In the fascinating debate between Calvinists and Arminians, the issue of “Freedom” is key. For Arminians, nothing could be more obvious than the reality of free will, and they find evidence to back up this intuition in the pages of scripture; while for Calvinists, nothing could be more obvious than the bondage and enslavery of our wills to sin and evil, and the bible clearly backs up this conviction.
I recently came to an understanding of both sides of the issue, and I suspect that the two parties are simply talking past each other: When they use the word “Freedom”, they are talking about two different things. When Arminians assert that we are free, they mean to say that we are “free agents”, who have the power of self-determination, control over our own actions, and the power to choose between alternatives. Whereas when Calvinists assert that we are not free, they do not necessarily mean to deny that we have free agency and self-determination; what they mean to say is that our wills are enslaved to sin and evil, such that – if it weren’t for the liberating grace of God – we would always perform evil actions and make sinful choices.
Arminians – Freedom as the Power of Contrary Choice
The Arminian (and Catholic and Orthodox) conviction that we possess libertarian freedom rests on the idea that in order to truly love, we must not be coerced into doing so in any way or on any metaphysical level. If we love, it is because we freely choose to do so, and not because God forces us to do so.
This conviction flows on into more philosophical territory. Arminians wish to assert that we have free/libertarian “agency”: that is to say, God’s sovereignty does not determine our actions and choices. Neither are our actions and choices determined by prior causes as per the philosophy of hard determinism. Instead, the principle which determines our actions and choices rests entirely within ourselves as individuals.
An example to illustrate the idea: A person is offered a variety of fruits at lunch time and informed that they can only choose one. The person deliberates and then chooses between one of the alternatives on offer, for example, a banana. This choice is neither random nor determined by outside forces – it is solely the person himself who brings about the choice of fruit – a banana rather than an apple or orange.
Some Calvinists take an extreme view of God’s sovereignty and blow the maxim “God is in control” way out of proportion. Such Calvinists would disagree with the Arminian analysis of the prior example and would instead claim that it is God who determines the choice of fruit, not the individual person. This would indeed amount to a flat denial of self-determination, free agency and the power of contrary choice. However not all Calvinists share this extreme view of God’s sovereignty.
Calvinists: “We have no Freedom” – The Bondage of the Will
Most Calvinists, when pressed, would probably agree that humans possess free agency as defined above. However they would also emphasise their firm conviction that we do not possess free will. Instead of our will being free, our will is enslaved to sin, evil and the powers of darkness. The shorthand term “total depravity” is apt to summarise the situation. If it were not for God continually sending grace to us, we would always freely choose to sin rather than to love and do good. The more we sin, the more we become enslaved to that sin. And so if it were not for the action of God, we would simply descend further and further into evil and spiritual deformity.
Luther argued powerfully that our free agency, unassisted by grace, is unable to do good. Our free agency, left to it’s own devices, will always tend towards doing evil. Catholics dogmatically agree with this concept in the doctrine of concupiscence. Our wills are enslaved to sin. Our wills are in bondage to evil. The more we sin, the tighter the chains bind us.
In this way, humanity does not possess free will. We may very well have a free agency as the Arminians insist, in that our actions are not determined by God and our choices arise from within ourselves rather than being determined via divine sovereignty. Nevertheless our will is in a state of bondage. One component of the good news of the gospel is that God promises to liberate us from this slavery, and is in fact in the process of doing so. In the eschaton, our wills will be free again! In the end-times, our wills will be liberated from their slavery to Satan and the powers of darkness. However right now we are in the middle of the struggle, and this is why we sometimes sin and sometimes do good. The conviction here is that we are not free when we sin; instead, sin is a demonstration of our being in bondage to evil. On the other hand, when we love and do good, this is indeed a demonstration of a free will, or perhaps what is more accurately described as a liberated will.
Talking Past Each Other
When sacred scripture talks about freedom, it talks about it in these terms – bondage, slavery, liberation. It does not talk about it in philosophical categories of agency and determinism, regardless of whether or not those categories are true and useful. According to revelation, we are free when we do good and enslaved when we do bad.
Arminians often take their doctrine of freedom too far and end up insisting that humans have such a supreme and unassailable dignity to the point where absolutely nothing can have any influence on our choices, including the biblical concept of slavery to sin. The truth of the matter is that being enslaved to sin and suffering from total depravity does not nullify the fact that we are self-determining creatures who have the power to make distinct choices. All that it means is that the pool of choices that present themselves to us are always evil and sinful in nature, and this is the essence of the bondage of the will.
Whereas Calvinists sometimes push their doctrine of an enslaved will too far and end up denying that mankind has any free agency whatsoever. Such Calvinists put all their eggs in the “God is sovereign” basket and end up claiming that any experience of free agency is entirely illusory, because God himself is the one who is calling all the shots – including my “free” choices. Such Calvinists don’t understand that divine sovereignty does not necessarily contradict libertarian freedom. God is indeed in control, and he will succeed at bringing about the promised eschaton; nevertheless, he gives us true freedom and true agency, so that we can truly love him. He is not a divine puppet master pulling our strings.
A Middle Way
A middle path between the two extremes of Arminian “inviolable freedom” and Calvinist “Deterministic hyper-sovereignty” is helpful to examine. In this view of things, mankind does indeed possess the power of self-determination and free agency, as the Arminians insist, however our wills are also indeed enslaved to sin, as the Calvinists insist. All that this means is that we have free agency to choose between alternatives, however all of the alternatives that present themselves to us are sinful. In more traditional language, this is called “concupiscence” and “total depravity”.
Now, obviously the picture thus described does not accord with our experience of life and reality. The clear objection that presents itself is “I do not always sin, some times I love, sometimes I do good. I am clearly not totally depraved.” – This is quite true, and so some qualifications need to be introduced. Firstly, it is true that we do not always sin, however this reflects more on God than it does on us. The only reason we do not descend into a complete and entire depravity, is because our God is a God who delights in rescuing captives and freeing slaves. As such, God is always and everywhere sending us the sufficient grace we need in order to climb out of the pit of our sinto climb out of the pit of our sin and throw off the shackles that bind us to evil. The further we descend into depravity and evil, the greater the quantity of grace that God sends us. He is always giving us the opportunity and the means to turn from our sinful ways and repent, and all we need to do is give our consent.
What happens when we turn from sin and instead strive to do good? We become liberated. We finally possess the promised free will. God himself takes hold of us and shatters the chains that tie our wills to darkness and evil. Until God does this, our will is not free. The more and more that we consent to this liberation, and the more and more we cooperate with God’s grace, the more and more free we become. This freedom and liberation from sin could almost be seen as a slavery of another sort – instead of being slaves to sin, darkness, death, evil and the devil; we become slaves of love, righteousness, goodness, light and God himself. The theological traditions generally agree that in the end, we will be so enraptured by love that we will be impeccable – incapable of sinning. This is a paradoxical slavery opposed to the one in which we started, and interestingly, we call it the highest, most supreme form of freedom.
The Promise of Freedom
All of this considered, “free will” actually is just another eschatological promise that God makes to us. God promises us “freedom” as in “liberation”. Due to the fall, humanity would naturally be enslaved to sin. But God has always been fighting against this tendency, and he has always been attempting to liberate us from this slavery to sin. Insofar as we sin, we demonstrate slavery to sin, but insofar as we love, we demonstrate freedom to love. The promise of God is that one day we will be perfected in freedom; in other words, one day we will possess such a total liberation from slavery to sin that we will be impeccable. To the extent that we have faith in this promise, the promise actualises in our experience of life right here and now.
Of course, we still sin now, and this is evidence that God’s plans have not yet come to completion: Our God is a God who delights in rescuing captives from slavery, and he is in the process of doing this, and yet the fact that we still sin is evidence that God has not yet completed this process of liberation. The question is raised: can God fail to save us? Can God fail to deliver us from slavery? Can God fail to give us the freedom that he promises us?
The answer that the Catholic Universalist gives is a firm and resounding NO! God’s promises cannot be thwarted. If God promises us true freedom and impeccability in the eschaton, then that is damn well what is going to happen. We are all of us in the midst of a battle at the present time; a battle between Satan and Christ; a battle in which we are all partially enslaved to sin and partially liberated for love. Sometimes we are made more or less enslaved. Sometimes we are made more or less liberated. But the promise of God is that in the end-times he will be victorious: No one will be enslaved to sin; everyone will be completely and entirely liberated for love. Israel will exit Egypt and find it’s way to the promised land, even if it takes 40 years of wandering in the desert to get there. So too, we will all have our freedom from bondage to sin, no matter how long it takes and even at the greatest cost to God – If Christ was willing to endure a crucifixion and descent into Hell for the sake of the world, how could he leave any one of us behind? All without exception will be liberated from slavery to sin. All without exception will be made righteous. All without exception will be cleaned from spiritual dirtiness. All without exception will walk out of the darkness and into the light. All without exception will see the gates of heaven and enter, singing joyous hymns and doxologies to our good and glorious God.
God gives us freedom so that we can love him, he did not give us freedom so that we could damn ourselves. Freedom is good news. Freedom is salvation. Freedom is Gospel. Let us pray for the salvation of all and praise God for his beautiful promises of liberation. Amen.
If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast.
If any man be a wise servant, let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have laboured long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings, because he shall in no wise be deprived.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing.
If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him also be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honour, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has worked from the first hour.
And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts.
And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honours the acts and praises the offering.
Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord, and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival.
You sober and you heedless, honour the day.
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is fully laden; feast sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy the feast of faith; receive all the riches of loving-kindness.
Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free: he that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.
By descending into hell, he made hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, cried: “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.”
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.
I remember being surprised, baffled and deeply intrigued when I discovered that there were different canons of scripture out in the world. As time went on, I began to wonder what the implications were for ecumenism. I began to wonder what the implications were for faith: If a community of confirmed, faithful Christians firmly believe that God is speaking to them through a book which has not been approved by the infallible magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church, what does it mean?
I would like to propose a brief solution. The idea is that there are inspired scriptures which are catholic, which is to say “universal”. Such scriptures are addressed by God to every individual who has ever lived. These scriptures must be received and respected by anyone who is attempting to engage in theology. They cannot be discarded or dismissed. The canon of the universal scriptures was dogmatically promulgated by the council of Trent, and canonically promulgated many times prior to that at local councils.
