Category Archives: free will

Politics and Religion Pt. 6 – “Religious Liberty”

Free will is at the very core of the message of the entire Bible. In my book, Behold Your Mother – A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines, in the chapter (12) entitled, “Other Redeemers? Understanding God’s Plan of Salvation,” which is a lead-in to chapter 13, “Mary’s Saving Office,” I explain:

Catholics believe man was constituted by God as naturally and essentially free, and that this freedom is not destroyed when a man comes to God through Christ. We say that grace never destroys nature; rather, it heals and perfects it. And this freedom is precisely what we see in Scripture. From God’s commandment to Adam in Genesis 2:17 not to eat “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” lest he die, to God’s word to Israel in Deuteronomy 30:19 to choose between life and death, to our Lord telling us in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him,” the Bible is clear: Man is free either to accept or reject God’s call to follow him…

Our Lord himself removed all doubt concerning man’s freedom when he revealed that as God from all eternity he willed to gather “Jerusalem” as his own, but they refused him:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not (Matt. 23:37)!

Freedom vs. Coercion

It is because of the centrality of freedom in matters religious that coercion (excepting where free commitments have been made and duties assumed) has always been condemned by the Church. In fact, the infamous forced baptisms of some Jews in the Middle Ages were not only condemned by the Church, but led the Church to consider in a deeper way the absolute necessity of intention on the part of adult converts to be baptized. What constitutes “intention” was debated, but the necessity of intention in adults was clarified as being essential Catholic teaching. As St. Thomas Aquinas stated it in The Summa Theologiae, Pt. 3, Q. 68, Art. 7, Reply to Obj. 2:

If an adult lack the intention of receiving the sacrament, he must be re-baptized.

Today, the Code of Canon Law, Can. 865 §1, decrees:

For an adult to be baptized, the person must have manifested the intention to receive baptism, have been instructed sufficiently about the truths of the faith and Christian obligations, and have been tested in the Christian life through the catechumenate. The adult is also to be urged to have sorrow for personal sins.

What’s Love Got to do with it?

CCC 1861 sums up the importance of freedom when it declares: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself.”

It doesn’t get any more important than love. And yet, without freedom, the Catholic Church teaches, there simply is no love at all.

I like to think of this truth by way of the analogy of marriage. If a man has a gun to an unwilling woman’s head on their wedding day, would that be love? I think not! Why? Because the freedom that is the foundation of love is lacking.

Thus, free will is not just an abstract concept for Catholics. Free will is sacred. And because it is sacred, this is precisely why the Obama administration’s attempt to force Catholic Christians (or any person of good will) to act contrary not only to their divinely revealed Faith, but to basic points of the Natural Law, like, “Thou shalt not kill,” is so egregious. The idea that Catholics are being forced to pay for reprehensible things like contraception, sterilization, and even abortion, is outrageous.

Thus, “Religious Liberty” is our sixth “non-negotiable” when it comes to a truly Catholic perspective on religion and politics. All of us must rally to the cause. And that means first we must resist in every lawful way we can the intrusion upon religious liberty we see coming from Washington, D.C. This, along with the violation of the other “non-negotiables” we have discussed, is leading the United States of America toward the abyss at an ever-increasing pace.

Secondly, it means all of us must vote for candidates who will protect religious liberty. It seems unbelievable that we even have to say this in a country that at least used to understand religious liberty to be central to who we are as a people. But given the last two presidential elections, it obviously must be stated again, and again, and again.

Vatican II was Prophetic

Anyone who knows me, knows I am a huge fan of the documents of Vatican II. All 16 of them. In Dignitatis Humanae (the Declaration on Religious Freedom) 2, we find one among many profound and truly prophetic declarations from the Council:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.(2) This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law  whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed  with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound  by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are  also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy  immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to  be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

How prophetic indeed in view of what is happening around the world with Christians being persecuted as never before. How prophetic in view of what the Obama administration is doing to Christians–most especially Catholic Christians–even as we speak, with the infamous HHS Mandate.

A Catholic Contradiction?

