Category Archives: salvation

Understanding Indulgences

To say there is confusion and misrepresentation among non-Catholics on the topic of Indulgences may well qualify as the proverbial “understatement of the year.” In this post,  we are going to consider four of these misapprehensions. But first, we need to understand the truth concerning Indulgences. CCC 1471 gives a succinct definition:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.

An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.

The theology of Indulgences is rooted in four very biblical notions.

1. Sins that are forgiven by God may still require temporal punishment. This is a matter of common sense as well as it is a matter of Public Revelation. For example, if one of my sons were to put a rock through the window of our house, I would forgive him of this transgression as soon as he expresses sorrow. However, in justice, and for my son’s good, I would require him to repay the cost of the damage. This would serve to teach him of the serious nature of his actions as well as the damage that disobedience causes. Moreover, in the process of working to earn the money to pay for what he has done and in giving up some of that hard-earned cash, he will become a more virtuous person.

I use the analogy of my relationship with my sons for a reason. In Scripture, we find that God is revealed to be our Father who disciplines us—his children.

[God, the Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-11).

The Greek text indicates that this discipline of God, the Father, leads to the fruit of justification (Gr.—dikaiosunes). This suffering imposed by God is part of the very process of justification where the believer is finally made just and worthy of heaven.

King David is perhaps the classic example of just what we are talking about. In II Samuel 11-12, we read the sad tale of how David committed the sins of murder and adultery, but then later acknowledges his sin and repents. In 12:13, the prophet Nathan declares to David:

The Lord has put away your sin, you shall not die.

Notice, David’s sins were forgiven, yet that same prophet also declared:

Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife… Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun… because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die (II Sam. 12:10-14).

This is some pretty severe punishment to be sure, but you’ll notice it is temporal by nature, not eternal.

Later in his life, after having reflected upon all that happened to him, this same King David would write in Psalm 119:71: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes.” The temporal punishment imposed by God upon him, he knew, was for his own growth in virtue—for his own good.

2. The People of God have always been understood in Scripture to be able and responsible to make atonement for the temporal punishment due not only to their own sins, but they can also aid others in this purification process as well. Proverbs 16:6 says, “By loyalty and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for…” That text could hardly be clearer. Moreover, St. Paul says, in Colossians 1:24,

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…

The “iniquity” mentioned as being able to be atoned for cannot be mortal sin. Even one mortal sin against an infinitely holy God requires an infinite expiation. Only the infinitely meritorious sacrifice of Christ can expiate this sin. The implication here is temporal punishment can be atoned for, with God’s help, by our own prayers and sacrifices, or as Proverbs 16:6 said, “by loyalty and faithfulness…”

Colossians 1:24 adds our sufferings as efficacious in remitting punishment due for sins in the lives of others as well. This is an important factor in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints that underlies the Catholic and biblical notion of Indulgences. As members of the body of Christ, we have the power to effect healing in one another when it comes to sins and faults that are not mortal.

I John 5:16-17 explains it this way:

If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.

Notice, St. John says one Christian can ask and God will communicate “life” (Gr.—zo-ay, which refers to the divine life of God communicated to the believer through grace) to the one who sinned as long as the sin was not mortal. This is true because the one who sins mortally would be cut off from the body of Christ and there would be no way to communicate healing directly to the one who sinned mortally.

This really makes sense when we consider the metaphor of the “body” St. Paul uses for the People of God in both I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. If one member of a body, let’s say a hand, is wounded, the rest of the body will immediately and organically affect healing in the wounded part. So it is by analogy with the “Body of Christ.” If one member is wounded the rest of the body can affect healing by virtue of the fact that “the body” is organically linked, so to speak, as members of the same body. St. John says we, as members of Christ, can communicate “life” or healing to the wounded member through our prayers.

But notice, St. John also says if the person commits mortal sin, “I do not say that one is to pray for that.” St. John would hardly be commanding non-prayer in any sense. Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in Matt. 5:44. St. Paul tells us to “pray for all men” in I Tim. 2:1. His point is we cannot pray for and directly affect healing in the one who is in mortal sin because he is cut off from the divine life that flows from member to member in the Body of Christ. Of course, we can pray the one cut off from Christ in mortal sin be restored to Christ through the particular grace of repentance.

3. There is nothing in Scripture indicating this communication of divine life between members of the Body of Christ ceases at the end of life on earth. Indeed, if there is need for purification at the time of death, this purification must occur in order for the Christian to attain heaven (see Matt. 5:48; Heb. 12:14). II Maccabees 12:46 is a great example from the Old Testament that this purification can in fact continue in the next life:

Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead that they might be delivered from their sin.

Many Protestants will respond claiming this text is meaningless because they do not accept II Maccabees as Scripture. But really, that is beside the point. Even if one does not accept its canonicity, as an historical document, it provides accurate information about the life and faith of the Jewish people shortly before the advent of Christ, and specifically, that they already believed they could pray for the dead to be forgiven. Or, as II Maccabess 12:39-46 says it,

Judas and his men… turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… [Judas Maccabeus] also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering…

The Jews believed that the sacrificial offerings of members of the People of God could “wholly blot out” the sins of those who had died. This makes all the more significant Jesus words in Matt. 12:32:

And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Not only do we simply have nothing in Scripture that condemns this common practice of ancient Jews—a practice, by the way, that continues to this day in Orthodox Jewish circles—but Jesus himself implies this to be a good and pious practice.

4. The Church, through the ministry of the forgiveness of sins communicated to her by Jesus Christ himself, has the power to remit not only the eternal consequences of sin through the Sacrament of Confession, but also the temporal punishment due for sin through Indulgences. In John 20:21-23, in the plainest of terms, Jesus communicated his power to forgive sins to the apostles:

Jesus said to [the apostles] again, “Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In Matt. 16:18-19, Jesus promised the authority of the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter as well as the authority to “bind and loose.” Two chapters later, in Matt. 18:18, he promised the power to “bind and loose” to all of the apostles in union with Peter. This authority of “binding and loosing” involves not only a declatory power in defining the faith of Christians, but it also involves restoring the fallen to full communion with God and the Church in the forgiveness of sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:

(1444) In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church. This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ’s solemn words to Simon Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” “The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head.”
(1445) The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.

One way to understand the Church’s authority to remit temporal punishment due to sin is via a fortiori argumentation. This is an argument that says, “If X is true, then how much more is Y also true.” Both Jesus and St. Paul use this type of argumentation (see Matt. 6:25-34; Luke 11:13; Romans 5:8-10; 8:31-32; 11:22, etc.).

Thus, if Jesus Christ gave his Church the power to forgive mortal sins and the eternal punishment due to these sins, how much more would that same Church be able to forgive the merely temporal punishments due to sin.

The Misconceptions

1. The Catholic Church teaches (or has taught) Indulgences not only remit sins, but they can remit sins before the fact. And for a price, of course! Thus, this first point really covers two misconceptions: 1) Indulgences remit sins before the sin is committed. 2) You can buy Indulgences.

Several years ago, my wife and I watched a video put out by “New Liberty Videos” called “The Forbidden Book,” a hit-piece targeting the Catholic Church, wherein the narrator presents a document allegedly written by Pope Leo X cataloguing various prices the Roman Pontiff declared one had to pay to the Church for Indulgences so that one could freely sin without guilt! For a price, you could (among other things, I just jotted down a few of them):

• Ravish a Virgin – $2
• Kill a man – $1.75
• If a priest, keep a mistress or concubine – $2.75

Or, how about this one?

• To be absolved of all sins whatsoever – $12.00

What a deal!

Of course, this list is a complete fraud. The folks at www.apologetica.org have several articles in English (it’s a Spanish-language site, but these articles are in English) that do an excellent job in exposing this fraud:

http://www.apologetica.org/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=461&Itemid=5)

Unfortunately, these lies are found peppered across the board among anti-Catholic literature. So what is the truth of the matter?

First off, Indulgences do not even remit sins at all; they remit the temporal punishment due for sin. And, of course, this is only so after the sin has been committed and one has been forgiven of the guilt of that sin in Confession!

And just for the record: the Catholic Church does not teach and has never taught that one can “buy” Indulgences.

The confusion here is at least partially rooted in the fact that the Church used to grant what are referred to as “alms-Indulgences.” There is nothing inherently wrong with the practice; in fact, it is very much rooted in the Scriptures inasmuch as almsgiving has always been considered a meritorious and salvific act. It’s mentioned by Jesus himself in Luke 11:41:

But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you.

