Can only followers of Jesus Christ be saved?

“Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” This tricky little statement appears on the Presbyterian Panel Study, a statistical sample of responses to a set of questions posed to PC (USA) teaching elders, ruling elders, and members over a three year period. 

Less than 50% of respondents typically agree or strongly agree with that statement. This often leads to the conclusion that the PC (USA) is functionally universalist in theology. Many attempting to be dismissed from the PC (USA) point to this as a central issue precipitating their departure. in 2010 Peter Chang, administrator of the survey, reached that conclusion himself.

“There seems to be some universalist streak in Presbyterianism, where some Presbyterians are open to the idea of other paths that folks in other faiths might be taking.”

Is the PC (USA) functionally universalist? It’s understandable that many reach this conclusion, but probably not warranted on the basis of this survey question alone. In other words, to argue that the PC (USA) is functionally universalist, it’s necessary to point to evidence other than this survey.

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In my view, it’s the question itself that is problematic. It forces the respondent to venture out into the realm of God’s possibilities stepping beyond Scripture into speculative theology. 

Respondents who disagree may do so for a variety of reasons including the belief that God, in himself, is not limited in what he can do. The answer is technically true, but intellectually unsatisfactory because it poses a question whose answer tells us more about the nature of God in himself than it does about the way God acts in the world. It moves into the realm of speculative theology and out of the realm of biblical theology (i.e., theology that has the Bible as it’s evidentiary foundation). The response moves into the world of medieval-like theology where scholars discussed matters like, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” To be sure, the nature of the relationship of the spiritual to the temporal and material is not unimportant, but I think we’d all agree that (at least superficially) the answer to this question has little to do with our experience of God today. 

It’s sort of like another question–a perennial favorite of youth groups–“can God make a rock so heavy that He is unable to lift it?” The best answer I can come up with is, “why would God want to do this?”

 

Calvin had little time for speculative theology like this. His theological method was driven by appealing to the text of Scripture, which he read primarily in relationship to other parts of Scripture in consultation with the teaching of the Church Fathers. We do well to follow him.

In following Calvin, and in reading this question closely, we will likely be forced to be open to God’s ability to save those who are not followers of Christ, at least hypothetically. However, “can God save those who are not followers of Jesus Christ” is not the same thing as “will God save those who are not followers of Jesus Christ?” The former is a question of ability or power, the latter a question of intention.

In the end, we don’t know whom God will save other than to say–with the Scriptures–that he will save his elect. Wisdom is found in the Westminster Confession which notes:

The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. [14.1]

Put simply: God ordinarily saves those who (1) encounter the Gospel message, (2) are enabled by God’s Spirit to embrace it, and (3) respond in faith to the message they have heard, by (4) turning away from their sin, and (5) relying on Christ to be their surety and substitute.

To the extent that Teaching Elders in the PC (USA) tend to enter into speculative theological answers in reference to this tricky question and not the Confessional heritage of the church is really the central problem. As a result, I’m more comfortable saying that the PC (USA) is un-catechized than that it is functionally universalist. Both, to be sure, are significant problems.

[Missional Monday 1] What is missional?

This is the first post in a series about how congregations can become more missional in how they understand and carry out ministry in their community. Missional is popular. A lot people are using the word, but I’m not always sure how clear they are on its meaning.

A simple way to get a little bit better of a handle on this word is to substitute “missionary” for “missional.” I’m sure there were good reasons for choosing missional over missionary, probably related to some of the cultural baggage associated with missionary, but the two words are both derived from the root word “mission” and essentially mean the same thing.

“Missional living” becomes “missionary living” and

“missional church” becomes “missionary church.”

At it’s heart being missional is about placing God’s mission at the center of the life of the individual and the center of the church’s existence, where it was surely meant to be all along. Let me unpack that a little.

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The central belief of those of us who affirm a missional/-ary theology is that it is the nature of God to act in the world and that His action is in furtherance of His purposes. Ultimately, God is the initiative-taker, and nothing happens absent His first acting.

The church has been brought into being by the action of God with a distinct charter and purpose. In like manner to the way in which God sent His Son into the world to redeem a people through his perfect life, atoning death, and overcame sin in His resurrection, the church is sent into the world with a message. Jesus says as much, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (ESV).

That message is the gospel, the good news or glad tidings of Jesus’ victory over sin and death and this ushering in the kingdom of God. As Jesus ends His earthly ministry, He launches the church:

6Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Mt 28:16-20, ESV]

Encapsulated in a relatively few words are the entire mission of the church. We are out into the world to:

  1. make disciples (which includes evangelism and discipleship),
  2. to administer the sacraments,
  3. to catechize and instruct Christians in godliness,
  4. and to do so in the fellowship and with the power of the risen Son of God until time is no more.

As the church goes it must go with a certain type of posture. This is critical. As the church goes into the world, it must go as a missionary.

One of the central observation of missional theologians is that we have reached, as a culture, a tipping point–we have become a culture that no longer privileges Christianity. Clearly American culture is not monochromatic so the degree to which we are secular varies by region. Even in the south, I think, it is fair to say that Christianity is no longer privileged by the culture. It is no longer the assumed religion of everyone.

As the church is going, it is going into something new: a post-Christendom culture. This is a cross-cultural journey as so requires several things:

  1. Interpretive acuity: as Christians engage culture, we have to learn to interpret it. What are our culture’s deepest values? What are our gods? What is missing? Who is missing? How do we relate to one another?
  2. Wisdom: we have to be able to be aware of what we know and what we no longer know. For this journey, things written a thousand years ago in pre-Christian europe will be more helpful than something written by a 1980s church growth guru.
  3. Humility: we’re not the “it thing” anymore. In some ways, people are beginning to look at the church like they look at the Rotary Club–they’re not even sure they know what it is. Even if you invite them, it won’t be enough to overcome the growing barriers. I’m not talking about the false humility of progressive Christians. I do not believe that the Gospel has changed–we preach the same message yet vary the context and the means.
  4. Attentiveness: a cross-cultural encounter requires attention to observe and thereby learn more about the culture in which you find yourself. The missional church and the missional Christian will be making perpetual observations about their city, their culture, and factoring that into their engagement with it.
  5. Curiosity: one of the biggest reason I love to travel is because I’m curious about all manner of things. Missional Christians have to be curious about what makes our friends and our cities tick. We want to enter into their mind and see what they see not simply to convert them, but because there’s inherent value in coming to see the world through another’s eyes.
  6. Flexibility: we’re going to have to be flexible in our definition of success, in our way of doing and being church, and in a whole lot of other things. Christians who worship abroad often encounter practices that are uncomfortable and, for the most part, are able to live with the tension. God is asking us to become uncomfortable in certain ways in order to truly be missionaries for his gospel.

In my next post, I’ll explore the difference between “missional” and “attractional” as two distinct ways of understanding the ministry of the church and of the Christian. I’ll argue for something I call “hybrid church,” that is a blending of missional and attractional ways of doing church.