The number one response that I have been approached with concerning the recent departure of The Pope was how we are to respond to the Pope's death and his eternal state?
Most people automatically assume that because heis the Pope he gets a one way ticket to the promise land no questions asked. But, if like myself, you are a protestant and believe in the seriousness of Scripture and the concept of "salvation by faith alone", then thinking about the eternal circumstances of this man takes on a different perspective.
Let me begin by saying that I do not presume to know the eternal state of any human, living or dead, save one, the Lord Jesus Christ who is seated at the right hand of God. Apart from that, I have only educated guesses and mere speculation.
What I do know is what the Bible says about how we are saved.
The classic Roman Catholic statement on salvation looks something like this:
Salvation = faith + good works
My faith gets me started, and through it and the sacraments given only through the church I receive a certain amount of grace that I must maintain by doing 'good' deeds that earn me merit before God and cause me to be in his favor. The number and kind of good deeds I do in this life denotes how long I have to spend in purgatory, working off the remaining sinfulness that my own deeds did not cover. Then I get to go into heaven. (I am stating this as simplistically as I can think to say it)
The Classic Reformed Protestant statement (which happens to be my own) looks like this:
Salvation = Faith, which is a gift from God
Jesus of Nazereth, the incarnate Son of God, accomplished salvation through his life, death and resurrection, conquering sin and death for all His elect. I believe this to be true through the faith God works within me through His Holy Spirit, which is His grace towards me. (Grace = underserved favor - in this case, it is undeserved favor given to someone who completely despises you.) That faith unites me to Christ and makes me His adopted brother in the family of God. In that union, God declares me innocent of all my sin, not because of what I have done, or any goodness in me, but based only on what His Son has done in my behalf. So now when God sees me, he does not see my sinfulness any longer, but only the goodness of His son who has obeyed Him perfectly in all things. This is the basis of my own salvation and the only way for me to be saved. There is nothing I can add to it or take away from it. And now that I am united to Christ, I do good works that God has set before me to do, not for my own need to add something to my faith, but only to bring glory to God's name and to live according to the name by which I am now called, Christ's.
This is the fundamental difference that has separated RC and protestants. RC's believe that they have a hand, nay a responsibility, to add to what Christ has done in order for them to be saved. Reformed Protestants believe thatit is Christ's work and His work alone that saves us.
Again - so much more can be said for both sides... but back to the discussion at hand.
Sometimes, in order to start a conversations about these things we'll ask a hypothetical question: "When you go before the throne of God and He asks you 'why should I let you into heaven?' What will you say?"
From a protestant standpoint, the answer is clear - that I rest in Christ's person and work and what He has accomplished for my sake.
For an RC, the answer must be a list of deeds that the person has done that they hope will be enough to get them in, or at least enough to keep their time in purgatory as short as possible. (fyi - reformed protestants know of no place called purgatory or the concept - no mention of any such thing in the Bible)
So, all things being what they are, a consistent Reformed Protestant would say that if a consistent Roman Catholic person went before God touting his deeds as his way to gain God's favor, then God would not, could not accept them based on their own works. And so, if we assume that John Paul was a consistent Roman Catholic person, as his life and His writings bear out, then the same would be true of him.
Now, that does not for one second take anything away from the wonderful things that the man did while he was here on earth. He did more than many, more than any perhaps, who have lived during his life. His good deeds are of the kind that live long after the man has passed away. However, as far reaching and as good and many as his deeds are, they pale in comparison the the surpassing work of Christ, who alone can please God.
I confess that when it is put in these dogmatic terms it seems cold. So I turn back to my initial disclaimer in which I stated that I do not claim to know anything for certain in regards to anyones eternal state. I can only say what the Bible teaches on the matter. It is certainly possible that the Pope is with the Lord as I write this, just as it was possible for the thief on the cross along side Jesus to be promised that very thing.
While I'm being rather clinical in this very brief post on the subject, a pastoral approach would be vastly different, though ultimately no further from the truth.
(If I thought you would look up the references, I would have provided scripture backing for all my statements here, but do you know how much work that would be?)
I can imagine the comments that will follow...