I must pause here a moment and note the objection some make to the above-cited declaration from DH 2 (that’s what you get when you read an apologists’ blog!).  The claim is made that this and other similar statements from the Council contradict earlier Magisterial teachings of the Church that condemn “religious freedom,” and so, must be considered heretical.

And one can certainly see how a surface reading of Magisterial statements like this one from Pope Gregory XVI could be so construed:

This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. “But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error,” as Augustine was wont to say. When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. Then truly “the bottomless pit” is open from which John saw smoke ascending which obscured the sun, and out of which locusts flew forth to devastate the earth. Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws–in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty (Pope Gregory XVI, Encyclical Letter, Mirari Vos, 14, Aug. 15, 1832).

Pope Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Letter, Libertas, 42, June 20, 1888, is also used to this end:

From what has been said it follows that it is quite unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, of speech, or writing, or of worship, as if these were so many rights given by nature to man. For, if nature had really granted them, it  would be lawful to refuse obedience to God, and there would be no restraint on  human liberty. It likewise follows that freedom in these things may be tolerated wherever there is just cause, but only with such moderation as will prevent its degenerating into license and excess. And, where such liberties are in use, men should employ them in doing good, and should estimate them as the Church does; for liberty is to be regarded as legitimate in so far only as it affords greater facility for doing good, but no farther.

Two points in Response

1. These declarations of the Holy See condemn absolute religious freedom without the constraints of Natural Law and Church authority. This is essentially different from what DH is speaking about. Notice, DH 2 includes key phrases like, ”within due limits,” and “provided that just public order be observed,” to emphasize limitations on religious liberty. There is not even a hint of its approval of what Pope Leo XIII called “unconditional freedom…”

2. The Council Fathers were careful to define what the Church means by “religious freedom” in the context of DH.

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power

By “religious freedom,” the Council meant men “are to be immune from coercion.” This is absolutely consonant with Catholic teaching.

And notice as well the Council spoke of the evil of coercion by human power. This in no way means man is not bound by God’s law, or by divine authority. That was not even a consideration here.

And this is not to say God, or any divine authority, coerces either when it comes to man responding to God’s gracious invitation to come to him. God has given man freedom to either choose him or reject him. But it is to emphasize the context of DH. The fathers of the Council were responding to the problem of earthly despots or any political authority that would attempt to coerce with regard to matters religious.

Did Vatican II Condemn the Idea of “Catholic Nations?”

The claim is made also made that this alleged “unconditional freedom” taught by Vatican II ipso facto rejects the idea of a truly Catholic nation giving preferential treatment to the true Faith. This would be in stark contrast to the Magisterial teaching of Pope Leo XIII, for example, in his Encyclical Letter, Immortale Dei, 34, of Nov. 1, 1885:

Thus, Gregory XVI in his Encyclical Letter Mirari Vos, dated August 15, 1832, inveighed with weighty words against the sophisms which even at his time were being publicly  inculcated-namely, that no preference should be shown for any particular form of worship; that it is right for individuals to form their own personal judgments about religion; that each man’s conscience is his sole and all-sufficing guide; and that it is lawful for every man to publish his own views, whatever they may be, and even to conspire against the State. On the  question of the separation of Church and State the same Pontiff writes as  follows: “Nor can We hope for happier results either for religion or for  the civil government from the wishes of those who desire that the Church be  separated from the State, and the concord between the secular and ecclesiastical authority be dissolved. It is clear that these men, who yearn for a shameless liberty, live in dread of an agreement which has always been fraught with good, and advantageous alike to sacred and civil interests.”

Pope Pius IX, in his Encyclical Letter, Quanta Cura, 3, Dec. 8, 1864, joins the chorus in condemning the notion:

that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.

Of course, Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae, in no way advocates for this condemned notion of “absolute liberty.” So once again, the attack leveled at Vatican II is without merit. DH, or Vatican II in general for that matter, never says states have no right to establish themselves as truly Christian nations, or to grant a privileged status to God’s true Church on earth. The “rights” DH are concerned with are rooted in a freedom from coercion that is in complete harmony with a Catholic understanding of the moral law that has been taught all the way back to our Lord and Master himself as stated above.

