In a sermon earlier today Pope Francis preached:
“They complain,” the Pope said in his homily, because they say, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.” The disciples, Pope Francis explains, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation”
Pope Francis is referring to the Gospels where a couple of them record Jesus as saying:
Now John answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is on our side. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. — Mark 9:38-41
Now John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.” — Luke 9:49-50
In today’s highly polarized world, we have trouble with the Scriptures above. Actually, because of the Reformation we have TWO troubles with the Scriptures above.
The first trouble is the one that comes from our polarization. We have trouble admitting that anyone who does not believe exactly as we do could be blessed of God. That is not a problem simply among the Orthodox, but also among every Christian group. But, both the Scriptures and Pope Francis point to a reality that is quite present if only we would admit it, that God’s mercy and grace are indeed overflowing and spill over out of the Church even into non-Church areas. Does this mean that every Christian group is part of the Church? No, there is no theological need to say that. But, there is also a need to be cautious that we do not declare the salvation of those who are truly seeking to follow God as being somehow worthless.
Pope Francis went on to say:
“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”
This second quote goes to the second problem, which comes from the Reformation. It is a two-fold problem. Did God die for all or for some? Various types of Calvinism state that God died for some. But, the second part of the problem is actually a psychological one. Are any of our works good? Protestants love to quote that “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.” That Scripture, taken out of context and by itself, was heavily psychologized by the Reformation to say that no one can do good. None of our works are good because ultimately they are either corrupted by some inappropriate thought of self-glorification (psychological argument) or because no work is acceptable to God unless the person is in an active practicing Christian relationship with God (an unfulfillable standard). Thus the Word of God which speaks about good works is denied by saying that good works are not possible.
Pope Francis cuts through the issues and points to Jesus’ sacrifice. Did he for all or for some? If he died for all, then in some way his sacrifice applies to all. No, I do not think that Pope Francis is teaching universal salvation. But, what he is teaching is that salvation is for all and that if salvation is for all and if good works are part following God, then good works must be possible by all. On the basis of the Lord’s redemption of “all of us” he has made it possible for all of us to do good works, even those who do not believe. Good works are not dependent on the person but on God’s reception of those works as being good. And, in Christ, he has chosen to receive all good works.
Frankly, this points to Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in which he argues that:
For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.
Too many twist this Scripture to say that even Gentiles “who do not have the law … who show the work of the law written in their hearts” will still end up being condemned. Meanwhile, Pope Francis says that this is not the correct interpretation, but rather that those who “by nature do the things in the law” will not be forgotten by God. The issue is not perfection but intention. If the issue were perfection, none would be saved. Matthew 24 makes it clear that a believer does demonstrate certain behaviors. (Interestingly enough, this goes along with Calvin’s doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints). Oddly enough, those who argue once saved always saved use the argument of intention quite strongly to argue that the intention to follow God is sufficient to ensure eternal salvation. While the Orthodox would disagree with that statement, it would be true to say that God regards intention very highly. We cannot use intention as an excuse for our misbehavior, but intention certainly is an attitude that God highly appreciates.
And so, Pope Francis is right in his statements. All can do good, even atheists. And, it is because of Jesus work on our behalf. Salvation is not by works. But works do indicate intention, the intention to follow God, even if you do not fully know who he is because of cultural and other circumstances. And God is quite able to have mercy outside the boundaries of the Church. Can we define those on whom he will have mercy outside the Church? NO! There is a mystery here. We can know that he will have mercy outside the Church (see the Gospel quotes). But, we dare not set the rules that determine how he will administer that mercy.
What we can say is that Salvation is found in the Church. That is truly and absolutely certain. But we cannot fully assert that there is no hope of salvation outside the Church, if we interpret that in such a way that it ensures that there are those who have never heard the Gospel and who are thus certain of being damned. Neither do we dare assert that salvation outside the Church is definable and structurable. Salvation is only found in Jesus Christ. Thus, no one outside the Church can be saved because the Church is the Body of Christ and we can only be saved through Christ. So here we must plead mystery, but a mystery that has hope and the certainty that God desires that all should be saved. “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And we can most clearly assert that such a salvation is found only in Jesus, even when the person may not fully know Jesus. However, the details are not in our grasp.