I want to follow up on our earlier discussion having to do with how much of the gospel a man can misunderstand or be ignorant of and still be saved by it. Can a faithful Roman Catholic, accepting what Rome erroneously teaches about the gospel and salvation, still be saved? This came up because of my answer to a question about the salvation of Chesterton and Tolkien. My answer to that is of course. Such men can be saved precisely because Rome is in error on this point. This reply causes consternation in some quarters, and I do understand why. This is my attempt to explain this carefully enough to avoid at least the wrong kind of misunderstanding.
The gospel is good news, it is gospel, precisely because it saves. A gospel that does not save is no gospel at all. So what is the content of the saving gospel? Here it is:
Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was born as a member of the human race, lived a perfect sinless life on behalf of those He came to save, was crucified for their sins in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried, and was raised from the dead by the Father for our justification. He ascended into Heaven, where He intercedes with the Father for the sake of all those for whom He died. From that place He will one day come to judge the living and the dead.
That’s the gospel. The necessary response to this gospel is repentance and faith. In order to be saved a man must repent of his sins, and he must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. My basic point is that there is no variability in the gospel itself. There is, of necessity, a good deal of variability in human responses to the gospel. Fortunately, the impact of those variations is not really in our department — since God is the one who gives repentance and faith (Acts 5:31; 2 Tim. 2:25; Phil. 1:29: Eph. 2:8-9), it is up to Him to make sure that He gives the right kind.
So the first thing we must do is distinguish the objective gospel from the subjective reception of the gospel. The objective gospel cannot be altered — if it is altered in any way, it is no longer the saving gospel. The subjective response — repentance and faith — must be sincere, and in order to be sincere, it must be God-given. It cannot be sham repentance and it cannot be faux faith. But sincere doesn’t mean perfect.
Here is an illustration. Suppose the existence of a medicine for a fatal disease that is made up of five components. Suppose further that the label on the bottle says to do and/or not do five things while taking it — every three hours, don’t take it with Tylenol, etc. Now if you take any one of those five components away, you don’t have the medicine at all anymore. You can’t mess with anything; the medicine is what it is. But it is not quite the same with taking the medicine. Taking it every 2 hours is an error but not the same kind of error as taking a pill every three years. Taking Tylenol once by accident is a mistake, but not like doubling up on the Tylenol. The medicine is what it is. The regimen approximates. Now some patients die because they try to alter the medication, and others die because they did not follow instructions. Other patients, who also do not follow instructions, are nevertheless helped by the medicine. It may not seem fair, but that’s the way it is.
Now when guardians of the gospel claim that so and so is “altering” the gospel that saves, they frequently do not make the distinctions I am making here. There is a difference between changing the medicine and doing things with the medicine you ought not to do.
I am saying that in order to save anybody, the gospel has to be perfect. You can’t take any part of it away and have it remain gospel. But — and this is the glorious thing — it is not possible to take any part of it away. Jesus did what He did, and that great conquest cannot be undone. He rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and is completely out reach of the malevolence of sinners. The gospel is therefore unalterable.
You can claim to have altered it, and you can keep people from following the directions on the label on the bottle, and you can expedite the damnation of many in this way. Challenging God on such things is not a trifle, and can have a soul-destroying impact. Nevertheless, the medicine is still there — Jesus Christ died and rose — and this message can bring life out of death in many strange places. And to claim that the divine seed can germinate in some desert places is not to endorse the desert.
Now return to my statement of the saving gospel above. Who can be saved while failing to affirm what I said there? Well, babies for starters. They fail to affirm all kinds of things. I believe that babies who die in infancy are saved, and I believe that they are saved by the gospel. But their response to the gospel need not be the propositional equivalent to what was said by the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:37). Nevertheless, the gospel remains what it is, and when God saves them He does it by giving paedo-repentance and paedo-faith. You might not like this, but if you deny it — and you believe that little ones dying in infancy can still be saved — then either you must say they are saved without repentance and faith at all, or you must posit a miracle in which the Holy Spirit enables a zygote to say the Apostles’ Creed.
What about some Romanists who do more than fail to affirm? What about those who deny some of what I wrote above? First, let us make sure that we are weighing these things with equal weights and measures. Arminians deny some of it too. Arminianism and Rome share the same central error. Do not consign John Paul II to Hell on grounds that apply equally to Billy Graham.
Remember that denial of one of the five components of the medicine doesn’t make that component go away. This is why there are people who are blessed by the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ who themselves deny that any such imputation ever took place. At the same time, we must never forget the false brothers in Galatia who were damned precisely because they added human effort to the finished work of Christ. Two patients are in the same ward, and both of them don’t follow instructions. One dies and the other lives. Having a problem with that means that we are somehow trying to wrest control of the salvation process from the hands of Almighty God, which we ought not to do.
So in the meantime, if in the interests of maintaining a pure gospel, you require all patients to become pharmacists of precision, the central problem is that you are not maintaining a pure gospel of free grace. Human pride can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works, as John Newton once put it.
More could be said about all this, of course, and probably will be.