However, there are also inspired scriptures which are not catholic. That is to say, they are local, private, or specific to a specific time, place or group of people. A classic example would be the Ethiopian Orthodox canon of scripture. The Ethiopian tradition includes many books which are not to be found outside of that specific church. Are we to simply dismiss this as a theological error by the Ethiopians? How can we do this, when their bishops are all validly ordained, and therefore their received liturgies are just as inspired as the approved Catholic liturgies? In this situation, whatever scripture they have read and received in their liturgy would logically also be inspired. The solution to this problem is to say that these texts are indeed inspired, however they are only addressed to the Ethiopian church: people who are outside of this church need not pay any attention to these texts. It is similar to the doctrine of “private revelation” in the Catholic church. These revelations are private, addressed to discrete groups of people rather than the whole of humanity.
Another example concerns the Eastern Orthodox canon. The Eastern Orthodox include three extra books and one extra psalm in their canon. These additions could be ecumenically received as local inspired texts, rather than catholic inspired texts. As such, they are relevant to churches in the eastern tradition, because they have been received within that tradition, however people who are not immersed in that tradition and do not have any connection to it do not need to heed these books.
The principle could be applied and extended out wide in order to encompass other religions and cults. For example the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have their own tradition within which certain scriptures have been received (for example, the Book of Mormon). If they were to one day come back into communion with the Holy Catholic Church, they could be permitted to retain their unique scriptures provided that they are understood to be local revelation rather than catholic revelation. Of course, it is to be assumed that their received scriptures are interpreted in a way that is consistent with the rest of the deposit of faith. In this particular case it would probably call for a purely allegorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon.
Potentially we could re-approach the Jews with this principle in mind. We could allow them to take the Hebrew old testament and apply it as they wish. Even though we know that the law is not binding on Christians, Jewish Christians may choose to follow the law regardless, as it is part of their tradition and heritage.
The Islamic traditions are also fair game. Potentially one day there will be an “Islamic Ordinariate” or a Sui Iuris church which traces it’s heritage to the Islamic world. Such a church would have a heavily Islamised liturgy, wherein the faithful pray the Salat towards the Eucharist set in a monstrance during adoration (for example). It would potentially by acceptable for them to retain the Qu’ran as a local inspired text within this tradition, provided that the Qu’ran is understood and interpreted in a way that is consistent with the deposit of faith. Potentially an edited, “Christian” edition of the Qu’ran could be produced which edits and deals with troublesome passages, however this would not be optimal.
The same principle could be used to inculturate all cultures and religious traditions: Let the people retain as much of what they already have as is possible, including their scriptures. Just be careful to make it clear that any scripture they bring to the table is local revelation rather than catholic revelation: It’s authoritative for people within that specific community, but not binding on anyone else.
This principle is helpful in evangelism, as it accords well with Paul’s admonition to “be all things to all people”. Paul wants us to be a Jew to Jews, a Muslim to Muslims, a Buddhist to Buddhists and a Hindu to Hindus. As missionaries we should strive to be as thorough in this task as we can, adopting as much of the local religion as we can in good conscience and without compromising our principles, so as to win the people over to Christ.
25 Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Matthew 10:37-38 RSV-CE:
37 He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
These are harsh words from our lord and saviour. What could he possibly mean? We have to hate our families in order to follow Jesus to heaven? Doesn’t this contradict his commands (found elsewhere) to love our neighbour?
I have encountered certain bible commentaries in my time which have attempted to take the edge off of these passages. The Greek word translated “hate”, they say, really shouldn’t be understood as meaning “hate”; it should instead be understood as preferring one thing over another. So we shouldn’t actually hate our families; we should simply prefer God over them. Maybe there’s some truth to this exegesis, but honestly just taking the English at face value: “hate” is far different in nature to a simple preference of one thing over another.
We will return to these passages later, but for now I want to propose that rather than being too strong a choice of words, the word “hate” is in actual fact not strong enough to convey what Jesus was actually saying. We should not merely hate our families; we should be willing to see them cast headlong into everlasting damnation if that is what God wills. We should be willing to lovingly and devotedly follow Gods commands wherever they may lead, even if those commands make us uncomfortable and apparently contradict the love that God has poured into our hearts.
The Dark Night of the Soul – Salvation in Darkness
St John of the Cross is a western saint and mystic who is probably most remembered as the man who formulated the theology that has since been referred to by the shorthand “Dark night of the soul”. I will briefly outline the essence of this unique idea.
God is a good, kind, and loving God who enjoys lavishing good gifts upon us. He does this to everyone: young and old, believer and non-believer, Christians, Atheists, Muslims; everyone. Such gifts include good, tasty food and drink, good health, success in study, sport and romance, a bed to sleep in each night, clean water, breathable air, rain and sun to grow crops, familial love, friendship and so on. The Calvinists like to call this aspect of God’s loving disposition “Common Grace”, because these are gifts that are lavished upon all people without exception or distinction. Even a starving African child can detect such gifts from God in their life.
Now, when someone initially comes to faith in God, these gifts will seem to multiply exponentially: All of a sudden the soul is full of supreme and invincible joy as it contemplates the salvation that has been won for it in Christ through the cross. The soul seems to overflow with a pleasurable love for God and neighbour. The soul will seem so completely happy and content. Life will suddenly be full of purpose and meaning. The world seems far more colourful than it ever did before. Smiles and laughter will surround this soul.
But in a short time, the trials and tests will arrive thick and fast. The Christian is warned to expect persecution and suffering; how will they respond when it actually arrives? This is where the Dark night of the soul begins: some people are plunged deep into the dark night; most only experience a taste of it, presumably because God in his wisdom has decided that they are not strong enough to handle further trials.
What happens at this point, is that God progressively withdraws his gifts. Where before the soul was overflowing with joy and enjoying the wonderful gifts that God was bestowing on them, now the soul is receiving fewer and fewer gifts. The soul is being plunged into a darkness of sorts: most particularly, the soul experiences an “absence of God”. With the eyes of faith, the soul may know that God is indeed still there, but nevertheless he is unable to “feel” this presence. The words of the psalmist become apt to describe the experience:
Psalm 13:1-2 RSV-CE:
1 How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? 2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Why does God withdraw his gifts? It is to test us. God is peering into the depths of our heart and asking: “Do you truly love me? Or do you only love my gifts? If I withdraw my gifts, will you still love me?” So God progressively withdraws more and more of his gifts, and the Darkest night possible is when he withdraws all of his gifts: Your family hates you, your friends have abandoned you, you are starving, you are sick, you are dying and the question God is asking is, “Despite all this hardship, do you still love me?”
The good news is that this testing does come to an end. The end of the dark night of the soul is the bright dawn of salvation. Once the dark and fiery trials have concluded, God lavishes his gifts upon the soul to an even greater degree than before the dark night had begun. And in the case of a ascetic mystic who has walked the path of darkness to the very end, the ultimate and final gift of God is bestowed: The fullness of salvation: Theosis. The soul becomes perfectly united with God, such that it is hard to distinguish between them.
The Binding of Isaac – Abraham the Father of Faith
One biblical figure who experienced this dark night of the soul is the father of faith: Abraham. The Dark night of the Soul is clearly manifest in the story of the Binding of Isaac.
To establish some context: Abraham and Sarah have been praying and hoping for a child for most of their adult life. Even when they arrive at old age and still have not yet had a baby, they continue to hope and await the fulfilment of God’s promises to them that they will have a child. The day finally arrives, and despite Sarah’s old age and barrenness, Isaac is miraculously born. In Abraham’s time, children were considered one of the highest blessings and most wonderful gifts of God, and a son (rather than a daughter) was an even more special reason to rejoice. So Isaac would be considered one of the most precious, if not the most precious gift that God had given to Abraham. Now with this in mind, consider the following passage:
Genesis 22:1-19 RSV-CE
22 After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori′ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.
After many years of painful waiting, God finally bestows Abraham with his heart’s deepest desire: a son to carry on the family legacy. Abraham and Sarah would have rejoiced and been full to exploding point with happiness when Isaac finally arrived, praising God and thanking him for his overwhelming goodness.
But behold; Abrahams personal dark night arrives. God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering”. God is commanding Abraham to renounce his greatest wordly attachment: his love for his son. God is testing Abraham, just like he tests everyone who goes through the dark night of the soul. God is asking Abraham “Do you really love me? Or do you only love my gifts? Would you still love me if those gifts were taken away? Are you willing to sacrifice that which you hold dear? Are you willing to kill your son if I command you to?” And amazingly, Abraham essentially responds with “Thy will be done lord. If you command me to kill my son, this will I do. I love you above all else. I trust you. My faith is unwavering.”
The scene is tense, Abraham practically has the knife against Isaacs throat. Imagine what is going through his mind and his heart. Sometimes I think we imagine saints and biblical figures as being superhuman, not feeling emotions the same way that we do, but this is inaccurate: Abraham was most likely suffering the full force of a particularly violent dark night; he was probably wiping away tears of agony and anguish as he approached the alter; he was willing to follow Gods commands whatever they may be, but he would have been crying out in anger, confusion and despair. He is thinking that he is about to lose his son forever, his most treasured relationship on earth, the son he had waited for for all of his life, moreover he has already accepted this fact and is already dealing with life in those terms: Isaac is already dead to him. Abraham is already mourning the death.
And right as he is about to perform the fatal blow, a messenger from God swoops in and says “Stop!!! You have proved your faith: God does not ask any more of you than this, you are willing to sacrifice your son, and for this reason you do not have to.” This is followed up with one of the most important promises in all of scripture:
“I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
This narrative contains all the elements of an intense dark night of the soul: the initial gifts (The birth of Isaac), the purification in the darkness (The sacrifice of Isaac) and the final gift (The rescue of Isaac and an eshatological salvific promise)
The Agonising Trial of Job
Another biblical figure who suffered a particular profound dark night of the soul is Job. The prologue to the book of Job reveals that God had lavished many gifts upon him. Job was practically swimming in Common Grace. He had it all: A large, devoted family, health, wealth, property, servants, land etc. Furthermore Job responds to this love with love: he is a purely righteous soul who never sins and always does what is right.
Job 1:1-5 RSV-CE:
1 There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. 2 There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3 He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. 4 His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually.
But God decides to test Job. Scripture reveals that Satan makes a wager with God that he is able to tempt Job towards sin if God would only plunge Job into a dark night. God permits Satan to drag Job into the darkness and see whether or not he cracks under the pressure:
Job 1:6-19 RSV-CE
6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nought? 10 Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.
