Rev. Bob Azzarito is the new pastor at University Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a group nested in Fremont Presbyterian Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Sacramento. Azzarito is battling a caricature of his own making. He has been attempting to aid the people of his church by using his sermons to show them the difference between the EPC, and the PC (U.S.A.). His sermon series on the church site is “Another Way of Seeing,” but the advertisement for it in the Inside Publications has the headline, “Is Evangelicalism the only way to view God?” And in a neighborhood local list service UPC member, Judy Kerri, wrote an invitation to the River Park Community:
University Presbyterian Church, a new church within the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), would like to extend an invitation for you to join us on Sunday mornings for our continuing series of sermons on "Another Way of Seeing." If you have wondered whether or not there are other ways to understand God and the Bible other than Conservative Evangelicalism, then this study might be a help to you. Over the past several decades, Evangelical thinking has dominated the airwaves, and as a result many think this is the only way to understand theology. This Sunday, our new pastor, Bob Azzarito, who was himself raised in an Evangelical denomination before becoming a Presbyterian, continues to outline some of the main differences between Evangelicalism and the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).
This week he will be discussing the topic of salvation. Did you know that the concept of being "born again," a common term and concept in Evangelical thinking, is not a standard Biblical definition of salvation? It might also be surprising to learn that the idea of salvation in the Bible has little to do with what happens after death. Join us at 11:15 am. Sunday, in the Chapel on the property of Fremont Church, 5770 Carlson Drive.
Azzarito, isn’t just talking about evangelicalism in general because he is addressing members who did not want to follow Fremont out of the PC (U.S.A.) into the EPC. They rather chose and were given the privilege of staying PC (U.S.A.) while being nested on Fremont’s campus for ten years. That was part of the package that allowed Fremont to leave with their property. So with each sermon Azzarito in some way addresses the members’ experience of having chosen to not go with the other members of Fremont. And with that he attempts to show the differences between EPC and the PC (U.S.A.). For instance in the first sermon, after commiserating with the people and what has happened to them, Azzarito states, “… I’ve decided to spend some time articulating what it means to be PC (U.S.A.) and not EPC,” and “I want you to understand the distinctives.”
There are several problems. One is that The EPC is not just evangelical, they are also reformed and Azzarito doesn’t seem to understand the distinctives of the reformed faith. Another problem is that too many times he doesn’t understand the distinctives of evangelicalism. A third problem is Azzarito’s universalism. He believes that the Church is simply representatives of all of humanity who are already accepted by God.
In his sermon series, Azzarito first attacks the penal theory of atonement, that is, that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfies the justice of God. The understanding that Jesus is a substitute for the sinner who is under the wrath of God. Azzarito does this without ever talking about any of the other atonement theories. And he fails to acknowledge that the theories are ways of explaining the biblical text and they work together. He wants to push one idea. That the EPC and evangelicals in general teach that God is mean and has a big hammer ready to smash the sinner, while the PC (U.S.A.) sees God as loving and inclusive.
This leaves out the Trinity—God is one—and God’s wrath is satisfied by God. It is the begotten God in the bosom of the Father who willingly receives the wrath and becomes the propitiation for our sins. (John 1:18 & 1 John 1:1)
God's wrath does not cancel God's love. According to biblical and reformed faith, God has chosen us before the foundation of the world. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him." (Eph. 1: 3-4)
And then there is that idea about being born again that Kerri writes about. That is, that being born again is not a standard biblical definition of salvation. And Azzarito has problems with salvation being a onetime event, a conversion that the Christian remembers with gladness. But the biblical text describes salvation in many ways. It is being born again as Jesus explains in the third chapter of John. And Peter puts it this way, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven …”
It is Jesus knocking Paul off of his horse with a blinding light and Paul going back to the story over and over as he testifies to the gentiles. It is the first sermon preached on Pentecost when men from many faraway places ask Peter what they should do. And he says, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
But there is also that conversion that is a growth as one is raised in a Christian family with Christian teachers and pastors to guide. Paul speaks of this when writing to Timothy. “You however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:14-15)
Azzarito’s idea that everyone is saved and that it is a lifetime process and the good news is to tell them so doesn’t fit the biblical text. While there are multiple pictures of God’s work in the life of a sinner, born again, born of the Spirit, being saved, Jesus as propitiation, it is always and ever Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that brings the sinner home. And it is the righteousness of Jesus that the Father sees, not our own broken sinful self. The contradiction, and yet the truth, is that although it is always God’s work, some will reject this great salvation. Some will not come home to the Father.
I pray that those at University Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, while dwelling in the midst of Fremont, will find the truth that is the center of Christianity, Jesus Christ who is able to deliver completely and forever.