Thursday, May 15, 2008

Works and Deathbed Conversions



I've used My Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, as a devotional for some time. It is striking for its call to Christian self-denial and (what I understand to be) asceticism.

There was a time when, early in my learning about the Catholic claims to Truth, I thought I could convince a Catholic brother that his beliefs were contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. If I say nothing else about those days, I have to say that it was an excellent time of learning about our Faith. What a treasure to engage with a brother when both are deeply committed to searching out the truth, and living it too! I felt exposed, somewhat disconcerted, and very alive and aware of Christ's Lordship. I perceived how small I was, and how big the Church and Christianity are.

At some point in this series of exchanges the gears shifted. Instead of feeling that I could victoriously pour the truth of Scripture over my brother's head, I wound up on my heels, on the defensive. To date, I have not been able to recover. I've forgotten many of the things that led me to that point, but I can still isolate a few. One was an awareness that if contraception was indeed immoral, the Protestant faith had much explaining to do. Another was this devotional by Thomas à Kempis.

With that long-winded narrative out of the way, let me come to my (somewhat non sequitur) point. In Ch. 23, Thomas says speaking of death, "How sad that you do not spend the time in which you might purchase everlasting life in a better way. The time will come when you will want just one day, just one hour in which to make amends, and do you know whether you will obtain it? See, then, dearly beloved, the great danger from which you can free yourself and the great fear from which you can be saved, if only you will always be wary and mindful of death." How fascinating, this familiar idea that with just one hour one could make amends for their sins.

The well-known Catholic priest, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. wrote in his book Life Everlasting, "Deathbed conversion, however difficult, is still possible. Even when we see no sign of contrition, we can still not affirm that, at the last moment, just before the separation of soul from body, the soul is definitively obstinate. A sinner may be converted at that last minute in such fashion that God alone can know it."

And to my simple point. The Catholic Church maintains the validity of deathbed conversions. Does not this belief, all on its own, defeat the oft-rendered critique that Catholics believe in salvation by works? I think it does. If some measure of works was necessary to merit salvation, then the infirm sinner lying in a sickly state in his final hours has irreparably lost the chance to perform those works and cannot be saved. So while the Catholic view on salvation is distinct from the Protestant formulation of sola Fide, it requires no more than letting go of obstinacy (presumably in faith). Sola non Petina. No works required.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

The contrite penitence of the deathbed sinner would be considered a "work" no? If "work" in the Catholic sense is "an act of the will". It is God's will that we are contrite, recognize our need for healing, come to Him for healing, and then honestly make an effort (by His grace) to turn from our evil ways. Joining our will, which is constantly being directed away from God's due to our state, to God's is "work". Though it is through Christ that we are able to do this, it is still no less of a movement of our own will.

So, the "work" is the hating of our own sin and the earnest desire to sin no more, hence joining our will with God's.

Also, though the deathbed conversion is obviously not something that is only available for Catholics, Catholics often recognize it most in the presence of a priest either through "Extreme Unction" or reconciliation and "Viaticum". "Conversion" also has different meanings between [many] Evangelicals/Protestants and Catholics. To many Protestants, it means a sudden spiritual event when one becomes filled with the Holy Ghost and becomes... well... Protestant. For Catholics "conversion" is part of a process. By virtue of Baptism, the Protestant version of "conversion" is fulfilled in the Christian in the eyes of a Catholic. But, true conversion happens when one changes direction, not essense. Conversion happens when one chooses one will over another (evil for good; good for evil). In the Catholic sense, then, a deathbed conversion requires that one, in some way detectable to others or not, joins his will with God's before his soul separates from his body.

Basically, there is no way to tell the true sorrow of the soul for doing evil, but the same holds true at death as it does at the Sacrament of Recociliation. If one's soul is not truly contrite and is obstinate, the Sacrament's effects are blocked by the pride of the sinner. The only difference is that at death, there is no second chance. As soon as the soul separates from the body, time for repentance has come to an end.

Don't know if that makes sense or if I'm just repeating what you've already stated. Sorry.

Kim said...

Hmmmmmm, very interesting thought there, Thos!

Tim A. Troutman said...

If doctrines could be broken down and put into mathematical equations, we'd find a lot of similarity between Prot. & Catholic doctrine re: salvation. Both agree that the penitent thief is in Heaven and both believe that same sort of even can happen again.

God have mercy on us all and I pray that even the most wretched sinners have a conversion (known or unknown to us) on their deathbed.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Same sort of *event*.

Anonymous said...

GFF

If doctrines could be broken down and put into mathematical equations, we'd find a lot of similarity between Prot. & Catholic doctrine re: salvation.

