In a recent comment, a reader named Robert B. asked for my response to an article by a Calvinist teacher named John Calahan. That article, which I’ll link for you in a moment, is a critique of my article, “Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does.”
Why am I responding to Mr. Calahan’s critique?
Because one of my readers asked me to.
Why am I responding at length?
Because the terribly false, unbiblical, and unloving beliefs that “Christian” leaders such as Mr. Calahan and his Calvinist comrades teach are destroying Christianity and driving millions of thoughtful, good-hearted people away from Jesus Christ and the Bible.
John Calvin (1509–1564) took Martin Luther’s newly invented doctrine of justification by faith alone and made it even worse by adding doctrines such as total depravity and predestination to create a highly toxic mix. The most insidious and blasphemous element of Calvin’s doctrine is the assertion that God had already chosen before Creation who would go to heaven and who would go to hell.
Calvinists say that God created most people specifically for eternal torture in hell, regardless of how good and loving they may be. Mahatma Gandhi, they say, is now roasting in the eternal flames of hell because God had already decided that Gandhi was going to hell long before he was born.
When thoughtful, good-hearted people today hear these unjust, bigoted, and hateful beliefs being preached in the name of Christianity, they run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.
It’s bad enough for the Lutheran branch of Protestantism to say that only people who believe in Jesus are saved, and most of the world’s population is going to hell. But the Calvinists say you don’t even have a choice. God sends most people to hell just because that’s what God wants to do. And we humans have no right to question God’s outrageous actions.
This is nothing like what Jesus teaches in the Bible. It blasphemes the name of God. It misrepresents and slanders Jesus Christ and every other teacher in the Bible.
That’s why young people today are fleeing Christianity in droves. They are either becoming “spiritual but not religious” or are moving all the way over to agnosticism and atheism.
And that’s why I am responding at length to Mr. Calahan’s article.
A Calvinist critique, and my response
Here is a link to the article that Robert B. asked me to respond to:
The author, Pastor-teacher John Calahan, served for ten years as an elder at Grace Community Church in California. That church is not affiliated with any denomination, but it teaches a Calvinist theology. Calahan’s own statement of faith is also Calvinist in its views.
I have nothing personal against Mr. Calahan. I don’t believe he is going to hell or sending people to hell. I’ve never even met the man. Based on the personal statements on his website, he seems to be a decent, thoughtful, and dedicated person. Unfortunately, the Calvinist doctrines that he teaches are driving millions of people away from Christianity.
It’s easy enough for Mr. Calahan to lob a grenade in my direction. His article is not long.
But the fragments of that grenade fly everywhere. They mislead people, ripping through their minds and hearts and causing emotional and spiritual damage everywhere they go. Every week, and sometimes every day, I hear from people who are confused, struggling, fearful, and even suicidal because of the things their “Christian” churches and pastors have told them.
That’s why I have chosen to respond to Mr. Calahan’s critique carefully, point by point, Bible passage by Bible passage.
I don’t expect Mr. Calahan and his fellow Calvinists to change their minds. I’m not writing this article for people whose minds are already made up. I’m writing it for people who want to believe that God is good and loving, and that their own life is worthwhile and meaningful, but who have gotten the message from “Christian” preachers that they are nothing but miserable, worthless pieces of . . . manure (that’s the “total depravity” part), and that there’s nothing they can do about it because God has already decided they’re going to hell (that’s the “predestination” part).
My response is long—much longer than Mr. Calahan’s piece deserves. But his critique, with its Bible quotes and references, provides an opportunity to correct many mistaken notions about what the Bible says. It provides an opportunity to offer to you, my readers, a better and deeper understanding of the good, loving, and practical message of the Bible.
You may not want to read this article all at once. I invite you to use it as a Bible study to arm and equip yourself against the fallacies and false interpretations of a false “Christianity” that has been confusing people’s minds, hearts, and lives for hundreds of years.
Shall we begin?
Start and end by attacking the writer
Mr. Calahan starts his critique with charged language and personal insults against me. He writes:
The article, Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does was written by Lee Woofenden. Unfortunately the author is a false teacher and demonstrates his inability to handle scripture accurately. He is a pastor of a church in a cult.
He ends the article in the same vein:
Therefore, the author’s teaching is tragic and is a hopeless promise of eternal life in heaven. He is sending people to an eternal condemnation. Man cannot earn his salvation by good works.
Meh. I’m used to it. Biblical literalists tend to be intolerant of those who don’t agree with their beliefs. And they just love throwing around the “cult” charge, without bothering to learn much about the people whose character and churches they are smearing.
Just for the record, it has been over a decade since I served as pastor of a church. However, I did serve for ten years as pastor of a Swedenborgian church in a mid-sized New England town.
Even before I began my pastorate there, the congregation was an active and respected member of the local Council of Churches. (My denomination also belongs to the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.) I served as President of the local Council of Churches for several years. During my time on the Council I worked hard to bring together all of the churches and pastors in town—Catholic, Protestant, Christian Science, and Unitarian, not to mention local Jewish and Muslim faith leaders—to strengthen our spiritual outreach into the community.
Perhaps it was because my church was seen as a unifying presence among the local churches and religious leaders that when the attacks of September 11, 2001 happened, the members of the local clergy group spontaneously turned to me and asked if my church would host an interfaith memorial service. Religious leaders of all different churches and faiths participated, and our church was filled to overflowing.
In short, my ministry and my church speak for themselves.
Does God create the majority of people for inevitable eternal torment?
I will get to Mr. Calahan’s critique of my article soon. But first, let’s look at a key tenet of his own beliefs: predestination. In the “Salvation” section of his “What We Believe” page, Mr. Calahan states:
This salvation is the result of God choosing men and women to believe in Jesus before the foundation of the world. Consequently, those whom He chose in Christ He graciously regenerates, saves, and sanctifies.