Jesus is here emphasizing alms must be given out of the right motivation in order to truly be meritorious before God.

In Acts 10:3-4, and 34-35, both the angel Gabriel and St. Peter combine to tell us that Cornelius’ alms were instruments whereby he merited from the Lord:

About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius”… “What is it, Lord?”… “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God…”

(34) And Peter opened his mouth and said: [with regard to Cornelius] “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Thus, almsgiving is still, as a matter of Faith, taught to be meritorious if done with the proper motives. However, there was confusion among some of the Catholic faithful in the late 15th and early 16th centuries with regard to Indulgences in relation to alms. The perception was, among some, that the act was a mere mechanical process. You give this, and you get this (the remission of temporal punishment due for sins), apart from the necessary predispositions that must be present. As a result, Pope St. Pius V eliminated “alms-Indulgences” in 1567. That discipline of the Church remains in force.

But this in no way means the Church once used to “sell” indulgences. That is a non-sequitur.

3. This misconception goes straight back to Martin Luther who, in his notorious “95 Theses,” no. 82, famously asked:

Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there…?

The question itself shows a rather childish understanding of Purgatory and Indulgences. That would be like saying, “If the Church can remit the eternal consequences of sin though the Sacrament of Penance, why doesn’t she just declare everyone in the world to be forgiven?”

The Church cannot do either because there are divinely mandated prerequisites that must be fulfilled before the Church can remit either sins or temporal punishment due for sins that have been forgiven.

In the case of Confession, one has to be sorry for his sins, confess his sins with a firm purpose of amendment to avoid sin in the future, and be absolved by a validly ordained priest, in order to have his sins forgiven.

In the case of Indulgences, one must perform whatever God through his Church prescribes as being necessary to gain an Indulgence. With regard to a plenary Indulgence, he must be detached from all sins both mortal and venial, pray for the intentions of the Pope, make a good Confession, and receive communion within about a week of performing the requirement for the Indulgence. If all of these requirements are not met, he would receive a partial Indulgence, in accord with his disposition at the time he performs the required works. So the Church just can’t say “whammo” and it’s done!

4. There is much confusion over the idea of numbers of “days” with regard to Indulgences. Jimmy Akin clears up the difficulty in his new book, The Drama of Salvation, (p. 74):

… in the past, a certain number of “days” were attached to many indulgences. These were not days off in Purgatory. Instead, they expressed the value of an indulgence by analogizing it to the number of days’ penance one would have done on Earth under the penitential practices of the early Church.

Moderns had lost touch with the ancient system, which made the reckoning of such “days” confusing. The practice was abolished in 1967 in Pope Paul VI’s constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina.

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There is No Salvation Apart From the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church teaches infallibly, “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” or, “outside the Church there is no salvation.” But as with all dogmas of the Faith, this has to be qualified and understood properly. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lays out the truth of the matter succinctly in paragraphs 846-848, but I would recommend backing up to CCC 830 for a context that will help in understanding these three essential points concerning this teaching:

1. There is no salvation apart from Christ and his One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Again, this is an infallible teaching and not up for debate among Catholics.

2. Those who are “invincibly” ignorant concerning the truth of #1 above will not be culpable for this lack of knowledge before God.

3. Those in the category of #2 have the real possibility of salvation even if they never come to an explicit knowledge of Christ and/or his Church.

As we will see below, “invincibly ignorant” does not mean just because a person is “ignorant” of the truth, they will automatically be saved. Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous. There are other criteria beyond being “invincibly ignorant” that must be met as well before one can finally be saved. But it does mean that they have the possibility of salvation.

Now, before we get too far into the weeds here, let me quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 846-48, which—as is so often the case no matter the doctrine with the CCC—presents this teaching clearly and to the point under the heading: “Outside the Church there is no Salvation.”

How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it (CCC here quotes The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “Lumen Gentium,” 14, from the documents of Vatican II).

The Church is very clear here. There is no salvation apart from a salvific union with the Catholic Church. However, the Catechism continues:

This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation” (quoting, Lumen Gentium, 16).

“Although in ways known to himself God can lead those, who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men” (quoting Ad Gentes, 7, another document from Vatican II).

I recommend a careful reading of the texts represented by the footnotes in paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium (nos. 17 and 18) which reference St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica III q. 8 a. 3 ad 1, and the Instruction of the Holy Office of Dec. 20, 1949 that I will reference below. These make very clear that anyone who is ever saved is not saved by his or her false religious beliefs (i.e. Judaism that rejects Christ, Islam that denies Jesus is the Son of God, etc.); rather, they can be saved in spite of them. If they are ignorant of the truth through no fault of their own (they have never had the opportunity to either hear or understand the truth), then the limited amount of truth that they do have “among shadows and images,” and “all goodness and truth found in these religions [serve] as ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life’ (CCC 843).”

A Catholic Contradiction?

Perhaps the one paragraph in the CCC used more than any other to “prove” Catholics contradict themselves with regard to this the doctrine “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” is paragraph 841, which is given to us under the heading: “The Church’s Relationship with the Muslims”:

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.

“See? Here the Church says Muslims can be saved. What up with that?”

Well, this has to be understood in the context of what the Catechism says elsewhere, and as I quoted it above: Those Muslims (and as we will see in more detail, anyone of any religion, or even the non-religious could be included here) who are not responsible for their ignorance of the Catholic Faith can indeed be saved.

Now, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, CCC 841 is not saying “anyone who is a good Joe will go to heaven.” A Jewish person will not make it to heaven by being a good Jew, or a Muslim by being a good Muslim, a Protestant by being a good Protestant, etc. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no man can come to the Father except by me.” He seems to be quite plain in this text that he is essential to the equation. And not only is Christ essential to the equation, but also Christ speaking through his Church. “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). The Church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). The Church is Christ in the world. It is almighty God who willed “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (Ephesians 3:10). To reject the Church is to reject Christ because it was Christ who gave authority to the Church and declared:

If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:17-18).

In a nutshell, you cannot separate rejecting the Church with rejecting Christ according to Scripture and the teaching of the Catholic Church. In other words, one cannot just create his own religion and follow the “Jesus” of his own creation and choosing without there being eternal consequences.

Breaking it Down

As an apologist, I find the real issue here among those who reject this teaching to be a conceptual disconnect between the dogma—extra ecclesiam nulla salus—and the idea that some people who are not formally Catholic can be saved. And this is understandable. One way I have found some success in helping folks to bridge this divide is to note what I mentioned in brief before, i.e., the Church teaches the possibility of salvation for people who do not have what we call a formal relationship with the Church, i.e., they are not on the registry at a local Catholic parish, yet they do indeed have a salvific relationship with the Church.

So then, the question is: “What does this mean?”

To get a clear picture, let’s begin with the necessity of salvation in Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of St. John, and in the very next chapter after Jesus makes his famous statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6), which I quoted above, this same Jesus also said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22; see also John 9:41). Jesus presents a very important principle here. A person is not responsible for what they could not have known. The implication is it is possible to have a salvific link with Christ without knowing him formally. If this is so, and it is, according to Scripture, then it stands to reason that in the same way, one can have a salvific relationship with the Church without knowing the truth that the Church is the fullness of Christ on this earth (see also the case of Cornelius the centurion in Acts 10:1-4, 34-35).

What I mean by a “formal relationship” with the Church is that a person has been formally baptized into Christ and has made a profession of faith in the one, true faith of the Catholic Church (assuming he has reached the age of accountability). However, a person can possibly have a salvific link with Christ and his Church in various ways some of which are known to God alone. This can be via the valid sacraments they may have, e.g., all seven with the Orthodox, or two with Protestants (baptism and matrimony). Or, it may be via what the Council fathers called “the images and shadows” of truth that the various world religions possess. Indeed, even “those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to lead a good life” will not be denied by Divine Providence what the Council fathers called “the helps necessary for salvation” (Lumen Gentium,16).

Thus, the Council fathers are here unequivocal on the possibility of salvation for the invincibly ignorant, but we must also note they balance this message with a stern warning:

But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

With St. Paul, we leave the judging of who is invincibly ignorant and who is not to God (I Cor. 4:3-6). We evangelize everyone!

So Why Preach the Gospel at All?

In some quarters the possibility of salvation for those who are not formally Catholic has been taken to such an extreme that it has led to a religious indifferentism—one religion, even Catholicism, is no better than another—that is condemned by the Church. This is extremely dangerous for the salvation of souls.