13 Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 14 and there came a messenger to Job, and said, “The oxen were ploughing and the asses feeding beside them; 15 and the Sabe′ans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The Chalde′ans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 19 and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
But despite being plunged head first into a dark night, and having all his good gifts taken away from him; Job remains faithful and does not crack:
Job 1:20-22 RSV-CE
20 Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshipped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
Satan returns to the heavenly assembly and God quizzes him, saying “See? Despite withdrawing all my gifts from Job, he still loves me.” Satan responds with “That is because you have not harmed his body. So long as he has his good health, he will continue to love you, but take away this, and he will hate and despise you. He will renounce you.”
Job 2:1-8 RSV-CE
1 Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2 And the Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” 4 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. 5 But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” 6 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
7 So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Jobs wife comes up to him and expresses her astonishment that Job continues to love and worship a God who is so clearly callous and evil. But Job remains steadfast in his faith and refuses to renounce his good lord:
Job 2:9-10 RSV-CE
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
The rest of the book is brilliant poetry, in which Job and his three friends dialogue on matters of sin, justice, punishment, salvation, mystery, goodness. Job wonders out loud why God has allowed this misfortune to befall him: he is particularly confused because he knows in his heart that he has not sinned in any way. He wonders why it is that the righteous suffer and the unrighteous are able to get away with iniquity unpunished. The truth of the matter is that God has plunged Job into a particularly dark night of the soul in order to purify him into a shining, glorious saint. God has taken away all of these gifts so as to test Job’s love. Amazingly, Job remains steadfast in his faith through the entire ordeal: he questions God, and cries out for God to provide some sort of explanation for the suffering he has had to endure, but at no point does he curse God or renounce his love for his creator.
And just as in any dark night of the soul, when Job emerges out the other side God bestows even more gifts and grace upon him than he had in the first place!
Job 42:10-17 RSV-CE
10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house; and they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. 12 And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses. 13 He had also seven sons and three daughters. 14 And he called the name of the first Jemi′mah; and the name of the second Kezi′ah; and the name of the third Ker′en-hap′puch. 15 And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them inheritance among their brothers. 16 And after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. 17 And Job died, an old man, and full of days.
So once again we have a classic case of a dark night of the soul: The initial gifts (Job’s great wealth, health and love), the plunging into darkness (The testing by Satan and loss of Job’s entire fortune), and the emergence from the darkness as a purified, tested, victorious saint (Job’s restoration of health, wealth and love as well as his long life and happy death)
Caritas Ex Nihilo
Lets put all of this together. Each of us is called to enter the dark night at some point of our lives. God is going to test every single one of us, just as he tested Job and Abraham. He is going to refine us with suffering until we are able to love him even in the absence of his gifts. But lets consider just how difficult this is going to be and what this is going to involve. Consider again the words of Christ, quoted at the beginning of this post:
“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”
When Jesus says “Hate”, he really does mean hate. If we desire to love him, we must be willing to trust him and follow his commands even when they contradict the love for our families that God has already gifted us with. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, we too must be willing to see our families sacrificed if that is what God commands. We have to be willing to truly hate our families and desire their eternal, everlasting torture in the endless ocean of fire that is Hell if this is what God asks of us. God does not ask us to enjoy this prospect, he does not ask us to be happy about doing this, he does not ask us to take sadistic pleasure in the torture of our families, however he does ask us to have a rock solid faith in him and a perfect obedience to his commandments. Just as Abraham was crying as he ascended the mountain to the altar and pressed his knife against his sons throat, so too we are permitted to grieve at the eternal loss of our families, but nevertheless; we must be willing to accept this loss, all for the sake of the love of God. As Jesus says: Whoever loses his life will save it. We must renounce ALL worldly attachments and cast them into the dark flame, and this includes our closest relationships: Husband, Wife, Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter. We must be willing to see everyone in our life damned, all for the sake of loving God.
The darkest night of the soul is pitch black: bleak like the trial of Job. All of Gods gifts are removed and he demands that we sacrifice everything for his sake. If this was the end of the story, it would be incredibly depressing and entirely bittersweet: we gain God, but at what cost?
Thankfully this is not the grand finalé to the tale. Recall how the narrative of the dark night of the soul always plays out. First of all there are the abundant gifts of God – in this particular case the amazing unconditional love that is found within a family. Second, there is the removal of these gifts, as a testing of darkness and a refining of fire – in this case, this consists of a renouncing of familial love in order to pursue the greater love of God. It consists of hating your family to the point where you are willing to see them damned if that is what God decrees. But there is always a happy ending. Finally, the dark night of the soul always ends in joy: the gifts are returned a thousandfold more than they were in the beginning. In this case, our families are not actually damned for God desires all people to be saved. Just as it was revealed to Abraham that he didn’t really have to kill Isaac, and just as Job had all of his wealth, health and loving relationships returned to him, so too we will see those whom we love come to salvation: we never really had to be sad at the prospect that God would damn them, because this is not on his heart. The good news of the Gospel is that God desires the salvation of all and he has the power to bring this about.
John Piper and the horror of Calvinism
John Piper is a famous Calvinist teacher and preacher, living today. I find his views and theology to be shocking and disgusting for the most part. He believes that God desires the damnation of multitudes and that this somehow gives God “Glory”. He is happy to worship a God who would damn members of his family. For the longest time I found this to be completely weird and skewed, but after the reflections I have set down in this post concerning the dark night of the soul, I suppose I have uncovered a window into how people like him think.
In the end it is true that John Piper has an amazing, invincible faith and trust in God, just like Abraham did: He is willing to see his sons burn in Hell for eternity if that is what God commands. He does not revel at the thought; he does not take pleasure in the prospect, but nevertheless he has come to an acceptance that “if this is what God wants, this is what I will do”. The following quote is representative of his thinking:
“I have three sons. Every night after they are asleep I turn on the hall light, open their bedroom door, and walk from bed to bed, laying my hands on them and praying. Often I am moved to tears of joy and longing. I pray that Karsten Luke become a great physician of the soul, that Benjamin John become the beloved son of my right hand in the gospel, and that Abraham Christian give glory to God as he grows strong in his faith.
But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And, though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the Almighty. He is God. I am but a man. The potter has absolute rights over the clay. Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.”
I used to read this and be completely appalled. How could he be so unloving towards his sons? And yet… now I see where he is coming from. He is just like Abraham, standing on the mountain with the knife raised above his head; ready to bring it down and plunge it into Isaac’s heart if only God would give the order. He is not happy about this. He does not take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the sacrifice of his sons. Nevertheless he is willing to follow God anywhere. It is a sobering faith, but it is nevertheless a strong and true faith.
What John Piper does not seem to realise, however, is that the Gospel is “Good news” and as such there is always a happy ending to the tale. While he is to be commended on his strong and invincible faith in the face of the prospect of God sending his children to damnation, he does not have to fear this as if it were a live possibility. God always wants the best for everyone, John Pipers children included. It is admirable to be willing to sacrifice your sons, but it is even more admirable to rest in the confident Gospel Hope that you will never have to do this, for the dark night of the soul always concludes with happiness and joy, and not a bitter-sweet victory of tears, sighing and sadness.
“The night is darkest before the dawn, but the dawn is entirely glorious”
In summary, we have to be willing to see our closest loved ones eternally damned for the sake of the love of God, however we do not have to fear that God will ever truly demand this of us. We know that there is always a happy ending: no matter how tense it gets; no matter how dark things seem; there will always be an angel swooping in at the last minute to stop us from slitting our sons throats, just as it was with Abraham. God’s demands are intense and exhausting, but Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light: we can always trust that God has our best interests at heart, as well of those of everyone we love; our friends; our families; and even our enemies! God loves everyone without distinction and without exception. This is what we have to keep in mind at all times, for this is the faith that will carry us through the dark night of the soul. When everything seems dark and Satan is tempting us to give up Hope and wallow in despair: remember the unlimited, unconditional salvific will of God and remain steadfast in faith. The reward at the other end of the tunnel is theosis: supreme Joy, the fullness of salvation and eternal satisfaction. Press on for this prize. We have to be prepared to pass through Hell on the way to Heaven; pray that God would give us strength, faith and resolve for the journey. All praise be to Christ the victorious redeemer, who has saved the world, is saving the world, and promises to save the world to come. Amen
The results of the Australian postal plebiscite on same sex marriage were released today. To my surprise and disappointment (although with a healthy degree of amusement), the “Yes vote” won by 61%. The traditional media has run rampant with celebratory nonsense while social media has been flooded with victorious sentiment from the lefties. In light of this current atmosphere, now seems as good a time as any to set down my stance on the issues surrounding homosexuality in the modern day.
Homosexual acts, are, always were, and always will be totally depraved and sinful. There is simply no escaping the biblical, magisterial, and divine testimony from Jesus himself, that homosexual acts are wrong and inherently evil. This is something that the Church is rightly insisting upon as crucial to the issue, and it is also something which the “yes vote” campaigners consistently (and conveniently) ignore.
Sacramental marriage will always be between a man and a woman, and can never be between two members of the same sex. Sacramental marriage is the context in which sexual intercourse is supposed to occur, and therefore the context in which children happen. Sacramental marriage between a man and a woman is the essence of the family and the foundation of society.
Same-gender sexual attraction is a disorder with it’s roots in the fall. It is unnatural and a sinful disposition. Nevertheless, no actual sin is committed unless a person who suffers from this disposition wilfully entertains lustful thoughts or wilfully engages in homosexual activity. Someone who has been born with same-sex attraction or has developed it later in life, nevertheless does not sin unless they indulge in their disorder and treat it as if it were just another normal impulse.
Same-gender attraction which is non-sexual in nature is not sinful. There is nothing sinful about one man admiring another man’s body, or one woman acknowledging the beauty of another woman’s body. If someone is physically attractive, often this attraction exerts influence over people who share their gender: This is not sinful; this is not unnatural; this is merely human nature. Obviously there are problems if the body is being displayed immodestly or pornographically, as this encourages lust and tempts us away from mere attraction and towards sexual attraction.
Love between two people of the same sex is not a sin, and is in fact encouraged by Christ, the bible and the Church. This is something that tends to go over the “No vote” party’s heads. When the “Yes vote” crowd are chanting “Love is love”, there is actually quite a lot of truth to what they are saying. Some times a same-sex relationship is close, intimate and loving to such a degree that it is more than a friendship. We need to acknowledge these relationships both as a church and as a society. Society needs to afford these relationships appropriate legal recognition, and Churches need to be willing to provide their blessings to these relationships. New liturgical rites need to be invented in order to publicly endorse and bless these profound, loving relationships between two men or two women.
