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Works Salvation in the Rule of Saint Benedict

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One of the oldest constitutions in the world is the Rule of St. Benedict, which has been in continuous use for fifteen centuries. Benedict of Nursia (c. AD 480–550) wrote his rule for monks living in a community under the authority of an abbot. He synthesized and simplified the Eastern monastic tradition as he had received it, and his Rule became the norm for European monasteries from the 6th century until today. Indeed, Benedict is considered the founder of Western monasticism.

There are many things to like about the Rule. Benedict offers many common sense principles for managing a Christian community, often counseling patience and mercy with wayward people, especially the young. I like his emphasis on prayer and work. It is not overly mystical. In my private devotions, I pray through the Psalms (though not as regularly as I should) and have found Benedict’s Psalm-reading schedule helpful.

However, besides the problem of monasticism itself, the whole premise of Benedictine monasticism is built on the sandy foundation of salvation by faith plus works. You see that clearly in the Rule’s Prologue.

For example, according to Benedict, avoiding hell depends on serving God with your gifts:

“For we must always so serve him with the gifts which he has given us, that he may never as an angry father disinherit his children, nor yet as a dread lord be driven by our sins to cast into everlasting punishment the wicked servants who would not follow him to glory” (The Rule of Saint Benedict in English and Latin, p. 7).

It's not enough to believe in Jesus and receive eternal life as a gift (cf. John 3:15-18; Acts 16:31; Eph 2:8-9). If you do not serve enough, you will be condemned forever.

Benedict explained to his monks that they need both faith and works to merit being in the kingdom:

“Let us, therefore, gird our loins with faith and the performance of good works, and following the guidance of the Gospel walk in his paths, so that we may merit to see him who has called us unto his kingdom. And, if we wish to dwell in the tabernacle of his kingdom, except we run thither with good deeds we shall not arrive” (p. 9).

However, while you need good deeds to arrive in the kingdom, Benedict is not a “Pelagian.” That is, he did not believe the monks could do works in their own strength. Ultimately, any good they did is ultimately thanks to God working in them:

“Such men as these, fearing the Lord, are not puffed up on account of their good works, but judging that they can do no good of themselves and that all cometh from God, they magnify the Lord’s work in them…” (p. 11).

And yet, despite this small gesture towards grace, God’s help is obviously not the decisive thing in salvation. What ultimately matters is for the monk to cooperate with God’s work to try his best to fulfill the demands of Christianity and hope to escape hell and reach eternal life:

“And if we would escape the pains of hell and reach eternal life, then must we—while there is still time, while we are in this body and can fulfill all these things by the light of this life—hasten to do now what may profit us for eternity” (p. 13).

Thousands of Benedictine monks have taught millions of Roman Catholics this kind of false gospel century after century. I do not question their zeal, but I do question their knowledge. My desire for them is the same as Paul’s desire for unbelieving Israel:

“Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God concerning them is for their salvation. I can testify about them that they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. Since they are ignorant of the righteousness of God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:1-4).

The law cannot save anyone, not even if you reduce it to a Rule.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.

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