How Are We Saved?
I was discussing with some Southern Baptists whether or not non-Christians can be saved; they were very uncomfortable with this topic. They wanted to believe it was possible but were repeatedly and emphatically taught that only Christians can be saved.
A cornerstone of Reformation theology is humans are totally depravedand utterly irredeemable through their own efforts; it takes the supernatural intervention of God's grace acting within the will to allow us even the possibility of coming to saving faith.
I'm reading a book on Universalism. The author claims God would never condemn people to an eternity of suffering in hellnor would God create creatures (humans) deserving of such a fate. Needless to say the author also rejects the notion of original sin.
Some people seem to think humanity is getting better and better and someday (soon) we will live in a utopian society. They usually compare the inhumanity of man against man in the Christendom of the middle ages with modern democratic societies in which people have some amount of freedom. For some reason they ignore the horrors of the twentieth century, the bloodiest century in human history.
I became a Christian in the first place because the various eastern and new-age philosophies did not adequately explain the problem of evil. Even though these systems denied the existence of original sin I sensed its existence in the heart of every person.
The evangelical fundamentalist Protestant view of man's sinfulness is not very satisfying for me. Typically it is taught we are totally depraved and we sin a thousand times a second in our thoughts and a hundred times a minute in our deeds; even infants are wicked sinners. In this view there is no goodness in people; the goodness God saw when he created Adam has all been disfigured by sin.
The Catholic view of sin is more satisfying to me. (I need to distinguish between the official teaching of the Catholic Church and the opinions of Catholic bishops, priests, and Catholics at large, many of whom reject the teachings of their church.) In the Catholic view it is possible to refrain from sinning for days at a time (this takes a focused emphasis on prayer and devotion).
Everyone has concupiscence; the tendency to sin, the desire to sin. This is a result of our souls'sharing the same spiritual realm with wicked spirits. Our spiritual walk with God is measured by how strongly we resist the evil influences. Our salvation is based on whether or not we call out to God to be saved from this mess or whether we accept the evil world as our own. When we stop fighting sin we are in big trouble.
But we are not saved by works only. The New Testament also states we are saved by faith; and by belief; and by publicly confessing our faith (but speaking is a work). Thus we are saved by a combination of faith and works.
Some people who claim non-Christians can be saved refer to primitive tribes as examples of innocent and good people — how could God send such as these to hell? Unfortunately, one viewing of a documentary about these tribes illustrates these tribes as anything but innocent and good. However, just as in our modern day societies, there may be people who are repulsed by the immorality and wicked behavior of their peers: if there are any non-Christian candidates for salvation it would be these.
Throughout history there have been plenty of examples of Christians (Protestant and Catholic alike) who have exploited others and committed the most cruel atrocities against their fellow humans. Certainly the salvation of these is questionable.
Many people have rejected the gospel because they were introduced to such a corrupt version of the gospel (for example, the word/faith health/wealth gospel, the KKK mentality with violence and murder being practiced by otherwise "good" Christians). Who can blame these for rejecting this false gospel?
We should consider whether good people (who are kind, loving, and giving to others) are really so good after all. A common fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant doctrine states works performed by a person before they are saved are not considered good in the eyes of God. This doesn't make sense to me. In Matthew chapter 25Jesus describes people being considered righteous and just before God merely because they performed acts of mercy and charity to others.
It is tempting to think only a few people who were extremely evil will end up in hell, people like Stalin, Hitler, and the various serial killers. But where is the cutoff line between the extremely evil people and those who are merely confused or misguided? Does someone have to kill 60 million people or 11 million people or only 10 people? Or is killing one person enough? What about destroying someone's career and reputation like Senator Joseph McCarthy did? Is adultery sufficient cause? What about habitual anger and rage toward a spouse? It is hard to find a cutoff line at which we can clearly state people who cross that line go to hell. In my view the salvation of anyone who commits a mortal sin is in jeopardy. My list of common mortal sins (this is not the same list as that of the Catholic Church):
Is promiscuous homosexuality sufficient cause for a person to be damned to eternity to hell? I am uncertain about this especially in the case of those living within a committed lifelong relationship. Certainly it would qualify as a mortal sin when there is violence and exploitation involved. Those practicing a lifestyle of promiscuity (heterosexual or homosexual) are more at risk of committing mortal sin (since these kinds of temporary relationships are often exploitative of the other person's dignity).
