Cardinal Newman and the Supernatural Drama of Salvation
Every time we sin, especially a mortal sin, we say 'no' to God
Even while a Protestant, John Henry Newman rejected a Christianity that revolved around "any particular time when you renounced the world (as it is called), and were converted," i.e., a "once saved, always saved" Christianity. Newman, a man deeply sensitive to the inner life of conscience and deeply versed in scripture understood within the light of tradition, emphatically rejected the "once saved, always saved" dogma with very strong words.
For many Protestants, the "once saved, always saved" dogma is a sincerely felt--but deeply erroneous and unscriptural--belief that the Gospel teaches that accepting Jesus as one's Lord and Savior gives one what they call the assurance of salvation.
A corollary of this unfortunate doctrine is that nothing one does from that point--even a heinous sin--can take away that salvation. Nothing. Since we didn't earn salvation by being good, we can't lose salvation by being bad.
Basically, it is the view that once we say "yes" to God, we can never say "no." Either that or the "nos" to God make no difference in our relationship with God at least insofar as it relates to our salvation.
John Henry Newman--even while Protestant--rejected this doctrine, calling it in one of his sermons an "error," a "deceit," one stemming from the "shallowness of religion," or even "a blinded conscience." These are very harsh words by a verbal craftsman who was of a very judicious bent.
Even while still a Protestant, Newman rejected a Christianity that revolved around "any particular time when you renounced the world (as it is called), and were converted." This is a reference to a "once saved, always saved" theology of salvation.
Newman, a man deeply sensitive to the inner life of conscience and deeply versed in scripture understood within the light of tradition, emphatically rejected the "once saved, always saved" dogma with very strong words. This is a dogma which points to a "particular time" where salvation is got, and then leaves it at that.
For Newman who had his feet surely planted in the Gospel and in the inner promptings of conscience which was the voice of God found within man, salvation is not a painting, a still picture, an instant in time in one's life--but a drama, a series of pictures, a process in time throughout one's whole life. We must constantly be converted to the Lord Jesus, not just once, but daily.
In the Lord's Prayer, we ask for our "daily bread," our panem quotidianum. Is our turning to Christ, the giver of that bread of life, to be any less quotidian?
It is not sufficient to say "yes" to Christ once and then take leave. Our task is to become incorporated into Christ himself so as to develop in us the mind, the attitude which was in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:5). And what is this mind of Jesus, this attitude of Jesus to which we must strive?
Jesus, St. Paul tells the Corinthians, "was not 'yes' and 'no,' but 'yes' has been in him." Non fuit est et non, sed est in illo fuit. (2 Cor. 1:19)
Christ's being was all in God, was in fact God. There was no part of his being, including his human nature, which was not in God. He was all "yes" unto God.
The Gospel insists that as Christians we must strive like Christ to be all "yes" unto God, so that there be no admixture of "yes" and "no" in us.
St. Paul tells the Philippians that to live is Christ and to die to oneself is gain (Cf. Phil. 1:21). To live is Christ is to say all "yes" to Christ. To die to self, to say "no" to self which means to say "yes" to Christ, is gain.
Among all mankind, Mary most perfectly imitated Jesus. She, "our tainted nature's solitary boast," was all "yes" unto God. Her "yes," which lasted from the first moment of conception until the end of her earthly life and assumption into heaven never had the least "no" to it.
Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum said the one whose name was "full of grace" and who was worthy to bear God and give him the mantle of human flesh. "Be it done unto me according to your word." (Luke 1:38) These words of Mary are the words of someone who is all "yes" unto God. These are the words of someone who understood that to live is Christ.
It is this attitude which was in Christ the Redeemer and in Mary, the one perfectly redeemed, which must be in us.
None of us can say we are all "yes" unto God throughout our lives. If we say we have no sin in us, if we say we have not said "no" to God, we deceive ourselves. (1 John 1:8).
Every time we sin, especially a mortal sin, we say "no" to God. A mortal sin is a categorical "no" to God which entirely negates any prior "yes." A venial sin is a lesser "no" which mars, but does not negate the "yes" unto God.
