Sin of Presumption
by John Pacheco
Martin Luther once said of justification: “The article of justification is the matter and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article, the world is utter death and darkness.”(1) Besides being one of the two central pillars of the Reformation (sola scriptura – ‘scripture alone’ being the other), the doctrine on justification is the singular defining issue which separates Protestants from Catholics. In recent times, many Protestant Churches have somewhat evolved out of this doctrine to accept a very Catholic position to the question of justification; namely, the necessity of both faith and works for salvation. However, there remains in Protestantism a strong current of thought which still holds to the idea of ‘justification by faith alone’. Evangelical Fundamentalism proposes that once a person is ‘born again’, the believer is assured of salvation, and there is nothing which can alter that guarantee. It is further contended by the Fundamentalists that this view on justification is the only biblical position. On the other hand, the Romans Catholic Church also claims to have the biblical truth regarding justification, and its position stands in stark contrast to those of the Reformed Tradition. It seems appropriate in light of these contending claims, therefore, to examine Holy Scripture to see which position is the truly biblical position on justification. Before endeavouring to do so, it would be profitable first to contrast the two positions more thoroughly in order to draw out differences between the two sides.
The Catholic Position
The Catholic views man’s righteousness as inherent to him and intrinsic to his being, flowing from man’s initial state of righteousness before God. Nevertheless, since justification has always been by God’s grace alone, man could never claim this initial state of justification as a right, independent of God. After Adam and Eve’s ‘fall from grace’, Adam and his posterity forfeited his inheritance. This initial righteousness is regained in the Redeemer and Justifier, Jesus Christ whose sanctifying grace works within Catholics who are disposed to the divine will to fulfill the divine law of love. The Catholic view on justification is that a person’s salvation is based on a gift, but not an unconditional one. Salvation must be considered, at least partly, a reward for obeying the Christian law of love (Cf. Matthew 5:46). It is still nonetheless a free gift in the sense that there is nothing one can do to merit the gift, but it is not free in the sense that one can abuse the gift through unrepentant sin and still expect to remain justified – that would be, for Catholics, grossly presumptuous of Our Lord’s mercy.
When a Catholic falls into serious sin, he cuts his relationship off with God, thereby forfeiting his heavenly inheritance. In order to restore this relationship with God and be allowed back into God’s kingdom when he dies, he must repent of his sin in the manner in which Our Lord commanded. His salvation, therefore, will depend on his response to God’s call to repent, and consequently, salvation is assured only to those who persevere in maintaining their relationship with God. In order to maintain this personal relationship with God, the person must abide by God’s commandments; that is, first and foremost, avoiding all sin, but particularly serious sin and secondly, performing good works as evidence of the fruit of faith which Our Lord demands.
Although faith and works are necessary for salvation, the teaching of the Catholic Church has always been consistent on the point of the place of God’s grace in salvation. In response to the Reformation, the Church confirmed that “we are said to receive justification as a free gift because nothing that precedes justification, neither faith nor works, would merit the grace of justification…” [Council of Trent, Session 6, “Decree on Justification”, Chapter 8]. The new Catechism confirms this teaching: “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, pt. 2010] From this framework, then, Catholics will indeed gladly assert that salvation is ‘by faith’ if it is understood as a ‘living’ faith. The Catholic position does not hold that one can enter heaven without faith. The question is how we are to live that faith, and how much we allow God’s grace to work through us. On this point, both Protestants and Catholics agree. The disagreement involves the manner in which that grace allows God to save humanity. Catholicism will indeed assert that salvation is ‘by faith’, but not as Protestants define the word ‘faith’. For Catholics, faith is not simply a confessional and fiduciary faith, which trusts in Christ’s promise of salvation for those who believe in Him, nor is it ‘accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Saviour.’ Catholicism understands ‘faith’ to mean both a fiduciary and ‘working’ faith. A working faith necessarily includes the need to persevere in doing God’s will in order to be truly admitted into God’s heavenly family. God’s will is simply to love Him, and love our neighbours. We do so by obeying His commandments, and should we disobey and fall into sin, we must repent of those sins. True repentance, however, requires more than just a confessional belief in Christ, which is likely already present. Indeed, true penance requires works and sacrifices in order to show that faith is truly a genuine and real faith. Our Lord seeks not only a confessional faith, but also the fruits of a living and working faith. It is the Catholic position, therefore, that one is saved by: first and foremost by God’s grace alone and secondly by a fiduciary belief in Christ, including repentance of sin, perseverance in faith, and works of faith.
The Protestant Position:
For Protestants, man’s righteousness is imputed to him by Christ’s righteousness. It is meant as a legal declaration made by God based on the merits of Christ for the believers’ justification. “The conflict over justification by faith alone boils down to this: Is the grounds of our justification the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, or the righteousness of Christ working within us? For the Reformers, the doctrine of justification by faith alone meant justification by Christ and his righteousness alone. Sola fide declares that the ground of our justification is solely the righteousness of Christ. It is a righteousness that is extra nos. It is apart from or outside of us, not a part of us, before faith.” (2)
The enormous wealth of scriptural evidence demanding the Christian perform works in order to obtain salvation, however, poses a difficult problem for the Protestant apologist. What is, then, the role of works in Protestantism? This question has divided the evangelicals into two camps. (3) One side says that faith should immediately produce works of obedience, but does not always do so and are not required for salvation. The other side, they claim, are teaching a form of Catholicism by which works are added to faith as a necessary condition for justification. “It is an extremely serious matter when the biblical distinction between faith and repentance is collapsed and when repentance is thus made a condition for eternal life. For under this perception of things the New Testament doctrine of faith is radically rewritten and held hostage to the demand for repentance… though genuine repentance may precede salvation…it need not do so. And because it is not essential to the saving transaction as such, it is in no sense a condition for that transaction. But the fact still remains that God demands repentance from all and He conditions their fellowship with Him [not their salvation] on that.” (4)
The other side accuses the former of departing from biblical and Reformation principles. They maintain that works of obedience are necessary for a true faith, but do not regard works as contributing anything to the grounds of justification. They argue that justification is indeed ‘by faith alone’ although not by a faith that is alone, citing John Calvin, “it is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in the sun it is not alone, because it is conjoined with light.” (5) “Calvin treats repentance in a manner similar to works. Works are not the ground of our justification or our salvation, but there will be no salvation without them. As one cannot have true faith without yielding works, so one cannot have true faith without simultaneously having repentance. In that sense repentance is necessary for salvation. If there is no repentance, there is not only no fellowship with God but also no salvation, precisely because the lack of repentance proves that there is no genuine faith…Saving faith involves embracing Christ as both Saviour and Lord and that true faith inevitably, necessarily, and immediately begins to display the fruit of obedience. That is, the process of sanctification by which we are conformed to the image of Chris begins certainly and immediately upon our justification. [However], this process of sanctification is neither perfect in this life nor is it any way the grounds of our justification.” (6)
The Father of the Reformation: A Brief Look
Generally, Fundamentalists understand ‘faith’ only in the fiduciary sense. A person’s salvation is assured at a moment in time once he ‘accepts Jesus Christ as His personal Lord and Saviour’. No matter what the person does or professes after this initial profession of faith – nothing affects his salvation. Luther recounts his difficulty with the Catholic Church’s doctrine of justification by faith and works, which led inevitably to the acceptance of his view of justification by faith alone.
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith’ [Romans 1:17]. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven…” (7)
If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face.” (8)
Luther further set forth his views in his piece entitled On the Freedom of the Christian Man:
“The soul which with a firm faith cleaves to the promises of God is united with them, absorbed by them, penetrated, saturated, inebriated by their power. If the touch of Christ was healing, how much more does that most tender touch in the spirit, that absorption in the Word convey to the soul all the qualities of the Word so that it becomes trustworthy, peaceable, free, full of every good, a true child of God. From this we see very easily why faith can do so much and no good work is like unto it, for no good work comes from God’s Word like faith. No good work can be within the soul, but the Word and faith reign there. What the Word is that the soul is, as iron becomes fire-red through union with the flame. Plainly then faith is enough for the Christian man. He has no need for works to be made just. Then he is free from the law.
But he is not therefore to be lazy or loose. Good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works…Understand that we do not reject good works, but praise them highly…When God in his sheer mercy and without any merit of mine has given me such unspeakable riches, shall I not then freely, joyously, wholeheartedly, unprompted do everything that I know will please him? I will give myself as a sort of Christ to my neighbour as Christ gave himself for me.”
It was clear that Luther read the New Testament in light of his interpretation of St. Paul’s writing, particularly the Book of Romans. Given the wealth of scriptural support refuting sola fide, including St. Paul’s epistles, it may be perhaps more accurate to say that Luther understood his interpretation of justification not in light but despite the other New Testament books. Indeed, Luther was not oblivious to the fact that the book of James contradicted his interpretation of St. Paul, when in the preface to his New Testament in 1522, he called the epistle of St. James an ‘epistle of straw.’ (9) He could not reconcile St. James with his interpretation of St. Paul, and admitted that “faith is a living, restless thing. It cannot be operative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith.” (10) If works are not present and something is ‘amiss with faith’, then does that affect one’s salvation? Luther was not prepared to allow the weight of the other scriptures to influence him in rejecting his new revelation. He insisted on forcing his interpretation of some of St. Paul’s writings on to other Pauline passages which contradicted his view.
