In Christ Alone: Is Reconciliation with God Possible Outside of the Christian Faith?

As a Presbyterian minister, I often find myself presented with opportunities to openly discuss questions of Christian faith and practice. While sometimes these opportunities take the form of simple statements concerning the doctrines passed down by tradition, other times, they lead to deeper, more illuminating discussion. Due to the habituality of my dialogue on these issues, it isn’t uncommon for me to say something in passing that later opens the door for one of these deeper discourses – but I am rarely able to anticipate which statements these will be or when the conversations will take place.

This last week is a case in point. In the midst of a discussion on conflict management, I made an off-hand reference to Jesus being “the only route to[wards reconciliation] with God.” Since this has been the perspective of the overwhelming majority of Christian traditions since the beginning of the faith, c.f., Acts 4:12, I thought nothing more about it.

The next morning, I was surprised to find that my passing declaration had become the source of sincere dialogue amongst the group – each member having understood it somewhat differently from the rest. Recognizing the important role that context (both theirs and mine) played in gaining a clear understanding of my personal beliefs, these co-laborers determined to send me a follow-up question. It was, in fact, such an excellent question that I have decided to share both the question and a full exposition of my answer with the rest of you:

Question: “Are persons of Jewish faith able to enter the kingdom of heaven?”

Answer: I believe that the only way to salvation is and always has been through the shed blood of Jesus Christ as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. This blood is freely applied to all who have a relationship with the one true and living God whether they freely subscribe to the Christian faith or not. (This is important not only for our Jewish neighbors, but also for those who have never had an opportunity to hear the Good News.) 

Here is how I believe this mechanism works: Scripture is clear that there is one and only one God (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 6:4; 34:39). Scripture also teaches that this God is triune, i.e., that God exists in community with God’s self as three persons revealed as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:20). It is possible, therefore, for someone to have a genuine relationship with God the Father but be completely unaware of or unfamiliar with Jesus as the Messiah. That is, if you know the Father, you know the Son and vice versa because there is only one God (Matthew 11:27; John 14).

We see this principle demonstrated repeatedly throughout the Jewish Scriptures. (Some might wisely note that since the Apostles were all Jewish, all of the Christian Scriptures are, in fact of Jewish origin.) Perhaps the most prominent case, however, is that of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, who was saved through faith in God (Genesis 15:6), not through a knowledge of Jesus Christ as the mechanism through which that salvation would be made possible. (To claim otherwise, as some have, i.e., that God miraculously revealed this plan to Abraham so that he could believe, is to speculatively add to Scripture what is not already plainly contained therein – something which both the Jewish and Christian faiths steadfastly guard against.)

That said, two issues can complicate this understanding of Christ’s role in reconciling us to God when we begin thinking about Jews and Judaism in a modern context. The first is the question: “But don’t Jews now know about Jesus and yet choose to reject Him?”

The answer, in this case, is sometimes yes – they have met Jesus in His fullness as God and rejected both the Son and the Father. In most cases, however, I would argue that my Jewish friends have met someone named Jesus, but who is a false Messiah. They have rightly rejected this less than (and sometimes anti) divine variant as inconsistent with the True and Living God with whom they already have a relationship. This is, in fact, a prudent and wise decision!

A great example would be a decision to reject the Jesus who the Reich Church appealed to as the divine motivation for their actions during the Holocaust. I wholeheartedly reject this Jesus too! I don’t know who he is, but he certainly isn’t/wasn’t anything like the Son of God I’ve encountered in the Christian Scriptures! I applaud my Jewish friends for knowing their own Scriptures and the God who delivered them well enough to identify this impostor. (This is more than many of the Christians I know are capable of doing.)

The second question is: “How does this method of reconciliation apply to Jews who aren’t religious?” 

In this case, I would point out that identification with “the right people” is not the same as a relationship with “the right person.” Just as one’s racial or ethnic background is insufficient reason for an individual to be condemned, it is insufficient for Salvation. The color of our skin whether white, black, or olive; the church we attend whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim; the place of our birth in America, Israel, or Afghanistan all have no bearing on our eternal destiny. It is our faith in the One True and Living God, our relationship with our Creator, that saves us – and this alone.

