Tough Questions About God – Program 5

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Jack Harris, John Warwick Montgomery, Dr. Norman Geisler, Dr. Paul Kurtz, Dr. Walter Martin, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Dr. R. C. Sproul, and Dr. John MacArthur; ©1998
Protestants and Catholics have very different ideas of what someone must do in order to go to heaven. What are some of the differences?

How Can A Person Get to Heaven?


Besides the major religions in our world, there are thousands and thousands of religious groups all claiming different ways to God. But Jesus taught that He is the only way to God; there is no other way. Who is right? Logically, Jesus or one other religious leader could be right; but they both can’t be right at the same time if they are saying contradictory things. What evidence will help us decide and come to a conclusion?

If you are a Christian, do you know how to answer the tough questions about God that people are asking? The Bible says, “Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.” [1 Pet. 3:15] Can you do that?

On this edition of The John Ankerberg Show, we’ll present the evidence that will strengthen your own faith and help you assist those who are sincerely searching for the truth. Join us today as we examine some of the tough questions about God.

Ankerberg: Welcome. If you ask the average person, “What is the difference between the Protestant and Catholic churches in your city,” most would say they don’t think there is much difference. And if you ask, “Do Catholics and Protestants teach the same thing about how a person gets to heaven,” most would say they don’t know, but they think so. But if you stay tuned, you will see there is a big difference between what Protestants and institutional Roman Catholics teach about how a person is to get to heaven.
In one of our television programs, I asked Dr. D. James Kennedy, the Senior Minister of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to comment on this important subject and this is what he said. Listen:
      • [Excerpt from Do Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants Now Agree?]
Dr. D. James Kennedy: Essentially, there are only two religions in the whole world: one of them is “I” —I live a good life; I keep the commandments; I pray; I go to church; I follow the Golden Rule; I love my neighbor; I do the best I can; I don’t do this bad thing, I don’t do the other. That’s called autosoterism or self-salvation, where I become my own salvation; glory be to me. I’m in competition with Jesus Christ who claims to be the Savior of the world.
The only other religion is the cross. There are over 30,000 religions in the world, but when you take off the ribbon and the wrapping and open the box, you’ll either find the “I” or the cross essentially. And everyone is going to either be saving himself and be his own savior, or he’s going to trust in Christ and in Christ alone. And I would say to anyone that wants to know the free salvation of God, to get out of the savior business, declare spiritual bankruptcy, turn to Christ and trust in Him alone for your salvation, and He will freely give you the gift of everlasting life. He will come into your heart and enable you to trust Him and to repent of your sins and change your life and give you new meaning and new direction and new power to live a godly life. And He will take you to be with Him in Paradise forever and ever.
      • [end excerpt]
Ankerberg: Now, our question today is, do Catholics and Protestants teach the same thing about how a person can get to heaven? Both Protestants and Catholics agree that Jesus is the only Savior. Both agree that He shed His blood on the cross to pay for our sins. But the Catholic and Protestant church disagree as to how we obtain salvation from God and the basis for God’s giving us right standing before Him. Dr. R. C. Sproul, chairman of Ligonier Ministries, in Orlando, Florida, explains:
      • [Excerpt from Do Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants Now Agree?]
Dr. R. C. Sproul: Now, to get to the heart of that, let me jump down the funnel to the bottom line of the controversy historically between the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelicals that provoked the Reformation. I try to say this in a way that my mother, God bless her, if she were still alive, would be able to understand it (and I hope she understands it now far more clearly than I do in her felicity in Heaven). But in any case, if my mother were here, I would say, “Mom, here’s my problem. God is just; God is righteous; and I’m not. How can I possibly survive a tribunal before a just and holy God since I know that that God requires and demands perfect righteousness for Him to justify anyone?”
And so the issue in the sixteenth century was not whether God demands righteousness in order for Him to declare somebody just, but the issue was, where do we get that righteousness? The Protestant view was this: that the only righteousness that has the merit necessary to meet the requirements of the holiness of God is that righteousness that was achieved and performed by Jesus Christ and by Jesus Christ alone. There’s where the word alone comes in, John, because all Protestants have acknowledged historically that the phrase “justification by faith alone” really is shorthand for “justification by the righteousness of Christ alone;” that only His righteousness is sufficient to save us.
The Roman Catholic Church said that the only way God will ever declare me righteous or you righteous or anybody else righteous is if they have a righteousness that inheres within them, an intrinsic righteousness, a righteousness that really belongs to John Ankerberg. They would say that you can’t be righteous, John, apart from the help of Christ and the grace of Christ and the infusion of His power and so on, with which you must assent and cooperate—assentare cooperarae is the language they use. And so you can’t be saved without the help of Christ or without grace or without faith. But added to that faith, added to that grace, added to that Christ, must be the contribution of John Ankerberg, without which God will not declare you just. Now, that’s all the difference in the world. And the word alone is trying to draw a line in the sand and say that the gospel of Jesus Christ says that the only way a person can be saved is by the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith.
      • [end excerpt]