In order to reconcile the self-admitted contradiction in his beliefs, Luther proceeded to invent a hierarchy of values in the New Testament by ranking the books of the bible. Naturally, the ranking structure would be based on how those books adapted to his view on justification. It is a great irony that the man most responsible for elevating sacred scripture above the authority of the Church should also treat the inspired Word of God with such a cavalier attitude. It was no great surprise, therefore, that Luther ranked Hebrews (Cf. Hebrews 10:26), James (Cf. James 2:17), Jude (Cf. Jude 1:21-23), and Revelation (Cf. Revelation 21:27) in subordinate places to the Pauline Epistles, the Gospel of John, and First Peter. Since Luther believed in salvation by faith alone, he incorporated this belief by adding the word ‘alone’ to ‘justification by faith’ in his German translation. When confronted with taking this liberty with Sacred Writ, Luther explained that “he was not translating words but ideas, and that the extra word was necessary in German in order to bring out the force of the original.” (11) The question to ask is: whose ideas is Luther translating – his own or God’s? Does not God say something about adding to Scripture (Cf. Revelation 22:18)?
Author James G. McCarthy, true to the Fundamentalist position on repentance, says this: “God does not require sinners to reform their lives before He will justify them. Instead, God calls sinners to repentance (Cf. Acts 17:30). Repentance is a response to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit (Cf. John 16:7-11). It is a change of heart and mind affecting an individual’s view of both God and himself (Cf. Acts 26:20, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). The person stops making excuses for his evil conduct. He takes sides against himself and acknowledges his guilt before God. He tells God that he is sorry for his rebellion and that he is willing to submit to the Lord’s rightful authority over his life…The Bible never tells sinners that they must reform their lives before God will justify them” (12)
According to this view, therefore, repentance is not required before justification, but rather shows itself as ‘a positive response to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit’. In effect, then, McCarthy is separating salvation from morality because, strictly speaking, one does not have to be moral to gain salvation. True, to be moral may be good and natural, proceeding from one’s faith, but it is not necessary to be admitted into heaven. Naturally, the flip side of this coin shows that once one has been ‘saved’, it is therefore unnecessary to repent since the profession of faith is justification. After all, once one’s salvation is eternally secure, one is not required to repent afterwards. Hence, in order to uphold the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, the author must reject repentance as necessary for salvation since to bind the Protestant to repentance necessarily admits to the requirement of works, which are the ‘fruits’ of repentance. To defend his view, the author appeals to scripture to support his view, but it will be interesting to note whether the author’s use of scripture stands any sort of scrutiny.
Speaking to the Council of the Areopagus, St. Paul teaches that “since we are the children of God, we have no excuse for thinking that the deity looks anything in gold, silver, or stone that has been carved and designed by man. God overlooked that sort of thing when men were ignorant, but now he is telling everyone everywhere that they must repent, because he has fixed a day when the whole world will be judged…” (Acts 17:29-31).(J) The noticeable point in this teaching is that everyone must repent, especially non-believers (Cf. Acts 17:32). If repentance was not necessary for salvation, then why does the inspired Word of God clearly say that it is required? Is it required for something other than salvation? When does God require us to do something when it does not involve our salvation?
Speaking to King Agrippa, the Apostle recalls his preaching ministry: “I started preaching first to the people of Damascus, then to those of Jerusalem and all the countryside of Judea, and also to the pagans, urging them to repent and to turn to God.” (Acts 26:20)J If repentance was not necessary, then why does St. Paul urge people to ‘repent and turn to God’. Again, St. Paul does not teach ‘to turn to God’ only, but rather to first repent of sin. Furthermore, St. Paul says that he was instructing pagans, and therefore his exhortation to repentance could not be a response to the ‘conv acting work of the Holy Spirit’, as Mr. McCarthy proposes, since pagans do not have the aid of the Holy Spirit.
For Protestantism, justification is imputed at a point in time when the person makes his first profession of faith. The logical consequences of this belief are revealing. The predominant Fundamentalist position today12 holds that one does not have to be repentant to be justified before God. A sinner simply ‘accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Saviour’ and is saved – repentance is not necessary for forgiveness. Once the sinner has made his profession, his salvation is guaranteed, and nothing can touch it. As already discussed above, the Protestant cannot admit to the necessity of repentance since this logically admits of the necessity of works, which contradicts sola fide. It is generally conceded that repentance includes, besides true sorrow for sin, a conviction to turn away from sin and lead a better life. This is made clear in the preaching of John the Baptist and confirmed by Jesus many times over. Speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, John says, “Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves ‘We have Abraham for our father…’” (Matthew 3:8-9) [Cf. Luke 3:7-9]. Continuing he says, “…Any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire.” (Matthew 3:10-11). (J) The evangelist is clearly communicating that true repentance yields fruits (i.e. works), and a confessional faith only (i.e. ‘having Abraham as our father’) without works is not only insufficient for salvation, but is actually presumptuous and borders on arrogance.
Addressing the crowd after Pentecost, St. Peter speech moved his listeners so much so that “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the apostles, ‘What must we do, brothers?’ ‘You must repent,’ Peter answered, ‘and every one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-39).J What then are we to say of this passage? Does not St. Peter spell it out clearly? Repentance, forgiveness, sanctification by the Holy Spirit through baptism, and justification – in that order. The passage really needs no further elucidation since it shows conclusively the necessity for repentance. Peter’s other exhortations further testify to the importance of repentance: “Repent, therefore, and be converted that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19). (N) Here, the Prince of the Apostles teaches that repentance prepares the way for sins to be ‘wiped away’. Even Protestants accept that if sins are not forgiven, then one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. However, it is the next logical and inescapable consequence of this biblical truth which Protestants, and Fundamentalists in particular, find difficult to accept, which is the requirement of repentance for salvation.
The New Testament does, in fact, suggest that repentance is the initial step towards salvation. The same repentance which has been granted to us by Jesus (Cf. Acts 5:31) is the same repentance that leads to heaven. The Blessed Peter recalled: “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had upon us at the beginning, and I remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said, ‘John baptized with water but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift He gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?” When they heard this, they stopped objecting and glorified God saying, ‘God has then granted them life-giving repentance to the Gentiles too’” (Acts 11:16-18).(N) If repentance were not important to salvation, then why is it described here as ‘life-giving’? It is God which grants us the grace of repentance which leads to salvation. Repentance, therefore, is a prerequisite, a necessity to enter the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, if it is indeed the truth that sets us free, it is certainly the knowledge of that truth that leads us to salvation(Cf. John 8:32), and since repentance leads to truth, it follows that repentance also leads to salvation. (Cf. 2 Timothy 2:25).
Throughout Holy Writ, it is conclusive that God’s word does not grant salvation unconditionally to ‘believers’. Again and again, the bible conditions salvation on a confessional faith, perseverance, works and especially repentance (Cf. Luke 17:3-4). Consider, for instance, Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep: “What man among you with a hundred sheep, losing one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the missing one till he found it? And when he found it, would he not joyfully take it on his shoulders and then, he would say, ‘I have found my sheep that was lost.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous men who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:4-7).J The righteous person is, by definition, ‘walking with the Lord’; that is, his relationship with God is ‘righteous’ because no serious sin separates him from God. Thus, there is no need to repent of sin which is not present. It is suggestive, however, that Our Lord links repentance with ‘joy in heaven’. There is ‘joy in heaven’ because this person , after having repented, is now one of the ‘found sheep’, one of the righteous. He is no longer ‘lost’, but now belongs to the fold of the elect. If the Fundamentalist position is the correct one, then why does Jesus not say, ‘there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who accepts me as his personal Lord and Saviour?’ Or rather, would Our Lord say that there would be much joy in heaven if the sinner did not repent and remained lost? Clearly not. Indeed, God’s forgiveness is a completely unmerited gift, but it should not be understood to mean that Jesus grants His forgiveness unconditionally. On the contrary, Scripture makes repentance a condition for forgiveness of sins while the lack of it points to damnation (Cf. 2 Peter 3:9).