This is followed by a whole string of Bible references, which Mr. Calahan has misread and misinterpreted according to his Calvinist belief that only that small minority of people whom God has chosen before Creation will be saved and will experience eternal life. All the rest, whom God didn’t choose for salvation, will burn in eternal fire. That’s not because they have rejected God, but because God has rejected them.
This doctrine is a blasphemous smear on the sacred name of God.
Does God give us free will?
The Bible makes it very clear that God gives us a choice not only about our life here on earth, but about our eternal life. Yes, it is God who saves us, not we ourselves. But it is up to us whether we will accept salvation from God and go on to eternal life.
In the Old Testament God says to the people of Israel:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:15–20, italics added)
And in the New Testament the risen and glorified Lord Jesus Christ says in his message to the Laodiceans:
I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Revelation 3:19–22, italics added)
There are many other passages in the Bible where God presents us with a choice between good and evil, between life and death. If we had no choice, and God had already chosen for us whether we would go to heaven or to hell, all of these passages would be a meaningless and deceptive waste of words.
Does God want some people to go to hell?
Mr. Calahan refers to a few passages in the Bible that use the word “predestined” in English translation, and jumps to the conclusion that God chooses some people for heaven and other people for hell. What the Bible really says is that God wants salvation for all of us because God loves every single person whom God has created. As the Psalmist says:
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made. (Psalm 145:9)
The Bible teaches us in many places that God does not want anyone to die, but wants to save all people. Here are some of those places (italics added):
Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? . . . Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:23, 30–32)
As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)
Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. (Matthew 18:10–14)
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3–4)
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Unfortunately, some people persistently reject God’s love and salvation, and thereby consign themselves to eternal hell. (On that, see: “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?”) And God, who respects us and our choices, does not force heaven upon those who reject it. Yet even when we reject God and heaven, God continues to love us. Jesus said:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43–45)
God has prepared a place in heaven for all who are willing to listen to God’s call to repentance and new life, and who make the choice to follow God’s way of love instead of their own greedy and selfish ways. Calvinists are simply wrong because they “do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29; Mark 12:24). They quote a few Bible verses out of context while rejecting the clear and overwhelming message of the rest of the Bible, which shows that their heartless and cruel doctrine of predestination is both false and incompatible with the eternal love and mercy of God.
Why does the Bible make it sound like God does evil?
Why, then, does the Bible say some of the harsh things it does?
The reason the Bible says things that make it sound like God does both good and evil is that people of simple mind and faith must believe that God is ruler over everything. The only way such people can understand this is to believe that God brings about both good and evil, both blessings and curses.
For people in a low spiritual state, with a limited understanding of spiritual reality, evil looks very powerful. If such people didn’t believe that God curses, destroys, and damns people as well as blessing and saving them, they would think of God as a weak and pathetic God. They would not respect God, and they would feel free to thumb their nose at God and break God’s commandments. So for the sake of their salvation, God allows them to think of God as an angry, vengeful, damning God, when the reality is just the opposite. As the Psalmist said:
With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
With the blameless you show yourself blameless;
With the pure you show yourself pure;
And with the crooked you show yourself twisted.
For you deliver a humble people,
But the arrogant eyes you bring down. (Psalm 18:25–27)
It’s not that God is twisted. It’s that crooked people see God as twisted. For people who are still stuck in their selfish and sinful ways, it is necessary for God to appear harsh so that they will “straighten up and fly right,” as the old song goes. The harsh face that God sometimes shows to us is also part of God’s love and mercy toward us. But it’s not how God really is.
The perturbing paradox of predestination
Even people indoctrinated with Calvin’s doctrine of predestination have trouble really believing it. Not only the Bible, but all of their experience says that they do in fact have a choice about which way their life will go.
Mr. Calahan himself, in his article “Predestination and Human Responsibility,” admits that it is a mystery and a paradox, which he and his fellow predestinarian believers can’t really understand, but must believe anyway. He insists that God chooses heaven and hell for us, but ends the article by saying:
Are you running from God or have you already found Him? Do you want God to forgive your sins and takeover your life? If yes, then tell Him and He will.
These words have no meaning if we don’t have free will.
I am sympathetic to the plight of Mr. Calahan and his fellow Calvinists. I feel for them in their confusion at the paradoxes and contradictions they see in the Bible. I find it very sad that they feel they must believe harsh things because they think that is what the Bible teaches. It is hard to preach unloving, unmerciful things from which the human heart recoils.
As Mr. Calahan says in the section on “the Bible” on his “What We Believe” page, he takes the Bible very literally. And it is hard for literalists to encounter passages in the Bible that contradict one another. Because they are stuck in the letter that kills, they struggle to sort out these “mysteries” and “paradoxes” without the benefit of an understanding of the spirit that gives life (see 2 Corinthians 3:5–6). As a result, they believe and preach many unenlightened and false doctrines.
However, despite my sympathy for Mr. Calahan in his doctrinal confusion and conceptual struggles, which are brought on by his biblical literalism and his Calvinist indoctrination, I continue to call my readers away from that confusion toward the clear light of a deeper and more spiritual understanding of the Bible. To get started on that clearer understanding, please see my article, “Can We Really Believe the Bible?”
Now let’s turn to Mr. Calahan’s critique, and take a walk through the Bible passages that he so badly misunderstands.
Matthew 7:13–14: The narrow gate
In support of his argument that few people are saved, and that most people go to hell, Mr. Calahan quotes this passage from the Bible:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13–14, NASB)
He then comments on it:
This passage of scripture teaches that God is not a failure. God already knew the “success rate.” If 6.4% is the correct “success rate,” then God already knew that. It is man that has failed to believe. This reveals that Jesus knew that only a small minority would respond to the gospel. Additionally, God sovereignly choose[s] a minority for salvation (Matthew 22:14). Why? It is the mystery of election. The author’s statistical conclusion is in error. Worse, yet, he ignored Matthew 7:13–14. That passage clearly says that there are “few who find it.” Man is ultimately responsible. Only a few really do find it. That is not a reflection on God.
