Saturday, September 24, 2011

Final perseverance: You can't get to heaven without it


St. Dismas receives the grace of final perseverance

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Ezekiel 18:25-28
If he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life.
Both the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel and the parable which our Savior offers in Matthew 21:28-32 (the parable of the two sons, the one who would not work but converted and the other who said he would work but did not) hint toward the reality that what is most important of all is the manner in which we finish. Certainly, the beginning and the middle are important, but the end or the finish makes all the difference.
In a stage of the Tour de France, it is possible for a rider or (more likely) a small group of riders to lead the day for over a hundred miles (this is called a break-away from the pelaton); however, it almost always happens that the main pack of riders (i.e. the pelaton) will catch this small break-away with less than a mile to go before the finish. Having led the stage for all those miles, the break-away group will lose all hope of victory in just the last minutes of the several hour long day of racing. What is most important is how one finishes.
So it is with the life of grace. Certainly, it is important to start well and to live in Christ’s grace throughout life, but what is most important of all is to die well, to finish well, to complete one’s life with the grace of final perseverance. This alone will bring us to heaven: We simply must die in the state of grace.
However, the Church teaches that we cannot merit this grace, not even by a holy life. How then do we gain perseverance and eternal salvation?

We cannot merit the grace of final perseverance
Final perseverance is the preservation of the state of grace until the end of life. It is the final grace which is necessary for salvation. It is by final perseverance that a man dies in the state of grace and is ultimately to be admitted into heaven. Without the grace of final perseverance, a man would certainly be damned.
The decree on justification from the Council of Trent (session six) speaks of the grace of final perseverance and states that this special gift “cannot be derived from any other but him [i.e. God]” (chapter 13). Further canon 22 of the same session teaches that: “If anyone says, that the justified, either is able to persevere, without the special help of God [i.e. without the grace of final perseverance], in the justice received; or that, with that help, he is not able; let him be anathema.”
This is the point of the Council’s teaching: Without the grace of final perseverance, which can be given by God alone and is not obtained through human merit, a man cannot possibly be saved. However, with that grace, a man’s salvation is certain and most sure.
But why is it impossible to merit final perseverance? St. Thomas explains: “What we merit, we obtain from God, unless it is hindered by sin. Now many have meritorious works, who do not obtain perseverance; nor can it be urged that this takes place because of the impediment of sin, since sin itself is opposed to perseverance; and thus if anyone were to merit perseverance, God would not permit him to fall into sin. Hence perseverance does not come under merit.” (ST I-II, q.114, a.9, sed contra)
The Common Doctor explains further that, while it is possible to merit the glory of heaven, this glory can be lost through sin. Indeed, it is only through the special grace of final perseverance that a man may avoid sin at the end of his life and instead persevere in grace and come into the fulfillment of the glory of heaven which he had merited through his works. Hence, while we do merit glory in heaven, we do not merit the attainment of that glory which is gained only through the grace of perseverance. Therefore, it is not possible to merit final perseverance – no matter how good a man may be, final perseverance (i.e. the actual attainment of heaven) is never gained through works. Even the just man may well fall into sin and, turning away from God at the moment of death, suffer the eternal second death.
How we gain final perseverance
If, then, we are unable to merit final perseverance through good works – if a good man may well fall away and a wicked man (by God’s grace) may be converted at the last moment – how is it that we may hope to gain this most necessary grace?
St. Thomas offers the wisest answer: “We impetrate in prayer things that we do not merit, since God hears sinners who beseech the pardon of their sins, which they do not merit, as appears from Augustine [Tract. xliv in Joan.] on John 11:31, Now we know that God doth not hear sinners, otherwise it would have been useless for the publican to say: O God, be merciful to me a sinner, Luke 18:13. So too may we impetrate of God in prayer the grace of perseverance either for ourselves or for others, although it does not fall under merit.”
We gain final perseverance through prayer, through asking and begging this special grace from our heavenly Father. This is the particular hallmark of the spirituality of St. Alphonsus Liguori. St. Alphonsus bids that at the end of every prayer period (and many more times throughout the day) we ask the good Jesus for the grace of final perseverance.
What is more, the Doctor of Morals tells us that we must recall the great love and mercy of God (especially as shown us in the mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of the Christ) and, inspired by this divine love, be strengthened to ask for the grace of perseverance in all boldness.
St. Alphonsus believed so strongly in the certainty of this daily prayer for final perseverance that he would often say: “All those who are in heaven are there for this one reason: They prayed, they asked for perseverance. All those who are in hell are there for this one reason: They did not pray and they did not ask the Lord for the grace of final perseverance.” Everything depends on this one prayer – our whole life (not only this life, but also the next) rests upon the daily petition (with confidence and love) for the grace of final perseverance.
St. Louis Marie de Montfort adds that this grace is always given to those who entrust themselves to the care and protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Servus Mariae non peribit - The slave of Mary will not perish.
What is the grace of final perseverance?
Final perseverance is, of course, that last grace which confirms us in the Lord at the moment of death. However, it is also possible to recognize the grace of final perseverance as the body of graces which we receive throughout our whole lives. St. Alphonsus argued that final perseverance is the whole string of graces leading up to the last grace.
By analogy to sports we can see that a rider in the Tour can scarcely win if he is not near the front of the pact as they come to the final miles of the stage. Likewise, we admit that the best way to die in the state of grace is to live in the state of grace.
Still, it is also good to recall that even the greatest sinners have hope for the grace of final perseverance. Consider St. Dismas, the good thief who converted in only the last hour of life and found mercy in the wounds of our Savior. The Council of Trent teaches that “all should place the firmest hope in the succor of God” – and we recall that our Lord desires not death, but life.
The saints (especially Sts. Francis de Sales and Alphonsus Liguori) consider the Lord’s great mercy and love in granting the grace of final perseverance.
When we look to the goodness of God, we cannot help but be certain of the grace of perseverance not only for ourselves but for all sinners. When we look at our wretchedness, we recognize more easily just how merciful the Lord is to be willing to extend this grace to us – and we see why we must pray daily for this special gift.