We also need to find some sort of term to describe the reality of this new situation. Personally I think the term “marriage” is inappropriate, as it carries over 3000 years of traditional, sacramental baggage. Perhaps something like “Consecrated partnership” would be appropriate: the two partners are religiously consecrated to each other and to God through their vows. These vows would look remarkably similar to marriage vows, or vows that monks and nuns take upon joining a religious order (importantly; there would be a vow of celibacy and chastity!). Nevertheless, the situation is not a sacramental marriage, and therefore something akin to a “divorce” would be a live possibility: Similar to when a nun is given a dispensation to return to normal life, or a priest requests to be laicized; and similarly to these cases, such a “divorce” would be strongly discouraged.
Religious freedom needs to be upheld. If a business owner does not feel that they can provide goods and services to a gay wedding in good conscience, they should not be forced to do so. It is discrimination to refuse to serve someone because they are gay, but it is not discrimination to refuse to publicly contribute to a cause that you do not agree with: a Gay marriage today can easily be understood as a public statement in support of normalising homosexual behaviour; if as a business owner you do not agree with this public statement, you should not be forced to contribute to it.
Priests, Pastors and Ministers can not and should not be forced to perform same-sex marriages. As per points 5 and 6, I think the church needs to make room for recognition of platonic same-sex partnerships which go above and beyond friendship. I think the church should give liturgical and official blessings to such relationships and canonically recognise them as a new form of consecrated life. However the church can never recognise same-sex relationships as being a valid form of sacramental marriage, because there can be no natural sexual relations between two members of the same sex, and therefore there can be no children (which is the primary purpose of a sacramental marriage).
Assuming that some form of religiously consecrated same-sex relationship becomes recognised and endorsed by the church, perhaps one of the vows could be “to adopt and care for those who have lost their natural mother and father”. It is true that children have a right to be raised by their biological mother and father, however we find ourselves in a fallen world in which this simply does not always happen. Making one of the primary purposes of this new same-sex consecrated relationship to be the care and upbringing of abandoned children would actually be incredibly helpful for society, and could even serve as a live alternative for those who are seeking abortions.
Finally, I want to reiterate that homosexual acts are always sinful, and therefore even if the Church is so understanding as to recognise same-sex relationships as a valid form of consecrated life, the church can never endorse homosexual acts in the contexts of these relationships: Same-sex couples are prohibited by divine law from engaging in unnatural sexual intercourse and if they do so they must have recourse to the sacrament of penance with a firm purpose of amendment. Furthermore while the church can (and indeed, should) recognise same-sex relationships as a new form of consecrated life, it can never raise these relationships to the same status as a sacramental marriage between a man and a woman.
In essence the church needs to recognise love as love and sin as sin, and send a clear message on both these fronts: “You’re a guy who loves another guy? That’s fine and good and you have our blessing, just make sure you don’t have sex with each other!”
In Catholic, Orthodox and Arminian circles, “Freedom” often seems to be pushed as the central dogma of the faith. More important than the divinity of Christ; More important than the victory of the cross; More important than the all powerful, completely loving, salvation-intending will of God; Human “Freedom” reigns supreme. If we are not free to reject salvation, how can we truly love God? If we are not free to reject God’s loving, salvific overtures, where is our dignity as human beings? If we are not free to choose Hell, anathema sit.
My conviction and contention is that this popular view of “supreme libertarian freedom” essentially constitutes an idolatry of freedom and a perversion of Catholic dogma. I hate to see myself admitting it, but I suspect the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition actually has it mostly right when it comes to this matter of freedom.
In my own reading, I have encountered many authors who invite us to imagine freedom as a “scale”: One side of the scale represents a choice to perform some loving work, while the other side of the scale represents a choice to perform a perverse and sinful action. This image is incredibly useful for illustrating a variety of views on freedom.
In the popular Catholic mind, humans possess a supreme and unassailable dignity in that we are free. When presented with a choice between good and evil, it is entirely up to the freedom of human subject to determine which alternative will be chosen. The human is completely impartial; his choice is completely uninfluenced; whatever choice is chosen will be determined by that persons freedom, and nothing else. The image is that of the scale previously described, in which one side of the scale is equally as appealing as the other side of the scale, and therefore the choice that is eventually chosen is determined purely by the whimsy of the human will.
This is libertarian freedom. When someone makes a choice, this choice is not determined by outside influences; it is determined purely by the agent who makes the choice. The interesting thing is that this libertarian view would appear to contradict Catholic dogma at a cursory reading.
Augustinian / Calvinist – The biased scale of Freedom
It is a Catholic dogma that the fall lead to something called concupiscence in every human being who has ever lived. Concupiscence is essentially a tendency towards sin. Despite the fact that we are free, our human natures have been wounded such that we tend towards sin in everything that we do. It is an important philosophical point to establish that this tendency towards sin is not an external influence upon us; it instead arises from within ourselves, and proceeds from our very nature as human beings, and therefore it is not something that could be said to nullify freedom. As the Calvinists say: we are free to behave according to our natures, and if our natures are wounded and tend towards sin, then we are free to behave according to that nature and accordingly, we will almost certainly sin.
The image is that of the scale of freedom, as before, however that scale is now biased. Given any choice between good and evil we do indeed have the power and freedom to choose the good, however because of our wounded nature, the scale is biased such that we will in most cases tend towards choosing evil. The scale has a weight underneath the cup that represents the choice for evil; so while it is indeed possible for us to defeat this bias and do good, this is incredibly difficult to achieve due to the opposition we face via the bias given to the evil choice.
So in a sense we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influence is able to determine the choices we make. However that libertarian freedom is not “neutral”: it is instead biased towards sin from within due to our wounded human natures. This bias towards sin is called concupiscence within the Catholic tradition.
Arminian Grace – Equalising the Scale of Freedom
The Arminian account of the plan of salvation (as I understand it) is thus: Human beings were originally created with complete libertarian freedom, which is to say we were able to choose to sin or not to sin and this choice was not determined by any force outside of ourselves. However our first parents chose to sin by eating the forbidden fruit. One of the effects of eating the fruit was that we lost our libertarian freedom: now instead of being able to choose between sin and love, we always choose sin. Arminians (and Calvinists) call this “total depravity“. Our scales of freedom are biased towards sin. However the good news of the Gospel is that God has sent us his Holy Spirit, and this Holy Spirit is able to act as a counterweight on the scale of freedom, equalising the scale such that we regain our libertarian freedom. Now we are once again in our pre-lapsarian condition: we are able to exercise our freedom and choose between good and evil, unimpeded by any bias towards one choice or another. So the essential good news of the Gospel is not that God has saved us, it is that he has restored our freedom and therefore restored the opportunity for salvation.
Step back for a moment and consider the situation: It could easily be described as schizophrenic. The image is that of the demon and the angel sitting on each of the human’s shoulders, whispering into his ears and trying to influence him. The Holy Spirit acts as an equal counterweight to concupiscence. Yes, we have neutral libertarian freedom again, but only as a result of two competing vectors of equal magnitude pulling in opposite directions and equalising to a null vector. The human subject finds himself pulled in every direction at once, and as a result ends up going nowhere, with the final destination being determined purely by his will.
The end result is that both salvation and damnation appear equally appealing: The human subject has no compulsion to choose either way. As such, his choice is apparently “free”, although I would prefer to say that the choice is random, and randomness does not constitute freedom.
Calvinist / Augustinian Grace – Biasing the Scale Towards Good
Compare this with the Augustinian/Calvinist understanding of the Gospel. In this account of events, the fall lead to a wounding of our human nature such that we tend towards sin. In other words, our scales of freedom are biased towards sin rather than good. However the good news of the gospel is that God has sent his Holy Spirit – not to equalise the scales of freedom, but instead to change the bias. So now instead of being biased towards evil, we are biased towards good! Technically we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influences are able to determine the choices we make, however the Holy Spirit has healed our nature, and not only healed it, but glorified it, such that rather than tending towards evil, we tend towards good.
The image is close to that of the Arminian account: There is an angel and a demon sitting on each shoulder of the human subject, whispering into his ear. However the angel is ultimately more persuasive, and tends to defeat the demon in debate. As such, the human person tends towards doing good rather than evil. Calvinists have historically referred to this as irresistible grace.
Universalism – A more nuanced view
A common charge against universalism is that it nullifies freedom. I contend that universalism implies no such thing. I draw on the Calvinist/Augustinian understanding to explain my case.
We are free to behave according to our natures. If our natures are sinful, we will tend towards sin, but if our natures are glorified we will tend towards love and good works. The good news of the Gospel is that God is in the process of healing our natures, and not just healing, but glorifying them. That is to say, God is attempting to make us impeccable – incapable of sin. This is not to say that God is trying to take away our freedom to sin, instead he is simply removing any impulse within us which would tend towards sin. In other words we will retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom.
The Universalist eschatalogical vision is that in the end times God will have successfully defeated sin whilst safeguarding freedom. This is to say, we will all retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom. As such, we will only ever do good. However in the present time a battle is still raging – the Arminian vision of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another is apt to represent the situation. We are in the midst of a battle between good and evil. Evil is powerful and will put up a fight, however we have a promise from God that God will have the victory.
The end result is that yes, in the present time we have neutral libertarian freedom: The spirit is battling with sin/concupiscence and it seems that they are equally matched. However the eschatalogical vision is that God will win the fight. Eventually we all will choose him, freely. Moreover, at that point, our natures will be completely healed and glorified – which is to say we will be impeccable; even though we are free to sin, we simply wont do it, and will instead always choose the good.
This vision is entirely glorious. God will not force us to choose him, but nevertheless we will choose him. Our freedom is safeguarded, our salvation is safeguarded. No one will be damned. Confronted with such a vision of the future, what can we do but explode in faith and hope, praising God and petitioning him to bring it all about? Let us love God and love his plans, praying for them and working towards them in love. God really is that wonderful; Salvation really is that beautiful. Thanks be to Christ for the total victory which he wrought at the cross. Amen
Indulgences—speak the word and Protestants will immediately shake their heads in disapproval. Here we have a doctrine that definitively undermines the good news of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Anglican Articles of Religion describe indulgences as “repugnant to the Word of God.” The Westminster Confession describes them as a “cunningly devised fable, invented by designing men to impose upon the credulous, and to fill their own treasures.” In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther states that “purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil.”
