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Catholic Soteriology versus Semi-Calvinism
Does predestination imply that salvation is not available to all human persons?

The Offer of Salvation

The opportunity for salvation is offered to all persons; no one is excluded from the ability to obtain salvation by free will cooperating with grace unto eternal life.

Pope John Paul II: "The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation." (Redemptoris Missio, n. 10).

Salvation is universal in that it is offered to all human persons. But this offer is not merely theoretical. Salvation is concretely available to all persons. The grace of Christ in the Spirit enables each person to obtain eternal life by free cooperation with grace. For "Christ died for all men," not only for some (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).

{8:32} He who did not spare even his own Son, but handed him over for the sake of us all, how could he not also, with him, have given us all things?

Since God sent His Son to die "for the sake of us all," He must also have given us all things needed for salvation, including every necessary grace.

Therefore, it cannot be true (as the semi-Calvinists claim) that God chooses to give the type of grace needed for final perseverance unto eternal life only to some persons, by His own mysterious choice, apart from our free will. Those who believe this heresy have misunderstood the very nature of grace. For grace is defined in relation to free will. When grace is defined as if it were separate from free will, many false conclusions ensue. Although God is all-powerful, He is also humble and loving. His grace humbles itself before our free will. The love of God never omits anyone, even passively, from the possibility of salvation.


The claim of the semi-Calvinists is that some persons are passively omitted from predestination to Heaven, and that therefore they cannot possibly end up anywhere but Hell. They further claim that this passive omission from predestination to Heaven is not a choice by God to condemn the person to Hell.

To the contrary, if it were true that only those chosen for predestination are saved, God would certainly know that His omission of some from predestination to salvation implies their condemnation in Hell. It is absurd to claim that God is not choosing to send them to Hell, apart from any free will decision of their own. For although they would be condemned to Hell for their own sins, if it were true, as is claimed, that they could not possibly avoid the sin of final impenitence, they would not be guilty of that sin. Free will is a necessary condition for any sin to be an actual sin. Whoever acts without freedom, does not sin.

The claim of the semi-Calvinists, that God passively omits some persons from predestination to Heaven, implies that He predestines some persons to Hell. But this claim is contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: "God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end." (CCC, n. 1037).

Some persons do end up in Hell, but only by the exercise of their free will, such that they freely turn away from His grace, persisting in actual mortal sin unto the end. And this final impenitence is not the result of a decision by God to passively omit someone from predestination to Heaven, as if God had taken away the very ability of the free will to avoid the sin of refusing to repent.

It is a heresy against the justice of God to imply that some persons cannot possibly avoid the sin of final impenitence, and yet are condemned to eternal punishment for that sin. And this heretical claim is also contrary to the teaching of our Lord, who explained that those who are justly sent to Hell are being punished for their own free choices in life:

{25:41} Then he shall also say, to those who will be on his left: 'Depart from me, you accursed ones, into the eternal fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels.
{25:42} For I was hungry, and you did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and you did not give me to drink;
{25:43} I was a stranger and you did not take me in; naked, and you did not cover me; sick and in prison, and you did not visit me.'
{25:44} Then they will also answer him, saying: 'Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to you?'
{25:45} Then he shall respond to them by saying: 'Amen I say to you, whenever you did not do it to one of these least, neither did you do it to me.'
{25:46} And these shall go into eternal punishment, but the just shall go into eternal life."

They were able to choose to act with love of God and neighbor; therefore, their condemnation is just. Jesus taught that condemnation in Hell is a result of the life that you choose to live, not a result of some kind of mysterious inexplicable passive omission from predestination to Hell.

Grace and Salvation

"For God, unless men be themselves wanting to His grace, as he has begun the good work, so will he perfect it, working in them to will and to accomplish." (Council of Trent).

God begins the work of salvation by sending His Son to die for all men, by offering the grace of justification by Baptism of water, or of blood, or of desire, and by continuing to give us grace throughout our lives. The claim that some persons are passively omitted from salvation, such that the Sacrifice of Christ is not given to them to an extent necessary for final salvation, is contrary to the teaching of the Council of Trent. What God has begun, He will finish, except if free will -- acting in a manner that is truly free -- chooses to sin gravely and to refuse to repent despite having the graces needed for repentance.

The semi-Calvinists have misunderstood grace by not incorporating a free will that is truly free into the very concept of grace. And they have similarly misunderstood predestination by not incorporating a free will that is truly free into the very concept of predestination. And their position is contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: "To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of 'predestination', he includes in it each person's free response to his grace…." (CCC, n. 600).

The predestination of God seeks the salvation of all. But the predestination of God also humbly respects our free will. And so this predestination to salvation does not occur in such a way that free will has no choice or no ability to obtain salvation, but only in such a way that all future free will decisions are included in the knowledge of God, with the grace that makes the will free and the offer of every grace without exception needed to obtain eternal life. God also knows in advance which souls will be lost to Hell forever by their own free will decisions, despite all His graces. But this knowledge does not compel, and this free will decision not to repent from actual mortal sin (final impenitence) is made despite every grace needed to repent.

