Gospel Guardians

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.

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rorwal
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rorwal

What Doug believes about infants really isn’t relevant, and introducing it with “I believe” doesn’t somehow make it relevant or true. It’s interesting how much Doug’s posts on this depend on such shaky ground as assertions about infant salvation and “of the circumcision” referring to Judaizers. Galatians has been brought up. Doug took a rather indefensible position of saying that “of the circumcision” refers to Judaizers, despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. A true follow-up would address issues like this. Apparently, just as he redefines “of the circumcision” to mean “Judaizers”, Doug redefines “follow-up” to mean “dodge”.… Read more »

Justin Whear
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Justin Whear

In my younger years, as a bit of a son of thunder, I found myself questioning how my Arminian friends could be saved–after all, aren’t they adding to pure grace? Some years later I was embarassed to realize that they could and were saved precisely because they were wrong. If
salvation is of grace alone I had no business questioning their evident love for Christ on the basis of their doctrinal confusion.

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the following: “1989 The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”38 Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.39 1990 Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification… Read more »

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

babies for starters

And then there’s toddlers.
And teenagers.
And twenty & thirty-somethings.
And those senior citizens — let’s not forget about those!

Because nobody takes the medicine orally, He injects it all on His own with exactly the right regimen.

Babies get saved just like you did.

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Doug — as you say, the gospel message “is what it is“.

So is the regimen.

He is the chemist back at the lab, the pharmacist who presents it, and the doctor who administers.

What advantage is there then, you ask, to having the medicine proclaimed by preachers? — much in every way! — but you can read why there in Romans.

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Jill —
Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.
That seems to teach that the Church acts as doctor — hence the grace comes a bit circuitously.
Also — 1993 — man must cooperate.

Some see grace so received as filtered, altered, and so, as Doug doth say, no more grace at all.

Elisabeth
Member

So much more to think about on this subject. I grew up Catholic. I went to church every Sunday. I became born again in a Christian reformed church.. .if someone is saved and part of the Catholic church could this carry over to Jehovah witnesses, and Mormons and native American tribes?..

bethyada
Member

In order to be saved a man must repent of his sins, and he must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. My qualification to this is that belief must be a saving belief, which is not just an affirmation that Jesus is God, but a trust that manifests in obedience to Jesus. The works of obedience do not save, but the failure to (try and) obey Christ reflects a failure to believe in him. do you believe that Arminianism teaches that “grace alone saves”? “Grace” seems to have a broad definition to Calvinists. Arminians affirm that Christ alone saves; he… Read more »

timothy
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timothy

@Elizabeth

So much more to think about on this subject. I grew up Catholic. I went to church every Sunday. I became born again in a Christian reformed church.. .if someone is saved and part of the Catholic church could this carry over to Jehovah witnesses, and Mormons and native American tribes?..

C.S. Lewis wrote of this (somewhat) in his book Mere Christianity.

Interestingly, the word ‘Mere’ is used in the sense of ‘Common to all’ and not “lowly”. Lewis set out to answer what is common to the faith.

hph.

t

Ben
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Ben

Hey Doug,
What is the central error you are saying both arminianism and Catholicism share?
I would honestly say arminianism rightly understood does hold that grace alone saves… But only through faith alone, by Christ alone. I don’t see arminian/Wesleyan writers and scholars saying our works add something to our justification or ultimate salvation. Whereas I do see catholic writings saying that they do.
Would you mind clarifying what you meant? Thanks for your time.

rorwal
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rorwal

Doug, 1) Yes, Arminians believe in grace alone, and would explicitly affirm that we are saved by grace without works. (An Arminian says that the car can get them from point A to point B, even if their understanding of how gasoline engines works doesn’t match up with how the car actually does its job. The Roman Catholic would say that the car is necessary for part of the trip, but is not in fact capable of getting them from point A to point B.) 2) Roman Catholics can be saved, just as anyone else, so long as they believe… Read more »

rorwal
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rorwal

@Jill Smith >>Rorwal, I am puzzled why you believe that Catholic Church does not teach that salvation comes from grace. They believe grace is necessary, but explicitly condemn those who teach it is sufficient. They add works. Are you honestly not aware of this? Are you honestly not sure of my meaning? We are saved by faith without works (so says Scripture), but Rome says: If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not… Read more »

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

Rorwal, in 1999 the Catholic and Lutheran Churches issued a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in which the two presented their common understanding and belief. This is available at the Vatican website. The Catholic Church characterized this declaration as indicating substantial agreement on the role of grace alone in salvation. I quote the passages which best explain my own Catholic belief: “In Paul’s letters, God’s righteousness is also God’s power for those who have faith (Rom 1:16f; 2 Cor 5:21). In Christ he makes it our righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). Justification becomes ours through Christ Jesus “whom God… Read more »

antexw
Member

Good article about the distinction between the perfect gospel of Jesus Christ and perfect belief/faith/trust in the perfect gospel of Jesus Christ!

