The Rev. Todd S. Bordow
For many it was the commencement of a new era of cooperation and understanding. When many leaders of the evangelical movement signed the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document, many rejoiced that the fresh breath of long-awaited ecumenism was now arising in the land.
We certainly live in a time of historical ignorance. Very few have studied the historic doctrines of Roman Catholicism so that they may discern this movement knowledgeably. But some also might be surprised that Rome has undergone some significant changes in the last century.
One would be surprised to hear from the current Pope himself his view of salvation. In the 1994 best-seller “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” we learn that John Paul II’s view of salvation might be a far cry from what most would assume.
The Modus Operandi of “Crossing…” is the Pope answering a series of questions posed to him by journalist Vittorio Messori. Our focus will be on the Pope’s answers to the questions concerning his definition of salvation.
Messori asks, “What does `to save’ mean (pg. 69)?” The Pope explains:
To save means to liberate from radical, ultimate evil. Death itself is no longer that kind of evil, if followed by the Resurrection. And the Resurrection comes through the work of Christ. Through the work of the Redeemer death ceases to be an ultimate evil; it becomes subject to the power of life (pg. 70).
If some men are saved from this ultimate evil, “death,” then the logical conclusion would be that some aren’t saved from this. So Messori questions the Pope about those who do not receive this salvation. The Pope replies:
There is a destination to eternal damnation as well, which consists in the ultimate rejection of God, the ultimate break of the communion with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…Eternal damnation is certainly proclaimed in the Gospel. To what degree is it realized in life beyond the grave? This is, ultimately, a great mystery (pg. 72-73).
The Pope seems to be supporting the orthodox position on eternal reward and punishment, but a further look reveals something quite different. Vittorio asks, “How does one attain to this salvation?” The Pope answers:
Everyone who looks for salvation, not only the Christian, must stop before the cross of Christ (pg. 73).
Now what does “not only the Christian” mean? Is the Pope teaching that salvation belongs to all men, as a universalist would say, or is he reaffirming what most evangelicals affirm, that salvation is only through the work of Christ on the cross. His next comment on salvation would leave one to think the former:
The mystery of salvation is an event which has already taken place. God has embraced all men by the Cross and the Resurrection of His Son. God embraces all men with the life which was revealed in the Cross and in the Resurrection, and which is constantly being born anew from them. As indicated by the allegory of “the vine” and the “branches” in the Gospel of John, the Paschal Mystery is by now grafted onto the history of humanity, onto the history of every individual (pg.73-74).
The Pope’s answer seems openly universalistic. His answer to the next question goes even further to support this possibility. Vittorio asks, “But if God…is One and only One and is He who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, why has He allowed so many religions to exist” (pg 77)?
From the beginning, Christian Revelation has viewed the spiritual history of man as including, in some way, all religions, thereby demonstrating the unity of humankind with regard to the eternal and ultimate destiny of man… There is only one community and it consists of all peoples…. And they have one ultimate destiny, God, whose providence, goodness, and plan of salvation extend to all…(pg. 78).
Truly the Pope is affirming universalism here. John Paul reveals his mystical understanding of salvation present in all religions, even apart from any faith or knowledge in the recipient of that salvation. He affirms with the Vatican Council II:
The Church teaches that there are “seeds of the Word,” semina verbi, in allreligions, and, the Holy Spirit works effectively outside the visible structures of the church, making use of these very “semina verbi” that constitute a kind of soteriologicalroot present in all religions (pg. 81).
Messori insightfully inquires as to why then the church even proclaims salvation to men? Because, the Pope explains, Christ is “the way and the truth and the life, in whom men must find the fullness of religious life and in whom God reconciled everything to Himself.” (pg. 80-81).
This opens up a number of new questions. If God has already reconciled every individual to Himself, why does the Church need to evangelize? Is it so these already saved on one level can experience salvation on a deeper level? What would discourage an individual from rejecting the Church altogether and enjoying his own level of salvation his own way?
This seems the thrust of Vittorio’s thoughtful question, “When all is said and done, what is the use of believing” (pg.188)? The Pope responds by giving a somewhat surprising definition of faith:
The value of faith cannot be explained, even though efforts are often made to do so, by merely stressing its usefulness for human morality…. The basic usefulness of faith lies precisely in the fact that a person believes and entrusts himself. By believing and entrusting ourselves, in fact, we respond to God’s word (pg. 188-89).
