it is impossible to know if anyone else is going to Hell. This is the flipside of the sin of presumption. Although it is reasonable to assume that someone who is not Catholic and engages in regular sins for which he or she has no remorse is going to Hell, one cannot state so with certainly.
This does not mean that a Catholic evangelist cannot tell the person he or she is very likely, unless he or she bucks his or her ideas up, to go to Hell – but rather that the evangelist simply cannot be totally certain. We, as humans, do not know what special graces and merits God may apply to any individual – nor can we be certain of the level of culpability for sins.
The Catholic Church teaches that – although we know that Hell is populated (based on the words of Christ that not all will be saved – therefore some will be damned) – we cannot know if any individual is in Hell.