Lutherans/Salvation Without Faith
Dear Pat G.,
Thanks for taking the time to consider my question. It is my understanding that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod teaches that salvation is through Christ alone, and that if a person does NOT believe in Christ, they are going to be eternally damned. Is this correct?
If it is, this obviously creates a lot of moral issues regarding those who have never had access to Christian teachings or other similar situations. From my reading of the Bible, it seems that if you have faith in Christ, you are saved. That all salvation is through Christ...But where in the Bible is "faith" and "through Christ" defined? In other words, as a Lutheran, you believe God's grace alone leads to salvation and faith, but you don't know what constitutes faith and what does not. So, some person who lives on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean could be touched by God's grace and believe in God and have faith without ever knowing any specific theological teachings or even hearing the name "Jesus." Isn't this true?
Likewise, isn't it also true then that because we don't know actually constitutes "faith," only God knows who will be saved and who will not be saved and by what specific measure that salvation occurs?
I guess what I mean is...I think the Bible is clear that if you have an overt belief in God and Jesus and the teachings of the Bible, you will be saved. But I think it is less clear what "faith" is, when belief in God actually qualifies as "faith," and how those who don't have an overt faith will be judged. Would you say the LC-MS's position on this is similar, at least in the sense that only God knows what constitutes "faith" and who will be saved?
Thanks for your precious time as always and have a blessed Easter!
I think we have talked before, and it has been awhile! It is good to receive this question. It is a difficult one, and I will give you the Lutheran teaching and then add a few of my own opinions.
To begin with, we are taught that NONE of us deserves heaven. We have all sinned, and God takes sin very seriously. God is absolutely perfect and holy, and cannot tolerate sin. We are also taught clearly that salvation is through Jesus alone.
There are different kinds of faith. The Bible tells us that the devils believe and tremble. That's faith. But it is not saving faith. The kind of faith needed is repentance and trust. The trust is that Jesus has paid for our sins, and all we are required to do is accept the free gift. Repentance means being genuinely sorry for our sins, to know that we HAVE sinned (we may only know that we have violated our OWN values. That is enough.) It means that our sorrow is over having sinned, not over having gotten caught. It means turning from sin (wanting to do better, to live a life more in accord with what we know to be right.) It means not making excuses for continuing to violate moral values. We will never stop sinning, and we will never be able to add one iota to what God has done for us. We must fall on God's mercy.
As for "overt" faith, in reality there is no such thing. What matters is what is in our heart. And only God and that person knows what that is. We may do good works that are evidence that we have that faith. But that doesn't settle the question. So perhaps the better way to say it is to consider the question of whether or not we have SAVING faith, the faith that includes repentance and trust.
The Bible also makes it clear that Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven, as I have said.
We are commanded to take the Gospel to everyone. God doesn't directly answer what happens in the case of people whom we don't manage to reach. He doesn't expect us to do the impossible. He just asks for our obedience, and that we will present the Gospel to others, wherever we may be, and if called, to go to those in need of hearing the Gospel.
Here is where I will talk about my own thoughts. We are clearly told that God knows us from the foundation of the world (which is to say, He knows us from before the time of creation; He knows everything about us). This includes the knowledge of whom among us would accept Jesus if we knew. I personally believe that God deliberately didn't tell us what provisions He has made for people who never have the opportunity to hear, and yet would believe. He doesn't want us to rely on His stepping in and doing the job He assigned us. In like manner, He didn't specifically tell us the fate of unborn children who are aborted, because if we knew they didn't make it to heaven, their mothers would despair, and if we knew they did go to heaven, we would be complacent. God doesn't tell us everything we might want to know.
Don Richardson wrote a book called Eternity in Their Hearts. In this book, he describes how every single people group in the world has a part of the truth. Everyone knew, during the days of Noah, Who God is. They knew what His expectations were. They knew of His mercy. They had a complete picture at that time. But since that time, people have forgotten most of the details. The parts they may still remember are things like there is a lost book that describes how to get right with God, or they practice baptism. If we go into a mission field and study the religion of the people, we will learn what part of the truth they already have. If we then tell them that we are here to provide the rest of the truth, they will be receptive. Richardson also wrote a book called Peace Child, which describes an example. A small group of people living in the jungle value treachery. The tales they pass down are about the elegant ways in which someone betrayed a friend (often fatally). They value these stories. But as a result of this practice, nobody trusts anybody else, and people are isolated in small family groups. The community cannot accomplish anything of value because that would require trust. The missionaries couldn't figure out how to reach the people with the Gospel. Then one day, a native who was helping translate the Bible said he knew how to reach his people. He described another practice known as the Peace Child. The Peace Child was a newborn who would be taken from his parents and given to another couple in another group, and they would give up their newborn in turn to be raised by the first parents. As long as both children remained healthy, there would be peace among the two groups. The native explained to his people that Jesus is God's Peace Child, sent to us to bring peace on earth. Needless to say, the people then embraced the Gospel, and it transformed their culture.
I will tell you another true story. One of the Bible smugglers who went to the Soviet Union got the urge to go to a local church. As you are undoubtedly aware, at that time churches were the subject of hostile government action. So he went to the church, and he saw that it was empty. No, there was one woman sitting there. He went up to her. She said she had also gotten the urge to go to the church that day. They talked. The smuggler learned that she knew the name "Jesus", but she didn't know anything at all about Him except His name. And she said she loved that Jesus. So he gave her a Bible. I believe that she was saved. That is why she knew the Name, and that is why God sent the smuggler to meet with her.
We are also getting stories coming out of the Middle East of people to whom Jesus is appearing in dreams. They have no other access to the Gospel because of how tightly controlled their world is, that they aren't being told by anybody. They subsequently abandon Islam and become Christians, and as you know, becoming a Christian can mean a death sentence. We also know of people who have turned to Christ after seeing the Jesus film, which is now being shown in Iraq in particular.
I believe that God either places a baby in the home where he will hear the Gospel, or He provides another way, if God knows that that child will accept Jesus as Savior. Remember, the Bible says that Jesus stands at the door and knocks. He doesn't force His way in. The Holy Spirit can come to someone, and be rejected. A person who once accepted Christ can decide later to reject Him. Lutherans don't believe in eternal security. Although we agree that nothing can pluck us out of the hands of a loving God, we ourselves are always free to reject Him. I believe that a person who goes to hell CHOSE to go there, because he hates God, and it would be MORE of a hell to be in God's presence for eternity. God honors their choice.
I believe our lack of a definitive answer on what provisions God has for those we cannot reach is because God has commanded us to GO and preach the Gospel (it may be where we live, or we may go to a foreign land). God doesn't want us to neglect our assignment because He provides other ways for people to get to know and love Jesus. I do believe that people we have never reached have learned of Jesus and loved Him. I believe that our inborn conscience can lead people to repentance. I trust God because He is perfect justice and perfect mercy.
I hope this helps.
The Lord is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Hallelujah! May the Lord bless you with many blessings on Easter.