Browsing The Northern Cross

Father Nicholas Nelson: Once saved, always saved?

Between high school and college, I went down to Texas to play junior hockey. During that time, I lived with a family which was not Catholic. I would always go to Mass on Sunday while they went to their services. But one Saturday, I joined them for a Billy Graham revival meeting at the legendary Texas Stadium. There were thousands of people there, lots of preaching, loud music, and altar calls.

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

During one of the intermissions, I was walking through the concourse with my housing family and we ran into some of their Protestant friends. My housing family introduced me, “This is Nick Nelson, he is playing hockey down here, and … he’s Catholic.” Then the friends asked me the question all Catholics dread to hear, “Are you saved?” I don’t remember how I ultimately answered that question, but I can still remember thinking to myself, “One, I don’t think it’s as easy as once saved, always saved, but two, being Catholic I know I’m in a better situation than you are.”

I’ve since learned how as a Catholic we are to answer that question. We should say, “I have been saved, I am being saved, I hope to be saved.” In this response, there is a recognition that something has happened in the past concerning my salvation, but that there is still more to the story. There is no such thing as “once saved, always saved.”

Our particular salvation begins with the first grace of justification. God gives us a free gift of grace moving us to make an act of faith, which justifies us in the sight of God. Through that grace, we are moved from a state of enmity with God to being pleasing to God and in friendship with him. This is where we agree with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. The gift of grace whereby we come to repentance and faith in Jesus and receive the Sacrament of Baptism is unearned and unmerited.

Now, once we receive that first grace of justification through baptism or confession, then we must persevere in that state of grace. It is possible to return to a state of enmity with God by committing mortal sins. St. John speaks of “deadly sins” (1 John 5:13). We have to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling,” as St. Paul says (Philippians 2:12).

The idea that salvation is complete and guaranteed with the first grace of justification is totally false and unbiblical. It was made up by Martin Luther who was obsessive compulsive and wanted absolute certainty that he was going to be saved. Unfortunately, we cannot have that certainty. Jesus tells us, “Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). We can have moral certainty that at a particular time, because of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are in a state of grace, meaning pleasing and in friendship with God, but we have no guarantee that we will persevere in that state.

But in addition to the hope of just remaining in a state of grace, we can grow in that state. We can merit more grace, increase in charity, and reward. The Catholic understanding of salvation is similar to a father promising to reward his son for work. Imagine that the father promised the son that if he mowed the lawn for an entire summer, he would buy him a gently used car for his 16th birthday, and if he did a really good job it would be a better car. First off, it is a free and unearned and unmerited gift that the son was born into that family and had such a gracious father. The son didn’t earn being a part of the family. Second, it was the father’s graciousness that made such a promise, a promise by which the son doesn’t “earn” the car, because cutting the grass for a summer doesn’t strictly add up to a car. Rather, it is a reward, whereby the father promises to reward the son for such good work. So the son “merits” the car by his work.

It is a free and unmerited grace that we were adopted into the family of God. Then, because we are sons and daughters of the God the Father, he promises to reward us for our good works.

When we are in a state of grace, all the penances, joyful acceptance of suffering, acts of charity towards others, prayers, all of it, merits more grace and an increase in charity in our souls. Notice that we have to be in a state of grace, in friendship with God. If you are not in a state of grace, you could be working at the soup kitchen from sun up to sun down, but you won’t merit a thing.

Finally, the more charity we die with in our souls, the greater our capacity to love God in heaven, and therefore the greater our beatitude and happiness in heaven. Everyone will be perfectly happy and content in heaven, but there is a hierarchy in heaven. St. Teresa of Avila used the image of containers. Everyone’s container will be filled, but saints will have various sizes of containers.

It’s an act of justice on God’s part that he rewards some more than others for their goodness on earth. Don’t just slide into heaven. Merit greater glory in heaven!

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].