Now, James 1:17 assures us: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Truth is truth anywhere it is found and, ultimately, Jesus Christ is the truth. So, if folks outside of the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church are truly seeking the truth and have not rejected the fullness of the truth found only in the Catholic Church, they can be saved by cooperating with the grace and truth they have where they are. However, Lumen Gentium 14 also emphasizes the fact that the truth of the Catholic Faith is not simply a nice option. It is binding on those who see its veracity. “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it, or to remain in it.”

Moreover, I must emphasize again, because someone is “invincibly ignorant” of the truth, this does not mean they will be saved. It means they have the possibility of salvation. Perhaps Pope Pius XII explains best the necessary balance between membership in the Church Jesus established and the possibility of salvation to those who are not formal members in his Encyclical of June 29, 1943, Mystici Corporis:

Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. “For in one spirit” says the Apostle, “were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free.” As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the [Catholic] Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican (22).

Simple.

But his Holiness then goes on to say that others outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church can be “related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by a certain unconscious yearning and desire” (para. 103). He makes clear that these can be saved, but “they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church,” and are, unfortunately, in a “state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation.”

The bottom line is: the straight and narrow road that leads to heaven is not an easy road to begin with, even for those gifted with the fullness of truth found in the Catholic Church alone (see Matt. 7:13; I Peter 4:18). But without the Church and sacraments Christ has provided as the ordinary means for our sanctification, it is even more difficult. In fact, beyond the obvious advantages for the overcoming of the “sin which does so easily beset us” that Catholics enjoy in the sacraments, the Church has also taught there must be three things present in order for salvation to be possible for those who are not in a formal relationship with the Church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a letter of August 8, 1949, by direction of Pope Pius XII, said in this regard:

But it must not be thought that any kind of desire of entering the Church suffices that one may be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be animated by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire produce its effect, unless a person has supernatural faith: “For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrew 11:6).

One can never know if he has attained to “perfect charity” in this life. That is a high standard. It is possible to be sure, but it is a high standard. This should make very clear that we must evangelize everyone so that they can have the certainty of hope that only comes to us fully via the sacraments and union with the Church Jesus founded, the Catholic Church.

In Summary:

There are six key points that I believe we need to remember here:

1. No one who knowingly and deliberately rejects the truth will be saved. It doesn’t matter how good of a Muslim, Jew, Baptist, or anything else he may be. If anyone rejects the truth of Christ and his Church—even one definitive teaching—they will be lost.

2. Religions that have as tenants of their respective faiths the rejection of Jesus and his Church have no power to save anyone. It is “the truth that makes us free” (cf. John 8:32), not falsehood.

3. In the case of one who is ignorant of the truth of the Catholic Faith, “through no fault of [his] own,” he can be saved, if he is truly “invincibly ignorant, [is] given the supernatural virtue of faith and [has] perfect charity in [his heart]” (cf. Instruction of Holy Office of Dec. 20, 1949).

4. We must remember that we are not the judges of salvation. God is the sole and final judge. We do not know who is truly “invincibly ignorant” and who is not. Therefore, we must be careful to “evangelize all men” as the Catechism commands us and leave the judging to God.

5. “Whatever good or truth is found amongst [other world religions] is considered by the Church to be ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life’” (Lumen Gentium 16). And if they seek the true God given the light they have received, they have the possibility of salvation.

6. This does not mean they are not in need of the Eucharist! Without the grace that comes from the sacraments, one is at a decided disadvantage to get to heaven. And if one has rejected the truth, then there is no way he can merit heaven apart from repentance and the acceptance of the truth. The Church makes very clear: “The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God” (CCC 1445).

If anyone makes it to heaven apart from what the Church refers to as “the ordinary means of sanctification that comes through the sacraments,” or a “formal union with the Church,” they will only do so through a salvific link with the Church that comes via extraordinary means.

Some Final Questions:

I often get two very poignant questions that will most often come from people who have a profound personal interest in the answer. That “personal interest” is usually rooted in their having had loved ones leave the true Faith.

1. “What about Catholics who have left the Faith? Are they okay, or are they lost?”

Anyone who knowingly and deliberately rejects the Church will be lost, as I said above. So it would be the height of presumption to say that someone who has left the Faith “is okay.” Now, it may well be that a person who left the Faith may have had such a distorted notion of what the Church truly is and what she teaches that there may not be culpability. Again, we don’t know. However, it may well be that they are culpable. And no amount of “church” attendance or prayer apart from the Church Jesus established, the Catholic Church, will get them to heaven if that is the case. One might even “deliver [one’s] body to be burned” (I Cor. 13:3), but it will “profit nothing” apart from union with Christ and his Church because it is only the divine life and charity of Christ in us that can save us. So we must take extremely serious anyone who has left the faith or anyone who is not in union with the Church because objectively speaking, (barring invincible ignorance, etc.) souls are on the line!   2. “What about the question of those who are in the process of converting to the Catholic Faith? If only the sacraments can take away the sins of those who are fully aware of their efficacy, what about these?”

The Council of Trent declared that either the actual sacraments or a “desire thereof” is sufficient to take away sins. In Session Seven, “On the Sacraments in General,” canon 4, the Council declared:

If any one saith that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification;-though all (the sacraments) are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema.

Similarly, the Council of Trent declared, specifically concerning baptism, in Session Six, Chapter 4:

By which words, a description of the Justification of the impious is indicated,-as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior. And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.

And with regard to the Sacrament of Confession, in Chapter 14 of that same Session Six, the Council declared:

Whence it is to be taught, that the penitence of a Christian, after his fall, is very different from that at (his) baptism; and that therein are included not only a cessation from sins, and a detestation thereof, or, a contrite and humble heart, but also the sacramental confession of the said sins,-at least in desire, and to be made in its season,-and sacerdotal absolution; and likewise satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers, and the other pious exercises of a spiritual life; not indeed for the eternal punishment,-which is, together with the guilt, remitted, either by the sacrament, or by the desire of the sacrament…

Thus, the desire for the Sacraments of catechumens suffices until such a time as they can actually receive them.

Justification According to Scripture

Romans 5:1 is a favorite verse for Calvinists and those who hold to the doctrine commonly known as “once saved, always saved:”

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

This text is believed to indicate that the justification of the believer in Christ at the point of faith is a one-time completed action. All sins are forgiven immediately—past, present and future. The believer then has, or at least, can have, absolute assurance of his justification regardless of what may happen in the future. There is nothing that can separate the true believer from Christ—not even the gravest of sins. Similarly, with regard to salvation, Eph. 2:8-9 says:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.

For the Protestant, these texts seem plain. Ephesians 2 says the salvation of the believer is past—perfect tense, passive voice in Greek, to be more precise—which means a past completed action with present on-going results. It’s over! And if we examine again Romans 5:1, the verb to justify is in a simple past tense (Gr. Aorist tense). And this is in a context where St. Paul had just told these same Romans:

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:1-2).

Righteousness is a synonym for justice or justification. How does it get any clearer than that? Abraham was justified once and for all, the claim is made, when he believed. Not only is this proof of sola fide, says the Calvinist, but it is proof that justification is a completed transaction at the point the believer comes to Christ. The paradigm of the life of Abraham is believed to hold indisputable proof of the Reformed position.

The Catholic Answer:

The Catholic Church actually agrees with the above, at least on a couple points. First, as baptized Catholics, we can agree that we have been justified and we have been saved. Thus, in one sense, our justification and salvation is in the past as a completed action. The initial grace of justification and salvation we receive in baptism is a done deal. And Catholics do not believe we were partially justified or partially saved at baptism. Catholics believe, as St. Peter said in I Peter 3:21, “Baptism… now saves you…” Ananias said to Saul of Tarsus, “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). That means the new Christian has been “washed… sanctified… [and] justified” as I Cor. 6:11 clearly teaches. That much is a done deal; thus, it is entirely proper to say we “have been justified” and we “have been saved” as Catholic Christians.

However, this is not the end of the story. Scripture reveals that it is precisely through this justification and salvation the new Christian experiences through faith and baptism that he enters into a process of justification and salvation requiring his free cooperation with God’s grace. If we read the very next verses of our above-cited texts, we find the inspired writer himself telling us there is more to the story here.

Romans 5:1-2 reads:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

This text indicates that after having received the grace of justification we now have access to God’s grace by which we stand in Christ and we can then rejoice in the hope of sharing God’s glory. That word “hope” indicates that what we are hoping for we do not yet possess (see Romans 8:24).

