Will Those Who are Saved Be Few?

From Augustine's Commentary on Psalm 47 (48)

"We have received your mercy, God, in the midst of your people." [Augustine's text is "in medio populi tui", though The Hebrew, Greek, and Vulgate read "in your temple"  rather than "people".] Who have received, and where have they received? Is it not the people itself that has received mercy? If your people has received mercy, how have we received mercy, and in the midst of your people, as though distinct persons: those who have received, and those in whose midst they have received? … All who bear God's sacraments are counted as God's people, but not all reach his mercy. All who receive the sacrament of Christ's baptism are called Christians, but not all live worthily of that sacrament. For there are some of whom the Apostle says: they have the appearance of piety, but deny its power.

He lives worthily of God's mercy, who hears and holds and does what the Apostle says: "we warn and entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain" (2 Cor 6:1). Therefore he who has not received the grace of God in vain, has received both the sacrament and the mercy of God.

"We have received your mercy, God, in the midst of your people." In the midst of your people who do not receive mercy we have received your mercy. "He came into his own, and his own did not receive him. But as many as received him, he gave power to become children of God."

At this point a question will occur to anyone thinking about the matter: That people who in the midst of God's people have received God's mercy, how great a number will it be? How few they are! Scarcely anyone such is found; can it be that God will be displeased with all the rest, and destroy so great a multitude? They tell this to themselves, promising themselves what they have not heard God promise. And indeed if we should live wickedly, if we immerse ourselves in enjoying the delights of this world, if we are slaves to our lusts, will God destroy us? For how many are there who keep God's commandments? We hardly find one or two, at any rate very few; will God save those alone, and damn the rest? "By no means!" they say. "When he comes and sees such a great multitude at his left hand, he will have mercy, and will grant indulgence."

Evidently the serpent also promised this to the first man; for God had threatened death, if he tasted of the fruit, whereas the serpent said: by no means, you will not die the death. They believed the serpent, they found God's threat to be true, the devil's promise to be false. So also now, brethren, put the Church before your eyes. See how it is an image and likeness of Paradise: the serpent does not cease to suggest what he then suggested. But the experience of the first man's fall should avail to warn us not to imitate his sin. He fell so that we might rise. Let us answer such suggestions the way Job did. For the devil tempted him through a woman, as through Eve, and, overcome in paradise, he overcame in the dung. Therefore let us not listen to such words, nor let us think that those [who keep God's commandments] are few; they are many, but they are hidden among an even greater number. For we cannot deny that the wicked are many, and so many that the good are not apparent among them, as a seed is not apparent on the threshing floor. For whoever sees the threshing floor can think that the chaff is alone. Send an inexperienced man, and he will foolishly think that oxen are sent and man sweat there in the heat in order to crush the chaff; but there is in fact a mass to be purged by exposure to the wind. Then an abundance of grain appears, which was hidden in the abundance of chaff. And now you want to find those who are good? Be such, and you will find them. Therefore against that despair see what follows in the psalm. For when the psalmist had said: "we have received your mercy, God, in the midst of your people," he indicated that that people, in the midst of which some receive God's mercy, was not receiving God's mercy; and lest men should get the idea that they are so few as to be almost none, how he has consoled them with the following words? "As is your name, God, so is your praise unto the ends of the earth." (St. Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 47 (48))


The argument "How many are there who keep God's commandments? We hardly find one or two, at any rate very few; will God save those alone, and damn the rest? By no means! When he comes at sees such a great multitude at his left hand, he will have mercy, and will grant indulgence." is not altogether implausible in view of the fact that eternal punishments are threatened in order to restrain persons from doing evil and thus lead them to God. If the obligation of the commandments, the breaking of which is punished by hell, were to have as a consequence that more people were ultimately separated from God than would have been in the absence of those commandments and threats, then the commandments and the threat of hell would seem to be counterproductive, something for which God would not have a motivation.

Augustine does not directly address the plausibility of this argument. One, could, however, answer it in several ways: (1) in fact many persons are restrained from evil and begin the path to good by reason of the fear of hell; Augustine's answer goes somewhat in this direction, inasmuch as he says that there are many persons will be saved, they are just many less than those who will be damned; (2) the obligation of the commandments and threat of hell does not imply that anyone will go to hell (be separated from God) who would not have in the absence of the commandments, but only makes explicit the separation from God that is already attendant upon a will that bears nothing but hatred for God and goodness; this view seem to be suggested by Pope Benedict's portrayal of hell in Spe Salvi: "There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves…. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell." In this description of hell, it seems no one would ultimately go to hell for failing to meet a high standard of love, but for utter depravity, a possibility of separation from the ultimate good, God, that would have equally existed had the commandments and threat of hell not been explicated.

