How Can Protestants Be Saved?

When I, a “cradle Catholic,” am accosted by a “born again” Christian, and asked whether I am “saved,” my thoughts usually go to St. Paul’s frequent admonitions to work out your salvation in “fear and trembling.” Even St. Paul, after having been raised to the “seventh heaven,” felt it necessary to chastise his body, lest he become a castaway. (1Cor. 9:27)

The conviction that one is “saved” may be the result of a powerful religious experience. (Catholics have those too!) But people sometimes interpret it like Freud, as something psychological, or just some friendly divine encouragement to keep trying, or perhaps as a sign of God’s mercy in spite of one’s sins.

Personally, I am convinced that, if two-thirds of the angels, who never had to suffer, and had clear insight into what would happen if they rebelled, were saved (Rev. 12:4) – certainly at least that percentage or more of us humans, working our way with limited vision through suffering and often messy lives and bad choices, will be saved. Of course, I try to stand clear of the “universal salvation” heresy of Origen and others, condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 543.

That said, it seems to me that Protestants are really missing out on the multiform assistance that the Church could provide, if they were open to it.

First of all, Protestantism is essentially a religion based on a book – i.e., over 30,000 often-incompatible interpretations of the Bible – a Bible compiled by the councils of Rome, Hippo, and Carthage in the fourth century, and confirmed by Pope Siricius. Unfortunately, in many Protestant versions, parts of the Bible are missing – e.g. the epistle of James, who emphasized (to Luther’s dismay) that faith without works was empty, and the book of Maccabees, which supports the doctrine of Purgatory. (It would certainly be helpful to Protestants if, somewhere in the Bible, it were declared that the Christian religion should be based on sola scriptura.)

Protestant denominations that have ritual commemorations of the Lord’s Supper (not just coffee and doughnuts, or grape juice and wafers), but, following the path of the Protestant reformers, deny the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, end up at most with what Catholics who do not receive communion at Mass sometimes call a “spiritual communion.” But they are missing what Catholics, if they are properly prepared, experience in receiving the substantial body and blood of the Redeemer and allowing him to operate as He wishes in the secret recesses of their souls.

        The Last Supper by Juan de Juanes, c. 1562

Regarding forgiveness of sins, it is strange, and a bit foolhardy, to forego the possibility of the power given by Christ to the Apostles to forgive sins (Jn. 20:23), and to merely trust in being personally forgiven by God. Of course, even Catholics believe that with an act of “perfect contrition” – i.e., repentance purely out of love for God – our sins will be forgiven, even in lieu of sacramental confession. But certainty about these pure intentions is hard to come by, especially if we are repeat sinners, and not too objective in judging ourselves.

Following Luther’s dismissal of Purgatory, most Protestants do not pray for the dead. Peter Hitchens, the brother of noted atheist Christopher Hitchens, recalls in The Rage against God, that after World War II and many thousand British casualties, most Protestant churches, because of doctrinal opposition to the existence of purgatory, were troubled because they couldn’t offer prayers for the dead for so many bereaved families. They sometimes resorted to spiritualism to experience some semblance of contact with the departed. (Possibly Protestants in good standing just go straight to heaven when they die, but guilt-ridden Catholics, thinking that nothing sullied can appear before the Almighty, find that hard to believe.)

The quotation, “it is easier to live as a Protestant but better to die as a Catholic,” is ascribed variously to Martin Luther or one of Luther’s wavering followers. One reason it is better to die as a Catholic, for someone not convinced about going straight to heaven, is the ability to take advantage of the special sacraments for the sick and dying, as recommended in the epistle of James (5:14-15), for healing and/or the forgiveness of sins.

It seems that most Protestants (and Protestantized Catholics) now see little problem with the “hot button” issue of gay marriage. This is completely consistent with Protestantism, which, since the time of Luther, has rejected marriage as one of the seven sacraments, and relegated it to a contract, performed by civil authorities and/or Protestant ministers. For Catholics, on the other hand, marriage is a sacrament reenacting the marriage of Christ with his Church (Eph. 5:32), and a constant source of actual grace, in all marital activities, for spouses who avoid serious sin. Contracts are not too difficult to reformulate; but gay couples will find it difficult and even sacrilegious to invoke this sacramental symbolism for their unions.

The great Lutheran philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, criticizes Roman Catholics for their tendency to find holiness in concrete, sensuous, material things – holy water, blessed candles, relics, icons, statues and pictures of saints, sacred shrines, etc. – as contrasted with the Lutheran emphasis on pure spiritual emphasis on the Word.

One can only admire those who can maintain a spiritual/intellectual union with God, without the sort of sensuous helps that are traditional among Catholics – who are surprised on entering most Protestant churches to see crosses without Christ (ecclesiastical abstract art?). But if there are Protestants who are sensuous, and fall short of the purely spiritual, they might find access to graces from accouterments like crucifixes also.

And those who are not completely sure of being “saved” might avail themselves of some assistance from the Blessed Virgin, who promised to St. Dominic that those who say the rosary frequently, meditating on the life, passion, and resurrection of the Savior, will receive the graces necessary for salvation at the time of their death.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.