(Photo: Dan Delzell)
Editor's Note: The Christian Post contacted Catholic Answers (www.catholic.com) for a response to this column, but did not receive one by press time.
I received a package in the mail last week from a Roman Catholic woman in our area. We have never met, but she thought I could use a little booklet entitled, "Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth." It was published by Catholic Answers. (www.catholic.com) This group is "the largest Catholic apologetics and evangelization organization in North America." They obviously have tremendous zeal to spread Catholic teachings to others. In fact, there are 5 million copies of this booklet in print.
"Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth" is very revealing. It was written by people who have been thoroughly immersed in Catholic doctrine. It states, "We are lay people devoting our full-time efforts to promoting the Catholic faith." The booklet has been endorsed and declared "free of doctrinal errors" by Roman Catholic theologians, but laid out in simple terms.
I was especially interested in the way they described the path to salvation. It states that "we are saved by grace alone, but not by faith alone, which is what 'Bible Christians' teach." (p. 22) This distinction is absolutely huge and it gets right to the heart of the matter. This very point is the primary reason the Reformation took place. Everything hinges on how a church defines "grace."
In the context of this article, I will use their term "Bible Christians" to present what Christians since the time of Christ have believed the Bible teaches regarding eternal life and the assurance of salvation. This is not a new doctrine. It has been around for 2000 years….long before the Protestant Reformation took place some 500 years ago.
The booklet states, "We do not 'earn' our salvation through good works (Eph. 2:8-9, Rom. 9:16), but our faith in Christ puts us in a special grace-filled relationship with God so that our obedience and love, combined with our faith, will be rewarded with eternal life." (Rom. 2:7, Gal. 6:8-9) Did you catch that? According to Catholic Answers, a grace-filled life of obedience is said to be rewarded with eternal life.
So is "grace" in the Bible God's unmerited love, mercy, and forgiveness for sinners on account of Christ? Or....is it those things, plus man's "grace-filled" works of obedience? Everything hinges on how a church defines the "grace" that is said to save us.
What do Bible Christians teach on this matter? We too point to Ephesians 2:8-9, which states, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast." These verses make it clear that one's entrance into heaven is not a reward for obedience. Good works are done as a result of being saved and as a response to God's love in Christ. Good works in the Bible are not done in an effort to "close the deal" on salvation.
If "grace" equals forgiveness plus your obedient response to that forgiveness, then you have redefined "grace." That is not New Testament grace. You could use this acronym to get a handle on it. GRACE is actually "God's Riches At Christ's Expense." GRACE is not a "Good Response After Christ Enters" me. Grace is what God gives believers to cleanse us and cover us with the righteousness of Christ....not what we do as a result of grace. If you define grace wrong, you get salvation wrong. If you get salvation wrong, you miss out on the free gift of eternal life. Leave it to man to turn grace into something we do....and we complete....and we earn.
The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace through faith....rather than being saved by grace through faith, plus works. While it is true that genuine faith will always produce good works, it is also true that genuine faith is genuine before the first work is done. The thief on the cross who trusted Jesus had faith in Christ....and he was forgiven....and Jesus lovingly spoke to him about the assurance of his salvation. "Today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
For Bible Christians, salvation is secure at the moment of conversion, whether a believer realizes it or not. Faith is the root....and assurance is the flower. The object of saving faith is the cross. The fruit of saving faith is assurance, but not every believer experiences the flower of continual assurance from day to day. Some believers allow themselves to coddle their doubts concerning their salvation. A believer may lack the assurance of his salvation, but he is still saved because the object of his faith is Jesus and the good news of the Gospel. On the other hand, a person who places his faith in the wrong object is not saved, even if he possesses a personal assurance that his efforts are enough to get him into heaven.
You not only can be sure of your salvation right after you are converted….but God wants you to be sure right away. The Bible makes that clear in the words of the apostle John: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life." (1 John 5:13) That is not to say that everyone who thinks he has been saved truly has been granted salvation. But it is to say that the clear teaching of the Bible is that a believer can know that he has eternal life. A Christian can definitely have the assurance of his salvation. But remember....it's not your assurance that saves you....it is Christ and His death for your sins. He is the object of Christian faith. Don't make the mistake of placing faith in your faith. Just keep your eyes on Jesus and what He accomplished when He said, "It is finished." (John 19:30)
If Bible Christians and Catholics were to be in agreement on the assurance of salvation, a monumental wall between the two groups would be removed. This is not a secondary issue, or an inconsequential doctrine. The assurance of salvation pertains to the very Gospel itself, and whether the message being presented as the "Gospel" is actually the message of the Bible….or simply a product of man. Is it the true Gospel….or is it a mixture of law and gospel pretending to be the Gospel?
Bible Christians as well as Catholics teach the doctrine of justification. In fact, "Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth" defines justification in much the same way as Bible Christians describe it. The booklet states, "When we come to God and are justified (that is, enter a right relationship with God), nothing preceding justification, whether faith or good works, earns grace." (p. 23) To that statement Bible Christians would say, "Amen. That is correct."