In other words, the vast majority of people will go to hell. And that doesn’t seem to bother Calvinists at all. Mr. Calahan’s statement that “God sovereignly choose[s] a minority for salvation” is another way of saying that the reason only a few people are saved is that God planned it that way. As for the rest, God had already planned to send them to hell.
According Calvinist beliefs, God’s pre-existing choice is the reason so few people find salvation. Mr. Calahan’s statement that “man is ultimately responsible” is just empty rhetoric, contradicted by his own predestinarian beliefs.
Once again, I cannot believe in or respect such a cruel and heartless god, who would choose only a few for salvation, and send the vast majority of people to eternal torture. That is not the God of the Bible.
Matthew 22:1–14: Do very few people get into God’s wedding banquet?
Do you see Mr. Calahan’s reference to Matthew 22:14? This is a fine example of the common pattern of biblical literalists yanking an individual verse that seems to support their position out of its context, and ignoring the entire story in which it occurs. Here is the whole story:
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:1–14)
Immediately after Jesus told this parable, both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who were part of the educated, elite Jewish leadership, set out to attack Jesus, attempting to trap him in his words. Why? Because they knew that this parable was aimed at them. (You can read the ensuing verbal battle, in which Jesus silenced his attackers, in Matthew 22:15–46.)
In the parable:
- The people who were invited to the wedding but refused to come represent the Jewish elite, who prided themselves on scrupulously keeping the Law of Moses and being the most righteous and holy people, chosen and blessed by God. They would not listen to Jesus’ message of salvation.
- The people from the streets, both good and bad, represent the common, uneducated people who listened to Jesus, became his followers, and lived according to his teachings.
- The man who was not wearing wedding clothes came for the food and the spectacle, but had no respect for the wedding. In other words, he represents hypocrites who pretend to follow Jesus in order to get glory and pleasure for themselves.
Why did Jesus wrap up the entire parable by saying, “For many are invited, but few are chosen”?
Did this mean, as Calvinists and many other traditional Christians seem to think, that hardly anyone will “attend” the “wedding feast” of heaven?
That’s simply not what the story says.
When the invited guests failed to appear, the king sent his servants out into the streets to gather everyone they could find, so that the wedding hall was filled with guests. Only one of them, who failed to wear a wedding garment, was ejected from the wedding. The wedding feast was filled to capacity.
What, then, did Jesus mean by his words in Matthew 22:14? Perhaps we can get a hint from a more literal translation of the verse:
“for many are called, and few chosen. (Young’s Literal Translation)
The original Greek has the word “are” in the first clause, but not in the second. Yes, the second clause can be read as “few are chosen.” That is how almost all English versions translate it. Leaving out the second “are” in this type of verbal construction is very common.
But reading it as if Jesus is saying that very few people make it to heaven doesn’t make any sense. He would be contradicting his own story. He has just said that the wedding hall was full.
How, then, do we make sense of this final line?
I believe Jesus was engaging in one of his famous plays on words.
You see, the Jews thought of themselves as God’s chosen people (see, for example, Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; Psalm 33:12; Isaiah 41:8; 65:9). Since Jesus was clearly aiming this parable at the Jewish elite, who thought of themselves as “the chosen ones,” I believe Jesus was saying, in his compact verbal style, “Many people are called to the wedding, but very few ‘chosen ones’ will be among the guests.” Or, to suggest an actual translation of Jesus’ cryptic words in the original Greek:
“For many are called, but few chosen ones.”
If we read it in this way, it makes perfect sense. God calls many people to the “wedding feast” of heaven. But of the people who respond to that call and fill the wedding hall to capacity, very few are the people who think of themselves as God’s special “chosen ones.” They are much too busy with their own importance to listen to God’s call.
That is the message of the parable. And this, I believe, is how Jesus wrapped it all up in a pithy, memorable play on words.
Whether or not this was Jesus’ meaning, the common interpretation of exclusivist Christians such as Mr. Calahan just doesn’t make any sense in the context of the whole parable. The parable simply doesn’t present a picture of hardly anyone making it into heaven. Instead, it presents a picture of heaven being filled to capacity with a large and joyous crowd—just not the elite who were originally invited.
In short, if we put Matthew 22:14 back into its context, it tells a completely different story than the one that the Calvinists are attempting to foist upon us.
The gate and path were narrow
Now back to the small gate and the narrow path.
Jesus didn’t say that the gate will always be small and the path will always be narrow. He said that they are (at the time when he spoke these words) small and narrow.
Isn’t that exactly why God came to us? Isn’t that exactly why “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14)?
At that time in human history the gate was small, and the way was narrow that led to life, and there were few who found it. And Jesus told us why that was so:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)
By the time Jesus came, the religious leaders had become so corrupt and had wandered so far from the truth of their own scriptures that they were actively blocking people from finding and entering the gate that leads to salvation.
Have you ever walked down an old road that has not been used in decades? Even if it was originally beautifully paved, wide, and clear, over the years of disuse the weeds take over, cracking and crumbling the pavement. Thistles, thorns, and nettles grow in from both sides, closing in on one another until there is hardly room to get by. Even the entrance to the road becomes choked off and blocked by brambles and vines so that it is hard to find the road in the first place.
That was the sad state of the road to salvation when Jesus spoke the words of Matthew 7:13–14.
The path to salvation is now cleared and open
But listen to the beautiful prophecy of Isaiah 40:3–5, as quoted in Luke 3:4–6:
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.”
Because the corrupt religious leaders of the day were blocking people from finding and traveling on the path to salvation, Jesus Christ came to clear and reopen that path so that anyone who wanted to could find it. And God has been keeping that gate open and the way cleared for us ever since.
That is why John, in his vision of the New Jerusalem, saw not only the select few 144,000, chosen from the twelve tribes of Israel (Revelation 7:1–8), but also saw
a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9–10)
Because Jesus has now opened the way and cleared the path, it is not only a select few “chosen people” who are saved, but a vast, uncountable multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language. This is the plain teaching of the Bible.
