Friday, November 23, 2007

“No Exceptions”

1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 19:1-10[1]

It seems that the church has been divided over the issue of salvation from the very beginning. Not over the question of Jesus as the Savior, but over the question of how far his saving reach embraces.

From the very beginning there have been those who like the Apostle John believed that salvation was only for those who are presently walking in the light and saw anyone who deviated as heretical “antichrists.” And from the beginning there have been those who like Luke the Evangelist believed that salvation extended through Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, and the son of Adam, to all humankind.

There were early leaders like Tertullian who declared “extra ecclesiam nulla salus est”—“outside the church there is no salvation”—and insisted it meant that no one finds salvation outside Christian faith.[2] And there were others who like Clement of Alexandria insisted that Jesus Christ as the divine Logos is the one who inspires truth everywhere—whether Jewish scriptures or Greek philosophy.

Our New Testament text for today from Paul’s letter to Timothy has been at the crux of this argument for centuries. Paul says clearly that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

Augustine, like many since his day, argued that God’s desire for “all people to be saved” only applies to those whom God has predestined to salvation, and excludes all others, even infants who die without being baptized![3] Since that time, what seems to be a simple statement of God’s purpose of universal redemption has been twisted and turned to accommodate a view of salvation that excludes all those who either refuse or dismiss or ignore or simply are unaware of the Christian faith.

Those who adhere to a more exclusive version of salvation say they believe that “God desires all people to be saved,” except “all people” equals all kinds of people, but not all people.[4] Or they say they believe that “God desires all people to be saved” except “all people” equals all those whom God has predestined to salvation! Or they say they believe that “God desires all people to be saved” except “all people” equals all those whom God knows in advance will actually believe if they have the opportunity to hear the Gospel! [5] The conclusion seems unavoidable that what they are really saying is that “God does not desire everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”![6]

I can accept and endorse the fact that there are different interpretations of the Christian faith. There always have been, and there always will be. But I never have and never will embrace a view of God that excludes the vast majority of humanity from the blessings of life and joy and freedom through Christ.[7] I choose to take the Apostle Paul at his word when he says, “God desires all people to be saved”! And I believe it is valid both biblically and theologically to hope for and believe in God’s eventual redemption of all people. No exceptions![8]

But perhaps more importantly, Paul urges us to respond to this marvelous good news by making “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings … for everyone.” Well that might sound rather anticlimactic after centuries of debate! But I think Paul has something more in mind that simply praying, “Lord, save all the heathen.” I think he had something more in mind like the prayer for mission that Charles Henry Brent, Anglican Bishop of the Philippines, wrote:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.[9]

That kind of praying means that we have to do something about it! And that’s exactly what Brent did. When he was in the Philippines, he organized efforts to stem the flow of Opium. Later he organized the first World Conference on Faith and Order, the forerunner of the World Council of Churches. He not only “prayed” for the salvation of all people, he devoted his life to that end.

When we see the church as “the beginning of liberation for the whole of enslaved creation for its consummation in glory,”[10] we can do nothing other than work for the redemption of all humanity.

[1] A Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/23/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Others, including Pope Benedict XVI, affirm this principle in terms of the necessity of the church as an instrument of God’s redemptive purpose in the world. See Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith, “Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church,” June 29, 2007; accessed at 20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html, which does not state that all non-Catholics go to hell, as was falsely reported!

[3] Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, 14.44; On the Predestination of the Saints, 18.36; Enchiridion, 27, 103; cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition I:321; Johannes Quasten, Patrology IV:443. On infants, see Augustine, On the Soul and its Origin, 4.11.16; cf. Pelikan, Christian Tradition I:297-98.

[4] Augustine, The City of God, 21.13; cf. Pelikan, Christian Tradition V:115; cf. also

[5] Douglas R. Geivett and W. Gary Phillips, in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, ed. by S. Gundry, et. al, actually say it this way: “anyone who dies without hearing the good news is a person who would not have believed had he heard.”

[6] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.24.15-16 (pp. 983-84).

[7] Cf. H. S. Reimarus, Apology: “My own salvation gets lost amid the piteous cries of millions of souls condemned to unending torture”; cf. Pelikan, Christian Tradition V:114; Cf. also M. Tindal, Christianity as Old as Creation, (1730), 250, where he asks how Christ can be viewed as the “Savior of mankind” if he in actual fact shuts heaven’s gates against all those who never come to Christian faith; cf. Pelikan, V:114. See further John Hick and Clark Pinnock in their respective contributions to Four Views on Salvation.

[8] Many throughout the history of the church have endorsed this view, beginning with Origen of Caesarea. See J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, I: 151-52; V:116-17, 224; J. Quasten, Patrology II:87-91, quoting Origen, Contra Celsus 8,72: “stronger than all evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him; and this healing he applies, according to the will of God, to every man.” Cf. also Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Orations, 26, who claimed that even the “inventor of evil” would eventually be healed by God’s grace. See Quasten, Patrology, III:289-90. On this theme in Greek Patristic Theology, see John R. Sachs, S. J., “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology,” Theological Studies 54 (1993):617-640; See further Julian of Norwich, who received the “revelation” in her visions that “all will be well.” Cf. F. C. Bauerschmidt, “Julian of Norwich—Incorporated,” Modem Theology 13:1 (January 1997):75-100. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40: “our hope is directed towards that divine future in which God will have all his creatures beside him to all eternity. That is to say, our hope is for the day when all things will be restored and gathered in a new, eternal order.” It is the hope that “God’s radiant glory will illumine everything, and all created being will participate in God’s being and his eternal life” (Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145). See further Hans Küng, Eternal Life, 212, where he grants that salvation for all is not guaranteed, but nevertheless affirms that “Not even in ‘hell’ are there any limits set to the grace of God”!

[9] The Book of Common Prayer, 101; cf. a similar sentiment by Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th Century: “On the cross, God stretched out his hands to embrace the ends of the earth.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 207.

[10] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 83.

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