Is that flowery "ecumenical" language? Can I draw a picture of that statement?

2 + 2 = 4 and...
2 + 2 = 5

those are similar because they have similar numbers, but one is correct and one is incorrect... or how about this...

2 + 2 = 4 and...
5 - 3 = 2

those are similar because they are both equations, both are also correct, but they are different equations...

What do you mean exactly?

George Weis said...

Thos,

You simply have to love that book. One of the many books I need to actually finish. Probably one of the greatest books in the home library.

Interesting subject on this post my friend. I do like the explanation that anonymous had for the variance of what "conversion means". Of course I would add, that conforming ones will to God's would be the recognition of His provision through Christ...Que the discussion on that point.

I am still in question weather the Catholic idea of the Gospel and the Protestant view are the same. I suppose I am in an earlier stage of digging than you. I however defend Catholics to a degree amidst Protestants, and obviously vice versa. It is that enjoyment of the conversation and the hope of learning through it.

Many blessings to you brother. May Christ captivate your thoughts and continue to guide you. May His peace be yours.

-g-

Thos said...

Anonymous,

I appreciate this chance to clarify my meaning of “work”. I certainly meant it in the Protestant sense, as I was addressing the Protestant critique that Catholics believe in Salvation by Works (as Protestants define works). I understand the Protestant sense of “works” to mean a salutary act that somehow earns merit in God’s eyes sufficient to make the worker entitled to entrance to Heaven. I do not believe that the Catholic position on salvation maintains that we are saved by (this definition of) works. I understand the Catholics to maintain that we are saved by God’s grace, which will efficaciously manifest itself in the believer as faith and works of righteousness (in part a turning away from sin).

Therefore, the deathbed convert does not have a chance to “work” for God (in the Protestant sense) in such a way as to be able to rack up enough (or, rather, any) merit to entitle him to enter Heaven. His title to Heaven’s rooms comes from Christ’s grace. He does the act of will of penitence and contrition, which you define as a work (in the Catholic sense, and I will not disagree).

This discussion accentuates a tension in Protestant churches (I would say most clearly in Anabaptist churches, but am happy to be corrected by disagreeing Anabaptists) between saying we are saved by faith alone, and having to deny that faith is a work. I have already noted my belief that, at least in practice, many Protestants conceptualize “having faith” as the uber-work that does indeed merit a place in heaven for the individual faithful. Protestants have to deny that faith is a work, leaving instead a concept of faith as an attribute or characteristic. But if it is only an attribute, it does not save at all, but rather that act which gave the individual faithful the attribute (here a Reformed type would note Predestination!).

Let me concede here that I might have gone too far in making Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s quote on deathbed conversions sound Protestant-ish. I’m not happy with how I wrote that, because I do not believe it has nearly the sola fide-ish sound to it that I implied. I intended, rather, to isolate an instance where Catholicism clearly (obviously to even to skeptics) does not teach that a certain number of good deeds are required for admission to Heaven. I agree with your understanding, that the Catholic concept of a deathbed conversion is one’s willful unification to God’s will, or one’s willfully submitting his will to God’s divine will.

Tim and Anonymous,

I believe the mathematical similarity Tim expressing is not that 2+2=5 is similar to 2+2=4, but rather that if Catholicism is 100% right, many strains of Protestant soteriological thoughts are 70 or 80% right (compared to, say, a Mormon conception which may be 20% or 5% right). Anonymous, you can say that since 2+2=5 is wrong, insofar as Protestant maintain “5”, they are wrong. However, you would have to concede that Catholicism admits the possibility (perhaps even the wide possibility) that Protestants may be saved. Therefore, since at least at some level these Protestants would harbor a “4” view in their heart, we are mathematically not so badly distinct. I appreciate your sensitivity, though, to the possibility that Tim was expressing too much of a pluralistic, liberal view (as I think is common in American Catholicism). I think if you read some of Tim’s writings for a while on his blog, you will agree with me that he could not possibly have meant this (because, if I were to find fault in Tim’s view, it would likely be in the opposite of excessive liberalism, but I do not wish to find fault in Tim’s views).

George,

Yes, do finish Thomas a Kempis! The chapters are often just 2 to 4 small pages, so for me it’s easy bedtime or morning devotions that give me much to ponder. He provides an excellent reminder that I am small and sinful, and have much room for improvement in this life, for the Glory of God.

