The New Testament teaches there are two kinds of people who are saved: Those who are saved know it, and appreciate it; and those who are saved, but do not yet know it.
The first group of people know that they are saved. In 1st Timothy 4:10 we read that “God is the savior of all, especially those who believe.” Whatever else this verse means, it means at least this: Those who know that they belong to God possess a special blessing. They invariably confess that they have been somehow pursued, surprised, and apprehended by God’s amazing and far-reaching grace. Thus, in Ephesians 2: 8-9 the apostle writes:
“By grace you are saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not because of works lest anyone should boast.”
Herein the apostle plainly states that we are saved “by grace, through faith,” and “not because of works.” He then adds that we cannot boast of our “work of faith” because even our faith is “the gift of God.”
This is not Unconditional Election—rather it is what John Wesley, and the Methodist used to call prevenient grace, grace that goes before us and ahead of us and makes it possible for us to believe in Jesus Christ. Moravian are getting at the same truth when we confess:
…by our own reason and strength, we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit calls us through the gospel, enlightens us with gifts of grace, dedicates us to God, and preserves us in the truth faith…
This was the kind of faith that Bishop Spangenberg was thinking of when he said to John Wesley, “Does the Spirit bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?”
The second group of those who are saved without their immediate knowledge. These are they who learn that they are saved at the end of days, as they stand on the brink of eternity. Thus, in Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable about how the king divides the sheep from the goats, placing the goats are at his left hand, and the sheep at his right. After dealing with those on his left—and their fate was not good, the king says to those at his right and says:
‘Come, O blessed of 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 drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
Then the righteous will answer him:
‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you ? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
And the King will answer them:
‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters*, you did it to me.’
This text extends the boundaries of God’s already amazing and far-reaching Grace.
I once had a friend named B___ who was one of the youngest fighter pilots in the European theater during the Second World War. He flew P-47s and P-51 Mustangs. He once told me that he had rather shoot an ammo train than eat breakfast. One morning he and his flight leader, a captain, were strafing a train that was quickly disappearing into a mountain tunnel. His captain was so intent on shooting the train that he flew his P-47 into the side of a mountain. B__ told me it was about then that he forsook his Presbyterian roots and lost all his faith. Nevertheless, he accepted me as a pastor, and when we had occasion to eat together, he always paused so that I could say the blessing. On a number of occasions, I bought his lunch. And on a number of occasions, he bought my lunch. One day, I read Matthew 25 in the morning, and he bought my lunch at noon. I was inspired to tell him about the texts, and to explain that I had a hope for him, because I was one of the least of the least, and in feeding me—and in extending is friendship and many kindnesses to me, he had served Jesus Christ. He laughed and nothing more was said. Then, while I was out of town, he took ill, went into the hospital, and died. When I returned, his wife asked me to conduct his funeral. She was and is a believer, she told me that when she inquired about his faith during that last hospitalization, he told her I had given him hope and he referred her to Matthew 25. This still gives me hope. It makes me ask, “How can you put a limit on God amazing and far-reaching grace?”
Now if there are two kinds of people who are saved, those who already know and those who do not, then there are two ways of salvation, typical and atypical, and the atypical way of salvation is a big, big umbrella.
For most of us the typical way of salvation goes something like this. First, at some point in our lives we come to understand that we are sinners by birth and by choice, and that our sin separates us from God. As the Psalmist declares, “None is righteous, no not one, no one understands, no one seeks for God… no not one. “ Second, after realizing that we are sinners who are powerless to save ourselves, we hear the Good News of the gospel which declares that Jesus Christ, the son of God, died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and then, on the third day, rose again to give us a future and a hope. In Romans 10:9, “St. Paul writes, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Third, after we have embraced Christ in faith, we submit to baptism (or confirmation), partake of the Holy Communion, and become a part of the fellowship of Christ’s body the church, enjoying all the benefits of our membership. As the hymnists declares:
What brought us together what join-ed our heart,
The pardon which Jesus our high priest imparts,
‘Tis this which cements the disciples of Christ,
Who are into one by the Spirit baptized.
Is this our high calling, harmonious to dwell,
And thus, in sweet concert Christ praises to tell?
In peace and blest union our moments to spend
And live in communion with Jesus our friend?
For the believer eternal life is not just length of days, but a quality of life, and it is not confined to eternity; it begins, right now, in time. There is a confidence and joy that sustains us.
If there is a typical way of salvation, there is also an atypical way of salvation, and the atypical way of salvation is a big, big umbrella. The New Testament describes several divergent possibilities.
