4th Sunday of Easter
My sheep hear my voice. And I know them: and they follow me. And I give them life everlasting: and they shall not perish for ever. And no man shall pluck them out of my hand.
John 10:27-28 is a classic text used by Evangelical Protestants to promote the “once saved, always saved” heretical doctrine of grace. Their argument runs like this: “If you are Jesus’ sheep, then you will hear his voice and be saved and never fall away. Therefore, if you hear his voice and believe, you are his sheep and will certainly be saved – once you are saved, you will always be saved. However, if you fall away after apparently believing for some time, it is clear that you never really were one of the sheep in the first place.”
But Jesus didn’t say that “my sheep will never fall away,” he only said no one shall pluck them out of my hand – and this makes all the difference!
Do any of the “sheep” fall away? The case of Judas Iscariot
On the one hand, it may seem that none of those who are among the sheep could possibly fall away. If indeed the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, they are given eternal life and shall not perish. The sheep are those who have been given to Jesus by his Father, and none shall pluck them out of my hand.
However, was not Judas numbered among the sheep of Christ? Certainly he was among those who had been given to the Lord by his Father: Those whom thou gavest me have I kept: and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition: that the scripture may be fulfilled (John 17:12). Judas is among those who have been given to the Son, and yet he is lost as the son of perdition.
Again, at the conclusion of the Bread of Life Discourse, our Lord said, Have not I chosen you twelve? And one of you is a devil. Though the twelve were chosen, not all were saved. Though all twelve were sheep, yet one was to be lost. Namely, Judas the Iscariot.
[We need not enter into the discussion of whether Judas is necessarily to be considered as among the damned. While it is the unanimous teaching of the Fathers and the clearest meaning of the text of Scripture that Judas is condemned to hell, all that need be shown for our purpose is that one who was chosen and given and therefore should clearly be numbered among the sheep who heard the voice of Christ is identified by our Lord in Sacred Scripture as lost and a devil.]
Jesus said no one shall pluck them out of my hand, he did not say “none shall be lost”
Following the commentary of the great Father Cornelius a Lapide, and resting especially on the moral theology of St. Alphonsus Liguori, we maintain that Jesus does indeed give [his sheep] life everlasting, insofar as the Lord does give those who believe in him all the graces that are necessary for eternal life. Not one of the sheep of Christ has not been given grace sufficient unto final perseverance and salvation, if only each will respond to God’s grace and hold fast till the end in that grace. In this sense then, they shall not perish for ever – that is, so long as the believer continues to respond to God’s grace, he will surely be saved and will not perish.
Yes, the Lord assures us that no man [that is, no one at all, neither any man nor any angel or devil] shall pluck them out of my hand. The thrust of the argument is this: The Holy Spirit living in us is stronger than the power of the prince of darkness living in the world. The grace of God is omnipotent, and all the power of hell cannot wrestle away the soul who trusts confidently in the Divine Mercy and invokes the grace of Christ in the moment of temptation. That one who cooperates with God’s grace will never be overcome by the assaults of the enemy nor by the allurement of the present age.
However, Jesus does not say that the sheep “will never fall away.” Indeed, while no one can possibly overcome God’s power and steal away a sheep of Christ, it is the sad reality that he who has received God’s grace can yet choose to wonder far from God and lose that grace. No one shall pluck them from out of my hand, but the sheep may choose to walk away and abandon the shepherd.
If we, having once received the grace of Christ in baptism, were to commit a mortal sin, we would not be “plucked from out of the Lord’s hand” but rather we would voluntarily abandon him. It is true that once I am saved, no one can take the grace of Christ (my salvation) away from me; but I may still give that salvation away in exchange for the passing pleasures of this life by committing a mortal sin.
Therefore, I must not believe that “once I am saved, I am always saved”, but rather I am mindful of St. Paul’s words: With fear and trembling work out your salvation (Philippians 2:12) and again, Wherefore he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). Rather than presuming that I am saved, I will instead trust in God’s mercy and pray for the grace to persevere. And I will resolve to pray in the moment of temptation, so as never to wander away from the hand of my divine Shepherd.
*Notes on these verses:
The words of Father Cornelius a Lapide: “I give unto them eternal life, that is, as far as I may. I make them the promise. I give them all necessary helps. I wish for their salvation. If then any of them perish it is not My fault but theirs, for they will not co-operate with My grace. For neither the devil nor any one else is able to pluck them out of My hand, if they resolve to abide in it, and will not be torn away. For My grace, if they cooperate with it, has power to keep them from being taken from Me. But if they leave Me of their own will, it is not a tearing away, but their own voluntary act. So S. Cyril, Leontius, Theophylact, and Maldonatus. Christ means to say that no power can take them away, but they have full liberty to go away from Christ.”