Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Act of Contrition"

I recently learned of this prayer, the "Act of Contrition":

"O my God,
I am heartily sorry for
having offended Thee,
and I detest all my sins,
because I dread the loss of heaven,
and the pains of hell
but most of all because
they offend Thee, my God,
Who are all good and
deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve,
with the help of Thy grace,
to confess my sins,
to do penance,
and to amend my life.

Amen. (emphasis added)"

Coming from a Reformed paradigm, this notion that I should "dread the loss of heaven" is striking. It flies in the face of the Calvinist teaching of "Perseverance of the Saints", that is, "that gracious work of God’s sanctification whereby He enables a saved person to persevere to the end. Even though the process of sanctification is not complete in this life, from God’s perspective it is as good as accomplished" (A Brief History: Presbyterian Church in America, available here).

An analogy from the Law of Property seems appropriate. We tend to discuss salvation in terms of "having" it. We are inclined to say "I pray she could receive salvation" or "I am saved" (which means I possess the quality of being saved). We do not mean we have what Property Law would describe as a "present use and enjoyment" of salvation. That will only come when we are taken into Glory. Therefore, I will analogize views of Salvation to future property interests, i.e., legal interests which do not allow the owner present use and enjoyment of a property.

In property terms, Christians talk about their salvation as a vested possession, as opposed to a contingent possession. The latter is not your possession unless some contingency first occurs. The Baptist may say that their child's coming into possession of salvation is contingent on their first having "saving faith". But at that point it would vest. The Reformed might say that their children, as members of the Church visible have a vested interest in salvation already (or they may not; it is a debated point).

So once we conclude that we "are saved", so that no contingency stands between us and being members of the body of Christ, we need to decide whether that future interest in salvation (remember: it's future because you're not in Heaven yet) is something we can or cannot lose.

The Reformed will argue that our salvation is an indefeasibly vested possession. Sparing a painfully long definition, the gist of this legal concept is that, while you cannot "use and enjoy" your property at present (say, a house), it is legally yours because you are certain to come into a present use and enjoyment of it at some point. If you die too soon, your heirs will take it. You can sell this future property interest. You can impose legal obligations on the present users of the property. It is your possession.

Contrarily, the Catholic or Baptist might say that "our salvation" is vested subject to defeasance. Unlike the contingent possession, which was dependent on some condition first happening before you could "have" salvation, the vested interest subject to defeasance can be completely lost upon the happening of some subsequent event. E.g., if you fall into mortal sin, your salvation has been defeased. Here we have the dreaded possibility of losing Heaven in the "Act of Contrition".

So the question seems to be, is our Salvation indefeasible? Paul says, in describing Christian virtues, "Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall" (2 Peter 1:10; please read in context). Also, "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12-13). The "if" in the former verse at least implies the possibility of an "if not", which in turn sounds like a defeasible possession of salvation. If my legal interest in (say) my parents' house is indefeasibly vested, I no longer have to make my possession of it sure. I do not have to "work out" my coming into possession. I do not need to concern myself with staying in their good graces, for they have already given up any legal right to rescind my future interest. Again, "I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (1 Corinthians 9:27). If the prize of salvation were indefeasibly vested, it would already have been awarded -- it cannot be lost. My reading of these passages, I submit for your consideration, leads me to believe that Paul's view of salvation is much more analogous to a defeasible possession of salvation than to an indefeasible one.

I'm sorry if I lost you on this post.

[Note: Property is complex, and I fudged some things to keep this from getting any more onerous than it is. If you want to hammer out the finer details of Executory Interests, my use of "possession" over "interest", or the like, I'm game.]


Tim A. Troutman said...

I have to agree that Paul wouldn't have made a good Calvinist. Assuming he wrote Hebrews through Luke's hand, we have this confirmed further by 10:23-29 which I happened to stumble on earlier today in fact.

He starts out urging Christians, as in the passages you quoted, to "hold unswervingly to the hope we profess" but along with that, a reminder that Christ is faithful. In this context, he urges Christians to spur one another along in "love and good deeds" (works) - why in this context? Shouldn't this be the last place to put something a remark if he were trying to show a faith alone salvation which could not be lost?

Next he forbids the forsaking of assembling together (a mortal sin according to the Church). And then to the point:

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left

Which brings me to the second part of my point that this was never a question in the early Church that I am aware of. I don't know of anyone questioning whether we could lose our salvation or not - it seems to be a given.

Tertullian for example debated Pope Callistus not on whether or not we could lose our salvation but on whether or not we could regain it once it was lost!!! This was an ongoing debate in the 3rd and 4th centuries especially in Africa as you're well aware of I'm sure. But the fact that this debate existed clues us in that the Church had universally assumed the ability to lose one's salvation.

At any rate, sorry for hijacking your post and turning it into a Bible study. I just thought it was neat that I had run across this a few hours ago studying something entirely unrelated.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

I second Mr. Troutman's well reasoned presentation. If St. Paul and the other writers of the New Testament were, Calvinistic & Reformed, they did a wonderful job at hiding this fact.

In many places - Paul and others speak about the possibility of losing salvation, as well as the commands for us to strive for the attainment of salvation, through the process of our entire lives. Both propositions which militate strongly against Tulipian theology.

St. Augustine especially is clear on these matters. Ultimately, from God's vantage point - He knows those who will perservere to the end, in the life long process of justification. From our stand point, the loss of salvation is a daily reality in that the falling into mortal sin denotes the possibility in time and space, of proving you're "un-election." Those who die in this state or continue in this willful disobediance have shown their true colors and have lost their salvation. A true Christian on the other hand would strive for reconciliation with God and thus "re-claim" their salvation. This is the tension that is recorded in the New Testament, continue steadfast to prove our salvation/election.

