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Deciding who is Saved

A few short comments on salvation resulted in some comments that indicate to me that I haven’t been entirely clear on this issue. I have heard such comments in real life from readers of my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic. In general people wonder whether I believe that people who reject Christ or who are too apathetic to listen to the gospel even though it is available to them.

After starting this post, I responded to one on exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism, and so I will assume some of the minimum arguments made there.

Here is a summary of my view, without any of the scriptural backing:

  1. Faith and works are always combined. True faith produces fruit. True fruit indicates that there is some divine working going on.
  2. Salvation by correct theology, by which I mean the idea that salvation is predicated on believing a certain set of doctrines, is as much a form of works salvation and a denial of grace as is old fashioned salvation by works. In either case, we are accomplishing something, either attaining an intellectual understanding, or accomplishing a particular set of activities, for the purpose of earning God’s favor.
  3. While God is one, and Jesus is the bridge between God and man, God has multiple ways of working in and with people.
  4. God is much more likely to communicate with people who are listening that we give him credit for. After we’ve given him more credit, he’s still more likely . . . 🙂
  5. It is not essential for me to know who God is saving and who he is not, but I can gather from his actions in history that he is doing so to many.
  6. If you’re still looking, you’re not lost.

Now that’s way more than I can cover in a single post. In fact, I expect it is likely that I will post occasionally on this over a period of months.

So where is my problem with the standard doctrine? Most particularly I object to the claim that those Christians who allow for the salvation of people who are not Christians in one way or another are simply rejecting the Bible outright. It is not merely that I am uncomfortable with a God who makes salvation difficult (see below), though I admit I am uncomfortable with that. My problem is with the combination of scriptural claims, that God is merciful, compassionate, and just, and yet will fry a rather large assortment of people eternally.

Somehow the assumption is made that exclusivist passages, such as John 14:6, have more weight than other passages that indicate that people might be saved on other grounds, such as the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). It seems to me that we have replaced an older salvation by works with a new salvation by right theology. Above all, I believe that no human being can truly know whether another person is saved or not, and thus I’m uncomfortable with trying to establish a list of tests that one might use to determine the spiritual state of another person. I believe it is my duty always and continually to witness to the gospel, but never my job to decide someone else’s state, and never my job to force my views on anyone else. The idea that we can determine the salvation state of another person frequently leads to desperation in our witnessing to others, and desperation tends to destroy relationships.

There’s a wondeful passage in The Last Battle–the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia–in which Emeth, a Calormene, finds himself in Aslan’s country. He meets Aslan and has finally gotten up the courage to ask. Aslan has denied that he and Tash are truly one, which leaves the question of why the Calormene, a faithful worshipper of Tash, has wound up in Aslan’s country.

. . . Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast doen to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man sware by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash shom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. . . .”

One of the most important elements of this is how people respond to what they do know. I recall a conversation with a lady who said that she didn’t even know whether such a person as Jesus ever existed, but she did know that she wanted to be as much like him as she possibly could. That sounds to me like a response of faith. There are people who have prayed simply to the one who created everything. To me, that sounds like a response of faith. I simply don’t know all of the options. But based on what God says, I believe there are options.

Here I simply want to outline some of the directions I take in looking at the scriptural evidence on this point. I will post some more detail on some of these points over the next few months or longer. Right now I’m just giving you an idea. (Some of the basics are found in my essay A Fruitful Faith.)

Here are some of the scriptural trajectories that I think we need to look at:

  • The sacrifices and rituals of the Torah and the later idea of salvation by faith. Normally we simply see sacrifices for sin pointing to Jesus, but that is only part of the picture. The sacrifices and rituals themselves teach many things in substantial detail.
  • Our doctrine of salvation should start from the words of Jesus, and particularly from the kingdom parables, and work from there to Paul and the other epistles, and not the reverse. The many things that Jesus says about the kingdom have been largely written out of much Christian theology. The direction of development here is from the nature of the kingdom to the nature of inclusion of more people in the kingdom, as in Paul.
  • I don’t believe that faith and works are ever very much separated. (Again, see my essay A Fruitful Faith.) I see a trajectory from responding to God in whatever way one finds at hand, to a more refined response of faith to God’s grace.

I realize that this is enough to get me labeled a heretic by many, and I’m comfortable with that. I’ve been called Henry the Heretic quite frequently, even by my friends. I’ll get around to fleshing this out a bit sometime later.

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