I recently became aware of an article quoting the recently appointed Pope Francis and his comments on our ability to do good, as well as our atonement, which were made last Wednesday. I felt compelled to offer a brief response to it. Here’s the opening section from the article:
Wednesday’s Gospel speaks to us about the disciples who prevented a person from outside their group from doing good. “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”
The reference here (the daily reading) is to Mark 9:38-40. Here are the words of the verses:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.”
Note something the pope left out, in both instances: these things were done in the name of Christ. The man who was “doing good” (actually, casting out demons) was doing so in the name of Christ. Christ speaks of those who work in his name, and who will not speak evil of him. Pope Francis is making it sound as if the disciples came across a random guy on the street giving money to a homeless man, and got upset because he wasn’t a Christian. On the contrary, they found a man who was casting out things in Christ’s name, and were curious if they should stop him because he wasn’t one of Christ’s direct disciples. That is, he was a follower of Christ but hadn’t received direct orders from Christ to do those things, and the disciples were worried about what appeared to be unorthodox way of continuing the message of Christ.
Pope Francis, however, takes this erroneous interpretation of Mark 9:38-40 and broadens out the capability of individuals to do good:
“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. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. Instead, this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”
We’ve already established that Mark 9:38-40 is not about doing general “good things,” but be that as it may, let’s first define our terms at this point: when we speak of “good,” do we mean simply “nice” things? If, that is, we are saying even the most passionate atheist can open up a door for an old woman, then I think no one will contest that. Of course everyone is capable of being “nice” or acting like a “good guy.”
If, however, by “good” we mean doing that which is pleasing to God, then we run into a serious problem – and serious because it is contradictory to what scripture teaches about human nature. The apostle Paul told us that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10), and that men are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). Christ himself told the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). The prophet Isaiah wrote that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa 64:6). The testimony of scripture is that none are considered “good” before God outside of Christ – neither in person or in deed.
Yet Pope Francis contests that a non-Catholic (or a non-Christian for that matter) “must” do good, because he “has this commandment within him.” In some regards, this is true, as the apostle Paul wrote:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. [Romans 2:14-16]
Men have the Law written on their hearts, so that even an atheist, deep down inside, feels some inkling that it’s wrong to murder. This is why virtually every culture in the world has laws concerning murder, adultery, rape, etc. The issue, however, is if merely doing works of the Law makes one justified before God. As we’ve seen before, this isn’t possible. As the apostle Paul writes later on in the same epistle: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20).
The next section is even more astounding:
“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! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
The Lord has redeemed us all? Everyone? All men have been absolved of their sins? Here we run into two problems:
Firstly, this isn’t consistent with the teaching of scripture. If Christ redeemed us all, why then does Christ say “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), and that these sheep are those whom the Father have given to them (John 10:29)? (I talk more of the sheep in John 10 in this post.) Why is it said Christ came to save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21)? Why does the apostle Paul state it was the church which Christ “obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28)? Why is it said Christ died for the church (Eph 5:25) and for the elect (Rom 8:32-33)? It is clear from this that there is, in fact, a particular redemption, over and against a general redemption. Christ did not redeem everyone who ever lived. Even Christ himself did not say that he came as a “ransom for all”, but as a “ransom for many” (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45), and the author of Hebrews says that Christ has been offered once “to bear the sins of many” (Heb 9:28).
Secondly, this runs into problems with the idea of atonement versus judgment, for if all men are redeemed, then why are any in hell? Why would any men be in hell? Some here will say, “It is because they have rejected Christ and do not have faith.” Unbelief, however, is listed as an equal sin with other acts against the Law of God (1 Co 6:8-10; Rev 21:8; 22:15) – let us not forget also that one of the Ten Commandments was the command to worship the true God (Ex 20:3). Are we to say that those who come to faith in Christ out of the mire of atheism or false religions are not forgiven for violating the very first commandment? If, indeed, they are forgiven by the blood of Christ, why then are not other unbelievers forgiven and redeemed by the blood of Christ? If it possible for men to go into hell, then they are not truly redeemed.
In this same vein, we run into a problem with Pope Francis’ statement “and this Blood makes us children of God of the first class!” The scriptural definition of being a “child of God,” however, belongs to those who are in the faith, regenerated internally by God, just as the apostle John wrote:
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. [John 1:12-13]
Our becoming children of God is not reliant upon merely being born into lineage (“not of blood”), nor by anything we intentionally do by our own power (‘nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man”), but rather through the regeneration wrought by God (“born…of God”). When this occurs, we become children of God through adoption.
The apostle Paul likewise spoke, regarding our status as children of God:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. [Romans 8:16-17]
The pope asks atheists to “do good: we will meet one another there,” for the sake of peace. Again, if he’s just talking about “being nice,” I would be all for that, and we should all get along. The pope, however, goes on to state that “doing good” is not a matter of faith, but “it is a duty, it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us, because He has made us in His image and likeness. And He does good, always.” While it is true that we are made in the likeness of God, let us not forget that this image is fallen. The inclination of man is not to do that is pleasing to God, let alone honor the true God. It is impossible for the pope to meet an atheist halfway because the atheist is repulsed by the God which the pope claims to worship. Any “meeting halfway” will be superficial peace, not sincere peace, for a hatred still exists, in whatever form, between the non-Christian and the Christian’s Master. It is like those who say “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (cf. Jer 8:11).
As I’ve said before, no Christian denies that a non-Christian can do “nice” things, or be a “nice” guy, but in regards to our status before God, all men are guilty and their “good” means nothing, unless it is done, as the evangelist Mark said, in Christ. John Climacus, an ancient desert ascetic and author of the famous Ladder of Divine Ascent, said that doing good works without Christ was like pouring water into a bucket with a hole at the bottom. The “nicest” person in the world, if they do not have Christ, is still an object to be fed into hell, for they are still guilty of their sins. The righteousness of God is not in doing works of the Law, for the “righteousness of God” is found “faith in Jesus Christ,” and can only be found there, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:22-23). As I said, it would be impossible for a Christian and an atheist to meet halfway in the “doing of good,” because there is a difference on what is motivating either case. It is also problematic because the very standard of what is “good” is being denied by one of the parties.
Let me end here by saying that if you are outside of Christ, then you must realize that all the “good” you do will not atone for your sins, and that you will be guilty before God for all you have done. This is a serious matter to consider, because we are speaking of eternity – and eternity is a long, long time. Scripture tells us that “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). Thankfully, God himself took on the role of ultimate sacrifice, when God the Son gave his life to offer “one sacrifice for sins for all time” (Heb 10:12), so that those who repent of their sins and confess faith in him may be saved. God is granting you time to do this, even now, as you’re reading this blog post. If not, at least ponder these things seriously, and know that Christ is a perfect Savior from whom you shall never be snatched, for he promises regarding his sheep that “no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28), and it is said that he is one who is “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him” (Heb 7:25). Ponder these things carefully. God bless.