Ephesians 2:10 reads:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

There is no doubt that we must continue to work in Christ as Christians and it is also true that it is only by the grace of God we can continue to do so. But even more importantly, Scripture tells us this grace can be resisted. II Cor. 6:1 tells us:

Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.

St. Paul urged believers in Antioch—and all of us by allusion—“to continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43). Indeed, in a text we will look at more closely in a moment, St. Paul warns Christians that they can “fall from Grace” in Galatians 5:4. This leads us to our next and most crucial point.

Justification and Salvation as Future and Contingent

The major part of the puzzle here that our Protestant friends are missing is that there are many biblical texts revealing both justification and salvation to have a future and contingent sense as well as these we have mentioned that show a past sense. In other words, justification and salvation also have a sense in which they are not complete in the lives of believers. Perhaps this is most plainly seen in Galatians 5:1-5. I mentioned verse four above.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. 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.

The Greek word used in verse 6 and here translated as “righteousness” is dikaiosunes, which can be translated either as “righteouness” or as “justification.” In fact, Romans 4:3, which we quoted above, uses a verb form of this same term for justification. Now the fact that St. Paul tells us we “wait for the hope of [justification]” is very significant. As we said before, that which one “hopes” for is something one does not yet possess. It is still in the future. Romans 8:24 tells us:

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

The context of Galatians is clear: St. Paul warns Galatian Christians that if they attempt to be justified—even though they are already justified in one sense, through baptism, according to Gal. 3:27—by the works of the law, they will fall from the grace of Christ. Why? Because they would be attempting to be justified apart from Christ and the gospel of Christ! St. Paul makes very clear in Romans and elsewhere that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8, cf. Gal. 5:19-21). “The flesh” is a reference to the human person apart from grace.

The truth is: this example of justification being in the future is not an isolated case. There are numerous biblical texts that indicate both justification and salvation to be future and contingent realities, in one sense, as well as past completed realities in another sense:

Romans 2:13-16: For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified… on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.

Romans 6:16: Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness? (Gr.dikaiosunen- “justification”)

Matt. 10:22: And you will be hated of all men for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.

Romans 13:11: For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.

I Cor. 5:5: You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Future Sins Forgiven?

The Calvinist interpretation of Romans 5:1 not only takes Romans 5:1 out of context, but it leads to still other unbiblical teaching. As we mentioned above, at least from a Calvinist perspective, this understanding leads to the untenable position that all future sins are forgiven at the point of saving faith. Where is that in the Bible? Answer? It’s not. I John 1:8-9 could not make any clearer the fact that our future sins will only be forgiven when we confess them.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

I should note here that many Calvinists—and many of those who may not be full-fledged Calvinists, but hold to the “once saved always saved” part of classic Calvinist doctrine—respond to this text by claiming that the forgiveness of sins St. John is talking about here has nothing to do with one’s justification before God. This text only considers whether or not one is in fellowship with God. And this “fellowship with God” is interpreted to mean only whether or not one will receive God’s blessings in this life.

There is a large problem here. The context of the passage does not allow for this interpretation. In fact, if you look at verse five, St. John had just said:

God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him, while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

This text makes clear that the “fellowship” being spoken of is essential in order for us to 1) walk in the light as God is in the light and 2) have our sins forgiven. If we are not in “fellowship,” according to verse 6, then we are in darkness. And if we are in darkness, we are not in God, “who is light and in him is no darkness” (vs. 5). There is nothing in this text that even hints at the possibility that you can be out of “fellowship” with God, but still go to heaven. That is, of course, unless you have that fellowship restored by the confession of your sins. This is precisely what verses eight and nine are all about!

The Example of Abraham

Another point we can agree with our Calvinist friends on is that Romans 4:3 demonstrates Abraham to have been justified through the gift of faith he received from God. The Catholic Church acknowledges what the text clearly says: “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” referencing Genesis 15:6.

However, there is more to this text as well. While the Catholic Church agrees that Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 15:6 as St. Paul said, we also note that Abraham was justified at other times in his life as well indicating justification to have an on-going aspect to it. Again, there is a sense in which justification is a past action in the life of believers, but there is another sense in which justification is revealed to be a process.

Let’s take a look at the life of Abraham.

Virtually all Christians agree that Romans 4:3 depicts Abraham as being justified through faith in the promise God made to him concerning his offspring:

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (citing Gen. 15:6).

But what many fail to see, however, is Abraham is also revealed to have already been justified many years prior to this when he was initially called by God to leave his home in Haran to create a new nation in a then-unknown land promised to him by God. Heb. 11:8 provides:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance, and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.

What kind of “faith” is the inspired author speaking about? Hebrews 11:6 tells us it is a faith “without [which] it is impossible to please God.” This is a saving faith. So how could Abraham have saving faith if he wasn’t yet saved, or justified?

He couldn’t.

He had a saving faith because he was already justified through his faith and obedience to the call of God in his life long before his encounter with the Lord in Genesis 15. In addition, Abraham is revealed to have been justified again in Genesis 22 years after Genesis 15, when he offered his son Isaac in sacrifice and in obedience to the Lord.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God (James 2:21-23).

The Most Important Thing

When Catholics read of Abraham “justified by faith” in Romans 5, we believe it. But we don’t end there. For when Catholics read of Abraham “justified by works” in James 2 we believe that as well. For 2,000 years the Catholic Church has taken all of Sacred Scripture into the core of her theology harmonizing all of the biblical texts. Thus, we can agree with our Protestant friends and say as Christians we have been (past tense) justified and saved through our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

But we also agree with our Lord that there is another sense in which we are being saved and justified by cooperation with God’s grace in our lives, and we hope to finally be saved and justified by our Lord on the last day.

Jesus says so:

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matt. 12:36-37).

The Trouble With Calvin – Pt. 3

In my last two blog posts, we examined the first two of the “five points” of Calvinism popularly known by the acronym, TULIP, which represents 1. Total Depravity 2. Unconditional Election 3. Limited Atonement 4. Irresistible Grace 5. Perseverance of the Saints (“once saved, always saved”). In this post, we will tackle the third point:

Limited Atonement

No Christian that I know of would deny that some doctrines are more or less clear than others in Scripture. When it comes to the atonement of Christ, the Scriptures are most clear: Jesus Christ died on the cross for the entire world. The redemption that Christ merited through his passion and death was for every single human person that has ever and will ever live. The Calvinist teaching of limited atonement espouses the exact opposite. We find this teaching in many places in the Calvinist confessions by way of their emphasis on the sacrifice of Christ being only for the sins of the elect and not for the sins of the whole world. The Westminster Confession of 1643, for example, declared:

In this sacrament Christ is not offered up to his Father, nor any real sacrifice made at all for remission of sins of the quick or the dead; but only a commemoration of that one offering up of himself, by himself, upon the cross, once for all, and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God for the same; so that the Popish sacrifice of the mass, as they call it, is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of the elect (emphasis added).

Notice, Christ’s sacrifice, was not offered for the sins of all, but only for the elect, according to John Calvin and the Westminster Confession. I am always astonished at this teaching in light of the clear teaching of St. John in I John 2:1-2:

My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (emphasis added).

As Catholics, we have to go with St. John over John Calvin. Yet, Calvin was quite insistent that Christ did not die for all. He taught, as we’ve seen before:

By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 3, Ch. 21, Para. 5).

We keep coming back to Calvin’s notion of “double predestination,” and we will again, because It is important for us to understand that for Calvin and true Calvinists, predestination means that it is God’s immutable will that some go to heaven and some go to hell. Before they ever commit one sin, God has already decreed and ordained their eternal torment. Calvin said:

Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children (Ibid., Ch. 23, Para. 1, emphasis added).

If the Calvinist notion of predestination were true, then this doctrine of limited atonement would follow. If God’s eternal decree representing his will from all eternity is that only some be saved, and if his immutable will is for some to go to hell, then clearly, he did not die on the cross for the salvation of all. This follows necessarily.

This is a case of a presupposition based on the misunderstanding of a relatively few biblical texts that ends up contradicting the plain teaching of Sacred Scripture. The atonement of Christ on the cross is the greatest expression of our God’s salvific will for all of mankind. And sacred Scripture could not make it any plainer:

John 3:16: 

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Notice, the text does not say, “God so loved the elect…”

I Tim. 2:3-6:

This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all (emphasis added).

Here we see—contrary to the Calvinist teaching of a limited atonement—that Christ died for all revealing God’s positive salvific will for all to be saved.

