“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes Him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24)
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Can we, as followers of Christ, be certain of our salvation? Or, put another way, are we assured eternal life in heaven by virtue of our Christian faith?
Since the Protestant Reformation, a significant number of Christians have answered this question with a resounding “yes.” And not without reason: many passages of Scripture (John 5:24, Romans 10:9-11, and Acts 16:31 in particular) appear to provide support for the position that faith in Christ is an unshakable guarantor of salvation.
In approaching the topic at hand, we must first ask ourselves: what is belief? Speakers of modern English primarily use the word to designate a position held, usually with a degree of uncertainty, in relation to the truth or falsity of an idea. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary well sums up our understanding of the term:
believe: v. 1 accept that (something) is true or (someone) is telling the truth. 2 (believe in) have faith in the truth or existence of. 3 have religious faith. 4 think or suppose.
To believe something, then, is to have arrived at a particular cognitive state. The metaphor of travel is apt. Before we believed one thing, and now we believe quite another; in the meantime, we have journeyed from one cognitive state to another, from point A to point B. This is also true, of course, if one moves from unbelief to belief: for unbelief is, in itself, a type of belief.
What happens en route is opaque in the sense that belief is, to a certain degree, abstract: we cannot examine a man’s beliefs in the same way we can his kidneys (to the distinct discomfort, I might add, of many strict materials). At the same time, the process isn’t entirely obscured from our sight. If nothing else, we can describe the change that takes place and debate its causes.
Consider the case of a friend of mine who was raised a Young Earth creationist. For the first 21 years of his life, he held to the view that the Earth was created by God 6,000 years ago in a literal six-day event. Then an acquaintance gave him a copy of The Language of God by Francis Collins as a birthday present. After reading the book, my friend realized that being a good Christian didn’t necessitate ascribing to Biblical literalism. One belief gave way to another, and he came to accept the prevailing scientific consensus on the subject (while remaining a Christian, of course).
Point A: literalist hermeneutic. Point B: theistic evolution. What happened here? Again, we cannot describe my friend’s changing beliefs in terms of size and shape, texture and consistency. We can, however, say something about what precipitated the event itself. The catalyst, in this instance as in many others, was trust: for most of his life, with respect to the world’s creation, my friend trusted his parents. Then, for a number of reasons—The Language of God was the straw that broke the camel’s back, not the sole determinant—he decided that his mother and father weren’t reliable authorities on the subject after all. He didn’t need to earn a degree in geology or genetics to reach the conclusions he did. It was, rather, a question of discernment: seeing in the position held by Christians such as Francis Collins a much more coherent and logical approach than what he’d grown up believing, he decided to trust a different authority, and his beliefs changed accordingly.
When we say that we believe in Christ, we indicate that a similar transition has taken place. Before we came to faith, we placed our trust in any number of other authorities: the religious traditions in which we’d been raised; political ideologies of every shade and hue; not least, the selfish and materialistic culture that crushes in on us from all sides. And, of course, our parents or guardians, who most often were simply trying to raise us right in a troubled and unforgiving world.
Then we encountered Christ’s witnesses on Earth: in the Church; in the Holy Scriptures; and, not least, in the altruism and sacrificial character of individual Christians both renowned and anonymous. Most of us haven’t met Our Lord in the manner of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, but this isn’t a prerequisite to belief. We have come to understand who is speaking authoritatively on the nature and purpose of existence: moved by grace, yet acting of our own free will, we have given our intellectual assent to the faith transmitted to the Apostles. We have said “yes” to Christ; hearing His word, we have believed.
Thus, we have established what it means, at least on the level of cognition, to believe in Christ. But the question remains: is this the saving faith spoken of in John 5:24?
To translate is to paraphrase, and proper Scriptural exegesis inevitably compels us to look at the text in its original language. For this reason we must turn to the Koine Greek of the New Testament in order to fully understand the words of Christ words to the Jewish leaders quoted at the head of this essay. The words “believe,” “believer,” and “belief,” which we encounter with frequency in English translations of the New Testament, are renderings of the Greek word pistis and its derivatives. There are two important points to be made with respect to this term.
