A few years ago now, one of you invited me to dinner at your home and gave me an assignment. Also at the meal would be a University Professor who was contemplating conversion to Roman Catholicism. He was an evangelical, an earnest Christian, a Lutheran since his conversion. Having been born and raised a Lutheran, it was natural for him to seek out a Lutheran church when he finally became a follower of Christ as a young adult. My job was to talk him out of becoming a Catholic. I did not succeed, as it happened.
He was attracted to Roman Catholicism, as I discovered in conversation with him, for the same reasons that other intelligent Christians these days find it attractive. As G.K. Chesterton put it, the Roman Catholic church freed him from the degrading slavery of being a child of his time. Catholicism seems to these people to connect them to the great, central tradition of Christianity in the world, to something much larger than themselves, something much more impressive than what American evangelical protestantism seems to be in our day. It bequeaths a sense of identity, of belonging, and, in its worship, a sense of transcendence and the glory of God. So this man thought. He was attempting to argue a few of the Roman Catholic positions, on tradition and the like, but I didn’t gather that these were the real attraction for him.
But at one point in the conversation we got to talking about practical matters. I told him that he would certainly find that regularly many, if not most, of the people he worshipped with in Catholic churches were not serious Christians as he understood Christianity. He knew that and agreed with that. He further admitted that the preaching would usually be pathetic, often atrocious, and frequently unbiblical. I told him that he seemed to me a man committed to the gospel, with a grasp of salvation by grace and justification by faith in Christ, and so I did not worry so much that his own soul would be put in jeopardy by his converting to Rome, but I was not so confident that his young children would survive the journey. He admitted to me that this was his own greatest worry. Should he bring up his children in a church where so many paid only lip-service to Christian faith and life, where perhaps most of the parishioners would not genuinely believe in Christ or follow him, and where it would be so easy, almost inevitable for children to associate the Christian faith with a bare outward conformity, a perfunctory attendance on certain sacred acts, and an undemanding, half-hearted, commitment to the Christian life?
Now Roman Catholics would take great umbrage, no doubt, that someone so seriously considering joining them, would have such a low opinion of Catholic commitment and sincerity. But, the fact that someone so attracted to Catholicism should nevertheless be so pessimistic about the average Roman Catholic’s spiritual life is perhaps as powerful a commentary on the state of that church as can be given.
For, you see, it has never been doubted in Protestant theology and spirituality that there are and have been devout believers, earnest Christians in the Roman Catholic church. No doubt the total number of such believers is large, given the size of that church and its existence through the centuries. Luther, who did not agree in many crucial points with Bernard of Clairvaux’s theology, did not hesitate to say of him that he loved Jesus as much as anyone can. Alexander Whyte, who had nothing but contempt for John Henry Newman’s Catholic doctrine of justification, had the highest admiration for him as a Christian, as he did for Teresa of Avila and Father John of the Orthodox Church. The Lord covers many sins in all of his children, sins both of the mind and the life, and Protestants have always been ready to admit that the sins of particular Roman Catholics are as susceptible to forgiveness as they hope their own great sins will be. I know Roman Catholics who, I believe, are earnest followers of Christ and I certainly consider Scott Hahn and Thomas Howard brothers in Christ as, apparently, they would me.
But, that has not kept Protestants from charging that Rome’s peculiar set of errors — especially the cluster of those errors that form Rome’s construction of how salvation comes to a person — make what is already very difficult, the salvation of a soul, much more difficult, humanly speaking and biblically speaking, much less likely. That is, Rome’s unbiblical approach to salvation precisely exacerbates those harmful tendencies to which the sinful soul is already subject, namely, to look in the wrong place for the assurance of its salvation. It encourages people to concentrate on the wrong things and distracts them, thereby, from those things that, according to the Bible, finally separate the saved from the lost. This is not only the Protestant criticism of Catholic theology, this is the Protestant observation of Catholic preaching and life. And the same could be said of Orthodox preaching and life.
The typical Roman Catholic is not used to hearing powerful sermons warning of the danger of false assurance. She does not grow up being urged to make her calling and election sure; he remembers no conversations with a priest who urged him to examine himself to see whether he was in the faith. The doctrine of the “fewness of the saved” so powerfully taught by the Lord Jesus — his parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins or his contrast of the broad and the narrow way are not the staples of Catholic spirituality. There is in developed Roman Catholicism nothing like the emphasis on personal evangelism that you find in Protestant evangelical churches. The entire Roman Catholic system concentrates attention on the rites of the church and the participation of the parishioner in those rites as well as on some measure of conformity to Christian ethics — though often a miserably low measure of conformity.