14 comments:

wpr said...

Father Ryan,

Thanks a lot for this. I had never actually heard of the grace of final perseverance before. Could you clarify a few things for me?

1) Would it be right to say that in order to receive the grace of final "perseverance," one must first be in a state of grace, i.e., the grace of final perseverance is not what leads to the necessary contrition, but rather, it can only be received after sanctifying grace returns to the soul?

2) Would it be right to say that we pray, at least implicitly, for the grace of final perseverance any time we pray a Hail Mary ("pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death")?

3) What did you mean when you said that "we cannot help but be certain of the grace of perseverance not only for ourselves but for all sinners?" I assume you weren't suggesting that everyone will receive the grace of final perseverance, because that would mean that everyone definitely goes to Heaven (unless I misunderstood the quote from Trent).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@wpr,
Three very good questions!

1) Final perseverance is indeed the last grace which allows us to die in the state of grace ... this could either move us to grace or preserve us in grace ... I don't see any reason why the final grace couldn't move us from sin to grace. [you are right, though, that the word "perseverance" seems to imply that the soul is already in grace]

2) Indeed, the "Hail Mary" includes a prayer for final perseverance. This was how I concluded my homily at the Vigil Mass tonight!

3) When we consider the mercy of God, it leads us to think that any particular individual and all people together can certainly be saved. God's mercy makes us hope for the salvation of all (not in the way that Balthasar said it though).
However, when we look at our own sinfulness, we recognize that we all deserve hell. It would seem that none will be saved.
This was the point I was trying to convey -- trust in God's infinite mercy, recognition of our sinfulness and our need for that mercy.

Thank you for the clarification questions! +

Anonymous said...

Some questions:
1. How does God decide who receives the grace of final perseverance, and who does not?
2. Is anyone ever denied this grace, even though he has never committed mortal sin?
3. Is it a type of actual grace, or habitual grace?
thanks,
Daniel

jeremyschwager said...

I very much like St. Alphonsus' suggestion to pray often for the grace of final perseverance. All our prayers and good works are meaningless if we do not persevere to the end. Thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I cannot grasp how to reconcile the possibility of not receiving the grace of final perseverance with these two verses:

1 Thess 5:23 And may the God of peace himself sanctify you in all things; that your whole spirit, and soul, and body, may be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He is faithful who hath called you, who also will do it.

Philippians 1:6 Being confident of this very thing, that he, who hath begun a good work in you, will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus.

I would love any help. Both your and my point seem Biblical, but I cannot see how they can be reconciled.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@anonymous,
Please try to remember to use a pseudonym (at least at the end of the comment), thanks!

Regarding the grace of final perseverance ... we must hold that all are given sufficient grace to persevere, but that this grace is not necessarily always efficacious ... certainly, no one "goes to hell" because of not receiving enough grace; the only way someone gets there is through committing some mortal sin through their own fault.
[setting aside, for know, the question of limbo]

Likewise, no adult goes to heaven without a choice for God (at least an implicit choice).