Dignitatis Humanae is Prophetic

DH is indeed prophetic in that it approaches the topic of liberty from a different vantage point than the above-mentioned Pontiffs. The earlier Popes were arguing from the perspective of trying to either preserve or restore the idea of a “Christendom,” or, at least, Christian nations that preserve the Faith and the moral law as properly understood by the Church as part of their respective Constitutions. And, of course, this is praiseworthy.

Vatican II comes from the perspective of the historical dissolution of Christendom. By 1960, Christian kings, or even Christian states, had become a distant memory — the stuff of history books. And today, we find ourselves, as Catholic Christians, far from ruling Catholic countries. According to an Amnesty International report in 2001, Christians are being persecuted in an unprecedented 149 nations of the world. And that number is probably even greater today.

Though the persecution in the early 1960′s was not what it is today, it was certainly on the rise with communism spreading around the globe. It was truly prophetic, facing the coming reality that we today are facing in an unprecedented way, when the Church at Vatican II asserted the Fundamental right of man to be free from the tyranny of coercion in his attempt to worship the true God as He revealed that worship to be offered in Jesus Christ and his One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. And, in the process of asserting this perennial and unchangeable truth, the Church also heralded its veracity not just for Catholics, but the entire world. The freedom from coercion in religious matters, “within due limits,” as the Council made clear, is not a Catholic only club. This is a truth rooted in “the laws of nature, and of nature’s God.”

Final Thought

When we consider the magnitude of the issues involved when we speak the words, ”religious freedom,” the words of the Council become all the more crucial for us to take to heart both today, and as we move forward toward darkening clouds on the horizon.

As we come to the close of 2014, I must say it has been absolutely unbelievable to me to watch our country’s leaders, in a nation once founded on the principle of freedom of religion, turn their legislative guns on the Church in ways unthinkable just 25 years ago. This administration, in particular, the Obama administration, has done more to take away our rights than perhaps any other in our history. And yet, so-called “Catholics” basically put him in office in both of his elections.

Of course, as Pope St. John Paul the Great famously stated in his Apostolic Exhortation, Christifidelis Laici, 38:

Above all, the common outcry, which is  justly made on behalf of human rights-for example, the right to health, to home,  to work, to family, to culture- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other  personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

When the United States of America has legalized murder in the womb, is it really a surprise when it starts taking away basic rights to freedom from coercion in religious matters?

I suppose not.

Over these last six blog posts, we have spoken quite directly about abortion, Euthanasia, Embryonic Stem-cell research, cloning, homosexual “marriage,” and more, all of which are being practiced or experimented with all over the United States and around the world.

But even this is not really surprising. Once you reject the creator as our nation has over these last several decades there is no where else to go but toward the chaos of lawlessness and ultimate despair.

But what is most surprising is the level of ignorance among Catholics as to just what is happening right before our very eyes. What is most unsettling is the fact that Catholics (and Christians in general, I might add) have not represented the answer to the masses in need of the balm of Gilead. We have been a major part of the problem.

May God help us as a Catholic people to, “Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Eph. 5:14). We still have a real principle of redress in this country of ours. We can still vote. We can still get involved politically. And more importantly, we can still participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is the most powerful weapon for our spiritual warfare. There is nothing close.

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The Trouble With Calvin – Pt. 4

We now proceed to the “I” in TULIP: Irresistible Grace

Calvinists teach that man is powerless to resist God’s grace; hence, the idea of a truly free will is repudiated. The Catholic and biblical position holds that we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”—meaning we must do something—“for it is God who works in you both to will and to do according to his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13)—meaning God’s grace must precede and accompany every meritorious action that will bring about our salvation. The Catholic teaching emphasizes both God’s grace and man’s cooperation. The Calvinist position holds that man is not a “co-laborer” with God as St. Paul says in I Cor. 3:9 and II Cor. 6:1. In Calvin’s words:

 If [by free will] is meant that after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace, I have nothing to object…If, again, it is meant that man is able of himself to be a fellow-laborer with the grace of God, I hold it to be a most pestilent delusion (Institutes, Bk. 2, Ch. 3, Para. 11).

