When it comes to our eternal destiny, we want to try to make sure we have things right. We want to have some assurance that we are right with God in this life so we can live together with him forever in the next life. Of course believers of various stripes can and do differ on these matters.
I certainly make no bones about the fact that I am an evangelical Protestant, and I like to think that my primary basis for understanding these matters is what the Word of God teaches. Admittedly, Christians can and do differ in understanding Scripture as well, but we nonetheless have some relatively clear biblical teachings on how one gets right with God.
Before I proceed with spelling this out a bit further, let me repeat what I often say: I am not a big fan of allowing my website to be turned into a major sectarian battleground. As a Protestant I obviously differ on a number of key theological issues with my friends in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
But I feel there is also common ground, as we agree on many of the essentials: the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and so on. I am basically happy to fellowship and work together with those who buy for the most part what is found in the early Christian creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, etc.
So it is not my intention here to get into another major war on these matters. I have always asked my Protestant friends to show some respect to my Catholic friends, and for my Catholic friends to show some respect to my Protestant friends.
And there are of course plenty of websites where Protestants can argue to their heart’s content for what they see to be wrong in Catholic theology, and where Catholics can argue to their heart’s content for what they see to be wrong in Protestant theology.
So if that gets you excited, go to those websites and argue all you like. But I prefer that such debates not get rehashed here all over again. But I nonetheless want to explain what I think about these issues, and how I tend to reply to folks who take a different view of things.
And one common remark I get from some of my non-Protestant friends are words to this effect: ‘I hope I am good enough to get to heaven,’ or ‘I try to be a good Christian and I hope that is enough,’ etc. So how do I reply to such statements? Depending on how much time I have, this is the sort of response I would seek to make:
This is all about the big issue of how we understand salvation in the Bible. And it relates to plenty of other biblical themes, including regeneration, justification, sanctification, assurance, and so on. So in one sense it can be a rather complex and nuanced debate.
A major area of disagreement between Catholics and Protestants of course centres on this very notion of what is salvation and how is it obtained. Very briefly, Protestants believe that the initial work of salvation – what we call justification – has nothing to do with hoping we are good people or hoping we have done enough good works.
The Bible makes it clear throughout that there are none good, we are all sinners, and we are all under the wrath of God. That is why Jesus came – to take our place and take our punishment that we deserved, so that those who come to Christ in faith and repentance can find new life.
And it is a gift, not something we can earn or merit. As Ephesians 2:8-9 puts it: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Notice the tense of the verb: “have been saved”. It is not ‘I hope one day…’ sort of thing, but a present assurance of salvation.
Sure, after we receive that gift of salvation, we then cooperate with our Lord to grow in grace and demonstrate our saving faith by good works – what we refer to as sanctification. So Protestants say our saving faith is made evident by good works, or that good works follow from saving faith, while non-Protestants think in terms of good works leading to saving faith. So we differ here in some major ways.
I of course have written numerous articles where I seek to explain this in more detail. See here for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/02/25/salvation-cooperation-god-christian-life/
And this piece includes a helpful little chart that further illustrates the similarities and differences between justification and sanctification: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/02/16/antinomianism-and-the-hyper-grace-error/
As mentioned, it follows from this evangelical understanding that Christians do not have to hope they might make it into heaven. They can have assurance NOW that they are in right standing with God, because of the finished work of Christ at Calvary which we simply receive in faith and by repentance.
In an earlier article on Christian assurance of salvation I quoted one person who defined this assurance as follows: “a believer’s confidence that he or she is already in a right standing with God, and that this will issue in ultimate salvation.”
I went on to say that this has been another stumbling block between Protestantism and the Catholic Church. Simply put, the latter thought it presumptuous to speak about certainty of salvation, but the former felt there was solid biblical warrant for this.
I won’t repeat all that I said in that piece, but for those who are interested, you can have a read of that article where I offer various biblical passages in support of my position: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/13/on-christian-assurance/
While no believer wants to be presumptuous about salvation, and we must indeed be careful, and there can well be false converts, there is still joy in knowing that we are now “accepted in the beloved” (Ephesians 1:6) and we can now have peace with God (Romans 5:1).
Of course we want to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). We want to show some proof of our justification by a desire to grow as a believer. So justification is just the first step in the salvation process, and indications of true saving faith are the continuing desire to become more like Christ, to hate our sin more and more, and to desire further growth in holiness.
Obviously a whole lot more needs to be said on all this, and I certainly have dozens of related articles already written for those who want to take it further. As I mentioned, I do not write this to start WWIII. If you differ, fine and I very likely have heard all the various objections and criticisms over the years, so I am not unaware of what those from other theological positions hold to and why.
So you do not need to feel compelled to correct me or enlighten me or deliver me from rank heresy thanks! I am pretty much aware of the various options out there, and while I am open and sensitive to other theological takes on this, I do have my own position more or less set at this point!
I just wrote this since I so often hear the line found in my title. So for those who are interested, this article is how I tend to respond to such remarks. That is all. And the bottom line is this: no one is good enough. We are all sinners who do NOT measure up.
So all we can do is come to God through Christ with empty hands, and receive what he has done for us because of his death and resurrection at Calvary. Once we are justified by grace through faith, we have a lifelong walk with God in which we cooperate with him to grow in grace and become the sort of persons we were always meant to be.
That, for me, is the biblical gospel. Let me close with these words: I realise that it is always risky to write articles like this given how strongly some folks hold to their beliefs. If you happen to think that I am dead wrong and doomed to fry eternally for my views, well that is up to you.
Moreover, if you believe that every Catholic is a heretic or the Antichrist, or every Protestant is a heretic or the Antichrist, that is also up to you. But I will not run with your comments here in that case. But God’s blessings to you all.