CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

“I Hope I am Good Enough”

Feb 28, 2018

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.

[1442 words]

19 Responses to “I Hope I am Good Enough”

  • I almost wrote on your social media page, “The short answer is ‘no’. However I did not want to ignite anything I could not damp down. You have said it well. We are all needing grace. Actually that far most agree. Hopefully we will all get a few pleasant surprises in heaven. It will be good if some we thought were theologically unsound are there to remind us that we are saved by grace not theology. Not knocking theology and most of us should spend more effort on it.
    Having said that I am behind with my Bible reading and the dishes so will leave further comments to others.

    Katherine Fishley

  • I agree completely with your views on Salvation, not just because I think you are right but because I have studied the Bible thoroughly enough to know you are right. Where it becomes muddled is how one keeps their Salvation assuming one can lose it in the first place, which in itself is a very contentious issue among various churches. I tend to believe that one who has true faith in Christ cannot lose their Salvation simply because they will never see enough reasons to deny Jesus. Of course there are many who claim to be believers in Christ Jesus but they are not, and as such never were saved to begin with. A perfect example of that is Judas Iscariot. Also, many interpret what James says about faith and works to mean that we must do good works after having faith in Christ. What about the thief on the cross who died along with Jesus? The thief obtained true faith in Christ but he certainly didn’t have time to do good works before he died. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that James was referring to those who do have the time, and that those who have true faith in Christ automatically do good works, not just because they think it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the natural thing to do. Those who do not show good works sometime after they claim to have faith in Christ are very likely pretenders, and as James puts it their faith is dead. Of course some pretenders do show good works, and so they are not saved because their faith is not real. I’m sure even Judas did some good works in his time. So the decision as to whether one is saved or not is often only certain one way or another between God and the person in question. The decision about how to handle saving Grace is the most important decision anyone can make in their lives here on earth.

  • Thanks Joe. Yes that is a separate but related issue, and also one that plenty of debate, disagreement and discussion takes place over. For what it is worth, i offered a few thoughts on this in this article:

    billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/11/saved-always-saved/

  • Last time I looked up the catholic website www.catholic.com it stated:
    “The Church teaches that we can be saved only by God’s grace.”
    The ‘Teaching of Christ – A Catholic catechism for adults, 2nd edition’ states: “The life of faith is built on God. It is his gift.” Seems pretty ‘protestant’ to me!

  • Thanks Warren. Of course the official Catholic teaching on these matters is a bit more complex than that! If we take a phrase here or a sentence there, remove them from their contexts, we can get just about anyone to agree on anything! But if we look much more carefully at such things, as with the documents from the Council of Trent, the Vatican II statements, the various Catechisms of the Catholic Church (and I happen to have three of them, just for starters), and so on, we see that while there are some areas of agreement, at least superficially, there are also some major areas of disagreement with what Protestants teach, especially in the Lutheran and Reformed version of events. So yes, all major church groups basically say salvation is by grace, but the devil is certainly in the details.

    But as I said, it really was not my intention here to once again rehash 500 years of debate on how we are to understand salvation and how it works, and how Catholics and Protestants differ or agree on such important themes. That has been done ad infinitum, ad nauseum elsewhere, so I will not try to rehearse it all here. But thanks for your thoughts!

  • Thank you Bill for this and all your articles. Your views are in line with the Word of God.
    I respect you and your integrity.
    Keep your light shining.
    Much appreciated!

  • Sometimes, it’s possible to start an investigation by asking the wrong “first question”: Surely, when it comes to salvation from sin, from Satan, from the world, and from the wrath to come, “Am I good enough?” might be the riskiest possible question to ask.

    What must be resolved in deciding who can save me, now, tomorrow and forever is the question, ” Is Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever, ‘good enough’ and ‘sufficient enough’ to save me?”. Am I my own “saviour”, or is Jesus Christ, the Son of Man the only Saviour of sinners?

    If, as I suspect of myself, I am not “good enough”, who is indisputably able to make me “good enough”?

  • Joe.

    The thief on the cross did a huge work because he encouraged Jesus when He needed it most.

    Warren.

    That is my understanding as well. The idea that Catholics preach that people are not saved by grace seems to me to be a fairly obvious Protestant straw man. When Luther complained about the sale of indulgences it was not to do with salvation by works but the idea that God’s grace could be for sale. Buying an indulgence could obviously not save someone by works but what it did do is put you in good with the church and Luther pointed out the obvious fact that these two things are in fact quite different. It is up to God, not the church, to determine to whom he will give His grace and the scriptures are clear that the only thing we need to do is accept Him into our person and become vessels or Temples of the Holy Spirit. I have seen protestant and charismatic churches who are guilty of very similar faults and sins to what the R.C. church did in their false kowtowing to rich patrons. What the R.C. church did was overstepping the mark because they misinterpreted scriptures such as Matthew 16:19 to state that all the authority God gave to Peter was passed down through all time to the church whereas what the scriptures actually say is that Peter and the Apostles were responsible for the initial establishing of the Apostle’s doctrine which we Christians, under the New Testament, are subject to. We do not have the right to change it. This was largely the point of giving that authority to an average man like a fisherman.

