Texts: Luke 23:44-47 and Genesis 17:1-6
This is the second in a series on "The Four Alls" of Methodism
The Messiah a Loser?
“Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man” – Luke 23:47
What’s the significance of this verse and why did Luke put it in his gospel? This is actually quite an important verse and it’s not just Luke reporting a matter of observant detail like someone involved in sociological research.
I believe that we all filter our perception of life through a number of various different “screens”. Things like language, education, or even gender cause us to perceive and interpret events in different ways. But one very big screen is one I call “What reality is like”.
The book of Job gives us a glimpse into the way that many ancient people perceived “What reality is like”. Reality was like this: If someone was healthy, wealthy, successful and had lots of children, you could be sure that God had blessed them and that they were good people. If someone was poor, unsuccessful, ill or barren, you could be sure that they had sinned in some way and that God had cursed them.
Success was absolute evidence of God’s blessing. Failure was absolute evidence of God’s curse. Thus Job’s friends tell him that he must have done something wrong to have so many difficulties suddenly befall him. Thus Jesus’ disciples wanted to know – how can a man be born blind? Things like that don’t just happen – someone must have sinned in order for him to be born blind.
So, in the world which believed that success was evidence of God’s blessing and failure was evidence of God’s curse, the execution of a young man in the prime of his life by the most humiliating means possible is absolute proof that he has been cursed by God. In the story of “The Jewish Messiah versus Rome”, the crucifixion is proof positive that the gods are on the side of Rome. Because no-one rises from the dead, of course.
The Gentile Proclaims Jesus Righteous
And so, as this “Jesus versus Rome” story ends, the Jewish crowd who witnessed Jesus’ death went home beating their breasts. The response of the Roman solider, however, was to say: “Certainly this man was righteous”
Now by Jewish standards, of course, the Roman soldier is an outsider.
By his own “worldly” standards, he should be proclaiming that Jesus is unrighteous, that Jesus is a failure.
Instead, the way Luke tells the story, a non-Jewish person is the first person to hint at the victory to come. It is a member of “the current evil generation” rather than a Jew who proclaims the righteousness of Jesus at the foot of the cross. Perhaps God’s saving purposes are not intended simply for Israel but for all of humankind.
In Genesis 17:5, God promises Abraham that he will be “the ancestor of many nations”. Luke is making clear to his Jewish readers and to us that, in Jesus, this promise has been fulfilled.
Through Jesus, God has made clear that his salvation is open to all people, not just the Jews. I believe that God’s salvation was made real by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But I also believe that Jesus made clear in his teachings and his actions that God is the God of all people and that salvation is intended for all people.
All Can be Saved
If you attended the evening service two weeks ago, you may recall that I said that for the next four evenings that I preached, I was going to preach on the basic beliefs of Methodism.
You will recall that these are summarised in a statement called “The Four Alls”:
- All need to be saved
- All can be saved
- All can know they are saved
- All can be saved to the uttermost
In case I’ve confused you with a rather long introduction, today we are concentrating on the concept: “All can be saved”. “All can be saved”, as in “All are able to be saved”.
Again, if you were here two weeks ago, you might recall that I said that it’s my belief that Methodism has been so successful in putting its message across that it risks being mistaken for some kind of generic Protestantism that has no particularly distinctive doctrines.
And I think that it’s on this point that Methodism was most successful: “All can be saved”. This statement has got to be the hallmark of evangelical Protestantism. Why else do we proclaim the good news of God’s love and Christ’s salvation to anyone who will listen? Why else do we tell people that they can benefit from God’s love if they will only accept it?
Well, during Wesley’s lifetime, the idea that “all can be saved” was by no means a point of doctrine that all Protestants agreed upon. One of the big emphases in Protestant theology at the time was an emphasis on God’s sovereignty and on giving glory to God.
Many people believed that, because God is sovereign, he keeps a tight control over everything that happens in the world and in eternity. Thus, these people believed that if a person repents and turns to God and is saved, he or she is saved only because God had already decided that this should be so. And, in Wesley’s time, the people who believed this also believed – like the ancients – that being poor was a sign that God had assigned a person to be damned.
John Wesley was quite clear that God desires for all people to be saved and he preached this view of God passionately.
Good News for the Poor
It’s hard for us today to understand how revolutionary an idea this was at the time because the idea that God wants everyone to be saved has become a bread-and-butter idea for most Christians in the UK today.
But maybe we can get an idea of how exciting an idea this was in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Imagine that it is 1820 and you are a poor miner. Everything that you have learned about Christianity – which is not much – is that, if God had intended for you to be saved, you wouldn’t be a poor man.