It seems to the Pope, faith is responding to what is already inside of you; but it is not faith that saves, only faith that deepens your understanding of the salvation you have already received. What your conscience is already telling you about right and wrong, good and evil, and God, only affirms God’s saving work in you. He supports this with the following explanation:
…it is wrong for one to make an act of faith in Christ if in one’s conscience one is convinced , however absurdly, that it is wrong to carry out such an act. If man is admonished by his conscience–even if an erroneous conscience, but one whose voice appears to him as unquestionably true–he must always listen to it (pg. 191).
So is there salvation apart from the Church if one simply obeys his conscience, even if his conscience tells him he can save himself by good works? Surprisingly, the Pope says “yes.” He quotes Vatican Council II:
In fact, those who through no fault of their own are not aware of the Gospel of Christ and of the Church, but who nonetheless search sincerely for God, and with the help of grace attempt to carry out His will, known through the dictates of his conscience–they too can attain eternal salvation. Nor will Divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who have not yet arrived at a clear knowledge and recognition of God, and who attempt, not without divine grace, to conduct a good life (pg. 193- 94).
In order to counter the obvious accusation of works salvation suggested by these words, the Pope adds:
…if a life is truly upright it is because the Gospel, not known and therefore not rejected on a conscious level, is in reality already at work in the depths of the person who searches for the truth with honest effort and who willingly accepts it as soon as it becomes known to him. Such willingness is, in fact, a manifestation of grace at work in the soul (pg. 194).
So what Protestants usually call common grace, or the conscience convicting us of sin, the Pope calls saving grace; grace enough to give salvation. It is not clear how this still is not works salvation if a man must continually obey his conscience to obtain this salvation, and how this squares with his previous statements concerning universalism. This confusion heightens as he explains:
The fact that man can cooperate with God determines his (man’s) authentic greatness. The truth according to which man is called to cooperate with God in all things, with a view toward the ultimate purpose of his life–his salvation and divinization–found expression in the Eastern tradition in the doctrine of synergism. With God, man “creates the world; with God, man “creates his personal salvation” (pg. 194-95).
Still the bothersome question remains, “what will happen to those who do not join the Church, or obey their consciences, such as a Hitler or Stalin?” ” Will they end up in hell?” The Pope again reverts back to his universalism in his answer:
In Christ, God revealed to the world that He desires “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”(I Tim 2:4). This phrase from I Tim is of fundamental importance for understanding and preaching the Last Things. If God desires this–if, for this reason, God has given His Son, who in turn is at work in the Church through the Holy Spirit–can man be damned, can he be rejected by God? (pg. 185)
This seems to leave him in an uncomfortable position, for the Scriptures speak often of hell and judgement. The Pope adds:
Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel He speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment. Who will these be? The Church has never made any pronouncements in this regard. This is a mystery, truly inscrutable, which embraces the holiness of God and the conscience of man. The silence of the church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for Christian faith (pg. 185- 86).
From Cyprian to Augustine, from Dante to Luther, the Church has hardly remained silent on the doctrine of hell. And the Scriptures are clear; “…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus (II Thess 1:8).”
It seems that the apparent inconsistency born from affirming universalism while holding to the inspiration of Scripture forces John Paul to only call hell a mystery, not able to be spoken of.
This leads to another insightful question from Messori regarding the Catholic Church’s view of salvation. “Today many people seem to rebel against the claim that salvation can be found only in the Church. Many Christians, and even some Catholics–ask themselves, `Why, among all the Christian Churches, should the Catholic Church alone possess and teach the fullness of the Gospel'” (pg. 136)?
The Pope responds:
There is salvation only and exclusively in Christ. The Church, inasmuch as it is the body of Christ, is simply an instrument of this salvation…The Church is in Christ as a sacrament, or a sign and instrument, of ultimate union with God and of the unity of the entire human race (pg. 136).
One suspects a backing away from the historical Catholic affirmation of the Church being the only way of salvation. A “sign” of salvation is different than being the only way to salvation. The Pope then reaffirms the Vatican Council II position:
Christ, present among us in His body which is the Church, is the one mediator and the way to salvation…For this reason men cannot be saved who do not want to enter or remain in the Church, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded byGod through Christ as a necessity (pg. 139)
So are we to understand that it is the physical acts of joining the church and receiving the sacraments that save? The Pope guards against this by adding:
Those who do not persist in charity, even if they remain in the Church in “body” but not in “heart,” cannot be saved. All of the Church’s children must remember that their privileged condition is not the result of their own merits, but the result of the special grace of Christ. Therefore, if someone does not respond to this grace in thought, in word, and in deeds, not only will that person not be saved, he will be even more severely judged. (pg. 140)
So our salvation then consists in how we respond to God’s general goodness and love. This surely is works salvation. One would suspect that the pendulum must swing back to the other “levels” of salvation, for these statements could turn off many people to the Church’s exclusive claims of salvation. The Pope therefore clarifies the previous assertion with the following:
The Council speaks of membership in the Church for Christians and of being related to the Church for non-Christian believers in God, for people of goodwill. Both these dimensions are important for salvation, and each one possesses varying levels… Besides formal membership in the Church, the sphere of salvation can also include other forms of relation to the church…This is the authentic meaning of the well-known statement “Outside the Church there is no salvation”… The Church, as the mystical body of Christ, penetrates and embraces all of us. The spiritual, mystical dimensions of the Church are much greater than any sociological statistics could ever possibly show (pg. 140-43).