Truly, not all errors about the content of our beliefs in the gospel are errors or imperfections that obstruct us from believing in the content that is essential/necessary for such belief to be the saving faith/belief belonging to the elect/true disciples/believers of Christ.

Thank you, Doug.

Geoff
Guest

The problem is Galatians says that if you add works to faith you are cut off from Christ.

Call me a stickler but explicitly affirming justification through faith + works is a pretty good indication that you’re trusting in faith + works.

John
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John

Doug’s second reply to rorwal was simply epic. The divide between heart and head is critical to understanding why doug argument also carries over to the “in house ” debates between dispensationalists and covenant theology, etc. One could argue that those who are of the theological bent of the “free grace ” movement(who subscribe to the carnal Christian theory) are just as likely to be unsaved as catholics. This is where Dougs argument comes into play. The gospel covers all that error,provided the individual truly loves God through Christ and wants to serve Him in truth and love all his… Read more »

bethyada
Member

This allegory may need modification and I am happy to do so if my Calvinist interpretation is (significantly) incorrect. While we may debate whether God’s call is resistible, salvation is something that God does and not man. ——— There once was a king over a large country. An illegitimate slave laid claim to the kingdom and attempted to rule over it. The pretender to the throne deceived many into thinking his claim was legitimate and many followed him. One day the king made a pronouncement that every man who believed he was the true king was to come to on… Read more »

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Doug

You implied that all dead human embryos are saved by grace.

But you implied some other mechanics at work at later sentient stages.

Does that imply, what? — A different kind of grace?

Seth Meyers
Guest

Like a Presbyterian, when he could open the Scriptures to Gal. 1 he starts philosophizing. MacArthur is Mr. Bible who is often clever. Wilson is Mr. Clever who is often Biblical.

Andrew Lohr
Member

We’re saved by trusting in Christ. Not by trusting in “justification by faith.”

Babies who hear the gospel and trust in Christ get saved, babies who don’t hear can’t trust, so preach to your kids, eh?

Rorwal, Doug’s post was far, far clearer than your first comment.

Mark L
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Mark L

I liked the head and heart distinction Doug made, it shows I think that any RC that is saved is saved despite the theology of the RC church and not because of it. It really comes down to the question of how much of the gospel can we mangle before endangering our souls. Just because the Mormons talk about Jesus Christ doesn’t mean they are saved. Same for Roman Catholics, if you are trusting in the church to save you and not Christ you are on dangerous ground. Matt. 7:21-23 comes to mind, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord,… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

All this lawyering over precisely who is saved and who isn’t strikes me as both socially and theologically foolish. Christians have enough image problems in the modern world without going about trying to send other Christians to hell. And frankly it’s none of anyone’s business anyway. If someone professes faith in Jesus Christ, then that should be good enough for anyone else.

The interesting question is not whether Catholics are saved (if they aren’t then Christianity is a colossal failure) but rather whether non-Christians are saved. Are Muslims saved? Jews? Sikhs?

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

The colossalist failure would be if Jews, not Catholics, aren’t get saved.

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Atheists aren’t known for their correct doctrine.

Yet many an Atheist displace many a Reformed preacher up yonder.

Doesn’t take conscious assent, but a new heart.

Matthias
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Matthias

It’s a hard line to draw. Depending on how long you want to draw it. Arminianism is evil since it distorts grace. An Arminian can certainly be saved while espousing it. He does so inconsistently, of course, as with anyone who sins after being saved. An alcoholic may become a Christian who eventually dies from his alcoholism. Same with the Romanist, I would say. But to be a casual espouser of it is different from being a teacher of it. I wouldn’t draw a line there, necessarily. But I would say it is far more dangerous to be a teacher… Read more »

Matthias
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Matthias

Oops, couple mistakes.

Large paragraph, first sentence should read: “there’s the hazard of thinking…*”
Last sentence in the paragraph should read: “And doesn’t rely primarily on the man’s own efforts.

Matthias
Guest
Matthias

And obviously, if one’s incorrect belief entails something like “God doesn’t exist” or “Jesus isn’t the Saviour of the world,” then the answer’s easy. An unsaved person isn’t saved.

