Salvation

Salvation means to be set free from sin, suffering, death in this world and, ultimately, to be relocated to a permanent paradise.  Most Christians – and indeed many other religions – would agree with this definition. Disagreements arises over who is saved, and why.

 

Many religions agree that the cause of suffering and death in this world is sin.  A simple definition of sin is: that which is unacceptable to God.

 

Crimes like theft, murder and sexual assault are unacceptable to all rational beings whether labelled sin or crime.  However, sin and salvation are meaningless concepts to anyone who does not believe in God.

 

If we understand God as the ultimate source of love and justice then we will understand sin as the opposite.  We desire a world that is peaceful, law-abiding, equitable, compassionate, and ruled with justice.  Salvation is freedom from sin and suffering.

 

We are all victims of sin, but we are also perpetrators of sin.  How are good people like you and me guilty of sin?  We are guilty as often as we cause suffering with outbursts of anger or by denying compassion to those in need; as often as we take what does not belong to us, or manipulate others through lies and half-truths; as often as we allow short-term benefits to override long-term consequences. Every time we cause suffering or fail to alleviate suffering we are perpetrating sin. We are all guilty. It is in our nature.

 

For some people, sin is a game. They understand the rules and know how to exploit freedom to their advantage. If faced with a choice between killing and being killed, survival wins.  If they must be dominant or be dominated, they will destroy the competition.  They enjoy the cut and thrust of ruthless conquest. Winning is victory.

 

For most people, sin is a problem.  We do not want to kill or be killed, to dominate or be dominated.  Victory is to live in peace, which can only result from collective freedom. Peace occurs when everyone agrees to grant the same rights to their neighbours that we desire for ourselves. Every society and every religion understands these principles. So, why does the world continue to be plagued by sin and suffering?

 

One reason is that collective freedom is impossible as long as one single person is prepared to kill and dominate his neighbours. It takes time to understand the difference between a temporary victory of conquest and a permanent victory of peace.  Hindus and Buddhists reincarnate repeatedly until they transcend worldly desires and attain Nirvana. Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not expect to attain paradise until after the eternal separation of righteous and unrighteous.

Another reason that this world continues to be plagued by suffering is the difficulty of overcoming our sinful nature. The enduring appeal of Christianity is its power to free believers from the bondage of sin via supernatural assistance. Despite the work of the Holy Spirit of God, no one in this short life has attained complete freedom from sin.

 

How can sinners co-exist in paradise with a God for whom the smallest amount of sin is unacceptable?  How could any place be described as paradise as long as its inhabitants still suffer and inflict suffering on one another? How could anyone be said to be ‘saved’ if they are still in bondage to sin?

 

The Early Christian Church required new converts (catechumens) to study for months or years before being accepted into the faith. New converts could not enter the church sanctuary until they had been baptized, and so baptisteries were located outside the church.  Leaders of the Early Church carefully monitored the teaching of new converts and the behaviour of church members. Only church members of impeccable character were permitted to hold positions of authority. Every believer was expected to know the gospel and conform to orthodox doctrine. The destructiveness of sin was as carefully controlled as contagious diseases. Wayward believers would be temporarily or permanently exclude from Church membership.

 

The Early Christian Church understood that salvation is not complete until all sin is eradicated. The first Christians believed that each soul must make a personal choice between good and evil. How can babies choose between good and evil?  How can people who only realize the consequences of sin on their death beds have time to transform a life of sinful habits into Christ-like perfection?  The solution to these questions is found in the last book of the Bible. The 1000 year resurrection of the dead provides time for all of humanity to understand the consequences of sin and make an eternal choice between good and evil. Only at the end of the resurrection does the great judgement take place (Revelation 20:11-15) and only after the separation of the righteous and unrighteous are a new heaven and earth instituted (Revelation 21 and 22).  Only then do sin, suffering and death permanently pass away.

 

In the 4th century Augustinian Christianity redefined sin as Original Sin inherited from Adam and Eve. Salvation no longer meant freedom from personal sin, but legal absolution from inherited sin. The remedy was quick and easy: a few drops of baptismal water and Original Sin was washed clean.  The new emphasis on Original Sin eliminated personal responsibility from salvation. Babies were not condemned because of personal sin, but because of Original Sin. They were not saved by personal choice, but by delegated baptism. Augustine recognized that personal sin remained a problem for the Church, although he had spent the final 20 years of his life arguing that it was a heresy to seek perfect sanctification.  Augustine knew it was impossible for anyone to enter paradise without attaining perfect holiness. Christians of his era died tainted with sin which must be purged somewhere between this mortal life and eternal life. Augustine solved the problem with Purgatory.

 

The Roman Catholic Church continues to base salvation on grace obtained through the sacrament of baptism, which is typically performed on infants. Baptism provides saving grace for Original Sin and is the beginning of a life-long process which addresses the more tangible problem of personal sin.  