Of course, Catholics agree that man cannot “of himself” merit anything from God, if by that, Calvin means apart from God’s empowering grace, but Calvin’s meaning is very different than the Catholic and biblical position. “Subdued by the power of the Lord” means man cannot resist the movement of God’s grace.

For Calvin, there is no cooperation with God’s grace as Scripture teaches. The grace of God “subdues” a man and moves him to salvation, rather than God awakening man and empowering him to, “‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.’ Look carefully then how you walk…” (Eph. 5:14-15), and cooperate with the grace of God as Romans 11:22, II Cor. 6:1, Acts 13:43, etc. indicate. Man cannot do anything except be moved to act in accord with God’s immutable will and irresistible grace. If God wills us to go to hell, then we will not be given grace and we will be moved to sin by God’s eternal decree. If God wills us to go to heaven, then we will be given grace that we cannot resist to that end.

Two Notes of Importance Before We Proceed

1.  Many Calvinists will claim they believe in “free will,” as does the Westminster Confession. But they apply a most odd meaning to the term. This is akin to the homosexual “couple” who says they believe in “family values.” “Free will” for the Calvinist means that God has given to him irresistible grace that he cannot do anything but accept. They will then say, as John Calvin did, “… after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace,” as cited above. The term “voluntary” becomes meaningless. According to Calvin, when God extends his “special grace” of salvation and mercy he “does not suffer a refusal” (Institutes, Bk. 3, Ch. 22, Para. 6). Yet, man is free? This would be like Marlon Brando (Vito Corleone), in The Godfather, “making an offer you cannot refuse,” and then claiming the offer was “freely” accepted.

2. Honest Calvinists acknowledge the contradiction here. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the then Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) who at the time of the penning of the below quote held the highest elected staff position in the Presbyterian Church (USA) provides:

If, then, a sovereign God decides to elect persons to eternal life, that is a decision for all time and eternity…Presbyterians have endorsed this conviction, but with Calvin, we have always had trouble with it for two reasons. First, if God predestines every person, and not all are called, elected, or predestined for salvation, then God has predestined (the Westminster Confession says, “fore-ordained”) some persons to hell or eternal damnation. Second, if God has determined the ultimate fate of all persons, then the individual has no power to make any important decisions. Presbyterians have learned to believe, also, in free will, realizing that these two doctrines are logically impossible to hold at the same time, but that each is true, as taught in the Westminster Confession… Those persons who can with a clear conscience accept what they are taught, regardless of apparent inconsistencies, are in some ways better off than those who think (Clifton Kirkpatrick and William H. Hopper, Jr., What Unites Presbyterians (Geneva Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1997), p. 17. The emphasis in the quote is mine.)

Notice the almost cult-like acceptance of this logical contradiction. The Catholic and biblical faith never asks anyone to check their intellect at the door. Though we are certainly not rationalists—that is, there are certain truths of our faith that are supra-rational—there is nothing in our faith that is contrary to reason. I have to agree with Mr. Kirkpatrick that a thinking man will have trouble with this Calvinist notion of double predestination. In fact, I would say that a thinking man is not going to remain Calvinist, unless he can learn to believe what he knows to be irrational. And that is not faith; that is closer to superstition.

THE BIBLE IS PLAIN

The grace of God is resistible. St. Paul disagrees with Calvin when he says:

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?

The context of Galatians is clear. St. Paul is warning Christians not to be seduced by “Judaizers” who were telling them belief in Christ is great, but that they must also return to the Old Covenant temple, sacrifices, law, circumcision, etc. in order to be saved. According to St. Paul, if they do this, they forfeit Christ; they “fall from grace.” To “fall from grace” means they resist God’s grace.

The inspired author of Hebrews teaches we can “fall from grace” as well.

Strive for peace with all men, and for that holiness without which no man will see God. Take heed lest anyone be wanting in the grace of God (Gr.—usteron apo tes karitos tou theou—“failing from,” or “falling from the grace of God” ); lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble and by it the many be defiled; let there not be any immoral or profane person, such as Esau, who for one meal sold his birthright (Hebrews 12:14-16, Confraternity Bible).