Those Christians who think that even after Jesus’ coming there are still very few people who are saved do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. They have a narrow and limited view of the vast power of the Lord God Jesus Christ to save billions of people from every nation on earth. For more on this, see: “Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?”
Even though Jesus has now cleared away human obstructions and re-established free access to the gate and the path that lead to salvation, his words in Matthew 7:13–14 continue to have meaning for us today. When we first begin on the path to salvation, it feels narrow and confined to us. We long for our old self-indulgent and reckless ways. We have to walk a narrow path of right living until the day comes when it widens out into a broad and delightful path, and we wouldn’t think of living any other way.
But that’s a subject for a future article. Meanwhile, please see: “Is it Easy or Hard to Get to Heaven?”
Speaking of how many people go to heaven, Mr. Calahan questions the statistics in my article:
His conclusion about the 6.4% is faulty. First, how does he know that only 20% of Christians believe that salvation is by faith alone? Did he conduct a poll such as a Gallup Poll to determine how many in the entire world believe that? Did he assume that everyone in the dominations believe that? Did he consider the thousands and thousands of independent churches scattered across the United States and the world? If so, he never tells us.
I never said that only 20% of Christians believe that salvation is by faith alone. I said that “approximately 20% of Christians belong to churches that teach that faith alone saves.” I don’t know how many of the people in those denominations actually believe in salvation by faith alone. But the fact that they belong to churches that teach it when they could belong to a church that doesn’t suggests that they believe what their churches teach.
My statistics came from publicly available polling data conducted by well-known, respected organizations such as Pew Research Center. Here are a few links if you want to verify the figures for yourself:
- List of religious populations – Wikipedia
- Christians remain world’s largest religious group, but they are declining in Europe – Pew Research Center
- List of Christian denominations by number of members – Wikipedia
- Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population – Pew Research Center
In arriving at the figure of 20% of Christians belonging to churches that teach salvation by faith alone, I included all of the Protestant denominations and churches except for the Methodist and the Anglican / Episcopal churches. Unlike the rest of Protestantism, these churches have their own distinct denominational and doctrinal origins. Justification by faith alone is not a core element of their doctrines as it is for the bulk of Protestant denominations and churches that trace their origins back to Martin Luther (“Evangelical Christianity,” in the older, traditional meaning of that term) or to John Calvin (“Reformed Christianity,” in the traditional meaning of that term).
Regardless of the exact figures, the point is that if it’s necessary to believe in justification by faith alone in order to be saved, only a small percentage of the world’s population will go to heaven, and the vast majority will go to hell. And even if all Christians are saved, that still means that two-thirds of the world’s population will go to eternal hell simply because they belong to a different religion.
Once again, I find that to be a small, narrow-minded view that is not compatible with the plain teachings of the Bible about who is and isn’t saved. And I find it incompatible with the all-loving, all-powerful God of the Bible, who is good to all, and whose compassion is over all that he has made.
Bible manuscripts and translations
Under his next heading, “Biblical Argument,” Mr. Calahan quibbles about my use of both the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, as if quoting from different translations of the Bible somehow calls my scholarship into question.
The NRSV and the NIV are the two translations I quote from most often here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life. They are generally readable and reliable translations. However, no translation is perfect. Like other translations, their interpretation of the original is often bent toward the particular doctrinal stances of the translators. Therefore when dealing in detail with specific Bible passages, I commonly consult the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible and choose the translation that seems to best reflect the original wording.
As for the varying manuscripts of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, I generally accept the Textus Receptus, while not ignoring other textual traditions when it might make a difference in the interpretation. Most of the time, however, the variations in the manuscripts are rather minor and do not greatly affect the meaning of the text.
Besides, the overall meaning and flow of the Bible is clear enough. When an entire theological argument hinges on small variations in the manuscript, it’s usually a case of focusing on one leaf of a single tree while being oblivious to the entire surrounding forest.
Does Ephesians 2:8–10 reject good works as saving?
I have written an entire article on the verses in Ephesians 2 that Protestants commonly quote in support of their faith-alone doctrine:
Rather than repeating everything I covered in that article, I will respond specifically to Mr. Calahan’s statements in his “Biblical Argument” section based on that epistle. He says:
The author states that the word “works” in this passage is “shorthand for ‘the works of the law.’” His conclusion is deceptive. First, a review of Ephesians 1:1–2:7 before these two verses reveals that Paul was not talking about the Law.
Since Mr. Calahan does not elaborate on this, I do not know what point he is trying to make. Of course the writer of Ephesians covers various subjects in the epistle. Not all of them are the Law. But once he gets to Ephesians 2:8–10, he is indeed talking about the Law. This is covered much more fully in my article linked just above.
If Mr. Calahan would simply read a few verses farther in Ephesians 2, he would find these words:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:11–13)
This is how we know that when the author of Ephesians uses the word “works” in verse 9, he means “the works of the Law.” In verses 11–13 he contrasts the uncircumcised Gentiles with the circumcised Jews. Circumcision, for Jews, is a ritual marking them as Jews. And a Jew is one who follows the Law of Moses. In other words, in the Epistles “circumcision” is shorthand for being an observant Jew who follows the Law of Moses. It’s just that simple.
If you read the various places in Paul’s epistles that talk about being saved by faith apart from works, you will regularly find right nearby a discussion of circumcision vs. uncircumcision. That’s how we know by the context when Paul is using “works” to mean “the works of the Law,” or in plain terms, being an observant, circumcised Jew.
The author of Ephesians (who may or may not have been Paul) was well aware of the difference between “works” as “the works of the Law” and “works” as “good works.” That’s why, having rejected “works” (i.e., the works of the Law) as saving in verse 9, he goes on in the very next verse to say:
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10, italics added)
We must pay attention to the context and to the entire flow of his argument to stay on top of his meaning. This is something Protestants have spectacularly failed to do in their non-contextual reading of Paul’s letters.
