Today we’re going to talk about anonymous Christians. Now those aren’t the people who sit next to you at church that you don’t talk to, that’s a separate conversation!
What we’re going to be talking about is the type of anonymous Christianity that would say that someone could be a Christian and not know it. They could be a Christian and not know about Christ. This topic has kind of come back into the forefront of the news recently because of a conversation that the Pope had with a young boy. The Pope was visiting with some children and this boy comes to him and says that his father had passed away and his father was a non believer, but all four of his children had been baptized. He’d ensured that, and he was a good man, the boy says. Is his dad in Heaven? That’s this child’s question.
Are We All God’s Children?
I think we can understand how difficult of a question this must be to ask. How difficult it must be for this boy to think there is a right and a wrong answer to this, and he’s not sure of where his dad falls. I think we also have to acknowledge that it would be difficult being the one being asked this question. Now one would hope if you are the Pope, you would be equipped to answer it and answer it biblically but nonetheless, it’s a difficult question all the way around.
The Pope says that the man didn’t have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. “He had a good heart,” Francis said. Now biblically speaking, we see that there’s not this category of someone that has a good heart apart from the regenerating influence of the spirit, right? Jesus in Mark gets called good and he says, “Well, no one is good except for God.” In other words, no actual man is good except for God. The wickedness comes out of the heart, deceit comes out of the heart, those sorts of things, so people don’t actually have good hearts apart from being regenerated from Christ, but nonetheless, let’s continue.
“The next step in answering the boy’s question,” Francis said, “would be to think about what God is like, and specifically, what kind of heart God has.” Okay. The Pope asks, “Does God have a father’s heart? God has a dad’s heart and with a dad who was not a believer, but who had his children baptized, do you think God would be able to leave that type of person far from himself?” The Pope continues, “Does God abandon his children? Does he abandon his children when they are good?”
It’s reported that the children who were there shouted, “No!” The Pope says, “There’s the answer. Surely God was proud of your father because it is easier as a believer to baptize your children than to baptize them when you are not a believer. Surely this pleased God very much.” Well, there’s so much here that I want to spend a little bit of time on but I do want to talk about this idea that someone could not know they’re a Christian and be Christian.
The first thing is he talks about being good. Does God abandon his children when they are good? Once again, no one is good. “No, not one,” Paul says. “No one seeks after God.” Jesus, when a person calls him good and they’re not acknowledging that he’s God, says, “No mere man is good.” That’s his point in replying, “No one is good except for God.” God doesn’t actually love us because of our good works, because our good works aren’t actually that good.
They amount to filthy rags in front of him, so that’s something to be very clear on here, that the divide between Roman Catholicism and biblical Christianity is that our works are not good. They’re not meritorious. They don’t commend us well to God from a biblical standpoint, but more than that, isn’t it interesting that the Pope seems to do kind of like a let’s take a poll here or take an emotional response to determine the right answer when he asks the children, “What type of heart does God have? A father’s heart.”
Yes, that’s true to an extent though we can abuse that to say that God has no standards of justice or righteousness that he must enforce because of his holy character, and that’s actually what ends up happening here. Where the Pope says that because God has a father’s heart, he surely wouldn’t let someone who had his children baptized be far from him. In other words, there’s this kind of middle ground the Pope seems to be walking where he’s trying to give comfort to this boy that his father is in a good place because God has a father’s heart.
Now a girl after this asked the Pope about people who aren’t baptized, are they still God’s children? Now that’s an interesting question. Why is the question being framed in terms of if they’re baptized or not? Because baptism is viewed as the door to the church in Roman Catholicism. It is where the stain of original sin is washed away, it’s where the spirit comes into a person’s life, and the Pope goes on to actually say that all people are God’s children.
Now some might have the spirit and some might not but everyone is God’s child, and so with this being said, I want to pivot a little and one, talk about this idea of if everyone is God’s child and then talk more generally about anonymous Christianity in Roman Catholicism.
