In 2011, responses to a Presbyterian Panel Survey showed that only 41 percent of pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA) “strongly agreed or agreed” with the statement “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”
That shockingly low percentage has been cited by a majority of the churches seeking to leave the denomination and realign with other Reformed bodies.
Five years after the Panel Survey and following the departure of hundreds of pastors who likely would have answered the question in the affirmative, the Rev. Dr. Charles Wiley III, coordinator of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Theology and Worship, has released a statement on the subject. According to him, the problem was the question – not the answers given by the pastors.
“The problem is in the very form of the question,” Wiley wrote. “Those surveyed were asked whether or not, ‘Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.’ The subject of the question is ‘followers.’ Calvinists have never been comfortable talking about salvation from the point of view of the followers – we’ve never been terribly optimistic concerning human ability to follow Christ. Calvin spoke about needing to have faith that he was saved, and then only because of the author of salvation, Jesus Christ. We Calvinists emphasize salvation as a work of Christ – our following is an act of gratitude for salvation.”
Wiley quoted from “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” endorsed by the 2002 General Assembly:
“Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope and love in Him. … No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of ‘God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ [1 Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.”
According to Wiley, the statement from “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” is a “Christocentric, traditionally Calvinist reason to answer no to the question in the Presbyterian Panel survey. This no comes not from a weak Christology, but precisely from a strong Christology.”
“The proper form of the question should have been, ‘Is Jesus Christ the only Savior and Lord?’ To that the clear answer is yes,” said Wiley. “To the statement on the survey, ‘Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved,’ the orthodox answer is no.
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of The Layman, disagrees. “Wiley’s analysis assumes that those surveyed are Calvinists. That’s a huge assumption among active PCUSA clergy today. His analysis also assumes that people answering a quarterly survey are parsing the questions as he has. In order to explain away the “Jesus is the only way to salvation” question, Wiley needs to address other heterodox answers in the 2011 Survey.”
LaBerge is alluding to the PCUSA pastors’ answers to questions like #39 wherein 31.4 percent of respondents indicate never having “had a conversion experience – that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ?” and #44 wherein 27.1 percent of respondents are neutral, agree or strongly agree that “All the world’s different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth.”
LaBerge continued, “38 percent of the pastors who responded in the 2011 survey self-identified as theologically liberal or very-liberal. The 41 percent response to the question at issue is statistically in line with how I would expect a liberal or progressive PCUSA pastor to respond. I think Wiley is misunderstanding the pastoral constituency of the PCUSA.”
A ‘live’ issue
In the article accompanying his statement Wiley said that the 2011 survey findings are still a “live” issue for congregations that may be considering leaving the PCUSA. Two examples include:
- A church that is in the process of discerning its future in the PCUSA directly cited the Presbyterian Panel survey in the discernment resources it has provided for the congregation. “Some Presbyterian leaders believe the Bible is reliable while other leaders believe that it is not reliable. If there is no common reference point for truth, it should not surprise us that there is a range of beliefs on everything from who Jesus is, what the gospel is, whether Jesus rose from the dead, to the existence of an afterlife. As a result of a 2011 survey of its own pastors, the PCUSA reported that over half of our pastors could not affirm that Jesus is the unique and only Savior.”
- Another church, also in the discernment process wrote, “The PCUSA has moved away from some of these foundational values, and has embraced a more unorthodox biblical interpretation and theology, along with a more political ideology. Recent decisions by the GA of the PCUSA have failed to affirm that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, have failed to affirm the call for Christians to live in obedience to Scripture, have reduced the support of Christian mission work, and have emphasized hospitality and justice without a corresponding call to transformation and obedience.”
The Presbyterian Panel is representative sample of 2,000 Presbyterians consisting of members, ruling elders, teaching elders and specialized ministers. Four times a year panel members complete a mailed questionnaire to provide a way for the denomination to listen to and collect information about general practices, beliefs and opinions of Presbyterians.
Wiley’s full statement follows:
On the Presbyterian Panel Survey Question on Jesus Christ
Charles Wiley, Office of Theology and Worship
One of the questions I deal with regularly in my job is the problem that came from a 2011 Presbyterian Panel survey that asked about the necessity in belief in Jesus Christ for salvation. Many Presbyterians have been shocked by the fact that among Presbyterian ministers surveyed, only 41% strongly agreed or agreed with a statement on salvation through Christ alone. This has disappointed many Presbyterians as an indication of a weak Christology, a weak affirmation of salvation in Christ.