I’m glad you defend Catholic views to an extent amid Protestants. I do too, and find either great sympathy from other Protestants, or great hostility. It’s interesting. Like Tim’s math discussion above I think there are great similarities between our view of “the Gospel” and yet they are certainly not alike. We all agree that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that his sacrifice was necessary for our salvation. From there, the rift starts to open. E.g., do you believe that Jesus suffered in your place, that he was a substitute atonement for what you deserved? Do you believe that Jesus suffered in Hell for three days before resurrecting? The Catholics do not (as I understand them to teach).

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Anonymous said...

Thos,

Thanks for your excellent clarification. I'm happy that we can see eye-to-eye on the topic and, yes, I was afraid that your original post seemed to imply a Protestantesque quality to two Catholic men of Holy Orders. Please don't disregard as well that, as men of Holy Orders, deathbed conversions may be intrinsically linked to the Sacraments as well. Though the writings you have chosen to explicate do not explicitly reference the Sacraments, I think it would be good to remember that these writings were written by Catholics within the Catholic framework and probably specifically for Catholics. A Protestant can read Catholic writings and apply much of it to their own understanding because of the similarities that do exist between us (which only exist because not all of Catholic teaching was eradicated after the Protestant Reformation), but it has to be understood that Catholic life and understanding is embedded in the Sacraments.

I have no doubt that a reading of Kempis as a whole (I have read "The Imitation of Christ") will reveal that the language is entirely sacramental as an entire portion of the book is, in fact, devoted to the THE Sacrament, the Eucharist. Separating the sacramental from these writings would be a mistake and a limited interpretation, in my opinion.

Thanks for explaining what I thought was a vague statement by Tim as well. That statement happens to be used alot in the false ecumenical circles, that's why I was questioning it. Tim would, however, never make such a mistake. Seeing that we agree, I'll step out of the way and allow for further discussion. Thanks again.

George Weis said...

Thos,

I do indeed get the same. I love to relay info that I learn from various sources. I think it is helpful to see where each other really stands. One of the issues on both sides, is that people don't always listen. You can say a provable fact, and the hearers can retain their previously held presupposition.

I do understand what you mentioned as far as the difference in Gospel goes. I think that is a good subject to deal with. Obviously you are still a Protestant (I know we both would rather not have the term applied to us)... Is this one of the core reasons you are?

I pray Gods blessing on you my brother... that His name... the name of our Lord might be glorified in you.

-g-

Thos said...

Anonymous,

I have been graced by your contributions, and hope that you will share more with me in the future (even if behind the veil).

I hear you about the Sacramental aspect of Catholic views on deathbed conversions. I did not intentionally cull quotes that mentioned such conversions without reference to the Sacraments, as I'm sure you will accept. They just came out that way.

I have been mulling this analogy over: in the law, traditionally we have had courts of Law and courts of Equity. The court of law applies the more clear-cut rule of law (e.g., a Contract is a contract, and there's no getting out), and the court of equity seeks a fairness (equity) where the clear-cut rule would present calous results (e.g., where one party to the Contract is a real schishter). I have wondered if the Catholic could say that some are saved from damnation by complying with the Church's requirements (particularly the Sacraments), this being akin to the court of Law, and others in spite of not complying with these requirements (notably where compliance is not possible), this being akin to a court of equity. I have been thinking of this in terms of doctrines like Baptism by Blood or Desire, and it may fit here too.

Then this raises the ugly specter that Catholics still teach salvation by law (as did the Pharisees), and not salvation by grace. I do not mean that implication at all.

Anyway, it seems from Catholic reading I've done that a truly converted, contrite, penitent heart just before the moment of death could merit (hmm...) God's grace unto salvation, even where the sacraments are unavailable. While their use is the proper way (compliance with canon law), it seems an equitable avenue is not completely foreclosed.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Thos said...

George,

You said, re: the Catholic and Protestant views on the Gospel, “Obviously you are still a Protestant (I know we both would rather not have the term applied to us)... Is this one of the core reasons you are?”

Oh my. This comment really struck me. This is not one of the reasons why I am still Protestant, and certainly not a core reason. I believe I am *highly* sympathetic to the Catholic formal view of the relationship between faith and works (and everything in between). As for why I am still Protestant, I hope to do a post soon discussing this, because it will help me work out my thoughts (which is a major reason why I blog - - it helps me think).

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

P.S. I don't mind being called Protestant actually. I am one so long as I am not in unity with the Catholics.

Anonymous said...

Thos,

I thought you provided a good analogy. God is a Just Judge. God is also Merciful. I don't have the capability to know where the balance is, but I believe if one sees God as more Just than Merciful, or vice versa, they may stumble into the same pitfalls as what we characterize the Pharisees to have fallen into (more Just - slave to the law, sanctimoniousness; more Merciful - presumptiousness, aka "blessed assurance").