It is plain to be seen that indulgences have acquired a terrible reputation. However they need not be so quickly rejected. The problem with indulgences is that they are almost entirely misunderstood. And not just by their opponents! Even many Catholic proponents of the doctrine often get indulgences wrong and end up pronouncing theology which does indeed serve to nullify the good news of the Gospel. I propose that the best way to interpret indulgences, is to look at them through the lens of reformation theology, specifically the doctrine of Sola Fide, and so interpret indulgences as merely another expression or aspect of God’s unconditional, salvific promise.
A Shift in Paradigm
An Indulgences is defined in the Catholic Catechism as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions“. This definition betrays a very medieval understanding of theology, in that is talks about temporal “punishment”. The focus is very much on God’s justice here: sin leads to punishment but this punishment can be waived. It’s all very “legalistic” and the scene of a courtroom is apt to represent the situation.
In recent years, the doctrine of purgatory has shifted from a “satisfaction” model to a “sanctification” model in the popular mind. This shift is reflective of a more broad movement in Catholic theology away from the retributive paradigm of “Sin as a crime which deserves punishment” to a more remedial paradigm of “Sin as a sickness which requires healing”. In short, no longer are we thought to “pay for our sins” in purgatory; instead we are thought to be “purified of the spiritual dirtiness which has clung to our soul as a result of sin”. This is a welcome change, as it is more in accord with the image of God as a loving father who desires the best for his children, rather than the image of God as a wrathful and angry judge who demands justice in the form of brutal punishment for sin.
However this shift in the understanding of purgatory demands a corresponding shift in the understanding of indulgences. It simply does not make sense to say that “My soul is drenched in sin, however I have gained an indulgence, which means I don’t have to go through the hassle of purification and cleansing. My ‘temporal punishment’ has been remitted: God accepts me just as I am, warts and all”. This is nonsensical and contradicts the clear biblical principle that “nothing unclean will enter heaven”. The solution to this problem lies in the doctrine of the communion of the saints.
The doctrine of the communion of the saints states that we are all mystically joined to Christ and each other. This union is much closer than we realise in our day to day experience. The union is in actual fact so close, that the purifying effects of my penances flow between all the members of the church, such that they do not purify my soul alone, but instead serve to purify all of humanity. Likewise, the infinite penances of Christ, Mary, and the saints flow around the entire church. In this way, my soul can be cleansed by the penances of other people. I do not have to personally make temporal atonement for my sins; I do not have to clean myself; instead, Christ has the ability to clean me directly apart from any penances which I may attempt, by simply applying the infinite penances of the communion of saints to my soul. All that I need to do to allow this to happen is to willingly consent to the cleansing through faith.
With this in mind, Indulgences can be reinterpreted as “A soul being cleansed of it’s sinful dirtiness directly by Christ, through the superabundant penances of the communion of the saints, apart from any penance directly undertaken by that soul”
Indulgences as Promise
We have already seen in this series that God makes a variety of unconditional promises to humanity (or one single promise with many aspects). A summary:
God promises us that we are Righteous (Justified), right here and now, because Christ lives within us. And therefore we need not fret and feel spiritual angst about being a bad person.
God promises that all of our sins are forgiven, both past sins and future sins. Therefore we do not need to feel guilty about any of our moral failings
God promises that we are predestined to heaven. Therefore we do not need to fear being stuck in a state of alienation from God forever. We do not need to despair at the prospect of walking in darkness for eternity. We can have an invincible Hope that we will eventually achieve beatitude.
Now, it seems to me that indulgences are just another unconditional promise that God makes to us. This promise states “You are clean, because Christ has cleaned you; You are perfect, because Christ has purified you; No temporal punishment for sin remains”. In biblical language, we have been washed in Christ’s blood, which is to say that the superabundant sufferings of Christ function as a penance which are applied to all souls in order to cleanse them from all stain of sin. Mary and the saints are able to add their penances to Christ’s sufferings and in this way participate in his passion, however this is not strictly necessary because Christ’s blood is sufficient to clean the souls of the entire world, nevertheless it is a great honour to be united to Christ in such a way that we participate in his salvific work and mission.
It is important to note, that just like the other three promises, the promise of indulgence is Universal and Unconditional. That is to say, God implicitly speaks the promise to every individual who has ever lived, even if they do not explicitly hear the promise spoken to them during life. Again, like the other promises, it is helpful to have this Universal promise personalised and spoken directly to someone. This is where the idea of “Indulgences as promise” intersects with the traditional doctrine.
Indulgences and Sacraments
Sacramentally, the promise of a plenary indulgence is spoken during Baptism and Last Rites. When we are baptised, we are “washed completely clean”. This is an indulgence by another name. Just as with the other promises of God, this promise of indulgence is received “by faith alone”. The degree to which the promise takes effect in my subjective experience of life, is determined by the degree to which I respond to this promise in faith. God says “You are clean”, and I believe, and therefore I experience cleanliness. On the other hand God says “You are clean” and I doubt, and therefore I experience dirtiness.
This experiential situation carries on into the afterlife and takes the name “purgatory”. If you have a perfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then when you die you will not experience purification, because the promise of God is that there is nothing left to purify: he has already purified you. In this way you “escape the punishment of Hell”. If however you die with an imperfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then you will enter into the Hellish torments of Purgatory. The degree to which you doubt the promise is the degree to which you are tormented. As all the sins of your life are laid out before you during the particular judgement, you behold your past crimes and perceive them as staining your soul. You are tormented by your sins. All that needs to be done to escape this situation is to hear the promise of Indulgence and throw yourself upon it completely in faith. You must repent by turning away from these sins and trusting the promise of Christ that “you are already clean”. Once you realise that you are already clean, the torments will cease and be revealed to have been completely illusory the entire time.
Similarly to how it is useful as life goes on to have the promise of Justification which was spoken in Baptism reiterated in the Sacrament of Confession, so as to more easily place our faith in it; so too it is useful to have the promise of Indulgence reiterated many times throughout our life, so that we can more easily place our faith in it. This is where the traditional system of “Indulgences attached to works and prayers” comes into play.
To recap: a perpetual plenary indulgence is granted to everyone at all times and in all places. This indulgence takes the form of the scriptural promise that “we have been washed and sanctified by the blood of the lamb. We are completely clean, right now”. However it is useful to have this promise spoken to us personally, so as to allow us to receive it in faith. This is why there are many prayers and actions which are attached to the idea of indulgences.
The most important of these actions are the sacraments of Baptism and Last Rites. However there are many minor prayers, actions and pilgrimages which have indulgences attached. These need to be understood not as “doing a work so as to earn an indulgence”, instead they need to be understood as “demonstrating faith in the promise of Indulgence by concrete actions”. An example: someone who goes on a spiritual retreat for three full days is granted a Plenary indulgence. This does not mean that this person has “earned” the indulgence, instead it means that this person has demonstrated faith in the promise of Indulgence by his actions. At the end of the retreat, the promise of Indulgence is explicitly spoken. It was always implicitly spoken, however it is useful to have this promise explicitly reiterated, so that we may more easily anchor our faith in it. In this way indulgences are similar in purpose to the sacraments.
To summarise, the Promise of Indulgence is unconditional, universal, and perpetual. The works attached to indulgences do not “earn” indulgences, they are simply concrete ways in which faith in this promise is demonstrated. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “partial indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a “partial faith” in the promise. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “plenary indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a total faith in the promise.
The Final Assault of Satan
The main purpose of Last Rites, or Extreme Unction, is to sacramentally speak the promise of Plenary Indulgence to a soul right when they need to hear that promise most. The soul is about to go through the process of dying. As we pray in the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death“. It is a common theological opinion that Satan will make a final assault on a soul who is dying, in the last moments of their life, while they are at their weakest. He will try to drag the soul down into doubt and despair concerning the promises of God. The Devil will do his best to tempt the soul into a state of subjective damnation by attacking their faith. Meanwhile Mary, Christ and all the angels and saints are praying and interceding and doing intense battle with the Devil and his demons. Spiritual warfare is waged over the dying soul.
The sacrament of Last Rites prepares us for this final battle by reiterating the promise of Indulgence to us so that it is fresh in our memory. The last thing that we hear before slipping away into this terrifying process of dying is the promise of God that we are clean. This is essential. Because the Devil is going to swoop in in those last moments and taunt us by saying “You are dirty. You are Guilty. Look at all of your sins. You are going to be damned for sure”. In the face of these taunts, we need to be able to throw ourselves upon the promises of God which instead say “You are clean. You are perfect. You are righteous. Christ lives within you. You are predestined to Heaven”: it is much easier to do this if we have the promises fresh in our memory.
In this way the sacrament of last rites gives us strength to face the process of dying, by reiterating the unconditional promise of God right when we need to hear it most.
Penance is Supererogatory
Someone who depends on penance on order to be clean is simply doing it wrong. This is another manifestation of the “salvation by works” mindset. Objectively, their works of penance do indeed contribute to the cleansing of themselves as well as the other members of the church via the mystical union in the communion of the saints. However, if they do not have faith in the promise of Indulgence that they “are clean, right now, and have been completely washed by the blood of Christ”, then subjectively they are going to experience dirtiness, damnation and condemnation. In this way it is once again a case of “salvation by faith alone”. The way in which the promise becomes active in their subjective experience of life is through faith in that promise. People do not experience cleanliness by doing works of penance, people experience cleanliness by completely trusting in the promise of Indulgence.
An important consequence of these reflections on Indulgences, is that they make penance completely supererogatory (An action is supererogatory if it is good to do but unnecessary). When someone goes to the sacrament of confession and receives absolution, the priest will also specify some penance that needs to be performed. Strictly speaking, this penance is unnecessary and all that is really required in order for the soul to be clean is for that person to place their trust in Christ’s perpetual promise of Indulgence. However the church in her wisdom has decided that penance is spiritually beneficial. In this way, even though penance is a supererogatory act, the church mandates that we do some penance after confession of our sins.
Interestingly, all penance is supererogatory, because Christ’s passion was enough to secure a cleansing of the entire human race. Nevertheless it is a beneficial spiritual exercise to engage in acts of penance. The harm comes when people think that they must perform acts of penance in order to be saved. This will lead to spiritual angst and there are many testimonies of ex-priests and ex-monks who experienced exactly this spiritual angst and it drove them to abandon the faith. Instead we must understand all penance as being supererogatory: Our salvation and escape from the fires of Hell/Purgatory does not depend on the amount of penance we do. Instead it depends entirely on Christ and is subjectively apprehended by faith in Christ’s promise of Indulgence. Faith is the key to a subjective experience of salvation in every respect.
