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Monday, May 8, 2017

Dealing with Arbiters of Salvation

This lesson today is a complex one, and entails a lot of background and facets.  It is based on a few personal experiences I have had over the years in particular with regard to some Evangelical Protestants I both know as well as at least one being a member of my own family.  In the course of a lot of social media exposure and participation in discussion groups, it can be challenging for a traditional Anglo-Catholic such as myself when faced with Evangelicals in particular who deem themselves as spiritual authorities in their own right and often "troll" pages in an effort to "evangelize" or do other stupid things.  Most are minor annoyances and easily go away, but on occasion you get certain people you may engage in discussion, and they often can become disagreeable and hateful.  Being it would be "unchristian" to hate, such individuals often resort to phraseology such as this when they are backed into corners - "I am going to pray for your salvation - GRRRR!"   It is their way, essentially, of saying "I hate you!" while putting a religious spin on it.   Apparently, for some Evangelicals, dislike for someone gives them a false authority to revoke or pronounce "salvation" on their opponents, and often their friends can all of a sudden become "saved" (as is true of certain celebrity deaths - I was amused at how many Evangelicals had in their minds already set up a mansion in heaven for Michael Jackson when he died a few years back!) while they, in a blanket statement with the facade of "praying," also revoke the salvation of their enemies.   Thing is, despite them doing this, I never have read in the Bible where this authority was an endowment Christ gave to converts, and if you challenge these people with that fact, they get flustered, and in their recourse to retaliate, they will even "revoke" your salvation twice!  Again, they cannot hate you (that would be "unChristlike") and they can't shoot you, so they play this card to justify the suppressed displeasure and even hatred they feel for you.  There is definitely some psychological benefit to them in doing so, in that they can "hate without hating" and therefore they now can comfort themselves in the knowledge that they don't have to spend eternity with someone as reprehensible as you - hmmm!!   The person who engages in this behavior is what I call an "arbiter of salvation," because they make salvation arbitrary based on their like or hatred of you (let's be real - they hate their opponents, and that is what they are doing!) which is something that Jesus never taught, nor the Church He founded either.  The purpose of this lesson is to first establish what "salvation" and the related concept of "grace" are, and then to both expose the arbiters as well as providing an identification of true discernment.   That being said, we'll start there.

A.  Salvation and Grace - What Are They?

Salvation is a key term in Christian theology, but also one of the most misunderstood ones.  In Protestant Evangelical theology, salvation is often equated with conversion, and therefore for the Evangelical, salvation constitutes a one-time event - this is why when they talk about their testimonies, many of them use the term "getting saved" in the past tense.   Another term often used synonymously with this is the term "born again," which is actually taken from Scripture - the most notable example of this is in John 3:1-21, where Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who had sincere questions.  in verse 3, when Nicodemus had asked about how a person can come into the Kingdom, Jesus responds by saying that one has to be born again to see the Kingdom, which of course perplexed Nicodemus.  It is quite humorous actually how Nicodemus was thinking in this regard, in that he was thinking that one had to crawl back into their mother's belly and come back out again!  Jesus explained to him in the next verse that this is a birth through the Holy Spirit, and not necessarily a physical thing.   Later, when He is crucified and dies, when the centurion pierces Him in the side with a lance and blood and water come out, it is a typology of the sacramental dimension of being "born again" - the Blood was a typology of the Eucharist, and the water of the fount of Holy Baptism.  Therefore, in a historic Church understanding, being "born again" is connected with the sacrament of Baptism, and not necessarily conversion.  Both aid in salvation in other words, but they don't fully constitute it nor are they synonymous with salvation.   The Church throughout the centuries saw salvation as a pilgrimage that transcends an event - it was something you lived out, and to do so, you needed help.  And, that is where grace enters the picture.

