The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is too often troubled by both universalism and pluralism. The former is a belief that all are saved by Jesus Christ whether called by some other faith such as Buddhism, or called by the name of Jesus Christ. The latter, pluralism, is the belief that it is not necessary for Jesus Christ to save—that is, there are many roads to God. One vice-moderator, in a conversation with me, insisted on this particular view. In fact he was upset that I had instead defined him as a universalist.
On the other hand, a former executive presbyter of my presbytery, in a conversation about the 2011 Presbyterian Panel survey, persisted in saying that universalism is a possible biblical truth. The Presbyterian Book of Order hints at that same kind of theological view.
Rev. Dr. Charles Wiley III, coordinator of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Theology and Worship recently attempted to redo a question/statement from the 2011, survey which stated “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” Many supposedly said no because they saw the question as rejecting the sovereignty of God. Wiley’s better question was ““Is Jesus Christ the only Savior and Lord?”
Clearly an answer of “yes” to this question is not pluralism and can be presumed to be orthodox. However, as I have noted, many in this denomination are universalists and interpret reformed theology from that position, in which case Wiley’s question, does not help. What of those who are of another faith or who simply reject the saving work of Jesus?
An Arminian believes that as his heart and mind cooperates with the overcoming power and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit he is redeemed, forgiven, made new and becomes a follower of Jesus Christ. As Van A. Harvey puts it in his small Handbook of Theological Terms, “… loosely understood, it refers to those views that stress the ability of man to respond to divine grace.” On the other hand, a Reformed Christian believes that she was unable to cooperate with the Holy Spirit until she was overcome, redeemed and made new by the working of God’s Spirit. She is then a follower of Jesus Christ living in obedience to the word of God.
But notice, neither of these two are saved without Jesus Christ. Not only is he the only Savior to them but their redemption, transformation and continuing sanctification, is utterly tied to their connection to him. They participate in Christ as they follow his person.
To clarify a problem. Some have stated that the Old Testament saints are not redeemed by Jesus Christ. John Calvin would have none of this. Writing of the sacraments in his fourth book of the Institutes, he states this:
“But we have already shown that sacraments are a kind of seals of the promises of God, so let us hold it as a most certain truth, that no divine promise has ever been offered to man except in Christ, and that hence when they remind us of any divine promise, they must of necessity exhibit Christ. Hence that heavenly pattern of the tabernacle and legal worship which was shown to Moses in the mount. There is only this difference, that while the former shadowed forth a promised Christ while he was still expected, the latter bear testimony to him as already come and manifested.” (Chapter xiv. 20b)
Recently a college conference at Montreat focused on John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Some of the material, which has seemingly been removed from the conference site, suggested that there was too much emphasis on the perishing section of the verse. The Presbyterian News Service posting, quoting Rev. Katie Cashwell, also states of the conference speakers, “Our focus was to reclaim the well-known Bible verse in John 3:16 as a message of love and welcome,” says Montreat director for programs, the Rev. Katie Cashwell. “Too often it’s been used for hate, intimidation and fear.”
This actually fits with the problem the PC (U.S.A.) faces with the many who insist on an unbiblical universalism. But the good news occurs because those who are perishing have eternal and full love offered to them. The text of the third chapter states that it is not that Jesus Christ was sent to judge the world, but that he was sent to save. And yet, humanity is judged already because they have rejected the light.
This is judgement, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light for their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the Light and does not come to the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:19-21)