Mr. Calahan goes on to say:
Second, where does scripture teach that the word “works” is restricted to “the works of the law”? You cannot find that in the Bible. To the untaught Christian this sounds convincing. His “shorthand” argument is supposed to convince us that salvation is not by observing “the Law” but by performing other works. So he had to redefine the word “works” so that he can convince the reader that salvation is by works—some other type of works. But there is nothing special in the Greek word that is translated as “works.” The Greek word is ergon and it just simply means works or energy. The clear plain meaning of Ephesians 2:8–9 is that salvation is not by any works—even the works of the Law.
This only shows that Calahan understands neither my argument nor the various meanings of the word “works” in the New Testament. As I explain in the “Ephesians” article linked above, Paul uses the word “works” in several different senses, depending upon the context. Here are three primary ways he uses it:
- “The works of the Law,” meaning observing the ritual laws that Jews were (and still are) required to follow as part of their religion
- Works done “for boasting,” meaning good works done in order to deserve or “merit” salvation
- Good works of kindness and service done out of love for God and love for our neighbor
Faith-alone Protestants have confused these three uses, mashing them together, and thus becoming hopelessly confused about what Paul teaches. They think that Paul is teaching that good works don’t save us, when in fact Paul is teaching that being an observant Jew doesn’t save us. This is all covered in my original article, so I won’t repeat it here.
How language works
The suggestion that “works” (Greek ergon) has just one simple meaning everywhere it is used betrays a basic misunderstanding of language.
Look in any full-featured dictionary of any language under any commonly used word, and you will find multiple definitions, some of them quite different from one another.
How do we know which meaning is intended by a writer or speaker? By paying attention to the context. For example, if I say the word “pool,” do you get a picture in your mind? Does it involve water? Or does it involve balls? Or something else? You really don’t know unless I add some more words:
- “Let’s go to the swimming pool.”
- “Let’s play a game of pool.”
- “Let’s pool our resources.”
- “Is there really an office betting pool?”
Far from being an unusual situation, this is simply how language works. We use the same word with different meanings in different contexts. Most of the time we are not confused because the context tells us what particular meaning of the words is intended.
Misunderstanding “works” in Paul’s letters
As a writer, Paul is no exception. His letters are not limited to a single meaning of the Greek word ergon, “works.” Like every skilled writer in any language, he uses that word, and many other words, in a full range of meanings in order to express what he wishes to say in any given passage. That is why, once again, we must pay attention to the context of everything we read in the Bible, including Paul’s statements about faith and works.
Both the immediate context of his statements about being saved by faith and not works and the overall biblical and historical context of those statements show that Paul was arguing, against the “Judaizing” Christians in Jerusalem, that it was not necessary for Gentile converts to be circumcised and observe the ritual and ceremonial Law of Moses in order to be saved by their faith in Jesus Christ.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Read Acts 15:1–35. It tells the story of “The Council at Jerusalem,” where the earliest Christian leaders had this very debate. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter, who were evangelizing in Gentile (non-Jewish) areas, all argued strenuously that it was not necessary for Gentile converts to be circumcised and observe the Jewish Law.
Protestants who think Paul teaches that we are not saved by good works, but only by faith, are making multiple fundamental mistakes in their reading of Paul. Among them:
- They are misunderstanding the basic mechanics of language, and mashing together distinct meanings of the Greek word ergon, “works.”
- They are not paying attention to the immediate context in the Bible of Paul’s varying uses of the word “works.” In most places the context makes it clear which meaning of “works” he intends.
- They are not paying attention to the historical and doctrinal context in which Paul’s letters were written, thus completely misunderstanding and misapplying his meaning and his argument.
- They are attaching modern, intellectualized definitions to the word “faith” (Greek pistis) that are entirely foreign to the pragmatic meaning that “faith” had in Bible times. (See “Faith Alone Is Not Faith.”)
- They are ignoring large segments of Paul’s letters, including the bulk of Ephesians itself, in which Paul gives detailed instructions on how to live. If Paul believed that we are saved by faith alone, why would he put so much emphasis on not sinning and living a good life instead?
- In their fanatical devotion to faith and faith alone, they are ignoring the fact that Paul himself puts love ahead of faith (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Paul says plainly that we will be saved based on our works
Besides, Paul, like James, says straight out that we will be saved or condemned according to what we have done:
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done” [Psalm 62:12; Proverbs 24:12]. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (Romans 2:5–11)
And notice that in this passage Paul tells us how Jews and Gentiles—who are not Christians—will be saved or condemned according to what they have done, under the principle that “God does not show favoritism.” The Bible flatly contradicts the false doctrine of those Christians who believe that only Christians are saved. And if Paul were actually teaching elsewhere that we are saved by faith alone and not by our good works, he would be flatly contradicting himself.
Not a single passage in the entire Bible says that we are saved or justified by faith alone. Not in Paul’s letters. Not anywhere else in the Bible. Mr. Calahan and his fellow faith-alone Protestants are simply wrong about salvation by faith alone because they do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.
Should we all just be Roman Catholics?
Under the heading “Historical Argument” Mr. Calahan says:
The author’s historical argument is that the reformers made a big mistake by teaching that salvation was by faith alone. If that is true then the reformation should never have occurred and we should all be Roman Catholics. He would either be a Roman Catholic priest or none at all.
This only shows the narrow confines of Mr. Calahan’s view of Christianity. In the Protestant West there seems to be a simple, binary view of Christianity: you’re either a Protestant or you’re a Catholic.
Never mind that there is an entire third major branch of Christianity—the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Christianity generally—that predates Protestantism, and has roots going back as far as those of Catholicism. Never mind that there is a multitude of other small Christian churches that are not part of any of the three major branches of Christianity, some of which also trace their history back to the earliest centuries of Christianity.
But to the point:
Given the great corruption that had come to exist in the Roman Catholic Church by the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation was probably inevitable. That doesn’t mean that its signature doctrine, justification by faith alone, is correct. Only that it provided a doctrinal issue on which Luther and his followers could make a complete break from Roman Catholicism.