“It was about this time that some people arrived and told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with that of their sacrifices. At this He said to them, ‘Do you suppose these Galileans who suffered like that were greater sinners than any other Galileans? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will perish as they did. Or those eighteen on whom the tower at Siloam fell and killed them? Do you suppose that they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did’” (Luke 13:1-5).J The universal call to repentance is made evident in this passage. Jesus cautions his listeners against the sin of presumption – the sin of presuming to be justified without repentance. Now the Fundamentalist, in order to escape the convicting message of Jesus’ warning, will force a physical interpretation on this passage. He will say that Jesus was speaking of physical death and not spiritual death, thereby breaking the link between repentance and spiritual death. Jesus was therefore warning that the lack of repentance would lead to physical death. There are, however, a number of problems with this interpretation. Firstly, when one ‘perishes’, it is undeniable that one thing does happen, and another thing can happen – someone physically dies and someone can spiritually die. The question is, then, is Our Lord’s intention both physical and spiritual or just physical? Well, the most apparent argument for the Catholic position is simply that repentance is a spiritual question, not a physical one. Secondly, elsewhere in the bible ‘perishing’ can be understood in the spiritual sense (Cf. Psalm 1:6, 2 Peter 3:9). Finally, the most convincing argument for the spiritual interpretation is clearly and unmistakably evident from the context of the passage itself. For instance, Jesus’ listeners would not ‘perish as the Galileans did’. They would not all die at the hands of Pilate as a sacrifice. Hence, ‘perishing’ is properly understood to apply to the spiritual realm, and the call to repentance in therefore inescapable for salvation.
The Gospel message constantly reinforces the call to penance (Cf. Acts 17:30, 20:21; 2 Corinthians 7:9). It was, after all, the message that John the Baptist preached (Cf. Luke 3:3), and it is the message that Christ’s disciples preached (Cf. Mark 6:12). Indeed, Christ’s reproach to unrepentant towns foreshadowed the terrifying judgement that awaited them because of their lack of repentance (Cf. Luke 10:13-16). At the beginning of His Galilean ministry, Jesus went proclaiming the gospel: “This is the time of fulfilment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)(N) Jesus did not say believe only. He commanded people to repent first. And what does repentance mean? “And the multitudes were questioning [John the Baptist], saying, ‘Then what shall we do?’ And he would answer and say to them. ‘Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise.’ And some tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.’ And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, ‘And what about us, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone falsely, and be content with your wages’” (Luke 3:10-14).(S)
And then there is the well-known incident with the adulterous woman: “Then the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ They said this to test Him, so that they could have some charge to bring against Him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with His finger. But when they continued asking Him, He straightened up and said to them, ‘Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw the stone at her.’ Again He bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So He was left alone with the woman before Hi. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She replied, ‘No one, sir.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more’” (John 8:3-11).(N) Here Christ’s discourse with the woman is very telling. Note that Jesus does not tell her to ‘believe in Him.’ Neither does He forgive or condemn her. He simply asks her to ‘go and sin no more.’ What does this mean? Does not Jesus care for His estranged daughter’s salvation? Why doesn’t He tell her to believe in Him in order to be saved? The fact that He does not do so indicates that salvation is more than just ‘believing’ in the Reformed sense. His commandment is to ‘sin no more’, or in other words, ‘reform your life’, or simply ‘repent’. He knows, as His Church knows, that repentance proves that one does believe in the fullest sense.
Over and over again Our Lord makes it quite clear that He does not want His followers to think that they can pretend to have a ‘personal relationship’ with Him, while at the same time neglecting their relationships with other human beings. Jesus taught that “if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24).(N) Or in other words, repent first then come and worship Me. The consequences of refusing to repent are made clear by St. John. “Think where you were before you fell; repent, and do as you used to at first, or else, if you will not repent, I shall come to you and take your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:5-6) [Cf. Matthew 5:15].J
Finally, there is the passage involving Simon, the magician. As the Acts of the Apostles relate, Simon was amazed at the miracles the Apostles were performing, and he came to believe and was baptized (Cf. Acts 8:13). If Simon had made his profession of faith and believed as the bible says, then his salvation is guaranteed according to Fundamentalism. Is this, however, biblically supportable? “When Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the Apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me this power too, so that anyone upon whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit. But Peter said to him, ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought that you could buy the gift of God with money. You have no share or lot in this matter, for your heart is not upright before God. Repent of this wickedness of yours and pray to the Lord that, if possible, you intention may be forgiven…’” (Acts 8:18-22).(N) Peter’s warning to repent was not a request but a command in order to restore Simon’s relationship with God. The Apostles were not prone to giving commandments which did not impact salvation, and so his command must be understood to mean that if Simon did not repent, he would lose the inheritance which was promised to him at his baptism (Cf. Acts 8:13).
In the last biblical passage cited, the Fundamentalist would no doubt challenge if Simon really ‘believed’ in the first place. This admission, however, necessarily leads to the Catholic position. Consider the following example to contrast the Protestant and Catholic doctrines.
At 21 years of age, Henry comes to know the Lord and accepts Him as his ‘personal Lord and Saviour’. He goes to bible study, he prays intently, and comes to know the Lord in a very special way. Ten years later, Henry abandons Christianity, and decides to pursue his monetary interests in this world. Besides, he has lost his faith in God altogether and become an atheist. He even goes so far as to attack Christianity when the opportunity arises in social occasions. In effect, Henry has not only become an apostate, but also an enemy of God. Henry holds to his atheistic and anti-Christian biases for the rest of his whole life, and then dies. Question: Is he saved?
The Catholic position is this. Henry lost his faith and denied Christ, and did not repent of this sin before He died. Therefore, he will not be saved since he did not persevere in his initial profession of faith. Fundamentalism holds, however, that salvation is awarded at a point in time, and therefore there is nothing that can ‘unsave’ someone. This belief, however, necessarily causes a number of difficulties. For Fundamentalism, the alternatives are these:
i)Henry is not saved because he did not persevere in his faith. He denied Jesus. He lost his faith. Therefore, he lost his salvation.
ii) Henry is still saved since he did, at one point in his life, ‘accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Saviour’.
iii) Henry is not saved since he did not really have a ‘sincere’ faith at all. He really did not believe to begin with, so he could not have been eternally saved. He was a ‘false believer’.
The Protestant position will reject the first alternative since it is the Catholic position. If it did accept the first alternative, it would be rejecting the idea of ‘assured salvation’. The second alternative offends common reason. No rational person would accept this alternative since the most odious unrepentant sinner could enter heaven by just professing Jesus as his ‘personal Lord and Saviour’.
The third alternative is the only one that can be held, at least at the outset, by the Protestant apologist. However, this option is also fraught with difficulties and contradictions. This alternative falls apart when one seeks out the meaning of a ‘sincere faith’. The New Webster’s dictionary defines ‘sincere’ as ‘utterly honest and genuine’. If the proponent of Protestantism holds to this definition of sincerity while also holding to sola fide, he will have to say that the person who loses his faith was not honest when he first accepted Christ into his life. To hold to this position, however, is really straining credibility. Common reason and respect dictate that most people who accept a principle (i.e. any principle or belief – not just a religious belief) are indeed sincere at the beginning of their profession. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, ridiculously cynical and skeptical. Thus, when Henry professed his Faith in Christ at the start, he was likely sincere and honest with himself and God – he really did accept Christ and believe in Him. If this is admitted, the third alternative is not possible and the Protestant position consequently falls.
But let us say, for the sake of argument, that the Protestant still holds to this point in his defence that – in fact – Henry could not have been really sincere in his initial profession of faith if he later rejected Christ. The Protestant position holds that Henry must have a sincere faith to be saved. Notice, however, that the Protestant has added the dimension of time to his definition of sincerity. Since the Protestant uses Henry’s later rejection of Christ as a measure of Henry’s sincerity of his first profession, the Protestant is effectively saying ‘you are only truly sincere if you endure to the end.’ Consequently, the Protestant has admitted to the Catholic position of perseverance in faith for salvation, as well as the logical ancillary to this, which is a salvation that can be lost. Therefore, by accepting and upholding this line of argument, the Fundamentalist has accepted a circular argument as a reason for believing the doctrine of assured salvation.
In order to reconcile the constant biblical theme of a persevering faith, the Protestant might forgo the belief in ‘instant-time’ salvation to adopt a more scriptural belief of the necessity of a ‘constant faith’ instead. To abandon this original Protestant belief, however, implicitly admits that salvation is not certain on one single profession of faith. If salvation is dependent on an enduring faith, then it must be more than just a confessional or even fiduciary faith. Indeed, it would suggest that such a faith, although necessary, is like a mustard seed (Cf. Luke 13:19) which must grow into its full maturity by entering into the Christian life more completely. In seeking to obtain this maturity and fullness, it produces fruit (Cf. Matthew 12:33), and thereby evolves from a ‘confessional faith’ into a ‘living faith’ – a faith which does what Jesus commands us to do. To stunt this growing process and prevent the seed from developing into a ‘living faith’, reduces the confessional faith to a dead faith. This view is beautifully explained by the Lord in the parable of the sower:
“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path and was trampled, and the birds of the sky ate it up. Some seed fell on rocky ground, and when it grew, it withered for lack of moisture. Some seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some seed fell on good soil, and when it grew, it produced fruit a hundredfold…This is the meaning of the parable. The seed is the word of God. Those on the path are the ones who have heard, but the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts that they may not believe and be saved. Those on rocky ground are the ones who, when they hear, receive the word with joy, but they have no root; they believe only for a time and fall away in time of trial. As for the seed that fell among thorns, they are the ones who have heard, but as they go along, they are choked by the anxieties and riches and pleasures of life, and they fail to produce mature fruit. But as for the seed that fell on rich soil, they are the ones who, when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and good heart, and bear fruit through perseverance”(Luke 8:5-8,11-15)(N) [Cf. Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20].
