Eternal Security? A Trinitarian Apologetic for Perseverance | Freddie Stewart, Jr. | Eternal Security? A Trinitarian Apologetic for Perseverance | Freddie Stewart, Jr. |

As an evangelical Protestant, I often listened to my pastor--an ex-Catholic layman--and numerous radio preachers give assurances that heaven was absolutely guaranteed to all who are truly "born again" (Jn. 3:5). Contrary to this belief is the Catholic dogma of perseverance, which is that Christians must voluntarily persevere in the grace of God to the end of their earthly lives in order to see God "face to face" (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) nos. 162, 2016). [1] Inseparable from this dogma is the truth that Christians can freely choose to reject God's grace, and thus merit eternal condemnation (cf. CCC nos. 1036, 1861).

Protestants such as my former pastor reject these truths because of theological misconceptions. These are reflected in the following questions, often rhetorically posed as supposedly irrefutable objections to the possibility of "losing one's salvation":

• "How can the eternal life that Christians receive when they are born again ever end?"
• "How can a Christian be 'unborn' after being born again in the Spirit?"
• "How can God remain faithful if He can 'renege' on His promise of salvation to all who have believed in Jesus as Lord and Savior?"

These objections reflect misconceptions, which can be corrected through proper understanding of the Catholic doctrine of salvation as a relationship with God through the grace of participating in His eternal life. Examples of apologetics for this doctrine are given at the conclusion of this article. However, effectively sharing this truth requires insight into how the dogma of perseverance is related to the dogma of the Blessed Trinity, the foundation of "the hierarchy of truths" in the Catholic faith. This article attempts to help provide this insight.

Trinitarian Apologetics and the Hierarchy of Truths

Vatican II taught that while Catholics share their faith with separated brethren, they should recall "that in Catholic doctrine there exists a 'hierarchy' of truths . . ." (Decree on Ecumenism, no. 11). The truths in question are all and only the revealed truths contained in the deposit of faith (i.e., the dogmas), which as such must be equally believed with divine faith (cf. Mystery of the Church, no. 4). The hierarchy refers to, on one hand, the dependence of dogmas that are less foundational--but not less certain--upon more foundational dogmas; on the other hand, to the illumination of more foundational dogmas by the less foundational dogmas (cf. Mystery of the Church, no. 4).

The ultimate foundation of the hierarchy of dogmatic truths is the dogma concerning the central mystery of Christian faith, the Blessed Trinity (cf. Catechism no. 234). This foundation is the "common ground" of ecumenical dialogue, since profession of the triune God as revealed in Jesus Christ is the "common denominator" of all genuinely Christian confessions of faith (cf. Decree on Ecumenism, nos. 1, 12, 20). For this reason, ecumenical apologetics should refer to the hierarchy of truth in order to relate Catholic dogmas to the revelation of the triune God.

Obstacles to Trinitarian Apologetics

For the sake of genuine ecumenical progress, it is vitally important that Catholics effectively demonstrate the Trinitarian foundation of dogmas that are rejected by separated brethren, such as the dogma of perseverance. However, while believing Protestants fervently profess the fact of the Trinity, they are either unaware of Trinitarian dogma, or else hold these dogmas in theological isolation from other doctrines, especially in the area of soteriology (i.e., the nature and means of salvation). Non-creedal Protestant communities, in particular "non-denominational" fundamentalist and evangelical churches, are largely ignorant of the real relationships implied in Jesus' revelation of God's Trinitarian name (cf. Matt. 28:19). Indeed, Protestants in such communities are not likely to recognize denial of essential relationships between the divine Persons as heterodox. [2] In contrast, "classical" Protestant denominations, having retained the Nicene Creed, are at least aware of the real Trinitarian relationships. However, in keeping with Reformation "tradition," these denominations tend to isolate their understanding of salvation from their orthodox profession of the Trinity.

