The term “heretic.” It’s an evocative one, to be sure. It conjures images in the minds of Protestants of courageous souls willing to die for their faith, and never to renounce it even in the face of the Church’s oppression.
To Catholics, and also to others, the word may be more likely to remind them of great errors, false doctrines throughout the two millenia since the time Our Lord walked the earth. Names like Marcion, Arius, and Pelagius may spring to mind.
In previous times, I had believed that a heretic was one who claimed to be a Christian, but had not exercised saving faith and was not destined for heaven, due to having rejected or misunderstood some key tenet of Christianity. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a case in point. Though they affirm Biblical inerrancy and call themselves Christian, they deny the Deity of Christ.
Thus, I thought, Jehovah’s Witnesses are bound for hell. Since I became a Christian Universalist, however, I have had to reexamine and radically modify my views on the nature of man, of God, of heaven, of hell, and of salvation. I had to rethink and ultimately reject this definition of heresy.
And, curiously, I found I could not replace it. No new, obvious standard for what a heretic was appeared. As a matter of fact, this issue has caused me to rethink my definition of what a Christian is.
When I was a Hell Preacher, I believed a Christian to be a person who had appropriated God’s saving grace and was destined for heaven.
But when I discovered that all were ultimately bound for Heaven, I had to reexamine that, and I came to a new definition, one that centers on this life, rather than the next one.
I also came to a new and deeper understanding of “saving faith”. The church has long taught that the Biblical term “salvation” in fact refers to two distinct processes: justification, wherein a sinner is imputed the righteousness of Christ and declared to be in good legal standing before God, and sanctification, wherein the believer is gradually conformed to the image of Christ, and made actually holy.
Thus justification is viewed as deliverance(salvation)from sin’s eternal consequences, while sanctification is viewed as deliverance from sin itself.
Roughly speaking, I hold to this view, though I understand both concepts rather differently than most in the church. I would add, however, that sanctification also includes God infusing the believer with aionios-life, which is often mistranslated “eternal life”, but is actually “life of the age”, true spiritual life right now.
This “life of the age” is a difficult concept to articulate with Socratic precision. But if you are a Universalist like myself, you’ll probably understand. The great lifting of weight from your shoulders that you enjoyed when you apprehended this marvelous truth for the first time, the indescribable joy you felt when for the first time, you could truly love God, that was the life of the age.
Not to say that only Universalists participate in this life. For to say that would be to undo all the progress we have made toward a deeper understanding of these matters. What is clear is that while justification is an all-or-nothing phenomenon that takes place at a moment in time, sanctification is not. Since all are justified already at Calvary, what remains is to bring them to faith so that they may be sanctified as much as possible in this life, improving the world and escaping the judgment to come.
Since sanctification is a gradual process rather than a single event at a single point in time, it follows that there are degrees of sanctification.
It should not surprise us, then, that there are also degrees of the saving faith which leads to sanctification. The closer one is to a complete understanding of the sacred mysteries, the more faith–note that I have finally dropped the misleading adjective “saving”–one can exercise, the more one can be sanctified, and the more fully one can partake of the life of the age.
Experience bears out this hypothesis. We see that some Christians are more spiritually mature than others. They are holier, and have a fuller spiritual life. This is often due to having been believers longer, and thus having undergone more sanctification.
But we also see a tendency among groups of Christians, organized by doctrine, to become like the God they worship. Calvinists, for example–and this is not always true, but is a general pattern–tend to lose, over time, their human sympathy and compassion, especially for those they consider to be the reprobate. Catholics can become legalistic, overconcerned with always following the rules. And all Hell Preachers tend to form distorted ideas about justice, at least where eternity is concerned.
So if believers become like the God they worship, it stands to reason that the more accurate their doctrine, the more the God they think they serve conforms to the image of the one true God, the more sanctified they’ll be, and the more they’ll experience the life of the age.
Where, then, does all this leave us? In a paradoxical position. On the one hand, we are all heretics. Inasmuch as orthodoxy simply means “right doctrine”, none of us has a full understanding of all God’s mysteries. And yet, we are also all orthodox. For all who worship and follow the One True God, however imperfectly, have at least a little bit of right doctrine, and thus can share, to a small degree, in faith and the sanctification and life that come with it.
Thus the distinction between Christian and non-Christian, between the church and the world, between believers and unbelievers, is blurred. Are Jehovah’s Witnesses Christians? Impossible to say.
And in the end, it really doesn’t matter. For whether they ought to be classed as Christians or not, we should still share what we know with them, that they may exercise more faith, become more holy, and partake more fully of the life of the age, as defined in John 17:3, which reads:
And this is eternal life(life of the age): That they may know You, the One True God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.