John 1:12 says, “To all who have received Him [that is Christ], those who believe in his name, he has given the right to become God’s children.” Not everyone is a child of God, only those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation who have been regenerated by the Spirit, those are God’s children.
Now yes, in some very generic way, God created all of us but that doesn’t mean we’re his children with the benefits that that implies and confers. We are not heirs as children of God actually would be, unless we are in Christ, so this idea that everyone is a child of God, which is somewhat popular in liberal Protestantism and also in Roman Catholicism does not find good grounding biblically speaking.
But now let’s talk about anonymous Christianity. What is this? Well, the catechism of the Roman Catholic church, which is its official teaching document says a
“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the creator. In the first place amongst them are Muslims. Those who profess to hold the faith of Abraham and together with us they adore the one merciful God mankind’s judge on the last day.”
Muslims, reject the deity of Christ and say that God is not a trinity. The highest sin in Islam, which would be shirk, would be saying that God is a trinity, he is not just one, but three persons. However, inspire of all of this, Roman Catholicism says they are covered by the plan of salvation. They will have salvation because they adore the one generic God.
I would just simply say that biblically speaking, this does not work. John says that those who don’t have the Son do not have the Father either. To reject Christ means you can’t be trusting in Christ for your salvation. You can’t believe in what he did on the cross and in fact, Islam denies that Jesus died on the cross.
It’s not just that we’re adoring the one God, we’re actually worshiping different Gods. Our God is a trinity, our God is Jesus, Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sin. If you don’t trust in Him to have died in your place for your sin, you don’t get credited with His righteousness. None of that has a place if you deny the deity and sacrificial atoning death of Jesus Christ.
This idea in this section of the Roman Catholic catechism doesn’t work, but it goes on. It also says,
“Those who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his church but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and moved by grace try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience may achieve eternal life.”
Let’s pick that apart because that’s kind of the heart of anonymous Christianity. It’s much more easy to talk about the fact that Islam explicitly denies the gospel of Jesus Christ so Roman Catholicism has no ground on which to stand to say that Muslims are included in the gospel but this section is a little more interesting. It says that those who through no fault of their own don’t know the gospel, if they follow their conscience can be saved.
Let’s pick that apart and to answer that we have to answer first a more general question, why do people not go to Heaven when they die? Is it because they didn’t believe in Jesus? No. They don’t go to Heaven because of their sin. The punishment for sin, for crime, for treason against God, is Hell, eternal conscious torment. God does no have to offer someone a pardon before He is justified in punishing their crime.
It’s the same way in our legal system today. We don’t say it’s unjust to punish a murderer who’s been convicted if we don’t first say “would you like to go free? Would you like a pardon?” We don’t have to offer them the pardon to be justified in punishing the crime, and that’s exactly how it is with God who is the most just judge. In fact, we see that one of the reasons for the cross was to show that God is both just and the justifier. He must punish sin, and so for those who are in Christ, their sin has been punished on Christ. For those who are not in Christ, they will be punished for their sin.
But so this idea that people go to Hell through no fault of their own through simply maybe an accident of geography or something, first, doesn’t fit well with the sovereignty of God, but second, it seems to imply that they’re being punished simply because they didn’t hear the gospel or because they didn’t believe the gospel and that’s not the case. They’re punished because they’re idolaters, they’re punished because they’ve committed treason against God, just like all of us have, right?
The only difference in me and some other person who doesn’t know Christ is the gracious grace of Christ. That’s the only difference in terms of my positional standing before God. Now hopefully my life looks different because of the work of the Spirit in my life, because of my striving for holiness, through the power of the Spirit, but nonetheless, if I were not in Christ, I would actually be punished through fault of my own, unlike what the catechism says.
It is my fault that I will be punished for my crimes because they are my crimes. I have committed them, so God is just in punishing that. The issue here is not if someone had the opportunity to hear the gospel, right? Grace is not grace if it must be given. Grace is not grace if it has to be extended. No, grace is grace because God through his unmerited favor chooses to extend it to some people, and of course, there is a common grace, for all but nonetheless, that is not salvific, that doesn’t lead to salvation.