This may be true of some who answered neutrally or the negative to this question, but the criticism of the response also betrays a lack of Reformed theological understanding among Presbyterians broadly. The problem is in the very form of the question. Those surveyed were asked whether or not, “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” The subject of the question is “followers.” Calvinists have never been comfortable talking about salvation from the point of view of the followers—we’ve never been terribly optimistic concerning human ability to follow Christ. Calvin spoke about needing to have faith that he was saved, and then only because of the author of salvation, Jesus Christ. We Calvinists emphasize salvation as a work of Christ—our following is an act of gratitude for salvation.
This emphasis on salvation as a work of Christ is evidenced in “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” endorsed by the General Assembly in 2002:
Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. . . . No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.
What you see in this quotation is a Christocentric, traditionally Calvinist reason to answer no to the question in thePresbyterian Panel survey. This no comes not from a weak Christology, but precisely from a strong Christology. It is a strong Christology that resists reinterpreting the faith in light of American Voluntarism that determines our salvation on the basis of our visible following rather than the work of Christ.
The proper form of the question should have been, “Is Jesus Christ the only Savior and Lord?” To that the clear answer is yes. To the statement on the survey, “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved,” the orthodox answer is no.
I remember a quote from one of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera arias which I immediately thought of when I read this article “Parole, solo parole”. How we misuse words, twist words, reimagine words, neo-orthodox words just as the serpent did in the garden.
I remember how the PCUSA scrambles for “damage control” in their strange unorthodox use of words when people figure out what they really mean.
Yes the question may have been phrased wrong because it is andro-centric rather than the-ocentric. But ultimately you must answer yes because at its root is Jesus’ own words “No one comes to the Father except through me.” If you disagree with this you have a BIG problem with Jesus
And this is a surprise to who? We have already began the process of ending our affiliation with the pcusa, and we intend to do it right. Our church has no intention of leaving the pcusa, so we will.
I tend to agree with you regarding the responses by denominational officials attempting to parse the statements in an attempt to say “Presbyterians really do believe all the stuff.” We are way beyond the questions regarding whether or not “Jesus is the only way to salvation” or however you want to phrase it. Many people including Presbyterians and Presyterian clergy would ask, “Salvation from what?” Every doctrine is is being re-examined. I think the Layman is right to point out that at least many of us if not the body as a whole is moving away quickly from “orthodoxy.” Like the Layman, I wish denominational officials would admit it. I also think this movement away from the 16th century is something to encourage. Finally, I think those who wish to retain traditional beliefs should do so whether within the PCUSA or outside of it. Whether we like it or don’t like it, change is happening and I wis you all well as you negotiate it.
May God (the deity, not the linguistic concept) forgive me for saying so, but I tend to agree with you, John, on at least most of what you have said here.
One of the most frustrating things for me over the years has been the use of traditional, biblical and orthodox language by PCUSA and other mainline clergy who are not anywhere near being traditional, biblical or orthodox people, but who fear the potentially negative consequences of openly and honestly saying what they actually believe, or do not believe.
Some, not unlike you, have chosen to embrace the truth of what they actually believe, and go on from there, accepting the hostility of others, like me, who could not disagree with them more profoundly on matters of faith and practice. Most, however, do not do this. They chose to pretend to be something that they are not, and guard their guilty secret by hiding behind sweet sounding orthodox language that will throw others off their scent.
I have found that it is possible to respect those with whom one disagrees profoundly if there is honesty and integrity in the way they live their lives, but it is not possible to respect those who lie and deceive other people in order to hold on to positions or appointments that might be at risk were they to be truly frank and candid.
It takes courage to live one’s life honestly. May all of us have the courage of our convictions, and the confidence to let the proverbial chips fall where they may.
John – I’m going to cull out the quote “the Layman is right,” give you attribution and run with it!
Seriously, thank you for engaging on this issue. People, who believe in the reality of it, will be surprised that Hell did not in fact freeze over when you and I agreed on something. Others will chuckle at the very idea that Hell could freeze over and then find themselves equally stymied that you and I agree on something. Its a good day for the advance of civil discourse! – Carmen
Not sure that a “damage control” effort five years after the fact should really be characterized as scrambling, but yes, you’re right. If you accept that God is who the Bible says He is, that Jesus is who the Bible says He is and did what the Bible says He did then the issue is submission to Ultimate Truth not the clever parsing of words.