I think the last paragraph of your last response is a fair analysis of Catholic reading. There is nothing that seems contradictory to Church teaching that I'm aware of in it. However, I would add that the efficaciousness and healing power of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, when received by the contrite sinner, have the power to cleanse that person of personal sin in a supernatural way.

The Church teaches as well (as you mentioned) that the all-knowing God shows mercy to the penitent and contrite sinner who desires to receive the Sacraments but is unable to at the moment of death.

I'll go out on a limb and say that even the non-Catholic, who realizes his guilt moments before the end of his life and yearns for forgiveness from God, on his deathbed is actually unknowingly yearning for the Sacraments, since it is Christ he yearns for.

Regardless, true contrition is the major ingredient of the deathbed conversion according to my understanding of traditional Catholic writing (and your understanding as well, apparently). On the same token, as I stated before, true contrition is also the major ingredient of the penitent when receiving the Sacraments (1 Cor 11).

I was pointing out that the writers are Catholic men of Holy Orders probably intending their writings to be read by Catholics. According to my understanding, and given that a large part of Kempis' "Imitation of Christ" is devoted to the Blessed Sacrament, their writings are Sacrament centric (thereby Christ-centric).

A Catholic is encouraged to receive the final Sacraments (Reconciliation, Viaticum, Extreme Unction), where possible, at the end of their lives strictly because of the efficacy of them.

God can save anyone He wants in any way that He wants, but there should be no doubt that these writers intended to promote frequent reception of the Sacraments, especially near death; not to promote automata and superstition, but because they believe in the power of the Body of Christ and the other Sacraments.

I wonder if I'm starting to digress. Correct me if I am.

Anonymous said...

Clarification: I often substitute "scrupulosity" for "slave to the Law". This is because of an exposition on the Psalms that I read by St. Augustine a long time ago that has stuck with me.

"There are those who live under the Law, and those who live in the Law (paraphrased)."

Those who live under the Law do not abide by the Law out of the love or paternal fear of God, they do so scrupulously. There can be many reasons for this, fear of eternal punishment, automata, superstition, etc. They are slaves to the Law. It isn't freedom for them. Secretly, they hate the Law and thier following it is a fulfillment of their own pride and vanity (sanctimoniousness).

Those who live in the Law are not "under" it. They are not "bound". They are perfectly free. It is a union of their will and God's Will. They freely follow the commandments of God because they love Him, they have that paternal fear of God, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

A cloistered nun, who surrenders her worldly life to pray constantly for the world, eats very little, always wear a habit, lives in a small cell, follows certian rules, etc. willfully and with joy is an example of one who seeks only God. To many, she is imprisoned. To her, she is completely free.

Obviously, one doesn't need to become a religious to experience freedom in the Law, I was using the nun as an extreme example, one that is most repulsive to today's culture. This was a long explanation for my usage of "slave to the Law" instead of "scrupulocity". I apologize.

Thos said...

Anonymous,

Excellent thoughts. I was thinking of this more last night after I wrote what I wrote. It was somewhat along the lines of your comment, "Those who live in the Law are not "under" it. They are not "bound". They are perfectly free."

In my anology, the court of Equity is needed because a strict application of the Law can work in injustice (because a good generic rule is not going to apply perfectly in every case, e.g., that no major contract can be enforced unless it is in writing). But God's Law is perfect, so can apply perfectly in every case. So when I compared this anology to Catholic thought on who can enter salvation, I realized I mean something different by law.

God's Divine Law, the moral law, does apply perfectly to everyone. I think, however, we were discussing (with the Sacraments, particularly on one's deathbed) something other than the Divine Law. I think that Catholics don't see that mankind is morally bound to partake of the Sacrament. Patricipation is not a divine mandate. However, obedience to the moral law is required, and the Sacrament (it seems the Catholic would say) is the Church's prescribed remedy for our inevitable failure to obey (the Church speaking for Christ, the Catholic would say).

Hmm... I'm not saying this well. The Law is the likes of "do not murder". That's applies to us all, so no notion of Equity need be discussed. The ways in which we receive forgiveness and grace to help curb future sinning seem more prone to the Equity analogy. God can deliver His help (i.e., grace) in a multitude of ways (even if the Sacraments of the Church are His desired primary ways).

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I take full responsibility for the digression. I enjoyed your analogy so much that I wanted to share my thoughts on it, resulting a slight change in direction. That tends to happen in conversations I take joy in.

After re-reading your comments (and those of mine in which I didn't digress), I think we agree. Is there something I'm missing?