Presumption versus Despair

The Catholic teaching about “presumption” is one that some Christian groups can find offensive.  It can be seen as an affront to how they view Christ’s finished work on the cross.  We will explore that concept more as we delve deeper into our understanding of salvation and how it may differ from some.  But for now, we’ll just look at the teaching about presumption and what it means for a Catholic.

The catechism speaks to two different ends of a spectrum, presumption and despair.  And as Catholics we should avoid both of them.

CCC2091 By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins.  Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises – and to his mercy.

CCC2092 There are two kinds of presumption.  Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).

On an internet message board I once witnessed one of the most startling examples of presumption I have ever encountered.   The question posed on the thread was, you’ve died, you find yourself standing in front of Christ, what do you say?  There were many moving and heartfelt answers.   “Lord have mercy” may have been the most frequent.  “Thank you” and “I love you” were also repeats.   And then I read one that said “Which seat at the table is mine?”  That’s presumption.

For Catholics, we can look to St. Paul and how he viewed his own personal salvation.  He gives us a model to follow.  First, he writes this to the Philippians:

Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:8-12)

St.  Paul’s recognition that he still has work to do aligns with Catholic teaching in that we are called to meet each day by taking up our cross and following Christ, always with the help of His grace.  In this sense, salvation is a process.

And St. Paul writes this to the Corinthians: ”But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.  I do not even judge myselfI am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquittedIt is the Lord who judges me.  Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.  Then each one will receive commendation from God.”  (1 Corinthians 4:3-5)

St. Paul recognizes that regardless of what he or anyone else may say about his salvation, the only thing that really matters is what Christ has to say.  And at the time of our death when we meet him, Christ will indeed pronounce it.  So we align ourselves with St. Paul and don’t pronounce it ourselves before the time.  And that is the bottom line for us as Catholics.  While because of their particular faith tradition some may be uncomfortable when a Catholic doesn’t speak of our own salvation as a “done deal,” Catholics may be equally uncomfortable when they do, because from our perspective it can be seen that they are stepping into a role that belongs to Christ, and to him alone.

Catholics can sometimes be portrayed by others as being fearful for our own salvation.  While some certainly may be, in general that is not how we would view it nor are we taught to be “fearful.”  We can profess with absolute confidence that God desires us to be saved, that God is faithful, and will provide the necessary grace to help us to “press on to make it our own” as St. Paul put it.  Yet like St. Paul we understand that we have not already obtained salvation nor have we yet reached the state of perfection we strive for, and we must be diligent in pursuing this goal.

So, am I saved?  Yes, if I follow God’s will, with the help of His grace.


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