I argued in my previous post that while true faith can exist with remarkable ignorance, confusion, and doubt, believers are called to learn everything that our Lord teaches in his Word. “How much is enough?” is basically a cop-out. It assumes that we’re saved by passing a doctrinal exam and we just want to know what will be on the test. That doesn’t exactly make a disciple—which first and foremost means a pupil. The corollary question is “How far is too far?” Yes, faith can coexist with ignorance and perhaps confusion, but what about outright contradiction of the truth?
At this point, we have to be careful about what we put under the category of heresy. Faith is trusting in Christ to save us from condemnation and death by his own life, death and resurrection. That’s why Paul says that these events in history are “of first importance”; they are the gospel (1 Cor 15:3). Deny the resurrection and you are cut off from all hope. Yet in that same chapter Paul goes on to unpack that gospel in its glorious effects: justification, sanctification, and glorification. It is possible for Christians to disagree about crucial definitions of these truths while nevertheless directing their faith to Jesus Christ. Whatever they say in theological debate, if you ask them where their confidence for salvation is lodged, they name Jesus Christ.
I have Roman Catholic and Protestant friends who don’t accept what I am convinced is the clear teaching of the gospel with respect to justification. I think they’re on dangerous ground. Yes, I believe that their salvation is endangered—not because they don’t check the right box on a doctrine exam, but because justification by Christ alone through faith alone is the only consistent way of articulating what it means to trust in Christ. I think the 17th-century Puritan John Owen was correct in his repeated warnings against the threat of Arminianism and Roman Catholic teaching on this point. Yet I also agree when he says, “Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed” (The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone in Owen’s Works 5:163-64).
Another unimpeachably Reformed source is Herman Witsius (1636-1708). He wisely counsels,
To point out the articles necessary for salvation, and precisely to determine their number, is a task, if not utterly impossible, at least extremely difficult…It does not become us to ascend into the tribunal of God, and to pronounce concerning our neighbor, for how small a defect of knowledge, or for how inconsiderable and error, he must be excluded from heaven. It is much safer to leave that to God. It may not be safe and expedient for us to receive into church-fellowship a person chargeable with some error or sin; whom, however, we should not dare, on account of that error or sin, to exclude from heaven…Our faith consists not in words, but in sense; not in the surface, but in the substance; not in the leaves of a profession, but in the root of reason. All the heretics of the present day, that claim the name of Christians, are willing enough to subscribe the words of the Creed; each however afixing to them whatever sense he pleases, though diametrically opposite to sound doctrine (Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010, 16, 27-29, 31).
True faith is directed to the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit. When we call on the name of the Lord for salvation, we are invoking for rescue the Father who has given his Son as our Mediator and his Spirit as our Life-giver. Believers did that in prayer and in baptism even before the Council of Nicea. The doctrine of the Trinity was defined over against heresies that challenged what the earliest Christians were directed to believe and to do already by Jesus and his apostles. To direct our faith to anyone but this Savior, Jesus Christ, is idolatry. We have the wrong God as the object of our trust. We may still hope that someone who denies the Trinity is saved, but we have no biblical justification to recognize the legitimacy of their public profession of faith. This is rather different from the believer who is confused or is struggling to accept the mystery of “one in essence, three in person.” To recall the illustration above, one may be relying on the lifeguard for rescue and only afterward come to appreciate more fully the peril and the credentials of the rescuer. It is possible to trust in this Savior with the slenderest of knowledge and even with confused or errant beliefs. The problem is that if we do not go on to maturity, our faith more easily will shift eventually from Christ to someone or something else.
Wrong views of God, the person and work of Christ, justification, and the like are so critical that they strike at the very foundation of the faith. If one follows errant views on these points consistently, one would not be looking to Christ for rescue. Happily, many believers are inconsistent and do trust in Christ even though the way they articulate that doesn’t fit with—and undermines—that confidence.
What I have suggested here in relation to Christians applies more broadly to churches. This is why churches of the Reformation have identified the marks of a true church with the true preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments according to Christ’s institution.
The Roman Catholic Church officially embraces many crucial truths, but contradicts the gospel at its heart. Condemning the doctrine of justification as taught by the apostles, Rome just as explicitly affirms justification by our meritorious obedience as we cooperate with enabling grace. The merits of Christ are not sufficient for our salvation. This is not an inference, but the clear and consistent teaching of Rome’s magisterium to the present day. Rome is therefore not a true church. And yet I can say with Calvin that “there is still a true church among her.” On one hand, there are remnants of the gospel in the actual preaching, liturgy, and baptism administered in Roman Catholic circles. On the other hand, these remnants are buried or even contradicted by serious errors in doctrine and worship. The same could be said of Protestant churches. There are many such churches where the gospel is not being faithfully preached and the sacraments are not being properly administered. Sure, there may be true believers among them. Yet they are in spiritual danger. Soon they will realize either that their faith in Christ is being challenged and will therefore seek a true church or, like the frog in the kettle, they may remain as their profession of faith is increasingly confused, weakened, and perhaps even abandoned.
Whether we are talking about individuals or churches, we hold simultaneously to charity and discernment. This is clear in 2 Timothy 2. There is indeed a “pattern of sound words,” as Paul mentions earlier in the letter (1:13). How we say things is important. That’s why we have creeds, confessions, and catechisms: to learn the grammar of the faith. Like a trellis, these consensual statements give proper direction to our faith, leading us to Christ. However, we can easily become slaves of words to the point where we listen not for what a brother or sister is actually affirming or denying, but the precise formula. Faithful pastors don’t encourage “quarreling over words,” Paul reminds Timothy (2:14). That was one of the points that Witsius makes above.
Paul adds, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2:15). He warns against specific false teachers. “Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’” (vv 17-19). Timothy is approved and those who follow the gospel (specifically here, the bodily resurrection in the future) are approved as well, while the false teachers are not. They have in fact “swerved from the truth” and are “upsetting the faith of some.” The latter are not to remain under the tutelage of these false teachers, but must “depart from iniquity.” This is an act of discernment. It is foolish to remain in a false church. At the same time, Timothy is called to exercise charity. Even in this case, faithful shepherds recall straying sheep from hirelings in love, “correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Why? “God may perhaps grant them repentance, leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (vv 25-26).
In short, Paul reminds all of us with Timothy that only the Lord knows his elect. Pastors and elders in council may approve valid professions of faith and guard the ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline, but only the Great Shepherd can separate the sheep from the goats on the last day. Until then, our calling is to entrust ourselves to faithful shepherds and to long earnestly and prayerfully for the repentance of those who have strayed from Christ’s Word.