A Design of Eternal Salvation

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In the first Advent Preface, we read: “You fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to salvation.” We often read that the words of Scripture are or will be “fulfilled.” This notion of a “design” (or plan) comes up in Collects and Prayers, in readings from Paul and the Fathers of the Church. The “plan” is the Father’s “work.” It is carried out through and in the Son. Its completion is entrusted to the Holy Spirit. We are each, as individual human beings, involved in it. Our intelligence and freedom are both included in it; so are our sins.

The “plan” has for its purpose “our salvation.” What is this “salvation” about? In his Proslogion, St. Anselm asked: “Teach me to seek you, and when I seek you, show yourself to me, for I cannot seek you unless you teach me, nor can I find you unless you show yourself to me.” Our personal existence is suffused with this “teaching” to seek what it is that we are about, what it is for which we exist. If we are to be “taught,” it must mean that it makes a difference to us and to our Teacher that we understand what our particular existence is about. What, in other words, is the “teaching”?

But if a “plan” for my existence can be conceived, does it not mean that I am “determined”? If so, what difference does it make what I do or think? The “plan,” however, means that I am not “determined.” It makes all the difference in the world that I understand what I am. The scope of my freedom includes my own choice to accept or reject what I am, which I initially received as a gift.

Yet the fact is that the accurate self-knowledge of what we are seems a rare accomplishment. We are tempted to think that some active force or influence is found in the world. Its peculiar mission is to prevent us from knowing what we really are. At first sight, it seems odd that God would place us in a world in which the knowledge of what we are is difficult to come by.

But is this difficulty true? Is it a difficulty or a choice? The contemporary stress on mercy, the notion that God forgives everything that can be forgiven, approaches this issue gingerly. Mercy admits a widespread and culpable failure to accept our being and what belongs to it. “If sin abounds, grace abounds more,” as St. Paul put it. (Romans, 5:20)

This mercy approach means that our existence is pretty much a remedial operation, Pope Francis’ “field hospital” analogy. Field hospitals, however, usually manage to save only a few of those in need. Mercy is a response to the repentant. It does not change the unrepentant. It often hardens them.

The Venerable Bede (on his deathbed translating John) by James Doyle Penrose, 1902
The Venerable Bede (on his deathbed translating John) by James Doyle Penrose, 1902

The Breviary’s reading for today, the 22d of December, three days before Christmas, the birth of the Savior into this, not some other, world, is from Bede the Venerable (d. 735). He writes: “Those who refuse to be humble cannot be saved.” They cannot say with the prophet: “See God comes to my aid.”

We evidently can “refuse” to be saved. This awesome capacity, ironically, is necessary if our lives are to mean anything. We have the freedom and power to deny to ourselves what we are. Humility indicates our capacity to acknowledge what we are.

“The coming of the savior was promised to Abraham and his servants for ever,” Bede recalls. The “promise,” the “plan,” is there, in place. It is being carried out for the glory of God, within which we find our unique place in the order of things.

The great issue that surrounding mercy is its extent. Does it cover all sins whether repented or not? Technically, mercy extends to sin of whatever kind or species. But mercy does not forgive. God in His mercy forgives. Mercy is contingent on the sinner’s acknowledgement that he is responsible for something objectively wrong in his acts or thoughts.

If mercy forgives everything, with no input from the person that put disorder into his own or another’s life, then it would make no difference what we might do. We can do as we please, assured that our actions made no real difference in the world or in eternity.

Drama and risk mainly come into every human life through forgiveness and mercy. Yet the sins of the great and those of the insignificant balance out. Proportionally, each person faces the same issue in his own soul. Does he or does he not know and choose what he is given to be? Here is what judgment is about. Here is why the life of each person constitutes a final drama in which everything is at stake.


James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Words - Tuesday, September 25, 2018
  • Tom Williams

    Very sobering thoughts Fr. I lived the lie of believing in Gods’ Mercy while I kept living apart from His Law of Justice. A priest I went to confession to in that period of my life would not absolve me of my sin. He correctly identified I had no true contrition and was not being honest with myself. He saved my life. That was true mercy.

    • Fr Kloster

      You have been blessed indeed by having had that priest for a confessor. I’ve noticed an alarming amount of retired older folks, who have forgotten or rejected their childhood catechetical training and have bought into the notion that they no longer sin. I hear it too frequently for my comfort; “Father, I don’t go anywhere and I’m a good person.” I’ve heard it back in the USA and here in South America.