8 thoughts on “Will Those Who are Saved Be Few?”

  1. Joseph, I suffer from extreme despair on the whole "fewness" issue. I try to follow the commandments, receive the sacraments, and practice charity, but I don't want to give up everything I own, I don't want to give up the chance to marry (btw, you have someone commenting in another post that sex for any other reason than procreation is bad), I don't want to go live in the desert.

    I want to have my wife converted and back to me, if God wills it, (she left me because I got "too religious"), and I want to just live a good life and learn to love and trust God.

    But I really do not think I trust Him. And I cannot work up a desire to hate everything in the world, which the saints seem to indicate is the path to holiness. Even St. Therese prayed "Turn all of the consolations of the world into bitterness for me, all the friendships of the world to bitterness for me". I cannot pray a prayer, do not want to pray such a thing, nor even want to want to! If I were married, how could I hate every worldly consolation (especially since I thought all good things come from God and can be used for good)?

    When looking at the lives of the saints, I fear that unless I do something extreme, I will go to hell. And when one reads the saints opinions on the saved and the lost, I wonder why I should even bother to pray for my deceased loved ones. (there's a sermon by St. Leonard of Port Maurice that mentioned 5 out of 33,000 being saved.)

    And if I were married, I am so afraid that God and tradition hate sex so much that I would have no chance of being holy unless my wife and I almost never came together, or at least didn't desire it. I know that is not what the church teaches, but I am just so afraid that holiness and salvation is only for the celibate, the voluntarily poor, and the professed religious.

    1. First, a general remark: I have the impression that, as you indeed affirmed in a previous comment, you suffer from scrupulosity. In such a case it is important to find a trustworthy spiritual person (that could be a priest, but wouldn't necessarily have to — though it might be easy to be completely open when you also make a sacramental confession to that person) with whom you can talk personally and who can advise you.

      Then to some particular points you raise: canonized saints are canonized for exemplar, heroic holiness. Being a saint does not necessarily mean being holy in this manner. I cite from Pope Benedict XVI's general audience his series of catacheses on the saints (April 13, 2011):

      "How can we take the path to holiness, in order to respond to this call? Can I do this on my own initiative? The answer is clear. A holy life is not primarily the result of our efforts, of our actions, because it is God, the three times Holy (cf. Is 6:3) who sanctifies us, it is the Holy Spirit’s action that enlivens us from within, it is the very life of the Risen Christ that is communicated to us and that transforms us.

      What is the essential? The essential means never leaving a Sunday without an encounter with the Risen Christ in the Eucharist; this is not an additional burden but is light for the whole week. It means never beginning and never ending a day without at least a brief contact with God. And, on the path of our life it means following the “signposts” that God has communicated to us in the Ten Commandments, interpreted with Christ, which are merely the explanation of what love is in specific situations. It seems to me that this is the true simplicity and greatness of a life of holiness: the encounter with the Risen One on Sunday; contact with God at the beginning and at the end of the day; following, in decisions, the “signposts” that God has communicated to us, which are but forms of charity.

      Actually I must say that also for my personal faith many saints, not all, are true stars in the firmament of history. And I would like to add that for me not only a few great saints whom I love and whom I know well are “signposts”, but precisely also the simple saints, that is, the good people I see in my life who will never be canonized. They are ordinary people, so to speak, without visible heroism but in their everyday goodness I see the truth of faith….

      In the Communion of Saints, canonized and not canonized, which the Church lives thanks to Christ in all her members, we enjoy their presence and their company and cultivate the firm hope that we shall be able to imitate their journey and share one day in the same blessed life, eternal life."

      On the matter of how many are saved or lost: The saints who emphasize how few persons are saved would likely say that their fewness is all the more reason to pray for one's loved ones as well as for one self — the difficulty and rarity shows all the more the need to rely on God's grace rather than imagining that it is a matter of exerting one's effort. I can appreciate this point of view; nonetheless, it seems to me that such concrete claims about the number saved and lost are not really justified on the basis of the Scriptures.

      1. Thanks a lot. I have a good spiritual director, and I think I am also burning myself out and just letting Jesus take care of it, which may be a blessing.

        As far as your last paragraph – I understand that. And I certainly pray more for loved ones and others than ever before. But at the same time, facing numbers like 5 out of 33,000 sure makes me feel like unless I join a monastery or get martyred trying to convert savages, I'm a goner.

