Salvation: For Christians Only? (Part One of Three)

We live in a majority Christian nation (83 percent of Americans, according to a recent ABC News poll, identify themselves as Christian) and studies show that African-Americans constitute the most religiously adherent subgroup of America’s very large Christian majority. As such religious and perhaps more particularly theological issues carry great importance in our Christian community generally and the African-American Christian community in particular. There is no shortage of controversial topics of discussion relating to Christian beliefs, what the Bible really says and what it actually means. But the most important, I would argue, is the question regarding that which constitutes salvation and, specifically, whether or not non-Christians can be saved. Because in a very real way, the way in which a Christian answers this question indicates the vast trend of all the rest of her or his spiritual and theological thinking.

My firm opinion is that non-Christians can, and often are, saved. It is a controversial point of view within the church but one that I imagine a significant portion of worshipers white, black and otherwise in this country yet share, whether minority or majority however I’m not sure. Socially conservative evangelical Christians however are among all other Christian groups least likely to believe that salvation is available to those who do not accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior and these represent the single largest group of Christian believers in this country, whether white or black, so the view that non-Christians cannot be saved should probably be regarded as, both historically and contemporaneously, the dominant view. It’s entrenched, supposed obviousness gives it quite a convincing advantage in religious debates on the subject, and while I’m always heartened to hear the likes of professor Cornell West and professor/minister Michael Eric Dyson (both of whom I have precious little in common with politically but whose personal philosophies I find much to admire in) opine on this matter in the direction of God’s limitless love and forgiveness for all his righteous children, I’m often a little embarrassed by the inability of proponents of this point of view to deliver a sound theological argument for it’s merits, rather than retreating to extra-biblical platitudes which can be of very limited persuasiveness to those who are more religiously conservative and those who are rooted in the technical substance of the Word. (I squirmed to watch popular and fashionable pastor Rob Bell, author of the book Love Wins, being interrogated like a guilty child by MSNBC’s Martin Bashir for seeking to manipulate the Bible into being  ”palatable,” to a modern audience, never managing to give a solid scriptural response for his position.) The truth is however that it is the traditional point of view regarding the accessibility of salvation that is so clearly weak from a scriptural perspective. It is time for those of us who take the word of God seriously to explain why.

I could call upon many passages in the Bible to support the idea that salvation goes to all righteous people, and I will, but in truth I only need call upon one verse to make this clear for in fact it is stated quite explicitly. For Paul writes to his junior in ministry, Timothy, the following saying “For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” (1rst Timothy 4:10). Now Paul says quite clearly that God is the savior of all men, especially those who believe, in saying so he is quite clearly not saying that God is exclusively the savior of all men who believe, for that would render his words non-nonsensical. I do think there is some context to be taken into account here, inasmuch as I do not believe that Paul means to suggest that un-Godly people are saved by God. (I do feel strongly that there is a Hell to which evil people go for eternity, thus disqualifying me really as a liberal theologian.) But it is clear that God can be and often is the savior of non-believers. Of course, those who believe otherwise who are aware of this blatant statement hidden in the many under-perused passages of scripture will argue, as a friend of mine did to me once, that what Paul meant was that God had prepared salvation for all in the same way a person might prepare a meal for many, but that just as many who were invited might not show up for that meal, so will many not believe in the Christ who has offered them salvation. A worthy attempt at a rationalization, I think, but woefully unconvincing simply because the analogy so misunderstands the statement. Paul does not say that God has prepared to save all but has not, in the way that a mother might prepare to feed all her children but is unable to. Paul says that God has and will save all, as a parent who has and will feed all his or her children. There is no other way to interpret this without betraying what it is the Word says.

But this is just the first step in unwrapping the paper tiger that is the unbiblical, mostly conservative Christian belief in Christian-only salvation. For if Paul means what he says, then we still have to consider what it is Jesus means when He says “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) and others like it. The true meaning of this verse reveals the true spiritual message of Christianity that we will expound upon in the second and third segments of this series, one which stands in such stark opposition to Christianity in it’s typical, religiously oriented conception.