People do not go to Hell through no fault of their own, but more than this, it says that people could be saved potentially by following their conscience and doing what’s good with a sincere heart, but the Bible says that no one is good in Romans 2. “No one seeks after God.” There isn’t this idea of works that we can do that are meritorious. Now we’re back to the Pope and how he addressed the boy’s father who did something good the Pope said. Actually, that work has no place being called good in a salvific sense when it comes to how we view salvation.
Where is Repentance and Faith?
You know what’s missing from the catechism here is any teaching about repentance and faith in Jesus. Jesus did not come to simply say, “Well, you know, if you do what’s good according to how you understand it, then you’ll be good.” Because that statement can actually apply to the atheist. Everyone has a conscience, everyone has an inner standard of morality they follow. Sometimes that leads to doing really bad things.
Look at all the immorality in the world today when it comes to sexual sins. People actually think they’re doing the right thing they say. They’ve convinced themselves of that. Now I think deep down they know it’s not actually right according to what scripture says but nonetheless, they’re following what they believe to be their conscience, yet they’re doing exactly the opposite of what good is. The standard cannot be our conscience, it must be the word of God revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Repentance and faith, it’s missing from the catechism. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord isn’t slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness but he’s patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance.” What’s the opposite of perishing here? Reaching repentance. Repentance is necessary to not perish. To change your mind about your sin and who God is, to change your direction away from that, that’s what’s necessary. You can’t do that without knowing about Christ, without being told you’re a sinner, but without being preached the gospel.
John 3:16 says, “For this is the way God loved the world that he sent his one and only son so that all those who believe in him,” literally all those believing “would not perish but have eternal life.” What’s the difference in perishing and eternal life? Believing in this case, which is more than just an intellectual knowledge, it’s a trust in Christ. We don’t have time to get into that today, but nonetheless, that’s what was on the lips of Jesus, that belief in him was necessary.
The apostles preached the same thing. Repentance is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. Paul in Romans 10 says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Now you might say, “Well, that doesn’t exclude people being saved apart from that logically.” You may be correct in that individual logical point, but you have to ask what is the text trying to teach there and what do the other passages say, and it certainly rules out salvation apart from Christ.
Because Paul goes on to say,
”how are they to call on the one they haven’t believed in and how are they to believe in the one they haven’t heard of and how are they to hear without someone preaching to them and how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, how timely is the arrival of those who proclaim the good news, but not all have obeyed the good news. Lord, who has believed our report,” Isaiah says. [Here’s the point:] Consequently, faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ.
It’s not just following your conscience. What it is, in fact, is saying that faith—Saving faith which includes repentance—comes through hearing the preached word of Christ. Roman Catholicism here is preaching a Christ-less gospel. You don’t need to know about Christ for that. It’s teaching a repentance-less gospel, a faith-less gospel, a gospel that basically says, “Follow your conscience and you may achieve eternal life.”
Well, that’s exactly what the world is saying. Maybe not eternal life, but just follow your conscience, that’s “what religion is about” and that is diametrically opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now does this mean there aren’t Christians who are Catholic? No, there certainly are Catholic Christians but I would simply say because of this and other issues, which we’ve talked about in the past, that sadly those who are Christians in the Catholic church are Christians in spite of it, most likely not because of it.
Yes, God can do good things with a crooked stick, but that doesn’t mean we should endorse the crooked stick. The gospel is very different from what the Roman Catholic church teaches here, both when it comes to anonymous Christianity, when it comes to how one is made right before God, when it comes to the role of our works, and so many other things, but more than that, we must be clear that the preaching of the gospel is necessary for someone to come to salvation.
We should open our mouths, we should swallow our awkwardness, swallow our pride, or whatever is holding us back and be emboldened to realize God saves sinners and the means he has appointed to do that is through the preaching of the gospel. We can’t have this view implicitly where well, hopefully someone will figure it out, hopefully their conscience will speak to them. No, we must speak to them. We must bring the gospel to bear on the people in our lives who desperately need to hear it.