Does the Church Control Salvation?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster               Presbyterian Church

This was the title of the November 23rd sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by our Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen.[1]

The Scripture passages for the day were Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46.

The Sermon

“The newest members of our Congregation [who were welcomed that day] . . [are] a slice of 21st century American religious reality. Gay, straight, married, single, partnered, and divorced. People at the top of their profession and others who have been homeless or are without work. Former Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians from other congregations, immigrants and long-time Minnesotans. People who come with questions and doubts, others very much at home in Christian tradition. One has practiced Buddhism. Several were raised in non-Christian households. Two are becoming Christians today and will be baptized.”

“They’re here because their journey in faith brought them. For some the work of this church in the city drew them in, for others the desire to belong to a community, for others the education offered. For all of them worshipping God in this setting and with this people has given them a new spiritual home. This is the church in our time. Our journey now joins with theirs.”

“If the question is, ‘Does the Church control salvation?’ the answer needs to be offered carefully. We don’t want to try to deny other religious traditions their meaning, but at the same time we don’t want to water down our own convictions, especially on this final Sunday before Advent, when we celebrate Christ the King, the one who, in the words of Ephesians, is ‘above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ (Ephesians 1:21)”

“Long ago it was a basic article of faith that the Church did, in fact, control salvation. It was common knowledge that to gain God’s favor one had to be on good terms with the Church, because the saving work of Jesus Christ came through the Church. This gave the Church a lot of power over the spiritual lives of people. As in any situation with an imbalance of power, the temptation for abuse always hovered nearby.”

“The 16th century Protestant Reformation, we like to say, developed as an uprising against the abuse of power of the Roman clergy. They controlled access to God so tightly believers felt trapped on this side of heaven until they met the demands of the church. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: no salvation outside the Church. The priest in every parish was a spiritual power-broker.”

“Lest we be too quick to speak ill of our Roman Catholic siblings, we should note that Protestant history is salted with similar declarations about who controls the gates of heaven. While Catholics placed that control in the hands of Rome and its priests, the Reformers used theological conformity as a way to maintain control over things divine. One passed heavenly muster only if one’s statement of faith met certain theological standards. It was a litmus test and we can still see it in use today in some churches.”

“That’s a Protestant version of no salvation outside the church. The continuing existence of so many Protestant denominations today is an ecclesiastical hangover from over indulgence in theological conformity among those convinced they have a lock on the truth.”

“Christians have always wanted to say who’s ‘in’ and who’s not, who’s ‘been saved’ and who has not. We would like the Church to be able to control salvation.”

“Then along comes the Final Judgment scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel, and things take on a different hue. Jesus says,‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)

“There’s nothing in there about following a particular theological roadmap; nothing in the text about staying in the church’s good graces in order to curry favor with the Almighty. In fact, neither church nor theology is mentioned.”

“It turns out salvation belongs to God alone and has nothing to do with the exercise of ecclesiastical authority or with meeting a theological litmus test, and everything to do with how we treat the poor and those deemed unworthy by the world.”

“Jesus had said that love of God and love of neighbor are the greatest commandments, when asked what we must do to inherit eternal life. Now we see what that looks like on Judgment Day: ‘Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)

“All the theological grandstanding and all the church authority we can summon will not stand up to the clarity and power and simplicity of those words: as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me. It’s not what the Church thought long ago, not what it thought in the Reformation, and not what a lot of us in the Church think today, but this is what the reign of God looks like: loving others.”

“The Church does not control salvation; God does, which is a good thing, because the Almighty surely has a broader vision than any of us.”

“You and I will need to find ways to hold fast to Jesus Christ even as we respect the traditions of our neighbors, including those who have no faith at all.”

“And as far as the business of salvation, we can leave that to God.”

Conclusion

As I said in an earlier post, the first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer, who asked Jesus a trick question as to what the lawyer had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead, the lawyer wanted Jesus to give an answer that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus ducked the question and instead responded with another question: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer replied, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then said the lawyer had answered correctly and that he would live if he did exactly that. (Luke 10:25-37)

The passage from Matthew that was one of the texts for this sermon makes the same point.

I agree that this is the greatest commandment. It clearly is difficult, if not impossible, to follow this commandment all the time. But Jesus tells us in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke 15: 11-31) that God forgives us, time and time again, for our failure to do what we should do and doing what we should not.

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[1] Westminster’s website has links for an audio recording of the sermon and the church bulletin for the day.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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