 

Baptized infants are educated by the Catholic Church and receive the sacrament of Confirmation when they attain the age of reason.  A confirmed believer can increase his or her store of sanctifying grace via the seven sacraments and can obtain additional grace through merit.  

 

However, sinful behaviour remains a constant concern.  Priests monitor their parishioners. They can council wayward souls, admonish sinners, and, after confession, prescribe penance. In cases of grievous behaviour, an unrepentant sinner can be excommunicated. It is also possible for a reprobate to deplete all acquired grace and thereby lose salvation.   

 

Catholicism officially accepts Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin but has progressively diluted it. Shortly after Augustine died, the Catholic Church created a place for unbaptized babies half-way between heaven and hell. It was called Limbo. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI approved a church report that said there was reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven.

 

What of unbaptized pagans (non-Christians)? The consensus among Catholic theologians is, ‘That sufficient grace really is given to the man who never comes within reach of the influence of Christianity, there can be no doubt... Thus we are forced to conclude that God gives grace to all men, even to pagans... However we explain the process we must accept the fact that salvation is really possible for all. ’ (The Teaching of the Catholic Church, Canon Smith, 1952)

 

Augustine’s theology of Original Sin makes no allowance for the salvation of non-Christians or unbaptized babies. Pre-Augustinian belief in justice and divine goodness must be invoked for their salvation.  

 

The Protestant Reformation led by Luther and Calvin rejected innovations such as purgatory, limbo, merit and indulgences. However, Luther and Calvin retained and intensified Augustine’s condemnation via Original Sin. By making predestination the sole cause of salvation they eliminated human choice and freewill. God alone chose the elect few, for no reason other than his own pleasure, which was the same reason for excluding the multitudes damned to eternal torment.

 

Reformed theology is dominated by Original Sin. The elect are saved by God’s grace alone and sanctified by God’s grace alone. They cannot resist salvation and cannot reject salvation.  Because no human effort is necessary, neither time nor knowledge is needed for the human will to comprehend and cooperate with divine will. Salvation is instantaneous, although sanctification remains incomplete during this earthly life. The moment the elect die, they are cleansed of all sin and lifted directly to paradise. Whatever sin remains at death will be cleansed by the power of God alone.

 

Calvinism is a strictly regulated religion. Not all Church members are expected to study Calvin’s voluminous Institutes of the Christian Religion, but an extensive outline of doctrine is laid out in catechisms to train children and instruct new converts.  Church membership requires an adequate knowledge of Reformation doctrine. The Shorter Westminster catechism is composed of 107 questions and answers. The Free Church of Scotland still presents a Bible to a child who can answer all 107 questions accurately at one sitting.

 

Calvinism is built upon Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, but day-to-day ministry cannot ignore the reality of personal sin. God alone chooses the elect, but signs of election are revealed in behaviour. The truly elect are certain of their salvation, and their moral behaviour reflects a progressive infusion of grace. It is deemed unlikely that unreformed sinners and reprobates are truly elected to salvation. Salvation is not dependent upon good deeds or holy behaviour, but these are reliable indicators of who has been elected for salvation.  Calvinists credit all the work of sanctification to God alone, and yet are not ignorant that believers who make the most consistent personal efforts display the greatest progress. Even the God of predestination seems to help those who help themselves.

 

What of non-Christians? Reformed theology is officially built on Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin but does not make salvation dependant on baptism. The consensus among Calvinist theologians is that predestination is determined by God alone, without cause or merit, therefore any person anywhere in the world could be elected for salvation, just as the most saintly Christian might not be predestined for paradise.

 

What of babies? The Protestant Reformation removed the power of salvation from Priests and sacraments. John Calvin taught that deceased infants would be saved because God willed it. He strongly refuted that Arminian reasoning that infants are saved because they are innocent. The taint of Original Sin is as deadly for infants as adults and their salvation requires the same abundance of grace.  It is a mystery why all infants are granted a free pass into heaven while most adults are passed over for election.  Does God specifically kill off infants whose salvation was predestined? This is a hard question.  

 

Charles Haddon Spurgeon is perhaps the most-widely recognized name among Calvinists next to John Calvin. He served many years in the 19th-century as pastor in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, England. He preached on September 29, 1861, a message entitled "Infant Salvation" (#411 in Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit). In this message, Mr. Spurgeon defended the Calvinist belief that all persons dying in infancy are saved, and rebuked those Arminians and others who wrongly accuse us otherwise:

 

"It has been wickedly, lyingly, and slanderously said of Calvinists, that we believe that some little children perish. Those who make the accusation know that their charge is false. I cannot even dare to hope, though I would wish to do so, that they ignorantly misrepresent us. They wickedly repeat what has been denied a thousand times, what they know is not true.... I know of no exception, but we all hope and believe that all persons dying in infancy are elect. Dr. Gill, who has been looked upon in late times as being a very standard of Calvinism, not to say of ultra-Calvinism, himself never hints for a moment the supposition that any infant has perished, but affirms of it that it is a dark and mysterious subject, but that it is his belief, and he thinks he has Scripture to warrant it, that they who have fallen asleep in infancy have not perished, but have been numbered with the chosen of God, and so have entered into eternal rest."

