They Will Never Perish

Note: This post concludes Amy's series on Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant views of justification. Find previous posts in this series below.

Does God want us to be certain of our salvation? 

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” Saint Paul wrote, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

This verse has long fascinated me, for it seems almost paradoxical. We must work, yet it is God who works. Read only the first part of the verse, and you would think that man is left alone in his bid for salvation. Read only the second part, and you would think man had little or nothing to do with it. Verses like this seem to confuse the matter of certainty even further.

However, there are certainly Scripture passages that suggest a guarantee of eternal life for those who believe. The Apostle John is likely the New Testament author who focuses most strongly on the definite fate of the elect. Take, for instance, this quotation from Jesus’ words to a group of Jews at the Temple who did not believe in Him as Lord. “But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:26-28)

Christ declares that there are some who are His sheep and some who are not. The sheep will be given eternal life, and we may reasonably infer that those who are not His sheep will not be given eternal life. The question, then, is not so much about anything the sheep do, but whether or not they are His sheep. Because they are His sheep, they hear Him and believe.

It is also in the Gospel of John that we read, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36) Certainly, verses like this indicate that the reception of eternal life is conditioned upon the belief of the individual. Both Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants agree that faith is necessary for eternal life, so that is not the matter in question. Both also teach that one cannot have faith apart from the working of the Spirit, rejecting the teachings of Pelagius. But can a person with faith, assuming that it is a genuine faith, be sure that they will inherit eternal life? Here is where the two groups differ.

It was in his first epistle that the Apostle John went further in his discussion of assurance. Having already made clear in his Gospel the teaching of Christ that the elect would certainly inherit eternal life, John perhaps anticipated that the next questions would be, “Am I one of the elect? Is my faith genuine? Am I really in Christ? Will I live eternally?” He therefore listed certain things which indicate that a person is united to Christ and has eternal life. Such a person follows God’s commandments (e.g. 1 John 2:3-6), loves God and others (e.g. 3:14-15), and acknowledges Jesus as the Christ, God’s Son. (e.g. 2:22-23) However, John also acknowledges—indeed, he guarantees—that all Christians will fall into sin at times. Here he stresses that those who are in Christ have Him as an advocate before the Father. (1 John 1:8-2:2)

This is another biblical tension: the one who is in Christ will not sin, and yet he or she will sin. “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God,” John writes. (3:9) Yet, in the same letter he declares, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1:8) Roman Catholics resolve this tension in part by differentiating between mortal and venial sins, as already discussed. Reformed Protestants might point out that some repent of sin and some do not, suggesting that the former have the Spirit of God.

None of this takes away from the fact that John seemed to both believe and desire that Christians could be assured of their status before God. “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (5:13) Worth noting here is another factor John mentions: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. “We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us,” (3:24) he writes in one place, and elsewhere he says, “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” (4:13) This is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s comment that, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” (Romans 8:16-17)

But again, the Roman Catholic Church does not deny the working of the Spirit any more than the Reformed Protestant churches do. What they would suggest is that the working of the Spirit is not permanently assured. It is the Spirit who fills us with sanctifying grace in baptism, and even as the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, so the Spirit may depart from us as we commit mortal sin and are emptied of sanctifying grace.

Grace Actually

At this point, my thoughts move from King Saul (the one from whom the Spirit departed) to his successor, King David (a man after God’s own heart). One particular episode in David’s life seems to raise interesting questions about grace in light of Roman Catholic doctrine. David was the anointed king of Israel, chosen by God. There is no doubt that the Spirit of God was upon him. Not only was he the king of God’s people, but he wrote portions of inspired scripture. He was brought into a special covenant with God. In Catholic terminology, he was most certainly the beneficiary of sanctifying grace, displaying the fruit of the Spirit in his dealings with Saul and others.

Then in an episode which seems to us most uncharacteristic given his previous integrity, David seduced Bathsheba, the wife of another man, and committed adultery with her.[1] In an attempt to cover up his sin, he spoke lies and eventually arranged for the killing of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah. These iniquities would quite obviously fall into the category of mortal sin, meaning that David lost or fell away from the sanctifying grace of God. He was spiritually dead.

The prophet Nathan then came to David and confronted him with his awful deeds. With four powerful words—“You are the man!”—he exposed the darkness in David’s heart. (2 Samuel 12:7) We might expect a spiritually dead person to respond to that kind of conviction with denial, rebellion, or some combination of both, but this is not what David did. He acknowledged his sin and repented. How could he have done that if he was spiritually dead?

Catholic theology has an answer for this conundrum. It differentiates between sanctifying grace and actual grace. Consider this explanation.

“When you lose supernatural life, there’s nothing you can do on your own to regain it. You’re reduced to the merely natural life again, and no natural act can merit a supernatural reward. You can merit a supernatural reward only by being made able to act above your nature, which you can do only if you have help—grace. To regain supernatural life, you have to receive actual graces from God. Think of these as helping graces. Such graces differ from sanctifying grace in that they aren’t a quality of the soul and don’t abide in it. Rather, actual graces enable the soul to perform some supernatural act, such as an act of faith or repentance. If the soul responds to actual grace and makes the appropriate supernatural act, it again receives supernatural life.”[2]

That is what you might call a layperson’s definition, provided by the website Catholic Answers. The soul is brought to life and infused with sanctifying grace in baptism, allowing it to perform acts that merit supernatural rewards. However, when mortal sin is committed and sanctifying grace is lost, the soul is emptied of supernatural life and unable to perform meritorious works. This is what necessitates the actual grace of God to call it back to repentance and supernatural life.

