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The gift of final perseverance.
While I know that the Catholic view of this is objectively quite different than the Reformed, it wasn’t too much of a hurdle for me during my conversion. In my own thinking, I don’t think I have actually had a substantive change here, and I think it’s maybe because I was closer to the Catholic view than I realized in the first place.
When I was a Protestant, I held to the Perseverance of the Saints. That meant that anyone who was truly regenerate was going to persevere to the end. But, it didn’t mean that anyone who thought they were regenerate, acted like they were regenerate, believed they were regenerate, or what have you, were guaranteed to be right about that. The possibility of self-deception on my own part, or outward deception on the part of others, was there. It didn’t keep me up at night – usually – but it was there. After all, I have a good number of friends who have left the faith after making very credible professions and living very credible lives. So, I figured they never really believed, never had true faith, though they may themselves have thought they did.
How do you know the difference? You have to persevere to the end. You have to read your Bible, pray, and go to church, because God requires these things and neglecting them can lead you astray. You can’t live in unrepentant sin, on an ongoing basis, because a real Christian won’t do that.
Now, as a Catholic, I hold that not all who are given the gift of faith are also given the gift of final perseverance. So you might have true faith, but it might be the kind which “fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots.” (Matthew 13:5, NAB)
How can you tell the difference? Well, you have to persevere to the end. You have to trust God and nurture, not neglect, your faith. You can’t live in mortal sin, but you have to renounce your sins and confess them when you don’t.
See what I mean? In my own head, there’s not a big difference there.
I have heard Protestants say that the Catholic view is no longer “good news;” my reaction is that I feel like the Catholic way is better news. Many Protestants, whether they believe in the perseverance of the saints or not, struggle with wondering if they are really saved. Did they really mean their profession? Do they have true faith? For sure? “But I sin, sometimes. And I forget to pray. And I am still SO MAD at so-and-so who ripped my heart out 10 years ago! Is that compatible with true faith? Yes, Christ’s sacrifice covers all, but it’s not applied to everyone. Do I really believe?”
The sacraments in the Catholic church simplify this problem. We are given reliable, outward signs, which God granted to the church, and those sacraments do things. You have regular, tangible, concrete ways to express your faith, belief, and repentance, to receive real and strengthening graces, and to hear and see and taste that you really are part of the Body of Christ. I love that.
Of course the sacraments can be abused and taken lightly. And you could say, “Well, how do I know that the faith with which I participate in Confession, or Confirmation, etc, is ‘good enough.'” But I would say that it’s more accessible to know within yourself that you are receiving a particular sacrament in faith with good intent, not to deceive or carelessly, than it is to take a full internal inventory. At least, it is for me.
And, you can ask for the grace of final perseverance. A couple of quotes from New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:
“From our incapacity to certainly know and to strictly merit the great gift, we should not infer that nothing can be done towards it. Theologians unite in saying that final perseverance comes under the impetrative power of prayer and St. Liguori (Prayer, the great means of Salvation) would make it the dominant note and burden of our daily petitions.”
“Nor should the timorousness of the saints, graphically described by Newman, be so construed as to contradict the admonition of the Council of Trent, that “all should place the firmest hope in the succour of God“. Singularly comforting is the teaching of such saints as St. Francis de Sales(Camus, “The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales”, III, xiii) and St. Catherine of Genoa (Treatise of Purgatory, iv). They dwell on God’s great mercy in granting final perseverance, and even in the case of notorious sinners they do not lose hope: God suffuses the sinners’ dying hour with an extraordinary light and, showing them the hideousness of sin contrasting with His own infinite beauty, He makes a final appeal to them. For those only who, even then, obstinately cling to their sin does the saying of Sirach 5:7, assume a sombre meaning “mercy and wrath quickly come from him, and his wrath looketh upon sinners”.”