I can honestly say that I believe my eternal destiny and that of my closest Jewish friends (mostly Rabbis) is the same. They live lives that show ample evidence of the love of God and the fruit of the Spirit. They have rejected a false Jesus, but the blood of the real Jesus still has them covered. In this way, I continue to embrace Jesus as the sole avenue for humanity’s reconciliation with God yet leave room for God to work among those who do not share a traditional Christian understanding of Christ’s redemptive work.

God could, of course, be working more narrowly than my understanding permits or much more broadly than a more traditional understanding allows – but that is not up to me to decide. Instead, I continue to faithfully preach the Good News that God has “expressed… his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace [we] have been saved, through faith—and this is not from [our]selves, it is the gift of God— not by works [or by the obtainment of a complete and  accurate theological understanding], so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:7-9). 


Stewardship or Stinginess

October marks the beginning of the fourth quarter of the year and, as Summer turns to Fall, many of us find ourselves reflecting upon what we did and didn’t accomplish during the previous nine months. Perhaps we are pleased with how we spent our time, money, and effort and feel motivated to begin planning for the next season of our lives. We feel excited, hopeful, invigorated, ready for the next adventure and prepared to see what God has in store.

On the other hand, we may find ourselves reflecting on just how little we have done with God’s gifts. Perhaps we’ve taken care, but not enough. Winter is coming and we feel the overwhelming need to shore up our resources. While others may be thrilled about what comes next, we find ourselves frightened and doubtful, uncertain that our hard work has paid or will pay off. We plan anyway.

For churches, this reflective season becomes a time to focus on stewardship – it’s time to make our plan for next year – to think creatively about what we have and what we might do to continue the work of God in our communities. Not surprisingly, our collective thought processes often mirror the individual ones highlighted above. For some congregations, this season of stewardship is a joyous celebration of bounty, marked by gratitude and thanksgiving for the generosity God has shown through the acts of Christ’s followers. For other worshipping communities, however, stewardship season is a time of grief and anxiety as we take a hard look at budgetary shortfalls and the ways in which the ministries that we engaged this year (sometimes just barely) will have to be cut to match our projected financial status in the coming year. Such disparate responses make one thing clear: stewardship matters.

According to Wikipedia “Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, information, theology, cultural resources etc.” So when we speak of stewardship, it’s important not to just get hung up on the monetary definition (though this is definitely an important one). Stewardship in its truest form recognizes that our resources (in whatever form they take) are not our own, but a gift from God. And Scripture teaches that the more we have been given, the more is expected from us (Lk. 12:48).

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells His disciples a story about a wealthy businessman who, before leaving on a long journey, decided to commit portions of his fortune to his servants. To one, he gave five talents of gold, to another two, and to another one. It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t distinguish between the servants. He doesn’t tell us what roles they held within the household or how hard they labored (or didn’t) on their master’s behalf. In fact, the only clear distinction between them is the amount of money that the master left in their care.

Upon his return, the master found that the first servant had doubled the value of his investment. The second servant, likewise, made a return on the rich man’s money. The third, however, took the path of extreme caution. Opting for a “low-risk investment,” he buried the gold and returned it to his master exactly what had been given. (Though, perhaps, a bit dustier than it had been initially.)

Jesus goes on to explain the master’s pleasure with both of the servants who, despite the disparity in what he had given them, gave him a good return on his investment. The third servant, however, didn’t fare quite so well. He had done as little as possible with the resources entrusted to his care and reaped the “reward” due a lazy steward.

The passage ends on a theme quite similar to that of Luke 12:48: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29) The moral? God’s gift to us doesn’t just consist of time, money, and energy, but of His trust that we will handle those gifts well and in ways that further the work of Christ’s Kingdom. If we break God’s trust, God will offer the gifts to someone else.