To summarise, an Indulgence is not something which you earn by works and prayers. Indulgence is instead the promise of God that “you are totally clean, right now”. This promise is apprehended by faith alone, and that faith is demonstrated by the works and prayers which have indulgences “attached” to them. In this way, you do not need to work your way out of Hell or Purgatory by many and varied acts of penance: Christ has already done that for you and all you need to do is trust him.
God makes a variety of wonderful promises. “You are clean, you are righteous, you are Justified, you are forgiven, you are predestined, you will persevere”. He speaks these promises to us personally in the sacraments. We apprehend these promises by faith alone and by faith these promises invade our life and enrich it, leading to an experience of heaven on earth; salvation here and now. These promises are unconditional, which is to say they depend on God rather than us for their fulfilment. And God, being omnipotent and omniscient, is able to actualise these promises despite any resistance we might throw at him. In this way we can have invincible faith, confident hope, overflowing joy and untameable love: we can experience salvation right now. All praise be to Christ the king, who was victorious over Hell, abolished death, defeated the Devil, conquered sin. We have an amazing future to look forward to, hope for and pray for. God promises it and God guarantees it. What else can we do but have faith and rejoice?
I was reading Eclectic Orthodoxy today and the latest post was a sermon by Met Kallistos Ware. He relates how he has been asked “Are you saved?” many times, and sets down his response to the question, which turns out to be quite long and involved.
“Are you saved?”: This extremely loaded question is commonly deployed by evangelicals when they are out and about evangelising, or if they encounter a Christian who attends a church or denomination different from their own. It is basically the most efficient litmus test for working out whether someone is a fellow believer or not.
However I think there is a better way of phrasing this question, which is able to elicit a fuller picture of what the person you are talking to believes. It basically boils down to 4 questions:
Are you saved?
Am I saved?
Are Hitler/Satan/Judas/members of ISIS saved?
For each of the above, Why or why not?
The Evangelical Answer
Now, the common evangelical answer to the above questions goes something like the following:
Yes! Amen! Praise God!
I’m not sure.
I am saved because I believe in Jesus. But I’m not sure if you believe in Jesus so I don’t know whether you are saved, and it doesn’t seem to me that Hitler and the rest of those people had faith so they’re all probably gonna roast in Hell for eternity.
Now, I find this response incredibly problematic, because it seems to be reducing salvation to works, law and legalism: “If you believe in Jesus, you will be saved. If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will be damned.” This attitude is a flagrant contradiction of the Gospel, which is that salvation comes entirely by grace, and not by law. It also just adds fuel to the fire of tribalism: The believers are “in” and the unbelievers are “out”. It just leads to a very “us and them” approach to Christianity, which is another thing strongly condemned in the pages of the New Testament (cf. Paul insisting that there are no relevant distinctions between Jews and Gentiles)
The Catholic Answer
How would a Catholic respond to the above questions?
I dunno (but probably not)
I dunno (but probably not)
I dunno (but probably not)
We simply can’t be sure about the salvation of anyone and are forced to remain agnostic and “hopeful”. This is because we have “freedom” and so it is therefore up to us to decide whether we are going to heaven or not, but we don’t know what decision we are going to make, and all signs point to the fact that we are dirty sinners destined for Hell.
The Catholic answer is tragic. I can’t tell whether it is better than the evangelical response or not. At least it doesn’t devolve into tribalism: God still loves everyone and wants to save everyone. But unfortunately all of us are “free” and tend to make the wrong choices again and again and again. So while we are called to “Hope” for salvation, we must necessarily end up being totally pessimistic about the whole enterprise. Pretty much everyone is gonna end up in Hell. There is a narrow gate that leads to life and a wide gate that leads to destruction. Most people pick the wide gate.
The Correct Answer
There is in actual fact a correct answer to the four questions. But before we get to that, we have to nuance the language being used: When someone asks “are you saved?” do they mean to ask “are you going to heaven in the future?” or do they mean to ask “are you in heaven right now?” because there’s a relevant difference of meaning there.
So, if “saved” is taken to mean “being in heaven right damn now”, then for a believer in the Gospel the correct answer to the questions would be:
It depends who’s asking
I am saved because I live and breath salvation in my day to day experience of life. I’m not sure if you’re saved because I can only know the content of my own experience, but I can make an informed guess by listening to how you talk and the way that you behave. And Hitler et al are probably not saved because they were clearly evil to the core and pitiful lost souls.
This answer is honest and true. There’s nothing to dispute here. But the question becomes much more interesting if we take the first definition of “Saved”, which is to say “Elect” and “Chosen” and “Predestined”.
If we take “saved” to mean “Your spot in heaven is secure”, then the answer to the four questions would be:
Yes, of course!
Yes, of course!
Yes, of course!
All people are saved, including you and me and Hitler (and even Satan!) because God is sovereign and God is loving: God intends the salvation of all people and his intentions cannot be thwarted by anything or anyone. God will save whom God wants to save, and he wants to save everyone.
This is the essence of the Gospel. God loves everyone and everything and has chosen all of us for his children, regardless of whether we are good or bad. This is cause for rejoicing and praising God. His Grace and Mercy are powerful and sovereign, and cannot fail to save the world that he has created and everything in it. God loves all and all will love God.
What is the Gospel? This is a tougher question than most people seem to realise. As Christians we are called to “Proclaim the Gospel”. It is our core mission to the world. And yet the definition of what exactly it is that we are supposed to be proclaiming is quite elusive.
It is helpful to look at the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”. It is an old-English word which means “Good news”. So what is the good news? Traditionally, the good news has been summarised as “Jesus is risen!”. So far all Christians are in agreement. However why exactly is that “Good news”? What difference does it make to my life? It is in answering this derivative question that most, if not all denominations and expressions of Christianity go astray.
The good news as it pertains to me and my life, takes the form of an unconditionalpromise. This promise has two aspects: present and future. In the present, the promise says “You are righteous and you are saved, right here and now, and there’s nothing you have to do to make it so.” In the future, the promise says “You will not suffer everlasting damnation and you are going to go to heaven, and ultimately there’s nothing you can do to prevent this from happening“.
Once this promise has been spoken, the listener will have one of two responses: Faith/Trust/Belief in the promise, or Apathy/Disbelief/Outrage. If they have the positive response of Faith, this faith will inevitably lead to joy, and this joy is itself a direct subjective experience of salvation in the here and now: This joy is an experience of heaven on earth.
It is important to note that the promise is unconditional. This means that even if the listener does not believe in it, they are still saved because God keeps his promises. An important aspect of the fact that this is an unconditional promise is that it depends entirely on God: We do not have to do anything to “earn” it, and there is nothing we can do to mess it up. God keeps his promises and he will have the victory, even if we resist him.
This then, is the “Good news” of the Gospel as it pertains to my life. It is an unconditional promise from God which says “You are saved right now and there’s nothing you have to do to earn it, and you will be saved in the future, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do which will prevent it from happening.”
The Gospel Promise of Love
Someone could have this wonderful promise spoken to them and be completely baffled as to the details. “Why am I saved right now?” they might ask. “Why will I certainly go to heaven?” At this point it helps to elaborate on aspects of the actual Christian narrative.
The reason that we are all saved right now, is because Jesus loved the world so much, that he paid for the sins of all humanity by willingly dying on the cross and descending to Hell and suffering all of it’s torments. Jesus took the full punishment for our sins, so that we don’t have to. He took a bullet for us. He didn’t just pay for the sins of a couple of people, he paid for the sins of the entire world. In Christ all sins have already been punished. Now no punishment remains. Furthermore all humanity has been “justified”, which is to say every single human being is united to the resurrected Christ, and has had the perfect righteousness of Christ poured into their souls, such that they transition from being sinners to being intrinsically holy and righteous. In this way, the whole world has been saved from condemnation and damnation, and furthermore the whole world is united to Christ and lives in him. Because Jesus defeated death by his resurrection, every individual without exception has also defeated death through Christ, and therefore every individual without exception is “saved”: Not only do we not need to fear Hell thanks to Christ’s atoning sacrifice of love, we can also joyfully experience becoming new creations thanks to Christ resurrection!
Note that this story is universal and entirely by Grace: you don’t have to do anything, whether it be “believing” or “loving” or “works” or “obedience”. You don’t have to do anything. The story applies to everyone: Muslims, Atheists, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Hitler, Walt Disney, Muhammad, Me, You, My family, Your family etc etc. The entire world has been objectively saved by Christ’s death, descent to Hell and resurrection. This is why an evangelist can simply tell the story to an unbeliever with no “ifs, ands or buts”. All that needs to be done is to say to someone “You are saved!” and then pray that the Holy Spirit will cause that person to respond to the promise with faith. But again, the promise does not depend on that person having faith: even if they disbelieve the promise, they are still objectively saved by Christ. The only difference is that they have no “experience” of this salvation and therefore they could be said to be still “walking in darkness”: Objectively they are saved, but Subjectively they are still experiencing the old state of affairs: damnation and alienation from God. This is why we must evangelise. We need people to become aware of the promise that God speaks to them so that it may become activated and alive in their experience of life.
Moving on to the future aspect of the promise. The reason that we will all eventually get to Heaven, is that the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit serves as a “Guarantee of our inheritance”, which is to say “a promise that we will arrive in Heaven”. Someone who has the Holy Spirit therefore is predestined to heaven. Of course, God gives us freedom to resist him. We are able to resist him such that we get stuck in a state of afterlife purification indefinitely. However the promise of the Holy Spirit is that this simply is not going to happen: If you have the Holy Spirit, you WILL walk the path of salvation all the way to the end. God guarantees it. This is the doctrine of predestination. Predestination does not mean that all of our actions have been predetermined by God, predestination simply means that God promises never to give up on us. He will never leave us or abandon us. He will stick by us in the form of the Holy Spirit until we arrive at the fullness of salvation.
Again, this story is universal. Whoever has the Holy Spirit has received this promise of predestination. Arguably we all have the Holy Spirit, and so we are all predestined! And again, this narrative is entirely by Grace: God guarantees us a positive outcome and even though we may resist him, ultimately we will not rebel against him forever. Again, when evangelising all that needs to be done is to speak this promise: “You will not be damned forever. You are going to get to Heaven”. This aspect of the promise generates a strong Hope and assurance. When times are tough, and someone is drowning in sin which they feel unable to defeat, they can throw themselves upon this promise from God and say “No matter how bad things get, they are going to get better; No matter how much I fall into sin, eventually God will deliver me”. This promise therefore serves as a guard against despair in the life of the Christian.
