Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Dialogue" with a Baptist Pastor about Salvation

Back in April, I heard a Baptist pastor proclaim that at a funeral ten Catholics raised their hands for salvation.  I wrote this pastor an email asking him how he knew that these Catholics weren't already saved.  (After all, to be Catholic is to have been saved, born again, and regenerated at least sometime in the past.  Yet, this pastor's comments made it seem as if the Catholics who raised their hands were saved that day for the first time.  This seems like a contradiction in terms to me...thus, my email.)

What you read below is my half of the conversation; the only changes made are the elimination of pastor's name and any identifying information.  (I gave this pastor the option to have his responses posted, but he declined.)  Below the final email, which the pastor never answered, is a brief commentary on the exchange [which will be composed as soon as time allows].


April 20, 2009

Thanks so much for your answer, Pastor,

Actually, we have met briefly.  I met you at Costco a couple months ago.  Also, I have listened to almost every one of your sermons online since a couple of relatives of mine began going to your church six months ago, so I feel like I know you a lot better than you know me!  :)

The reason I wrote is that, being a Roman Catholic myself, I was a bit taken aback when you made the statement that at the funeral there were a lot of Roman Catholics in attendance (not Roman Catholics, Methodists, etc...just Catholics).  I might not be remembering correctly (my notes are at home, and alas, I'm not) but I thought you also implied that somehow these Catholics were in need of hearing the Gospel.  Further, the fact that some Catholics asked Jesus to come into their heart seemed to mean that they had never done so, yet Catholics are taught that they should constantly be asking Jesus to come into their heart (though not necessarily using that particular wording).   Perhaps the Catholics you met haven't asked Jesus into their hearts as often as they should/could have, but that doesn't mean that they never have done so before, even if they raised their hands. 

That's why I asked how you knew these 12 people were saved that day, when in fact most (if not all of them) had already been saved.  My other concern was that you were giving to your entire congregation (including my relatives) an implicit message that "being Catholic" means "needing to hear the Gospel," or even worse: "not saved."

To answer your question (and a few extra):

Am I saved? Yes.  Am I being saved? Yes.  Have I been ultimately saved by reaching heaven?  Not yet.  Do I know for sure that I am going to heaven? No, because the Bible does not offer me an absolutely assurance that "[RR] will one day be in heaven."  The Bible does, however, offer me (and all human beings) a moral assurance that God will always remain faithful to his promises.  No suffering, prince, or principality can rip me from God's loving hand.   That does not mean that I will always remain faithful to him--that I, through sin, won't rip myself out of God's hand.  Thus, like St. Paul, I work out my salvation in fear and trembling.  I fear and tremble not that God will renege, but that I could, and thus lose the reward of the race that I have run for so long (to borrow St. Paul's race analogy).

Do you believe that if someone has truly been saved but then chooses not to remain faithful to God and willfully turns to a life of sin (like murder, adultery, etc.), that this person will still go to heaven if they die unrepentant?  (Though I've heard your sermons many times, I've not heard you define eternal security with an example as direct as this.  I look forward to your answer.)

Thank you for sharing your phone number.  Mine is [private].  I generally prefer email, since it allows me to form my thoughts more completely in a way that speaking often doesn't.  However, I'd be happy to chat if you'd like to, as long as time allows.  (I'm busy with a new job and 2 young children...sorry!)

May the peace of our Savior be with you always!  I pray that we may one day be "one like [He] and the Father are one."

In Him,

ps. my cell phone battery has been dead for 4 days now, and will remain that way until my phone charger turns up.  Sorry, again! :)


April 22, 2009

Hi Pastor,

Thankfully, I was able to find my phone charger.  I checked my messages and was pleased to hear that you had called me back.  I thank you very much for your call and your interest in dialogue, since dialogue is a necessary first step in achieving the unity that Christ prayed for you, me, and all Christians in John 17.

I'm afraid that I don't have any patch of time that I can really commit right now to an extended phone conversation, since my students are waiting on me to grade about 70 of their exams.  On top of that, I try to spend as much of my free time as possible with my wife and children, who get to see me these days less than any of us would like.

That's why I mentioned that, at this stage of our conversation, it might be easier if we communicated by email, which I can read and respond to during the few patches of minutes that become available every day.  Eventually, I'd be thrilled to meet in person and discuss any specific topic that you liked, but for now, it might be more efficient to email.  Plus, we will have the added benefit of clearer communication and less chance that either of us will misunderstand the other.

I realize that the question that I posed is hypothetical, and that all hypothetical questions are layered with premises that the person to whom the question is posed might disagree with.  So, I invite you to disagree with the question itself, if you like.  Still, I believe that their are many people out there who at one point in their lives were truly saved (i.e., they truly and sincerely invited Christ into their heart as savior, and they sincerely believed and intended everything that they were told this invitation meant for their lives), but later choose to reject Christ's will for their lives, to break the commandments, to bear evil fruits, and (no longer believing in God) die unrepentant.  These folks literally create a life of hell for themselves (and usually everyone around them) on earth.  Do you believe that they will still go to heaven?

