Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

Who are the Christians? Part 4: salvation and doctrine, continued

Continued from part 3 « So far I have concentrated only on the object of faith, in the sense of in whom it is placed. However, faith itself has a nature which is some things, and is not other things. It is a belief of a certain kind. If the kind of belief is not […]

Continued from part 3 «

So far I have concentrated only on the object of faith, in the sense of in whom it is placed. However, faith itself has a nature which is some things, and is not other things. It is a belief of a certain kind. If the kind of belief is not that described in the Bible, then it is not saving faith; and the person holding it is not a Christian.

The Nature Of Salvation

As I have discussed in part 2 of this series, faith is a gift of God given to those whom he chose from eternity to be his people. It is a knowledge of God imparted by the Spirit to the mind of the believer (see chapter 4 of The Wisdom Of God), which renews and enlightens the mind (Rom 12:2; Eph 1:18), transforming us into a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). This creation is a creation of God: a spiritually alive saint made from a spiritually dead sinner (Eph 2:5). It is not a creation of man; man has no part in the process except to receive salvation, and neither could he, for who could take the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:14-16)? No, it must be given; it cannot be produced in the natural man by his own power (Rom 8:7-8). Justification is a one-time and permanent action of God; followed by sanctification, which is a continual process of action by us; leading to a final terminus of perfection and fellowship with God in the resurrection.

Free will in salvation

A belief in free will, then, implicitly contradicts at least some of this biblical truth. However, as with the issue of God’s sovereignty (of which this matter really is a subset), there is a difference between those who apply the doctrine of free will consistently to all of soteriology; and those who believe it a priori and then attempt to fit it into the biblical model. In other words, there are those who believe in free will and attempt to make it fit into the Bible; and there are those who believe in free will, and attempt to make the Bible fit into it.

Arminians seem to fit the former category. They believe a priori that faith must ultimately be up to man. Man, enabled by God’s grace, freely decides to believe, or to not believe. Thus, although they attempt to affirm the gospel truth that salvation is all of grace, their presupposition about free will entails that salvation is ultimately of man. God does not elect actively, and call irresistibly; rather, he elects reactively, and calls passively. So they make election mean its opposite, and affirm that salvation can be lost or regained. They do this not because they believe in a gospel of works, but because they are trying to fit free will into the gospel of grace. Of course, free will has utterly no place in the gospel of grace, and so whatever they do necessarily distorts it. Nonetheless, they do attempt to affirm that it is the gospel of grace, and so deny that works are necessary to salvation. Unfortunately, by making man the final arbiter of salvation, works-based salvation is the logical consequence of their position. Faith itself becomes a work which must be performed in order to achieve salvation—rather than something which is given for our salvation.

Arminianism is therefore a serious error. It changes the nature of salvation itself, despite attempting to still affirm the biblical teaching that it is all of God. What individual Arminians believe must, I suppose, differ between them, since their position is so confused that it is hard to see where they can affirm either the Scriptures, or their belief in free will. The one logically contradicts the other; so either they must not believe properly in free will, or they must not believe properly the gospel itself. The former position is just confused and unfortunate; but the latter is certainly very dangerous because it makes salvation something that we do, by making faith itself something that we do. But we are not justified by works, whatever they may be; and anyone who teaches or believes otherwise is accursed (Gal 1:6-9, 2:15-16).

Arminianism, though, is probably the least serious of the errors which result from a doctrine of free will. It blurs the distinction between justification and sanctification by making faith, at least theoretically, a human action which must be constantly maintained. But of course, practically speaking, though faith is given by God, it is still a belief which we have, and in which we must continue if we are indeed saved at all. And we can all agree that genuine faith produces works (James 2:17)—so in this sense Arminians have the right idea in emphasizing human effort: their practical emphasis on perseverence in faith is sound, though their understanding of that faith is broken. This is in contrast to some Calvinists, whose understanding of the God-given nature of faith is sound, but who think that, since salvation is all of God, they don’t need to do anything at all! It is easy to downplay the importance of sanctification when it is correctly separated from initial justification—but, as I have discussed before, to suppose that our actions are unimportant simply because salvation is of faith alone is extremely stupid. A theology which makes sanctification unnecessary in salvation is just as broken as a theology which makes sanctification necessary to salvation. Our works cannot contribute to our redemption, for that has been achieved once for all by Christ, and if you believe otherwise you are not a Christian—but you can be certain, also, that a Calvinist who manifests no works at all is by no means a Christian either, for “you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt 7:16).

Sanctification and justification

Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (John 15:16). This single passage corrects first the Arminians, and then the hyper-Calvinists. We must be chosen and appointed before we can bear fruit—and once we are chosen and appointed we are justified, so our fruit can by no means contribute to our redemption. For we have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that we may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God (Rom 7:4). That is, by faith we have died to the law, and this was necessary before we could bear good fruits, for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Rom 14:23). Since we are dead to the law, our fruits are not works counted to us as righteousness (for by works of the law shall no one be justified (Rom 3:20, Gal 2:16)), but are rather the exemplars of our faith, prepared for us beforehand by God himself, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:10). Like our salvation, even our sanctification is not ours, for our fruits (though we perform them) are given to us freely as a gift, for “now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). If salvation is a free gift of God, then it is most certainly not earned by our own efforts—as Ephesians says again, by grace we have been saved through faith; and this is not our own doing: it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8).