Carmen, does mean the church leaders do not understand what the meaning of “is” is?
You may notice in my piece that I did not assume that everyone answered as a Calvinist when I wrote, “that [the theological criticism] may be true of some who answered neutrally or the negative to this question.” I was simply trying to demonstrate there is an orthodox reason to answer “no” as well.
Charles, you very effectively articulated that in your piece. But we also both know that the theological argument you presented would not easily come to mind nor roll off the tongue of most PCUSA pastors. If the reasoning you propose is so obviously the answer then why hasn’t this been the immediate response every time the concern has been raised over the five years since this survey? This is a live issue for churches considering their denominational affiliation because its genuinely a live issue. People in the PCUSA are actively discussing and debating the necessity of salvation, the nature of Jesus, the variety of faiths available and whether or not the Truth that Jesus claims to be is “a” truth among many or “The Way, The Truth and The Life” without whom there is no access to the Father.
I am no theologian, but I agree that the question was phrased very poorly and I would have answered no as well. I think of a young child born in the middle of China who dies at 5 without ever having been exposed to Christ. I do not believe in a God who would doom such a child to “hellfire and brimstone” for eternity. Indeed, when I posed that scenario to the stanchest ECO advocates, they hemmed and hawed and said, “Well, there must be some exception for children,” but couldn’t think of one. So they don’t believe only “followers of Christ can be saved” either when the question is posed that way.
To put the statement in the form of a question, “Can only followers of Jesus Christ be saved?”
Now to answer that question, we turn to the Holy, Inspired, Inerrant Word of Jesus Christ: The Bible.
Obviously the Lord Jesus Himself said to His disciples (and thus to us), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn. 14.6) Similarly, God the Holy Spirit told the Sanhedrin by the mouth of the Apostle Peter (Acts 4.8, II Pet. 1.21), “Let it be known to you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4.10-12)
Thus, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have testified that one cannot be saved, cannot be made right with God the Father, except by the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, who died on the Cross in order to bear in His body the penalty of death that our sins deserve, and who rose from the grave that we who identify with Him might share in the fruits of the Resurrection from the grave, namely, everlasting life. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom. 5.9-10) And again, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Cor. 5.21)
And this salvation is to be had only by God’s grace through faith in His Son. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Rom. 3.28) “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Gal. 2.16) “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2.8-9)
What, then, of those who have never heard? What if they desire to come to know God but are not given the opportunity to hear the Gospel preached? “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10.9-17) That there are those who have never heard ought to be an impetus for us to go to them through missions and evangelism to spread the Gospel of Christ, that salvation from the penalty and power of sin can be found in Him alone.
Besides, the desire to come to know God does not come from us but from God. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn of many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Rom. 8.29-30) God’s predestination of us is not predicated upon anything we do or say, but solely upon His grace and mercy. When the Holy Spirit through Paul said, “those whom he foreknew,” he did not mean those whom God foresaw would do such and such with their faith. “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” (Eph. 1.4-5) It was “according to the purpose of his will” that He chose those whom He would save in Jesus Christ, not because of anything He foresaw that we would do or not do. This is the point that the Holy Spirit through Paul was making when he referenced the election of Jacob and the reprobation of Esau. “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call—(Rebecca) was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved but Esau I hated.’” (Rom. 9.11-13) God’s election—and thus, His salvation of the elect—“depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who shows mercy. … He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” (Rom. 9.16,18)
So then, no one can come to saving faith except by the call of God. As the Lord Jesus put it, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (Jn. 6.44) And again, “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (Jn. 6.65) And what is more, everyone the Lord calls will come to Jesus Christ. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (Jn. 6.37) And again, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (Jn. 6.45)
And this brings us back to the preaching of the Gospel. “How are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10.14) “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (I Cor. 1.21) God does not predestine someone to salvation without also predestining the means by which that person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, namely, through the preaching of the Gospel, for no one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ (Jn. 14.6), “and there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4.12)
So then, to answer the question: Yes, only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved, because there is no other Savior, and one can only become a follower of Jesus Christ through the predestination and calling of God and the implantation of saving faith, without which it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11.6), which the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of God’s elect through the ministry of the Gospel preached.