There are a number of revelations that Jesus is making in this explanation of the parable of the sower. First, Our Lord is emphasizing the need to bear the trials of life in order to obtain salvation. Secondly, He says that we must have ‘root’; that is, a solid trust in His word in order to withstand times of trial which will come. He says that there will be some who hear the word, but cannot either accept or will not persevere in it, and therefore ‘fall away.’ On the other hand, it is those people who glorify God’s word through perseverance by works that do not ‘fall away’. Note too that Jesus necessarily admits that salvation can be lost. It is implicit in the words He chooses to use in the parable. He says that it is possible for one to ‘receive the word with joy’ yet still ‘fall away’. ‘Falling away’ begs the question: falling away from what? The answer is, of course, faith: one can believe in Jesus, and later ‘fall away’ because of persecution or worldly concerns. Clearly then, if one can believe and ‘be saved’ as the Fundamentalist holds, then one can later ‘fall away’ and lose that salvation as Jesus teaches.
No Christian can underestimate the mystical and enduring value of suffering. It is one of the greatest and self-evident mysteries in Christianity. In fact, no other religion in the world can claim such a relationship with suffering as the Christian Church does – all other religions, in one way or another, attempt to escape suffering instead of accepting it. Jesus Christ constantly reminded His followers of the hardship of Christian discipleship in this life, “and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever find his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39)(N) [Cf. Mark 8:34-35, Luke 9:23-24]. If one examines this teaching in light of a Fundamentalist interpretation of guaranteed salvation, it is difficult to see how one can reconcile the two views. Jesus is describing what a true disciple will do, not solely what the true disciple professes. It is in doing that we become true disciples, and it is in not so doing that we are unworthy of Him. If, therefore, we do not carry the crosses and sufferings He gives us, we reject Him, His cross and our reward, which is salvation. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul further confirms the necessity for perseverance and endurance. Scripture testifies that “they strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, ‘It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’” (Acts 14:22).(N) Now it is rather clear that this teaching is certainly not guaranteeing eternal life for those who presuppose that their salvation is based solely on a faith that is indifferent to accepting and enduring the hardships of Christian life. After all, Our Lord teaches that “by your perseverance you will secure your lives” (Luke 21:19).(N) We are asked to test that faith to see if it is indeed genuine (Cf. 2 Corinthians 13:5-6, 2 Thessalonians 1:4-5, Ephesians 6:18), and to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11)(S). If perseverance is indeed a real test of faith, it is indeed just that perseverance would lead to salvation (Cf. 1 Timothy 4:16; Hebrews 10:36-38, James 1:12).
When Our Lord explains who His disciples really are, He frequently conditions His response. A true disciple is not the one who merely professes Christ as Lord, but lives the Gospel message (Cf. James 1:22-25, 5:11). Jesus speaks of remaining in and keeping His word. “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).(N) “Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither: people will gather them and thrown them into a fire and they will be burned” (John 15:6).(N) “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” (John 8:51).(N) It is implicit in the words ‘if,’ ‘remain,’ and ‘keep’ that Our Lord admits that one can initially receive His word, and yet not be saved. It is only in ‘remaining’ and ‘keeping’ that salvation is granted (Cf. Matthew 24:13). He further cautions His disciples to observe His commandments. “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him…Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him…Whoever does not love me does not keep my word” (John 14:21-22).(N) What is the alternative? That a believer can still obtain salvation, yet not have to keep Our Lord’s word and not be loved by God? Such a position borders on the apex of absurdity. “Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).(N) And liars do not inherit the kingdom of heaven (Cf. John 8:44). Again and again, obedience figures prominently in salvation (Cf. 2 Corinthians 9:13, Hebrews 5:9, Hebrews 13:17, 2 John 1:6). St. Paul also recognizes that hearing the law is not enough: “For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13).(N)
In all of these passages, it is clear that salvation is not a one-time event that is irrevocable. Words like ‘remain’, ‘keep’, and ‘observe’ suggest quite a different meaning – they suggest perseverance. Christians are to stand fast to their faith (Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:58). We are saved if and only if we hold fast to the Gospel (Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:2). Salvation is conditional. There is always an ‘if’ attached to eternal life. Consider St. Paul’s letter to Timothy: “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us.” (2 Timothy 2:12).(S) In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul reveals that salvation is not guaranteed in the Fundamentalist sense, “And you who once were alienated and hostile in mind because of evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through his death, to present you holy, without blemish, and irreproachable before him, provided that you persevere in the faith, firmly grounded, stable, and not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…” (Colossians 1:21-23)(N) Clearly, St. Paul is teaching that salvation is assured if one perseveres. Furthermore, he does not say salvation is assured, but only that believers should have ‘hope’. Hope does not mean assurance. This conditional salvation is reaffirmed many times over in the New Testament, most explicitly in 1Timothy 2:15 and Hebrews 3:13-14. The Apostle does not say that ‘we are saved’ (the Fundamentalist position), but rather we are ‘being saved’ (Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18).
There can be hardly a better example of perseverance than the one St. Paul uses when he describes the journey to salvation as a race. “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only the one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)(N) In this passage, St. Paul borrows from the Greek athletic contests which were extremely popular throughout the eastern provinces. The moral of the story is that a man may call himself a Christian and yet not be saved, just as a man may run a race and not win it. By using the analogy of a race, St. Paul is admitting to the possibility that, just as one can lose a race, one can also lose salvation. St. Paul was arguably the greatest of the Apostles and certainly the most learned and educated. Yet despite this, St. Paul had ‘fear that he himself might be disqualified.’ When the Apostle expresses this fear, of what is St. Paul afraid? Now, the context of the passage clearly parallels eternal life to the ‘imperishable crown,’ and ‘running the race’ to living the Christian life. The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that St. Paul recognizes that a Christian can be disqualified from the race and not win the prize, or in other words, losing his salvation. Does this suggest guaranteed salvation? Does this not admit of the possibility that even St. Paul, arguably the greatest of the Apostles, could lose his salvation? In the end, St. Paul was saved because he competed well, finished the race, and kept the faith (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:7). One solution the Fundamentalist offers is to claim that such a ‘Christian’ who did not ‘finish the race’ never really was a ‘true believer’ in the first place. But is this an acceptable ‘solution’? Is one to hold that St. Paul was not a ‘true believer’ his whole life if he were to later fall from the faith? The other alternative is to question whether the ‘imperishable crown’ refers to eternal life. The context of St. Paul’s usage, however, strongly points to the crown as meaning eternal life (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:8; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10, 4:10).
The kind of faith to live by is one that perseveres, “for you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. ‘For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay. But my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him’” (Hebrews 10:36-38).(S)
The place of good works in salvation was one of the contentious issues of the Reformation, and continues to be so to this day. The rallying cry of Luther, sola fide (by faith alone), has been the defining doctrine of Protestant Christianity which has shaped the Reformed tradition for the past four centuries. Nevertheless, the overwhelming evidence from scripture on works is unmistakable and definite. Yet, the Reformers were not disturbed by this: “The first care of every Christian ought to be, to lay aside all reliance on works, and strengthen his faith alone more and more, and by it grow in the knowledge, not of works, but of Christ Jesus…But you ask how it can be the fact that faith alone justifies, and affords without works so great a treasure of good things, when so many works are prescribed to us in Scriptures. I answer: before all things bear in mind what I have said, that faith alone without works justifies…”(13)
Martin Luther said that “good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works. Bad works do not make a bad man, but a bad man does bad works. Thus it is always necessary that the substance or person should be good before any good works can be done, and that good works should follow and proceed from a good person. As Christ says: ‘A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit’ (Matthew 7:18). Now it is clear that the fruit does not bear the tree, nor does the tree grow on fruit; but, on the contrary, the trees bear the fruit and the fruit grows on the tree.”13
In this discourse, Luther has revealed the orientation required in order to biblically defend his view of salvation by faith alone. This view of salvation, and the defence of the approach to interpreting holy scripture, revolves around the central belief that works are not determined to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by themselves; that is, by the objective, inherent nature of the works. Rather, the goodness is determined only by whether the person is ‘righteous’ to begin with, independently of the objective goodness of the act. Hence, it depends on a person’s righteousness which determines whether the act can be good.