What happened next was that Protestantism itself progressively fragmented and splintered into dozens of major denominations, thousands of smaller denominations, and tens of thousands of independent churches, each distinguished by its own particular doctrinal stance, and each claiming that its doctrinal position is correct and every other church’s doctrinal position is incorrect. Although the Protestant Reformation was probably inevitable, all it did doctrinally was to take Christianity out of the frying pan and into the fire.
That’s why for the most part, I don’t pay much attention to any of that welter of conflicting, confusing, and paradoxical doctrines. Christianity as a whole has long since abandoned the plain and clear teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels for a vast cacophony of human-invented doctrines found nowhere in the Bible. See:
- “Christian Beliefs” that the Bible Doesn’t Teach
- Today’s Christianity: Vastly Void of Truth
- Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!
Under this heading, Mr. Calahan writes:
The author concludes that there is no purpose in life if one is not working for their salvation. Again, the author is guilty of false teaching.
I’m not sure what Mr. Calahan is referring to here. I never say anything in the article about our purpose in life being working for our salvation. (However, in Philippians 2:12 the Bible does talk about “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.”)
I do point out in the article that the bulk of our life is spent engaging in the daily tasks of our job, our home and family life, our community, and so on. And that if the only thing that really matters is believing in Jesus, the vast bulk of our life is wasted.
If all that matters is believing in Jesus, why doesn’t God arrange to meet all of our physical needs so that every Christian can spend every waking hour evangelizing and making converts? This would be the most sensible way for God to arrange things here on earth if Mr. Calahan and his fellow Protestants were right about salvation by faith alone.
Instead, we find that God has arranged our life here on earth so that we spend the bulk of our time working and doing good deeds—good works—for our fellow human beings, just as Jesus taught we must do if we wish to be saved. See Matthew 25:31–46.
Mr. Calahan continues:
1 Corinthians 10:31 gives us our primary reason for living. Our purpose is to glorify God. Our other purpose for doing good works is to use our spiritual gifts in ministry to others (1 Corinthians 12 and Hebrews 6:10) and to share the gospel (Matthew 28:19–20) so that they find the narrow way (Matthew 7:13–14).
I don’t have any particular argument with this. I will simply note that even Mr. Calahan includes doing good works for others in his list of purposes for our life. Even Protestants who intellectually believe in justification by faith alone cannot run away from the biblical reality that it is how we live, not just what we believe, that determines whether we will spend eternity in heaven or in hell.
That’s why even though Mr. Calahan believes that I am “sending people to an eternal condemnation” by what I teach here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life, and probably thinks that I myself will go to an especially hot hell when I die, I believe that Mr. Calahan and his followers will find their home in heaven if, despite the unbiblical and false doctrines he is teaching them, they actually live by Jesus’ commandments to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:28–31).
Even though Mr. Calahan has a section on “Biblical Argument,” he packs most of his biblical arguments into his Conclusion. Let’s take them one at a time:
Romans 4:5–6: More from Paul on the works of the Law
Mr. Calahan writes:
The author misapplies numerous passages revealing a lack of biblical scholarship and broad, balanced understanding of scripture. The following passage summarizes the teaching of scripture that salvation is by faith and NOT works – the law or otherwise.
But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: . . . Romans 4:5–6
The passage clearly says that those who have faith are declared righteous or godly. These individuals are going to heaven. It is not by works. Paul started this discussion in Romans 4:2 about Abraham. That is, this is in reference to Abraham. Then Paul goes on to teach that this principle was established before the Law was even given to Moses (Romans 4:10–12). Paul was not talking about works of the Law in Romans 4:5–6.
Remember how I said earlier that in most places where Paul talks about being saved by faith rather than works, he makes what he means by “works” clear by talking about “circumcision” and “uncircumcision”? Well, take a look a few verses later in Romans 4:
Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. (Romans 4:9–13, italics added)
And Paul’s argument continues in that vein.
What is Paul saying here?
He is saying that Abraham was saved by faith before he was circumcised, and before the Law (of Moses) was given. Once again, Paul is not arguing that good works are not necessary for salvation. Once again, the context shows that by “works” here Paul means “the works of the Law,” or being circumcised and being an observant Jew.
In short, Paul is arguing here, as elsewhere, that it is not necessary to be an observant Jew in order to be saved.
Once again, Mr. Calahan and his fellow Protestants have completely misread and misunderstood Paul because they have not paid attention to the context and have therefore mashed together and confused the different meanings of “works” in Paul’s letters.
This isn’t just my theory. If you turn to James’s explanation of this very same verse about Abraham (Genesis 15:6) and the story surrounding it, it is crystal clear that Abraham was not saved by faith alone but by faith together with works:
Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:20–24)
James 2:24: We are justified by our works
This leads us to Mr. Calahan’s next statement:
James 2:24 is not a statement that teaches a person needs to work in order to be saved either. The author conveniently ignores James’ conclusion in verse 26.
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. James 2:26
The conclusion clarifies the message of the author. Real faith is revealed by the works a person does. That is, faith will result in good works. This false teacher fails to see the distinction. John 1:12 and 3:16 do not include any statement about works in order to gain eternal life. The thief on the cross could not perform any good works in order to get saved.
Yes, James says in verse 22 that Abraham’s faith was brought to completion by his works (not “revealed by his works,” as Mr. Calahan says).
But he also says in the previous verse that Abraham was justified by works.
And he says that Abraham faith was active along with his works (which contradicts the Protestant notion that works follow or result from faith).
Mr. Calahan accepts only one of these statements (which he rephrases to fit his own doctrine), and rejects the other two.
But James is very clear that we are justified by works, by faith, and by both of them working together, flatly contradicting Mr. Calahan’s faith-alone doctrine.
Luther was more honest than the Lutherans and Calvinists are
James 2:24 says, in words as plain as day:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
This is the one and only passage in the entire Bible that mentions faith alone . . . and it specifically rejects it.
