I’m doing a Bible study course at the moment and one of the topics concerns the at times thorny subject of justification – or to put it in everyday Christian English, how can someone be sure they are getting into Heaven?
As my thoughts wandered through this subject, I recalled a number of stories which have caused me difficulty during my four decades in journalism – all of them in Ireland. There was the time a Baptist evangelist told me that my youngest son’s severe autism was a punishment from God and that he would never see Heaven.
Whilst not naming the evangelist, I wrote about him in a national tabloid newspaper. He contacted me very soon after to say that he had changed his theological opinion on the matter and he now believed my son would be in Heaven! Did the Lord really speak to him, or was he simply scared I would name him in my next tabloid article on the matter? You decide!
But the most awkward interview I’ve ever done was with a Protestant cleric who maintained that murdered loyalist terror boss Billy Wright was a ‘born again’, although backslidden, Christian who is now in Heaven.
The interview was done in 2007 to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Wright’s murder of in the Maze jail by three INLA prisoners on 27 December, 1997. In terms of ethics, I even asked that cleric if he was sure he wanted me to quote him on the ‘Billy Wright’s in Heaven’ stance and he said he was. Needless to say, the lid came off after publication!
After falling out with the Belfast leadership of the UVF after the 1994 Combined Loyalist Military Command ceasefire, Wright then set up the breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force in the mid-1990s. This cleric was no street corner tub thumper. Although he possessed an honours degree, masters and doctorates in theology, his comments on the former Mid-Ulster LVF boss Wright being in heaven sparked an uproar in both nationalist and Protestant church circles.
Speaking exclusively to me at that time in 2007, the cleric said: “99 per cent of what has been written about Billy Wright has been written by Billy Wright’s enemies.
I believe Billy Wright is in Heaven right now – perhaps even sat next to the ‘repentant thief’ who died on a cruel Roman cross next to Christ on the day of Crucifixion. The repentant thief couldn’t do any good works, get baptised in water, lead a pure and exemplary life, or contribute any other thing towards the salvation of his soul or, through religious rituals, keep himself in ‘a state of continuing grace‘. Jesus did it all for him. He did it all for me and for Billy Wright and for an innumerable host of repentant souls whom He alone could save.
And the cleric also claimed many other, internationally well-known murderers, are also in Heaven!
Moses, Ehud, Samson, the prophet Samuel, Israel’s King David, and for evangelicals, Saul of Tarsus who later became the apostle Paul - all these murderers are in Heaven also, according to the Word of God contained in our Bibles.
He quoted a series of Bible verses as proof of his views: (Exodus 2:11-15) (Judges 3:20-26) (Judges 14:11-20) (1 Samuel 15:32-33) (Acts 7:55-60; Acts 8:1-3).
It was clear to me that the cleric knew Wright personally. Wright, he claimed, joined the UVF aged 15 on 31 July 1975. The cleric said he first met Wright in the late 1970s in Belfast’s now closed Crumlin Road jail.
The cleric even quoted from a letter which he said Wright wrote to him in the early 1980s. “I believe the Lord is once again using you and what has happened in your life to speak to my heart and to show me my need of Salvation in and through the Cross of Jesus Christ,” wrote Wright.
Describing Wright as “a son in the faith”, the cleric said to me:
Billy caused me much spiritual joy when the Lord Jesus saved him and called him to be a witness to many with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As I, and all Christians, have no doubt caused God, our Heavenly Father, much consternation over the past 28 years since He saved me, Billy also caused me much spiritual and emotional consternation during his chequered and often turbulent young life from 1983 to 1997. For three years between 1983 and 1986 my late friend and ‘son in the faith’ Billy Wright proved to be a tremendous evangelist and lay-preacher in the service of his Saviour. There are countless Christians throughout Northern Ireland and beyond who willingly testify today concerning Billy’s genuine conversion to Christ and his forthright manner of sincere preaching and witnessing at church meetings and Christian missions.
However, the cleric also noted that, in March and April 1986, as a result of serious clashes in Portadown between loyalists and the then RUC, “Billy seriously backslid from his faith”.
The death of Portadown teenager Keith White from an RUC plastic batten round “was the last straw used to break the sincere Christian resolve and full commitment of Billy Wright”.
Justifying his belief Wright was still a Christian and now in Heaven, the cleric told me in 2007: “How then can one, even one like the late Billy Wright, lose something that has not ever been his to have – outside the sovereign grace of Almighty God?"
He quoted from his Bible: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
“If Eternal Salvation be the gift of God and not of works, then how would it be possible for Billy Wright - or any other believer in Christ - to lose that which has never belonged to him in the first place?” said the cleric in 2007.
After the interview was published, the cleric never spoke to me again. Ethically, I feel as a journalist, I did my duty by advising this cleric that expressing that honestly held opinion of Wright’s location in the afterlife would spark rage.
I do not mean to re-open a can of worms by reproducing extracts from that interview in 2007 in this column, but merely to illustrate the theological debate in my own mind over the subject of justification in relation to my own spiritual beliefs as an evangelical Christian and my work as a journalist.
So here’s the key question – if someone becomes ‘saved’ or ‘born again’ according to the Biblical Salvationist theology; then ‘backslide’ or ‘lose their faith’ and commit a litany of crimes, can they still get into Heaven? Is this a case of what is known in Scripture as The Unpardonable Sin? Or is it a case of ‘Once saved, always saved’?
Yup, theology can become a real mind-melter at times!
Dr John Coulter has been a journalist working in Northern Ireland since 1978. As well as being a former weekly newspaper editor, he has served as Religious Affairs Correspondent of the News Letter and is a past Director of Operations for Christian Communication Network television. He currently also writes political analysis articles for national newspaper titles. He is author of the ebook, An Saise Glas’: The Road to National Republicanism, available on Amazon Kindle.
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