The answer to the question is yes. Jesus is the only way. A Calvinist would answer yes. Fact, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and that includes infants. Even without any active sins, being born in Adam means they are a sinner. There is not universal salvation. Are some infants elect? Yes, the Bible says so. Try looking at the answers in the WCF, the proof texts, and the catechisms. A couple of commentaries, like Williamson’s study guides or Dr. Chad Van Dixhorn’s commentary on the WCF may help on those issues as well. These are not new 21st century questions. A good Calvinist would know these answers to the extent that Scripture allows.
I do understand the limitations of the questions, though. Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” is part of the kingdom. The WCF addresses that too.
Disagree, every one I have spoken to answered this NO, many said how could you answer yes when even the WCF says that elect infants, who certainly do not understand what a person is, can be saved as God chooses: Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.
Doug – you must be able to understand language to “follow” someone – you must have cognitive ability at a certain level to even understand the concept – just a poorly worded question that has been used as ammunition by those who would rather see congregations leave the PCUSA.
Precisely. No one believes in a God who punishes innocent children–original sin aside.
I think that I answered this panel question “No” because the New Testament says that the Old Testament people of faith like Abraham will be saved. They were not “followers” of Jesus because Jesus was not born yet for them to follow! They believed God and it was counted to them as “righteousness”.
The statement “Only Followers of Jesus Christ Can be saved”
may not have been properly stated and may not clear?? Some may excuse the out come of that survey.
However, responses to other statements show the over all picture of confusion about the Gospel and scripture. For instance the statement “All the world’s different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth ” had 11 % Strongly Agree and 26 % Agree. On the statement “Jesus will return to earth some day” 24% were not sure and 6% disagreed. Then 12% of respondants were not sure if there was life after death.
So, clearly there is something like a quarter of the leaders and pastors in the PCUSA who are very confused about the meaning of Scripture, the Gospel message and the very nature and purpose of God. It is the blind leading the blind and very disturbing to see leaders who do not have solid understanding on these matters.
However, the answer should still be yes, even given that as faith in the OT was still in the hope of Christ, though I understand your point. The OT faith was forward looking.
That is an expansive, complete answer, looking almost like an excerpt from John Calvin’s writings. For me to summarize what looks to me to be your point: If you love Him, why not serve Him? A simple line from a camp song I heard at church camp.
Keith, Loren spends time in the Word, and obviously in prayer. Loren believes what the Bible says. Your response is relegated to what song you heard in camp? Come on Keith.
I stand by my summary.
I have to wonder if you have thought about the issue enough. It is a good answer for people capable of reasoning, but not all people have been blessed with a keen mind.
I ask you: Have you ever tried to comfort a fellow believer who has just lost a dear family member, perhaps a father, mother, sister, brother or a child?
This happened to me a little over a week ago. The first thing I asked him, not knowing his family was: “Did he know Jesus?”
He answered that his brother was a special needs man, and his family tried to teach him, but his intellectual capacity was so limited that he could not communicate in words, and he thought it was impossible to know if this beloved brother knew Jesus or not.
Either he or I, then expressed the idea that Jesus makes exceptions in such cases. The other agreed. Would you damn this helpless man to hell?
What about the unborn baby of believers?
What about those who have never heard the of Jesus’ saving works?
If you want to start making a list of who makes the cut and who doesn’t, I’ll refine my questions and we can each sharpen our pencil’s, as it were, and go at it.
I would really rather not, as I had a brain injury about twenty and a half years ago, and my though process is not as quick as it used to be. In many ways, my life is not as easy as it was before my injuries.
Do you want to judge me?
If I recall the Bible says something allong the line of “You will be judged by the same measure that you judge.”
You managed to rile me a bit, but a hope we can drop the issue, and depart in peace.
Keith. I don’t decide who goes to heaven. I don’t decide who gets into heaven. I don’t make any decisions about the salvation of any being. only God makes those decisions. But since I have the capacity to make a decision for myself, and am competent enough to understand the decision, I choose Jesus. So, I am inclined to think that I am saved…but I didn’t do any saving Keith. Jesus did the saving. So for a human being that has the ability to understand the act of salvation, I would opine that Jesus saves those who go to him, in faith, and believe. Our God is a loving God. I personally, do not believe He condemns to hell those who have no capacity to understand or make a conscious choice. Nobody judged you. But to tell me to get out pencils and make a list…I am not God. I’m sure we can both agree on that.