The Greek verb ustereo, ranslated above as “wanting,” means “to fall
short of, lack or want.” Because the preposition apo, or “from,” is used
immediately after the verb, a literal translation would be: “falling short of
from the grace of God.” I translate it as “falling from the grace of God.”
Alfred Marshall, a Protestant, translates the text “failing from the grace of
God” in The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, (Regency Reference
Library, Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), p. 889. The sense is the same.

Similar to St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the writer to the Hebrews is warning Christians not to “sell their birthright” as sons of God and forfeit the glory of heaven which is our inheritance as Christians. We are truly sons of God “and if we are sons, we are heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint-heirs with Christ, provided however that we suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17, Confraternity Bible). The context of Hebrews emphasizes that Christians can, in fact, “fall from grace” and lose their heavenly inheritance.

St. Stephen chimes in very specifically when it comes to resisting the grace of God. He almost seems to have Calvin in mind 1500 years before Calvin when he speaks to his “brethren and fathers” (Acts 7:2) among the sons and daughters of Abraham:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you (Acts 7:51).

The Holy Spirit calls us by grace; thus, to “resist the Holy Spirit” is to resist God’s grace.

And finally, the words of our Lord himself are most clear:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, you house is forsaken and desolate!

Jesus here speaks as God and informs us that he is ever-calling to his people by his grace to come to him as a hen calls to her chicks. But he is equally clear that he respects the freedom with which he gifted them as well. It is their choice whether they will to resist his call–resist his grace–or cooperate with it unto salvation (cf. Gal. 6:7-9; Romans 5:1-2).

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The Trouble With Luther

It is no secret that Martin Luther eliminated all works as having anything to do with our justification/salvation. In what most call his “greatest work,” The Bondage of the Will, Luther commented on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

The assertion that justification is free to all that are justified leaves none to work, merit or prepare themselves… For if we are justified without works, all works are condemned, whether small or great; Paul exempts none, but thunders impartially against all.

Paul’s point in saying justification is a free gift was not to eliminate works as necessary for justification, or salvation, in all categories. Men must, among other things, choose to open the free gift (see II Cor. 6:1), do good works (see Romans 2:6-7; Gal. 6:7-9), be faithful unto death (Rev. 2:10; Matt. 10:22), keep the law (Romans 2:13; Matt. 19:17), be obedient (Romans 6:16; Heb. 5:9), etc. in order to be finally justified or saved.

St. Paul was answering “Judaizers”—believers in Christ who were attempting to re-establish the law of the Old Covenant as necessary for salvation in the New. This was tantamount to forfeiting Christ, or rejecting the free gift, because it represented an attempt to be justified apart from Christ. Paul says, in Galatians 5:4-7 and 2:18, those Christians who were being led astray in this way had “fallen away from grace” precisely because they were attempting to “build up again” the law that had been “torn down” through the cross of Christ.

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth (Gal. 5:4-7)?

For St. Paul, any works done either before entering into Christ or apart from Christ profit nothing. But works done in Christ are a different story. Before Christ, unregenerate men are “dead in trespasses and sins,” and “by nature children of wrath,” as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-3. But after entering into Christ, Phillipians 4:13 says, “I can do all things in [Christ] who strengthens me.” And according to Romans 2:6-7, “all things” includes meriting eternal life.

A Compounding Problem

Unfortunately, Luther’s error did not cease with bad exegesis of St. Paul. As is so often the case, one error leads not just to one more but to a litany. For example, Luther was so consumed with the notion that man can have nothing to do with his own salvation—no works—he claimed any belief that man must actively cooperate in salvation at all to be equivalent to a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. In one of his sermons, Luther declared:

[Catholics] know very well how to say of him: I believe in God the Father, and in his only begotten Son. But it is only upon the tongue, like the foam on the water; it does not enter the heart. Figuratively a big tumor still remains there in the heart; that is, they cling somewhat to their own deeds and think they must do works in order to be saved—that Christ’s person and merit are not sufficient. . . . They say, Christ has truly died for us, but in a way that we, also, must accomplish something by our deeds. Notice how deeply wickedness and unbelief are rooted in the heart.

Saying man must “accomplish something” in Christ does not deny the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice; it merely states, in agreement with St. John no less, that man must, among other things, “walk in the light” of Christ in order for Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice to become efficacious in his life:

If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin… If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:7-9).