It is interesting that the new converts to Rome almost all, to one degree or another, concede that Roman Catholic churches are full of folk who are participants in the life of faith only mechanically. These are folk who do not understand Christian doctrine and often could not give any account of the gospel by which, presumably, they think themselves saved. The 25 folk who were interviewed coming out of a Sunday service at St. Patrick’s cathedral were, it is not too much to say, a typical cross-section. All but one utterly failed to explain how sinners are saved, even by Roman Catholic standards. Scott Hahn admitted in his lecture on purgatory that many catholics think, for example, that purgatory is a second chance. If one didn’t do what he was supposed to in this life, God will let him do it in the next. And so these Catholics pay little serious personal attention to the Word and will of God while living in this world. Now Scott Hahn would say, “Shame on the Catholic church for permitting a single one of its members to believe such a thing,” but the fact is, vast multitudes of Roman Catholics, most of the Catholics evangelical Protestants know and have known, betray an almost invincible ignorance of the gospel and hold views that cannot be harmonized with any serious reading of Holy Scripture. What is worse, their church does virtually nothing to disabuse them of those views. Indeed, the modern Catholic church, as opposed to historic Roman Catholicism, lays less and less stress on the importance of being a Christian at all. Ordinary Catholics, in vast numbers, comfort themselves with the hope of salvation, because they do what the church tells them to do, and no one in their church urges them to take care lest they found themselves numbered at last among that vast multitude of church members whom the Lord says he will refuse to welcome to his banquet.
I chose for my text this representative passage from 1 John because it concerns the subject of the entire letter, viz. the assurance of salvation. How does one know that he is saved, really saved? That when he awakes he will awake with Christ’s likeness and not find himself, like the rich man in the Lord’s parable in Luke 16, surprised to find himself in hell and in misery?
It is a real question, an important question, a pressing question in the New Testament, indeed in the entire Bible. It is not enough to say that you are a Christian, because many who say that are not saved. Jesus made a great point in his preaching of warning us about that! It may be that in one sense no one can call Jesus “Lord” except by the Spirit of God, but the Savior himself said “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you, away from me you evil doers!” [Matt 7:21-23] It isn’t enough to be faithful upon the rites and ceremonies of the church. The great message of the OT prophets, taken up by Jesus and Paul and the author of the letter to the Hebrews, was precisely the warning against such a confidence. Israel was sure that because she had the temple and the sacrifices God would spare her. But through his prophets he warned Israel over and over again that without a true faith in God that produced a true holiness of life, the rites and ceremonies of Israel’s worship not only did not help, they offended God for the hypocrisy of those who used them without intending to express in them and with them any true love for God or submission to him. Nor is it enough to have been a professing Christian. For there are many who seemed to begin but did not continue in faith, hope, and Christian love. But as Jesus taught and Paul and Peter and James and the author of Hebrews, the only true and living and saving faith is the faith that carries a man or woman from the beginning of the Christian life to the moment of death.
John in his first letter is concerned to teach his readers how they might know they were saved, on what grounds a sure hope of salvation might rest. That is what he says he has been about in the letter in 5:13. “…that you might know!” God does not change a person’s outward appearance when he is saved; he does not speak from heaven; you cannot see sins being forgiven. Many people, whom we think are Christians, prove themselves not to have been Christians at all. John refers to this in 2:19. So how can you and I know that we are Christians in truth, not hypocrites? How can we know that we will be there, still faithful to Christ, at the end? And all the more when even true Christians remain so sinful, so frail, so foolish in so many ways. How can we know whether we are the genuine article and are not only kidding ourselves. This is a question the Bible cares to take up and answer, over and over again.
In First John as a whole the tests that Christians are taught to use on themselves, by which to examine their faith and life, are such things as true belief in Christ as the Son of God and Savior, an active resting of one’s life and salvation upon him, a spirit of penitence that leads to the confession of sins to God, a true love for God and for his people — which is what the Holy Spirit produces in those who are being saved–, a life of obedience to God’s commandments, a love of God’s law and way and will. You have all of this again in summary in the verses we have read: right doctrine in v. 1 and vv. 5-12, and godly living in vv. 2-4. This, John says, is how you know! It isn’t right doctrine or right living that saves you. God’s electing love, Christ’s death and righteousness in your place, the Holy Spirit at work within — these are what save you, but the evidence of those things in your life: that is what we are after, and John says you find that evidence in faith, in penitence, in love, and in obedience.
Now this is very interesting, because when John sets out to answer the question how may I know that I am truly saved, he does not say anything about ecclesiastical rites or participation in them, he says nothing about baptism, or acts of penance, or the Mass, or anything else that figures so largely in the average Catholic’s peace of mind. Nor does he place the emphasis on any particular kind of spiritual experience, such as American revivalist Arminianism has for so long. In many evangelical circles, one knows he is a Christian because he had a conversion experience in church or at a camp meeting or at an evangelistic crusade. But that is not what John says. No, people who proved themselves finally unbelievers sometimes had powerful experiences that everyone thought at the time were evidence of their conversion and new life in Christ. Jesus warned about placing too much weight on experience; so did Paul. And John places little weight on it in his letter.