The first point concerns its tense. The specific word used in Christ’s discourse here is pisteuôn, which is a present active participle; what this tells us is that belief is not something that occurred once in the past and has been cemented forever. Rather, it is an ongoing process, a continuous activity. Christ does not say that he who heard His words and believed in Him at one point in time has eternal life. No, belief is a gift to which we must cling once it has been given to us. We have passed from point A, a state of unbelief, to point B, a state of belief. Now we must stay there.
I’ve heard it said that moving from point A to point B and then back again is impossible: that we either cannot lose our faith once we have it; or that, if we cease to profess faith in Christ after having done so in the past, this means that we never had faith in the first place. I would object to the former contention on the grounds that it’s simply preposterous. The Christian message has been believed and then rejected by a disheartening number of men and women throughout the centuries. Dan Barker (the charismatic preacher-turned-atheist who recently co-wrote a book with Richard Dawkins about losing the faith) and Bart D. Ehrman (the professor of Religious Studies at Chapel Hill who used to be an evangelical and now considers himself an agnostic) are recent high-profile examples; and, for many of us, apostasy of this sort is closer to home. The latter contention, that to lose our faith means that we never had it in the first place, is highly suspect on account of being impossible to argue with. Perhaps it’s true that Barker and Ehrman and our friends and relatives didn’t actually believe in the first place; but if it looks like a duck, and talks like a duck, I’d be inclined to say that it’s a duck. (Not to mention that it’s a case of circular logic. “Why did he lose his faith?” “Because it wasn’t genuine!” “Who’s to say his faith wasn’t genuine?” “Well, he lost it, didn’t he?”)
The second point arises from the multiple meanings attributed to the word and its place in the context of early Christianity. Pistis, according to Strong’s Greek Dictionary, means first and foremost “to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing)”; this is consonant with the usage of the term already described. Yet a further definition is given as well: pistis also can be understood as the act of “entrust[ing]” or “commit[ing]” oneself to someone or something. We encounter a similar drift in the German word belieben and its Old English counterpart beliefan, both of which convey notions of allegiance and preference. This connotation is almost entirely lacking from the word’s modern English equivalent, but it must be taken into account in whatever consideration we give the its use in the Gospel and epistolary writings.
Christianity was, at the outset, a Jewish phenomenon. The question of intellectual assent to God’s existence is a pressing concern at the present time, where outright atheism is fairly common (at least in the West), but it was not the chief concern of historical Judaism. Reading the Hebrew Scriptures, we see Israel falling away from God time and again: her unfaithfulness is such that the writer of Isaiah compares the Jewish nation to a whore. Yet each time Israel fell, it was into the arms, not of unbelief, but of other gods. God punished Israel for worshiping wrongly, not for failing to worship at all; his chief concern was idolatry, not skepticism.
A similar mindset could be imputed to the Gentiles living contemporaneously with Christ. The pagan philosophers who disbelieved in the old gods nevertheless attacked Christians for not taking part in the emperor worship and traditional religious cults of the Roman empire: the followers of Christ were condemned as atheists, not on account of disbelieving in the supernatural but rather for refusing to follow the gods in a socially acceptable fashion. Well-educated atheists participated in the imperial cult as a matter of loyalty to Rome; practice was divorced from belief. The Church taught its follows to do otherwise: what we do with our bodies can say as much about our beliefs as what we do with our minds. In any event, where one’s allegiance lay was the issue at hand, not the question of belief in general.