Notice, we must walk, and we must confess.

The Errors Continue

In The Bondage of the Will, Luther takes the next logical step in denying works to be involved in salvation in any sense by declaring man’s will to be absolutely passive when it comes to salvation; and consequent to that, he expressly denies the truth of man’s free will:

So man’s will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills. . . . If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor may it choose to which rider it will run, or which it will seek; but the riders themselves fight to decide who shall have and hold it.

Luther’s famous notion of simul justus et peccator (“at the same time just and sinner”) is another error rooted in leaving man completely out of the equation when it comes to his own justification. It means, in effect, man’s justification is accomplished extrinsic to him. God declares a man just via a divine, forensic declaration—a legal fiction—rather than the biblical notion of a real inward transformation that makes him truly and inwardly just (cf. II Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:24).

Moreover, if it is grave error to acknowledge man has a causal role in his own salvation, claiming other members of the body of Christ have a role would be equally errant. There goes an essential element of the communion of saints. St. Paul obviously did not get the memo here, because he wrote: “Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (I Tim. 4:16).

There are many other errors we could add to this litany of Lutheran misstandings, but what I would argue to be Luther’s most egregious errors came as a direct consequence of his denial of free will. Think about it. If you deny free will, but you also teach that at least some people will end up in hell—and Luther did just that—then it necessarily follows that God does not will all to be saved. This is logical if you accept Luther’s first principles. The problem is it runs contrary to plain biblical texts like I Tim. 2:4: “God wills all to be saved” (see also II Peter 3:9: I John 2:1-2), and Matthew 23:37, which records the words of our Lord himself:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets. . . . How often would I have gathered your children . . . and you would not!

Interestingly enough, in The Bondage of the Will, Luther attempts a response to this last text that becomes quite telling:

Here, God Incarnate (sic) says: “I would and thou wouldst not.” God Incarnate (sic), I repeat, was sent for this purpose, to will, say, do, suffer, and offer to all men, all that is necessary for salvation; albeit he offends many who, being abandoned or hardened by God’s secret will of Majesty, do not receive Him thus willing, speaking, doing, and offering. . . . It belongs to the same God incarnate to weep, lament, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, though that will of Majesty purposely leaves and reprobates some to perish.

So what is Luther’s response to Jesus’ obvious willing all to be saved? Certainly, he would acquiesce to the Master and acknowledge God’s universal salvific will, would he not? After all, Jesus Christ is, in one sense, the will of God manifest in the flesh. Unfortunately not. Luther claimed Christ’s human knowledge to be lacking when it came to understanding “God’s secret will of Majesty,” which led our Lord’s human will to find itself in opposition to the divine will. Poor Jesus. If he only knew what Luther knew.

We could multiply texts like “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), or “No one knows the Father except the Son” (Matt. 11:27) that render this kind of thinking untenable. We could talk about the Hypostatic Union. But that would go beyond what we can do in this short post.

In the final analysis, we see here in Martin Luther the old addage, error begets error, painfully pellucid. What began in denying man has anything to do with his own salvation ends with problems Christological stretching from here to eternity . . . literally.

Can We Lose Our Salvation?

Hebrews 6:4-6 reveals a rather unsettling truth: We can lose our state of grace and fall away from the Lord.

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.

For those who teach what Calvinists call “the final perseverance of the saints,” this text presents real problems. Some will argue the above description only refers to people who “knew about the Lord,” but were never really saved to begin with. I have always wondered if those making that argument can really be satisfied with it. It seems the inspired author makes clear, almost to the point of redundancy, that he was speaking about those who have been saved and then “commit apostasy.”

Another Protestant tack is to claim the author is presenting an impossible hypothetical. In other words, he’s saying it would be impossible to restore again to repentance one who had truly been baptized into Jesus Christ because it is impossible for such a person to fall away to begin with.

This doesn’t work, either. The author is presenting a warning of the peril of falling away from the Lord. He would hardly warn his readers of something that is impossible to actually happen.

Do Catholics Prove Too Much?