Does all this imply that God's grace is not all-powerful? No, it does not. For God is not raw unthinking power, but love and humility. God could compel us to be saved by grace, but he doe not do so, because He is humble and loving. God's all-powerful grace permits us to sin and permits us to be lost to Hell forever, because love never compels the will. Love without free choice is not love. True love is always truly free.

The semi-Calvinists imply that, in those predestined to Heaven, free will cannot refuse its consent to whatever is necessary to salvation. This claim is a heresy condemned by the Council of Trent (On Justification, Canon IV).

Habitual Grace and Actual Grace

Another mistake that semi-Calvinists make is in treating the grace of final perseverance as if it were neither habitual grace, nor actual grace. Final perseverance is the grace to remain in a state of habitual grace (the state of sanctifying grace given at Baptism). But is the grace of final perseverance itself habitual grace or actual grace?

Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Sanctifying grace is the gratuitous gift of his life that God makes to us; it is infused by the Holy Spirit into the soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it." (CCC, n. 2023)

Sanctifying grace is a fruit of the tree of the Cross, and it is offered to all human persons. No one is excluded from this offer. Habitual grace (or sanctifying grace) is the grace to be good. This grace makes us like Christ, like God who alone is Good.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: "God also acts through many actual graces, to be distinguished from habitual grace which is permanent in us." (CCC, n. 2024)

Actual grace is the grace to do good. Actual grace frees the will to be truly free, and actual grace cooperates with free will in particular good acts.

The gift of final perseverance is not habitual grace. For habitual grace is given at Baptism. If final perseverance were the same as, or a quality of, habitual grace, then all baptized persons would persevere in grace unto eternal salvation. Such is not the case; some persons are condemned to Hell (Mt 25:46). If the gift of final perseverance were given at Baptism, then the Church would not counsel the baptized faithful to pray for this gift, as She in fact does (CCC, n. 2849, 2854, 2863).

Therefore, the gift of final perseverance is not habitual grace, but actual grace. The choices needed to remain in a state of grace, or to return to that state after mortal sin, are acts of the free will made in cooperation with actual grace.

Prevenient Grace and Subsequent Grace

There are two types of actual grace: prevenient grave and subsequent grace. Prevenient grace is also called operating grace, since in this grace God operates alone, without our cooperation. Subsequent grace is also called cooperating grace, since in this grace God cooperates with our free will.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Every time we begin to pray to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace." (CCC, n. 2670).

My explanation of prevenient grace is as follows: "Operating grace is distinguished from cooperating grace. Operating grace occurs when God acts on the soul without any cooperation by our free will. This type of grace is also called prevenient (from the Latin: 'to go before') because it occurs prior to even the possibility of an act of cooperation by our free will. Whenever we knowingly choose a holy act, an act of cooperation with grace (such as prayer or a kind deed), our act is preceded by the grace of God, acting without any possible cooperation on our part. God first touches our soul with grace, enabling us subsequently to cooperate with grace, if we freely choose to do so. This 'first grace' of God is before every holy act of every human person, including the Virgin Mary, and the human nature of Christ." (Conte, Catechism of Catholic Ethics, n. 508).

Subsequent grace cooperates with our free will. The free will can also refuse to cooperate with subsequent grace. But the free will cannot refuse prevenient grace. For this type of grace is given prior to any act of the free will; it is the type of grace that frees our will, allowing us to choose, subsequently, whether to do good or to do evil, whether to cooperate with subsequent actual graces or not.

Is the grace of final perseverance prevenient or subsequent?

The grace of final perseverance cannot be prevenient. The role of prevenient grace is to make the will truly free, so as to enable subsequent good acts, acts such as refraining from mortal sin, repenting from sin, and exercising all of the virtues, including love, faith, and hope. Since these subsequent acts are those that allow the soul to persevere in a state of grace (by avoiding mortal sin), or to return to that state (by repentance), these subsequent good acts are a cooperation with the grace of final perseverance.

For final perseverance is not the freedom of the will to choose good or evil, which is enabled by prevenient grace, but rather the actual choice of good over evil, to such an extent that eternal salvation is attained. Therefore, grace of final perseverance is subsequent grace, that is to say, it is the type of actual grace that cooperates with free will.

But all subsequent actual graces are subject to the free will. Therefore, the grace of final perseverance is subject to the free will, and anyone who is willing can be saved unto eternal life. For God gives prevenient grace to all human persons, so that they can freely cooperate with His subsequent graces. And if they so choose, they are each and all able to cooperate with the graces of final perseverance. The sole difference between those who end in Hell and those who end in Heaven is the choice of the free will, a choice made truly free by the prevenient grace of God, a choice exercised in cooperation with the grace of God.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator
15 January 2011

For more on the topic of Catholic soteriology, see chapter 30, 'Grace and Salvation,' in my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics

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