Now, I am not in any way saying that Christ was speaking only of following in John 5:24 and not of the necessity of intellectual assent. If Peter’s choice to leave his nets and follow Jesus in Mark 1:18 is a turning point, his affirmation in Mark 8:29 of Jesus as the Christ is even more so. Allegiance is, however, a component of saving faith, as the parable of the sower, found in all three synoptic Gospels, would seem to suggest:
“The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:14-20)
While we may be fairly certain of our faith in and allegiance to Christ at the present moment, the same cannot be said of the future (which the present is rapidly becoming): where will we be tomorrow, or in ten years, or on our deathbed? Hopefully, we will end our lives in a state of grace. But the danger is ever-present that we may find ourselves beset by “trouble and persecution” and fall into despair or be led away from God by sinful pleasures; either way, we would be rejecting the grace Christ merited for us on the cross. The writer of Hebrews bears witness to the presence this danger in the early Church:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold Him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
Since we cannot be absolutely sure that our belief, in both senses, will last, it’s possible to say that we cannot be absolutely certain of our salvation. We don’t know the future, after all.
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For many Christians, the prospect of not having this assurance means a constant state of fear: we must live with the possibility that we may one day find ourselves judged and found wanting; that, having called out “Lord, Lord” all our lives, we will ultimately be told, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23b).
But if we seek assurance out of an abject fear of eternal damnation, what does this say about our understanding of God? About a year ago, Fr. Alvin Kimel of Pontifications posted an excellent article entitled “Disbelieving the Predestinarian God,” in which he touches on the impact of predestinarianism on popular understandings of God in the West. He writes,
I do not believe God to be the absolute predestinarian of Augustine, Calvin, Beza, and Bañez. I do not believe God to be a God who has eternally decreed, before prevision of irrevocable rejection of divine love and forgiveness, the eternal salvation of some and the eternal reprobation of the rest. I am convinced that for all of his greatness, St Augustine went tragically astray on this matter of predestination and that his theory has had pernicious repercussions on the spiritual lives of Western Christians. The theory of absolute predestination calls into question, at the most fundamental level, the identity and character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
The God and Father of Jesus Christ intends the eternal salvation of every human being he has made and will make, without exception. If God did not die on the cross for the sins of mankind, then he does not truly desire “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” and the Apostle Paul is made a liar (1 Tim 2:4). If God has unconditionally reprobated just one person, then God is not absolute love. If God has chosen to rescue from the damnable mass of humanity only some but not all, then he is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The God who, in Fr. Kimel’s words, “saves and damns in absolute, inscrutable determination,” is clearly visible in the life and thought of Martin Luther, prime mover of the Reformation. Luther suffered from what is known as scrupulosity: he could never accept that he was forgiven, no matter how many visits he made to the confessional. A distorted view of God leads inexorably to a distorted view of salvation; and Luther’s theological musings, out of which grew the doctrine of sola fide (justification by faith alone) so important to most forms of Protestantism, reflect this anxiety. Assurance of salvation is, for many, a matter of self-assurance above all.
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Where are we left, though, without this assurance? As already noted, the journey to Christian faith is marked by trust in the word of Christ as spoken through His living witnesses. Yet our faith chiefly concerns not an idea but a person. We must learn, therefore, to trust not only in Christ’s witnesses but in the person of Christ Himself. And what are granted, in response to this trust, is what St. Paul identifies as the theological virtue of hope (1 Corinthians 13:13). This hope springs directly from the nature of God. Near the end of the same article quoted earlier, Fr. Kimel describes his conception of God and why, though not assured of his salvation, he is not afraid of death:
There are many days, too many days, when I do not know if I believe in God, when I do not know if God exists. But I do know whom I struggle to believe. He is the God made known in Jesus Christ. He is the God who is a holy communion of absolute love and gladness. He is the God who searches for the one lost sheep and upon finding it hoists it upon his shoulder and restores it to the flock. He is the God who turns his house upside down until he finds the one silver coin he has lost. He is the God who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; by his stripes we are healed. This is the only God worthy of our belief.
What sort of assurance do we have, then? I cannot know with certainly that I will, in the end, be saved. What I do know is this: that God loves me, deeply and passionately, as He loves each and every human being; and that he wills my salvation, as He wills that of all men and women. If I lose my salvation, it’s not because God wasn’t looking for me; it’s because I ran away from Him at full speed and never looked back. As Pope Benedict has stated in his most recent encyclical, Spe Salvi, “To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope.” If Christ is our hope, then we have all the assurance we will ever need.