"Eternal Security"

The effect of the isolation of soteriology from Trinitarian dogma is most evident in the pervasive Protestant doctrine of "the eternal security of the believer," also known as "once saved, always saved." According to this doctrine, continual relationship with God is merely, albeit necessarily, symptomatic of salvation. This notion is contrary to the Catholic understanding of salvation as identical to perpetual relationship with God, through participation in His eternally relational life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Eternal security proposes a radical separation of relationship with God from salvation by God, as is evident in the homily "sin cuts Christians off from fellowship with God, but never from the eternal gift of His salvation." This homily at least trivializes the essential message of the Gospel, which is salvation through reconciliation to God (cf. Rom. 5:10-11; 2 Cor. 5:17-20). For Protestants to whom the Gospel is the message of eternal security, salvation through reconciliation with God is strictly instantaneous, since the second birth itself is the unrepeatable initiation into the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The Catholic faith also teaches the second birth to be the definitive and unrepeatable initiation into God's saving grace (cf. Catechism no. 1272). However, in Catholic soteriology the initiation of salvation is indistinct from the initiation of perpetual friendship with God (cf. Catechism no. 277). According to eternal security, the second birth is the sole moment in which salvation is irrevocably granted, distinct from the initiation of friendship with God. Thus, divine friendship is a "benefit" of salvation, not salvation itself.

Many Protestants who believe that salvation cannot be affected by the state of one's fellowship with God cite Rom. 8:1 as a biblical support: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus . . ." Yet, St. Paul designates "those who are in Christ" as those "who walk . . . according to the Spirit", not simply who are "born again" (Rom. 8:4). According to the Catholic faith, to "walk in the Spirit" is to persevere in grace.

The "Grace Connection" to the Divine Processions

The Catholic dogma of sanctifying grace "connects" Trinitarian dogma to soteriology in the hierarchy of truths. According to the Catholic faith, sanctifying grace is the divine gift that enables human beings to participate in the interior life of God (cf. Catechism no.1997). As Pope Paul VI affirmed in Credo of the People of God, the divine Processions constitute God's eternal Trinitarian life. Therefore mankind's share in the life of God through sanctifying grace is a participation in the divine Processions by which God is triune.

The divine Processions are implicit in the biblical revelation of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is "the only [begotten] Son who is in the bosom of the Father"; and the Holy Spirit is "the Lord" who "proceeds from the Father," and whom Jesus symbolically "breathed on" His Apostles (Jn. 1:18, 15:26, 20:22; 2 Cor. 3:17). The Magisterium has dogmatically interpreted these and similar passages as revealed analogies between God's interior life, and the basic biological activities of producing offspring and respiration (cf. Jn. 16:13; CCC nos. 249-250). Thus the divine Processions are the eternal activities of God's life: divine Generation is the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father; and divine Spiration is the eternal procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son (cf. CCC nos. 242, 246).

Man's Trinitarian Resemblance

The divine Processions neither precede nor succeed the divine Persons. Rather, in the divine Processions the divine Persons are distinct from one Another through their relationships to one another (e.g., God the Father is God eternally begetting God as His Son). This means that the divine Persons are identical to Their mutual relations, since the divine relations are the only distinctions between Them (cf. CCC nos. 254-255). Thus, the dogma of the Blessed Trinity does not propose belief in the Godhead as a community composed of three eternal Persons, as supposed by non-Christian monotheists and even misinformed Protestants. [3] Rather, the dogma of God's triune Being proposes belief in the Godhead as an eternal three-Personal communion that is absolutely and indivisibly One.

Based on everyday experience, it is difficult to conceive how persons can be identical to their inter-personal relationships. For example, the personhood of a woman who has children is distinct from the fact of her motherhood. However, at the moment of conception every human being receives personal existence in relationship to two other human beings as their child. Also, the human nature received at the moment of conception is defined by man's relationship to God as His image (cf. CCC nos. 362, 365, 366).

The relational foundation and meaning of human personhood resembles the relational simplicity of divine Personhood. Man's natural Trinitarian resemblance is at the heart of the mystery of mankind revealed in Jesus Christ, God's eternal Word made flesh as the Son of Man to become "the image of the invisible God" (Jn. 1:1, 14; Col. 1:15; cf. Gal. 4:4; CCC no. 359).

The Trinitarian Meaning of Salvation

By the (sanctifying) grace of God, human persons are "born of God" through the elevation of the divine image of their natural human childhood to supernaturally divine childhood (cf. Jn. 1:12-13). This second birth "of the Spirit" as a child of God, like the first birth "of flesh" as a child of man, establishes a perpetual integrity of personhood and inter-personal relationship, yet at the infinitely higher level of actual likeness to divine Personhood (Jn. 3:5-6).