Wouldn't God want to save everyone? Isn't he more powerful that Satan (who will fail therefore in leading people away from God)? It is a mystery why anyone would rebel against God as Lucifer did. Satan may think he is the cause of leading people into rebellion against God but he is not — those who reject God would have done so anyway.
God is completely holy: he does not see sin and wickedness at all. When God merely looks in the direction of sin, that sin is judged, destroyed, and cast away from his glance. A person who walks toward God will of necessity endure the purging of their sin.
When we finally enter into God's presence our sin will be completely gone. Our sins are not merely covered over by Christ's righteousness;they are gone. For the redeemed who have not become perfect while in this life, after death they will continue the process of purging their sin — this is purgatory.
At the final great white throne judgment everyone will finally come into God's presence (or as close as they can get). Those who refuse to part with their sin will be repelled from God's presence into the lake of fire. Those who love God more than their sin will have their sins purged and destroyed as they come close to God to embrace him.
Those who blame God for sending people to hell have a mistaken view of God's nature and his goodness. They see him as vindictive and spiteful; they view God himself as a sinner who commits wicked deeds. The souls of such as these are in extreme danger.
In my view salvation is a process of interacting with God. Throughout our lives God speaks to our soul many times in many ways. Our response to these promptings is the important thing. Those who always reject God will finally reject the offer to spend eternity in God's presence and will choose hellinstead. The hearts of these people get harder and harder with each rejection until they become bitter and hateful of God and of goodness.
The redeemed accept God and his promptings. This may begin after years and decades of rejecting him but one day they will have a change of heart and will begin accepting him. This will involve repenting from sin in thought and deed. This acceptance of God and willingness to change to conform to God's moral law is the essence of salvation.
Some might object there is no mention of Jesus in all this. This is only because I've been discussing salvation from the perspective of us; of our role. Jesus made salvation possible by reclaiming our human souls from bondage to Satan. He did this by merging human nature including the human soul into God's very nature, by "deifying" humanity. For those who will receive it and who allow the Holy Spirit of God to enter into their souls, Satan cannot damn anyone anymore.
We each have until death to choose God or to reject him. Some people appear to have rejected God all the way up until their death; but we can't be certain about it. I suspect there is a period of time after we think deathoccurs in which everyone encounters Jesus Christ and hears the gospel in a compelling way:
I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people. (Revelation 14:6)
I suspect many people accept Christ as savior after we think they have died but before their souls are sent to hell.
It is a common Protestant teaching we do not become sin-free upon salvation but rather...
This implies we still have our sins after death (since we are judged at the white throne judgment which occurs long after we have died). Presumably our sins are finally removed then. But the Bible says nothing about it.
The only passage in the New Testament (there are others in the Old Testament) referring to the notion of covering of sin is in Romans; a quotation from Psalm 32...
Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. (Romans 4:7-8)
Even those who teach our sins are merely coveredconsider it to be important we are finally cleansed of our sins someday; it is assumed some day in heaven we really will be free of sin. But they never discuss when the sins will be removed or the process by which the sin nature of original sin is removed.
The source of the teaching of covered sin is: we are totally depraved, we can do nothing good and we sin in our thoughts a hundred times a second and in our actions ten times a minute. According to this teaching we can do nothing good even after being saved so God has to do all the work. If God were to cleanse us of sin by removing the sin we would able to do works pleasing to him, but since we are totally depraved the best God can do is to cover our sins with the righteousness of Christ.
But there must be a moment in time in which we finally do become cleansed of our sins. The Catholic view (which I accept):
There is a teaching of the Orthodox church I find very interesting: the deification of man.
Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (2 Peter 1:4)
In the Orthodox and Catholic view Jesus, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, in the incarnation actually took on a human nature from Mary and thereby united the human and divine natures. Thus, human nature was deifiedand became part of God's nature. In becoming redeemed we enter in to this unity of God and are capable of being Saintly and holy (but not perfectly).
A common teaching of fundamentalist evangelical Protestants is once we are saved we cannot lose our salvation. This view runs into difficulty in considering those who got saved but continue to live an unholy life. The typical answer is they were never really saved to begin with. This implies in order to be saved we must display works thus making works a necessary ingredient for salvation.
Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. . . . But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? . . . Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. . . . For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:17-18,20,24,26)
Another common view is we can lose our salvation. At question here is what can cause us to lose our salvation. Certainly it seems reasonable to claim if we lose our faith we lose our salvation. This is really what apostasy is, the turning away from God and renouncing our faith.
I suppose there are people who renounced Christianity and who still remained good and Godly people. Whether or not they can be saved depends on the same criteria as for non-Christians.
There are many passages in the New Testament stating believers are judged based on their works.Based on this it is easy to understand how a person who was once saved can lose their salvation. If their deeds do not measure up (because they did not really have faith) they will be judged for this.
The question naturally arises as to how good we have to be in order to demonstrate we actually have saving faith? The Catholic Church teaches some sins are venial (not affecting salvation) and some are mortal (they affect salvation). I provide a list here (this is my list, not the Catholic list).
But if we can lose our salvation by our works won't this cause us to fret and worry about whether we are saved or not? This was a main point in Martin Luther's thinking causing him to conclude our works have no bearing on our salvation. But a problem with disconnecting faith and works (so we can feel assurance) is works become less important. Certainly Christians should wish to please God, but how hard should we struggle against the impulses of our flesh and of the unholy world around us?
A key point to consider is God can forgive sins, even mortal sins. The Catholic Church provides a sacramental way for Catholics to have their mortal sins forgiven. But what about non-Catholics? I consider the Catholic system to be valid and true but since the Catholic Church excludes Protestants from enjoying the benefits of sacramental confession there must be another way (the Catholic Church considers baptized Protestants as truly Christian, in fact, as Catholic!).
The whole point of salvation is to believe in God; to love him; to wish to honor him, serve and obey him, and worship him; and to wish to spend eternity in his presence. When committing mortal sins these aspects are naturally pushed into the background. For example, no one commits adultery or slanders someone because they think this pleases God. In committing mortal sin we push God into the background for a time.
Christians who continually and often commit mortal sins become hardened to receiving God's graces and to worshipping and praising him. They become habituated to saying no to God and yes to their addiction to sin. On judgment day these will say no to God.
A Christian who desires to spend eternity with God will desire to please him in this life. Those Christians who have committed mortal sins in the past, who have asked God to forgive these, and who do not commit mortal sins anymore have no cause to be concerned about their salvation.
Those Christians who commit mortal sins often have some cause for concern. Certainly addictions can be very difficult to break. Those who have given up trying to break them have cause for concern.
Being saved is a lifelong process. Those who are truly saved will struggle against the powers of darkness and will seek the truth and the light. Those who succumb to the powers of darkness should renew their hearts and minds and get back into the fray. We must call out to God always to empower us, to energize us, and to motivate us to endure in this battle.
Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life. (1 Timothy 6:12)
I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. (1 Corinthians 9:26-27)
I was watching EWTN and there was a puppet show in which a man asked the priest to perform mass for a relative of his who had died. In reflecting how our prayers for unbelievers work I had the following insight.
Suppose a person who hurt you deeply is in this critical moment after death of deciding whether or not to reject Christ and be eternally damned. But you have prayed for their salvation even though they hurt you. God delivers the message of your prayer to them and it has an emotional impact on them; how could an enemy desire their blessing? As a result, they choose salvation. Your prayer for them made the difference.
I think there is a similar process going on for those in purgatory. A person in purgatory is struggling with releasing their hold on some attachment they developed while alive but they just can't seem to let go, their attachment was so strong. But there was a mass performed in their honor and you prayed for them. God delivers the message of the prayer to them and with you "by their side" they receive the strength of will to let go.