This argument fails to endure any sort of philosophical or scriptural analysis, however. First of all, to suggest that a work cannot be good because the person is not righteous betrays the simple meaning of what a good act is. True, his action may not be meritorious if he is not in a justified relationship with God, but one would be hard-pressed to say that a good work cannot be performed by a non-believer. Does Jesus not recognize that a good act can be done without necessarily being a believer (Cf. Matthew 10:42)? Consider the following example. Joe sees a beggar on the street. He reaches into his wallet and drops a $10 bill into the beggar’s cup. Question: Is Joe’s action good? The Catholic faith, following scripture (Cf. Mark 12:41-44, Matthew 25:40, Luke 7:21), would agree that Joe’s action is good since it consistent with the gospel message to help the poor. Catholicism would not propose, however, that Joe is saved because of his good work only, but will admit what common sense dictates; namely, that his action was good. On the other hand, the traditional Reformed position considers Joe’s action as good or bad depending on his relationship with God. If Joe is a believer, then his donation was a good work, if he is not then the action was not a good work. It is a curious response because if it was not a good work, then what was it – a bad one? a neutral one? What is one to call an act which appears to be a ‘good’ act, but is really not because an unbeliever does it? An evil one? The logical consequence of the Fundamentalist position begins to defy common sense, and borders on absurdity.
Secondly, the Reformed position maintains that the tree must come before the fruit – one has to know what the tree is before one can say if the fruit is good or bad. Recall above that Luther said, “now it is clear that the fruit does not bear the tree, nor does the tree grow on fruit; but, on the contrary, the trees bear the fruit and the fruit grows on the tree.” The Catholic, however, will say the opposite. The fruit will determine what kind of fruit it is; that is, if the fruit is bad, then the tree is bad. Who’s right? Well, if Luther had continued reading the remainder of Matthew 7 and not simply stopped at Matthew 7:18, he should have realized that it is the Catholic position which is the more biblical one. Jesus taught, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:18-20).(N) Note the tree is known by the fruit (Cf. Matthew 7.20, Luke 6:44) [the Catholic position]; the fruit is not known by the tree [the Fundamentalist position]. Thus, it is the fruit which makes the tree not vice versa. This view is further supported in the parable of the barren fig tree: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of the fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. [So] cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9).(N) The tree is the person; the fruit are his works; the soil is life’s opportunities to love our neighbours; and ‘cutting it down’ is eternal loss.
Yet, it is clear that many evangelicals do recognize the necessity of works for salvation, and have adopted a decidedly Catholic position on this issue. Commenting on John 15:1-17, Robert Coleman relates, “here in one of the most simple yet profound analogies of the Lord, Christ explained that the purpose of both the vine (Himself) and the branches (believers in Him) was to bear fruit. Hence, any branch that did not yield produce was cut off by the husbandman – it was worthless. What is more, those branches which did produce were pruned by the husbandman that they might yield more fruit (Cf. John 15:2). It was clear that the life-sustaining power of the vine was not to be bestowed endlessly upon lifeless branches. Any branches that lived on the vine had to produce to survive for that was its intended nature. Jesus then made the application to His disciples. As surely as they were participants in His life, even so they would bear His fruit (Cf. John 15:5,8), and furthermore, their fruit would remain (Cf. John 15:16). A barren Christian is a contradiction. A tree is known by its fruit.” (14)
This potential contradiction did not seem to disturb Martin Luther, however. “From all this you will again understand, why so much importance is attributed to faith, so that it alone can fulfill the law, and justify without any works. For you see that the first commandment, which says ‘Thou shalt worship one God only,’ is fulfilled by faith alone. If you were nothing but good works from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head, you would not be worshipping God, nor fulfilling the first commandment, since it is impossible to worship God, without ascribing to Him the glory of truth and of universal goodness, as it ought in truth to be ascribed. Now this is not done by works, but only by faith of heart. It is not by working, but by believing, that we glorify God and confess Him to be true. On this ground faith is the sole righteousness of a Christian man, and the fulfilling of all the commandments. For to him who fulfils the first, the task of fulfilling all the rest is easy.” (15)
Luther cites the first commandment to worship God in order to fulfill the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. He appears, however, to conveniently forget the second commandment which is “like the first” (Matthew 22:39). And what about the second commandment to love our neighbours? How is that commandment to be fulfilled if not by works (Cf. James 2:15-19)? How does one worship God perfectly if not by serving one’s neighbour perfectly for the love of God? Luther then goes on to claim that through good works we neither worship God, nor glorify him. This is complete nonsense. Our Lord has made it clear over and over again in the Gospels that loving one’s neighbour cannot be separated from loving Him. In one instance, He even insists that we should seek forgiveness from our brother before we come to Him in worship (Cf. Matthew 5:24). Good works are indeed a form of glorifying God (Cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7, Colossians 1:10, Acts 5:41, 1 Corinthians 6:20). Indeed, perhaps Brother Martin forgot about John 15:8: “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” (S) Honestly, does one not glorify God by obeying His commandments?
The question of the necessity of works for salvation should be considered in regards to doing God’s will. Consider His parable of the two sons: “A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will? They answered, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you’” (Matthew 21:28-31).(N) In this parable, Jesus is contrasting the one who ‘talks a good talk’ but does not ‘walk the good walk’ with the one who initially rejects the call but later answers it. He is pointing to the Jewish elders, and by association, all other hypocrites, and saying ‘do not hide behind your initial profession, but rather prove your faith by your actions!’ Hence, even the most despised of society, who first reject the call, will enter heaven if they later persevere in doing God’s will, while those who first hear the call, but do not act accordingly will not enter the kingdom (Cf. Luke 8:5-8,11-15, Matthew 21:31).
A scholar of the law commented on the greatest commandment: “You shall love your God, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself. [Jesus] replied to him, ‘You have answered correctly, do this and you will live’” (Luke 10:27-29).(N) Notice that Jesus does not correct the scholar and say, ‘All you have to do is believe in me.’ On the contrary, He confirms the scholar’s ‘active’ interpretation of faith; that is, loving God which necessarily means loving our neighbours. Loving our neighbours means doing good to them. Thus, those who love God, and act according to His will are called His brothers and sisters (Cf. Luke 8:21). Eternal life is not promised to everyone. In fact, it is reserved to those who do God’s will (Cf. 1 John 2:17), and not merely to those who profess it with their mouths only, or even those who only ‘trust in God.’
It is true that the Fundamentalist would maintain that works are a natural outcome of faith, but would not agree that good deeds would substantiate, or help define their faith. If, as the Fundamentalist holds, works play no deciding role in our salvation, then it logically follows that God should not judge us according to our deeds but only our ‘faith’. But is this biblical? The following passages suggest that it is not:
“For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.” (Matthew 16:27)(N)
“For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ so that each one may receive recompense according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)(N)
“For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision: but faith that worketh through charity.” (Galatians 5:6)(D) [Cf. Romans 2:25-26, 1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 6:15]
“Now if you invoke as Father Him who judges impartially according to each one’s works, conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of you sojourning…” (1 Peter 1:17)(N)
“Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed evil deeds to a resurrection of judgement” (John 5:29-30).(S)
Jesus, Himself, compares the two approaches to salvation by comparing an inactive faith with an active one: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but do not do what I command? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, listens to my words, and acts on them. That one is like a person building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock, when the flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it because it had been well built. But the one who listens and does not act is like a person who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, it collapsed at once and, was completely destroyed” (Luke 6:46-49)(N). [Cf. Matthew 7:21-27] Note the difference between the two foundations of ‘faith’ is solely determined by action. The one who acts on Our Lord’s commandments by producing fruit will withstand the judgement, but the one who does not act is without foundation, will not persevere, and will ultimately be lost. Through God’s unmerited grace and faith realized through works, we are afforded salvation (Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:10), and it is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, which is able to save our souls (Cf. James 1:21). St. Paul hopes that God makes us worthy of his calling to fulfill every good purpose and every effort of faith (Cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:11). Surely, if doing God’s word were not a condition of salvation, then He would not have written, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like. But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22-25).(N) If you do not ‘do the Word’, says God, then you are simply deluding yourself about your salvation.
No Christian denies that good works are important, and all Christians are to bear fruit (Cf. Matthew 6:20, Colossians 1:10). The bible says that the ones who do good are ‘of God’ (Cf. 3 John 11), but it is the role of ‘fruits’ which distinguishes a Catholic from a Fundamentalist. Catholics believe that good works are not only a natural outcome of faith, but necessary and a grounds for salvation. In this Catholics rejoice, for as St. Peter wrote “although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)(N) Indeed, everyone who acts in righteousness is begotten by God (Cf. 1 John 2:29; Luke 5:30). Jesus links righteousness with a confessional faith and good works (Cf. Luke 25:34-37).
Over and over, the necessity of works for salvation is unmistakable in Holy Scripture. Recall Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. When Jesus saw him, He told Zacchaeus that He wanted to stay with him. “And he came and received Him with joy. When [the people] all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to stay at the home of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.’” (Luke 19:1-10)(N). Is it a coincidence that repentance and the fruit of that repentance, which is works, is associated with Jesus granting salvation to Zacchaeus? No, it is not.
