The Christian message has always been advertised as “the Good News,” and for very good reason. Mankind had no way to enter Heaven before the coming of the Savior. Christians are tasked with proclaiming the Good News – God loves the world so much that He sent His Son, the Messiah Jesus Christ, to die for us! Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven! He is seated at the right hand of the Father, and He is coming back again!
It doesn’t get much better than that!
But wait! There’s more! is the cry of many Evangelical churches trying to do the Good News one better. It isn’t enough just to know that you can have eternal life; you need to know that you can’t lose it….
These churches preach the once-saved/always-saved gospel; the idea that if an individual makes a sincere, one-time confession of faith, accepting Jesus as his Lord and Savior, then come hell or high water – he’s SAVED. Call it the Better-than-Good!™News. While you sometimes hear the proposition qualified with the disclaimer that the believer isn’t allowed to subsequently repudiate Christianity (if he does, all bets are off), short of in-your-face apostasy, salvation is – according to these believers – a done deal. These churches are selling tickets to Heaven, and they are cheap, cheap, cheap. The Catholic version of the gospel – the proclamation that one must not only believe and be born again, but subsequently grow in holiness and lead a life of faithful service to Christ to the end – is viewed as Bad News, a spurious gospel shackling Catholics to works-righteousness when God wants them free to revel in their eternal security.
As you can imagine, the belief that you and everyone else at your church are headed without question straight to Heaven will impact the rest of your theology. The OSAS brand of Christianity is streamlined and marvelously straightforward; Christians live in this world for the purpose of preaching the Better-than-Good!™News. Period. You need to get saved so that you can get others saved so that they can get others saved. Evangelization is the be-all and end-all of this system. The necessity of evangelization is something Protestants and Catholics can agree on, but to those who preach the Better-than-Good!™News it is an obsession. If you tend to the needs of the disadvantaged, you do it because it is the best way of evangelizing those lost souls. If you participate in the political system, you do it to create a safe civic atmosphere for evangelization. If you take an interest in those you meet, you do it with an eye on their eternal destiny, presenting them with free tickets to your church’s Halloween Hell House Evangelization Extravaganza at your earliest opportunity. Churches which preach eternal security tend to devote Wednesday evening services to the subject of the Rapture – Jesus is coming soon, very soon, certainly in our lifetime, so we must spread the word before our neighbors get left behind! Both Protestants and Catholics are familiar with the Scripture passages enjoining believers to forsake sin and live in an upright fashion. These are viewed by Catholics as reminders from a God Who insists that, after baptism, we strive to become holy as He is holy so that we can enter into His presence. If evangelization is the be-all and end-all, where’s the angle in those passages? In an OSAS context, these verses are woven right into the sales package – “Clean up your act, folks, for when unbelievers see how you live, they’ll want what you’ve got!” The Better-than-Good!™News is a product, and believers learn to pitch it.
This perspective on the gospel sells like hotcakes for several reasons, one of them being that it presents itself as a kind of goal in itself, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the journey’s end. OSAS churchgoers sing hymns like “Victory in Jesus!” emphasizing the fact that the battle has been won; it’s over – I’m saved. Those who join the system feel free to breathe a sigh of relief now that they’ve reached the end of the struggle. With God in charge of their lives, there will be no more real suffering for them, they conjecture. How can there be, with God as their co-pilot? He knows where the turbulence is; surely He will steer His children clear of it. Which is why any kind of upheaval in the life of this kind of Christian can be potentially faith-shattering. Trouble provokes questions along the lines of “Why is God allowing this to happen to me? To what purpose? This makes no sense! If I’m suffering this much now, and God does nothing to stop it, how can I be sure that the real estate that I bought in Heaven is really on the up-and-up? Maybe it’s all too good to be true?” Sadly, tribulation can cause what was to be a flight straight to Heaven to crash-land, never to take off again.
Adherents can’t say that Scripture didn’t warn them – a king does not go to war without first counting the cost. Like it or not, there’s a war on. Christianity isn’t a daily battle – it’s a moment-by-moment conflict. It is admittedly a peculiar situation – the victory has been won (thank you, Jesus!), but the war isn’t over – not by a long shot. The battle rages; skirmishes are being fought street by street, and even house to house. The stakes are astronomically high, for losing a battle can potentially mean losing your very salvation. In OSAS churches, discussion of the actual cost of Christianity is buried deep in the fine print. It is glossed over because it’s, well, not exactly a selling point. When “success” is measured by church growth, converts need to be raked in Sunday after Sunday. The presentation of the Better-than-Good!™News is geared towards a streamlined conversion process, one in which a man can wander in off the street and five minutes later walk back out with an iron-clad guarantee of salvation, come what may. No muss, no fuss – no counting the cost.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’
Far from being bad news, the Catholic insistence on the necessity of final perseverance is actually good news, because it is the truth. When we are born again in baptism, we become members of Christ’s very body, and as His body we lead His life on earth. Suffering and struggling against the sins that lead to spiritual death are unavoidable. Forewarned is forearmed, and a decent RCIA program will be there to forewarn potential converts. I as an Evangelical was shocked to learn that I was expected to slog through a six-month discernment period before finally being allowed to declare myself determined to be reconciled to the Church. Yet what better way to force me to count the cost? No, my salvation will not be a done deal when I enter the Church. Yes, the possibility still exists that I might choose death over life by loving my sins above all else. No, that doesn’t mean that Catholics are shackled to works-righteousness; the Church teaches (and has always taught) that we are saved by grace through faith. It does mean that we Catholics incorporate verses like Lk 12:42-46, Rom 11:19-22, 1 Cor 15:1-2, Gal 5:4, Col 1:21-23, 2 Pet 2:20-22 and Heb 3:12; 6:4-6 and 10:23-29, verses that teach that it is possible to lose one’s salvation, into our theology rather than explaining them away. And while, yes, you do have to actively participate in the conflict – working out your own salvation with fear and trembling, as St. Paul phrased it – no, you do not fight alone. Catholics joyfully proclaim the doctrine of the communion of saints: all the inhabitants of Heaven, from the Blessed Virgin and the angels on down, are committed to making sure that you are saved in the end. So, while you will have to fight, you will never fight alone.
And that is seriously Good News.
On the memorial of St. Robert Bellarmine
Deo omnis gloria!