The reason that I think emailing is so good at this stage is it allows us to carefully state questions (like the one above, and like ones that you might like to ask me) without any chance that we will be misunderstanding the full gamut of each other's questions.

This initial back and forth might also allow us to set the stage for why we might choose to dialogue with each other.  In other words, what would the basis for such a dialogue be?  If the basis is anything other than an honest search for truth (and He who is Truth) through dialogue between two people who believe doctrines that are mutually contradictory, then I'm concerned the dialogue will not really go anywhere.  What are your thoughts on this? 

May I ask one other question:

Have you read the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (who was a student of the apostle John for upwards of thirty years and was one of the earliest martyrs for the faith)?  His epistle to the Smyraeans is one of my favorites!

May the Grace of Christ be with you in abundance!

In Him,


April 23, 2009

Hi Pastor,

I only have a minute, so I'll have to respond to your email later.  But before I respond, can I ask for a clarification:

Is your sentence "If a person is really Born Again, then he or she is going to heaven" intended as an answer to my question about the person who is truly born again but later rejects God and turns to a life of (mortal) sin?

In the Savior,

[I received no clarification or response, so I went ahead and sent the next email.]


April 29, 2009

Dear Pastor,

Thanks again for your email last week.  I understand that you are busy and that email is not viable long term.  I would propose that we meet to continue our conversation once we can establish via email that we share a vision for what such a meeting might accomplish.  For me, the goal would be mutual understanding directed at the fostering of love and dialogue and ultimately Christian unity.  I was curious what your thoughts were (as I stated in a previous email).

Please don't be concerned about my salvation.  I have been born again of water and spirit as Jesus said I must be.  I am doing my best to imitate Christ, and I trust completely in His mercy for the times that I fail.  I don't know of anything held against me, but I do not judge myself.  My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. (These verses are from the same letter you quoted last Wednesday evening!)

Regarding the verses you quoted to me, I'm afraid that they do not offer me the absolute assurance you claim they do.

Even Baptist theologian Dale Moody points out that John 10:27-29 uses the present linear tense of the Greek verbs, implying a continuing "giving" (by God) and "coming" (to God).  Thus, John 10:27-29 actually strengthens my point: I don't know absolutely whether or not I will ever stop continuing to come to God.  (See Moody's The Word of Truth, pg. 357; I recently learned that Dr. James White of Alpha and Omega ministries agrees with Moody.)

Of course, 1 John 5:10-13 is the epilogue of a letter written to defend Christians against gnostic attacks.  The gnostics claimed that one had to have a special, hidden knowledge to be saved.  John is arguing that Christians may know that they have eternal life.  He has not spent his letter arguing for the Protestant notion of eternal security.  In fact, his letter treats salvation as conditional over and over in the letter, using the word "if" in connection with numerous conditions for salvation (none of which the gnostics were apparently meeting).  Thus, to read 1 John 5:10-13 in context is not to arrive at the notion that all you have to do is believe and you are guaranteed to go to heaven.

While I would like more than anything else to know I was going to heaven, the versus you have shared do not offer me that assurance.  In fact, there are many versus in the Bible that clearly demonstrate that it is possible for someone to be saved but then to lose their salvation.  (I've attached to this email a tract that I've been working on for a few weeks that gives many of these verses.)

If it is possible to lose your salvation, then how do you propose that I can know at this moment that I will never lose mine?

Up until this last question, I've tried to make all my questions "yes or no" questions, since I know that you are busy.

If you'd like to postpone answering the question I just posed until we can meet in person, that would be fine by me.

However, would you be willing to give me a yes or no answer (or even an "I disagree with the question") to the question I've posed three times now about
the person who is truly saved but then later on rejects God, breaks the commandments, and dies unrepentant?  Will such a person still go to heaven?

Please know that I ask this question out of love, a love which desires to understand how a brother in the Lord thinks about salvation, especially when I've heard this brother make remarks about members of my church that are potentially confusing to people who I love dearly.  I do not intend for my questions to be devisive but rather to bring to light the inner workings of our belief systems so that we can take the first steps toward that glorious unity that Christ offered his passion to achieve.  I, for one, would love for the members of your Baptist Church to bring their enthusiasm for the Gospel and fidelity to Christ to my Catholic parish, which could occasionally use some invigorating.  Still, the truth is important, and may God bless our efforts to discuss the truth in a candid and charitable manner!

May the peace of Christ be with you!  He is Risen!!