A few sentences later, however, the booklet states that eternal life is a reward for the obedient and "good works are meritorious." (p. 23) This is beyond problematic. It is another gospel….a different gospel than the one which both Jesus and St. Paul presented. No wonder so many Catholics lack the assurance of salvation. They are taught that a person can be justified in an instant, but cannot in the same moment be assured of heaven. Huh? Justification without salvation? This completely contradicts the teaching of Scripture, which clearly states, "Since we have been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!" (Romans 5:9)
But what about all those "other non-Catholic Christians" who teach that a professing believer can be saved regardless of how he lives? The booklet lists that example as an alternative to the Catholic position. But is it really a common teaching among Bible Christians? I don't know of one Bible Christian who teaches such a thing. That is not to say that there are not some people out there who present that unbiblical message....but whoever is teaching such a doctrine is going against Scripture and is presenting a different gospel. That example as an argument against the Gospel of "Bible Christians" is nothing more than a staw man.
St. Paul made it clear that those who "sow to please the sinful nature" are not saved and "will reap destruction." (Gal. 6:8) Bible Christians do not teach that just because you claim to have accepted Jesus as your personal Savior, you are saved even if you deliberately continue sinning against the Lord. That is a strong perception among some Catholics of what Bible Christians teach, but it isn't accurate. It goes against the Bible. Any "Christian" who teaches such a thing needs to get his theological head examined. There is no salvation, and therefore no assurance of salvation, for anyone who lives for sin rather than for the Savior.
It seems as though many Catholic theologians feel that if you provide people with the assurance of salvation, you are inviting them to live a loose life of sinful pleasure. While there are no doubt some misguided people who attempt to follow that approach, it is not something that is taught in the Bible….and it is not something that will result in a person being saved....and it is not the teaching of Bible Christians. Salvation comes to those who repent and believe the good news….and who have been made a new creation in Christ, (2 Cor. 5:17) and not to those who say certain Christian words while intending to make sin their master rather than Christ.
With all of that in mind….and with this being the most important topic we could ever discuss….the question remains: Can Catholics have the assurance of salvation? Not according to this Catholic booklet with 5 million copies in print. It states, "The Bible does not teach that Christians have a guarantee of heaven. There can be no absolute assurance of salvation." (p. 25) Whoa! That is completely wrong and terribly misguided.
Without the assurance of salvation, eternal life is like a carrot dangling out in front of you that you must keep striving to obtain. Bible Christians reject that approach to salvation and correctly identify it as "works righteousness." That is the sort of doctrine you end up with when you separate salvation from justification. This is why so many Bible Christians regularly ask people, "Are you saved?" The goal is to help people think through whether they are relying upon the Law, or upon the Gospel for salvation.
One such example happened today in our weekly Bible study at the county jail. A conscientious man came to the study and identified himself as an active Catholic who attends church weekly. He was extremely disappointed to be in jail after having gone 10 years without a setback. I was very impressed with Scott's openness and honesty concerning the problem which landed him in jail yesterday. I asked him, "If God were to ask you today why He should let you into heaven, what would you tell him?" Scott pointed to a few things he has done over the years as a father and church attender which he hoped would qualify him. In doing so, Scott pointed to his righteousness rather than Christ's righteousness as the basis of his hope for heaven.
By the time we were done talking, I had been able to draw on the board for Scott and the other men showing them the relationship between justification and salvation....and that they occur simultaneously through faith in Christ's work on the cross. I even referred to the Catholic booklet I received in the mail, and Scott was familiar with it. I explained to the men what gives me the assurance that I would go to heaven if I died today. It has nothing to do with me being a pastor....or anything I have done. My answer to the Lord would be: "I am trusting completely in the blood which Jesus shed for me on the cross, and relying totally upon His death as the payment for my sins. I am placing 100% of my confidence for heaven in His work on the cross."
That message seemed to register with Scott and the others. I invited them to place 100% of their faith for heaven in Christ's work. I led them in a prayer that allowed them to verbally express faith in Christ, and they seemed to be genuine in wanting to place their faith in Christ alone. Scott's spiritual eyes and ears seemed to have opened to the message of the Gospel when he heard it today.
The moment a person is justified, he can be certain of his salvation. This is what the Bible teaches. Dangling carrots breed nothing but spiritual uncertainty, and it leads a person to rely upon his obedience to the Law rather than relying upon the good news of the Gospel.