      Then, I ask them if they think they are a sinner. They universally reply that they are a sinner. The rub is that they acknowledge they are sinners, but initially refuse to admit they have particular sins. Many times I have had to delay absolution until they are ready to properly examine their conscience and admit to concrete particular sins. Not one of us is the Blessed Mother!

      • Dave Fladlien

        Fr. Kloster: I agree with what you say, but I have a concern too. As an older person myself, I too recall the “old days” of confession, but not happily. When I was young, we used to engage in the nearly blasphemous (although unconsciously so) practice of just rattling off lists of sins as if God were a giant computer doing nothing more than totaling up the score. Not only didn’t we include vital information about the context of the sin, and other relevant information, we were taught not to!

        I think we do need to return to the practice of recognizing individual sin, as you say, but I think we need to keep in mind that every sin is somewhat different, and — while we don’t want to bury the confessor in irrelevant detail — we do need to confess all that is relevant to the sin and to our state of mind and heart, both now and at the time. And most of all, we need to recognize that we are talking about the damage we did to other people, to ourselves, and most of all, to our friendship with God, not just listing a bunch of impersonal stuff.

        • 3C4

          You do a disservice to people. We are required to list mortal sins in kind and number. That is not rattling off.

          • Dave Fladlien

            But you are not required to stop at that listing, or at least you should not be. In my opinion, there is much more to making a good confession than just presenting a list of actions. It is my view that any factor which influences one’s degree of culpability — whether lessening or increasing it — and any other material element must also be included.

            When I was young, this was “theoretically acknowledged”, but almost totally omitted in practice, such that what resulted was basically a list which could have been put on a postcard, or now on an email. In my view, that did a gross disservice to the Sacrament, and to the confessor and the repentant person, and may possibly have played a role in the decline in popularity of the sacrament as well.

            Any effort to revitalize this Sacrament should treat it with full respect by advising people to fully disclose the sin, not just categorize or characterize it. This, by the way, has been my something I insist on in any confession I might make now. I would not regard it as a valid confession otherwise.

      • Tom Williams

        Thank you Fr. for being the person of Christ in the confessional. It is indeed a great responsibility as confession is the means by which we most come to see ourselves as God sees us. A lack of empathy towards the exposed soul of a true pennatant carries a grave consequence. The corporal works of mercy towards correcting wrong behaviour may not be treated lightly in the confessional.
        We need more priests like yourself who are not afraid to correct.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Of God’s mercy, St Augustine says, in his Letter to Simplician, “The effectiveness of God’s mercy cannot be in the power of man to frustrate, if he will have none of it. If God wills to have mercy on a man, He can call him in a way that is suited to him, so that he will be moved to understand and to follow. It is true, therefore, that many are called but few chosen. [Matt 22:14] Those are chosen who are effectually [congruenter] called. Those who are not effectually called and do not obey their calling are not chosen, for although they were called they did not follow. Again it is true that “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that hath mercy.” [Rom 9:16] For, although He calls many, He has mercy on those whom He calls in a way suited to them so that they may follow. But it is false to say that “it is not of God who hath mercy but of man who willeth and runneth,” because God has mercy on no man in vain. He calls the man on whom He has mercy in the way He knows will suit him, so that he will not refuse the call.”

    He asks, “Who would dare to affirm that God has no method of calling whereby even Esau might have applied his mind and yoked his will to the faith in which Jacob was justified?”

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Michael this is fundamentally Protestant thought which repudiates the efficacy of the sacrament of reconciliation. The issue is clearly not in the Catholic tradition that a man cannot be forgiven through God’ gracious mercy. He can. It is rather that man in many and likely most cases requires the intervention of Christ and the humility and faith to acknowledge His intercession on our behalf. The very act of going to a priest in good faith is an act of faith in Christ’s merciful love and not faith in our own presumption.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        “The very act of going to a priest in good faith is an act of faith in
        Christ’s merciful love and not faith in our own presumption.”

        Of course it is. But, as the Council of Orange insists, “our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit.” It is the mercy of God that bestows that faith through His effectual calling..

        It does seem a little odd to describe the teaching of the Doctor of Grace as Protestant.

        • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

          The Council of Orange 529 upheld Augustine over the Pelagian heresy. The Council of Trent 1551 citing Jn 20: 23 made confession of sin to a priest mandatory for the salvation of all Catholics. It condemned those who “prefer, hold aloof from the Church and secure forgiveness by some other means” (Trent Sess. XIV, c.2).

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    This piece sums up well what is the dilemma of modern man: he does not know who he is and the why of his existence. He does not care to ask the question.

    All sorts of Hell accrue to the man and to his neighbor when he does not know who he is.

    • Rick

      I think it is similar to the person who hasn’t been to the doctors in a long time and doesn’t want to go in for a checkup, for fear of the results. I think, deep down, they know themselves more than they are willing to admit.

  • Michael Dowd

    Mercy and Confession are either side of the same coin. I wonder why, in this ‘Year of Mercy’, we hear little or nothing about the need for Confession. I don’t think God gives his gift of Mercy to those who refuse to repent. Doing this would be equivalent to rewarding evil.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      “I don’t think God gives his gift of Mercy to those who refuse to repent.”

      When God wills to have mercy on a person, He gives them the gift of repentance; that is why Scripture says, “I will have mercy on whom I will, and I will be merciful to whom it shall please Me” (Exod. 33:19).

      We should bear in mind the teaching of the Council of Orange against the Pelagians: “If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit, he resists the Holy Spirit himself who says through Solomon, “The will is prepared by the Lord” (Prov. 8:35, LXX), and the salutary word of the Apostle, “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).”

      And again, “If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labour, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).”

      • Paul Vander Voort

        Thank you for your post.

        “As we forgive those.”

        Forgiving the unrepentant sinner may or may not help them but it sure will help you. I’ve been blessed to receive unconditional forgiveness and felt the relief from forgiving unconditionally.

      • Sheila

        Thank you!

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Michael you are absolutely right in my judgment as a priest and as someone who is expected to possess a degree of knowledge on these matters. The Sacrament of Penance was given for good reason. I don’t repudiate what Paterson-Seymour says but what he says cannot obscure the miraculous sign of God’s merciful love in Jesus Christ Crucified appealing to the Father on our behalf in a manner that infinitely transcends any private sense of contrition. Private repentance may not suffice if it is not perfect contrition. Only through the intervention of Christ and our faith in this sacrament of mercy that He gave us are we assured of forgiveness.

    • Paul Vander Voort

      Consider the parable about the wheat and the tares. If God were to unconditionally forgive the sins of the wheat does that reward the tares?

    • Sheila

      His gift of Mercy is that He opens the doors wide so that we can see to repent and then enter into His fullness of Life.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Fr Schall you clearly isolated something I have thought true for years which is capsulated in “Is it a difficulty or a choice? Mercy admits a widespread and culpable failure to accept our being and what belongs to it.” It speaks to the assent we must give to truth that is entirely accessible to us. God created man with the native capacity to distinguish right from wrong. Insofar as Saint Anselm he also said Lord help me to know you that I may love you, and to love you that I may know you. In that sincere simple prayer Anselm gives us the means in this exchange of love for the love Christ has given us of attaining knowledge of the Supreme Truth.

  • Patti Day

    My husband was recently hospitalized. A young man from the nearby parish came to visit. He said he would bring Holy Communion the next day for my husband and invited me to receive as well. I told him I couldn’t receive because I needed to go to confession first. He laughed and said he hadn’t been to confession in five years, and that his parish “isn’t like that” and that his priest “is all about mercy”. It made me sad to hear first hand such a cavalier attitude from a young man serving as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. He asked me again, “Are you sure?” Yes, I’m sure.

    • ThirstforTruth

      Did you report this incident to your diocesan office; they should know about this and take action with that local parish and see this EM is either properly catechized,
      through his pastor or removed from this responsibility. This is an egregious matter and should not be simply passed off or ignored.


    Thank you Fr. Schall for this essay. It is very clear.

  • Robert McNally

    Great essay Fr. Schall. I’m grateful you commented on the knowledge of what we are. One thing for sure, we are all sinners. The very best explanation of self knowledge I ever saw was in The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis but only in the Grosset and Dunlap version.
    From Chapter II Of the Humble Conceit of Ourselves :
    The deepest and most profitable lesson is this, the true knowledge and contempt of ourselves.
    Thank you Father.