I wish Mr. Calahan and his fellow Protestants were as honest about this passage as the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, was.
Luther recognized that the Apostle James contradicted Luther’s newly invented doctrine of justification by faith alone. That’s why Luther attempted (unsuccessfully) to get the Epistle of James, together with three other New Testament books that he deemed insufficiently supportive of his new doctrine, removed from the Bible. See Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation in the Wikipedia article on Luther’s Canon. Luther had such contempt for the book of James that he called it an “epistle of straw” (see the quote from Philip Schaff in the “Sola fide doctrine” section of the same Wikipedia article).
At least Luther was honest in rejecting books of the Bible that didn’t support his doctrine.
Ever since Luther was unsuccessful in removing those books from the Bible, Protestants have been contorting themselves to explain away the one and only place in the Bible that actually mentions faith alone. That one passage is James 2:24.
Mr. Calahan has his own page in which he takes his stab at explaining away the Bible’s flat rejection of the false doctrine of justification by faith alone. Here it is: “What is the meaning of James 2:24?” I find it entirely unconvincing.
In fact, for me it has become almost a sport to read the mental gymnastics and observe the amazing doctrinal contortionism of the various “learned” Protestant teachers as they bend James’s plain and clear statement into all sorts of uncomfortable shapes and sizes in their attempt to force it to fit their false doctrine.
Unfortunately for them, as Luther himself recognized, James flatly contradicts and rejects the key defining doctrine of their entire branch of Christianity. If Lutherans and Calvinists were as honest as Luther, they would simply reject any book of the Bible that doesn’t support their doctrines, and be done with it.
The only problem is, they would have to reject every single book in Bible.
Paul could have said “faith alone,” but didn’t
James explicitly rejected justification by faith alone.
If Paul had wanted to say that we are saved or justified by faith alone, he had the vocabulary and the writing ability to do so. But he never did.
And Jesus never taught anything remotely like salvation by faith alone.
These are the simple facts of the matter.
Some Christians think that the letters of Paul and James contradict one another. But the reality is that neither one of them taught faith alone. Both of them taught that we will be judged for eternal life based on our good works as well as our faith.
Paul never said that we are justified by faith alone because Paul believed no such thing.
Lutherans and Calvinists reject the plain teachings of the Bible
The plain and simple fact is the Bible never, not even once, says that we are saved or justified by faith alone.
But Mr. Calahan and his fellow Protestants simply ignore that fact. And they engage in amazing verbal contortions to explain away the Bible’s clear rejection of justification by faith alone, while misreading and misunderstanding all of Paul’s teachings about salvation.
Instead of accepting the plain and simple teachings of the Bible, they have accepted the complicated human-invented doctrine of Martin Luther. And though they are less honest about it than their founder was, like Luther they reject and explain away anything in the Bible that contradicts that doctrine. They “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:8).
The reality is that the entire Bible, from beginning to end, contradicts and rejects their false doctrine. The entire Bible tells us that if we wish to be saved, we must repent from our evil deeds and do good deeds instead. Our faith in Jesus may teach us and lead us to do this, but it is the actual repentance from sin and the doing of good works that is the substance of our salvation.
About Mr. Calahan’s remaining Bible references in his statement quoted above, please see these two articles:
- Does John 3:18 Mean that All Non-Christians Go to Hell?
- Are We Saved in an Instant? How was the Thief on the Cross Saved?
Romans 3:10–12: Jesus came because the Law could no longer save people
Mr. Calahan next says:
The author is a false teacher who twists the scripture for his own purpose. He ignores the truth that no one can do good works, not even one (Romans 3:10–12).
All have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Romans 3:12
Once again, Mr. Calahan is engaging in a basic misreading and misunderstanding of the Bible. Romans 3:12 doesn’t say that no one can do good works, as Mr. Calahan asserts. It says that no one does do good works. There’s a big difference!
Here is more of the context:
What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.” [Psalms 14:1–3; 53:1–3; Ecclesiastes 7:20]
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.” [Psalm 5:9]
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.” [Psalm 140:3]
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” [Psalm 10:7]
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.” [Isaiah 59:7–8]
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”[Psalm 36:1]
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. (Romans 3:9–20)
As shown in the bracketed references, Paul quotes a whole series of passages from the Old Testament about the extreme corruption of humankind. But not a single one of them says people cannot do good or be righteous, as Mr. Calahan claims. Rather, they state that people are not doing good or being righteous.
Paul’s argument here is completely different than the one Mr. Calahan is making. Paul is saying that even though the Jews have had the Law of Moses for many generations, they have become corrupt and wicked, and their Law has therefore lost its ability to save them as a people, but only demonstrates how corrupt and sinful they are.
This is what Jesus himself says about the Jewish leaders of his day in many biting passages, such as the “Seven Woes” in Matthew 23:13–38.
It’s not that they couldn’t follow the Law. Even though there are many commandments in the Law of Moses that seem very harsh and unreasonable to us in today’s culture, there is nothing in that Law that the people of its time and culture were incapable of obeying. God does not give us commandments that we are unable to follow. God does not set us up for certain failure.
But the reality was that as time went on and the generations passed, the ancient Jews didn’t obey the Law. Over time, as Paul said, the Law itself became a testimony against them of their own sinfulness. Jesus regularly quoted from the Law to show how far from obeying the Law the Jewish leaders of his day were.
It was when their corruption became so great that even people who wanted to live a good and righteous life could not do so—because the Jewish leaders had “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces,” and would not “let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13)—that it was time for God himself to come as Jesus Christ in order to provide a new path of salvation for those who longed for truth and righteousness.
This is what Paul is saying in Romans 3:9–20.
He is saying that the era of the religion of the Jews, based on strict, literal, behavioral adherence to the Law of Moses, had run its course and come to an end. Its leaders had become altogether corrupt, and their religion could no longer bring salvation to the masses of people.