It seems to me that the doctrines of sanctifying grace and the mortal/venial sin distinction require the existence of actual grace if anyone is to be restored. It therefore fits perfectly within the Catholic logical framework. But how did it come to be posited by Catholic theologians?

Prior to the Council of Trent, theologians didn’t tend to make a distinction between actual and sanctifying grace.[3] That means that in terms of the entire history of Roman Catholicism, it is a relatively recent development.[4] Having said that, the Church as a whole has long debated the nature of grace and divided it into numerous categories as to nature and effects, which have then been further subdivided on occasion. The definition of actual grace came about in an effort to distinguish it from supernatural, sanctifying grace on the one hand and merely natural graces on the other. Here follows a more academic definition of actual grace from The Catholic Encyclopedia.

“…we may define actual grace as a supernatural help of God for salutary acts granted in consideration of the merits of Christ. It is called a ‘help of God for salutary acts’, because, on the one hand, it differs from permanent sanctifying grace, in that it consists only in a passing influence of God on the soul, and, on the other, it is destined only for actions which have a necessary relation to man's eternal salvation. It is further called a ‘supernatural help’ so as to exclude from its definition not only all merely natural graces, but also, in a special manner, ordinary Divine conservation and concurrence (concursus generalis divinus). Finally, the ‘merits of Christ’ are named as its meritorious cause because all graces granted to fallen man are derived from this one source. It is for this reason that the prayers of the Church either invoke Christ directly or conclude with the words: Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”[5]

Actual grace is the healing power that overcomes the rebellion of free will to set one on the path to salvation. “As pure nature is in itself completely incapable of performing salutary acts through its own strength, actual grace must come to the rescue of its incapacity and supply the deficient powers, without which no supernatural activity is possible.”[6] So this is the answer: the one who lacks abiding grace may be granted this temporary (but still supernatural) grace to return to the path of righteousness, or indeed to begin one’s Christian journey. Again, this is only one of several distinctions that the Roman Catholic Church makes in regard to grace.

Certainly, such terminology is not found in Scripture, but relies on a logical extrapolation from scriptural principles worked out over centuries of theological discourse and consideration. Of course, the Protestant definition of grace tends to be somewhat different from the Catholic one. Protestants think of grace more in terms of divine favor and the granting of what is not due, rather than something  that resides within the soul. This gets back to the difference between infusion and imputation. Does grace enable us to do, or with grace is it already done?

Desire and Belief

Most people would love to be assured that they have eternal life. Who wouldn’t want to know that they will persevere to the end and remain within the grace of God? But the desirability of assurance should cause us to question our own motivations for belief. Absolute assurance of salvation does not exist simply because we want it to any more than my desire for Ohio State University to win the college football playoff makes it a reality. Therefore, we must turn back to the Word of God to determine the truth about assurance.

The same can be said for imputed righteousness. It certainly seems more reassuring to believe that the totality of righteousness God demands has not only been accomplished, but imputed to you once and for all, than to believe that you yourself are bound to fulfill the totality of righteousness, even if empowered by the Spirit of God. Is this really what Scripture teaches, or are Reformed Protestants allowing desire to color their interpretations? I am sure Roman Catholics suspect as much, and they fear greatly that such wishful thinking will cause many to slide into antinomianism, dooming themselves to an eternity apart from God.

Yes, the stakes are high. We must ask ourselves what kind of God we serve and what must be done to commune with Him. It is only fair that we also consider whether Catholics are allowing their interpretation to be biased by desire. After all, to bet everything on faith is a somewhat terrifying proposition. Not only that, but it may well do injury to human pride. Who wants to admit that they can do no good without God, to the point that even their deeds performed after regeneration are not enough to save them? This is truly a humbling proposition.

I do not doubt that most Catholics living in the 16th century took far more comfort in the familiar sacraments than the doctrines they were hearing from the Protestant Reformers. From the earliest centuries of the Church, its theologians had taught that baptism truly regenerates a person, and suddenly there was a movement of persons saying this was not true at all: that baptism was a sign meant to point a person to salvation in Christ by faith alone. One could almost conclude that it is better to air on the side of caution and seek sanctifying grace in the sacraments than bet everything upon the imputed righteousness of Christ.

There are incentives to accept either view of salvation, and all of us must take care that we do not simply cling to that which makes us most comfortable, without actually wrestling with the issues at stake. It is not the word or desires of man that determine truth, but the Word and will of God.

"My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand."

Previous Articles in This Series:

  1. "Infusion and Imputation: An Introduction"
  2. "Justification: The Roman Catholic View"
  3. "Justification: The Reformed Protestant View"
  4. "Are Catholics More Biblical?"
  5. "Just Assured"

Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.

Related Links

Podcast: "Reformed Road Leads to Rome?"

"Francis Turretin on Justification" by Guy Waters

"Christian Assurance: Rome and Thomas Goodwin" by Ian Hamilton

Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner

Justification in Church History, with Michael Horton, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan [ Audio Disc | MP3 Disc | Download ]


[1] Some have suggested that David’s actions toward Bathsheba actually constitute rape. I am not taking any position on that matter here except to note that scripture places the responsibility for what happened squarely on David.

[2] “Grace: What It Is and What It Does”. (Nihil Obstat 2004)

[3] Pohle, Joseph. “Actual Grace”. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909). Accessed 10 June 2020

[4] I’ve heard people suggest that Catholicism didn’t really start until the late medieval period. Roman Catholicism as I here describe it is simply Christianity in communion with or existing under the authority of the see of Rome, which is very nearly as old as Christianity itself.

[5] Pohle, “Actual Grace”.

[6] Ibid

All scripture quotations are from the 1995 New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.