Now how does one analyze these seemingly paradoxical statements on the definition of salvation? Surely any honest reader can see that the Pope’s understanding of salvation is much different from the historic Protestant understanding of salvation.
To the Pope, the work of Christ accomplished redemption for all humanity. He does not seem to be asserting that Christ died to make salvation possible and that only some receive it by faith (evangelical Arminianism), but that Christ’s death atoned effectually for all the sins of mankind.
The Pope understandably has a problem with the doctrine of hell, for if Christ died for the sins of all, how can anyone be punished again for those sins? How can God be righteous if He requires two deaths for one man’s sin, Christ’s and the sinner’s? So the Pope is at least consistent in this sense; that for Christ’s work of redemption to be truly efficacious for all, no one could be on the outside of his saving work.
Of course this is where the idea of Purgatory would possibly help, for suffering in Purgatory would show that God does judge sin while holding to the idea that Christ’s death does (eventually) save. Thus eternal punishment becomes something which the Pope calls a mystery, so the Church must “remain quiet” on the subject.
What one can clearly discern is that the Pope and Protestantism use the same words, but attach different meanings to those words. When a Protestant speaks of people being saved by grace, he means grace that saved sinners who were “by nature children of wrath”(Eph 2:3). God shed His grace on certain men by forgiving them all their sins and pronouncing them righteous, because the death and righteousness of Christ was applied to them judicially. Because it is completely a work of God Protestants speak of free grace. And because it is free it can only be received through faith alone.
But to the Pope grace is that enabling God has given all people through their consciences to respond to His love for them by being a good person; by following the dictates of their conscience. Grace is something that is always within people, and the more they respond to it the more they receive it. Of course the fullness of this grace can only be received through the sacraments of the Catholic Church, but for those who are in other religions it is enough grace to save them.
To the Pope “salvation” has already been accomplished for all humanity, and for those who follow the dictates of their consciences they grow in this universal salvation.
But if anyone followed the dictates of the conscience it was the Apostle Paul, who, before coming a Christian, was “zealous for God” (Acts 22:3) and “found blameless as to the righteousness which is in the Law” (Phil 3:6). Yet in Jesus’ own words, Paul was persecuting Him (Acts 9:4).There were no levels of salvation for Paul; he was lost in his sin, and then he was found.
The Apostle never went to the pagans and announced that they had already attained to one level of salvation, but because of lack of knowledge must come to the Church for higher levels of salvation. His message was not that they were already engrafted into the mystical body of Christ.
Paul preached to the Athenians that they must repent from their ignorance because Christ will one day judge all who do not believe the gospel (Acts 17:30-31).
Biblical salvation is a judicial act by which Christ died for the ungodly and imputes His own righteousness to them, thus declaring them righteous before a holy God. Romans 5:19 states, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
Salvation is not presented in Scripture as general goodness flowing through all men, bringing them closer to God, even if they don’t believe in Christ. Christ died for his people, and at the cross all their sins were placed upon him, and His righteousness was applied to them when they believed. This is the historic and orthodox gospel.
For all practical purposes, the Pope seems to be more a pragmatic liberal than a hard-line conservative. For those moderns who scoff at the idea of eternal punishment, he has a doctrine where Christ has already saved all because He loves all, and the Pope just won’t speak about hell.
For those who scoff at the exclusive claims of the Church, he teaches that all people of good will in any religion are engrafted into the mystical body of Christ.For those Christians who scoff at works righteousness, he teaches that everyone is saved by grace.
But for those that see the need for works, he adds that grace through the sacraments must be received and added to by works of love. And for those Catholics he wants to remain in the Church, he warns them that there is no salvation for those that abandon the Church.
To rightly discern the recent attempts to mend the fences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, one must first understand what Rome means when she uses terms like salvation, grace, and faith. The chasm is still quite wide. There is much more to be discussed before true Biblical unity can be accomplished.