II Peter 3:9:

The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (emphasis added).

Here we see not only that God’s positive will is for all to be saved, but he clearly does not will any to perish in the fires of hell either. Again, this is expressly contrary to Calvinism. The biblical text reveals God’s salvific will to include each and every human being that has ever or will ever live. Those who end up in hell will be there because they chose to reject the truth, not because of any positive willing on God’s part.

Calvin Responds:

I actually like to read John Calvin’s magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion. I love the way Calvin’s mind works. Give me Calvin to read any day over Luther. Luther is all over the place with his theology. Calvin is disciplined, thorough, consistent, and easy to understand. Don’t get me wrong, he is profoundly wrong on many crucial matters, but at least you know where he stands.

When it comes to Calvin’s responses to the above-mentioned texts, well, let’s just say they are disciplined, consistent, easy to understand, and dead wrong. For brevity’s sake we will just take I Tim. 2:4 in this post. Let’s cite verses 1-6 for context:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every ways. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…

This text is quite plain, making clear that:

1. God wills all men to be saved.

2. Christ Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all.”

But listen to Calvin’s response:

By this he assuredly means nothing more than that the way of salvation was not shut against any order of men… (Institutes, Bk. III, Ch. 24, Para. 16)

 Really? It is hard to believe Calvin was really satisfied in saying that “all men” did not refer to “all men,” but to all “categories of men.” In this case, St. Paul was limiting prayer for the “categories” of “kings and men in high positions.”

But then you have the problem of verse six saying, “Christ… gave himself as a ransom for all” to have to them mean ”all categories of men.” That is simply not what the text says.

A Final Thought

John Calvin was stuck. He had a presupposition that simply did not fit the text, so he had to twist the text to fit his presupposition. He did not believe Jesus “ransomed all” on the cross (as I Tim. 2:6 says) because he believed Christ only made atonement for the elect. He did not believe God wills the salvation of all (as I Tim. 2:4 says) for the same reason, so he had to come up with the above that is really so far beneath a man with the intellectual capacity of a John Calvin. The man was brilliant.

He had to defend the indefensible belief in “limited atonement” in order to preserve the acronym, right?

But this leads to my final point for this post. There is another text that absolutely obliterates the notion of “limited atonement” that Calvin did not deal with in his magnum opus. That text would be II Peter 2:1-3:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words; from of old their condemnation has not been idle, and their destruction has not been asleep.

In this text, St. Peter makes clear that Jesus “bought” (the Greek word here is a form of agorazo, which is used in I Cor. 6:20, 7:23, Acts 20:28, Rev. 5:9, 14:3, and 4 to mean “ransomed” or “redeemed”) not just the elect, but even those who will eventually end in the torments of hell. There can be no doubt concerning either the words or the context of II Peter 2.

Calvin did not include this text in the nearly 700 pages of Institutes of the Christian Religion? I have a hard time believing this one got away. He just didn’t know about it. He was too smart for that. Perhaps he left this one alone because his answer would have been even worse than what we saw above in his dancing around I Tim. 2:4. I don’t know.

But what I do know is this text makes clear this fact: Jesus did not only die for the elect. His atonement was not “limited.”

He died for all. And “all” means “all.”

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The Trouble With Calvin – Pt. 2

In my last post, I began a series of critiques of John Calvin’s famous “five points,” most often referred to using the acronym, TULIP, which represents Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistibility of Grace, and The Perseverance of the Saints (“once saved, always saved”). In this installment, we’ll deal with Unconditional Election.

Calvin’s idea of Unconditional Election simply means that God “elected” certain men for salvation and others for damnation from all eternity, rooted in texts of Scripture, as we will see below, like Romans 9:10-12:

And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, she was told, “The Younger will serve the younger.”

Calvin’s ideas of election and double predestination are virtually indistinguishable.  Double Predestination, as we saw before, is the teaching that claims God to have determined from all eternity who will go to heaven and who will go to hell giving to man no real choice in the matter. The Catholic Church condemns this understanding, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1037:

God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (Citing II Peter 3:9).

Just as with predestination, for Calvin, God both wills and brings about the damnation of souls by his positive decree of election. He must, or else, in Calvin’s mind, he ceases to be truly almighty:

They deny that it is ever said in distinct terms, God decreed Adam should perish by his revolt… They say that, in accordance with free will, he was to be the architect of his own fortune, that God had decreed nothing but to treat him according to his desert. If this frigid fiction is received, where will be the omnipotence of God, by which, according to his secret counsel on which everything depends, he rules over all? But whether they will allow it or not, predestination is manifest in Adam’s posterity. It was not owing to nature that they all lost salvation by the fault of one parent… As this cannot be ascribed to nature, it is plain that it is owing to the wonderful counsel of God… I again ask how it is that the fall of Adam involves so many nations with their infant children in eternal death without remedy [Calvin here refers to the false notion of unbaptized babies being predestined for hell], unless that it so seemed meet to God? Here the most loquacious tongues must be dumb. The decree, I admit is dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknew what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree…Nor ought it to seem absurd when I say, that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk III, Ch. XXIII, Para. 7).

Yes, this “decree…is dreadful,” but it is not God’s. It’s Calvin’s!

Twisting the Truth

There is some truth to Calvin’s notion of election. Scripture as well as the Catholic Church, will often refer to “the elect” as those who will finally persevere until the end and so be saved.

“The Church . . . will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven,” at the time of Christ’s glorious return. Until that day, “the Church progresses on her pilgrimage amidst this world’s persecutions and God’s consolations.” Here below she knows that she is in exile far from the Lord, and longs for the full coming of the Kingdom, when she will “be united in glory with her king.” The Church, and through her the world, will not be perfected in glory without great trials. Only then will “all the just from the time of Adam, ‘from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect,’ . . . be gathered together in the universal Church in the Father’s presence” (CCC 842).

Jesus himself speaks of the “elect” who will persevere and so be saved in texts like Matt. 24:22:

And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.

St. Paul speaks of the ”elect” as well:

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which in Christ Jesus goes with eternal glory (II Tim. 2:10).

The Catholic Church has no problem with referring to “the elect” as those who will finally persevere until the end and attain final salvation. The problem with Calvin is his claim that each Christian can know with “infallible certainty” (as the Westminster Confession says it) that he is one of the elect. And, his claim that man has no real say in whether or not he will be one of God’s elect.

St. Paul did not even claim for himself this “infallible certainty” of his final salvation.

… but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (I Cor. 9:27).

This word translated “disqualified” in the RSVCE is adokimos. This is the same word St. Paul uses for those who reject God and whom God then “gave up” to a “reprobate mind” in Romans 1:28. Or, in II Cor. 13:5, he uses it thus:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ is in you?–unless you fail to meet the test (or, as some translations have it, “unless you are reprobate”; II Cor. 13:5)!

One can know via a private revelation that he is one of the elect, but Scripture indicates that God alone knows, ordinarily speaking, who the elect are. St. Peter tells us we must continue to be zealous to do good works until the end of our lives in order to ensure that we are truly one of “the elect:”

Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall; so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

In that same letter, St. Peter also warns that even those who have experienced the transforming power of God in their lives as he describes it in II Peter 1:2-4 can then fall away and be lost in 2:20-22. There is no presumption here with St. Peter as to who is one of the “elect,” as we see with John Calvin.

Thus, for Catholics, however one understands the theology of “election,” as long as one does not deny certain essential truths, there is freedom. For example, a Catholic can believe that the number of the “elect” is “predetermined” inasmuch as God knows how many will cooperate with this grace and persevere until the end. That means there is a limited number of “elect,” and, of course, not everyone is “elect.”

A Catholic may not, however, teach “election” to mean that God does not give to every single person the real possibility of salvation. As Gaudium et Spes 22, paragraph 5, says:

For, since Christ died for all  men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we  ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to  every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.

In other words, “election” does not mean God arbitrarily “elects” some for heaven and damns others to hell as Calvin taught. A true biblical understanding of “election” must involve man’s free response as CCC 600 tells us:

To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace.

God’s predestination and/or election presuppose God’s initiative. God’s “eternal plan of predestination” goes before us so that if we respond to God’s call, it is only because God’s grace, predestination, election, and calling went before us. Without God as first mover, we could not take one step toward God as one of his elect. However, without our freely willing it, we will not finally “be in that number, when the saints come marching in.”

But What About Jacob and Esau?

Invariably, texts of Scripture like Romans 9, cited above, will be used by Calvinists to defend their position of unconditional election:

Though [Jacob and Esau] were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, [Rebecca] was told, “The elder will serve the younger” (verses 11-12).

In order to understand this text, we really have to understand the greater context of Romans. We have to make the necessary distinctions between God’s gift of grace and the plan of God, which are given to men independent of anything that man does or can do, and man’s call to respond to the gift of grace and the plan of God. When we see this, Romans 9 will come into focus.

St. Paul is writing to a people in Rome being assailed by “judaizers” who were coming up with their own plan of salvation and leading people astray. In essence, they were saying it is great to believe in Christ and the New Covenant, but if you want to be saved, you have to go back to the Temple, the Old Covenant Priesthood, sacrifices, the Old Law, especially circumcision, etc. True Christians who were rejecting the Old Covenant in favor of the New were being persecuted for their faith; and, no doubt, they were being tempted to succumb to returning to the Temple. If they would only do so, they would no longer be in danger of:

… being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction… [being imprisoned]… [experiencing the] plundering of… [their] property… (Heb. 10:32-34)

But, at the same time, as St. Paul says in Galatians 5, if they were to return to the Old Covenant and trust in it for salvation they would also be in danger of losing their souls:

Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you… You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace (Gal. 5:2-4).

It was in this context that St. Paul was exhorting Christians in his Letter to the Romans to understand God’s plan and gift of grace to have been decreed long before they were ever created. St. Paul encourages the faithful that nothing except their own willful turning away from God’s goodness can separate them from God’s grace which will keep them through all that they may have to endure. “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed” (Romans 8:18):

Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?… For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality (Romans 2:4-11).

Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off (Romans 11:22).

St. Paul is in no way saying that the individual Christians to whom he is writing have their eternities sealed and that they are going to heaven no matter what they do. In fact, St. Paul makes clear all over the New Testament that what you do determines where you will spend eternity as much as what you believe (see Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-6; Col. 3:5-6, etc.). Far from encouraging a sense of presumption, St. Paul says:

Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (I Cor. 10:12).

St. Paul encourages these believers that nothing outside of themselves can ever separate them from God’s grace. There is nothing that any man, or any angel, or any power in the universe outside of themselves could ever do to take them away from God. God’s plan is secure and has been so from all eternity:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39).

God’s plan and God’s power are sure. The question for St. Paul is this: will his readers–or will we–respond to God’s predestined plan for our salvation, or will we choose to reject it to our own eternal loss.

Foreknown, Predestined, Justified, and Glorified

It is this context that leads up to Romans 8 and 9 and the famous texts on “predestination” and “election.” Among the many problems with Calvin’s theology of election, as well as with the Calvinists today who follow his teaching, is a failure to distinguish between the several categories St. Paul lists in Romans 8:28-30, most especially “foreknowledge,” “predestination,” “justification,” and “glorification.”

In presenting his own theology of election in Romans 8, St. Paul says:

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified… Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect (Romans 8-30)

According to St. Paul, the elect were already “fore[known]… predestined… called… justified… and glorified.” Calvin wrongly thought from this that I could then determine that I am already “glorified” by God’s eternal decree so that there is nothing more I need to do. This is incorrect. St. Paul is continuing his thought that God’s predestined plan is secure. God has done it all for us on the objective level. But that does not mean were do not have to cooperate with his plan on the subjective level.

In other words, Christ purchased my salvation, justification, and glorification on the cross. It is a done deal on the objective level. But that does not mean I do not have to do something in order for it to be subjectively accomplished in my life.

Let’s take justification for example. Christ “justified” all men on the cross. He paid the price for all. However, a man still must “believe in his heart unto justification” (Romans 10:10) in order to actually be justified. And he must continue to practice ”obedience unto righteousness” (Gr. justification) in order to finally be justified (Romans 6:16; Cf. I Cor. 4:3-5; Matt. 12:36-37; Romans 2:13; Gal. 2:17; James 2:21-25).

Now let’s consider glorification. Catholics believe that Jesus ”glorified” all on the cross just as he justified them. However, we must “suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him,” on the subjective level (Romans 8:17; Cf. Romans 2:6-10; II Thess. 2:14; I Cor. 15:42-43). Christ’s glorifying us will take no effect in our lives unless we choose to allow what he did on the cross to actually be applied to our lives.

Thus, if we are finally justified, it is only because Christ already “justified us” on the cross. If we are “glorified,” it is only because Christ already “glorified” us on the cross. However, if we choose to walk away from Christ, we will not be finally justified or glorified. We will have rejected God’s predestined plan for our salvation, in favor of our own demise.

St. Augustine Weighs In

St. Augustine, who is often misunderstood and errantly used by some Calvinists to “prove” their position—a position that he never held—wrote:

… predestination, which cannot exist without foreknowledge, although foreknowledge may exist without predestination; because God foreknew by predestination those things which He was about to do, whence it was said, “He made those things that shall be.” Moreover, He is able to foreknow even those things which He does not Himself do,—as all sins whatever. Because, although there are some which are in such wise sins as that they are also the penalties of sins, whence it is said, “God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient,” it is not in such a case the sin that is God’s, but the judgment. Therefore God’s predestination of good is, as I have said, the preparation of grace; which grace is the effect of that predestination (On the Predestination of the Saints (Book I)—In What Respects Predestination and Grace Differ, Chap. 19 [10]).

Though I should mention that St. Augustine is not always either consistent nor correct on all matters relating to predestination, the “Doctor of Grace” presents well the Catholic and biblical position here when he explains predestination only refers to God’s plan for redemption, not reprobation. For that (reprobation), man must reject God’s call to all for salvation. As St. Paul said it:

[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (I Tim. 2:4).

And:

… because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe (I Tim. 4:10).

St. John provides:

[Jesus Christ] is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

And St. Peter adds:

The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but if forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (II Peter 3:9).

Very important to our discussion is St. Augustine’s distinction between what he calls “the operating grace” and “the cooperating grace” in the lives of men. The first grace is given by God apart from man’s cooperation and prepares his will so that he may choose God. This grace is integrally related to God’s providential plan that existed from all eternity in the mind of God. This is the grace that the persecuted Christians to whom St. Paul was writing in his letter to the Romans can know is there for them and no power on earth can ever change that. The latter grace is given by God as well, but requires man’s cooperation for it to be effectual in his life.

When I shall have proved this, it will more manifestly appear that to lead a holy life is the gift of God,—not only because God has given a free will to man, without which there is no living ill or well; nor only because He has given him a commandment to teach him how he ought to live; but because through the Holy Ghost He sheds love abroad in the hearts of those whom he foreknew, in order to predestinate them; whom He predestinated, that He might call them; whom He called, that he might justify them; and whom he justified, that He might glorify them [Rom.8:28ff]… even man’s justice must be attributed to the operation of God, although not taking place without man’s will; and we therefore cannot deny that his perfection is possible even in this life, because all things are possible with God,—both those which He accomplishes of His own sole will, and those which He appoints to be done with the cooperation with Himself of His creature’s will (On the Spirit and the Letter, Ch. 7).

As we will see in more detail when we discuss the “P” of TULIP in a few weeks, God alone foreknows those who will finally persevere until the end in grace (except in cases of private revelation, as I said above), according to Scripture and to St. Augustine. But the key for us now is to see that St. Augustine very clearly teaches as Scripture does, that man must cooperate with the plan and grace of God in order to be saved. Thus, his election is not unconditional. God’s gift of grace includes our cooperation. This is all part of God’s immutable and predestined plan.

 … it is God who both works in man the willing to believe, and in all things prevents us with His mercy. To yield our consent, indeed, to God’s summons, or to withhold it, is (as I have said) the function of our own will. And this not only does not invalidate what is said, “For what do you have that you did not receive?” (citing I Cor. 4:7) but it really confirms it. For the soul cannot receive and possess these gifts, which are here referred to, except by yielding its consent. And thus whatever it possesses, and whatever it receives, is from God; and yet the act of receiving and having belongs, of course, to the receiver and possessor (St. Augustine, On the Spirit and Letter, ch. 60).

How far is this from the dreary predestination of Calvin’s invention that claims:

We, indeed, ascribe both prescience and predestination to God; but we say that it is absurd to make the latter subordinate to the former [as St. Augustine and St. Paul do!]… By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which He determined with Himself whatever He wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk III, Ch.21, Para. 5).

