A little over twenty years ago, as a young wife and mother, I was ready to leave the Catholic Church and become a “Bible Christian.” Like most Generation-X American Catholics, I was poorly catechized and had no real foundation for understanding the Faith. My best friend—a former radical feminist—recently had a conversion to Christ and began attending an evangelical Bible church down the road, and I was days away from joining her.
I was all but gone when the Holy Spirit intervened through my mother. Mom told me to “find out what you’re leaving before you leave it” and handed me a book of apologetics (something I never knew existed). It was Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism. I was blown away by the logic and truth I found in those pages, and I quickly made a return to the Catholic faith.
However, my friend was still firmly convinced of Protestant theology, and we began discussions that were essentially a two-person mini-rehash of the Reformation. Much of the fundamentalist doctrine she embraced made no logical sense to me—including the concept of “once saved, always saved,” also known as eternal security.
In short, eternal security is the idea that once a person has “accepted Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior,” that’s it. Salvation is a done deal—the soul is heaven-bound, with no turning back, no matter how badly he may sin. Even a free-will decision to reject Christ after being “saved” is apparently not allowed by God.
I knew by then that salvation is not a numbers game or a formula of “speak these words one time and you will go straight to heaven and those who don’t will go to hell.” No, salvation is not a hoop to jump through; rather it’s a personal love relationship with Christ, the Beloved. Not only does “once saved, always saved” undermine the nature of love itself—which must be freely given and freely received or else we are slaves—it also contradicts Scripture.
To prove it to myself at the time, I took down my bright red New American Bible, took a pink highlighter in hand, and started reading through the New Testament epistles, underlining everything that contradicted eternal security.
And boy, there was a lot.
Below are just a few of the lines I highlighted back then. The pink ink is faded and bleeding a bit now, but the words underneath still powerfully point to the truth that the gift of our salvation may, because of our God-given free will and dignity, be continued or refused.
St. Paul said to the believing Christians (the “saved”) of his time:
Romans 11:22: “Consider the kindness and severity of God—severity toward those who fell, and kindness toward you, provided you remain in his kindness; if you do not, you too will be cut off.”
Galatians 6:9: “Let us not grow weary of doing good; if we do not relax our efforts, in due time we shall reap our harvest.”
Philippians 2:12: “So then, my dearly beloved, obedient as always to my urging, work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation.”
1 Timothy 1:19: “Some men, by rejecting the guidance of conscience, have made shipwreck of their faith.”
1 Timothy 4:16: “Watch yourself and watch your teaching. Persevere at both tasks. By doing so you will bring to salvation yourself and all who hear you.”
Similarly, the author of Hebrews is clearly not working in a “once saved, always saved” paradigm when he speaks to believing Christians:
Hebrews 4:1: “Therefore, while the promise of entrance into his rest still holds, we ought to be fearful of disobeying lest any one of you be judged to have lost his chance of entering.”
Hebrews 4:11: “Let us strive to enter into that rest, so that no one may fall.”
St. Peter describes the miserable lot of those who know Christ as Savior but later fall away:
2 Peter 2:20: “When men have fled a polluted world by recognizing the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and then are caught up and overcome in pollution once more, their last condition is worse than their first.”
There are several more highlights in my tattered old NAB, so many that at a certain point I stopped highlighting, but you get the idea: The concept of “eternal security” was not a Christian doctrine back then, nor is it now. The idea that we can never lose our salvation after “accepting Jesus Christ” came as a novel and dangerous falsehood during the Protestant heresies of the sixteenth century, a millennia and a half after Christ founded his Church.
My friend who attended the “Bible church” was eventually able to see the truth of Catholicism and converted, as did her Protestant husband and her parents. They, and all of us, hold joyfully to the great hope of our own salvation, while never forgetting the need to persevere in our love of Christ, heeding the words of St. Paul:
“So then, my dearly beloved, obedient as always to my urging, work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation” (Phil. 2:12).