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The Born-Again Agnostic: Salvation, Part I

“Are you saved?”

It’s a question Catholics get all the time from “Bible Christians.” The average Catholic replies with a resounding “I dunno.”

But Evangelicals and Fundamentalists answer the question, “Yes, I am, since I’ve accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.” They seem to know exactly what to say. Many of them add, “What’s more, since I’m born again, I can’t forfeit salvation. I have an absolute guarantee of getting to heaven.”

Is their position biblical? Is it the traditional Christian position? They think so, but they’re wrong.

More tone than substance

Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are theologically conservative Protestants who pride themselves on a strict adherence to biblical teachings. They believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, and they say the Bible contains a complete rule of faith for Christians. They don’t believe the Church Jesus established has an authoritative teaching role; for them there is no magisterium.

When they differ with one another, it’s often more a matter of tone than of substance. One person might call himself an Evangelical, another a Fundamentalist, but their theological positions could be identical. When a difference is manifest, it is usually that Fundamentalists are more hardline than Evangelicals, more insistent on the sufficiency of the Bible, less inclined to cooperate with people whose faith differs from theirs, even if slightly.

But on the key issue of salvation, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are in basic agreement. They say good works play no role at all in our getting to heaven—salvation comes through faith alone. Many Catholics, sensing something is haywire with that idea, counter by saying we earn salvation through a combination of faith and works. Which side is right?

Neither, actually

“Bible Christians” are wrong in claiming that all we have to do is “accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior.” The Bible nowhere says mere faith is enough. It teaches that we also must perform good works and avoid evil works (sins) if we are to gain heaven. But Catholics who think works somehow help us “earn” salvation are wrong also. Salvation is a free gift from God and can’t be earned. Good works don’t earn salvation for us. Instead, they help keep us from throwing salvation away.

It is only the authentic Catholic position (which is understood by few Protestants and, sometimes it seems, by even fewer Catholics) which takes into account the whole of the Bible’s teaching. And here is the key: The Bible must be taken as an entirety.

To the extent Evangelicals and Fundamentalists fall into doctrinal traps, it is because they take verses in isolation. Catholics can fall into the same trap. In distancing themselves from the mistakes of “Bible Christians,” they sometimes take other verses in isolation and end up with a skewed theology.

Saved by faith in Christ

Fundamentalists in particular like to turn to Romans 10:9: “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and if you believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved.” (Here and elsewhere I’m using the translation by Msgr. Ronald Knox.) Fundamentalists emphasize “then you will be saved,” and they claim this verse by itself demonstrates that all one needs to do is to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. After that, nothing else needs to be done.

Many Fundamentalists go so far as to say no sin committed by a “born-again Christian,” no matter how heinous, can deprive that person of heaven. This is an extreme if widely held position, and even many Fundamentalists find it viscerally unacceptable. They can’t help asking themselves, “Why shouldn’t an unrepentant and gross sinner go to hell, Christian or not?”

Other Fundamentalists take a slightly softer position, saying apostasy from the faith (which they understand to be the sin against the Holy Spirit) will lose the Christian his salvation, but nothing else will. Any other sin, no matter how grave, will not undo one’s salvation.

Still other “Bible Christians”—this is truer of Evangelicals than of Fundamentalists—admit, in what is really a contradiction to the “once saved, always saved” idea, that serious sins can in theory result in damnation, but they cover themselves by arguing that in fact the truly born-again Christian will not sin seriously and that any person sinning seriously could not have been born again in the first place, no matter what he or others thought.

How can one know?

Thought out logically, this leads to a kind of agnosticism. You can’t know if anyone, even yourself, is really born again until death intervenes and prevents the commission of a serious sin. This inability to know for sure who is saved and who isn’t undercuts the assurance of salvation that “Bible Christians” claim for themselves. They can’t be sure of their assurance until they’re safely dead, which means they have no assurance at all. Most of them don’t realize the problem with their position.

I once asked a Fundamentalist if his minister were a born-again Christian.

“Of course,” he said.

“And that means you and he are sure he’s going to heaven?”

“That’s right.”

“But what if he commits a serious sin, such as a murder, twenty years from now and dies unrepentant?”

“That would show he never was really born again,” the man replied, unfazed.

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