The Orange County Register is currently running a twenty-part Sunday series entitled Purpose-Driven Man. The author “spent a year interviewing Rick Warren, his staff and more than 100 church followers and observers, as well as examining thousands of pages of church and other documents.” The series is “about Warren, his faith and why some think he may become one of the most influential spiritual leaders in the world.”
You’ve likely heard of Warren’s popular book The Purpose-Driven Life, which he unfoundedly calls “the best-selling nonfiction book after the Bible.” Rivaling the success of his book is Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. He started the Church in 1980 and continues to be the pastor of its reported 22,000 members, many of whom claim to be former Catholics.
One such former Catholic explains in Purpose-Driven Man (part seven, “Reaping the Faithful”) that the Catholic faith in which he grew up “was the Old World faith of incense and ritual, confession and absolution, creed and doctrine.” He says, “Gradually I realized I needed to go to a place that included all faiths, all Christian denominations.” The article points out that Warren’s message freed the former Catholic “from the weight of tradition and expectation.”
What Is Salvation?
Saddleback Church is actually of the Southern Baptist denomination and its web sites (www.saddlebackchurch.com and www.saddlebackfamily.com) state that “the Bible is God’s perfect guidebook for living” and “the Bible is God’s love letter to all of humanity and is the final authority in every issue it communicates. It is complete truth, and we can trust it for all matters in this life and eternity.”
That being said, it’s difficult to understand how the pastor’s message could free one “from the weight of tradition and expectation.” Certainly a church placing such heavy emphasis on the Bible would include “incense and ritual, confession and absolution, creed and doctrine,” as these are all rooted in Scripture.
But a closer look at Saddleback’s teaching explains a lot. For example, in a Q&A about the church’s faith, the question “What is Salvation?” is answered as follows:
Our disobedient nature has eternally separated us from our Creator. No matter how hard we try, we can never earn our way back into God’s presence. Our only hope is to trust Jesus as God’s provision for our disobedience. Whenever you make that decision, you step into the eternal and abundant life Jesus promises for all believers.
To support this teaching the reader is provided with references to 462 verses from twenty-one books of the Bible. An overwhelming majority (450) of these verses come from nineteen New Testament books. The verses cover stories ranging from the fall of man and God’s covenant with Israel to much more on-topic verses such as “And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21) and “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).
But conspicuously missing from the list are verses that either help put some of the referenced verses into proper perspective or discuss other matters equally crucial to a fuller understanding of salvation.
For example, missing from the list is “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). This verse helps shed some light on Acts 2:21. Also missing are “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:16) and “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3), both of which indicate that there is more to salvation than what Acts 16:31 seems to imply.
The list does include “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This is good to know, but it helps to know also that Jesus told the apostles—the first hierarchy of the Church—”If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21–23). Clearly, simply confessing one’s sins is no guarantee of forgiveness.
Of course, the verse just mentioned speaks of the sacrament of reconciliation. Had the former Catholic mentioned earlier been referred to this verse, he may not have so willingly abandoned confession and absolution.
Can Salvation Be Lost?
Similarly, the “weight of tradition” might have seemed a more important burden to him had he been referred to such a verse as “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
This unnecessarily incomplete picking and choosing of verses is evident in Saddleback’s next Q&A as well. The question posed is “If I accept Jesus Christ, is my salvation forever?” The answer given is startling:
Definitely! Your salvation is through the most trustworthy being in the universe—Jesus Christ! You didn’t do anything to earn your salvation, and you can’t do anything to lose it. Your salvation is maintained by God’s trustworthiness and love, not by what you do.
True, we don’t do anything to “earn” salvation. But, as the answer to the first question admits, one must “do” something—make a decision—in order to be saved. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that we can’t retract that decision later. And if we did retract that decision, wouldn’t our salvation be forfeited?
Saddleback provides a mere fourteen verses from just three New Testament books to support their answer as stated above. Most relevant are these:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27–29)
These verses answer the question of whether someone else can take away our salvation: They cannot, we are told. But the verses do not state or even imply that our salvation cannot be lost through our own actions.
Another verse Saddleback uses is “All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out” (John 6:37). This verse speaks of Christ’s love for his people—he will not cast them out—but notice that it does not say what Saddleback implies: that we can’t cast ourselves out.
Also used is:
In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Eph. 1:13–14)
Is this to be understood as a “definite” guarantee of salvation, as Saddleback seems to understand it? Certainly not when considered alongside other verses that Saddleback fails to mention here.
For example, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off” (Rom. 11:22). Clearly a person who is “saved” can be “cut off.”
Endure to the End
Also, consider this passage from the letter to the Hebrews:
If we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:26–29)
Evidently a person who has been “sanctified” can later lose his salvation.
Saddleback fails to teach anything about endurance or perseverance. This is dangerous as it can lead us into a false sense of eternal security, thinking “it doesn’t matter what I do; I’m already saved.”
But Jesus said, “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). And Paul warned us to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim 1:18–19). Peter explained:
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. (2 Pet. 2:20–21)
Jesus, Paul, and Peter warned Christians against the pitfall of mortal sin, i.e., the loss of salvation. John wrote:
If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal. (1 John 5:16–17)
In contrasting the differences in the severity of sin, John points out that sin that is not mortal does not result in the loss of salvation (“God will give him life”), but such is not the case with mortal sin.
A Spiritual “Work Out”
So to tell people, as Saddleback does, that their salvation is “definitely” forever and that they “can’t do anything to lose it” is frightfully dangerous.
Interestingly, included in the references for the first Q&A above, Saddleback lists at least one verse that could have helped in more accurately answering the second question but apparently was then ignored:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil. 2:12)
Much more than an absolutely guaranteed reward for making a simple decision, salvation is something we must “work out” through obedience, endurance, and perseverance.
Doing thus, we can attain the moral assurance Paul spoke about concerning his own life:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day. (2 Tim. 4:7–8)