It's the difference between total reliance upon the cross right now as the basis for salvation today....versus a perpetual and ongoing reliance upon both Jesus and my obedience as the dual basis for hopefully receiving salvation in the future. It comes down to what I am relying upon to save my soul. "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough." (Gal. 5:9) In other words, relying partly on my obedience to be saved is just as bad as relying completely on my efforts to keep God's commands. "All who rely upon observing the law are under a curse."(Gal. 3:10)
Bible Christians reject the teaching that man earns heaven through "grace-filled" obedience, or any other kind of obedience. The good works which a Christian does are the result of God's presence in his life, but are not meritorious toward his entrance into heaven. That point cannot be overemphasized. It is the difference between Christianity and every other religion. Any Catholic teaching that makes man's works meritorious toward his entrance into heaven is a message that goes against the Gospel....and against Jesus Christ....and against His true church....and against the Bible....and it keeps those who follow it from entering paradise. "If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing." (Gal. 2:21)
The little booklet I received was not written by the pope. But even if it had been, the false statements that are contained in it would still be just as false. The pope is a man. The Roman Catholic church is made up of men. In the history of the world, some men have been wrong in their teaching about grace and the Gospel. It doesn't matter how many centuries a false doctrine has been taught....it does not become true just because it manages to persist in men's hearts and in a church's doctrinal statement. It is false doctrine to teach, as this booklet does, that there can be no absolute assurance of salvation. That robs Christ of His glory and His sacrifice on the cross by making man the one who must finalize the salvation which God supposedly only began in our justification.
So is there any common ground for Catholics and Bible Christians on this foundational issue? Well….only if the doctrines of justification and salvation are both seen as instantaneous and simultaneous the moment a person is converted through the power of the Holy Spirit as he comes to faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, when man is justified before God through faith in Christ, he immediately inherits eternal life….even before he does his first good work. If he fails to go on to do good works, Catholics and Bible Christians would agree that he is not truly saved, and that his faith is not genuine.
But where the Catholic Church would be wise to expand their thinking is in the relationship between justification and salvation. If Catholic theologians would come to see that salvation, like justification, is a free gift….rather than a carrot on a stick….and that nothing preceding salvation earns grace….and nothing preceding the assurance of salvation earns grace....then Catholics and Bible Christians would have a lot to celebrate with one another.
As it stands, a number of Catholics and Bible Christians get it….while others among our ranks are still confused about the Gospel and are trying to earn eternal life through their deeds….rather than placing 100% of their assurance of salvation in the finished work of Christ on the cross.
"Without faith, it is impossible to please God." (Hebrews 11:6) "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1)Therefore, it is impossible to please God as long as you are relying upon your "grace-filled" works to seal the deal for your salvation. Biblical faith is focused on the finished work of Christ on the cross....and that is why a believer can be certain of his salvation....because he is certain of what Jesus did for him. The focus of faith is not on what the believer gets to do for Christ. Even if you call it "grace-filled" obedience, you still have brought in a counterfeit gospel the minute you say that a Christian cannot be sure of his salvation.
What about the verse, as pointed to in the booklet, about working out your salvation with fear and trembling? That's easy. You cannot "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12) unless you have already received the free gift of salvation. (John 1:12) Your fear and trembling refers to the seriousness of your Christian living….and your awe for our holy God….but not to a lack of assurance regarding eternal life. If we confuse the two, we end up with a false gospel that cannot save….and a message of "works righteousness," rather than the message of the Bible, which assures us that "this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." (Romans 3:22)
Works righteousness comes from man trusting in his efforts to "hopefully" give him salvation somewhere down the road. The "righteousness from God" which Paul writes about in Romans comes from man trusting in Christ's death on the cross to "certainly" give him salvation today. Reliance upon our works is not faith, and it provides no righteousness for the sinner. Reliance upon Christ is Christian faith and it does provide the righteousness which we need to in order to be righteous in God's sight forever. (see Romans 3:21-26)
So can Catholics have the assurance of salvation? Yes….but only when they believe what the Bible teaches about salvation. The Bible is inerrant....the enormous religious organization based in Rome is not....and neither are the human organizations which many Bible Christians identify as their denomination. Jesus is infallible....the pope is not. The Gospel is for all people, and no human organization can stop people from believing the truth. But a religious organization can sure muddy the waters by teaching that there is no absolute assurance of salvation.
If that were truly the case, then perhaps Jesus would have told the thief on the cross who believed in Him, "I hope to see you later today in paradise....that is, if you prove yourself worthy." That is not the Gospel, and that was not the message of Christ or the apostles. So you see....everything truly does hinge on how a church defines "grace." Is it what we do....or what Christ has done?
Whenever salvation gets separated from justification, man remains separated from God in his sin. Only the blood of Jesus can bring God and man together, and that only happens through faith in what Christ accomplished for us on the cross. All other mental and spiritual gymnastics will leave you doubting your salvation....and continually striving to "make up the difference" now that Jesus has done His part.
Many people are seduced by the enticing message that somehow our efforts help to secure our eternal life in heaven. Nothing could be further from the truth. That applies whether you identify yourself as a "Catholic," or a "Bible Christian," or with some other label. After all, it's not your church label that will get you into heaven. You do realize that don't you?