Friday, January 20, 2012

Godly character, change of heart, and forgiveness of sins

Well, you can't say I don't try to take on big topics.  I was prompted to consider this subject--godly character, change of heart, and forgiveness of sins--when I read an article on Patheos by Francis J. Beckwith titled "Better to be an adulterer than a Mormon?: Evangelicals, Gingrich, and Romney"  (  Beckwith reflects on a visit to Utah including discussions with faculty at BYU and with the LDS Public Affairs office in Salt Lake.  Beckwith is sympathetic with the idea that moral character may count for more in a president than correct theology or even the status (according to a given theology) of being "forgiven."

One reader, Michael Bauman, left a comment questioning Beckwith's stance and suggesting that, if God forgives and regenerates a sinner, then past sins should not disqualify someone from being president--a position I pretty much agree with.  Otherwise, what would all the parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son mean--not to mention Christ's statement, "Neither do I condemn thee; go thy way and sin no more"?  But Bauman thinks either that Catholic forgiveness is superior to other kinds of forgiveness or that--even if people are equally forgiven in God's eyes--being a Catholic and having an understanding of Catholic theology would make someone a better president.  As he puts it, "All other things being equal, it's better to be a forgiven Catholic . . . than a forgiven Mormon . . ."

Reading the article and the comment prompted me to add a comment of my own--a rather long one, which I reproduce here:

Obviously the questions raised in this article are complicated. For instance, what factors make for the best president?  The truest and most nuanced theological understanding?  The best moral character?  Will the best president be the person theoretically (according to one's theology) most likely justified in God's eyes, despite serious character flaws?  And then there are factors less tied to theology, like leadership skills, knowledge of domestic and international issues, experience, etc.

The story about an Evangelical Protestant preferring an adulterer or a murderer over a Mormon likely includes the proviso, "As long as the adulterer or murderer has confessed Christ as his Savior."  In the view of many Evangelicals, such a confession--either before or after the adultery or murder--would guarantee justification and salvation, on the grounds of "once saved, always saved" (also known as "the perseverance of the saints").

I'm not Roman Catholic, but it appears from the comment made by Michael Bauman that a murderer or adulterer who has been absolved by priestly authority would, in the Catholic view, be better off than a non-Catholic who had never committed those sins or who had committed them and repented but lacked absolution.

Here's my problem with both the Evangelical and the Catholic response: does notional and even emotional reliance on Christ (as expressed in the Evangelical acceptance of Christ as Savior) guarantee a change of heart?  does going through the actions of confession and penance and receiving official absolution guarantee a change of heart?  And is God interested in such a change of heart, perhaps even more than simple freedom from sin?  Could it be that the means either Evangelicals or Catholics propose for obtaining forgiveness are valuable in God's eyes primarily as a way of starting someone on the path toward that change of heart?  And--back to politics--is a regenerate heart more important in a president than correct theology or even than officially "absolved" or "saved" status?

I'm sure many Evangelicals would agree that merely assenting to Christ's role as your Savior doesn't finish the process God intends.  And I assume absolution is not, in the view of thoughtful Roman Catholics, merely a magical action that changes a person without any serious engagement on their part.  If the state of a person's heart is what ultimately matters, then none of us really knows to what extent any of the candidates have obtained divine forgiveness or how far along they are in the process of becoming what God would like them to be.

A few final questions. Do Evangelicals and Catholics believe that non-Evangelicals and non-Catholics--perhaps even Mormons--can experience peace with God, forgiveness of sin, and improvement of character, even without what they consider a correct theological understanding or (in the Catholic view) without priestly absolution? 

If such absolution is required, then no non-Catholic can claim to be forgiven of past sins.  Michael Bauman suggests, though, that there might be such a being as "a forgiven Mormon."  If that means someone forgiven according to the Mormon view, then that would be someone who has faith in Christ, has sincerely repented (meaning changed in outlook and behavior), and is seeking to be obedient to God's commandments--all of this accomplished with God's enabling grace, leading to forgiveness of sins and change of heart through God's redeeming grace.  This process is nicely summed up in the Mormon belief that Christ will save people FROM their sins, not IN their sins [see Alma 11:37; Helaman 5:10].  Is such an understanding theologically correct--or close enough--from an Evangelical or Catholic point of view?  And how does its correctness or lack of correctness translate into reality?  In other words, do Evangelicals and Catholics believe that Mormons who engage in the process I've described can really be forgiven? 

For political purposes, the point of these questions is this: Can we know--without knowing the hearts of the candidates--who among them, Protestant, Catholic, or Mormon, is really forgiven in God's eyes and, beyond simply having been absolved of past sins, which of them has the godliest character?


(Japes) said...

Nice, Bruce. Thanks.

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