Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Protestant,…or any other church affiliation: Are you saved?

After spending a lot of time reading and studying Paul’s letters, It has become more and more apparent to me that many churches around the world are guilty of preaching a different gospel than the one originally proclaimed by the early church fathers.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I am in no way condemning any one church or individual because of religious affiliation.  I personally think that there are people in every Protestant and Catholic Church who will be saved, but I am equally convinced that there are people in every Protestant and Catholic Church who will not be saved.  It is not my place or desire to judge.  Each individual’s salvation is between them and God.  God knows each person’s heart even better than we know it ourselves.  My aim is to present the information I have gleaned from scripture in a loving way and, Lord willing, leave you in a better position from which to evaluate your own spiritual security.

Because of differing doctrinal statements and view points among churches and denominations, the possibility exists that some churches are not teaching a doctrine that will lead to a saving knowledge and understanding of God’s grace and salvation.  While this article and any subsequent dialog may be unnecessary, the last thing that I want is to get to heaven and find that I had not said enough, and that friends and loved ones are suffering for eternity.

A major theme in the book of Galatians is whether we are saved by faith alone, or by works of the Law.  Paul makes a strong case in Galatians, Ephesians, and Romans, that salvation and justification before God is by faith alone, apart from works of the Law.

 Gal 2:16 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.

 Eph 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

 Rom 3:27-28 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of Law? By a Law of works? No, but by the Law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

A common argument to the contrary is based on a passage in James.  In this passage, James demonstrates that Salvation requires works in order to be complete.

 James 2:24  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

This argument fails with the assumption that both Paul and James are addressing the same thing.  If indeed they are talking about the same thing, this contradictory teaching poses a problem for the scripture of a sovereign God.  This is something a sovereign, omniscient God would never allow.  The difference between the teachings of Paul and James is  the object before which we are justified.  Paul speaks of justification before God, which is by faith alone.  James demonstrates that once we are saved by faith, we are justified before men as saved only when our works demonstrate our faith.  As far as the world is concerned, our faith is useless if there is no visible, associated  action accompanying  our faith.   But that does not mean that an individual professing faith is not justified before God and thus not saved.  If an individual sincerely professes faith in the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that individual is at that moment justified before God and has eternal life.  Once God begins the sanctifying work in someone’s life, He will carry it through to completion.  Each individual’s development is at different levels, however, and the outward manifestation of the faith of someone progressing at a slower rate of change than others may not be as readily apparent in the eyes of the world as someone else who is further along, or more rapidly advancing in their spiritual development.

While a faith decision, and justification before God is instantaneous, the sincerity of one’s faith conversion will only be evidenced over time.  If there is no increase of any kind in the fruit generated through an individual’s faith, and no change in the life of a person over time, it may, but not necessarily, indicate that the individual in question was not truly sincere in their profession, and therefore never saved.  It may also mean that an individual was saved, but God’s work in their life has not yet been made manifest.  For anyone truly saved, they can never lose their salvation.  Paul explains it beautifully in Galatians 4, showing that a believing faith brings us into a relationship with God, in which we are adopted as His children, this being a permanent transaction not dependent on any action on our part.  Jesus own words in the gospel of John give us peace about the security of our salvation in Christ Jesus.

John 10:28  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30  I and the Father are one.”

This assumption also requires we are clear about each author’s definition of works.  When Paul talks of salvation not being by works, he is speaking about works for the purpose of salvation.  The works James is talking about are works of love toward fellow man, flowing from a heart devoted to God. Paul also instructs believers to make love for others a priority, and describes the fruit of the Spirit that will manifest itself in a true Spirit-led believer.

Gal 5:13-14  For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

 Gal 5:22-23  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Paul elaborates on how worthless our works really are in his letter to the Philippians.  He describes himself as formerly being among the foremost of legalistic followers of religious practice, but considers the honors of that way of life rubbish compared to knowing Christ.  He reiterates how the prophet Isaiah describes our human efforts to attain righteousness.

 Phil 3:1-8  Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

 Isa 64:6   We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.

While I realize that my understanding of Catholicism and many mainline Protestant denominations may be limited, the doctrinal beliefs of many churches today appear to be a combination of Biblical interpretation and historical tradition, rather than merely relying on the teachings in scripture.  The resulting problem is that at least some, and possibly a great deal, of the tradition based practice is only loosely based on, and in some cases contrary to Biblical truth.  Within Catholicism, for instance, salvation was defined at the Council of Trent as stemming from a combination of faith and works.  This definition, however, was based more on personal convenience, feelings, and man-made wisdom than on what the Bible actually teaches.  This is illustrated in the above referenced passages and others throughout scripture.  Martin Luther, after spending time reflecting on God’s Word, recognized that practices in the Catholic faith were inconsistent with scripture.  Recognition of Luther’s position by the Council would have been an affront to the position and authority of Catholic Church leaders.  The resulting decision called for a formal proclamation from the Catholic Church contradicting Luther’s position.  I am unaware of any actual scriptural support for the decision and proclamation that was made at that time.  In that moment, the church rejected the teaching of scripture for man-made wisdom.  There are many similar issues that are a part of Catholic and Protestant tradition and practice that were not accepted and taught by the early church, that have no scriptural support, and are counter Biblical.