Note that at no point in the discussion have any conditions been stated. The promise is well and truly unconditional! We do not have to do anything in order to be saved right now and have our place in heaven secured: God has done it all and God will do it all. Salvation is completely and entirely by Grace… and yet in that act of Grace we remain completely and entirely free. This leads to a more sobering aspect of the Gospel promise.
The Gospel Promise of Justice
One aspect of the Gospel promise is that Justice will be done. Everything good we do will be rewarded, and everything bad we do will be punished. Hitler will be made to experience all the misery that he caused during his time on earth. Fathers who beat their children will have the situation reversed and they will experience the fear and terror that they have caused their children directly. Rapists will have their souls crushed proportionally to the harm they caused their victims. Murderers will experience the pain that they bestowed on others.
To some people, this aspect of the promise is comforting. Someone whose mother was raped and murdered by rampaging Muslim Jihadis will inevitably be crying out to heaven for justice. God promises that this justice will be done: those Jihadis will be made to pay. To most people, this aspect of the promise is incredibly sobering: Just because Jesus paid for all my sins, does not mean that I can just indulge in sin with no consequence. There will be punishment for every moral mistake that we make. This punishment will be terrifying, infinite, and experienced as everlasting. This punishment is Hell.
How does this “Justice” aspect of the promise mesh with the “Grace” aspect of the promise? For one thing, heavenly rewards do not decay. Every good thing we do will be rewarded in heaven and those rewards will last forever. On the other hand, our sins can be burned away and we can be left spotless as if we had never sinned at all. This is what happens in Hell. The horrible punishment of Hell will lead to wilful repentance, and this repentance will lead to the sins being purified and burned away. Eventually, once we have repented of all of our sins, the punishment will cease (even if it subjectively feels like it lasts forever).
This promise could be exploited for laziness and laxness, in which case the scary side of the promise needs to be emphasised: “If you do not repent, you will go to Hell, and you don’t want to go to Hell because it is the worst possible experience you can have and what’s more, it feels like it is everlasting!”
Note that this promise is not unconditional: It depends on our free response. If we do good, we are rewarded. If we do bad, we are punished.
Where people get the Gospel wrong
Pretty much everyone who gets the gospel wrong, does so because they either restrict the universality of the message in some way, or they change the promise from an unconditional one to a conditional one.
Arminians, Catholics and Orthodox
Catholics commonly screw up the message by saying that God “offers” us salvation. Modern Catholics will wax poetic about God’s grace, how God loves everyone and wants to save everyone and how we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation, but then at the last second they will turn around and say “But God gives us free will, and we need to use our free will to accept God’s offer of salvation, otherwise we will be damned”. What a terrible Gospel! No longer does God promise me salvation; instead he merely offers me salvation. In the final analysis whether or not I am saved depends entirely on me and my efforts to accept salvation. This leads to perpetual spiritual angst, despair, depression as I am constantly asking myself “Have I accepted God’s offer?”. And God help you if you commit mortal sins! “Oh God, I’ve screwed up. I just had sex with my girlfriend again. I’m going to Hell if I don’t get to confession ASAP”. All of a sudden you have a terrible fear of death because if you were to die in the state of sin this would send you off to Hell forever and ever.
Calvinists get the Gospel wrong by altering both the unconditionality and the universality of the message. Calvinists claim that faith is a condition for salvation: if you do not have faith, you are not saved and will go to Hell. This leads to spiritual angst of another kind, as people are constantly asking themselves “do I have true faith?” What’s more, Calvinists restrict God’s love only to a select few people. God does not desire the salvation of everyone, he only desires the salvation of a couple of people who he chose for no particular reason before creation. He desires that everyone else suffer everlasting, brutal, horrible torture in Hell. In this way Calvinists are worshipping a purely evil God. Calvinism cannot even rightly be called Christianity. Calvinism is Satanism and all Calvinists are Satanists. All Calvinists without exception will be brutally punished in Hell and the Saints in Heaven will rejoice and praise God for his glorious and righteous justice as they enjoy the spectacle. Lucky for these horrible Calvinists the one true God does not deal in “everlasting” punishments, and so even disgusting, depraved individuals such as Calvinists will eventually repent of their heresies and blasphemies and achieve salvation.
Evangelicals in general mess up the Gospel by adding conditions to it, which in turn serve to limit it’s universality. They say that you must “accept Christ” if you want to be saved. They say that you must “have faith”. You must “believe in God” or “trust in Jesus”. Decision theology is popular in this camp: you need to actively make a choice for God in order to be saved. If you do not do these things, then you are damned forever. Again, the same sort of spiritual angst comes into play as with the Calvinists. “How do I know that I have true faith?”, “How do I know I have chosen God?”
Of course certain Evangelicals are not troubled by such questions in the slightest. They have fully convinced themselves that they have enough faith and have chosen God adequately. They believe that they have fulfilled the conditions for salvation. These people are Pharisees. Every single one of them without exception is depending on their own efforts in order to be saved. As such they are puffed up with pride and superiority. They look at their unbelieving neighbours and think to themselves “Gee, I’m glad I’m not that guy. Thank God that I’m saved!”
If the Evangelical in question has a Christian family, he is less likely to care about the salvation and damnation of others. As far as he cares, everyone he knows and cares about is going to heaven. Too bad about those other poor souls who are going to be damned forever. “I’ll just be happy that God chose me and my friends and family. Too bad about those other suckers who didn’t believe in God before they died!”
However if the Evangelical in question is a convert from a non-Christian family, this Gospel is absolutely soul crushing: “Ok, God saved me, but what about my brothers and sisters? What about my mother and father? What about all my unbelieving friends”. The only answer that this gospel gives is that “their salvation depends on YOU”. All of a sudden, the weight of the salvation of this person’s entire family falls squarely onto that person. The person will feel like it’s up to him to save his family. If they are damned, it is his fault. If they die before showing any signs of faith, this person will feel utterly crushed and defeated. No longer is the Gospel good news to this person. Now the gospel becomes a terrible message of complete destruction and eternal torment for the people who that person loves most. A lot of people have a crisis of faith at this time. They are simply unable to continue singing songs of praise and worship to a God who would allow this to happen. Some people abandon the faith. Some people suffer intense mental anguish and go through intellectual contortions until they “accept that God is sovereign” and then they continue to bow down and worship him despite the overwhelming evidence that he is a total uncaring monster.
The Gospel Promise of Grace
The Gospel as it was outlined at the beginning of this post is the only true Gospel. It is a completely unconditional promise which is universal in scope. This promise can be spoken to anyone with conviction. An evangelist can walk up to anyone and say “You are saved and you will go to Heaven!”. If the hearer of this promise responds with interest, the evangelist can continue to tell the story of Jesus. As the story is told, the faith of the listener may grow, and blossom into an experience of salvation right here and now. That person will transition from walking in darkness to walking in light, as they place their trust in the promise and absorb the salvation which it promises. And the amazing thing about this promise is that it still applies; it still will come to pass, even if the listener rejects it or has doubts. For this is the nature of an unconditional promise: it does not depend on the response of the listener. God will bring it about. This is the essence of Grace.
Now, God implicitly speaks this promise to everyone without exception. Even those people who lived before Christ. No one is excluded from his salvific love and salvific will. However it is helpful to have God’s promises spoken to us personally as individuals. This is why we have the sacraments.
Baptism is the sacrament in which God says to the sinner “You are righteous and all your sins are forgiven, even those which you haven’t yet commit”. This provides an extremely tangible promise for a Christian to place their trust in. Whenever they sin, or feel despair at the state of their soul, they can think back to their baptism and remember the promise of God that was spoken to them personally at that time.
Confirmation is the sacrament in which we receive the Holy Spirit. As such, it is a sacrament in which God makes the promise of future salvation. In Confirmation, God says “I will never leave you. I will never abandon you. I am going to get you to Heaven”. In this way, whenever a Christian is finding themselves in a stage of life where they are bogged down in sin and utterly failing to repent, they can think back to their confirmation and have hope, thinking to themselves “God is going to get me through this. This is not going to last forever”. As such this sacrament is a great guard against despair.
Confession is a sacrament which repeats the promise that was spoken during baptism. As such it is not strictly necessary, although it is mandated by church law in the case of mortal sin. In confession, the promise of baptism is repeated: “You are forgiven, you are righteous”. This is helpful because as time goes by, our baptism becomes less vivid in our memories, and the promise that was spoken to us fades into the past. In this way it becomes helpful to sacramentally renew the promise so that it is fresh in our minds. This is also appropriate for the reason that as time goes by and the promise of baptism fades in our memory, the promise is less active in our mind, and so when we commit mortal sins we experience subjective guilt. This guilt is unwarranted seeing as we have already been objectively forgiven of all of our sins, past, present and future. In this way having confession available helps us to remove any unwarranted guilt, by speaking the promise of Baptism to us afresh and giving us a word to place our trust in which is closer to the present time. Someone who has a strong faith obviously does not need to go to confession, however it is always helpful to hear God’s promise spoken, and so it is wise to go to confession whenever someone commits a mortal sin.
Universalism is the only Gospel worthy of the name
The true and glorious Gospel, is that God loves everyone, he has saved everyone, and he will save everyone. No one will be excluded from his love and salvific will. The future will be wonderful, truly something to look forward to.
This is a promise that can be spoken to anyone with utter conviction. It is unconditional and doesn’t depend on us in any way. People who hear it and believe it will have a strong experience of salvation right now. This is what evangelism is about: Objectively we are all saved and we are all going to heaven. However subjectively not everyone realises this. God uses us to preach his promise of salvation and so bring people by faith from the darkness into the light. Part of the promise is that eventually everyone will move from darkness to light. We participate in the fulfilment of that promise by our preaching and evangelism, however it does not depend on us in any way. God will fulfil his promise to save someone regardless of whether they hear us preaching. It’s just that they might spend a longer time wandering in the darkness.