Most “eternally secure” Protestants with whom I have spoken about these verses of Scripture end up acknowledging their case to be weak from the text alone. But when cornered, I have found almost invariably they attempt to turn the tables on me by claiming I prove too much as a Catholic. If this text is saying one can fall away, then it also says the one who falls away cannot be restored. This would be contrary to Catholic teaching.

The greater context of the entire epistle gives us the answer to this apparent difficulty. Hebrews was written to… you guessed it… Hebrews. But more specifically to Hebrew Christians who were being tempted to go back to the Old Covenant priesthood, sacrifices, and other practices, like circumcision, in order to be saved. It is in this context—from start to finish—that the inspired author runs the gamut on Jewish belief showing how Christ is greater than and/or is the fulfillment of the entire Old Covenant.

In chapters one and two, Jesus is revealed to be greater than the angels; he’s revealed to be God (see Hebrews 1:5-10). In chapters three and four, he is our true high priest, greater than Moses, and fulfillment of what the Sabbath symbolized (see 3:3; 4:2-11). In chapters five and seven, he is the antitype of Melchizadek (5:5-10; 7:11). In chapter eight, he is superior to and the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in establishing the New (8:8-13). In chapters nine and ten, he is superior to the temple and its sacrifices (9:23-24; 10:4-10). And it is in this context that the inspired author then exhorts his readers to endure the persecution that had already begun by this time (10:32-39). He calls them to “hold fast the confession of [their] hope without wavering” (10:23), and to remain faithful to the Church Jesus established rather than go back to an Old Covenant and its sacrifices that have no power to save (10:25-31; 12:18-25; 13:7-10).

If we understand the greater context, we understand that the author of Hebrews is not saying it is impossible to be forgiven of the sin of apostasy; rather, it is impossible for those who “have tasted the heavenly gift” of the New Covenant and would then return to the Old Covenant to be saved. Why? Because they are trusting in a covenant, law, priesthood, sacrifice, and more that do not possess the power to save. They are returning to a well without water.

If these same Hebrews, or by allusion anyone down through the centuries who may have apostatized, turn back to Christ and his Church trusting in the graces that alone come from the sacrifice of Christ, then of course they can be restored to a saving relationship with God.

The Protestant Bible Verse That Isn’t

Just before Christmas last year, a Catholic friend invited me to Los Angeles to speak with some dear friends of his who had left the Catholic Faith. Their Evangelical pastor joined us for what became a lively and lengthy discussion. I thought the dialogue went very well, but one exchange seems to stick out among the many we had over about four hours. When the topic moved to the assurance of salvation, the pastor declared with confidence, “St. Paul could not be clearer that we can have absolute assurance of our salvation when he said, ‘To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.’”

This sounds pretty definitive, I agree. The problem is, St. Paul never said those words or anything like them. This is a misquotation of II Cor. 5:6,8 that I hear quite often from Evangelicals. I immediately took the pastor and all in the room to the actual text–adding verses nine and ten for clarity’s sake–which we read together:

So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord . . . we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.

The only thing St. Paul claims we have absolute assurance of is the fact that while we are sojourning on earth, we are “away from the Lord.” He then states his aspiration is to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” We would all concur with this sentiment. But this is not a definitive declaration that “absence from the body” means ipso facto that we would be “present with the Lord.”

Reading verses nine and ten, we find the greater point St. Paul is making. We must all live to please God at all times in view of the fact that we will all stand before God at the Final Judgment, where we will receive either “good or evil” according to our works done in this life. There is not even a hint of an absolute assurance of salvation anywhere to be found here.

I was pleasantly surprised when the pastor agreed with me that he had misquoted Paul. He said he would have to take that argument out of his arsenal for future use. It’s not often when a debate partner admits error in the heat of the battle. That is a sign of the presence of humility. Where there is true humility one often discovers the grace of God: “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble” (James 4:7).

Who knows, other than our blessed Lord, whether or not this discussion will bear the fruits of conversion or re-version to the Catholic Faith for those non-Catholics who were there that night. But I would venture to say there is one thing we can know with relative certainty: Seeds of the faith were planted. We will leave the rest to “God who gives the growth” (I Cor. 3:7).