Grace is often interpreted by our Evangelical friends as "unmerited favor," and to an extent there is a validity to that.  Grace is not an earned commodity, but rather is an endowment of the Creator freely given, but also requiring acceptance on the part of the recipient.  Grace is understood in a variety of dimensions, primarily the Thomistic concept of supernatural grace - grace that elevates, heals, and perfects nature.   Although grace was there prior to the Fall in Genesis 3, it becomes a necessary thing after the Fall due to the fact that sin and death have now corrupted Nature, which God created as in itself being good.  Nature is still good, and all God creates is good, but the Fall and concupiscence necessitates restorative qualities, and supernatural grace does that.  When applied to the human condition and our pilgrimage of salvation, supernatural grace is also called sanctifying grace, and this can also be linked to actual grace, which is the grace freely given by God after conversion - the reception of that is symbolized in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, where a chrism (oil) symbolizing the Holy Spirit is applied to the new convert to "seal" them with the Holy Spirit, and the grace that follows is something that is generated by the Holy Spirit's life within the believer.  Grace is unfortunately another of those terms that Evangelicals don't understand either, because they equate grace with a blind assent of sinful behavior even among the faithful, yet by their own definition they often contradict themselves, as when they invoke this understanding they lack the "grace" they accuse others of not having.  In reality, grace is what makes salvation possible, and it should be doing its restorative work on us if we walk in that grace daily, and it is staying in that grace and walking in it, letting it do its transformative work, that salvation happens.  While part of that work of grace may be attitude adjustment, it in no way implies consent regarding adverse behaviors that conflict with Church and Scriptural teaching - compromises in doctrine, for instance, are not something that grace can be responsible for, and the greater grace is learning to love the person while also having the boldness to rebuke their error - few have that genuine gift, honestly.  Doctrine, grace, salvation, the sacramental life...all are integral and comprise the spiritual life; you cannot compromise one without weakening the others.

One further aspect of grace that relates to this is that it is what in theological terms is called prevenient.  Grace is venue which allows the person to accept or reject the path of salvation based on the element of free will - God is not in the coercion business, and neither should we be when we engage others, another fault often of Evangelical "evangelization methods" and even of some over-zealous Catholic converts at times. God gives us grace to respond and engage us to accept or reject the gift of Jesus Christ, Who (as His name suggests) is our salvation.  If we respond affirmatively to God's prevenient grace, we then are endowed with that same grace to help us in our walk, and it takes on its supernatural attribute of perfecting, healing, and elevating us (a restorative aspect of salvation) which continues throughout our natural lives as long as we continue to accept, receive, and respond to it.  Unlike the Evangelical Calvinist, the Church has always held that grace can be resisted, and the most obvious example of this resistance is the sinful act.  Not every sin is condemnatory, but it does do damage to the person committing it, and if grace is not allowed to prompt repentance and contrition for those sins as they build up, then it can imperile one's salvation.  Therefore, the path of salvation is freely given, but it also requires a lot of those who choose to follow it.  Without supernatural grace, following the path of salvation is an impossibility, and thus it confirms what Scripture says when works alone cannot save us, but also that works are a fruit of salvation and a prompting of grace.  Grace, therefore, is an attribute of the Holy Spirit who dwells within all of us, as His presence ensures that grace is exercised in our spiritual pilgrimage of life.

B.  The Arbiters

Now that we have established some foundational idea of what salvation and grace both mean, let us return to the self-styled "arbiters."  Based on what we understand above, there are a couple of things that have been established:

1.  Salvation is only in the person of Jesus Christ

2.  Salvation is not a one-time event, but a lifelong journey

3.  In order to live out salvation, the element of grace is necessary, based on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.

That being said, let us address these "arbiters" who take it upon themselves to know who is "saved" and who is not.  When someone resorts to doing that, there are several things to note about that person.  First, they are in direct disobedience of both Scripture and what the Church has historically taught, as it is Jesus alone who has the power to give and revoke salvation, not them.  Secondly, this "revocation of salvation" in such an arbitrary way by someone often reveals more about them than it does the people they are trying to "revoke" - they are masking hatred against another person, they are also trying to compensate for their own limitations by lashing out in this way, and they are also setting themselves up in place of the Holy Spirit, which is an impossibility.  Third, by their arbitration, these types of people often are indirectly assuming omniscience - they have no idea usually of the spiritual state of the person they attack, and by saying stuff like that they risk being truly judgmental.   If a person self-appoints as an "arbiter," it means they themselves are not listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit nor are they allowing supernatural grace to do its work in them - if they were, they would immediately be convicted of this behavior and would repent.  Yet. sadly, they often don't do so because many of them are blinded by their own apparent self-righteousness.  For the person who is the target of one of these self-appointed "arbiters," there are steps you can take.  First, they need prayer, and your best show of love for such a person is to pray that God sends conviction to them for this sin of masquerading as the Holy Spirit, and that they will respond and repent of it.  Second, the question to ask them - and it is a little blunt and cynical, but effective - is this - "Who died and appointed you the Holy Spirit?"  They may sputter and babble about it, and maybe even try to use Holy Scripture as a weapon against you for calling them on it, but in the end they cannot in all sincerity defend such behavior.  Therefore, the only recourse they will have is to either become more stubborn in their sin, in which case they risk loss of their own salvation, or they will respond the right way and repent and thus let the restorative work of supernatural grace heal them.  God gives them that choice, and after you present the challenge it is their responsibility, as well as their willingness to accept the consequences of whatever choice they make, to act.  Some of them, who may be just grumpy from having a bad day or may be experiencing a personal crisis, will be shocked into seeing the error of their ways and will not only repent to God, but will also apologize to you.  The grace you have should also allow you to forgive them, and then you can move one.   However, there are others, so deluded by an inflated self-perception, that will persist in their sin and God will in time deal with them directly.  However, like you have just told them, it is not your job either to be the Holy Spirit to them, so resist the temptation to do so - give them the truth, and let God do the rest, in other words.