Ankerberg: What Dr. Sproul just talked about is based upon the Scripture, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” [Rom. 1:17] The wonderful news is that God is the One who provides the righteousness we need before Him. It is a righteousness that we could never provide for ourselves. How does God say we can obtain this right standing before Him that He Himself provides?
The apostle Paul tells us, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” [Jas. 2:23] Here we find that the moment Abraham believed God, the moment he put his faith in what God said, God credited to him righteousness. That is, God declared him legally to be free from the penalty of his sin and credited to him the very righteousness of Christ.
God in the Bible clearly tells us we obtain this righteousness from God by faith, not by any works we do, even those we do with God’s help. The Bible says, “To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked [notice, it’s not the righteous person God justifies but the wicked or ungodly; the moment that person believes], his faith is credited by God as righteousness.” [Rom. 4:5]
As the Bible says, “It is not by works of righteousness which we have done but according to His mercy He saved us.” [Titus 3:5]
It’s like Ross Perot’s billion-dollar bank account. If he was willing to legally transfer and join his account to your bank account, if you were a million dollars in debt, then as soon as his billions were transferred to your account, your million dollar debt would be swallowed up. Then you would be viewed as being a billionaire, even though you had done nothing to earn it.
The moment God sees your faith in Christ, your sins are transferred to Christ who has paid for them and God transfers Christ’s righteousness to you. God views you as standing in the riches of Christ’s righteousness, and your debts are wiped out. But the Catholic Church denies God grants you Christ’s righteousness by faith alone.
Catholicism says a person must join works with faith if he expects God to accept him and declare him good enough to be ultimately justified and get into heaven. For Catholicism, justification is not a declaration God makes about the person outside of him, giving him legal status and standing in God’s presence; for Catholicism justification is a process that takes place inside of the person, and progresses incrementally over a person’s lifetime.
Dr. John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California and a popular speaker on the nationwide radio program “Grace to You,” explains:
      • [Excerpt from Do Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants Now Agree?]
Dr. John MacArthur: John, I was just going to add, the process of justification, and it is a “process” in the Catholic faith, starts with infant baptism. And they say that justification is initiated as a process at infant baptism. And it progresses through life, based upon what you do with infused grace. That grace is infused into you supernaturally; it’s infused into you through the Mass; it’s infused into you through the Sacraments. And as it’s infused and you cooperate with it, you keep the justifying process going.
Now, you can stop that process at any point in time with a mortal sin, but you keep it going. Even when you get to the end of your life, the odds are you haven’t kept it going good enough and you’re going to purgatory. Now, when you get in purgatory, you hang around there for an eon or two doing whatever you can do to keep that process moving, hoping somebody up on top is sending down something from the Treasury of Merit to add to you so that “eventually” justification may “actually” be completed and you’ll get out of that place and into Heaven.
Nothing could be a more convoluted view of what is an instantaneous act in the Word of God as he said exactly by which God places the righteousness of Christ on you. And the truth is, I am no more righteous to the satisfaction of God now than before I was declared righteous.
      • [end excerpt]
Ankerberg: Well, at the Council of Trent the Roman Catholic Church officially, dogmatically, taught that God approaches sinners with prevenient grace, drawing men to Himself. If a person cooperates with this initial grace, then he is baptized.
Now, the Catholic Church teaches justification has two different phases; that is, there is a first and second phase, called initial and progressive justification. In the first phase, at baptism, a person is cleansed from all original sin and actual sins. He is also simultaneously infused with a new and supernatural righteousness within.
After baptism the second phase of justification takes place. Here the Catholic Church teaches that the righteousness within can be increased by participation in the sacraments. Day by day, if one commits a mortal sin, then God’s righteousness within is destroyed. To regain justifying righteousness, a person must be restored through the sacrament of penance. Then, at the end of life, one comes to the final phase of justification and finds out if he has sufficient righteousness to obtain ultimate justification and heaven from God. So Trent clearly emphasized that a man or woman must progressively cooperate with the grace of God by doing good works which are necessary to obtain God’s ultimate salvation.
Catholic dogma states: “If anyone says… that the justified person himself, through the good works which are done by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ… does not truly merit an increase of grace, life eternal, and the obtaining of eternal life itself… let him be anathema.”
Now, many Catholics have told me, “We are not doing these works in our own strength; we do them in the power of Christ who prompts us. Therefore, our works are really a part of God’s grace system.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the Faithful.” According to the Council of Trent, “Those who work well unto the end and who trust in God, life eternal is to be faithfully given to their good works and merit.”
But this confuses the biblical teaching of heaven as God’s gift by grace alone, and being rewarded with heaven based on merit, even merit prompted by grace. The false assumption that is made is that simply because a work is prompted by grace, then the reward is not really obtained by merit.
For example, if your friend comes over and urges you to come to his house to do a job for him, and you would not have done that job for him without his urging you, when he pays you for that work and gives you more than he would give to a regular worker, does it mean that your wages were totally a gift, that you didn’t earn any part of it? Of course not. Even though he prompted you to do the work, you did it. And even though your work was rewarded more highly than it should have been, at least part of the money given to you was earned by you. You did the work.