Anyone who has examined his conscience honestly after a fall into a mortal sin will recognize how the "no" to God involved in choosing a particular act, whether out of weakness or, worse, intentionally, shuts God out of the picture. We close the door on God, and he has been excluded from the drama of our life.
Does a man who looks at pornography on the internet to assuage his lust, or one decides to have an adulterous affair, or one who talks his wife into aborting their child have any "yes" to God left in him when he makes such choices and acts upon them?
If such a man looks honestly into his soul and does not rely upon some shallow dogma of "once saved, always saved," he will confront the horrible reality that engaging in mortal sin, with knowledge and consent, is an entrance into a horrible darkness that leaves a damned spot in the soul. And that darkness, that dark spot, stays in the soul, though one may neglect it or even forget it.
And there the spot festers, suppurating, befouling the soul. "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" says the conscience, and yet it can do nothing about it on its own. The conscience cannot forgive itself. And the furies of conscience whirl about the iner mountains of the soul, the cliffs of fall as Gerard Manley Hopkins called them, while the fate of our soul, which has said "no" to God, hangs at the balance.
But forgetfulness, either through neglect or through suppression, does not out the spot. Reliance on a past "yes" of ours is of no avail. The darkness can only be overcome by a return, by a renewed "yes," to the merciful God to whom one has said "no."
While we have the ability to say "no" to God--which is something with us till our dying day--we cannot have assurance of salvation, unless through some sort of special revelation. And yet we are not therefore compelled to despair. This is because God gives us the grace to say "yes" anew to him.
"In one sense, indeed, you may take comfort from the first," Newman says, as "from the first you know [God] desires your salvation, has died for you, has washed away your sins by baptism, and will ever help you; and this thought must cheer you while you go on to examine and review your lives, and to turn to God in self-denial."
But this cheer and this hope we have is different from assurance of salvation. Newman continues to tell his flock that "you never can be sure of salvation, while you are here; and therefore you must always fear while you hope."
To believe in "once saved, always saved" is not authentic Christianity, but a corrupt form of it, one rejected by the Church in various ways, but most notably by the Council of Trent in its Decree on Justification.
As Aidan Nichols explains it in his excellent book The Shape of Catholic Theology, the Council of Trent saw the "supernaturalized life," as "life lived under grace in faith, hope, and love," and therefore presented "a more complex and subtle picture," than the "once saved, always saved" doctrine of the Protestant reformers such as Luther and Calvin. As Aidan Nichols explains it, the life of a Christian travels between "two poles."
In the drama of the Christian life, one pole is "absolute confidence in the goodness and mercy of God, mediated to us through Christ via the sacraments of the Church."
The other pole is "a fearful recognition of our weakness, the permanent possibility that we may reject this goodness and mercy."
For this reason, the "Catholic experience of justification would consist in an unconditional trust in the help of God, but within this trust, a genuine fear of separating oneself from God." This leads to "a conscious effort of union with God in prayer and penance."
This is authentic Christianity, in the words of Newman, "the true Christian state" of life.
As Newman describes it, an authentic Christian life will have the following dramatic elements: "A deep resignation to God's will, a surrender of ourselves, soul and body, to Him; hoping indeed, that we shall be saved, but fixing our eyes more earnestly on Him than on ourselves; that is, acting for His glory, seeking to please Him, devoting ourselves to Him in all manly obedience and strenuous good works; and, when we do look within, thinking of ourselves with a certain abhorrence and contempt as being sinners, mortifying our flesh, scourging our appetites, and composedly awaiting that time when, if we be worthy, we shall be stripped of our present selves, and new made in the kingdom of Christ."
Look at the action words that Newman uses: resigning, surrendering, hoping, fixing our eyes upon, acting, seeking, devoting, working, looking within, thinking, mortifying, scourging, awaiting . . . . This is a marriage with Christ, not a one-night stand with Christ.
That's the true Gospel, a dramatic life in Christ, not an instantaneous "once saved, always saved" experience.
Newman famously said that "in heaven, love will absorb fear; but in this world, fear and love must go together." And for that reason, "fear and love must go together; always fear, always love, to your dying day."
These are the words of a true Christian sentiment, and they are at the heart of the Christian drama: always fear, always love, to your dying day.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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