Of course, we do not know with infallible certainty that this promise will come to pass. This is why we must pray continuously for the salvation of ourselves and all other people. We must have faith and hope. But surely we will overflow with faith and hope when we consider who it is we are placing our faith and hope in: Jesus Christ; God made man, who loved us so much that we was willing to die and suffer Hell in our place, who was resurrected from death to life and ascended into Heaven; who sent the Holy Spirit as a promise that we would be saved. When you fully appreciate this, it’s not that hard to love him back, is it?
I think it is helpful when approaching the Catholic/Protestant debate concerning salvation and justification, to draw a distinction between objective salvation and justification, and subjective salvation and justification. This is another application of absurdity: the seeming conflict between God’s eternal perspective and our individual subjective perspectives. In this case God’s perspective is the objective salvation/justification, and our perspective is the subjective salvation/justification.
In Catholicism, there is a distinction drawn between initial justification and justification. “Initial justification” is the brute fact of whether or not we are justified, whereas “justification” is the degree to which we are justified. To translate into Protestant terminology, “initial justification” becomes simply “justification”, and “justification” becomes “sanctification”.
Romans 5:18 ESV
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
Now, initial justification is universal: all men without exception are objectively justified by the cross, descent to Hell, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The atonement was unlimited: it was an infinite, over-abundant payment for all the sins of humanity. Christ suffered Hell so that we don’t have to. All men have life and justification due to Christ’s act of righteousness. Objectively, everyone is already saved and justified. In Christ, all of our sins have been forgiven. All of this is entirely by Grace, as it depends entirely on God and in no way depends on us.
To what degree do individuals have objective justification? This is determined by the quantity and quality of loving works which Christ performs through them. Every good and loving work performed by a soul leads to the heavenly reward of an increase in objective justification. This is the “laying up of treasures in heaven” Jesus speaks about. These treasures “never decay”, which is to say that we can never lose them: Our degree of justification can only ever increase, it can never decrease.
Furthermore, all individuals have the Holy Spirit, and therefore all individuals are predestined to persevere to the end and not ultimately fall away from the salvation that Christ has won for them.
However from our perspective, things are different. Subjectively, we are walking in darkness: despite the fact that we are objectively justified, we do not by default have a strong experience of this salvation. We wander about in guilt and despair, looking for something to place our hope in and finding nothing. Despite the fact that we have objectively been saved, we are subjectively experiencing damnation.
This situation changes when someone shares the Gospel with us. The Gospel essentially is the proclamation of Christ’s death, descent to Hell, and resurrection, along with the objective justification that this implies for the hearer of the message. The Gospel is therefore an unconditional promise of both present and future salvation: The Gospel says “You are righteous, right now, because Christ lives within you” and also “You will eventually arrive in Heaven, where you will enjoy a perfect relationship with God, Creation and all other souls”. These promises are unconditional: no matter what, they are going to come to pass and there is nothing we can do about it. As such the only possible responses are either to have faith in the promise, or reject the promise through disbelief and outrage.
If you have faith in the promise, this faith inevitably leads to joy and love, and the joy and love are in and of themselves a direct subjective experience of the objective salvation/justification which Christ has won. In this way, Subjective justification can be said to come through faith alone, just as all the reformers insisted. It is important to note that we do not “earn” our justification by our faith (faith is not a work), and faith is not merely “evidence” of justification: instead faith in the unconditional promise directly leads to love and joy which is in itself a direct experience of justification. Also important to note is that it is impossible for works of any sort to lead to initial justification in a subjective sense, because you simply cannot do anything to earn an unconditional promise. An unconditional promise depends entirely on God, not on us. Whether or not we believe the promise, the promise still stands and will come to pass.
Sacraments of promise
In a general, generic sense, God’s promise of salvation is spoken to all humanity universally in the tradition of the church and the pages of scripture. However it is extremely useful to our personal experience of salvation to have this general promise made directly and specifically to each of us as individuals. In order for us to put our faith in it, it helps to have the promise spoken to us specifically and personally. This is where the sacraments come in.
In baptism, God sacramentally speaks the promise of present salvation to us individually. In baptism, God declares “Your sins have been washed away; All of your sins, past, present, and future, have been forgiven; You are united to Christ; You are righteous; You are justified.” This declaration – or promise – is a statement of objective fact. When the individual places their faith in this promise, all of a sudden they transition from walking in darkness to walking in light; they are experiencing salvation here and now in their subjective experience of life. They believe and trust that Christ has justified them, and this belief and trust immediately leads to a subjective experience of justification.
In confirmation, God sacramentally speaks the promise of future salvation to each individual. In confirmation God says “I have sealed you with my Holy Spirit; I will never leave you; I will never abandon you; I guarantee your inheritance in heaven; you will not suffer everlasting damnation; you will be perfect”. Confirmation is thus the sacrament of predestination and perseverance. Again, this promise is unconditional and therefore can only be subjectively received by faith. The effect of trusting this promise is to bring the promised future eschaton into the present experience of the believer. The person who trusts in the promise of confirmation is thus living in the end times even before the end times have arrived.
Mortal Sin and Confession
Romans 8:31-39 RSVCE
31 What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34 who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?[f]35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Objectively, there is nothing that can separate us from the justification that Christ has won for us. There is nothing we can do, no sin which we could commit, which would remove our initial justification or decrease our level of justification. Our salvation and justification is a brute fact. As St Paul says; “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.“
However subjectively it is possible for someone to fall from a state of walking in the light back into a state of walking in darkness. This is a subjective movement from the state of grace, back into the state of sin. A person ceases to experience the justification that Christ has won for them. This occurs through Mortal Sin.
Faith in the promises of God has two effects: it leads to joy and love, but it also leads to guilt and sorrow. Faith in the promise of God both delights and tortures, as a soul becomes aware of how it has sinned against love and this leads to extreme agony. In this way, sin leads to a damaging of subjective justification via the introduction of subjective guilt. When we commit mortal sins, this constitutes a rejection of God and thus generates guilt in us. Of course, if we have been baptised we have already received the promise of God that all of our sins have been forgiven and that we are therefore objectively “not guilty”. However in our day to day experience of life, this promise made at our baptism becomes foggy and less vivid in our memory as time goes by. As such, guilt creeps up on us when we commit mortal sins and causes us to despair. Again, this despair is unfounded, because we have assurance that we are justified. Nevertheless the despair and guilt creep up on us and reduce our subjective experience of justification and salvation. In the case of apostasy or unbelief, our subjective justification is almost entirely lost.
In confession, God sacramentally reiterates the promise that he made to us at baptism: “You are forgiven; you are justified”. In this way, the sacrament of confession serves as a way to anchor ourselves in the promise that was spoken to us a long time ago. It gives us a sacramental object of faith which is close to the present and fresh in our memory, rather than distant in the past where we can’t remember it. This is particularly important for people who were baptised when they were infants and therefore can’t recall their baptism at all! For people who struggle to recall their baptism, it is incredibly helpful to have the sacrament of confession at their disposal, so that they can hear the promise of God sacramentally reiterated to them again and again as much as is needed. The promise spoken during confession and absolution is the same promise that was spoken during baptism, and so again, it is an unconditional promise that can only be received and activated in the soul by faith alone.
Someone who has a strong faith in the promise of God does not strictly need to go to confession, although it is always helpful to do so and it is therefore mandated by current Church discipline. If they experience perfect contrition due to their strong faith their subjective justification will never take a hit because they will never experience the guilt and despair which destroys faith and damages justification.
Subjective and Objective Beatitude
Objectively, every single good work Christ performs through us leads to an increase in objective justification. There is nothing we can do which will decrease this justification. However due to our imperfect memories and imperfect understanding of the effects of our actions, we do not subjectively experience this ever-increasing justification. When we do a good, loving work, we temporarily experience the heavenly bliss which it won for us. But then time marches on and the experience fades into the dark recesses of our memory. We only ever experience the present moment, and the present moment contains only some memories of the past, not all of them at once, therefore we only subjectively experience a small portion of the justification and salvation that has been won for us. In this way, Justification is something that can ebb and flow in a subjective sense, while it is something invincible that can only grow and not shrink in an objective sense. As mentioned, guilt may creep in and damage our justification despite the fact that we have been declared “not guilty” by God at baptism. This is why we have confession; to bring the promise forward into the present so that we can place our faith in it again.
At the particular judgement, when all is laid bare before us and our perspective is no longer constrained by our limited memories, everything we have ever done will be laid out before us and we will experience all the justification that has been won by our loving actions simultaneously. This will be beatitude: we will experience vision of, and union with, God, in proportion to our amount of justification.
Sacraments necessary for salvation
The Catholic church has dogmatised the necessity of the sacraments for salvation. But the question needs to be asked, “are sacraments necessary for objective or subjective salvation?”
The sacraments are only necessary for salvation in a subjective sense. Baptism is necessary in order to have the promise of God personalised and spoken to you as an individual. However the church also recognises “baptism of desire” and “baptism of blood”. This hints that it is really the faith in the promise spoken through the sacrament that is more important, rather than the sacrament itself. Likewise with confession: Confession is said to be necessary, but it is possible to receive justification and forgiveness via perfect contrition apart from the sacrament.
Objectively the sacraments are superfluous. Christ’s promises will come to pass regardless of if they are spoken to us sacramentally. We are objectively justified and predestined to heaven. Someone can place their faith in Christ’s promises without those promises being spoken to them personally in the sacraments. However this is hard. God gives us the sacraments to help us and reassure us and make his promises tangible. In this way it is faith in the promises alone which leads to subjective justification.
Anonymous Christians and implicit faith
It is a maxim in Catholicism that works and faith are inseparable: faith always leads to works, and works are always a demonstration of faith. This idea leads to the concept of anonymous Christians. An anonymous Christian is someone who demonstrates implicit faith in God and his promises via their loving actions, despite the fact that they do not have explicit faith in the promises of God. These people are laying up treasures in heaven without realising it: they are objectively justified by Christ, and they are increasing their objective level of justification by their loving works, however subjectively they are still largely walking in darkness as they do not have an explicit knowledge of the promise of the Gospel. These people need to be evangelised and told the good news. In this way their objective justification will become subjectively activated and these people will transition from being anonymous Christians walking in darkness into explicit Christians who are walking in the light, overflowing with joy.
The Lutheran doctrine of sola fide, when correctly understood, does not contradict Catholic dogma but rather complements it nicely. Subjective justification is by faith alone: the strength of an individuals faith in Gods promises determines the quality of their experience of salvation. However objective justification is by Grace alone: Christ died in our place and forever paid for our sins, furthermore he works through us and these works are rewarded with an increase in our level of justification.