Salvation is a "threefold" mystery of God, man and grace--the relational meaning of divine Personhood within the Blessed Trinity; the relational meaning of human personhood as God's image; and "amazing grace" as the elevation of man's natural divine image to supernatural divine likeness through participation in God's eternal relationships. This mystery establishes the state of grace as a state of perpetual relationship to God the Father as His "sons in the Son," in the "Spirit of sonship" (cf. Rom. 8:14-17; CCC no. 1997). This mystery underlies the Catholic dogma that voluntary perseverance in love of God as His children is necessary for salvation (cf. CCC nos. 1033, 1861).

Given the absence or isolation of Trinitarian dogma within Protestantism as previously discussed, it is understandable that many separated brethren misperceive the Catholic doctrine of perseverance as legalistic. This misperception is highly ironic, in that many separated brethren who proclaim "salvation through personal relationship with Jesus" reject the fully relational meaning of salvation reflected in the Catholic doctrine of perseverance. In fact, it is eternal security that reduces salvation to a legal arrangement akin to a "no cut contract"; and covenant relationship with God to a mere sign and benefit of salvation. The Catholic faith is that covenant relationship with God is salvation, which gives the fullest possible meaning to the proclamation of "salvation through personal relationship with Jesus."

The Trinitarian Key to Protestant Objections

The following statements address, in order, the objections to perseverance presented in the introduction. These statements concisely express the Trinitarian foundation of the Catholic dogma of perseverance, in terms that are relevant to the question of eternal security:

Regarding the first objection, "losing salvation" is not the termination of one's own eternal life, but ceasing to participate in the one and only eternal life of God. It is impossible for God to give man eternal life independent of His own, as that would mean "creating God", which is as impossible as creating a "square circle." Thus, "losing salvation" occurs when one voluntarily rejects inclusion in the life of God by seriously violating the righteousness and holiness of His Trinitarian communion.

Regarding the second objection, while the first birth irrevocably makes man God's image according to human nature, the second birth makes man God's child through a share in the Divine nature, which is utterly beyond human nature (i.e., supernatural) (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4). Thus man may voluntarily cease to share in God's nature and still remain man.

Regarding the third objection, while it is God's irrevocable plan that "whosoever should believe in [the Son] . . . should have everlasting life," the Scriptures clearly reveals that this belief is "not faith alone," but "faith working through [supernatural] love" (Jn. 3:16; Jm. 2:24; Gal 5:6). To refuse to love, even while continuing to believe, is to reject participation in the eternal Trinitarian charity which is God's very nature (CCC no. 221). To reject the divine nature is to abandon the basis for supernatural adoption, apart from which no one is saved (Jn. 1:12).

The above apologetic for perseverance is not an "instant cure," but it can help give separated brethren a sense of the Trinitarian integrity of Catholic dogma. Separated brethren with a strong desire to know God usually will be drawn to this integrity, which is lacking in Protestant doctrine. This is the ecumenical power of the hierarchy of truth: the Oneness of God who is Truth, reflected in the unity of His revealed truths, powerfully attracts "those with ears to hear" to the fullness of the Catholic Faith in the Blessed Trinity.

End Notes

[1] The Catholic Faith teaches the necessity of perseverance, whereas Calvinism teaches necessary perseverance. The Catholic meaning of "necessity" is that only those who persist in freely choosing to be subject to the Divine will, with the absolutely indispensable help of those graces God chooses to provide, are finally saved. The Calvinist meaning of "necessary" is that only those whom God chooses to subject to His will in a way that is absolutely irresistible, yet not apparently coercive, are finally saved.

[2] The Kingdom of the Cults, widely regarded among evangelical Protestants as the handbook of counter-cult apologetics, was authored by the late Dr. Walter Martin, the founding president of the premier Protestant apologetics institution, the Christian Research Institute (CRI). On pg. 67 of the1992 paperback edition of his book, Dr. Martin denies that Jesus' declaration that He "live[s] because of the Father" (Jn. 6:57) concerns His pre-Incarnate existence. This denial is contrary to the affirmation in the Nicene Creed that Jesus is "eternally begotten of the Father." Yet, apparently Dr. Martin's position is considered orthodox by CRI and its audience, as indicated by CRI's perennial marketing of the book and its consistently solid sales.

[3] In The Kingdom of the Cults, Dr. Martin explains his view of the Trinity as a "composite unity" (pp. 69-70).

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2002 edition of The Catholic Faith magazine.

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