We have already dealt with Matthew 25. In 1st Corinthians 15, Paul advances his case for the resurrection of Jesus and the general resurrection of believers and unbelievers at the end of history. In so doing, he mentions that some members of the church in Corinth have submitted to baptism on behalf of family and friends who died before the Good News about Jesus Christ was preached in that city. We know this because Paul asks, “If the dead are not raised at all, why are (some) people (in your church) baptized on their behalf?”
Now Paul did not start this practice, and Paul did not praise this practice, but neither did Paul condemn this practice. I suspect he permitted it because he did not want to rob those members of the church of hope for their dearly departed. In thinking about this text, I was reminded of a pre-marital counseling session I held more than thirty years ago. A young man had lost his mother just before he met his fiancé. I know this because I conducted her service. In the course of our session he said to his fiancé “Oh, how I wish you could have known my mom, but you just missed her.” The fact that his fiancé had just missed his mother was to him a great sadness, but not nearly so great a sadness as that of those members of the church in Corinth who buried a wife, or a husband, or a son, or a daughter, just a few weeks, or months, before Paul came to announce the gospel of Jesus and plant that church. These persons “just missed him!” Or did they?
Today, as you may know, Mormons occasionally still baptize on behalf of the dead, this under very strict guidelines. Catholics and Protestants do not, but we do acknowledge those who just missed Jesus Christ. Two weeks ago, we mentioned those who lived and died in times and places where the gospel had yet to be preached. We mentioned those children who die in infancy, or before reaching the age of accountability which Jews and Christians alike have often “fixed” at the age of twelve or thirteen. We also spoke of those people who live a full three score and ten, but never grow beyond the emotional or intellectual maturity of a child. This list is nowhere near complete. Still, the point is that we do not make provision for the people and many others besides by submitting to baptism on their behalf. We do trust God to judge them in the light that they have.
I suspect, given the chance, Paul would have told the church in Corinth exactly what he told the church in Rome. In Romans 2 he writes about God’s amazing and far-reaching grace, saying:
4 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
God’s amazing and far-reaching grace is revealed and stretched even more in 1st Peter 3:19. Therein we read that, in the time between his death and resurrection, Jesus went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison. In the sixth verse of the next chapter the apostle adds that, “the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.” It is worth noticing just who these spirits are. These are they who lived in the time of Noah, about whom it was said, “And every imagination of the thought of their hearts was only evil continually.” These are they who were the worst of the worst, and Jesus was concerned even with them. Is he not also concerned with all?
This text is cryptic at best. It does not tell us how the spirits in prison responded. Nor does it guarantee a second chance for all, but it does suggest the possibility of salvation for some who do not come to grace in a typical way. And it affirms at least two very important truths:
First, it affirms that even in the time between his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ was active for the salvation of the world.
Second, it affirms that God’s amazing and far-reaching grace is beyond our ability to comprehend. According to John 1:16, in Jesus Christ, we have received “wave after wave of grace.” As soon as we recover from immersion in one wave of grace, and believe we have grasped it, and understand it, at least a little, another wave of grace comes crashing in to overwhelm us, and enlarge our understanding of God amazing and far-reaching grace all the more.
Let me end with a flight of fancy: Consider the fact that, according to 2nd Peter 3:8 with God a day is as 1,000 years, and 1,000 years as a day. Now imagine a man who has lived a life in total contradiction to God. And imagine that one night he either takes drink or drugs to the limit of his capacity, gets into his car, and starts for home. On his way, he loses control of his car and careens over a cliff. As he falls, immediately his thoughts turn to God, how much time does he have to consider his fate? Does it suffice to say that his life flashes before his eyes in a moment of time? Or, since God is involved, we simply confess that it is impossible for us to know, for with God a day is as 1,000 years, and a few seconds as long as a human life. Now, some may say, “Worth, you have gone nuts!” In response I would simply—say, I am speculating, not making doctrine. I would also point out that, in his book on Moravian Doctrine, Charles Augustus Schultze proposes a similar—though not exact, scenario.
I am not arguing for universal salvation. I am not a universalists, though, unlike some of my fundamentalists brothers and sisters, I would not be disappointed if God is. I would point out too that Catholics speak of purgatory, and William Barclay, author of The Daily Study Bible Series points out that he believes that all of God punishment is always remedial. It is intended to remake us and prepare us for an eternity with God. As for me? I say, “Why wait?” “Why not be sure?” There is one sure way by which we can know and enjoy salvation here and now, and that way is Jesus Christ.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.