C.  The Other Side of the Coin - True Discernment

Although there are arbiters who wrongly revoke and bestow salvation based on their personal dislikes, there is also another side of the coin.  At times, you may find yourself confronting someone about their salvation too, and when this happens there may be good reason.  Some years ago, I had a graduate-level class with a fellow student who was Korean-American.  He was genial, highly intelligent, and generally likeable.  However, at this same institution at that time there were many theological errors even being taught in classes by professors, and students who didn't know better were gobbling it up like our ducks outside the house here gobble bread when we throw it out to them of a day.  In one class session, this particular student made a comment to the effect that Jesus was essentially imperfect, had no foreknowledge, and if that were developed further, it could have called into question the Passion, Resurrection, as well as even His divinity.  A couple of years after the fact, I was interviewed regarding some of the liberal tendencies at this particular institution, and when the interview was published, this student tried to engage me in what he called "dialogue."  In the course of his discussion, which was actually low-key and pleasant, I began to feel an uneasiness in my spirit about some of the things this guy was saying, and it prompted me to ask him about his testimony - with that question, he went ballistic, launched into a tyrade about my "lack of scholarship," called me some pretty uncharitable names, etc.  It was apparent that something was amiss in his spiritual life, and upon exposing it, the effect was similar to striking a hornets' nest with a broom handle.  He and I have not spoken since, and my guess is that he now openly despises me for challenging him.  However, unlike the "arbiters," there are a couple of differences I will note.

First, note that in my inquiry I never brought any doubt about this guy's Christianity - I believed (wrongly or rightly - only the Holy Spirit knows) that the guy was a Christian, albeit a weak one due to the fact he was open to compromising some essential doctrines of the faith.  Rather, I wanted him to tell me why he was a Christian in the first place, as a testimony speaks a lot of the person who possesses it.  If he was on the level, his testimony would have spoken for itself, and thus any question I had about that would be answered.  At that point then, had he been more open about his testimony to me, I would have proceeded onto the next phase.

Second, disagreements can occur among Christians, and if a fellow Christian is in error and you know it, that needs to be addressed.  Preferably, it should be addressed by the spiritual authority of that person's church, but with Evangelical Protestants, the ecclesial authority is often downplayed or not viewed as important as it is among us Catholic Christians (in recent times, more so, with the rise of fads such as the "emerging church" and other questionable things among American Evangelicals).  Therefore, among fellow Christians, a disagreement of error must be confronted, addressed, and hopefully corrected before it gets out of hand.  False doctrine is a real danger, and thus it is nothing to take lightly.

Going back to the first point here, I mentioned a second phase in the encounter.  If the person whose testimony you asked to give responds and complies with your request, hear the person out.  It is then at this point you can confront them with the error in theology or doctrine they are believing by asking them, "What brought you to believe this then?"  Based on their reasoning, you can then begin to engage them in an apologetic defense of the faith by pointing out where their position may err, what the Church has historically taught about it, and then encourage them to seek sound spiritual counsel from someone more qualified.  If the discussion is continuous like this, you may not conclude it in one day or hour - it may be a course of considerable time and conversation, and maybe a heated debate or argument or two, before a resolution can happen.  However, this only works with Christian folks who identify and confess to believe in Christ as their salvation, and it will be an illogical argument to engage with an atheist or a person of another religious background - there are other methods for dealing with those folks.

D.  Conclusion

Arbitration and true discernment can have a fine line between them which can blur at times, which is why it is important to have solid communication.  Arbitration relies on defense mechanisms and not true dialogue, and in the course of its action it can do more harm than good, more so to the person guilty of it.  On the other hand, true discernment identifies a problem, seeks to get to the bottom of why the problem exists, and then sets a course for correction.   One, in short, is driven by the whims and fancies of the person engaging it, while the other truly relies upon supernatural grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to constructively evangelize and disciple.  I write this especially to anyone who is engaged in discussions on social media such as Facebook, because these little theological "dogfights" happen, and I have been part of more of them than I care to be part of personally.  It is a good way to introduce spiritual principle to social media etiquette as well.  God bless until next time.