Moor
Guest
Moor

matt Why does your question get to be the “interesting” one while the one at hand doesn’t? Can they not both be interesting? Also, why, in a forum like this and in the context of this discussion, must we be worried about what a non-Christian will think of our internal policing and/or attempts to keep the gospel pure (perhaps not the right word, but I think it gets the point across)? I have a twin brother who is an Atheist. Like, one of those new-wave rabid anti-Christian Atheists, and sure, he would find this discussion repulsive and infantile and worthless.… Read more »

David Axberg
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Thank you Doug,

Amen and amen

Matt
Guest
Matt

I’m flattered that you think about me that much Moor, but I thought I was agreeing with Doug here. He is, after all, arguing against the position that Catholics aren’t saved, and seems to be taking a more expansive vision of salvation than the critics. Frankly, if the oldest and largest branch of Christianity has failed to transmit the gospel with even minimal effectiveness, then that is nothing less than an absolute disaster.

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Don’t mistake “one’s incorrect belief” with their correct faith & heart.

If any of us were measured by the correctness of our beliefs, well …

rorwal
Guest
rorwal

doug (If he’s still checking on this discussion…) >>1. How can Arminians say that it is grace alone that saves when the damned have the same grace extended to them as the saved do? As I stated, an indirect inconsistency is different from a direct and explicit denial. If I don’t believe that a car works by turning gasoline into fumes, but instead ignites the liquid itself, my indirect understand contradicts my explicit belief that my car gets me from point A to point B. The fact that, in reality, my belief about engines contradicts the ability for them to… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

No, no one could explicitly deny with their mind one thing and believe with their heart another.
Scripture certainly knows of no such category.

Actually, Scripture does.
It’s quite common, actually.

In fact, it’s universal.

Every last Christian started in a state of denial & sin & unbelief — yet! Miracle of miracles — his heart was full of pure faith.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Name on believer in Scripture.

God found heathen Abraham.
Changed his heart before he thought about believing.

Only later did his mind start changing.

Was it different with you, rorwal?

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

The Arminian sees all folks out there needing their thinking &/or emotions changed, then faith can occur.

That’s backwards.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

When God says change your mind — He means the inclination & sentiment of the heart, first of all.

Right thinking follows rather slowly after a heart-mind transplant occurs.

Sometimes the patient dies his new pure heart in place alongside all his old foul thinking.

Johnny Simmons
Member

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God…

Geoff
Guest

“The interesting question is not whether Catholics are saved (if they aren’t then Christianity is a colossal failure) but rather whether non-Christians are saved.”

In the first century, you could make this same comment about Jews. And if you also want to include Judaizers, who just added one little work of circumcision, you could have said something similar to Paul. And you would have been wrong.

Moor
Guest
Moor

matt — don’t ever think that there isn’t genuine caring in the world of the interwebs :)

Also, while I didn’t read your comment as one of agreement, which is a miss on my part, I was aiming more at the implication that the one question was interesting while the other wasn’t. Further, the thought about spending a week on highlighting agreements would probably need to sound different, since I probably read you the way I do because there’s been so much disagreement in the past…

KN
Guest
KN

Rorwal – so is your position that the ‘minimum standard’ of faith by which alone a man is justified is belief that a man is saved by Christ’s grace alone? If that is so, then Catholics should fit the bill, because they do not, contrary to your belief, believe that grace is merely necessary and that free will needs to be added. Rather, the co-operation of free will mentioned by Trent is explicitly said to be ‘moved and excited’ by God’s grace, so all the free will bits of a man getting justified are wholly caused by grace. Admittedly, we… Read more »

Geoff
Guest

First, we agree in the necessity of grace, not the sufficiency. And whether the anathemas of Paul in Galatians apply to Rome.

Frank Rue
Guest
Frank Rue

Doug – Say a person comes and says that he believes the same gospel as we do, and affirms your italicized statement above, and tries to repeat it back in his own terms: “There is only one true God, as defined in the bible. He and he alone is to worshipped. Jesus Christ is his only begotton son, and, also known as The Word, is the creator of all things. He took on flesh to redeem the elect from their sins by dying on a cross. He was raised from the dead and now serves as the only intercessor between… Read more »

John Angelico
Guest
John Angelico

Yep, could be summarised in one sentence: “We are not saved by our church / denomination membership” or our grasp of doctrine, but by saving faith in the God Who saves.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Frank — “We would need to ask more …

Ask more, to what end?

What do the winners get for answering your more precise questions?