I recently read a few statements by Samuel Harris, one of the leaders of what is called New Atheism. As the label indicates, he is a vocal critic of Biblical Christianity. Something he said in this article caught my eye. At one point, he states that a Christian “believes that Jesus is the Son of God and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death.” They do so, he says, because they “believe those propositions are true” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation [New York, Vintage Publishing, 2008], 3.)
I do not know what Harris means by the title “Son of God.” It seems he understands it the same way the Gospel of John does—that Jesus is the Christ. In any event, I find his statements amazing. He recognizes what the Bible says. In stating Christian doctrine, Harris says that a person gains salvation by faith in Jesus alone. It is clear that by salvation Harris means salvation from the lake of fire. He states this on the same page when he says that those who do not believe will “languish in eternal fire” (Matt 25:41). This salvation is obtained because the Christian believes that certain “propositions are true.” These propositions are that Jesus is the One who is able to provide this salvation and that it is given by faith in Him.
What stands out here is that Harris has a better understanding of what the Bible says than many evangelicals today. It is true that we don’t know what Harris would say about the assurance of that salvation. But most evangelicals would say that salvation from the lake of fire is given only to those who repent of their sins, commit to obey the Lord, and persevere in good works. It is not the result of simply believing that certain “propositions are true.” After all, that would simply be mental assent, and mental assent is not adequate to save. Mental assent alone does not include repentance, commitment, and perseverance.
Of course, some would point to the example of Harris as a reason to attack Free Grace Theology. They would say that he understands these propositions. Free Grace Theology, these critics would say, declares that this is sufficient and that Harris will be in the kingdom. Harris comprehends what a person needs to give mental assent to in order to be saved. After all, he knows the facts.
This is a mischaracterization of Free Grace Theology. Yes, Harris seems to correctly state the good news of eternal life as presented by the Bible. But he does not believe it. In fact, in the book cited above he adds that he most definitely does not believe it. He adds that because he does not believe, he is not saved according to Christian doctrine. He maintains that any debate must start at this point.
Even Harris, then, sees that there is a difference between understanding saving propositions—as Harris does—and believing them. If mental assent simply means understanding the propositions in question, then mental assent does not save. But if mental assent means that the person believes that these propositions are true, then in the case of the good news of eternal life, it is, indeed, saving. Any person receives that salvation if they are convinced that Jesus is the Christ who guarantees eternal life to anyone believing in Him for it.
It is sad that Harris understands what is true but is not convinced that it is. How amazing is it, though, that the Lord has made this good news so simple to understand that even a radical unbelieving enemy of the truth can look at the Scriptures and understand what the Lord says? However, it is also sad that many who maintain that they are proclaiming the truth do not have this understanding.