R.E. Aguirre

Thos said...


This is a Protestant blog. Therefore, you are always welcome to turn this into a bible study :) (for those of you who didn't catch my sarcastic use of the smiley emoticon, check Tim's recent post.

Thanks for the citation from the author of Hebrews (id est, Paul). The verses I used were just off the top of my head, and had I thought harder (or researched) I believe I could have come up with many more. You have, and so has Mr. Aguirre.

Thanks for noting the debate of the early church on whether one could return to the faith after walking away (I believe this debate was prompted, at least largely, but those who denied the faith when faced with being martyred, no?). I doubt in those days anyone would have even spoken of "being saved" or "having salvation". I wonder if this type of language is a product of the Reformation.

And to Mr. Aguirre as well,

Without using that language, I think my analogy to Property would stand. I think it would stand in the Catholic-Augustinian-Dominican language of predestination as well. Our relationship with God, and membership in the body of Christ, is a treasure, a pearl of great price. Catholics would say that, if you are in 'good standing' with the church, with a clean, penitent, confessed conscience, and were to die now, your en-titlement to heaven would indefeasibly vest -- it cannot be lost at that point (though you may need your purgatorial process still). But if you don't die at that point, and are still in good standing, you are still presently en-titled to enter heaven (on account of your faith, penitence, affiliation with the body, etc.). You do not become entitled for dying (as everyone dies). So your salvation is defeasibly vested - defeased at each commission of mortal sin, and regained at each penitential return to the church.

All of that is probably not interesting for someone who has not studied Property Law. It interests me because the concepts of property are ones we are very familiar with from our daily, lived experience. I think the "T.R." (truly reformed), if they were to grasp the truly completed (not inchoate) nature of indefeasible vesting, and were to reflect upon the property analogy to salvation, would become uncomfortable with the relationship of 'perseverance of the saints' to the passages we have discussed. But then again, the T.R. are a resolute lot.

If I may continue to press the borders of the boring, another lesson from property law is worth noting. If your name is on someone's will, what sort of future possession do you presently hold in the property in the will? What is your interest in the house that will be given to you when the testator dies? Nothing. You have what is called a "mere expectancy" -- you are not even an "heir" until the testator dies. I think it's important that we don't say our interest in heaven is a mere expectancy. If it were only that, we could be removed from will at any time, on a whim. God, it seems to me, has not chosen to operate in this way. It seems he has chosen to give us particular criteria through which to become a member of the body of the Christ. He has allowed us to become entitled to heaven (though in a way that may be lost, the argument I took up in this post). The Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us that any use of "heir" in the scriptures is closer to a vested interest than a mere expectancy, as the law required certain prescribed heirs to get their portion of the inheritance. It is in that sense, not the modern one (where you can disinherit any of your children), that we are heirs of Christ.

Peace in Christ,

Anonymous said...

Hello Thos, I find that the analogy with property law (of which I know nothing) is prima facia instructive. At least, it seems like a helpful model for working out the particular issue you raise and for thinking about different facets of the gift of salvation. I used to think that every time Scripture seemed to speak of that gift as something contingent, it must only be in reference to some particular aspect of salvation, or else a kind of salvation quite distinct from the promise of life everlasting. I think that this approach begs too many questions (one begged question for each and every "conditional" Scripture passage), but it is a live option for some evangelicals (though not many calvinists take this route, I guess).

You know, when I first saw the title of this post, I immediately thought of an episode of Battlestar Galactica by the same title, and only as I began reading this post did the association with the confession thing sink in. Bad Catholic.

Anonymous said...

I should say, instead of too many begged questions, I had one question begged too many times, introducing too many distinctions at too many suspicious points; i.e., precisely at those points where such a distinction could save my initial thesis: the eternal life and/or justification kind/aspect of salvation is unconditional (ergo, this "conditional" passage *must* be speaking of some distinct kind/aspect of salvation).

Thos said...


Thank you for your kind comment. I was *really* worried that this geek-speak legal post would be too much for people. It makes sense to me, since I've studied the material, and has helped me conceptualize (in part) what people are saying when they talk about "their" salvation. I'm glad at least person was able to follow my description.

Peace in Christ,

Joseph said...

I like your reasoning, Thos. Since comments have ceased on this post, I was hoping that I could ask you a couple of questions that are loosely related to the topic at hand. I don't intend to change the subject, however.

How does the Act of Contrition I recite rub you (or rather, how would it rub someone who is of the Reformed tradition that is not contemplating the Church)?

"O my God, I am sorry and beg pardon for all of my sins, and detest them above all things, because they deserve your dreadful punishments, because they have crucified my loving Savior Jesus Christ, and most of all, because they offend your infinite goodness. And I firmly resolve, by the help of Thy grace, never to offend Thee again, and carefully to avoid the occassions of sin."

Prior to my conversion to Catholicism, I had the remark to one of my Protestant cousins, who is Calvinist, that every time we sin, we drive a nail into the Body of Our Lord on the Cross. She was appalled and scrambled to find a suitable argument against my statement.

As a fellow Protestant, it was not my intention to draw such a reaction from her, so I was a little shocked that we could not agree even after I gave an explanation.

What do you think about that statement (and the line in the Act of Contrition above)? Would you have thought of it differently two years ago than you do now? Or do you see nothing wrong with it and think that my cousin was a bit reactionary?