The spiritual root of the scriptural message is contained in the oft-cited words of the apostle John, who wrote: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1rst John 4:7, 8). Notice that John says that everybody who loves is born of God, making no distinction between believer and non-believer. But the more relevant point in these words for our purposes are in the simple phrase “God is love.” Those of you who have a decent command of the scriptures probably recall Jesus informing the disciples that “God is Spirit.” God is not a man like deity in the clouds, but an omnipotent spiritual force and the essence and nature of that force, John reveals, is love. The Holy Spirit therefore, the Spirit of God, is itself the Spirit of love. Only in understanding this can we truly begin to understand the Bible…

8 Comments on "Salvation: For Christians Only? (Part One of Three)"

  1. Ron Krumpos Aug 23, 2011 · 2:35 pm

    In 2011 world population will reach 7 billion (vs. 3 billion in 1960). There are now approximately 2.2 billion Christians. Some of them believe that 4.8 billion people face eternal hell because they do not accept Jesus.

    Concepts of afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Not all Christians agree on what happens after this life, nor do all Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or other believers. Rebirth, resurrection, purgatory, universalism, and oblivion are other possibilities…none of which can be proven.

    Mystics of all faiths have more in common than the followers of their orthodox religions. True mystics realize that eternal life is here and now; it does not begin after mortal death. The age of Earth is said to be 4.5 billion years, of the Universe 13.7 billion, yet few humans live to be 100. This lifetime is a fleeting moment.

    Scriptures are subject to interpretation; people often choose what is most beneficial for them.

  2. John Randolph Wood, Jr. Aug 23, 2011 · 6:55 pm

    @ Ron: You’re point about the diversity of beliefs both inside and outside of Christianity is well taken. Even so, it is incumbent upon Christians to try and discern the true gospel message as God and the authors of scripture would have intended us to understand it. That may seem like an impossible task given the extreme variance with which different people are liable to interpret scripture (whether Christian or not) but for those of us who believe in the Bible there is a system of logic which it puts forward that gives us grounds to speak within the same arena when debating these matters. I do agree though that eternal life does begin in this life, perhaps even before, a point I’ll expound upon a bit in this series.

  3. JCB3 Aug 24, 2011 · 9:24 am

    My question is: If belief in Christ is NOT a prerequisite to salvation, then that makes belief inconsequential.

    Why did Christ come? What constitutes “sin”? What is “salvation”? Why was Peter sent to Cornelius if his “righteous” living was sufficient? Why was Apollos corrected if error was acceptable?

    That one passage interpreted that way make the rest of the Bible irrelevant. (Makes me regret passing up all that tail in school).

  4. John Randolph Wood, Jr. Aug 24, 2011 · 12:54 pm

    @JCB3 Don’t be so quick to regret your chastity. But know the power of the scripture and understand the nature of the trinity. I’ll answer your objections in the next installments.

    • Antonio Apr 19, 2012 · 8:32 am

      My wife and I were, and still are confused by this gasseme if the knowledge of being assured by salvation is based on the works displayed in your life, what about those times of drought or backslide? There have been times in my life where I have not been living for the Lord, with no fruit or works. Or what about continued struggle with areas of sin? I feel like this sermon left us with LOTS of questions!

    • John Randolph Wood, Jr. Jul 7, 2012 · 1:42 pm

      @ Antonio A thousand pardons, I hadn’t noticed your comment before now. Remember in Matthew Jesus said to “either make a tree good and it’s fruit good or a tree bad and it’s fruit bad, for a tree is known by it’s fruit.” One’s soul is not saved by doing good works, but rather good works are the evidence of one’s salvation and the love in one’s heart. For as Jesus goes on to say, the good man brings forth good things from the good treasure of his heart, and the evil man brings forth evil from the evil treasure.

      But of course, one can have a heart born of love and God’s Spirit and still make mistakes. That does not mean that one is not ultimately saved. The question whether or not we ultimately repent in our hearts for the immoral things we do. This particular set of articles was not meant to deal directly with the issue of works versus faith with respect to salvation, but still I hope I shed some light on your question.

    • John Randolph Wood, Jr. Jul 7, 2012 · 1:45 pm

      @ Antonio …”the question *is* whether or not we ultimately repent”….I should always proofread my comments before submitting them, lol.

  5. Princess Apr 19, 2012 · 4:27 pm

    While none of us can sacrifice the way Christ has, this Scripture is about minkag sacrifices for other people. In doing so we show great love for others- one of the greatest commandments.It doesn’t necessarily mean death, it means putting the interests of someone else before your own. Let’s say you are getting ready to buy a house when there is an immediate financial need by someone else who’s just faced a tragedy. Giving them the down payment you were going to use to buy the new house in order to help ease their suffering is a sacrifice. It’s two fold, while blessing another you in turn are blessed.Peace.

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