I recently attended a Presbyterian event where the keynote speaker taught something that deeply grieved me: “Presbyterians are more concerned about the glory of God and the coming of God’s reign than the salvation of souls.” This was proposed as one of the five key tenets of Reformed Theology. The Reformed doctrines of Sola Fides, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura and question one from the Westminster Shorter Catechism were used as supporting statements in this supposition. The conclusion drawn was that “salvation is God’s business,” inferring that it was not ours as Presbyterian Christians. The statement “salvation is God’s business” was then echoed by others in two small groups in which I participated.
Could this attitude, if prevalent throughout our denomination, be why we are decreasing in numbers while other denominations are flourishing?
The doctrines of Sola Fides and Sola Gratia do not address our concern for the salvation of others, but were in response to the false teaching that one could contribute to their salvation through works of merit. The Reformers wanted to affirm the declaration of Ephesians 2:8-9, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
In his book, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, John H. Leith stated: “The glory of God and his purposes in the world are more important than the salvation of one’s own soul.” This statement has a totally different connotation than the one proposed above. Leith stated, “Human beings are religious, the Calvinist asserts, not to satisfy their needs or to give meaning to their lives but because God has created them and called them to his service” (p. 72). This points away from the preoccupation with self toward the two great commandments — “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) If I love my neighbors, I will be deeply concerned for their salvation.
The first Great End of the Church in our Book of Order is “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind” (G-1.0200). The Book of Order also states that the Church’s calling is to “tell the good news of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as the only Savior and Lord,” “to present claims of Jesus Christ leading persons to repentance, acceptance of him as Savior and Lord, and new life as his disciples,” and ” … to be Christ’s faithful evangelist” (G-3.0300).
In light of this we need to be passionate about the salvation of souls! If we are not, then we have lost our purpose and will not thrive. Acts of service and mercy are not enough. Advocating for justice is not enough. Many non-Christians do the same. We have a distinctive faith and are called to proclaim the “Good News” that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them … “ (2 Corinthians 5:19).
We have been given the ministry of reconciliation and that is why we give, share, and advocate for justice. God’s love and grace are our motivations. Evangelicals do not have the corner on the market of proclaiming the “Good News.” That mandate was left to all of us corporately and individually.
If our heart is truly bent toward God to glorify God and see God’s kingdom manifest, we will care greatly about the things that God cares about, and God cares greatly about the disposition of a person’s soul. That’s why Jesus came, as John 3:16 states. God in God’s divine sovereignty has chosen that we be a part of God’s action in the world, proclaiming the good news, being distinctive and effectual witnesses for Christ.
Salvation is not only God’s business. It is at the heart of the Church’s mission to the world. We are called to proclaim and embody the life-transforming message of God’s love and grace, and trust God for the results. May we do so with fervency, love, and compassion!
Jane B. Johnson is associate for leadership development, education, and youth for The Presbytery of Baltimore.