The Princess, the Nun, and the Savior

The Princess, the Nun, and the Savior

Tom Ascol

Within one week the world witnessed the funerals of two of the most popular women of the twentieth century. One was struck down on the streets of France in the prime of life due to a senseless, tragic automobile accident. The other died after a long and useful life lived among the poorest of the poor in India. Through television and radio it is estimated that billions of people tuned into the public funeral services.

The Princess

The news media have been preoccupied with recounting for us again and again the stories of these two remarkable women. Princess Diana became something of a symbol for the world’s younger generation. Catapulted to fame at age nineteen by marrying Prince Charles, her life was a series of tragedies and triumphs that were played out on a very public stage. She was long ago declared the most photographed person in history.

Her Cinderella-like wedding seventeen years ago gave the impression that the world was witnessing a modern fairy tale being acted out by Britain’s royal family. The birth of her two sons made news around the globe. Diana became the object of great sympathy when her marriage turned sour and her husband was discovered to be an adulterer. Her own adulterous relationships seemed almost justifiable because of the sadness of her life.

Her public cheered for her as she overcame a serious eating disorder and the tragedy of divorce. Over the last five years she furthered endeared herself to the world by taking up the cause of children. She raised millions of dollars for over one hundred charities and called attention to the scourge of landmines that remain in war-torn countries. She put a human face on modern medical tragedies by calling attention to those who suffer with cerebral palsy and the AIDS virus. Her charity work for children earned her the “International Humanitarian of the Year Award” in 1995. As one who was privileged with great wealth, she did much to help the poor and underprivileged of the world.

The Nun

But not nearly so much as did Mother Teresa. Already a nun, in 1946 she sensed a divine call to establish a new religious order that would care of those who were outcasts in Calcutta. Taking as their motto, “Let every action of mine be something beautiful for God,” Mother Teresa and a dozen sisters began this new work.[1]

After the British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, produced a television documentary on her work in Calcutta, her fame spread around the world. Muggeridge was so deeply impressed by her that he later converted to Catholicism. In 1979 she received the Nobel Peace Prize. She turned down the customary award banquet and asked that the money be sent to her mission instead. When the Pope gave her a limousine, she immediately sold it and used the money for her charity work.

Mother Teresa gave her life to care for people that no one else wanted. Lepers, beggars, people with AIDS-she refused no one. She was an ardent defender of the unborn. When she received the Nobel Peace Prize she focused her comments on the scourge of abortion: “To me the nations with legalized abortion are the poorest nations. The greatest destroyer of peace today is the crime against the unborn child.”

In 1994 she addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. In her speech she declared abortion to be a “direct killing of the innocent child.” Speaking to four thousand of the most powerful men and women in our nation’s capitol, including President and Mrs. Clinton, she said, “Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child. I am willing to accept any child who would be aborted and to give that child to a married couple who will love the child and be loved by the child.” Her children’s home in Calcutta saved over 3000 children from abortion.

The Questions

Princess Di and Mother Teresa were shining examples of good works. They were sincere in their efforts to help others. Much of the good which they did will live on after them.

In that sense their lives are a challenge to those of us who are Bible-believing Christians. As every Christian knows, the Bible says a great deal about good works. We are meant to do them. Our Lord, Jesus Christ went about doing good. And we are called to follow His example.

Where are the evangelical Christians who are giving their lives to work among the poorest of the poor? Where are the evangelicals who are committed to serving their fellow men to the degree that these two women did? As Al Mohler asks, “Do we have what it takes to produce a Mother Teresa? Do we have the courage, the concern, and the love, for `the least of these’ required for such a ministry?”[2] To put it quite simply, “Where are our “good works?”

We ought to be challenged by the lives of Princess Di and Mother Teresa. But in a very different and perhaps even more profound sense, we ought to be challenged by their deaths. Where are they? Specifically, where are they now? Some will think it absolutely crass to even raise this question. But it must be raised, even if it cannot be infallibly answered.

In the minds of nearly everyone there is no question that God will and must accept Diana into the bliss of heaven. The Roman Catholic Cardinal Basil Hume suggested that the Princess is enjoying the highest eternal happiness in her existence beyond the grave. But, is this so, and if so, why is it so? Is it because she was born into the church? Because she died so young? Because she did so much good?

Of course, the case is even more dramatic with Mother Teresa. Within hours of her death talk centered not on her eternal dwelling place, but on when she would officially attain sainthood. To even raise the question of eternal destiny regarding this incredible lady who gave her life serving the world’s poorest and doing so in the name of Jesus is tantamount to blasphemy in the minds of many people. Yet, Jesus Himself warned that not everyone who calls Him, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. Even some who have prophesied in His name, cast out demons in His name, and done many wonders in His name will hear from the Lord, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matt. 7:21-23).

I am not in the place of God, nor do I aspire to be. He is the eternal judge and each person must stand and give an account to Him in that great tribunal of judgment day. I am quite happy to leave those questions finally to Him and to refrain from making judgments which the Lord has reserved for Himself.

The Answer

Nevertheless, the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, and especially the way that they have been treated in the media and popular culture, demand that we consider again and assert again in the plainest language what the Bible says about salvation. What is the biblical testimony? Simply this: that God saves sinners by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone for good works.