In addition to the warnings and implicit proofs for the necessity of works, Holy Scripture also explicitly instructs followers to do good works, lest they face the consequences. Speaking to believers, the Book of Hebrews states the Catholic view plainly: “Let us hold unwavering to our confession that gives us hope, for He who made the promise is trustworthy. We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works…If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgement and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:23-26).(N) The second half of the passage lays it on the line: after accepting Jesus, we cannot continue in sin or else we must face the consequences. Also, while the latter half of the teaching is quite unmistakable, the first half is also enlightening. For the Fundamentalist, there is no sense in speaking of ‘hope’ in the sense of salvation since his salvation is guaranteed. Yet, the Word of God says that ‘our confession gives us hope’ not that our ‘confession gives us assurance’. Note also how the author encourages the early Christians to do ‘good works’. In fact, St. Paul insists on good works (Cf. Titus 3:8, Galatians 6:10, 2 Thessalonians 2:17). When St. Paul, the other Apostles, and Christ all command us to do good works, are Fundamentalists prepared to say that it does not affect our salvation? If it is, then it is more than apparent that this belief is very selective of the biblical passages it wishes to regard as pertaining to salvation. It is even more obvious that those who hold to this position will seek to break any link between a teaching and the necessity to adhere to that teaching for salvation. In other words, if it does not fit the Fundamentalist interpretation, then it may be a good and noble teaching, but it really does not effect one’s salvation. (As if all of Christ’s teaching didn’t bear on one’s salvation!!!!). Truly, how can the Fundamentalist position hold when St. John gives the Catholic position so forcefully when says, “children let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth…And His commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as He commanded us” (1 John 3:18,23).(N) Believing in Jesus is required, but so is loving our neighbour. We love our neighbour by works – in ‘deed and in truth’.
‘Are you saved?’ This is the classical Fundamentalist question. The Catholic response is: ‘I am redeemed, but I have no guarantee of salvation should I reject Christ by sin and do not repent of it.’ For Catholics redemption applies to all men, believers or not. All have been redeemed by Christ’s blood on Calvary, and so all men have the opportunity to claim Christ as their Saviour in order to obtain for themselves salvation. In other words, redemption is the ‘ticket’ to salvation, but it is not salvation itself.
The assurance of salvation, as espoused by Fundamentalists, can be is explained by Wilson Ewin: “No wrong act or sinful deed can ever affect the believer’s salvation. The sinner did nothing to merit God’s grace and likewise he can do nothing do demerit grace. True, sinful conduct always lessens one’s fellowship with Christ, limits his contribution to God’s work and can result in serious disciplinary action by the Holy Spirit. However, none of the numerous examples of sin involving God’s people in the Bible ever teach or suggest a loss of salvation. The reason? Salvation is by grace from the moment of the new birth until physical death occurs (Cf. Romans 5:15)…The sinner must be declared righteous in order to be saved. The righteousness is imputed (credited) to the sinner who repents and trusts only in Christ and His shed Blood for salvation. The sinner never becomes righteous. He is simply declared righteous. The righteousness of Christ is credited to the sinner who trusts (Cf. Romans 4:5-8)…Absolute assurance of salvation through imputed righteousness can never be broken by sin. The reason is simple – this has nothing to do with keeping of God’s commandments or moral law (Cf. Romans 3:21-22)…The law shows the unregenerated man how wicked and lost he is before a Holy God. Keeping them or breaking them has no part in the believer’s possession of credited or imputed righteousness.” (16)
There are a number of propositions which Ewin puts forth which can be taken up here. Firstly, Ewin seems to contradict his own position when he says that ‘no wrong act or sinful deed can ever affect the believer’s salvation,’ but later says, ‘righteousness is imputed to the sinner who repents and trusts in Christ.’ It is clear that repentance is realized through amending one’s life (i.e. works). So is Ewin suggesting that repentance (works) is necessary for righteousness? But does this not contradict his earlier assertion on assured salvation? Secondly, he says that ‘the sinner did nothing do merit God’s grace and likewise he can do nothing to demerit grace.’ Since the Catholic position is a biblical one, it will accept the first part of Ewin’s statement, but it will certainly reject the claim that there is nothing someone can do to demerit grace. This is so profoundly and completely unbiblical. Is one to say that Adam and Eve did not ‘demerit’ the supernatural grace with which they were endowed, and if they did not demerit this grace, why did God banish them from the garden? Finally, Ewin makes the remarkable claim that ‘none of the numerous examples of sin involving God’s people in the Bible ever teach or suggest a loss of salvation.’ This assertion is categorically false as Holy Writ testifies.
Speaking to believers (Cf. Hebrews 10:19), the word of God is clear, warning that “if we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgement and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26).(N)
Using the simile of salt, Our Lord says to His disciples, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13).(N) Our Lord is making it evident that if the ‘salt’, that is, the good works of His disciples are lost, these disciples are useless as flavourless salt or as a lamp whose light is concealed. He re-emphasizes this point later in the same gospel (Cf. Matthew 7:19), and warns those who sin that it is so serious that “it is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna” (Matthew 5:30) [Mark 9::43](N). These teachings hardly suggest that salvation cannot be lost (Cf. 2 John 1:8).
Why does Jesus Christ warn believers to have fear (Cf. Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:4-5)? What kind of fear is Jesus speaking about if not the most important fear which is the fear of lost salvation? And why is St. Paul afraid of the Corinthians being led astray (Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3), or concerned for those led into sin (Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:29)? St. Paul’s warning of the possible loss of salvation is not restricted to the Church in Corinth. In his teaching to the first Christian community in Europe at Philippi (Cf. Acts 16:9-40), he cautions them, “So then my beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work” (Philippians 2:12-13).(N) Work out? Fear and trembling? Neither are these words that convey assured salvation, nor is the Apostle’s sobering admonition to “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).(N) And lest we forget the warnings of St. Peter, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8) [Cf. John 17:15].(S) Now just why would the devil bother with someone who was already saved?
“And be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master shall find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them. Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. And be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have allowed his house to be broken into. You too, be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect. [And Peter said, ‘Lord, are You addressing this parable to us, or to everyone else as well? And the Lord said,] Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him, and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:36-46) [Cf. Matthew 24:45-51, Mark 13:9-13].(S)
In this parable, Our Lord tells His disciples to be ready (Cf. Luke 12:40). The inevitable question that arises is: why should the Christian ‘be ready’ if he is already saved? Now, there are two apparent possible explanations. The Christian should ‘be ready’ lest he may not be judged worthy for the kingdom of heaven, or the Christian should ‘be ready’ for his entry into glory because he is already saved. Yet, given the tone and content of the remainder of the parable, it is unmistakable that the first alternative is far superior to the second. In Luke 12:39, Jesus admits that salvation would be too easy if people knew when He would come again since many ‘believers’ would be on their best behaviour around that time. Not only is this consistent with the difficulty of entering heaven (Cf. Luke 9:23, Matthew 7:14, Matthew 19:23), it also necessarily implies that time and perseverance do, in fact, matter in salvation (Cf. Luke 12:38). Subsequently in Luke 12:42-44, Jesus says that the ‘faithful and sensible servant’ is the one who does His will, and the Lord rewards this servant by ‘putting him in charge of all His possession,’ an allusion to the kingdom of heaven (and, incidentally, the intercessory power of the saints before the throne of God). Finally, in the last two verses of this parable, the heavy consequences of sinning grievously are stated plainly. The noticeable phrase in these verses occurs at the end when Our Lord gives the dire warning that the master “will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:46).(S) It follows from these words that Jesus was speaking to believers (Cf. Luke 12:41) that would not enter glory, but be thrown into the pit with the unbelievers. Therefore, the difference between the ‘believers’ who enter the kingdom, and the ones who do not revolves around one central thing: doing the will of God (Cf. Luke 12:43).
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul warns the bishops of the church to “take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. I know that, after my departure, ravening wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. And of your own selves shall arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts. 20:28-30).(D) It seems that St. Paul recognized that the body of Christ would be attacked by heretics and schismatics. And he is rightly afraid that these ‘wolves’ may draw the disciples away. Now, when this occurs, is it to be assumed that these disciples will return to the Church? There are no guarantees as St. Paul recounts in his letters to Timothy:
“This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:18-20).(S)
“But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith…(1 Timothy 4:1-2).(S) The fact that St. Paul uses the phrase ‘falling away’ implies that these former Christians at one time had faith, but then lost it.
The concept of losing something one once possessed is further reinforced: “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang” (1 Timothy 6:10).(S) And again later in the same chapter, “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ – which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:21).(S)
“For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6).(S) Notice Holy Writ says that these apostates were once ‘partakers of the Holy Spirit’ and were once ‘renewed,’ but now they cannot be renewed again. [St. Paul is not teaching that a former apostate cannot return to the faith, but rather it is practically (although not theoretically) impossible for such a person, after having received many graces and the fullness of truth, to return to the faith. The reason is simply that there is nothing new for the person to return to – no surprises or new revelations, and so this person, who understands and has been exposed to the fullness of the Gospel, simply rejects it. These people are to be distinguished from those who fall from the faith from ignorance or through no fault of their own. A similar teaching is given by St. Peter (Cf. 2 Peter 2:20-22)].