Had we no works, we would have no faith—and since salvation is by faith, we could not be saved. But to ask whether our works are necessary to our salvation is to get the question the wrong way around. Rather, is our salvation necessary to our works? Yes it is. Are our works then necessary to our salvation? Not causally necessary—they do not contribute to the redemptive work of Christ which we have purchased by faith. But incidentally necessary, yes. One does not occur without the other. Salvation is always by faith, and faith is always accompanied by works. But only the most confused or stupid mind could suppose that since faith causes salvation, and faith causes works, it therefore follows that works cause salvation! Such a person would have his notions of causality all messed about.

So sanctification is not what makes us right with God: it is what proceeds from already being right with God: that is, of being considered by him as having paid the penalty of sin, and taken on the sinless nature of Christ, by faith (Rom 5:1). This faith is given by God himself; holiness is what proceeds from it and demonstrates that it has taken place. Arminians risk their salvation by denying the former; hyper-Calvinists risk their salvation by denying the latter.

Justification and sacramentism

There is a third position, however, which we must consider as we ask the question: who are the Christians? In fact, we must especially consider this position due to the extraordinarily claims that its chief representative, the Roman Catholic Church, makes about that very question. For it purports to be the one and only true Christian church, containing the fullness of all Christian doctrine. While it no longer denies that Protestants may be saved, it does affirm that they don’t possess either a pure or complete Christian theology—so, by consequence, Protestants cannot be pure and complete Christians. How congruent is this with biblical teaching?

Since Catholicism says that sanctification is justification, and that without works of the law it is impossible to be saved, the short answer is that it is utterly incongruent with biblical teaching—

Are the sacraments necessary for salvation? According to the way God has willed that we be saved the sacraments are necessary for salvation (John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, question 1119 (ISBN-10 0385136641)).

Now, the Catholic doctrine of justification is really very complicated, and I have no desire to misrepresent it through over-simplification. However, this quote does sum it up in a manner approved by the Vatican (John Hardon was very influential in the codification of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church). Regardless of what we consider the sacraments to be, they obviously are not faith, but constitute works of one sort or another. The sacrament of reconciliation, for example, is supposed to return one to a state of grace following sin, and includes a penance which must be performed in order for that state of grace to be effected. Thus, the atonement of Christ is not the exclusive cause of our redemption, since we must supplement that work by our own works of atonement. In other words, the sacraments are a form of law which must be followed in order to effect salvation. Consider the words of the Council of Trent:

If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation but are superfluous, and that without them or without the desire of them men obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification, though all are not necessary for each one, let him be anathema (The Council of Trent, Session VII, ‘Canons On The Sacraments In General’, Canon 4).

It’s helpful that the Council of Trent chose the phrase “New Law”, since it explicitly acknowledges that the sacraments are indeed actions conducted in accordance to a law—a definition which is logically necessary, but might be contested by someone trying to defend Catholic doctrine. The reason it’s likely to be contested should be obvious: as I have already discussed, the word law has specific import in Scripture. The epistle to the Galatians was written explicitly to correct that church from straying into a doctrine of justification through the law, rather than justification through faith. Paul writes—

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. For if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 1:6-9, 2:16,21, 3:1-3).

Paul takes pains in these passages, and throughout Galatians, to prove that the Christian gospel is a gospel of justification by faith—any gospel which attempts to add works of the law to faith as necessary for salvation undoes the sufficiency of Christ’s work, and is indeed no gospel at all. In it there is no salvation. Unequivocally, those who propagate, and those who believe such gospels are accursed. The Greek word is anathema, which is left untranslated in Young’s, and is dynamically rendered eternally condemned in the NIV. We can safely say that this is the same meaning intended in the Council of Trent’s decrees: that anyone who disagrees is to be cast out from the body of Christ, excommunicated (Strong’s), doomed to destruction, and devoted to the direst of woes (Crosswalk).

This is the word of Scripture: that anyone who believes that faith is not sufficient to justify us is eternally condemned. Put another way, anyone who believes that law is necessary to salvation is accursed. He is an unbeliever. If you believe Galatians, you should consider the decree of Trent no less than satanic; conversely, to believe Trent is no less than to deny the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice and to consign yourself to hell. Thus, Trent makes all true Christians anathema from the Catholic Church; and Galatians makes all true Catholics anathema from the church of Christ.

