Back in 2006, a Free Grace theologian presented a message at a conference in which he argued that believing in Jesus for the promise of irrevocable everlasting life cannot be a requirement for the new birth since no one believed that between AD 100 and AD 1500. That article was published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Chafer Theological Seminary Journal. The implication was that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox were born again. I did not realize that there was a second implication. If Roman Catholics were born again until AD 1500, then Roman Catholics are born again today as well (unless their saving message has significantly changed, which it has not). I did not consider that implication since the speaker and writer was a Free Grace theologian.
In the years since then, I’ve heard and read things which confirm that second implication. Other Free Grace theologians have cited that 2008 article to prove that Roman Catholics, and indeed most all who calls themselves Christians, are born again.
Some in Free Grace circles believe that although works salvation is a flawed message, it is nonetheless a saving message since it proclaims that Jesus is God and that He died on the cross for our sins and rose bodily from the dead. If we believe that, we are born again even if we believe we must turn from our sins, be baptized, and persevere until death in obedience in order to escape eternal condemnation.
We could discuss historical theology. The Reformers argued that the message of Rome would not save. Most Protestants argued that way until the middle of the twentieth century. Billy Graham started putting Roman Catholics on the podium with him. The result was that around 1957, Fundamentalists rejected the message and ministry of Billy Graham. (See this article, “Billy Graham and Rome.”) But the shift had begun. Today many Evangelicals think Roman Catholics are born again.
However, the issue is what the Bible teaches, not what church history says.
Does the Word of God tell us what the saving message is?
Yes. John 3:16 is clear. To be born again one must believe that what Jesus promises is true. That is, one must believe that whoever believes in Him will not perish but has everlasting life (cf. John 11:26b, “Do you believe this?”). That same message appears over one hundred times in the Bible. See my book Faith-Alone in One Hundred Verses.
But does the Bible ever explicitly say that works salvation does not work? That is, does it ever say that people cannot be born again by believing in a faith-plus-works message?
Yes. In Galatians Paul is writing against false teachers, whom we call Judaizers. These men were saying that faith in Christ was insufficient for justification. Instead, in addition to believing in Jesus, the Judaizers said that one must follow the Law of Moses faithfully, including the command that all the males must be circumcised (cf. Gal 5:4). Paul indicated that the Judaizers were proclaiming a false gospel and he anathematized them (Gal 1:6-9).
Works salvation was explicitly rejected at the Jerusalem Council as well. Judaizers were claiming that one had to keep the Law of Moses to be saved (Acts 15:1). The Council said that is a false message, that one is born again by faith in Christ, apart from works (cf. Acts 15:7-11). More on this in part 2.
The same rejection of works salvation is found in the teaching of the Lord Jesus. The Lord was asked, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” (John 6:28). Notice that they ask about works. Plural. They are thinking in terms of God’s commands. The Jewish people often asked about the greatest commandments for this very reason. The Lord’s answer is simple and profound: “This is the work [singular] of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:29). The Father sent the Son to proclaim the promise of everlasting life to the believer (cf. John 5:24). The only “work” anyone can do to be born again is to believe in Jesus, the One whom the Father sent. The Lord went on to make this crystal clear: “He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). He added, “he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). The only action a person can take to be born again is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
That same idea is found in the Lord’s remarks in John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me [=believe in Me, see John 6:35] that you may have life.” Life is not found by trying to keep God’s commands, even if that working is combined with believing some sound doctrine. One is born again by faith alone, or he is not yet born again at all.
Works salvation does not work.
So, are Roman Catholics born again? My answer may surprise you. I am convinced that many Roman Catholics are born again. But not for the reason the author mentioned above gives. The reason is simple. If anyone ever believed in Jesus for the free gift of everlasting life, then his salvation is secure forever. Many Roman Catholics had a time in their lives when they believed the faith-alone message. It may have been when they attended a meeting like Young Life or Fellowship of Christian Athletes in high school. It could have been when they met with someone from the Navigators or Campus Crusade for Christ in college. It could have been a discussion with a friend at work. The fact that a specific Roman Catholic believes in works salvation today does not mean that he never believed in Christ for everlasting life.
(In my view, untold millions believed in the free gift of everlasting life between AD 100 and AD 1500. The fact that we do not have surviving documents proving that is no surprise. Most books were lost over that time. And the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches would even destroy writings that they considered heretical. There were surely thousands of small independent churches in those centuries. Plus, people within the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches could have come to faith by being evangelized by friends and loved ones, just like today.)
A disturbing trend I’m seeing among people who call themselves Free Grace is some are saying that apostates prove they never really believed. Both the Bible (e.g., 2 Tim 2:11-13; Heb 6:4-8; Heb 10:26-31) and experience show that born-again people sometimes fall away, not just morally, but even doctrinally. But the good news is that everlasting life is ever-lasting life. Once you have it, you have it forever.
Works salvation is a message that is rejected by the Word of God. Works salvation does not work.