[The following is a letter I wrote to a forty-something parishioner who had been raised in a nominal Roman Catholic home and had given her life to Christ while she was in college. This letter was written on the occasion of her nominally Catholic mother’s death. As you will also see, the circumstances of my pastoral relationship to the recipient of this letter was rather complicated.]
It made me quite sad to hear that your mother died over this past weekend. Her situation has weighed heavily on you especially over the past year. But I know, however, that her death has not entirely relieved you of your burden but has, in fact, heightened it.
I know that you have prayed fervently for your mother’s salvation. A. E. [another member of the church] told me about how you shared with her your anguish over the matter just last week. So, I assume that your mother died without leaving you any peace of heart on this matter. That is a heavy burden, but not, I think, one that you have any business bearing. It’s God’s burden not yours.
Your mother’s salvation was, and even more now is, a matter that must be between God and her. Her salvation is not and never was your responsibility. In word and action, you bore faithful witness to Christ before your mother. In that you fully discharged your responsibility. None of us can ever be responsible for whether another person accepts Christ. Ours is to bear witness. Outcomes belong to God alone.
Of course, I realize that the anguish you feel over your mother’s salvation is not simply about whether you did all you could. I know that you feel such sadness because you genuinely care about her eternal destiny. And that is as it should be. I wish more people cared about the salvation of their family. I know that my own zeal on that point falls far short. Your zeal is a challenge and an exhortation to me.
But I want to caution you about presuming upon the prerogative of God. It is not for you to decide whether your mother should be saved. I think you know me well enough to know that I am not suggesting that God will save people apart from a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. What I am suggesting is that you must be very careful about presuming to judge the adequacy of your mother’s faith.
This matter is much simpler, of course, in cases where the person has openly rejected Christ and his atoning work or in cases where the person has openly embraced a clear, biblical profession of faith. But in cases like your mother’s we must be much more cautious.
Even those of us who hold a more biblical and evangelical profession of faith have to admit that our own profession is imperfect. Yet we can still be confident of our salvation. This, then, raises the question, Is it possible for a person who holds flawed beliefs and still be saved? Yes, absolutely, and thanks be to God for it, otherwise none of us could hope to be saved. Is there a limit beyond which a person’s beliefs are simply too flawed to make a saving faith possible? Yes, probably. But is it possible for mere human observers to draw that line on the spectrum of belief with any confidence? Do we dare say of any individual human being who has called out to Christ is some fashion that the content of their profession has nullified their cry to Christ? I don’t, and I urge you not to either.
In the Institutes (4.i.3), Calvin writes, “To distinguish between the elect and the reprobate — this belongs not to us but to God only.” Your mother, perhaps, gave you reasons for being less than perfectly confident about her salvation. But, I suggest to you that you do not have adequate cause to despair of her salvation.
You must leave the matter in the realm of the mystery of God’s sovereignty. You cannot know, nor can you any longer influence the matter. You must — though it may be hard — you must leave your mother in the hands of our good and wise heavenly Father. He will most certainly do what is good and right and gracious.
And now, I want to raise one more matter with both you and L. [her husband]. I am not entirely comfortable with this. But you deserve my best care, and so I want to suggest that this might not now be the best circumstances for you to be looking for a new church. I don’t want even to appear to be trying to use your mother’s death for my own advantage or that of G. Church [my congregation at the time]. That is why I hesitate even to mention this.
But I do want your choice of a new church to be one that will serve you well over the long-term. I want you to be clear headed and dispassionate as you evaluate your various options. You will know better than I do whether you will be able to do that in this time of grieving and coming to terms with your mother’s death.
You might do well to impose a sort of waiting period, a sort of season of mourning, during which time you will make no decision to join any church. During that time you might intentionally visit a good number of churches, even some that you know ahead of time you would never join. Sometimes the contrast can be very helpful in clarifying what you want in a church.
As I say, you will know better than I do whether this suggestion is a good one for you. But do keep in mind that a church might seem warm and comforting in your time of mourning but turn out to be less than ideal when, in the years to come, you look for ways to involve yourself in ministry there. God will no doubt make the matter clear to you as he leads you to the place where he wants you to be.
© 2009 Gary A. Chorpenning