CONCERNING THE UNIVERSAL REDEMPTION BY CHRIST
A rich, young ruler came to Jesus one day and asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Of all the questions ever addressed to Jesus or his followers, I would guess that this one is the most persistent. People want to know, "Who goes to heaven?" For whom is salvation possible? In the here-and-now, who can receive the Spirit of God and be transformed by that encounter?
Christians have answered this question in a variety of ways. For example, the medieval church saw itself as the way to salvation. As you may remember, Jesus told Peter, "I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." Contending that the pope is the spiritual heir of Peter's legacy, Roman Catholics have incorporated these very same keys into the traditional seal of the papacy. These keys are a symbol to be reckoned with! In effect, their presence proclaims, "If you want to get into heaven, we have the keys."
To be more specific, the church has the power to administer the sacraments. And the church teaches that the grace of God is made available to people through these sacraments. Who is saved? According to Rome, those who accept and adhere to the practices of the church are saved.
The medieval church felt so confident in its ability to offer salvation, that it eventually sold "indulgences." By purchasing these indulgences, people could actually buy God's mercy. One salesman was noted for his jingle, "Every time a coin in the coinbox rings, a soul from Purgatory springs."
The reformers were offended by the quid pro quo nature of medieval faith. The reformers criticized the Roman church for offering God's blessing in exchange for some human activity (as in, "if you buy an indulgence, God will do X for you; if you attend the mass, God will do Y for you"). These same reformers raised an excellent question: What do we have that could possibly entice God? God can't be bought with our money, nor by our faithful participation in the sacraments. Nothing we have or do will impress God in the least.
To emphasize the unmerited generosity of God's grace, the Protestants chose to emphasize human unsavoriness: by nature, there is nothing good in us to recommend us to God. There is no deal we can make with God, because there is nothing we have to offer.
When it came to salvation, the reformers wanted to take human initiative completely out of the equation. They proclaimed that we are saved by grace alone (i.e. by God's activity alone). Who is saved? Those for whom God provides the grace.
But if God is solely responsible for salvation, then what of those people who are not saved? Like most Christians, the reformers were sure that such people did exist. Was God responsible for the fate of the "lost?" To answer this question, some Protestants invented the dreary doctrine of double predestination. According to this doctrine, God randomly selected a few souls at the beginning of time (a divine form of Lotto). By this process, "the chosen" gain heaven -- and the losers face an eternity of torment in hell (actually, according to the Protestants who developed this doctrine, the "losers" haven't really lost anything at all; they are simply getting what we all deserve ó being the miserable and corrupt beings that we are).
Double predestination intends to point out the unmerited generosity of God's grace. What it actually communicates, however, is an irrational and fickle God. Barclay called this doctrine, "Horrible and blasphemous." Many Christians would agree. After all, Scripture explicitly declares that Christ died for all people and that salvation is available to whoever accepts Christ. Clearly, the work of Christ is meant for all people, and not simply for the "chosen" few.
And so most Christians have come to embrace an answer like this one: "Salvation is available to all those who accept Christ." This position has many benefits. For one thing, it is very inclusive (salvation is available to all). It does not require an intermediary (preserving the Reformation emphasis on God's grace). And, it let's God off the hook if people reject Christ (and so condemn themselves).
However, Robert Barclay cautions us about this position. He points out that most Christians who follow this line of thought turn salvation into an intellectual exercise. In practice, they translate "accepting Christ" into accepting a certain view of history or accepting a particular set of philosophical statements about the nature of God, humanity, etc. Who is saved? Too often, the majority answer is, "People who think correctly about Jesus."
As Barclay points out, many people "know all the right answers," but they exhibit no real sign of transformation. Clearly, then, there is no real power in the outward knowledge alone. The real power comes from someplace else.
To Barclay and the early Friends, the real power of faith was found inwardly. It was from within that God prompted people to change. It was from within that God opened people's eyes to Truth. "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?" (1 Corinthians. 3:16)
Because we encounter God inwardly, our relationship with God is not dependent on outward circumstance. It is not our education that matters to God, nor our costume, nor our native language. Even those people who have never heard of Jesus may still receive the gift that Christ offers us. In support of this position, Friends have pointed to John's description of the coming Christ in John 1:9, "The true light that gives light to every person was coming into the world." In other words, the true Light of Christ enlightens every person.
For Barclay, salvation comes to those who yield to the work of this Light within them. Those who "accept Christ" are not those who assent to the philosophical concepts of the church, but those who surrender to the work of Christ in their hearts. The power of faith comes from this inward surrender.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. What does it mean to be saved?
2. Do you think it is possible for people to so completely close themselves to God's presence that they become numb to the invitations, exhortations and strivings of God's Spirit? What is the consequence of such hardness of heart?
3. How do you think people outside the church perceive the activity of God in their hearts? If people feel a challenge from within, or a longing they can't quite satisfy, do you think this is God's activity? Do you agree with Barclay: "This then, O man or woman is the day of God's gracious visitation to thy soul, which if thou resist not, thou shalt be happy forever"?
Continue to Proposition Six