Michael Jordan Knows About Choice

For many Calvinists, John 15:16 is as plain as it gets when it comes to unconditional election. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.” “See?” they’ll say. “The idea of God offering salvation to all is bogus. Jesus only elects a few, and it is his choice, not ours, as to who they will be.”

The 1984 NBA Draft is a great way, I find, to explain the biblical concept of God “choosing” us. The draft of 1984 is famous for having four Hall of Famers selected in the first round. You had Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, all chosen in that same year. That is quite a class!

Hakeem Olajuwon, from the University of Houston, was chosen first overall by the Houston Rockets. That was certainly a good pick because he would become one of the greatest centers to ever play the game. But the second pick was where it became interesting. The Portland Trailblazers had Michael Jordan, from the University of North Carolina, available, but they chose Sam Bowie, from the University of Kentucky, instead. At the time it seemed like a decent pick because Bowie was an extraordinarily good college player, but it would eventually prove to have been the biggest mistake in NBA history. Bowie would unexpectedly flop in the NBA, while Michael Jordan would go on to be… well… Michael Jordan.

How doe this relate to our topic? Here’s how. The third team to pick  would be the Chicago Bulls, and they would choose Michael Jordan. If you would have asked Michael Jordan what team he would have liked to play for back then, there is no way he would have picked the Bulls. They were perennial losers at the time. But the truth is, he did not choose the Bulls, the Bulls organization chose him. And to this day, you will hear the refrain, “The Bulls made the best choice in NBA history. They chose Michael Jordan.”

Would anybody believe that because the Bulls “chose” Michael Jordan that he would not, in turn, have to choose them? Of course not.

So it is with Christ. He chooses us. Of that there can be no doubt. But according to his own words, he then asks us to choose him:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne…

In Summary

The Catholic Church teaches that God elects only some for salvation and that election was known to God from all eternity. All of you reading this post who persevere until the end with our Lord and are saved will only be so because God “elected” you to be so from all eternity.

In saying that, the Scriptures and the Catholic Church do not mean to say that God does not offer to all the real possibility of salvation. He does. Whether or not we will finally be counted among the elect depends first of all upon the call and “election” of God, but secondarily, it relies upon our free response to his call and our persevering in the grace of his call until the end.

If you enjoyed this post, and if you want to dive deeper into the topic of salvation, click here.

 

 

The Trouble With Calvin – Pt. 1

Over my next five blog posts, I am going to critique the famous “five points” of Calvinist theology: 1. Total Depravity 2. Unconditional Election 3. Limited Atonement 4. Irresistibility of Grace 5. Perseverance of the Saints (“Once Saved, Always Saved”).

Pt. 1 – Total Depravity

In John Calvin’s magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin presents a view of man that is very much like Luther’s, but contrary to what we find in the pages of Sacred Scripture. Calvin used texts like Gen.6:5,

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,

and Romans 3:10ff,

None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one…

in order to prove that man is totally and utterly depraved through the fall of Adam and Eve. Calvin’s conclusion from these texts and others was to say, “The will is so utterly vitiated and corrupted in every part as to produce nothing but evil” (Institutes, Bk. II, Chapter II, Para. 26).

What Say We?

The context of the texts Calvin used actually demonstrate the opposite of his claim. For example, if we read forward just four verses in Genesis 6, we find this:

But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord… Noah was a righteous (“just”) man, blameless in his generation (Gen. 6:8-9).

While we Catholics agree that God’s grace or “favor” was absolutely essential for Noah to be truly “just” before God; nevertheless, Noah was truly just, according to the text.

As far as the quote from Romans is concerned, the greater context of the entire epistle must be understood. One of the central themes of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the fact that it is through “the goodness of God” that we are led to repent (cf. Romans 2:4), to be justified (Romans 5:1-2), and persevere in the faith (cf. Romans 11:22). It is solely because of God’s grace that we can truly become just:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).

Further,

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death…in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:2-4).

Notice the emphasis on the fact that man is truly made just so much so that he can fulfill “the just requirement of the law.” It doesn’t get any more just, or righteous, than that!

Thus, Romans 3:10ff simply does not teach total depravity in a Calvinist sense. It cannot when the context is understood.

Moreover, if we examine the very verses where St. Paul paints his picture of the wicked who have “turned aside” and “done wrong,” we find he actually quotes Psalm 14:3. The next two verses of this Psalm explain who these “evil ones” are.

Have they no knowledge, all the evil-doers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord? There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous.

The Psalmist clearly refers to both evil-doers and “the righteous.”

The impetus of these and other texts from Romans tell us that Christ came to make us just, not that there are absolutely none who are just. We must stress again that it is because of the justice of Christ communicated to the faithful that their actions, and indeed, they themselves, are truly made just. But they indeed are truly made just.

Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right (Gr.—ho poion tein dikaiousunein—the one doing justice) is righteous (Gr.—dikaios estin—is just), as he is righteous (Gr.—kathos ekeinos dikaios estin—as he is just) (I John 3:7).

There is no way the Scripture could be any clearer that the faithful are truly made just in their being and in their actions through the grace of Christ.

The Problem Magnified

More grave problems begin to arise when we begin to follow the path Calvin lays for us with his first principle. Even when considering the unregenerate Calvin is wrong about total depravity because Scripture tells us even those who are outside of the law can,

… do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15).

Though Catholics agree with Calvinists that grace is necessary even for these who are ignorant of the law in order for them to be just before God—in other words this text is not saying these pagans can be justified apart from grace—the text does infer that nature is not totally depraved because man can clearly act justly on a natural level, or by nature.

But an even more grave error comes to the fore when we consider his notion of the depravity of the just. “Depravity of the just?” Yes. That was not a typo. According to John Calvin, even those who have been justified by Christ “cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation” (Institutes, Bk. III, Ch. 9, Para. 9). How far from “he that acts justly is just” (I John 3:7) or the plain words of the Psalmist who uses similar words as found in Gen. 15:6 with regard to Abraham being justified by faith: “[Abraham] believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness,” in Psalm 106:30-31: “Then Phineas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation.”

Phineas was clearly justified by his works and not just by faith. In other words, Phineas’ works are truly “just as he is just” to use the words of I John 3:7.

There are a multitude of biblical texts that come to mind at this point, but what about the words of our Lord in Matthew 12:37, “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Or, “by works a man is justified and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Or,

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:13-14).

These texts do not even come close to saying all of these works were “worthy of condemnation.” They say just the opposite!

We should be clear here: All “good works” man performs that contribute to his salvation are first and foremost God’s gifts, which, along with his cooperation, truly make him just and worthy to “walk with [Christ] in white; for [he is] worthy” (Rev. 3:4), by God’s grace and mercy. But we cannot escape the biblical fact that these works truly are just and they are truly the fruit of the just man himself.

The Problems Continue

Once Calvin deduces “total depravity” via poor exegesis of a relatively few texts of Scripture, all sorts of unbiblical notions follow. For example, Calvin also concludes from this that human nature is so totally depraved that free will is an impossibility. It’s a farce:

The grace offered by the Lord is not merely one which every individual has full liberty of choosing to receive or reject, but a grace which produces in the heart both choice and will (Institutes, Bk. II, Ch. 3, Para. 13).

According to Calvin, man’s total depravity means necessarily that he does not have the capacity to cooperate with God’s grace.

In fact, I argue that Calvin’s notion of grace and nature is a carbon copy of the theology of Sunni Islam. And I am far from alone in my conclusion. The famous Calvinist and anti-Catholic, Loraine Boettner, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, provides:

Dr. Samuel M. Zwemer, who in a very real sense can be referred to as “apostle to the Mohammedan World,” calls attention to the strange parallel between the Reformation in Europe under Calvin and that in Arabia under Mohammed. Says he: “Islam is indeed in many respects the Calvinism of the Orient. It, too, was a call to acknowledge the sovereignty of God’s will… It is this vital theistic principle that explains the victory of Islam over the weak divided and idolatrous Christendom of the Orient” (Boettner, The Doctrine of Predestination, p. 318-319).

Strange bedfellows? Perhaps not. Islam and Calvinism agree based not only upon a distorted notion of the sovereignty of God, but also because of a distorted notion of man’s depravity. The two are very similar.

Understanding the Strange

When John Calvin says man is utterly dependent upon God for every single just thought in his mind (see Institutes, Bk. II, Ch. II, Para. 27), Catholics will happily agree. And they would be correct. We do agree. However, appearances can be deceiving because there is more meaning beneath those words that Catholics cannot agree with.

