Pope Says Follow Your Conscience

Pope Francis was back in international headlines last week after responding to a letter addressed to him by a large Italian newspaper. The pope was responding to one of the former editors of La Repubblica and in so doing continued his practice of reaching out to those who are skeptics and those who have questions regarding the church.

In his response to the paper, Francis continued to show his conciliatory and peacemaking tone towards those outside the church and stated that “without a doubt it would seem to be positive, not only for each one of us, but also for the society in which we live, to stop and speak about a matter as important as faith and which refers to the teachings and the figure of Jesus.”

In the beginning of his open letter, the pope lays out what can be described as some of the basic truths of orthodox Christianity. The pope affirmed that Jesus Christ being the very incarnation of God was central to the Christian faith and articulated a helpful argument to the former editor not to look at the unfortunate sins of church, which is composed of fallible people, but to look at the perfect life of Jesus who is infallible.

However, mixed in among the helpful statements the pope made, there were many statements which once again show the major differences in the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Christianity.

The first of these differences had to do with Israel. Pope Francis begins by answering a question the editor had in regards to God’s promise originally made to the Jews. Here the pope states, “At the end of your first article, you also ask me what to say to our Jewish brothers about the promise God made to them: Has this been forgotten? And this – believe me – is a question that radically involves us as Christians because, with the help of God, starting from the Second Vatican Council, we have discovered that the Jewish people are still, for us, the holy root from which Jesus originated.”

The Pope responds by referring back to the Second Vatican Council where the church fundamentally changed its position regarding this question. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church taught that all those who were saved are those who are purely and self consciously members of the catholic church and under the teaching and discipline of the church and teachings and discipline of the pope. At the 2nd Vatican Council, the church adopted what is now known as a two covenant theology which teaches that the covenant God made with the Jews is still in full sanding, and the covenant God made with the Gentiles is not binding on the Jewish people. In adopting a two covenant theology the Church abdicated any responsibility to bring the truth of the Gospel and the New Covenant to the Jews.

There have even been some liberal protestants who have adopted this theological position and in so doing compromise and deny fundamental truths of the Gospel found in Scripture. In the Bible we see in Romans 1:16 that Paul says he is not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first and also the Greek. Nowhere in the New Testament can one find a separate enduring covenant which leads to salvation apart from the covenant which includes the redeeming work of Christ.

Perhaps though, it is the pope’s following statements which more dramatically show the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The pope wrote:

“As for the three questions you asked me in the article of August 7th. It would seem to me that in the first two, what you are most interested in is understanding the Church’s attitude towards those who do not share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that – and this is fundamental – God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.”

This statement, and this statement alone, shows the fundamental difference in the belief that Roman Catholics and Protestants have in terms of the Gospel. Namely, that this is a clear pronouncement made by the pope, which is consistent with the documents of the Second Vatican Council, that salvation can be granted to those who in this life never come to saving knowledge of Christ and place their faith in Him.

According the Second Vatican Council in the document entitled “Lumen Gentium” the council stated, “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind…those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”

Therefore, according to Pope Francis and the Second Vatican Council, there are many who can be saved based upon whatever revelation they have and whatever revelation they will receive based on their own conscience. The pope, and the church’s official teaching, make clear that the key issue in salvation is the individual conscience. However, no affirmation of this can be found in Scripture. In Romans 2 Paul flatly denies that the conscience is a good guide to follow when attaining salvation, and even goes on to continue such arguments in other epistles (1 Cor. 8:7, 10:29, 1 Tim. 4:2, Titus 1:15).

Furthermore, Paul goes on to say in Romans 10 that salvation can only come through confessing a genuine belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and continues by laying out the logic and necessity of the Gospel in Romans 10:14 when he says, “How then will they call Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?”

Perhaps it is a good step in the right direction, and one we can all follow when the pope writes directly to a skeptic in order to speak openly and genuinely with a non believer. However, what purpose does it serve if the true Gospel is not proclaimed?