 

Calvinists, unlike the Early Church and Catholics, do not believe in freewill and so it is irrelevant what these infants grown to adults might have chosen of their own freewill.

 

The Modern Charismatics movement was not created by a theological reformation but by an experiential revolution. The rapidly growing Charismatic/Pentecostal movement began in Los Angeles in 1906 when the Holy Spirit poured out on believers in supernatural manifestations of speaking in tongues, miraculous healings and inexplicable spiritual transformations. The manifest evidence of God’s presence did not require theoretical explanation. When Fundamentalists accused Pentecostals of demonic possession, spirit-filled believers replied, ‘A man with experience (of the Holy Spirit) is never at the mercy of a man with a doctrine.’

 

Charismatic/Pentecostal churches were formed by ex-Methodists, ex-Presbyterians, ex-Baptists, ex-Catholics etc. They brought with them various doctrines about who is saved and why. Charismatics do not possess the long traditions and vast documented theology of Catholics and Calvinists. There is no catechism to be learned, no period of months or years of study before membership is granted. Most Charismatic churches publish a Statement of Beliefs that is no longer than a credo. Therefore it is exceedingly difficult to define what Charismatic believe because doctrinal interpretations can vary wildly within a single congregation.

 

Charismatics tend to share the modern belief in freewill and personal responsibility for accepting salvation, rather than Calvinistic doctrines of double predestination. Charismatics also tend to believe that God loves the entire human race and provides all with an equal opportunity for salvation, rather than a Calvinistic theology of limited atonement and salvation for an elect few.

 

However, most Charismatics agree with Augustine that the gospel message is designed to save the lost from (original) sin rather than free the believer from the bondage of personal sin. The rallying cry of Charimatics is: Are you saved?  Charismatic theology does not specify whether the sinner needs to be saved from original sin or personal sin, although evidence points to an essentially Augustinian approach. Charismatics have outdone Augustine in the simplicity of their remedy for sin by replacing the drops of baptism with recitation of the sinner’s prayer. Once those words are uttered the sinner is ‘saved.’ Charismatic salvation is instant and unconditional.  Some Charismatics claim the predestined promise of ‘once saved, always saved’ although this does not fit into a framework of freewill.

 

New converts may or may not receive systematic teaching in orthodox beliefs. They may or may not join a church.  Some join independent churches which do not share established traditions and teachings.  Many converts flit from church to church without understanding theological variations. Some trust the Bible, and their own interpretation, alone. Others only know Christianity from broadcast on radio, TV and the Internet.  

 

What of unsaved sinners? Charismatic evangelists make no concessions for anyone who has never heard or understood the gospel message.  Charismatic evangelists offer no possibility of salvation for those not born again with Christ as their personal saviour. Augustine created the Gospel of Wrath as a weapon as mass conversion and its power is directly proportional to sealing off every alternate escape route.  Sinners have a black and white choice to make: salvation or damnation.

 

What of deceased infants? Charismatics are in total disagreement with Augustine on this point. They agree with Calvinists about universal salvation of infants although how this fits into a non-Calvinist framework of freewill cannot be explained.  

What of personal sin? The greatest incongruity of Charismatic practice is the lack of emphasis placed on personal sin. Of course it is a good thing for Christians to be holy, but once a sinner has been ‘saved,’ he or she is under no condemnation for personal sin.  The born-again Christian is forgiven all sins because ‘in Christ there is no condemnation.’ This creates a strong disincentive for Charismatics to devote time and energy to moral self-discipline. Virtually all Charismatics believe that the deceased are immediately carried up to heaven ‘to be with the Lord’ no matter what their state of sanctification.      

 

Charismatic Evangelists – particularly those with large radio and TV audiences – love to proclaim that every born-again Christian – no matter how imperfect and sinful their life – will be welcomed into heaven, while every non-Christian – no matter how moral or righteous – will be doomed to eternal torment. Charismatic evangelists proclaim, ‘It is not good people who get into heaven, but born-again sinners!’

 

The self-serving theology of these very public Charismatics is at best a half truth that ignores  Revelation 21:27: ‘Nothing impure will ever enter into it (the New Jerusalem) nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful.’ Early Christians were under no illusions or delusions that their best efforts at living holy lives had not fully eliminated impurity, shameful behaviour and deceit.  They knew salvation would not be complete without full sanctification.

 

 

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