With Calvin, there is no sense of grace aiding and empowering our wills as St. Augustine taught and the Catholic Church teaches. For Calvin, being “dependent upon God” means our free cooperation or free wills have no part to play. God does not merely empower our wills; he operates them.

In the end, this may well be the most disturbing idea stemming from Calvin’s notion of total depravity. Man is essentially a puppet of God’s, which led to Calvin attributing both the good and the evil actions of man to God.

And mind you, Calvin rejects and ridicules the Catholic notion of God merely permitting evil and working all things together for good. In his words:

Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting, because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that he directs their malice to whatever end he pleases… (Institutes, Bk. I, Ch. XVIII, Para. 1).

Evildoers do not commit acts of depravity in spite of the command of God, but because of the command of God, according to Calvin (Ibid. Para. 4)! In fact, Calvin uses Is. 45:7 and Amos 3:6 to teach that there is no evil that occurs that is not “impelled” by God’s positive command (Ibid. Para. 2).

God is the author of all those things which, according to these objectors, happen only by his inactive permission. He testifies that he creates light and darkness, forms good and evil (Is. [45:7]); that no evil happens which he hath not done (Amos [3:6]) (Ibid. Para. 3).

As Catholics we understand—as St. Paul teaches—“since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Romans 1:28). This means God may well remove grace that is rejected. He may also hold back grace as well, but this is, as St. Augustine said, God’s “just judgment.” But, according to Calvin’s unbiblical teaching, God does not give grace in the first place and then “impels” men to act sinfully. As quoted above, according to Calvin, God causes evil. And we are not talking about physical evil here; we are talking about moral evil. That is categorically absurd! God cannot “do” or “impel” moral evil because He is infinitely and absolutely good!

God cannot lie (Heb. 6:8, Number 23:19), “he cannot deny Himself” (II Timothy 2:13)—or act contrary to His nature. If God’s nature is one of love and pure being, it is absurd to say that he can “do” evil, which is by nature a lack of some perfection that ought to be present in a given nature. In fact, James 1:13 tells us that God not only cannot cause this kind of evil, but he cannot even tempt anyone with evil. That is contrary to his nature.

The Bottom Line

When Is. 45:7 and Amos 3:6 say God “creates evil” and “does evil,” this must be seen only in a sense in which it does not contradict God’s nature and what is clearly revealed to us about God in Scripture. God can directly cause physical evil, such as the ten plagues he released against Egypt in Exodus. But this was an act of justice, which in and of itself was morally upright and justified. We can also say that God permits evil in view of the fact that he chose to create us with freedom. But even there, God only permits evil in view of his promise to bring good out of that evil as is most profoundly demonstrated through the greatest evil in the history of the world—the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through this greatest evil God brings about the greatest good—the redemption of the world. God did not kill Christ, nor did he “impel” anyone to kill Christ. But by virtue of his omnipotence, he brings good out of the evil acts committed.

Catholic, Are You Born Again?

Have you been born again, my friend?” Thousands of Catholics have been asked this question by well-meaning Fundamentalists or Evangelicals. Of course, by “born again” the Protestant usually means: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior through the recitation of ‘the sinner’s prayer?’” How is a Catholic to respond?

The simple Catholic response is: “Yes, I have been born again—when I was baptized.” In fact, Jesus’ famous “born again” discourse of John 3:3-5, which is where we find the words “born again” (or “born anew”) in Scripture, teaches us about the essential nature of baptism:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

At this point, a Fundamentalist or Evangelical will respond almost predictably: “Baptism does not save you, brother; John 3:5 says we must be born of water and the Spirit.” The Catholic will then be told the “water” of John 3:5 has nothing to do with baptism. Depending on the preference of the one to whom the Catholic is speaking, the “water” will either be interpreted as man’s natural birth (the “water” being amniotic fluid), and “the Spirit” would then represent the new birth, or the water would represent the word of God through which one is born again when he accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior.

Amniotic Fluid vs. Baptismal Water

To claim the “water” of John 3:5 is amniotic fluid is to stretch the context just a smidgen! When we consider the actual words and surrounding context of John 3, the waters of baptism seem to be the more reasonable—and biblical—interpretation. Consider these surrounding texts:

John 1:31-34: Jesus was baptized. If you compare the parallel passage in St. Matthew’s gospel (3:16), you find that when Jesus was baptized, “the heavens were opened” and the Spirit descended upon him. Obviously, this was not because Jesus needed to be baptized. In fact, St. John the Baptist noted that he needed to be baptized by Jesus (see Matthew 3:14)! Jesus was baptized in order “fulfill all righteousness” and “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,” according to Scripture (cf. Matt. 3:15; Luke 1:77). In other words, Jesus demonstrably showed us the way the heavens would be opened to us so that the Holy Spirit would descend upon us… through baptism.

John 2:1-11: Jesus performed his first miracle. He transformed water into wine. Notice, Jesus used water from “six stone jars … for the Jewish rites of purification.” According to the Septuagint as well as the New Testament these purification waters were called baptismoi (see LXX, Numbers 19:9-19; cf. Mark 7:4). We know that Old Testament rites, sacrifices, etc. were only “a shadow of the good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1). They could never take away sins. This may well be why “six” stone jars are specified by St. John—to denote imperfection, or “a human number” (cf. Rev. 13:18). It is interesting to note that Jesus transformed these Old Testament baptismal waters into wine—a symbol of New Covenant perfection (see Joel 3:18; Matthew 9:17).

John 3:22: Immediately after Jesus’ “born again” discourse to Nicodemus, what does He do? “… Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized.” It appears he baptized folks. This is the only time in Scripture we find Jesus apparently actually baptizing.

John 4:1-2: Jesus’ disciples then begin to baptize at Jesus’ command. It appears from the text, Jesus most likely only baptized his disciples and then they baptized everyone else.

In summary, Jesus was baptized, transformed the “baptismal” waters, and then gave his famous “born again” discourse. He then baptized before commissioning the apostles to go out and baptize. To deny Jesus was teaching us about baptism in John 3:3-5 is to ignore the clear biblical context.

Moreover, John 3:5 is not describing two events; it describes one event. The text does not say “unless one is born of water and then born again of the Spirit…” It says “unless one is born of water and Spirit…” If we hearken back to the Lord’s own baptism in John 1 and Matt. 3, we notice when our Lord was baptized the Holy Spirit descended simultaneously upon him. This was one event, involving both water and the Spirit. And so it is with our baptism. If we obey God in being baptized—that’s our part of the deal—we can count on God to concurrently “open the heavens” for us and give us the Holy Spirit.

And finally, it would be anachronistic to read into Jesus’ use of “water” to mean physical birth in John’s gospel. In fact, St. John had just used a word to refer to physical birth in John 1:12-13, but it wasn’t “water:”

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

St. John here tells us we are not made children of God by birth (“of blood”), or by our own attempts whether they be through our lower nature (“of the flesh”) or even through the higher powers of our soul (“the will of man”); rather, we must be born of God, or by God’s power. Notice, St. John refers to natural birth colloquially as “of blood,” not “of water.”

Washing of Water by the Word

It is perhaps an even greater stretch to attempt to claim the “water” of John 3:3-5 represents the word of God. At least with the amniotic fluid argument, you have mention of “birth” in the immediate context. However, the Protestant will sometimes refer to Ephesians 5:25-26 and a few other texts to make this point:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word…

“See?” a Protestant may say, “The ‘washing of water’ is here equated to ‘the word’ that cleanses us.” If you couple this text with Jesus’ words in John 15:3, “You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you,” the claim is made, that “the water” of John 3:5 would actually refer to the word of God rather than baptism.

The Catholic Response

Beyond the obvious fact that there is nothing in the context of John’s gospel to even remotely point to “water” as referring to ”the word,” we can point out immediately a point of agreement. Both Catholics and Protestants agree that Jesus’ words—unless one is born anew (or, again)—speak of man’s initial entrance into the body of Christ through God’s grace. Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to ask what the New Testament writers saw as the instrument whereby one first enters into Christ. This would be precisely what we are talking about when we speak of being “born again.”

I Peter 3:20-21: “… in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Romans 6:3-4: “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”

Galatians 3:27: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

I Cor. 12:13: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit (See also Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16 and Col. 2:11-13).

If baptism is the way the unsaved are brought into Christ, no wonder Christ spoke of being “born of water and spirit.” Baptism is the instrument of new birth according to the New Testament.

If you liked this and would like to dive deeper into learning what Catholics believe and why they believe it, click here.

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).