The exclusivity of the gospel

If this seems extreme, if my use of the word satanic disturbs you, then ask yourself very carefully: who do you believe? It is only human to wish that salvation can be found within the Roman Catholic Church, and to regard Catholics as our brothers, misguided as they may be—as so aptly evidenced by the convention of Protestants and Catholics in 1994, Evangelicals and Catholics Together. But if the Bible is indeed the word of Christ (if it is not then, Catholic or Protestant, it makes no difference—all is lost), then the gospel of Christ which it contains is indeed a gospel of justification by faith, apart from works. The Roman Catholic gospel is a gospel of justification by faith in conjunction with works—without their sacraments the Church contends that no one can be saved. That is the clear teaching of Trent. Of course, how to interpret Trent is an ongoing debate of some consequence among Catholic theologians, and just goes to demonstrate the epistemological absurdity of the Catholic position—yet without fundamentally altering the meanings of the words used, there is no way to misconstrue what is written. It is a false gospel, and no gospel at all.

Since whoever is not with Christ is against him (Matt 12:30); since even Peter was called Satan for disagreeing with his Lord (Matt 16:23); then in what way is the Catholic gospel any less satanic than the gospel of Islam or Mormonism? In what way is it better than Buddhism or Wicca? And in what way can we expect that anyone who truly believes it can be saved? No, a Catholic is not a Christian; Catholicism, in fact, like these others, is another religion entirely.

Now that I have taken this stand, and have condemned many people who well-meaning but foolish Christians would like to call our brothers, you will say to me that I have been reading too many intolerant, fundamentalist writers—writers who wish to offer no place of salvation for those who disagree with their particular doctrines. You are right. I have been reading the writings of these sorts of people. The works of Luke and Paul in particular I had to pore over in preparation for this study, to answer my question: who are the Christians? The works of James and John also I had to read. And Jude, Matthew, and Mark. Let us not forget Moses either. Obviously Catholic doctrine was included in my reading; and Matt Slick just made my list by happenstance. Vincent Cheung, who you may have been wishing to blame, said only this to me:

Scripture defines certain doctrines on which salvation hinge. To reject these doctrines would exclude a person from the faith. Justification by (faith in) Christ alone is one example. According to Galatians, God will send a person to hell who teaches or believes something other than this doctrine. This means, for example, any “Catholic” who really believes like a Catholic will be sent to hell.

Although anyone knows that I trust Vincent and am generally in agreement with him, I didn’t want to take his word for it. Indeed, it was in seeking to discern whether or not he was right—and I had a certain personal bias toward his error, since my family is Catholic—that I came to write this series in the first place.

It seems incredible to the human mind that so many who profess the name of Christ could be, in reality, unbelievers; not saved at all, but damned to hell. But does not history repeat itself? Consider the Jews around the time of Christ, whose leaders, though they claimed divine authority, had mishandled and ultimately lost the gospel so completely that Jesus had the following sorts of things to say to them:

Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (Matt 15:3,6-9; 23:13-15).

And did Jesus not indeed prophesy that few would find salvation, though many would claim his name and its power?

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:13-15,21-23).

So even those who do mighty works in the name of Christ must be tested. We should not be surprised if we find that they are not of God at all. God, in his purposes, has caused weeds to grow up with his crop; to reveal unbelief and falsehood and sin in every way, and to condemn it—perhaps particularly in those who taint the gospel with human sovereignty, and thus have no gospel at all.

Continued in part 5 »


  1. Timothy

    >”This is the word of Scripture: that anyone who believes that faith is not sufficient to justify us is eternally condemned. He is an unbeliever.”

    Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. – James 2:24

    So was the Apostle James an unbeliever and eternaly condemned?

    How does the above fit into your theology/soterology?

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant


    I have already commented on James, which is perhaps my favorite epistle; but I’ll answer your question if you’ll answer mine:

    For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).

    For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom 3:28).

    Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2:16).

    Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Gal 3:11).

    How does the above fit into your theology/soteriology?


  3. jcateno

    That is not an answer brother Bnonn. ; ) As you know I don’t believe that James can be reconciled with Paul. Luther understood this – we should to…

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Actually, Jim, I didn’t know you were of that opinion. I know you find James difficult, but in what sense do you not believe that he and Paul cannot be reconciled? Do you think they contradict each other? Surely not? I don’t know if Luther thought that, but given his views on inerrancy I would assume he did not. If he did, he was a fool.

    I considered answering Timothy in detail; but the phrasing of his question suggested he was not looking for an earnest discussion, but rather was trying to show that I am mishandling Scripture. His lack of response to my reply seems to confirm that. I therefore chose to demonstrate that, if his implication that I am mishandling Scripture is true, then it is equally true that he is mishandling it also. Indeed, if his implication is true, then Scripture contradicts itself, and is not the word of God. Thus, his implication is self-refuting.

    The next installment of this series will answer his question quite adequately in any case, and perhaps some that you may have also; so I will post that as soon as possible, rather than replying in more detail here.


  5. jcateno

    Well let’s put it this way Bnonn, I haven’t yet seen James reconciled with the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I know you tried in our e-mail exchange, but…. ; ) I recently asked Vincent to tackle it – he said he may in the future. And yes, I do wonder, since James was a disputed book in the early church, if it should be in canon.

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