His emphasis falls instead on the testing of attitudes and commitments by the fruit they produce in one’s character and life. When God comes into a life, he comes to produce certain results; the presence of those results — faith, hope, love, obedience and all in Christ — that is the main proof, the most reliable demonstration of the presence of God’s salvation.
But Catholics, as a rule, do not consider these things, do not take care about them, do not pray about them and do not study to find them in themselves that they might know they are walking the narrow road that leads to life and not that broad road that so many church members through the ages have walked happily and comfortably to hell. This is not a Roman Catholic problem only, of course. Liberal Protestants do not worry over such questions and even certain evangelicals don’t either. Whenever the Word of God is not taken with full seriousness as the guide to faith and life, human beings find ways to think less seriously and more comfortably about their salvation.
After all, think about this. One might have supposed that Roman Catholic theology would make Catholics scrupulous about the matter of personal assurance of salvation. In Catholic thought, one is justified at baptism, but must preserve that justification by good works and pious acts — what Catholics will even call “merits” — through the course of one’s life. Justification can be lost at any time and must then be won back. The spiritual situation of a person at any moment is tenuous and susceptible to fundamental change. One might well think that this view of things would keep Catholics up at night worrying about maintaining their place among the saved. But it is not so.
It is never so. It wasn’t so with legalistic Jews in the first century and it is not so with Arminians who likewise believe that you can lose your salvation. In every case in which the human element is reintroduced to justification, in which theories of merit or free will are inserted as conditions of one’s standing with God, the result is a relaxation of standards such that people, instead of becoming more concerned about pleasing God, become less. The simple principle is this: when human beings begin to reinvent the Bible’s doctrine of salvation, when men take back the matter of their salvation into their own hands, they do not do so to make salvation more difficult for themselves, but more easy. Men do not make their standing with God rest on their works unless they lessen the difficulty of those works that are required.
“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,” said the prophet to a community of people who had come to think that a very low standard of conformity to outward requirements and a certain regularity in the performance of pious acts of worship would keep them safe and in God’s good graces. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said to a community accustomed to think that heaven was theirs in exchange for a relatively undemanding commitment to largely outward rules and for the embrace of a religious routine.
In Roman Catholic theology, assurance is actually impossible. No one can know for sure that he is the object of divine grace. There is too much uncertainty in any system in which human works are key to maintaining one’s place in the family of God. Whatever one has today, can be lost tomorrow. As one Catholic apologist put it, in one of the debates I listened to, when Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to the man who is in Christ Jesus,” he means only “at this present moment.” There might be condemnation tomorrow! But, the result of that is not a church full of Christians fearful of losing their peace with God or very zealous to protect and maintain that peace. The result is a church full of people who are fast asleep, certain that the most undemanding and external routine will be sufficient to get them in.
But lest you think I am merely venting my Protestant prejudices against Roman Catholic thinking and living, let me repeat the account of a Roman Catholic priest, a thoughtful, vigorous defender of Catholic theology and practice, but one who is, as well, the editor of a magazine that seeks to foster unity among serious minded Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians [Touchstone 10.4 (Fall, 1997) 5].
“Just a few weeks ago I became aware that Sam [Moses] had been admitted to the Veterans’ Hospital here in Butler. He was about 80 and had relatives in the New Castle congregation. Making inquiries, I learned that no one could remember when, if ever, he had been to the Sacraments, not even folks whose adult memories stretched back before World War II. Indeed, for a while, I was not sure Sam was a Christian; for all I knew, he could be a Moslem. So I paid Sam a brief visit, at the end of which I asked if he wanted me to pray for him. He assented, and when I blessed him, he crossed himself. That settled it.
When I came back some days later, I brought the Holy Eucharist and the Extreme Unction with me. This time it was clear that the man was dying. I looked down at him and said, ‘Sam, you’re getting pretty close, aren’t you.’ He nodded. ‘What are we going to do about that?’ I asked. He shrugged. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I tell you exactly what we’re going to do; we’re going to get you back into the Church, that’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to do it right now.’
‘Okay,’ he answered. I took out a four-inch crucifix and told him to keep his eyes on it while I explained it to him, reminding him why Someone was hanging there on that cross and what he was paying for by doing so. Then I took Sam through each of the Ten Commandments in detail, and in detail he made a full confession of all the sins of his life. I told him what things he was to tell God in his heart while I covered his head with my ample stole and absolved him of all those sins. This activity was very hard on Sam, for the man was tired. I anointed him with the Extreme Unction and mixed the Holy Communion in the Chalice. On that day, and two more times, Same received the Body and Blood of our Lord, the Holy Viaticum, literally ‘traveling food,’ in preparation for the journey he was about to make.