  • Thanks Michael. I guess my pleas to have this debate not rehashed here keep falling on deaf ears! And simplistic spins on what both camps were saying is not so helpful, but distort the facts of the matter. The sale of indulgences was just one of a number of issues that Luther and others were rightly concerned about. But the truth is, the very heart of the debate between Luther and the Reformers and Rome was the issue of justification. Luther of course was cursed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) for proclaiming justification by faith alone. Just two of their pronouncements make this perfectly clear:

    CANON 9. If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

    CANON 12. If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified…let him be accursed.

    Sure, Catholic teaching of course emphasises God’s grace, but in a much different manner than the Reformers did. And we have 500 more years of Catholic thought on all this to consider, but Trent has not been repudiated, and to rather recklessly claim that both camps were sort of on the same page on this matter betrays a lack of understanding as to what they actually believed. But as I said, it was NOT my intention for this debate to be once again entered into here, when there are tens of thousands of other places one can go to if that is their thing! Thanks again.

  • Thanks for the last comment there Bill. Now, I acknowledge that there are tens of thousands of places where this debate has been had. However these days while I trust you, it is important not to trust every website I read. I know a number of websites but I haven’t seen this information that you printed before. I am therefore – in the online sense – reduced to a web search which then requires time for me to verify that another website is accurate and trustworthy.

    I don’t have time for that as I am sure like everyone we have priorities on our lives. Yes my personal sources of information – face to face with family and friends and my local church – are vital. But it is always helpful if you are willing to put more information – I agree that avoiding these sorts of debates on your site is wise, but at least all the information from your perspective like CANON 9 and 12 above – on your site would be helpful. It is not often that I come across this level of detail that you printed above. So, a please for you to consider from me – include this information that is available elsewhere here on your site as I have taken the time to read it a lot and just like you would, have satisfied myself that you are Biblically based. (I don’t have time to verify the ten of thousands of other places or even the time for a few as your site is good.) Anyway, this is just a pragmatic request, feel free to continue with your current practice. God bless!

  • Thanks Matthew. Well, with the internet most key documents (with or without commentary) can be found. Thus folks can read things like the documents of the Council of Trent for themselves. See here, eg:

    en.wikisource.org/wiki/Canons_and_Decrees_of_the_Council_of_Trent

    As to works I find reliable on offering the basic Protestant views on these matters, I have already penned a number of bibliographies. See for example:

    billmuehlenberg.com/2017/12/09/reformation-reader-guide/

    billmuehlenberg.com/2017/06/20/5-solas-series/

    If you want just a few volumes on justification (again, clearly from the reformational point of view), a few quite good ones would be:

    Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith. Zondervan, 1988.
    Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone. Zondervan, 2015.
    R C Sproul, Faith Alone. Baker, 1995.

  • I agree with Cheryl.

  • Michael Weeks, yes the thief did in effect perform good works to Jesus but only after he truly had faith and believed in Jesus and as a result received saving Grace. Good works does not save anyone, otherwise it would make the sacrifice of Jesus unnecessary.

  • When people ask me what I believe, I point them to the Nicene Creed and then invite questions. My decision to convert to Catholicism 8 years ago at the age of 62 was based on gaining an understanding of the first 300 years of Christianity when there was no canon of scripture and only the primarily oral teachings of doctrine and tradition. I believe the nonnegotiable aspects of the Christian faith were the mainline teachings then and, as I understand it, are the same today and they are sufficiently stated in the Creed. Included in those traditions and teachings is the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which is backed up in the 6th Chapter of John in the Bread of Life Discourse and in the book of Matthew as Jesus tells us how He will separate the wolves and the sheep. I think I will go back and read C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” again.

  • Thanks Robert. Hmm, my pleas seem to keep falling on deaf ears here! Of course for every story of a Protestant converting to Catholicism, one can offer a case of a Catholic converting to Protestantism. There would be plenty of them, but the truth will have to be determined by something more than just that! And obviously how we understand the Lord’s Supper is another massive issue, one which I sure will not start a major debate about here. Once again, if I write some lengthy and detailed articles on such matters, then a discussion of it can be had, but not until then. Thanks again.

  • Thanks again Bill! A timely article for all denominations. Luke 23:39-43 is a clear reminder to me personally of truths of scripture. Of course fruits need to be evident on the journey. Saved and justified by faith through the grace of God.

  • 2 Peter 3:10 is one of the verses that can be used to give yourself a periodical spiritual check up.

  • “Am I good enough”, plays into a lot of self esteem issues.
    It is natural to want to be “good enough”, to therefore be accepted, loved, valued etc etc.
    But when it comes to God “natural” does not cut it, it never has, and never will.
    “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God”.

    Unless God adds the dimension of His Spirit to our lives we will only have the “natural” to offer, and we will fail to be accepted.
    Being “born again” or “born from above” as Jesus terms it is essential.
    He takes our sin, He becomes our righteousness, He becomes the means of our acceptance.

    This whole concept is spiritually discerned; it is foreign to our natural thinking; God also needs to give us the revelation or we will miss its vital importance.

    I spent some time as a student pastor in a small country town in W.A.
    I preached the gospel , or so I thought.
    After my last sermon one of the little old ladies came to me a said, “I hope I’m good enough”.
    I’m sure I could have proclaimed the Gospel better, I’m sure she could have heard better, but it also seems that God had not yet given her the revelation.
    I was greatly disturbed by her question.

Leave a Reply