The verses you mention are given to encourage us to trust in God's mercy and love ... indeed, if we are open to receiving his graces (and if we ask for those graces) we will certainly be saved.
Grace will not be denied to the one who prays.
But, if we do not pray and if we do not ask (if we do not receive the gift of grace) [especially, if we think we are ok without God and if we do not admit that we are sinners in need of the grace of final perseverance], we will certainly be damned.

Peace and blessings to you! +

Derek Caudill said...

Fr. Erlenbush,

But, since prayer is a good work provided for by grace through which we may receive the grace of final perseverence, couldn't it be said that prayer is a way to "merit" it through Christ? Or is this an abuse of the term "merit" used technically and scholastically? Thank you in advance.

Loved the post. Thanks be to God for God.


Cordially,

Derek
http://lounginglayman.blogspot.com/

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Derek,
While prayer can indeed merit some things, final perseverance is not one of them.
Hence, we say that we "imprecate" this most necessary grace through prayer.
[it is not gained as a matter of justice (as in the case of merit), but as a matter of pure mercy]

Great question! +

Séamas Seosamh said...

Someone asked how does the Lord decide who to freely grant the grace of final perseverance.

I answer: If it were not for Mary all of Mankind would be damned for no one other than the Immaculate Glory of God, Herself, merits the Beatific Vision of God. Those who are close to Mother are in the proximity of the Son. His Justice is compels Him to caste judgements of hell, and His Mother's Mercy compels Him to caste judgements of salvation.

-James Joseph

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

James Joseph,
Even our Lady did not strictly "merit" salvation or final perseverance.
She too was redeemed by the blood of Christ - though this redemption was a preservation from sin rather than a healing of sin.

[so, your comment is actually not quite right ... it is not what the Church teaches ... Mary did not strictly merit the Beatific Vision ... in this (and every) respect she is more like us than she is like Christ Jesus her Son]

The only one who truly "merited" final perseverance is Christ Jesus our Savior.
Through Mary, this grace is then shared with all others who are being saved.

Carl said...

Fr. Erlenbush,

You wrote, "Regarding the grace of final perseverance ... we must hold that all are given sufficient grace to persevere, but that this grace is not necessarily always efficacious ... certainly, no one "goes to hell" because of not receiving enough grace; the only way someone gets there is through committing some mortal sin through their own fault."

Can God give us both efficacious and non-efficacious graces? When we sin, is it because, although God has given us grace, we have rejected God when we could have accepted Him? So was the choice entirely of our own will?

Thanks for your help.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Carl,
Your question gets into a point of theological debate.
I believe that some grace is only sufficient and not efficacious (this is the Thomist position), but not all would hold this.

In any case, it is certain that when we sin the choice to sin was entirely of our own free will.
Even if God could have given us more grace and so kept us from sin, he has at least given us sufficient grace to avoid sin (especially through prayer for more grace).
Thus, damnation is the result of mortal sin which comes from the free will of man and not from the predestination/reprobation of God.

Setting the theological question aside, we know that we always have enough grace to pray ... and if we pray for efficacious grace, we will receive it (if we persevere in prayer) ... prayer, in the end, is everything!

Séamas Seosamh said...

Thank you Fr. Erlenbush,

You are more well-trained and less stubborn than this donkey.

I was thinking of Her, "Yes!" to the Angel. Something I cannot seem to get out of my mind.

Lamentably or not so lamentably, I have a failing of not thinking like a philosopher despite reading Etienne Gilson. I could blame the tendency on GKC and Belloc, but I must admit I often have thought behind the words running through my head (perhaps mostly because they are fun to say as they roll of the tongue):

"Oramus te, Domine, per merita Sanctorum tuorum, quorum reliquiae hic sunt, et omnium Sanctorum: ut indulgere digneris omnia peccata mea."

~James Joseph.

yan said...

Fr.,

How do various promises of the grace of final perseverance to those that observe certain devotions [e.g. observing First Fridays, wearing the brown scapular, etc.] relate to the question of meriting the grace of final perseverance? Are these devotions strictly speaking a type of impetration, or what?

2-I don't understand the statement you quoted from St. Thomas:
'thus if anyone were to merit perseverance, God would not permit him to fall into sin. Hence perseverance does not come under merit.” (ST I-II, q.114, a.9, sed contra)'

Is he saying that since God would not fail to permit someone to fall into sin, that perseverance cannot be a result of merit, since otherwise freedom would be eliminated?


Regards
Yan

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