        There seems to be no room for the view that patiently living a life of virtue in the world and doing one's best to trust God, avoiding mortal sin, etc. can get one saved. If it were really so few, those of us who are not religious or do not feel called to that life may as well give up now.

  2. Mercury
    The idea that sex is only moral for procreation began in the Stoics and came into the saints via Jerome who called Seneca "our Seneca"… and that idea now….is rejected by the Church who permits the elderly and the infertile to have sex and permits the use of the infertile periods to everyone else given serious reasons.
    Your subconscious or pre conscious is preferring the saints to the developed Church.
    That tendency to prefer the old saints to the developed Church may be what hurt your marriage but essentially your wife had no business leaving you since the vow says the opposite if what she chose. She destroyed the marriage. Your tendency helped her sin. The old saints believed in killing heretics (Aquinas…Exsurge Domine,1520)…. do you follow them in that belief? Christ twice praised the actions of Samaritans…not their heretical beliefs…but their actions. Yet saints and Popes went off track in stressing beliefs not acts of heretics. Stick with the Church of your time as best you can in conscience….prefer it to bizarre positions of the past from sints.

    1. bill, thanks, but you misread me. I do NOT prefer the words of the older saints to the developed Church, and I am very well aware of the beauty and lack of anxiety that the Church teaches on the issue or marital sex. I struggle to understand, however, how the Saints were SO negative for SO long, and wonder if married people really did live like that for 1800 years.

      When I read the strict positions of St. Alphonsus or St. Thomas compared to say, Fr. John Hardon or Popes Pius XII and John Paul II, I get confused. Even St. Francis de Sales said something like "admire the elephant because he only does it once in a blue moon".

      When my wife left me, I was right on board with where the Church IS on this. It was only later that I started reading older positions and started to fret over it all, wondering how can one possibly have a normal and loving sex life yet still be holy?

      The point where the marriage finally foundered was artificial birth control. She was even convinced of the Church's position in principle (and saw how her native Germany is being literally destroyed in a way that not even WW2 could do), but when push came to shove, I was ready to accept it and she wasn't. I never tried to force her, never mocked her views, just prayed for her and our marriage, and did my best to explain where I was coming from.

      She said we were too different, and that the issue was that I was letting something outside of myself determine my actions. Okay, guilty. She wouldn't even tell me I was wrong, but that what I believed was right for me, but not right for her, a position that drives me crazy.

      Anyway, pray for her, please.

      1. I'll pray for her but also that she returns to her vow. In turning from you, she turned from God…if she really turns back to God, she will turn back to you. Most divorces in the US come from the female. A wonderful childhood friend of ours lost his wife to this phenomenon. Often the phrase they utter in case after case is "I'm not happy". But it's uttered in too many cases to be a real reason.
        The NT (I Tim.2:14) says: " but the man was not deceived but the woman was".
        Pius XI insisted in Casti C. sect.74 that wives obey their husbands and he had 6 NT passages to back him up. Look in the catechism and in Vatican II….the concept is totally absent. This is the gestalt in which you live and it is not concerned with your headship. You can show her your spiritual headship in letters.

      2. Mercury,

        I have just read your post today. And to your answer, the Vatican has a new position about marriage which it considers as a vocation in itself.

        Most Saints in Vatican I were chosen from the religious life and therefore had to remain chaste. This is the reason why their vision on marriage and conjugal love was so strict.

        But in truth, J'esus had the highest esteem for marriage and gave the highest ideal to it.
        Beside Sex is sacred and holy because of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. If you put G-d at the center of your marriage, then G-d will bless you and your spouse and all your children abundantly.

        Actually, in ancient Hebrew, which was the Language of the Old Testament, the word man and woman is written ???(for the man) ??? (ishah for the woman). ??? If you remove the central letter which is Yod from the term; and if you remove the he of ??? which is the last letter (Remember that Hebrew is read from right to left), then the remaining letters esh ?? which means fire. But if you leave the yod and the he of both the man and the woman in marriage then you will have a successful marriage. Why? The reason is the Yod and the He are the smaller name for the Tetragrammatron which is the Holy Name of G-d. So remove G-d from your marriage, and your marriage will fail. Place Him first and you will live in holiness according to His will.

  3. The Hebrew letters were not accepted by this html editor. So they showed up in question marks instead… What I could advise for your current situation is daily prayer for a reconciliation, and try seducing your wife as you did before your marriage took place. I will pray for you and your wife.

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