If it is indeed true that the Council and subsequent Catholic leadership did not have Biblical support for practical decisions being made for the church, is the gospel being preached in the Catholic Church today the same Gospel preached by Paul and the other apostles?  And while the Council of Trent is specific to Catholicism, there are similar historical constructs that plague certain Protestant denominations as well.  The background for church doctrine is of vital importance to the authenticity of the Gospel message that is preached.  Paul addresses this adamantly in his letter to the Galatians.

 Gal 1:6-9   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.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians addresses an issue that was causing division in the Galatians’ churches.  False believers were teaching that circumcision was required for salvation.  Paul countered these assertions with his explanation that salvation is by faith alone, and not by works of the Law.  Furthermore, he asserts that undertaking any part of the Law in an effort to assure or assist in ones salvation not only nullifies the grace of God, but places the whole weight of the Law and its fulfillment on the individual.  This is what Jesus willingly took upon himself, living His life under the Law in order to fulfill the Law.  This is something only He could do, as only God could successfully live under the Law without sin.  Any sin on the part of Jesus would have condemned Him under the Law, just as we all are condemned apart from the salvation that is made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus on the cross.

Gal 2:19-21  For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose.

 Gal 3:10  For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”

 Gal 5:1-6   For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole Law.  You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you have fallen away from grace.  For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love

 Gal 6:14-16  But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.  And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God..

Paul asserts that to accept circumcision as a part of salvation obligates one to keep the whole Law.  Anyone who accepts circumcision, or any part of the Law, is under a curse because it is impossible for any one other than Jesus to keep the whole Law.  It is not even enough to say at a turning point in our lives, when we realize our need for perfection, that we will live “from this point on in perfection.”  By that point in our lives we have already been separated from God by countless acts of defiance and self will.  Anyone who has children knows, without a doubt, that by the time a child is old enough to truly recognize their depravity before a Holy God, it is already too late.  And, while I know this is absolutely absurd and impossible aside from God himself, if someone did somehow manage to make it through childhood without ever sinning, if they then have children of their own, they will never make it through adulthood free of sin.  Sin has left us under a curse that afflicts every human being ever born of the seed of Adam.  The effect of this curse is death, because any sin separates us from God, the source of life.

For the Galatians, the issue was circumcision, but the Law is much more comprehensive than merely circumcision.  At the end of his letter, Paul issues a blessing that this example should be used as a rule.  Salvation is by faith alone, apart from works.  Anyone, then, who adds works of any kind as means or assurance of salvation, or in any other way accepts any part in his or her salvation as coming from themselves, is severed from Christ and fallen away from grace.

While salvation is accessible to any individual in any church, and while I am not in any position to judge whether or not any individual is saved, I urge you to examine your own salvation to know whether you are building your faith on the solid foundation of Jesus, or in any way on your own self.  Is there any practicing instruction of works that your church has directed that you must follow for you to receive eternal life?  Or do you believe your salvation is in any way based on how much good you have done?  If your answer is no, that is great, and I am happy to know that we will together enjoy an eternity with God.  If your answer to that question is yes, however, you may not be in a saving relationship with Jesus.  Jesus saving work was complete with His death and resurrection.  Adding works is equivalent to rejecting Jesus work on the cross and trying to find your own way.

 Mt 5:17  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them

 John 14:6  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me..

In Jesus own words, He confirms that He did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it, so that in Him, and Him alone can we be saved.  This is great news.  Because it does not in any way depend on what we do, it is possible to know for sure that we are saved.

 Rom 3:23-24  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

 Rom 6:23  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

These two passages speak of salvation as a gift, and not only that, but a free gift.  We need to do nothing to accept it but faithfully believe.

 Rom 10:9-10  if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

If you think you may possibly not be saved because you have been trying to “help your salvation through religious practice or good works”, or have never at a specific moment prayed to God and accepted His gift, all you need to do is pray.  Humble yourself before God, confess your sinful nature to Him, admitting to Him that you are a sinner and cannot by any means do anything to assist in your own salvation.  Thank Jesus for taking your sin on Himself and accepting the penalty that you deserve.  Accept His free gift of salvation and eternal life by asking Him to come into your life as Lord and Savior.

If you have come to the conclusion that you had already been saved, or prayed to God and accepted His gift of salvation today, congratulations, and welcome to the family of God.  I am not saying you necessarily have to change churches, or do anything differently if what you are doing in worship and practice is merely an expression of your love for God and others.  If, on the other hand, you find yourself being pulled back into the slavery of the Law or man-made rules and traditions for salvation, or if you recognize teachings that do not have Biblical support, you would be wise to consider looking elsewhere.  Connect yourself with a church that is founded on and teaches the Bible as the only authority in our lives.  Do not allow the comfort of familiarity with current conditions to keep you in a church that is ultimately detrimental to your spiritual growth and development.  What is at stake is your eternal destiny.

Gal 4:9-11  But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?  You observe days and months and seasons and years!  I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

 Gal 5:1  For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

It is vitally important for the church you attend to be firmly grounded in God’s Word, especially in core doctrines.  It is important that you are in a place where you can glorify God and grow in your relationship with Him.  Finally, don’t take my word on this.  Pray and ask God to guide you and direct your understanding as you read His Word for yourself.  Do not take for granted that everything you hear from the pulpit is true, but get into God’s Word yourself and test what you hear against what God has stated directly in His Word.  The more time you spend in God’s Word, the more you will grow and develop a personal relationship with Jesus.  The deeper and more intimate your relationship becomes, the more sure you will be of your salvation.

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