“Do You Know Him?”
That’s the question, asked repeatedly with rising emotional intensity, by African-American Baptist pastor Dr. S.M. Lockridge in the famous Protestant sermon, “That’s My King.” The question can be interpreted either as an altar call for the unconverted, or a reminder for the saved – an affirmation of the doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” also known as the “perseverance of the saints.”
How should Catholics respond to the question “do you know Him?”
Many Protestants pray that people, including their own children, would “know the Lord.” By this, they usually mean that they want loved ones to have a religious experience that will result in their conversion and eternal salvation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Catholics don’t need to pray this prayer for their children, at least not in the sense Protestants mean, because of what is accomplished by the sacrament of baptism, which should be administered to Catholic infants.
The Catechism teaches baptism “actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one “can enter the kingdom of God.” (CCC 1215) Furthermore, “the baptized have ‘put on Christ.’ Through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justifies, and sanctifies.” (1227)
Through baptism, rightly administered, every Christian is cleansed of his or her sins, and receives the Holy Spirit, a powerful work of grace in the light of every recipient of this holy sacrament. If that doesn’t constitute knowing the Lord, I don’t know what does! Consider, too, the words of Christ Himself, who, when encountering the youth praising Him as “Son of David,” declares: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)
Yet neither baptism nor some later conversion experience ensure that someone will always remain saved. In perhaps the most alarming section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowd:
Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:21-23)
This warning presents a problem for both Protestants and Catholics. In the Calvinist tradition from which the “perseverance of the saints” originates, interpreters of this passage have argued that if one falls away from the faith, that must mean that the individual never really believed. For non-Calvinist Protestants, usually called Arminians, the passage means that even Christians accomplishing great acts of faith can stray from their Lord and lose their salvation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of the possibility of losing our salvation:
Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. . . .anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. (CCC 1856, 1864)
This teaching originates in Scripture, such as the warning that “there is sin which is deadly. . . .All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not deadly.” (1 John 5:16-17)
Yet there are even less dramatic means by which we can impede or terminate our knowing God. The LORD, speaking through the Psalmist, often censures His people for offering sacrifices with no heart, without thanksgiving or praiseThese things you have done and I have been silent;
These things you have done and I have been silent;
You thought that I was one like yourself.
But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you. (Psalms 50:21)
This is the slower, more subtle loss of contact with God, one bred by familiarity, a familiarity not with the person of Christ, but with the rituals and daily routines of Christian life. Even the Catholic who attends Mass, prays his rosary, goes to confession, and reads religious literature can find himself simply “going through the motions.” He may like the regular diciplines, or intellectually recognizes the truth of Christianity. But his heart is gone.
Perhaps Pope Francis has such Christians in mind in his latest apostolic exhortation when he writes of “Gnostics” who over-intellectualize their faith to such a degree that it obscures or nullifies that “personal encounter with Christ” of which Benedict XVI so often spoke. Our Holy Father rebukes those who “reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.” (Gaudete et Exsultate 40)
Comparing Catholic definitions of “knowing the Lord” to those most dominant in Protestantism, this is where the rubber hits the road. While many Protestants presume the Christian is forever saved because of a profession of faith or some internal conviction, we Catholics place our trust in Christ’s redemptive work applied to us through the grace of the sacraments. Yet even so, we live in a tension between hope and presumption. We seek to live as children of a gracious and loving Father, but we are mindful that we may, through immoral acts or a slower spiritual rot, sever ourselves from God.
We must live with this tension, wary both of our immorality and our indifference. Yet we should not do so in fear, but in a humility that reminds us that even those who cast out demons may fail to reach heaven if they forget that the true end of man is happiness in God.
“Do you know Him?” Yes, by His grace, we Catholics do, but mindful that any loving relationship is a dance that requires two partners, even if One does the leading.
*Image: Christ Surrounded by Musician Angels by Hans Memling, c. 1485 (Royal Museum of Arts, Antwerp)