The sensationalism of the press is sometimes amusing, especially when it comes to religion. On 22nd May 20i3 the Huffington Post announced, "Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed , Not Just Catholics." The Daily Mail's headline was this: "Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Saved."
Supposedly, this is something new and groundbreaking.
It is not.
It is, however, a very clever publicity stunt on the part of the Vatican. When Rome changed her pope from the hardliner, Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), to the seemingly benevolent Mario Jose Bergoglio (Francis I) many Evangelicals were impressed.
And Francis I has been great at public relations. He appears to many to be a humble, pious man. He avoids many of the trappings of the papal office. He even washes people's feet! People are fooled because they judge according to appearance (see John 7:24). They do not judge the gospel which the pope preaches (see Gal. 1:8).
For example, how can a man be humble, who in overweening pride receives the title of "Holy Father"? And how can a man be humble who boasts in salvation by his own works?! (Eph. 2:8-9).
In his homily the pope made some statements which made the headlines.
1. All men are redeeemed by Christ.
We must understand that this is standard Roman Catholic doctrine. Rome distinguishes between redemption and salvation. All men have been "redeemed," but not all men are saved by the redemption of Christ (thus the Daily Mail above had an inaccurate headline). Redemption only makes men saveable. To be saved a man must cooperate with grace and perform good works.So an atheist, to get to heaven, would have to perform many good works, suffer in purgatory for a very long time to purge his sins and then scrape into heaven. Roman Catholics (who have access to all the means of salvation, says Rome) are in the premium salvation plan, you might say.
Now, most Evangelicals in Ireland believe something similar. They believe that Jesus died for all men, shedding His blood for the redemption of all men. Thus all men are "redeemed" but to benefit from that redemption a man must believe (or accept Jesus, as Evangelicalism likes to put it). Thus the cross of Christ, as such, saves NOBODY at all. The Bible , however, teaches that whom He redeemed Christ saved. Of a universal, ineffectual, attempted redemption Scripture knows nothing (Matt. 20:28; Acts 20:28; Gal. 3:13; Titus 2:14; Heb. 9:12; I Peter 1:18-20; Rev. 5:9-10).
2. All men (even unbelievers) can and do perform good works
This, too, is standard Roman Catholicism. Rome teaches that man was made in the image of God, but that in the fall into sin man only lost the "likeness" but not the "image" of God. Therefore, man is able to do good as God's image bearer. Since all men (even unbelievers) are God's image bearers, all men can do good. Rome denies that men can perform good without the grace of God, but since the grace of God is common (operative in all men, even unbelievers) ,good is merely a matter of the cooperation of man's freewill with God's available (common, general, prevenient) grace.
This, too, is standard Evangelicalism, and it is also standard theology among many supposedly Reformed theologians. To teach that man has no freewill (but a will which is corrupt, depraved and enslaved to sin) and to teach that fallen man is not in the image of God but of the devil is to be in the minority today (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; Rom. 8:29; John 8:44). The Bible, however, teaches man's total depravity, and that without regeneration no man can perform any good works at all (John 3:20; Rom. 3:10-20, 8:7-8)
3. Unbelievers and believers can work together to do good to make the world a better place.
Abraham Kuyper, the father of common grace, would be delighted by this. He believed that he could work together with unbelievers to do just that. And he appealed to his notion of common grace to justify his alliance with unbelievers to establish a political party in the Netherlands. The Bible, however, teaches the antithesis, that there is an absolute, spiritual difference between believers and unbelievers (II Cor. 6:14-18).
Since "whatsoever is not of faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23) no atheist or any other kind of unbeliever (such as pope Francis I himself) can do anything good.
What Pope Francis said is not ground breaking. What is sad is that so many Evangelicals essentially agree with him. Much of Evangelicalism (with its freewill theology, universal but ineffectual grace and universal, conditional atonement) is simply Rome without the frills.
The Reformed Christian rejects the universal, ineffectual redemption of the "Christ" believed by Pope Francis I and the same universal, ineffectual redemption of the "Christ" preached by much of Evangelicalism. "For by one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified ... Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin" (Heb. 10:14, 18).