The Christian faith is based obedience, and without obedience, there is no faith (Cf. Romans 1:5, 16:26). St. Paul teaches that Christians are to glorify God by obedience to the Gospel message (Cf. 1 Corinthians 9:13). Holy Scripture is full of exhortations to obey – the Church (Cf. Matthew 8:4, Matthew 23:1-3, Matthew 18:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5:2-5, Hebrews 13:17) , the State (Cf. Matthew 22:16-21, Romans 13:1-7, Ephesians 6:5-8, Titus 3:1), and God (Cf. John 13:16, John 15:10, John 21:15-17). Now, if salvation depends on obedience, then salvation cannot be obtained by ‘believing’ or ‘trusting’ in the Fundamentalist sense because obedience requires a test (Cf. Genesis 22:16-18, Matthew 7:17-21, Luke 8:11-15). The consequence of unrepentant disobedience is clear: “Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:6) [Cf. 1 Peter 4:17](S). Hence, if salvation depends on a test of faith, or rather a series of tests, then it cannot be awarded irrevocably at the moment one becomes ‘born again.’ Indeed, the devil always has an opportunity (Cf. Ephesians 4:27) to tempt and claim us if we do not later repent. The proof is in the pudding as they say, not in an empty profession or even a sincere ‘fiduciary’ trust. “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).(S)
The Church does not play an integral part in salvation for Fundamentalists. Because of every believer’s right to interpret scripture, there is, by definition, no place for a definite teaching authority or hierarchy in Fundamentalism, despite the overwhelming evidence from Scripture. Now, there are many passages which highlight this fact, and this question of authority and the Church is better addressed more fully elsewhere, but there are two passages from the bible which especially accentuate the Fundamentalist prejudice.
The rebellion of Korah in the Old Testament was a rebellion against the religious authority of Israel’s hierarchy; namely, Moses and Aaron. It involved essentially lay people who rejected the exclusive role of the priesthood and hierarchy, and sought the power for ‘all the believers.’
“Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, [and Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, son of Pallu, son of Reuben] took two hundred and fifty Israelites who were leaders in the community, members of the council and men of note. They stood before Moses, and held an assembly against Moses and Aaron, to whom they said, ‘Enough from you! The whole community, all of them, are holy: the Lord is in their midst. Why then should you set yourselves over the Lord’s congregation’” (Numbers 16:1-3)?(N)
How many times has a Fundamentalist made the same accusation against such a hierarchical arrangement? Yet, neither Moses nor God Himself thought much of these ‘lone-ranger-prototype-protestants.’
“Moses also said to Korah, ‘Listen to me, you Levites! Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has singled you out from the community of Israel, to have you draw near him for the service of the Lord’s Dwelling and to stand before the community to minister for them? He has allowed you and your kinsmen, the descendants of Levi, to approach him, and yet you now seek the priesthood too.” (Numbers 16:8-10).(N)
“Then, when Korah had assembled all his band against them at the entrance of the meeting tent, the glory of the Lord appeared to the entire community, and the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Stand apart from this band, that I may consume them at once’…So they withdrew from the space around the Dwelling [of Korah, Dathan and Abiram]. And fire from the Lord came forth which consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense.” (Numbers 16:19-21,35).(N)
‘All this is true,’ the Fundamentalist would say, but the New Testament changes all that, and therefore there is no longer any hierarchy. Now, this is a separate question outside of this paper, but it may be beneficial to address the question here by posing the following question: If the New Testament no longer acknowledged a hierarchy like the Old Testament or, for that matter, like the Catholic Church, then why does St. Jude warn the early Christians to avoid the sin of Korah, the sin of disobeying the Church’s hierarchy if that type of hierarchy was not already implicitly recognized in the authority of the Apostles and their successors?
“Woe to them! They followed the way of Cain, abandoned themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perished in the rebellion of Korah” (Jude 1:11).(N)
Earlier in this paper, it was stressed that Christians are to have hope in their salvation (Cf. Colosians 1:23, Hebrews 10:23), not presumption on their salvation through the idea that salvation is guaranteed unconditionally. Hope is defined as ‘to desire with expectation of fulfilment.’ Indeed, hope inspires confidence and probability, but it does not convey assurance. Yet this very singular word constantly appears in the bible, especially in the New Testament. Indeed, our hope is sure (Cf. Hebrews 6:19), but our salvation is not. We are to have “hope in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 1:3)(S) and “hope in salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8).(S) Does not the concept of ‘hope in salvation’ become a meaningless teaching when considered in light of ‘assured salvation’? After all, why should one have ‘hope’ when one can have assurance instead? Christians are further described as Christ’s house “if we hold fast to our confidence and the boast of our hope until the end” (Hebrews 3:6).(S) Words like ‘if’, ‘confidence’, ‘hope,’ and ‘until the end’ are not words which signify a salvation which is a fait de complit – quite the opposite, in fact.
Confession of Belief
The biblical defence Fundamentalists use for their belief in ‘assured salvation’ is concentrated in a number of passages which, if taken in isolation from the rest of the Scriptures, could lead them to this belief. Nevertheless, to hold to this belief remains difficult to justify if the verses are understood in their rightful contexts. The classic and frequently cited passage which Evangelicals cite to justify their ‘confessional justification’ is found in the Book of Romans: “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ – that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with you mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth confesses, resulting in salvation” (Romans 10:8-10).(S)
In order to properly assess St. Paul’s meaning in this passage, it is first necessary to understand his overriding theme throughout the book of Romans. St. Paul was trying to refute the Jewish idea that salvation is exclusive for the Jews only. He reinforces this message throughout the whole book (Cf. Romans 2:10, 2:28, 3:9, 3:29, 9:25-27). This is a significant point if one is to understand the true meaning of Romans 10:8-10 since verse 12 repeats St. Paul’s message on the universality of salvation: “for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. St. Paul’s objective is to convince the Jews that it is faith which saves not the exclusive Jewish ceremonial law. Hence, when he talks about confession and believing, he is stressing the beginnings of justification as opposed to giving a complete discourse on what is required for justification. It serves his purpose to point to the first rudiments or foundations of the Christian faith as a contrast to the Scribes’ way of justification which did not depend on faith as its principle but rather only the adherence to the Law of Moses. He was not excluding good works for salvation, but simply addressing and refuting the Scribes notion of justification which did not rely on faith. In order to prove the doctrine that “confession equals salvation”, the Fundamentalist must prove that the text means confession alone which it does not. This is the same trap that Fundamentalist fall into when they refer to 2 Timothy 3:16 to assert that scripture makes a man ‘complete’, and therefore the Church is not required. This particular passage cannot, however, be taken in such an exclusive way, no more than can ‘endurance’ that St. James speaks about in James 1:4 be considered ‘complete’. Similarly, a simple confession of belief is not enough.
In fact, in St. Paul’s teaching there is a reasonable assumption to be made. It would not be stretching credibility to understand that his hearers will keep their word if they agree to confess Jesus!!! Believing in Jesus and confessing Him as Lord necessarily means that you MUST agree with what He taught as well. It is meaningless to ‘believe in’ Jesus without obeying His commandments. That is why Hebrews says: “He came to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation…” (Hebrews 5:9).(S)
No scripture can be taken out of its historical and cultural context. In the first three centuries, Christianity was persecuted mercilessly by the State and by the Jews. Since St. Paul was writing in the first century, this persecution was indeed a sobering reality, and thus to confess Jesus as Lord was very dangerous (Cf. Matthew 10:18, 1 Thessalonians 2:2, 1 Peter 2:18-21, 3:14). A convert-Jew would have to suffer familial, social, and economic hardships. Therefore, when St. Paul told the converts that they would be saved by ‘confessing’ Jesus, he was far from telling them that their salvation would be granted by a faith without suffering. All Christians knew the hardships which would be inevitable. If anything, St. Paul is confirming the Catholic position of faith and suffering (works) in the face of persecution.
Fundamentalists also cite a number of other ‘confession’ passages to buttress their views. They are listed here. A quick rebuttal is given to understand the passage in the context it was intended:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).(S) One need only point out verse 19 which follows to understand that believing alone is insufficient for salvation: “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).(S) The believer is judged on deeds not on a confessional or even fiduciary faith.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgement, but has passed out of death into life.” (John 5:24)(S). Again, if one simply reads on… “those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgement” (John 5:29).(S)
“Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:31).(S) This teaching comes immediately after Our Lord chastises Thomas for his disbelief. Belief is obviously necessary. There is no reason to believe, however, that such a teaching is meant to be a complete discourse on the grounds for justification, especially in light of the plethora of other scriptural passages. What is missing from the Fundamentalist formula is the word ‘alone’. The passage does not say that ‘believing alone you may have life in His name.’
The jailer said to Paul and Silas, “ ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household’” (Acts 16:30).(S) For the Catholic, belief is not just talk, it is obeying Jesus. One cannot ‘believe’ in Jesus without obeying him (Cf. John 8:51).
“Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” (1 John 4:15).(S) Yet, “the one who says, ‘I have come to know him’, and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him…” (1 John 2:4).(S)
“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:11-13).(S) But earlier, the same chapter says, “By this we know that we love the children of God when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments…” (1 John 5:2-33).(S) So in other words, IF you keep and observe Jesus Christ’s commandments, THEN you may know that you have eternal life because you have indeed believed. Works
“How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:14-15)(S) The dead works referred to here are “the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled” in the verse just before (Cf. Hebrews 9:13)(S). Clearly, these works are ceremonial, not good works.
“Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works…(Hebrews 6:1)(S) The ‘dead works’ are not good works; they are ceremonial works as hinted at in Hebrews 5:1.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).(S) St. Paul meant ‘works’ to mean ceremonial works such as circumcision, animal sacrifice, food observances, which the Jews thought could justify them before God. A legitimate case could be made for this interpretation, especially considering St. Paul’s reference to circumcision later in verse 11. But let us say that St. Paul did mean ‘good works’. It is still very conceivable that St. Paul meant that you could not be saved by works ALONE, since he says that you are not saved ‘of yourselves,’ which allows for the possibility of ‘works of faith’ still being nonetheless necessary. Furthermore, it is the opinion of the Church that this great privilege of salvation issues from a twofold gift: grace on the part of God, faith on the part of man – faith being the instrument for grace (v. 8-9) to ACT (v.10). The gift is wholly from God, and the Council of Orange (529 A.D.) used this text to prove that the beginnings of faith are a gift of God. The reason why all this issues from God and not from ourselves is that we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus – a new creation just as surely as our entry into natural life was a creation.
“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30).(S) At baptism, the soul receives a special mark or ‘seal’ which is a permanent and distinctive quality that can never be removed. Mortal sin results in the loss of the sanctifying grace received at baptism, but the distinctive mark received at baptism is never lost. The soul has been forever transformed, although not necessarily saved. Two metaphors characterize the mission and function of the Holy Spirit: He is the seal stamped on our souls at baptism as the mark of ownership; He is the pledge (the word denotes an actual portion of a whole) of the blessed life paid in full in Heaven. “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14).(S) Note three distinct acts which Paul mentions: first listening to the Gospel, then believing it, then being ‘sealed’. To ‘seal’ means to have been baptized. The Holy Spirit has marked us with the seal of the Lord “for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30).(S)
Fundamentalists sometimes interpret the phrase ‘to seal’ to mean that our salvation is irrevocable; that it cannot be broken under any circumstances. ‘To seal’, however, really means “to attach or mark with a seal”. Baptism is therefore God’s outward sign for us that He has honoured his promise to grant us eternal salvation by ‘sealing us’ and giving us His Spirit (Cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22). God will not break this seal; He will not dishonour His promise to offer us eternal life through baptism, which wipes clean the punishment of original sin. Therefore, the child of God receives his inheritance at the very moment of his adoption, at the very moment of baptism. Nobody can take it away from him; not even God, who has bound Himself by an irrevocable promise never to take back what he has given. The heir himself can renounce his rights, but no one but himself can deprive him of this heritage. Hence, the pledge is a conditional one, dependent on following Jesus and His commandments and remaining faithful to Him.
“The Jews therefore gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:24-28).(S)
Leonard: “I believe that the above verses clearly propound the eternal security of the believer. Charles mentioned to me that you take verse 27 as a qualifier for verses 28 & 29. In other words, verses 28 & 29 apply only to the TRUE sheep : those who get saved but then fall away and lose their salvation were never really God’s sheep. My question to you then is: what are they then? You will find yourself having to invent a term or classification for such outside of what Scripture says. Scripture only speaks of God’s children as being sheep (dependence on Him, as a sheep is to the Shepherd).”
John: “I agree with you that Jesus calls his followers ‘sheep’, and therefore I do not need to invent a term or classification outside of Scripture. In these verses, Jesus says that his sheep hear his voice, and it is to his sheep that he gives eternal life. The question of losing one’s salvation comes when one asks the inevitable question: What if I do not listen to His voice? Does Jesus’ teaching here secure eternal life for me now? The answer of course is no – you are not one of His sheep since you did not, by definition, listen to His voice.”
Leonard: “I think I have to clarify something…the issue here is that by saying the person is SAVED implies he became a SHEEP. And if he is a sheep, it is impossible for him to be ejected from the Father’s hand. So you’ll say if he loses his salvation, he couldn’t have been a sheep. So then, if he was not a sheep when he was saved, then what was he? You can’t say that he was a sheep but then turned into a goat because the moment at which he was a sheep, our verses indicate he’s eternally secure. Your response doesn’t make sense, and I quote you ‘What if I do not listen to His voice?’ Can you say that you listen to the Shepherd at every point in every day? If not, then by your own reasoning you could get lost some afternoon when you have a bad day at work and an angry thought enters your head! The ‘listening’ here is a general characterization of the Christian – we live by God’s Word.”
John: “You stated that it is not possible for a sheep to become a goat, because once you have become a sheep of the Lord, your salvation is eternally secured. I do not believe that the passage in question is suggesting that you cannot fall away from being a follower of Jesus. Many former Christians, for instance, are now the greatest enemies of Christianity – they once accepted Christ, but now they reject Him. Jesus is granting eternal salvation to His sheep. His sheep are those who listen to His voice. Jesus does not say ‘those who have listened’, but ‘those who do listen’. Jesus is speaking in the present and future tense: If you stop listening to His voice, then you cease to be one of His sheep. No where in the passage does Jesus say or even imply that ‘once you have accepted me at one point in your life, your salvation is assured’. Far from it – in fact, He is very clear in many Gospel parables that salvation is secured only in persevering in His teachings. (Please read Matthew 7:15-27). People dressed in ‘sheep’s clothing’, that is, people who profess something but don’t act on their beliefs are hypocrites. As you know, Jesus did not have much respect for hypocrites.”
It is difficult to understand why Fundamentalists believe in a doctrine that is difficult to defend from a biblical perspective. Perhaps, it is man’s search for something that is certain in a world where nothing is certain, or perhaps it is the security that all humans naturally seek. It could be the logical consequence of rejecting works, or simply an unconscious prejudice in rejecting the Catholic view of justification. There are some Fundamentalists that hate the Catholic Church, and attempt to distance themselves as much as possible from Her. There are others who simply have given up in trying to be holy, and consign themselves to the disastrous No-haul mentality of Protestant justification. And there are still others who, disregarding many of the troubling biblical passages which refute the idea of ‘assured salvation’, hang on every word of their pastor so indiscriminately that it would make any ‘Papist’ blush!
When the bible is understood in its entirety and its entire context, it sings of Catholicity. The Catholic view of salvation is one which is in total harmony with the Gospel message, but also with common sense: no obedience, no salvation – no pain, no gain. On the other hand, the Fundamentalist notion of an irrevocable, ‘assured salvation’ is neither biblical nor plausible. It is a dangerous, presumptuous doctrine which, if not carefully checked by the person’s conscience, can lead to eternal loss.
1.The Gospel According to Rome, James G. McCarthy, Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 1995. 2.Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, R.C. Sproul, Baker Book House Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995. 3.The Jerusalem Bible, Doubleday & Co., New York, N.Y., 1966 [Catholic] (J) 4.The New American Bible [Catholic] (N) 5.The Douay-Rheims Bible [Catholic] (D) 6.The New American Standard Bible [Protestant] (S) 7.The New International Version Bible [Protestant] (I) 8.Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Roland H. Bainton, Abington-Cokesbury Press, New York, N.Y., 1950 9.Protestantism, J. Leslie Dunstan, George Braziller Publisher, New York, N.Y. 1962. 10.The Protestant Reformation, Lewis W. Spitz, Prentice-Hall Inc., Eaglewoods, N.J., 1966. 11.The Master Plan of Evangelization, Robert E. Coleman, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1972. 12.Luther’s Works 13.The Dictionary of the Bible, John L. McKenzie, S.J., The Bruce Publishing Co., Milwaukee, 1965. 14.A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Various theologians, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., New York, N.Y. 1953. 15.First Principles of the Reformation, Martin Luther 16.Luther’s preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (Bertram Lee Wolf, ed., Reformation Writings of Martin Luther, II (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956) 17.Martin Luther, What Luther Says: An anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass, 3 volumes (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959) 18.Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1992
1.What Luther Says: An anthology, 2:704 n.5 2.Faith Alone, p. 73 3.Ibid., p. 25 4.Absolutely Free!, p.145-146 5.Acts of the Council of Trent, 3:152, John Calvin 6.Faith Alone, p. 171,168 7.Luther’s Works, LIV, 185 8.Ibid., XXXII, 328 9.Ibid., LXXIII, 115 10.Ibid., VIII, 361 11.Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, p. 332 12.The Gospel According to Rome, p.51 13.First Principles of the Reformation, p.104-137 14.The Master Plan of Evangelization, p. 107 15.First Principles of the Reformation, p.104-137 16.‘There is Therefore Now No Condemnation’, Wilson Ewin, Bible Baptist Church, Nashua, New Hampshire.
The Catholic Legate
November 1, 1998