Dead, Enslaved, Condemned

Paul puts the matter plainly in Eph. 2:1-10. In the first three verses we are reminded that we all come into the world lost. We are “dead in trespasses and sins.” That is, in God’s sight we are both rebels and failures. The analogy is imposing. Spiritually, the condition of very person who comes into the world is analogous to physical death. A dead man cannot make himself alive. He has no biological abilities. Similarly, those who are spiritually dead have no power to give themselves spiritual life. They are naturally “alienated from God” (2:12).

Paul goes on to describe this condition as being under the direction of Satan. Those who are spiritually dead live “according to the prince of the power of the air.” He is the one who deceives unbelievers and facilitates a life that is lived according to “the lusts of the flesh . . . and of the mind.”

Even more devastating is the description of people under the condemnation of God. This is what Paul means by “children of wrath.” This wrath is not some impersonal, cosmic force, but rather God’s personal, righteous, constant hostility to evil. Because of sin, mankind has become offensive to God and He will, therefore, oppose us in His wrath.

This sad and desperate position is not something people acquire after so many failures. It is our condition “by nature.” By birth, innately, we come into the world dead in sin, directed by the devil, and condemned by God.

Do these verses apply to Princess Di and Mother Teresa? Of course they do! As wonderful as they were, as much as we will miss them, as much good as they did, they were by nature children of wrath, enslaved to the devil and spiritually dead. This is equally true of everyone. If you are a Christian, this was your past reality. If you are not a Christian, this is your present condition.

Alive in Christ

How, then, does someone who is spiritually dead and under divine wrath get right with God? Can such a person actually make it to heaven? In vv. 4-7 Paul emphasizes that the only hope of salvation is found in Jesus Christ. Because of the richness of His mercy and the greatness of His love, God gives spiritually dead sinners new life in Christ. This is the testimony of every Christian. Through conviction of sin and the revelation of Christ to the mind and heart, God “made us alive with Christ.”

Not only that, He has also given us a new position in Christ (“having raised up together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”) and a new future in Christ (“that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”). Our status has changed. No longer are we under God’s wrath. Now we are His friends whom He intends to shower with kindness.

By Grace through Faith

All of this is because of Christ-not because of any noble deeds which we have done. It is Christ alone who saves sinners. The person who is not in Christ remains dead in sin, enslaved to the devil and under God’s wrath.

Paul is careful to emphasize that the salvation which is in Christ comes only by grace. Twice he states, “by grace you have been saved” (vv. 5, 8). Grace is God’s free and undeserved kindness extended to those who deserve the opposite. Rebels, in opposition to God because of sin, deserve wrath and judgment. But in Christ God gives just the opposite-forgiveness and new life. It is all His work. God is the subject and sinners are the objects of salvation.

The salvation which God gives must be received through faith. This faith involves trust and the commitment of one’s life to Jesus Christ as Lord. It includes depending on Christ to make one acceptable to God.

To this salvation we add nothing. Paul specifically states that it is “not of works lest anyone should boast” (v. 9). Even the faith by which we receive salvation is God’s gift. We must believe. But God must give us faith to do so.

Salvation by sheer grace is hard for people to accept. Everyone learns early in life that nothing is free; “you get what you pay for.” But in salvation we get what Another paid for. Salvation can never be earned and neither is it granted in response to good works. It is by grace you are saved. Thus it is utter folly to speak in terms of anyone deserving heaven because of her life of good works.

For Good Works

Does that mean that there is no place in biblical salvation for works? Not at all. Good works have an essential place. Works are essential to salvation as its fruit and not as its root. They are the essential, inevitable result, not the cause. Paul does not conclude his exposition of salvation by grace without adding an important word about good works. Those who receive salvation have been prepared by God for good works. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (v. 10). Part of God’s purpose in saving us is that we might perform good works which will bring Him glory.

No only has He prepared us for good works, He has prepared good works for us: “which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (v. 10). God has specific things which He has planned for His people to do on earth. As we match our gifts and abilities with His providential ordering of our opportunities, we discover what these prepared-beforehand-good-works are.


In the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death many politicians, pundits, and religious leaders have assumed that she is in heaven because of all the good works which she did. But is this right? No! The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is all of grace, not of works. Not even the works of royalty are enough to earn one an acceptance with God.

Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Good works have nothing to do with bringing us into a right relationship with Jesus Christ. Did Mother Teresa know this? She was known around the world for her good works. Did she trust in them for salvation? Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that our good works cooperate with God’s grace to bring about salvation. On the basis of Ephesians 2, we must necessarily denounce such teaching. Would Mother Teresa agree?

Was her faith in Christ and in Christ alone? Of her work in Calcutta she said that she tried to convert no one to faith in Christ. Rather, as she told her biographer, she tried to make Hindus better Hindus and Muslims better Muslims.[3] Was this spoken out of conviction or confusion? As mentioned above, such questions must be left with God.

There is one question, however, which we must emphatically answer. Did Princess Diana and Mother Teresa go to heaven because of their good works? No! There is only one way to be saved and that is through faith in Jesus Christ. Without this, no one, no matter how many good works she has done, will enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is good news for real sinners. God justifies the ungodly. Salvation is based on His grace and not on our goodness. We must not let the media or our biblically illiterate culture have the last word about what it means to be saved. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. And those of us who have tasted this salvation must boldly declare it to a world that is lost.