You and your family are frequently hungry and none of you have two complete sets of clothing. You can’t go to church because a person has to wear “Sunday best” to church, even to sit in the free seats, and you can’t even afford to hire a set of “Sunday best” every now and then like some people you know.
And then these Methodist Preachers come along to the mines and they preach to you in the pits during your short meal break. They tell you that God loves you and that God sent his Son to die for you.
They tell you that God’s love is meant for poor people as well as those who have enough to eat. And, they keep coming to the pits so that you can worship even though you can’t go to church.
All can be saved! Wow! What a revolutionary concept! That’s genuinely Good News!
That might give you a flavour of what it meant to poor people in the UK in the 18th and 19th centuries to hear the message that “All can be saved”. You might realise that the message itself was exciting and the message itself was probably one of the big reasons why Methodism grew so rapidly.
But this message that “all can be saved” – that God’s intention is for everyone to be saved – sounds rather old hat to us today. “Ho hum. Of course. Weren’t those people ignorant and silly 200 years ago?”
A Refutation of some 18th Century Calvinists
But I think that this view of God and God’s character still has a lot of implications for Christians today. I don’t know about you, but to me, it is incredibly important that God is a God who wants to draw all things into the light.
It is important to me that God is creative and not destructive.
I don’t want to criticise Calvinism – which is the name of the theology that John Wesley opposed.
First of all, Wesley himself made it a point to embrace Calvinist preachers into his movement – he didn’t see Calvinism as a threat to the Gospel and he believed that it was important for Christians with different opinions to nonetheless work together to spread the Gospel.
Secondly, Calvinism today has changed enormously since the time of Wesley. There are very few Calvinists today who believe that God predestines people to salvation – although there is still an admirable emphasise on God’s sovereignty and on giving God glory.
Thirdly, I have to confess that I don’t really “get” Calvinism in my gut. I can’t really understand why people would prefer it to Arminianism – the name given to the theology that proclaims “all can be saved”. And, I think that if a person really wants to learn about a subject, that the subject needs to be learned from someone who understands it in their gut. So if you want to learn about what modern-day Calvinists believe, I think that we should invite someone who is a Calvinist to tell us about it from the inside perspective.
Why I am an Arminian
What I can tell you is why I am an Arminian. I can tell you why I believe that “all people can be saved”.
Mainly, I think that the message of the bible is quite clearly that God wants to draw all people into his kingdom.
The problem is, that there are no “killer proof-texts” for either the view that “all can be saved” nor for the view that “Only some will be saved, according to God’s predestination”. In the history of this debate, both sides have chosen a handful of proof-texts, but quite frankly, I find the search for proof-texts unsatisfactory on both sides.
I believe that the overall witness of the New Testament – in the teaching of both Jesus as well as in the teaching of Paul – is quite clearly that God wants to draw all people into the Kingdom of God. Not just the Jews, not just God’s chosen people but gentiles as well.
And this isn’t just a New Testament message. Modern Jewish theologians read Isaiah – the same passages that we read as referring to Jesus – and they conclude that it is God’s intention that the Jewish people are to bring the message of salvation to the world by bringing the light of God’s Law to the world. Reading a “universal message” into the Old Testament isn’t just something that Christians do – Jewish theologians do it as well.
If God’s intention is to make his Kingdom available to all people of all tribes and skin colours, it makes no sense to me that God would choose certain individuals from each of those races to be constitutionally unable to accept his forgiveness and his love.
I am an Arminian because I believe that God’s intention was to build the possibility of salvation into the very being of the universe.
“In the beginning was the Word” – John 1:1
I believe in the Abrahamic covenant – the idea that God promised Abraham that salvation would extend beyond Abraham’s direct descendents to many nations.
I believe, with Isaiah, that the nation of Israel were to be the bearers of God’s salvation to all the peoples of the world.
I believe that Jesus believed that salvation was to be for all people. He gave a drink to the Samaritan woman at the well, he healed the centurion’s servant, he healed the daughter of the Greek woman, he associated with Jews who were outcasts in their own community.
I believe – as does most of the Christian world today – that God’s offer of salvation is extended to every single individual who is ever born or who will ever be born.
I believe that God wants everyone to be part of his Kingdom. I believe that Christians are called to be the bearers of this message in both our words and our actions.
And I pray that God will help us all to grow in the knowledge of the salvation of Christ so that we can: witness to his love, make his justice and his care known by our actions, and bring glory to his name. Amen