“Is he a believer?” As a former evangelical, I remember hearing (and asking) this question frequently. Much is at stake in answering it: is the person someone who can be trusted, with whom one can fellowship and pray, or should we pray for his conversion? I used to label people “believer” (or not) with speed and ease—a reflection of the arrogance of both youth and much of evangelical spirituality. Not now. There are good reasons why Catholics don’t typically ask this question, and why they should be reticent to ever answer it.
Evangelicals define “believer” differently. Some look for a public profession of faith. Others think it depends on a moment where one “welcomes Christ into his heart,” or “accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.” Many of those in the Reformed tradition understand “believer” to mean anyone who is regenerate; the Calvinist doctrine holds that any true Christian, i.e., one of the “elect,” is justified by the Holy Spirit. Yet how to perceive such an inner transformation remains amorphous. A recent podcast by a popular Reformed Baptist ministry asks, “How Do I Wisely Tell a Professing Believer I Don’t Think He Is Saved?”
Later generations of the Reformation argued that a righteous, holy life was the external sign of election. Puritan Thomas Adams wrote, “Election is a sun, the eyes of eagles cannot see it, yet we may find it in the heat of vocation, in the light of illumination, in the beams of good works.” Yet some individuals who appear to exemplify Christian faith and virtue sometimes lapse, or even deny their previous religious inclinations. The pastor runs off with another man’s wife; the pious girl goes to the city and rejects the faith of her youth; and the zealous seminary student swims the Tiber. Some evangelicals interpret these breaches of faith as proof that the wayward soul was never truly a believer in the first place.
This line of thought can appease one’s questions … for a while. However, what happens when one witnesses someone shift from an “approved” theology or Church to one deemed unbiblical, yet that person’s religious faith and zeal remain constant? The most strident evangelical might assert that the appearance of continued or growing faith is simply that—an appearance. Satan and his devils can take many shapes. The prince of lies might make some folks look like Christians, while within the soul is “full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”
In all this psychologizing, however, some will inevitably turn the questions back upon themselves: How do I know if I am someone appearing to be a believer, whereas in truth, I’m someone whose faith is chimerical? What evidence is available to demonstrate my own legitimate faith in Christ? We have already acknowledged that it’s possible one might look like a believer, but not be one. Even Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion speaks of something he calls evanescent grace: “experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them.”
Moreover, one might err in setting the standard for what constitutes orthodox faith and practice. What assurance does a man have that his interpretation of Holy Scripture is the right one, while any who disagrees with him is necessarily wrong? Any Christian must acknowledge it’s at least possible that he or she is the one who is wrong.
The problems with these questions helped spur me to abandon evangelicalism and Reformed theology for the Catholic faith. Without a Christ-derived authority perceivable via accessible “motives of credibility,” I concluded, one man’s heresy is always prone to be another man’s orthodoxy, with no doctrinal arbiter between them except one’s conscience. Even Calvin recognized that things are not always as they seem: “there are sons of God who do not yet appear so to us, but now do so to God; and there are those who, on account of some arrogated or temporal grace, are called so by us, but are not so to God.”
In Catholicism, we avoid subjective speculation in favor of objective realities, like baptism, the first sacrament of initiation into the Christian faith. Any person who has been baptized possesses an indelible character that marks him as a Christian. The Holy Spirit has been conferred on such a person, no matter how far that person flees from God. Since many Protestants receive baptism, all of them would thus be similarly marked. Even Protestants who haven’t been baptized might, through what the Catechism calls “elements of sanctification and of truth,” be living in a “believer” status. This includes “the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.”
Moreover, it’s possible that even non-Christians could be Christians. Lumen Gentium teaches that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.” Those outside Christianity, who legitimately seek the Truth and to abide by it according to their consciences, however well- or ill-formed, could still be “believers.”
Thus even in the Catholic paradigm the subjective experience of man makes speculation regarding individuals’ “believer” status fraught with problems. The complexity of the human person and his conscience will make such conjecturing nearly impossible, and usually unfruitful. How can any man truly evaluate the status of another’s soul? “Is he a believer?” I don’t know, though I hope and pray so. If he’s not, I pray he’ll become one before it’s too late, just as I pray I’ll remain one, faithful to the baptismal promises my parents made on my behalf so many years ago. Such a response, however unsatisfactory, is more prudent and closer to the truth.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is John Calvin at a council in Geneva in 1594. The illustration comes from Hutchinson’s History of the Nations, published 1915.