This past Wednesday I came back to Butler, once again took the Holy Eucharist from the altar and headed for the hospital. Sam was too weak to receive however. His very labored breath told me he was near the end…. I suspected that this might be my last time with Sam. I anointed and absolved him again and recited the Trisagion prayers. Then, following a custom that I have used for decades, I slowly and carefully read the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel out loud. This is a very ancient Irish custom — to die, if possible, during the proclamation of the opening verses of St. John… Anyway, I have always strictly adhered to it. I have no idea, after all these years, how many people have died listening to me announce those awesome lines: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’
Sam did not last another day. I informed the clergy at St. Elias Church in New Castle that I had re-admitted a lapsed Christian back into their fold, and Sam will receive an Orthodox burial tomorrow. It is a marvelous thing to watch a Good Thief steal heaven like that, at the last minute, as it were, getting in just under the wire and right before the quittin’ bell rings. It causes the heart nearly to burst with gratitude and joy and love for the divine compassion for us sinners. After all, when I ministered to Sam in those God-ordained ways during those closing days, it was just one sinner doing what he could for another. The only thing that counted was the ‘copious redemption’ that the Psalmist sings of. Anyway, Blood-bought Sam will be laid to rest tomorrow. Israel has gone forth from Egypt, and the house of Jacob from a folk of alien tongue.”
Now, I used that anecdote in keeping with my plan to deal with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in the best light and not the worst. Here is a priest who cares more about the Bible than many priests do, is more careful to elicit a full confession than many priests would be, and takes care to emphasize that salvation rests on divine grace to an extent that is not characteristic of the ministry of many in those churches. That is why so many multitudes of people through the ages have claimed to have found the grace of God and salvation in Christ and the true experience of faith only upon leaving the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches!
But, at the last, I think you see the problem with this priests viewpoint. It is not the Bible’s viewpoint. It is not the way the Bible speaks. It is not the way the Bible confers on anyone the assurance of salvation. Now, I cannot say that Sam Moses did not repent at the very end of his life and make his peace with God by a true and living faith in Christ and in the mercy offered him in the gospel. It is always possible. But one would never know that such was the case in the way this priest imagines that he knows! Not by a priestly absolution, not by a taking of the Holy Eucharist, not by a performing of pious acts while lying in a hospital bed. All of this can be done; all of this has been done in cases without number; and the people were no more saved after than before. Generally it remains true: God will not be mocked; whatsoever a man sows in his life, that shall he reap. A true and living faith, a genuine and searching repentance, a love for God and Christ for their saving mercy, a crying out to God to be merciful to me a sinner — all of these things, yes, even on a deathbed, even at the very last moment, as the thief on the cross learned to his eternal joy are the evidences of eternal life in Christ! But none of that is known, none of that is proved, none of that is determined by what that priest did in that hospital room.
The most he could have said, the Scripture teaches, the most he could have said is “having heard the fervency of his confession of sin and seeing in his face what I took to be a true sincerity in confessing Christ his savior, I have hopes that the man may truly have been renewed by the Holy Spirit and justified by the Father in heaven. The fact that he did not speak that way, but implied that such acts as were performed actually produced the hoped for result, demonstrates how far from the teaching of the Bible itself this view of the assurance of salvation really is and why it is so dangerous and how, through the ages, it has put so many sinners to sleep who, it is greatly to be feared, awoke in hell!
Not for us, brothers and sisters. The only safe Christian and the only one who can lay claim with confidence to the love of God and the righteousness of Christ is the man or woman who is walking with God, turning from his sins, resting in Jesus Christ, seeking the honor of God in his life, serving the Lord, and giving evidence that the Spirit of God is producing holy fruits in his or her life. The problem with the Roman Catholic doctrine of Holy Orders is not that there should be men and women who devote themselves and their chastity to the service of Christ and his church — that is biblical and wonderful. The problem is rather the impression, so widely given, that those without such orders are not equally required to live a devout, consecrated, holy life of Christian faith, love, devotion, prayer, and service to God and man. Every Christian is under “holy orders,” and true assurance of salvation requires us to know, believe, and practice that fact!
The terrible fact is, the saddest road to hell is that road that passes down the aisle of a Christian church, passed a font and a table or altar, and right underneath a Christian pulpit, and, through the ages, as the Scripture itself teaches us, more folk have travelled that road to hell than to heaven! That simple fact ought to make us more hungry and thirsty for the Bible’s true evidences of salvation in our own hearts and lives than for anything else in all the world.
And any church that does not exert itself to urge upon you that concern, with all the holy solemnity that the Christian Church can bring to bear, if only it will, is no church for anyone who loves his own soul or the souls of his children.