In the Savior,

ps #1 - Almost everything I included on my tract I learned from baptists who joined the Catholic Church.  I've read many of their conversion stories, and they unanimously agree that in the Catholic Church, the Bible comes alive!

ps #2 - So far, I've kept our communication private from my in-laws.  I will not reveal anything that we have discussed without your permission.  On the flip side, I'd prefer that my in laws remain comfortable in their current living situation and not threatened in their religious beliefs.  So, at this point, I'd prefer to keep their identities private.  Thanks for your understanding in this matter.

[The email response that I received here was rather short and didn't engage any of points that were being discussed. The email was left unsigned.]


April 29, 2009

Dear Pastor,

May the peace of Christ be with you.

Thanks for your response. I'm not yet sure where the conversation is going, but surely it is not going nowhere. Even if neither of us changes our beliefs, charity would at least call us both to understand each others' beliefs correctly so that any false sources of division can be rooted out. I believe Satan is the great divider, and I believe God will bless our efforts to root out every division between us as Christians based on misunderstanding, false prejudices, etc.

I'm a bit confused by your response, since the Catholic position offers a hearty "Amen!" to each one of the verses you cited in your email. You seem to be arguing against a church or a body of teaching that I am not familiar with.

In fact, your position is indeed very Catholic. (Have you read the Catholic Catechism on these points? You would probably be surprised with how much your position has in common with the official teaching of the Catholic Church.) Catholics (including myself) would join you in being disappointed if God suddenly decided to take away his free gift when we sin. It is the very measure of his mercy that he does NOT take away the free gift when we sin, but rather pours out his grace even more abundantly.

(One caveat: I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the expression of being disappointed in God, as if he was supposed to work the way I want him to. In fact, God is God, and I am not. The question is simply: what has God told us about salvation through the Bible? For example, Mormons might be disappointed to learn that Jesus is truly the one-and-only eternal Son of God, but we would pray that they swallow their disappointment and follow the truth. Human emotions are so subjective and changing; I'm interested in knowing the truth of God's word, and I'm willing to suffer anything, including disappointment, to follow it where it leads me.)

Where you seem to misunderstand the Catholic position is that God allows us to reject the free gift of God's grace. God allows a saved person (like Lucifer or Adam or Eve or even babies, according to Protestant theology) to reject God entirely (free gift of grace and all), and thus to move from a state of being saved to being unsaved. This point is not contradicted by any of the verses you cited in your email, and is supported by the 60-70 verses that I cited in my tract. The very analogy of a gift includes the real possibility that we might reject that gift, send it back, so to speak. That doesn't change the fact that it is a gift, and it doesn't change the fact that it is free. We simply choose to reject or send back the free gift that God offers us. Isn't this what unsaved people do all the time--refuse to accept the free gift of God's grace?

I don't understand your statement that Jesus would have to die again for our sin if we were to lose our salvation. He didn't have to die over an over for each Christian when they received their salvation the first time. Why would He have to die again if a fallen-away Christian repents and re-accepts the free gift of God's saving Grace? How would the first (necessary) act of repentance and receipt of (undeserved) forgiveness PROVE that God's Grace is an unmerited free gift while a later (necessary) act of repentance and receipt of (undeserved) forgiveness PROVE that the gift is no longer free, and that there are strings attached? Aren't the same strings attached to both acts of repentance? Isn't the gift free in both cases?

You might be surprised and happy to know that the Catholic Church teaches that we are saved 100% by grace alone through Christ alone. God's grace is always a free gift, and every act of belief and good works is HIS grace working through us. Humans can NEVER work their way to heaven on their own merits or strengths. Only Christ's grace working in us brings us to that first act of saving faith, before which and without which justification can not occur (and this is according to the Council of Trent!). If we place ourselves under the law of our own deeds, the wages we are paid is death. But, when we are saved through faith in Christ, Christ's life enters us, and as we grow as his children, his grace works through us performing His good works. We can not boast of these works, because they are not ours. We can not boast of our own faith, because even that faith is a result from the beginning to end of God's free gift of grace. In crowning our faith and works, God is crowning the infinite mercy and goodness of his self as he has allowed it to be manifested in our lives. God created us so that he could share his glory with us, but at no point does his glory become our glory. It is always his grace from beginning to end.

In my tract, I actually engaged the verses you shared with me (from John 10 and 1 John 5), even citing at least one Baptist systematic theology written by one of the most highly respected Baptist theologians. Would you be willing to show me how 1 or 2 of the verses that I cited in support of category #2 (people who are saved but lose their salvation) don't actually support the existence of this category? If you'd be willing, would you consider discussing John 15:2-6 and Romans 11:20-22?

May God richly bless you for the time you have taken to maintain this conversation. I continue to pray that the walls of division between Christians will fall through charitable dialogue, mutual understanding, and a shared desire for Christians to be as united as Jesus and the Father, so that Christ's prayer and St. Paul's constant command may be perfectly fulfilled.

In Him,

[Commentary to follow.  Check back for updates!]

No comments: