One of James White’s favourite arguments against Catholicism is that Catholic soteriology does not allow one to have peace with God. According to him, faithful Catholics cannot have true peace because they believe that one can fall from a state of grace to a state of mortal sin at any time, and when this happens, one’s fellowship with God ceases, and He once again becomes one’s enemy.
There is a distinctly Reformed logic behind this, insofar as the argument presupposes the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints. If you could lose your peace with God, then that peace is a false peace because true peace is permanent and irrevocable. However, Catholics are not the only ones who believe that you can lose your peace with God. Many non-Reformed Protestants, such as Lutherans and Wesleyans, also believe that such peace can be lost. While White has criticized these other groups in the past, he never levels the charge against them that their peace is false. He only levels it against Catholics.
The inevitable response to this that whereas Lutherans and Wesleyans believe in the doctrine of Sola Fide, Catholics do not, and this makes all the difference. While the former believe that peace with God lasts as long as one has saving faith and can only be forfeited by apostasy, the latter believe that peace with God lasts as long as one is in a state of grace, and can be forfeited by committing mortal sin. There are three problems with this argument, however:
- At most, all it means is that Lutherans and Wesleyans can lose their peace with God relatively more easily than Catholics can. From the standpoint of assurance of salvation (defined Calvinistically), this produces a difference in degree, rather than a difference in kind.
- The degree to which Catholicism actually rejects Sola Fide is often overstated. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once stated in a General Audience that the belief that one is Justified by faith alone “is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.” Jimmy Akin further elaborates on this in an article that Catholics are not opposed to belief in Sola Fide, as long as this is understood to be a “formed faith,” as opposed to an unformed one. Thus, the difference between Catholic and Protestant soteriologies is less extreme than most polemics would imply.
- In practice, these traditions will teach that it’s easier to lose one’s salvation than a strict understanding of Sola Fide might entail. Most conservative Protestants (at least those who haven’t adopted some form of Easy-Believism) would say that if someone professes to be a Christian but persists in willful sin, then this amounts to a form of apostasy, and they are said to have forfeited fellowship with God until they repent. And of course, there is Scriptural warrant for this (e.g. Mt. 18:15-17, 1 Tim. 5:8, Heb. 10:26-30, 2 Pet. 2:20-22, etc.), but it does make the difference between them and Catholics even thinner.
Besides this inconsistency, however, this argument has an even more fatal flaw. White’s argument is that to have true peace with God, one must have assurance of salvation. However, within the Reformed paradigm, it doesn’t seem at all clear how one can have this assurance. If one accepts Perseverance of the Saints, then one must posit that a) salvation cannot be lost; if the elect are saved, they are saved infallibly, and b) if a Christian falls away from the faith (or persists in willful sin), then this is a sign that he was not really saved to begin with. From these two axioms, it follows that there are many Christians (including Calvinists) who may think they are saved, but actually aren’t, because they will fail to finish the race and receive the crown of glory.
But how does one know if one is in the category of those who have been elected to glory? It seems the only way one can really know is if one knows infallibly that one will end this life without apostatizing or persisting in unrepented sin. But how can one attain this sort of knowledge? Interestingly, the Westminster Standards state that one can have this infallible certainty (WCF 17.2, see also WLC Q.80), but never explain how this is possible in light of apostasy and false assurance. It seems then that it’s impossible to really know if one’s assurance is true or false until the very end of life.
But how does this play out in the lives of most Calvinists? Since infallible certainty that one is elect is epistemically impossible, the best one can do is look at one’s life and conduct to see if one is growing in grace. This is tied to the belief that Progressive Sanctification is the means by which Justification can be proved. As Calvin famously put it, “Christ, therefore, justifies no man without also sanctifying him” (Institutes 3.16.1). Thus, much Reformed preaching and teaching focuses on the necessity of producing good works as evidence of one’s election.
Perhaps the most extreme contemporary example of this is the Southern Baptist preacher Paul Washer, whose firebrand sermons (most famously his “Shocking Youth Message”) are all focused on one theme: Warning believers that if their life displays insufficient holiness, then they’re not saved. Understandably, this legalistic approach to the Christian life has met with backlash from other Calvinists, but the extremity of Washer’s preaching does serve to show where the Reformed view of assurance and Sanctification as evidence of Justification logically leads to.
Nor is the tendency towards legalism a recent one. Evangelical preacher R.T. Kendall, in his book Grace, talks about how he converted from Wesleyan Arminianism to Puritan Calvinism under the belief that this would liberate him from the legalism of his old tradition. He was very disappointed when he studied the writings of the Puritans in depth and discovered the same old legalism, just under a different guise:
I was not prepared for what I discovered. These men were so like the dear people of my old denomination I had left that I was stunned. Not that they taught all I used to believe, but it often came to the same thing. For no one could claim to be saved if they did not keep the works of the Law. Not that you could lose your salvation; it only meant you were not really converted in the first place if there was not a careful keeping of the Ten Commandments. After all, one dare not look directly to Christ for assurance—that would be presumptuous; one looked to his own faithfulness in keeping the Law first, and then—and only then—did one have the warrant to look to Christ for salvation. I kept telling myself that what these Puritans wrote surely was not what they appeared to be saying. I kept reading.
I remember it as though it were yesterday. I went to London to read since the Bodleian Library in Oxford did not have all the material I needed. I could take you to the very table at which I was sitting, except that the old British Library has now been removed to another place in London. I was reading Thomas Hooker (1586–1647), who became the founder of the state of Connecticut. He championed the idea that the unbeliever must prepare himself for grace before he could become a Christian. “All roads lead to Rome,” and all roads in this case led to the Ten Commandments. One of his contemporaries, Giles Firman (d. 1692), said it best: “Mr. Hooker, you make as good Christians before men are in Christ, as ever they are after would I were but as good a Christian now, as you make men while they are but preparing for Christ.” I continued to read Hooker until one afternoon, I took all I could take. I put my hands on the edge of that table in the British Library, pushed my chair back, stared at the ceiling—and asked myself, “Is this what I have come to this country for? Is this what I am to believe and preach?” I might as well have stayed like I was. I wanted to go out and shoot somebody! I turned in my books and went back to Oxford.
Most of the Puritans that I read can be described in this scenario: How do you know you are saved? By your sanctification. How do you know you have sanctification? By good works. How do you know what good works are? By the Ten Commandments.
It is not that they believed you are saved by good works; it was merely that you could not know you are saved unless you kept the Ten Commandments. Martin Luther’s discovery that we are justified by faith alone had sadly passed behind a cloud. The nature of assurance became the issue. You could not have assurance unless you kept the Law. If you were not keeping the Ten Commandments, you could not be a Christian.
I was also surprised to learn how so many of the Puritans died. William Perkins (1558–1602), the architectural mind for what became the tradition that led to the historic Westminster Confession of Faith, died “in the conflict of a troubled conscience.” His immediate successor Paul Baynes (d. 1617) “went out of this world, with far less comfort than many weaker Christians enjoy.” Sadly, this kind of dying testimony was not uncommon. (R.T. Kendall, Grace, 3-4)
The alternative to this is to reject the necessity of looking to one’s Sanctification for evidence of Justification. However, this runs counter to the larger Reformed tradition, and logically leads to Antinomianism, which is, as Presbyterian theologian Mark Jones describes it, the “unwelcome guest” of Reformed theology. An Antinomian redefinition of Reformed theology would require a whole separate treatment of its own, but since most Reformed believers are unwilling to go that route, we can put it aside for now.
The result of this legalistic tendency is that, for many Calvinists, the Christian life becomes characterized by morbid introspection and overzealous fruit inspection. Sin has to be aggressively rooted out, and any sign of moral laxity becomes an occasion to question one’s election. To put it in the words of the Puritan John Owen, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” Only those who have displayed sufficient sanctification in their lives can truly be said to be God’s elect.
Lest readers think I am exaggerating, I spoke with a number of ex-Calvinist colleagues, and they have testified that this is exactly their experience. One colleague has stated, for example:
It’s so ironic and I never really thought about it much as a Calvinist, but I really do have WAY more peace in Christ now as a Catholic than I ever did as a Protestant or a Calvinist. The irony being that it’s always taught by (most) Protestants that “you can never have peace if you can lose your salvation.”
Another has stated:
I’ve struggled [with scrupulosity] both in the reformed and Catholic Churches and that’s something I’m still trying to work through. . . . All that said, even at my strictest and most scrupulous in the Catholic Church I felt that I could know for sure I was in God’s good grace when I walked out of the confessional. Whereas when I was reformed, if I ever backslid, the question became if I was one of those who “was never saved to begin with.”
Now, this isn’t to say that similar tendencies don’t exist among some Catholics. However, it is generally recognized that scrupulosity is a spiritual problem, and much Catholic devotional literature aims to correct this. For example, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God talks about the necessity of relying entirely upon God’s grace:
That, without being discouraged on account of our sins, we should pray for His grace with a perfect confidence, as relying upon the infinite merits of our LORD. That GOD never failed offering us His grace at each action. (4th Conversation)
Likewise, St. Therese of Lisieux in her Story of a Soul spoke of how, when she goes to be with God, she would rely not on her works, but in the love and grace of God alone to come into the Father’s presence. She writes:
After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone.… In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself. (quoted in CCC 2011)
In practice, then, it can be said that the average Calvinist has no better claim to have peace with God than the average Catholic. Both systems warn against spiritual complacency, and the importance of pursuing holiness. However, unlike Calvinism, Catholicism makes no unreasonable claims about the certainty of achieving final salvation. As Catholics, we recognize our epistemic limitations, as well as our capacity for self-deception. St. Paul states that if he did not discipline his body, he could find himself disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). If even Paul recognized this about himself, how much more is it true of us who have not received the same measure of grace he did. As the old hymn “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” puts it:
“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love”
Also, unlike Calvinism, Catholicism teaches that the antidote to abiding sin is not fruit inspection, but trusting in the grace of God as conveyed through the sacraments. This is because, contra White, the sacraments are not meant to burden Catholics, but to provide them with a means of experiencing the finished work of Christ in a meaningful and tangible way. When we receive the Eucharist, we are assured that what we are receiving is the Bread of Life, without which Jesus said we have no life in us (Jn. 6:53), and when we go through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are assured that when the words of absolution are spoken, our sins are forgiven, just as Christ promised (Jn. 20:23).
And that, in summary, is how we can have true peace with God.