The same is true of salvation. If God rewards some of our good works on earth by giving us salvation and eternal life, then it is not truly and solely God’s grace providing it. If any part of your reward is because of your works, then heaven is not gained purely by grace since part of your work merited the outcome. But the apostle Paul writes, “If [salvation is] by grace, it is no longer because of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace.” [Rom. 11:6]
In Catholicism, since heaven is obtained in part by good works, even those prompted by the Spirit of Christ, then at least in part the reward is on the basis of a person’s good works. But the Bible denies this. It says that what is worked for is not of grace; and what is given by grace is not obtained by works. So the Catholic concept of merit and good works being a necessary condition for obtaining eternal life or ultimate justification is contrary to the clear teaching of the Bible.
One more very important thing. According to the Roman Catholic view, a person must await a final decision by God at death to know whether he is righteousness enough to be given ultimate justification and eternal life; therefore, no Catholic knows for sure he will go to heaven. But the good news for all of us is that the Bible clearly teaches the gift of eternal life is the present possession of those who believed in Christ, and it says it over and over again. For example, Jesus taught: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” [John 3:36] And in 1 John 5:13, the apostle writes, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God in order that you may know that you have eternal life.”
But Catholic dogma denies a person can have this knowledge. It excludes Catholics from claiming they can know with assurance that if they were to die they would have eternal life. But please read the Gospel of John, where only one condition is laid down for our obtaining eternal life, and that’s belief. See John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 20:31. If salvation was not by faith alone in Christ’s work for us, then John’s whole message would be misleading. We could never do enough to earn or merit God’s salvation, even cooperating with His grace. Jesus did it all and God provides the righteous standing we need the moment we believe. That very moment God declares wicked sinners to be totally justified on the basis of Christ’s work at the cross and His righteous life being imputed to us.
Again, justification is God’s judicial declaration about us, outside of us, that allows us to have assurance that we are forgiven and totally accepted before God. And let’s be clear, to be justified does not mean that we have been immediately transformed in our character to the total image of Christ. Rather, justification immediately initiates the beginning transformation of our character. But this transformation is a continuous life-long process called sanctification in which the believer progresses, not to get saved but as a result of already having been saved. These are important distinctions and they should not be confused.
Dr. D. James Kennedy explains why. Listen:
      • [Excerpt from Do Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants Now Agree?]
Ankerberg: Dr. Kennedy, you know, Catholicism believes that Evangelical Protestants do not emphasize or put enough significance on the changed life, okay? They hear us talk about justification by faith alone, and they think nothing has to happen in terms of the life. But they get mixed up “justification” with “sanctification.” Would you define those and talk about the relationship?
Kennedy: They state very clearly both in Trent and also in their modern catechism “justification encompasses sanctification.” So they confound the two. Justification and sanctification must always be distinguished, but they can never be separated.
Justification is an act, once and forever, instantaneous, whereby God declares a sinner—an ungodly, unrighteous, sinful man—declares him righteous for the sake of Christ; having imputed to him the righteousness or the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. And that is “once and for all” done. No Christian is “more or less justified” than another. We are all justified instantaneously; we are all justified totally and completely.
Sanctification is a process which begins at that moment of regeneration, the moment of salvation, and grows all through our lives. It is different in every believer. Sometimes you hear people say that don’t like people that are “holier than thou,” holier than me, but the fact of the matter is, there are Christians that are holier than I am, holier than you are, and holier than everyone here is. And everyone sitting in this room has some different degree of cleansing and growth in the Christian faith.
That is completed by “glorification,” which again, is an act which takes place after death—immediately after death—where all of the vestigial remains of sin are removed and we are made absolutely perfect. It is as if the perfect white robe of Christ’s righteousness were placed upon us once and for all. Internally we are gradually being cleansed and purified throughout this life; and that glorification after death, inwardly we were made as perfect as outwardly we are accounted, for Christ’s sake, right now.
But they make sanctification a part of justification so that the person must work long and labor hard. I was just reading some of the things which they tell a person they must do in order to receive the grace of justification. Consider these things: They must love and worship God; pray; fasting; they must love one’s neighbor; they must practice self-renunciation; obey the commandments of God; bear witness to the Catholic faith; follow supernatural inspiration in deeds; confess the major doctrines of the Church. And if they do all of these things, they may become worthy of justification. But the Bible says that “God justifies the ungodly” [Rom. 4:5] and that we are justified “apart from works.” [Rom. 3:28]
In the third chapter of Romans, where Paul gives the fullest statement of the gospel, he concludes with this concluding statement: “Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” [Rom. 3:28] Now, that is none other than sola fide stated in other words: Faith alone. A man is “justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” But they are saying a man is justified by faith based upon his completion of a whole series of years of efforts to keep the law, and finally he is justified by his own merit in the end effect.


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