Paul is saying that a new spiritual path based on following Jesus Christ and living by his teachings out of faithfulness to Jesus (not “faith” as that word is understood today) was replacing the behavioristic, law-bound Jewish religion as God’s leading religion on earth.
Once again, Mr. Calahan and his fellow Protestants have completely misread and misunderstood Paul’s argument in this chapter because they do not understand the biblical and historical context of Paul’s writings—or they choose to ignore it.
Matthew 19:16–26: Jesus commands works for salvation
Mr. Calahan concludes his article by writing:
If works were required how could anyone save themselves? Consider the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he had to do in order to gain eternal life (Matthew 19:16–26). Jesus replied that there was only one who was good—God. Therefore, the author’s teaching is tragic and is a hopeless promise of eternal life in heaven. He is sending people to an eternal condemnation. Man cannot earn his salvation by good works.
It is very strange that Mr. Calahan refers to the story of the rich young ruler in an attempt to show that good works do not contribute to our salvation. Here is the story:
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
“Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16–26, italics added)
Every single thing Jesus said to this rich young man was a commandment to do good works in order to be saved!
First he told him that if he wished to be saved, he must keep the commandments. Then, when asked for specifics, he quoted several of the commandments in the second table of the Ten Commandments, and the law given in Leviticus 19:18 to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
When the rich young man said that he had kept all these, and asked what he still lacked, did Jesus say, “All you have to do is have faith in me, and you will be saved?”
Instead, he gave the rich young man another, even greater good work to do: Sell all of his possessions, give to the poor, and come follow him (Jesus).
Was this impossible for the rich young man to do?
No. If he wanted to be “perfect,” or as that word really means in the original Greek, complete in his quest for eternal life, he must devote all of his wealth to providing for the poor, and devote his own life to following Jesus.
Nowhere in the entire story did Jesus say anything at all about merely needing to believe in him in order to be saved. Instead, he spoke of how difficult it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven—because they are unwilling to do what is required to enter it. And yet, he ended by saying that even though “with man this is impossible, with God all things are possible.” And the Gospels do tell us of rich men who were saved based on what they did in following Jesus, including Zacchaeus (see Luke 19:1–10) and Joseph of Arimathea (see Matthew 27:57–61; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–54; John 19:38–42).
There is a strange doctrine-induced blindness evident in Mr. Calahan’s referring to the story of the rich young man to support Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. The rich young man gave Jesus a golden opportunity to say that all he had to do was believe in Jesus, and Jesus said no such thing. Instead, Jesus repeatedly told the young man that if he wished to be saved, he must do good works.
Jesus, like Paul, James, and every other teacher and prophet in the Bible, not only didn’t teach Martin Luther’s doctrine, but rejected its entire premise.
The fallacy of Protestants’ rejection of good works
Mr. Calahan’s final sentence is:
Man cannot earn his salvation by good works.
That’s true! People who think they can buy their way into heaven by doing good works are sadly mistaken.
But that doesn’t mean good works aren’t a necessary part of our salvation. Protestants have the mistaken notion that the source of our good works is our own power and our own righteousness. That’s because they are not paying attention to Jesus’ teaching that the power to do anything comes, not from ourselves, but from God:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
If we think we can buy our way to heaven by doing good works, we are stealing from God. We are claiming credit for our good works when it is actually God who gives us the power to do them.
In traditional theological language, Protestants have made the fundamental error of thinking that all of our good works are “meritorious,” meaning that they are done in order to earn salvation. But here are three basic reasons to do good works that have nothing to do with earning salvation or buying our way into heaven:
- Because God commands us to do good works (out of obedience)
- Because we know that it is the right thing to do (out of understanding, or “faith”)
- Because we love our fellow human beings and want to serve them (out of love)
When we do good works for any or all of these reasons, we are being faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and to the teachings of God throughout the entire Bible. That faithfulness to Jesus—not some intellectualized “faith” in some Protestant doctrine about Jesus—is what Paul means when he says that we are “justified by faith apart from the works of the Law” (Romans 3:28).
Once again, for the true, practical meaning of “faith” in the Bible, see the article, “Faith Alone Is Not Faith.”
Mr. Calahan is correct when he says that “man cannot earn his salvation by good works.” But his faith alone doctrine prevents him from seeing and understanding that when we do good works out of obedience, faith, and love, these are the works of God in us that contribute to our salvation. And because Luther’s false doctrine prevents Mr. Calahan and his fellow Protestants from seeing and understanding what the Bible teaches about faith, works, and salvation, they throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Search the Scriptures
If you are honestly seeking the true teachings of Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity, I invite you to “search the scriptures” for yourself (John 5:39). Search diligently for even a single place in the entire Bible where it says that we are saved or justified by faith alone. You will not find one.
Read the Bible from beginning to end, and you will see that everywhere from Genesis to the Book of Revelation it says that if we wish to be saved, we must repent from our evil deeds and do good deeds instead. Moses says it. The Prophets say it. Peter, Paul, James, and John say it. And most of all, the Lord Jesus Christ says it.
And notice that throughout the Bible, God presents us with a choice of whether to follow God’s way or our own way, and tells us what the consequences of each choice will be.
Then decide for yourself:
- Do you believe the Bible teaches Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, and that anyone who has the “wrong” religion will go to hell for all eternity?
- Do you believe the Bible teaches John Calvin’s doctrine that our free will is an illusion, because long before we were born God had already decided which of us would go to eternal life in Paradise and which of us would endure eternal torment in hell?
As for me, I will continue to reject the terribly false teachings of the Lutherans and Calvinists, and will continue to believe what Jesus Christ himself teaches in the Gospels about good works and salvation:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:31–46)
For further reading:
- Faith Alone Is Not Faith
- Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?
- Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!
- What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?
- God is Love . . . And That Makes All the Difference in the World
- “Christian Beliefs” that the Bible Doesn’t Teach
- Christian Beliefs that the Bible Does Teach