Do you have assurance of your salvation?
In this continued examination of an anti-Catholic Bible study by a local author (click here for past essays ), we will examine the question of whether Christians can have eternal assurance of salvation.
Bart Larson's study makes a big deal of this point. In the introduction to his study, he includes several verses, pulled out of context, to support the idea of eternal assurance (I'll examine these below). However, despite the fact that Bart claims, both in his study and in e-mails, to present the "strongest" verses Catholics use to counter his claims, he includes none of these in the introduction alongside his verses. His defense of this in personal e-mail to me was that it was his introduction, which he could write as he chose.
Note below that I'll examine both sides of the argument.
Another huge problem Bart has with claiming assurance of eternal salvation is that he rejects the idea that any man can act infallibly (see last essay). So, in addition to the previous questions that I have posed to Bart, which he has not yet answered, here is another: How can he infallibly know that he has assurance of salvation? How can he be infallibly sure that he isn't the victim of self-deception? Many converts to Catholicism have come from groups which taught assurance of salvation, but where life-long members fell from the faith after years in which they (and those around them) were convinced of their own salvation.
In Bart's study, he expresses his deep regret and concern that poor, misled Catholics are riddled with guilt and fear, the result of their Catholic faith.
Bart admits that he is not an expert on Catholicism, yet he feels qualified to critique it in talks and in this booklet. He builds most of his understanding off of anecdotal encounters with poorly catechized Catholics. Jesus tells us that the way is narrow that leads to Heaven. One should expect that all faiths contain great numbers of people who do not take the study of their own faith and their relationship with Christ seriously, including Protestantism. Can you imagine the disrespect Bart would feel toward his faith if a similar study were created using encounters with the least well-formed of Evangelicalism?
Bart blames most of the guilt and fear and superstition that Catholics face on "half-truths" (p. 4). However, what Bart doesn't bother to mention is that Catholics have what is called "moral assurance of salvation". Moral assurance means that, because of Christ's atoning death on the cross (and only because of this), our sins are forgiven. However, we must be moved by the grace of God to ask forgiveness for these sins. Even Protestants agree that we must continue asking for forgiveness, as the Lord's prayer, which we have in common, teaches us to continue to petition the Father to "forgive us our sins". If a Catholic truly and properly repents of the sin, he can be assured he has eternal life. However, he cannot fall into a false confidence of believing that he will not reject God at some later time.
Bart rejects the idea that one can fall from salvation at any point after accepting Christ and being "born again". However, as Bart maintains that his study is about letting the Bible speak for itself, this isn't about what he believes, but what Scripture presents.
A true believer is one who is "standing secure", but Paul warns that he must guard against falling (1 Cor. 10:12).
A true believer is one who "stands fast through faith", but Paul warns that this individual can be cut off like the Jews (Romans 11:13-22).
A true believer is one who "receives the knowledge of truth" and "has been sanctified by the blood of the covenant", yet who the author of Hebrews explains can "sin deliberately" and "face an afury of fire" (10:26-31).
A true believer is one who "escapes the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ", but who Peter says can "become entangled in them again and face a worse fate than he who never knew the way or righteousness" (2 Peter 2:20-21).
Just to make sure that I'm not pulling a few select verses out of context, please read these verses and their context for yourself. And, to see that these are not isolated comments in Scripture, here is a link with pages of additional verses supporting loss of salvation: http://www.scripturecatholic.com/salvation.html#salvation-V.
So what of the verses that Bart presents? Let's take a look:
1 John 5:11-13 - Bart provides this verse as proof of eternal assurance. Actually, this verse only gives relative assurance. John just finished listing a number of signs that someone has a genuine faith. These include acts of love of neighbor and of God, as well as holding to orthodox teaching. He is telling us that someone who displays these things has eternal life, as opposed to someone who doesn't. John isn't writing at all about whether or not belief, itself, guaranteed salvation beyond all possibility of loss. To use this as proof of assurance is to do a terrible disservice to the message. However, Catholics would agree that someone who believes in Christ and follows his word has eternal life. However, Scripture is clear that this individual still retains the free will that allows him to later on toss that eternal life away. Bart can only pull his meaning out of this verse by reading it separated from the context of the verses cited above. In addition, he forgets that John often writes in a language of exaggeration. We see this in context just three verses later when John tells us that a true believer never sins. No Catholic or Protestant would make the claim that he never sins. However, Bart's study picks and chooses which verses to take literally and which to take figuratively.
Psalm 103:11,12; Romans 4:7,8; 5:8; and I John 1:9. - These verses are used to show that all of our sins, past, present, and future are forgiven. The first, from the Old Testament, cannot refer to the life of a believer in Christ, who has not even been born, not to mention died for our sins, but the drafting of the psalms. The first set of verses from Romans simply tells us that, according to David, one whose sins are forgiven is blessed. Who would argue from that. The verse in chapter five reminds us that Christ died for our sins. No argument here. The verse from 1 John is key. Our sins are not automatically forgiven, or else Hell would be empty. Rather, our sins are forgiven "if we confess" them. Whether one believes in confession to a priest or straight to God, the act of receiving forgiveness is dependent upon our being moved to ask for it throughout our life. As Catholics, we understand that we do not turn into spiritual robots after being born again. Even the most devout of us can decide that we no longer regret our sins.
Romans 8:1 tells us that there is "no condemnation" for those who are in Jesus Christ. Bart assumes this is an eternal promise. However, he forgets that the Biblical writers often write in a language of completion, assuming the individual will finish his life in the current state. After all, if the state of being "not condemned" is irrevocable, then the same would have to be said of the state of condemnation given to he who is not a believer in John 3:18. Bart's logic tells us that anyone, Catholic or Protestant, who ever doubted God is condemned forever.
I John 4:16-18 is, according to Bart's booklet, proof that if we are currently in Christ, we can have confidence. But read the verses carefully. They tell us that being in Christ perfects our love so that we may be bold on judgment day - future tense. In other words, if we have that boldness now, we are premature in it. At any point that we chose to leave our relationship with Christ, that perfection of our love ends, and we do not have that boldness when judgment day actually comes.
Jude 1:24,25 tells us that God has the power to keep us from falling. Catholics agree wholeheartedly with this. There are those of us who are members of the elect, and we are guaranteed to see heaven through the infallible power of God. Bart, however, makes the mistake of believing that we can infallibly know if we are members of the elect. The Bible is very clear that there is such a thing as false assurance. Only God knows for sure whose name is written in the Book of Life. Even Paul was unwilling to declare himself as saved (1 Cor. 4:4). Paul wouldn't have made a very good Evangelical, according to Bart's booklet.
Bart will claim that he is presenting the Bible for you to make up your own mind. Why, then, doesn't he present any of the verses on losing salvation in his introduction? Why doesn't he explain the context of the verses he does provide? The answer - because, despite his claims that he is simply a servant to the Word of God, Bart is feeding you his interpretation. He wants you to believe Catholic teachings are contrary to Scripture, even if he has to hide some of Scripture from you to make that case.
For the next issue, here are two more questions for Bart. He will either not be able to answer them, or his answer will be inconsistent with the doctrines promoted by his Bible study:
What are some examples of things which are now dead, but which were not once alive?
According to Christian belief, does the body animate and empower the spirit, or does the spirit animate and empower the body?