BY MATTHEW HORWITZ
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
— John 5:24, RSV
Can we, as followers of Christ, be certain of our salvation? Or, put another way, are we assured eternal life in heaven by virtue of our Christian faith?
Since the Protestant Reformation, a significant number of Christians have answered this question with a yes. And not without reason: many passages of Scripture (Jn 5:24; Rom 10:9–11; and Acts 16:31 in particular) appear to support the position that faith in Christ is an unshakable guarantor of salvation.
In approaching this issue, however, we must first define our terms. What is belief?
In coming to hold a belief, we have arrived at a particular cognitive state. In the broadest sense, beliefs are expressions of the human attempt to apprehend and make sense of existence. To have a “right” belief is to see the world for what it is; anything less is a distortion of reality. Questions of truth and falsity are at stake, thereby making belief a primarily intellectual exercise.
Of course, Christianity is different from philosophy and the empirical sciences in that its object is divine revelation, which, by definition, cannot be reached through reason alone. Invariably, our faith is rooted in an encounter with Christ: we see and hear the evidence of his presence on earth, and we trust in those whom he has sent as witnesses. Thus, through trust, we come to faith.
This is not, however, an irrational event. Ultimately, we owe our belief in Christ to supernatural grace. At the same time, this grace acts on the intellect, giving us the ability to grasp what would otherwise be impossible to believe. Therefore, our faith as Christians can be considered a function of the intellect moved by grace.
But the question remains: what does it mean to have saving faith?
Proper scriptural exegesis inevitably compels us to look at John 5:24 in its original language. The words ‘believe’, ‘believer’ and ‘belief’ used in the passage render the Greek word pistis and its derivatives. There are two important points to be made about this word.
The first concerns its tense. The specific word under consideration is pisteuôn, the present active participle of pistis. This tells us that belief is not something that occurred once in the past and has been cemented forever: it is, rather, a continuous activity (“believing”). Christ does not say that he who has heard his words and believed in him at one point in the past can, at the present time, be assured of eternal life. No, belief is rather something precious to which we must cling. We have passed from a state of unbelief to a state of belief – and now we must stay there.
The second point concerns the multiple meanings attributed to the word and its place in the early Christian context. Pistis, according to Strong’s Greek Dictionary, means first and foremost “to have faith” as previously described, but pistis can also be understood as the act of “entrust[ing]” or “commit[ing]” oneself to someone or something. This connotation, almost entirely lacking in the modern English equivalent, makes perfect sense in the context of first-century Judaism. Reading the Hebrew Scriptures, we see Israel falling away from God time and again. Yet the issue here is one of allegiance rather than belief understood as intellectual assent. Israel was unfaithful, worshiping idols rather than the one true God. Yet this unfaithfulness was not disbelief in God, but disobedience to him: infidelity rather than skepticism.
There are two ways, then, to understand belief as the term is used in John 5:24. Intellectual assent and allegiance are distinct because they have different centers of action: the former is based in the intellect, while the latter encompasses the entire person, heart and mind, body and soul. Both facets of pistis share the same object – God – and the same quality of impermanence. While we may be fairly certain of our present belief in Christ, the same cannot be said of our future belief. Always present is the danger that we may fall into despair, or else be led away from God by sin. In either case, we would be rejecting the grace Christ merited for us on the cross.
We cannot, then, know the state of our soul in its last hour, and thus we cannot have absolute assurance of our salvation. For many Christians, it is a terrifying prospect that one day we may find ourselves judged and found wanting; that, having called out “Lord, Lord” all our lives, we will ultimately be told, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Mt 7:23). For many, assurance of salvation is, above all, a matter of self-assurance.
But is this an accurate view of God? Should we live in fear?
To answer this question, we must consider the nature of God Himself. On Christmas Day of 2005, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of one possible answer to this question with the release of his first encyclical, entitled Deus Caritas Est, “God is Love.” There, Benedict speaks of the nature of God, made fully visible to us in the person of Jesus Christ:
In the Old Testament, the novelty of the Bible did not consist merely in abstract notions but in God’s unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity. This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the “stray sheep,” a suffering and lost humanity. When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form (¶ 12).
The parable of the prodigal son says much about the nature of God; it also strikes close to home for me. Raised in a Christian household, I lost my faith at age twenty. For various reasons, I had come to fear God and saw myself as destined for damnation; I also chafed at the moral obligations placed upon me as a Christian. For more than half a year, I did not even attempt to pray. I wanted nothing to do with God.
The summer of 2005, after several months of unbelief, I spent six weeks traveling the length of Japan. One day, walking through the old capital city of Nara, I happened upon a church – a rare sight in a country with fewer than three million Christians. As I looked up at the edifice, which sat at the top of a hill, the thought struck me that I should go inside and pray. I resisted, however, and kept walking, leaving God and the church behind.
Modern Nara is not planned on a grid pattern, so I found myself lost only a few minutes after leaving the hillside. The city’s streets twist and loop around, and within half an hour I ended up at the same hill, looking up at the church. Taking this as a sign, I decided to go in and investigate. The church was open, and there, subdued at last, I knelt before the Lord and prayed.
Not until almost two years later did I once again come to consider myself a Christian without reservations. But I look back on that day in Nara as a turning point in my understanding of God: a just God, yes, but also a loving Father, who runs to meet his wayward children, who gives the sinner and apostate a second chance.
I cannot know with certainty that I will, in the end, be saved, that I will persevere to the last. What I do know is this: God loves me, deeply and passionately, as he loves each and every human being. Indeed, he is love personified. In this truth, we have all the assurance we shall ever need.