4 responses to “Pope Says Follow Your Conscience

  1. In defense of the statement from Lumen Gentium, Peter says in Acts 10:35, “But in every nation, he that feareth him and worketh justice is acceptable to him.” speaking of the likes of Cornelius. If we admit that it’s possible to not know the gospel, not by your own fault, this passage would suggest salvation is still possible.
    Also, having read the scriptures you mentioned, I don’t believe that they discredit the conscience. While some may have a weak conscience, not knowing right and wrong thoroughly, and others may have defiled their conscience by sinning, the conscience still points us to God and righteousness. The conscience is a crucial part of seeking God and salvation, and he who seeks, finds (Matthew 7:8).

    • In regards to Acts 10:35, I think it’s an interesting verse. It first should be taken in context. Peter makes this statement after having Cornelius explain why he has sent for him. Cornelius tells Peter he has sent for him because God has commanded him to do so as a result of God remembering his gifts to the poor. Cornelius ends his explanation by stating, “Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” In other words, Cornelius is not yet saved (justified before God). Peter is sent to proclaim the Gospel without which Cornelius and his family are lost. Peter then responds with his quote in verse 35. This is almost certainly an addition to Peter’s previous statement that, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him.” Therefore, in that context, Peter’s statement in verse 35 makes more sense. After hearing the account Cornelius gives, Peter understands God is not showing partiality by allowing only the Jews to be apart of His covenant. Now, God is accepting all people, all nationalities, all ethnicities, because of the accomplished work of Christ on the cross. Cornelius and his family are saved that day not because of their good consciences, but because the Gospel was preached to them and they believed. Furthermore, the Greek word for acceptance found in verse 35 is dektos which does not refer to legal justification before God (salvation). The New Testament uses the Greek word dikaioo (such as in Romans 8:30) and related terms when referring to the justification and salvation of the sinner.

      • I agree that Cornelius was saved by the gospel, but still, if those who fear Him, though with incomplete knowledge, and do justice, are acceptable, and God, ‘doth will all men to be saved, and to come to the full knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4) then would God allow those who have seeked Him to the best of their abilities to never find Him?
        That said however, God could reveal Himself to such people in this life, as He did to Cornelius and Peter. I’ve also heard that one group of Jesuits sent to the new world, found that one group of Native Americans, numbering more than 400 (if I remember correctly), had all seen an apparition of a certain saint, and already had the gospel.
        Further, if Jesus went and preached even to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19), why shouldn’t God still offer salvation to those who haven’t believed?

  2. God always punishes people based upon what they know and fail to believe. Does this mean that people will be saved and go to heaven if they have never heard of Jesus? No, this is not what God has told us in the Bible. The main passage of the Bible which speaks to this is Romans 1:18-23.

    Notice a few things:

    1. All people “know God” even though they have never heard the Bible. “What can be known about God is plain to them” (vs. 19). “Although they knew God…” (vs. 21).

    2. The way they know God is by the way God has made the world and their own consciences (vs. 19-20). God can be seen through nature and through all of His creation and on the heart of each person God has written His law (Romans 2:15).

    3. Even though they know God, no one who knows God anywhere in the world “honors God as God or gives Him thanks” (vs. 21). Instead, they “suppress the truth” (vs. 18). That is, they resist the truth deep in their hearts and “exchange it” (vs. 23) for other things they would rather have. This is because of our deep rooted sinful nature. We naturally resist God. The conscience and heart of man is so seared from sin, it does not naturally turn towards God unless God supernaturally changes the heart of man.

    4. Therefore, they are without excuse (vs. 20). That is, they are guilty and deserve to be punished.

    So I do not think the Bible teaches that anyone can be saved without hearing the Gospel.

    In regards to 1 Peter 3:19, I do not think in reading the passage Spirits one, refer to once humans, and two, Jesus was not proclaiming salvation and release from prison, but was proclaiming final triumph over the evil spirits in prison. We know according to scripture that there are some demons who are bound and some which are loose. Jesus goes to the bound demons and proclaims to them that he has triumphed over them and hell. Hell will not be filled in the way they think it will. Millions will be saved from the fate which awaits the demons already, but it can only come through hearing and believing the Gospel.

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