• Acts 9:26-31
• Ps 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32
• 1 Jn 3:18-24
• Jn 15:1-8
Several years ago I exchanged a couple of letters with a Fundamentalist pastor who had given a lengthy and openly anti-Catholic sermon at the largest Baptist church in the state of Oregon. Having listened to a tape of the sermon, I was sufficiently perturbed to write and send a response, which led to a discussion about several issues.
One of those issues was the nature of salvation, specifically the security of one’s salvation. The Baptist took the position, common among many Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups, of “once saved, always saved”; that is, once a person has made an authentic profession of faith in Jesus Christ, they are guaranteed entrance to heaven upon death. He stated in his sermon that Catholics, believing salvation can be lost through sin, never know if they are saved or not. Therefore, he concluded, Catholics simply wander through life hoping—fingers crossed!—to make it to heaven.
“No doubt there are Catholics who think this way,” I wrote to him, “but it is only because they do not understand the Church’s teaching. On one hand, we can have a moral certainty of our salvation. That is, we can know that we are right with God and that we have no mortal sin in our lives (cf., 1 Jn 5:16). But we never say that we ‘know’ we are going to heaven for certain, for the simple reason we do not know what might happen between now and death. We cannot presume to know that we will remain in right relationship with God, even if we strongly desire to do so.”
Put another way, we can know for certain if we are in a state of grace at this very moment, but we cannot presume we’ll remain so. As Paul wrote, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12) and “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us” (2 Tim 2:12).
Today’s Epistle and Gospel offer further insight into this truth. The Apostle John emphasizes that mere words are not enough when it comes to demonstrating a right relationship with God. Talking a good game means nothing if, as the old saying goes, we don’t walk the talk. Rather, we must examine our hearts and “keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” This commandment is a matter of both faith and love. Faith alone, without charity, is not enough.
“Shall we say,” wrote St. Cyril of Alexandra, “that faith bare and alone is sufficient for one to attain the fellowship that is from above—will even the band of demons rise up to fellowship with God, since they acknowledge God’s unity and have believed that God exists?” Mere knowledge is useless, he adds; abiding in Christ requires the wholehearted and transforming “confession of piety.”
In employing the metaphor of the vine and the branches, Jesus drew upon imagery very familiar to his disciples. In the Old Testament, Israel was often depicted as a vineyard (cf., Isa. 5; Jer. 5:10; 12:10-11), sometimes fruitful, sometimes not. He used this imagery in parables to describe the Kingdom of God (Matt 20:1-16; Lk 13:6-9). His use of it in John 15 is notable for its intimacy: “I am the true vine,” Jesus explains. “Remains in me,” he exhorts the disciples on the eve of his Passion, “as I remain in you.”
One of the apostles, of course, did not remain in Christ; the danger of cutting oneself off from the vine and eternal life is real. It can happen; tragically, it does happen. It is why we have recourse to Confession, which restores us to full communion with Christ and the Church. And, after confessing mortal sin, joined again to the Vine, we are able to receive the fruit of the Vine, the cup of salvation, the “sacrament of love” (CCC 1323).
He is our salvation; he is our security. For without him, we can do nothing.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the May 10, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)