While this isn’t what is happening in every struggling congregation, it is certain that it is what is happening for many of us – oft times without our even realizing it. Part of the reason for this is our tendency to conflate stinginess with stewardship. TheFreeDictionary.com defines stinginess as “the unwillingness to part with money” (though we might freely add “time” and “energy” to the mix). We hold on to what we have with an iron grip believing that in doing so, we are engaged in “the responsible planning and management of resources.” We do our best to get the most work for the lowest price (without regard to the quality of the work being done or the well-being of the workers), avoid paying too much for a professional to handle the work or maintenance we believe (often wrongly) we can do just as well ourselves, and stash as much of what God has gifted us with in the ground as we possibly can. When the Master returns, we will be able to proudly show him the one dirty talent that we buried – our storehouse against potential future disasters.

True stewardship, on the other hand, is a call to courage. It’s not about getting everything at the lowest price, through the least amount of labor, or in the shortest period of time, but about using discernment as we seek ways to earn a return on what God has entrusted to us. It’s an invitation to invest our time, money, and energy in ways that bring glory to God.

In honesty, it’s often difficult to measure these “Kingdom returns.” We may rarely (if ever) recognize the impact that the time invested in speaking words of kindness had upon the supermarket cashier or the difference that one meal made in the life of a friend. But God does. And we are called to invest with faith.

So as the air cools and the leaves begin to fall, it’s a good time to ask ourselves about our own plans for the coming year. Will we cling to God’s gifts out of stinginess, or will we invest them wisely in the work of Christ’s Church?


What do Presbyterians Believe About the Bible?

“What do Presbyterians believe about the Bible?” Believe it or not, this is a question I get asked with some regularity. What is the Bible? Why do we use it? Is it really relevant to our lives today?
According to the Presbyterian Mission Agency:

“The Bible is a collection of 66 individual books that together tell the story of a group of people bound by a common faith in God. It is divided into two main sections: the Old Testament containing 39 books originally written primarily in Hebrew and the New Testament containing 27 books originally written primarily in Greek. For Presbyterians and others of the Reformed tradition the Bible is the means by which Christian believers come to understand how God has been present with humanity since the beginning of time and is present in our world today. By studying the scriptures we can begin to know of God’s faithfulness, constant love and eternal goodness.”

It is for this reason that reading the Bible in church and studying it at home is essential for those of us who seek to live as disciples of Christ. It is here that we learn about who God is, who we are, and how we are to relate to God and one another. In the pages of Scripture, we see God’s love and faithfulness unfold as His followers spread the message of peace and reconciliation. And it is here that we learn to live in ways that make peace and reconciliation possible.

The Book of Order tells us that as Presbyterians, we confess “the Scriptures to be the Word of God written, witnessing to God’s self-revelation. Where that Word is read and proclaimed, Jesus Christ the Living Word is present by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. For this reason the reading, hearing, preaching, and confessing of the Word are central to Christian worship” (Book of Order, W-2.2001). In other words, (from a Presbyterian perspective), Christian worship simply doesn’t exist without the Christian Scriptures.

The Book of Order states that “Leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can be expected to affirm that “… the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments … [are] … by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to [them]” (W-4.4003b). This is more than passing agreement or mental ascent – it is a belief that governs our lives and actions, propelling us into a space where we are constantly open to the transforming power of God as we are made more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29).

So what does this mean in a practical sense? To begin with, it means that we must give the Bible a central place in our lives. While there are a lot of good religious texts and self-help books on the market today, we affirm the belief that this one is the best. This means that when it comes to determining what we should believe, where we should focus our attention, or how we should act in a given situation, it is the God through the words of Holy Scripture, who has the final word. Not the government, our parents, our psychologist, our friends, or the latest best-selling author or hit public speaker.

Of course, for this to happen – for God to really have the final say – we must know what God has to say to begin with. And this doesn’t happen by osmosis. Simply spending time with the pastor or other believers doesn’t mean that you’ll get a good grasp on the contents of the Book or how they all fit together. In order for this to happen, you have to do some study. One of the ways we facilitate this is through weekly worship. Another is through Sunday School as we meet to discuss the Scriptures in community.

That said, there is no substitute for personal, daily study and reflection. If you aren’t a reader, this can be a challenge, so I invite you instead to consider joining me daily as I read through the Revised Common Lectionary on my YouTube channel. This is a great way to begin building familiarity with Scripture in around 10 minutes a day. I hope you’ll join me there!