In the sermon I posted just this week, on Galatians 1:1-10, I warned against the false gospel of “just be a good person.” While this isn’t the same false gospel that Paul is attacking in his letter to the Galatians, it is a gospel that says, in so many words, that what we do plays a role—and a rather large one—in saving us. I cited Warren Buffett, who, upon announcing that he was giving away 80 percent of his $44 billion fortune, said, “There’s more than one way to go to heaven, but this is a great way.”
Of course, Buffett’s way is no way at all. If our salvation depends on what we do—aside from confessing our helplessness to do anything—we will be damned. The apostle Paul believes this so strongly, in fact, that he said that false teachers who merely added a few human requirements to his gospel of free grace through Christ would be damned. This is literally the meaning of his words in verse 9: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” “Accursed” is literally the Greek word anathema, which means to be damned.
Paul’s words are uncompromising because he believes that if his readers embrace this false gospel, they are putting their souls at risk.
I realize how unpopular this message is to most modern-day Americans. But Paul is not playing around here. And we shouldn’t be, either. If Paul is right, nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance: we will be saved by Christ’s atoning work on the cross alone or we will not saved at all. To misunderstand this is to risk losing the gospel entirely.
As if on cue, however, in a video that has since gone viral, Pope Francis challenged this gospel of free grace. Last Sunday, during a gathering of Catholics, he invited children in the audience to come forward and ask him questions. One child, named Emanuele, asked Francis, through tears, if his recently deceased father was in heaven, even though he was an atheist.
The pontiff implied rather strongly that he was. And how did Francis know? Because, he said, the child’s father was a good man, as evidenced by his son’s testimony and his willingness to have his four children baptized. Francis told the crowd:
That man didn’t have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart. And [Emanuele] is doubting whether or not his dad, not having been a believer, is in heaven. God is the one who decides who goes to heaven. But how does God’s heart react to a Dad like that? How? What do you think? … A dad’s heart! God has the heart of a father.
And faced with a dad, a nonbeliever, who was able to have his children baptized and to give them that courage, do you think that God would be capable of leaving him far from Him?
He even told the boy to “talk to your dad,” which—even in terms of a Catholic doctrine I don’t accept—would be impossible if the man were in hell.
Let me preface the following words by saying that my heart breaks for this boy. I sympathize with Pope Francis, and any other pastor, who must answer difficult questions about the afterlife for loved ones who were unbelievers.
Pope Francis is absolutely right that “God is the One who decides” who goes to heaven. We cannot know for certain who is and isn’t there. We are not the judge—fortunately. But God is, and only God can know a person’s heart infallibly. Even this father, for instance, who (for all we know) professed atheism for most of his life, may have yet have turned to Christ, like the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), and found saving grace even in the last few moments of his life.
And Francis is right about God having a father’s heart. Like the loving father in the parable (Luke 15:11-24), our heavenly Father stood ready to receive this man, without reservation, as his beloved child. “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15 and many other places). God loved this man beyond measure (John 3:16) and wanted him to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). And if this man repented and turned to Christ, even in his dying moments, he would have been saved: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13).
So… was this man saved? I hope! Even if it’s unlikely, given the man’s professed atheism, I hope. That’s all any of us can do. It’s all that’s warranted, biblically speaking.
If Francis had told the child something like that—and given the child’s age and level of maturity, I understand that it would have been difficult—I would have no problem.
What he said instead, however, was nothing less than a distortion of the gospel. He said, in so many words, that the man might be saved—or likely would be saved—on the basis not of faith in Christ but of his good works. To say the least this is cheap grace. And as I’ve said on this blog and in sermons, if grace is cheap, it’s already too expensive.
The gospel isn’t good news because it’s easier than following the Law; the gospel is good news because following the Law—even the watered-down version of the law that says, “Thou shalt be a good person”—is impossible. Even accounting for important differences between Catholic and Protestant understandings of justification by grace through faith (alone or otherwise), Pope Francis should know this, right?
Meanwhile, the popularity of Francis’s words to this boy makes the proclamation of the one true gospel all the more difficult. Who am I, after all, to contradict a pope?