Chapter 6 BACK TO THE EARLY CHURCH p60p
The apostles turned the world upside down with “good news of great joy that” was “for all the people” (Luke 2:10). This appears to have continued for the first few centuries of the Christian era in a way that is lacking in our versions of the gospel today. Undoubtedly there are many reasons for this difference.
Among these reasons is the fact that the early church fathers took the phrase “for all the people” seriously. “All persons will be saved except those who the Bible declares will be finally lost,” described earlier as premise B (see Introduction), was the basic perspective with which the leading church fathers worked. They had a positive view of God’s plan of salvation that this study calls Evangelical Inclusivism.
Many erroneously believe that Origen (185–254 AD) was convicted by the church of his day for teaching that all persons will be saved. However, Origen was judged to be a heretic for his views regarding the Trinity. The early church tolerated his “universalism” (all persons will be saved), objecting only to the fact that he taught that all the saved would be equally rewarded. His inclusivism was no longer tolerated in the church by the fifth century.
Athanasius (293–373 AD) was so highly regarded as a stalwart defender of biblical orthodoxy that many years after his death he was honored by having his name associated with the creed that now bears his name. Athanasius believed that Jesus Christ purchased salvation and granted it to everyone without any exception. To be finally lost one had to disregard or reject the salvation already given to him or her. p61p
Dr. Roger Olson, whose book The Story of Christian Theology won Christianity Today’s 2000 Book Award, wrote this to me: “I do not know of any systematic theology prior to your own publications that spell out the nature of salvation as you do. But I hear distant echoes of it (foreshadowings, adumbrations) in Athanasius and perhaps other early church fathers” (quoted with permission).
Other theological historians have also said that if any view of salvation similar to the one we are considering in this study is found, it will be among the early church fathers. Those who were closest (in time) to the apostles had an inclusive view of God’s plan of salvation (For proof of this claim, see (http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Prevailing.html). For the most part, they taught that all will be saved with no exceptions or that all will be saved with some exceptions. They may have gained their perspective from their understanding of the so-called “universalistic” passages as we considered them in Chapter 1
Pelagius (about 350–418 AD), usually described as a pious British monk, was concerned that Christians were becoming lax in their lifestyle. For this reason he began to teach that everyone will be lost except those who, by their own strength and determination of will, would live in obedience to the law of God following the example of Christ. Augustine (354–430 AD) recognized in Pelagianism an unacceptable works-based righteousness. He taught that all will be lost except those who God, in his eternal, sovereign, incomprehensible grace, has chosen to bring to salvation. A middle position between these two was that of the Semi-Pelagianists. They proposed that all will be lost except those who by their own sovereign decision accept God’s offer of salvation. p62p
With the increasing influence of the church of Rome, the accepted belief turned into “All will be lost except those who live in continuing fellowship with the church.” This deteriorated into a source of controlling power not only for the Roman church but also for the Roman Empire during Constantine’s rule. Few were willing to risk their eternal destiny by challenging the church’s definition of those who would be saved.
By the end of the fourth century, theologians began to view the plan of salvation in the restrictive form with which we are familiar: “All persons will be finally lost except those who the Bible declares will be saved,” that is, premise A (see Introduction). Ever since that time, mainstream Christian theologians have attempted to define the “exceptions,” that is, those who they judged will be saved. Such restrictive definitions of those who will be saved are not found among the leading church fathers in the first, second, and third centuries.
The Reformers in the sixteenth century emphasized the need for a personal commitment of faith. “The just shall live by faith.” In place of “no salvation outside the church,” the criteria became “no salvation outside the household of faith.” That all persons will be lost except those who make and maintain a personal commitment of faith is the assumption that underlies nearly all evangelical Christian theology and tradition today.
Following the Reformation there is little agreement on how a sinner can come to salvation since, “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 1:18–3:20). Where does the ability to believe come from? The many answers that have been proposed include: p63p
1. There are traces of original goodness that remain in every sinner. By building on the good that is in them, sinners meet God’s requirement for salvation.
2. God has planted a seed of faith in every sinner’s heart; those wise enough to exercise this faith are accepted by God.
3. There is an enabling grace that attends the Word whenever it is preached. By seizing this enabling grace the sinner is saved.
4. From eternity God foresaw all those who would of their own accord believe; salvation is reserved only for such people.
Many different combinations of these views have been proposed to account for the ability of those totally corrupted by sin to be able to believe.
Today, evangelical Christians are still defined, and separated into various denominations, by the answer they give to the question: “How do some persons come to salvation?” Evangelical Christians largely agree that “All are lost except . . . .” They have not been able to come to a common definition of “the exceptions,” that is, those who will be saved and how they become so. More than sixteen hundred years after the time of Pelagius, those who look to the Bible for the answer are still widely divided on this question. What accounts for this lack of consensus?
THE SILENCE OF SCRIPTURE
This lack of consensus is due to the fact that the Scriptures are silent on the question of how those who are dead in sin come to fullness of life in Christ. The Scriptures simply tell us that God “reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18). The Bible neither imposes a condition or prerequisite for sinners to be established in God’s grace (see Chapter 5), nor does it indicate how those who are “dead in transgressions” (Eph. 2:5) would be able to fulfill such a condition or requirement. p64p
Therefore speculation runs rampant. The question of how sinners come to salvation arises because we have been taught to view the entire human race among those who will be lost unless we have reason to think differently about some people (referred to in this study as premise A; see Introduction). If the Scriptures teach to view all persons as lost, it would seem most reasonable that the Scriptures will tell us how some persons come to salvation.
If, however, the teaching of the Scriptures is premise B, namely, “All persons will be saved except those who the Bible declares will be finally lost,” then the question of how sinners become saved is not something we expect to find in the Scriptures. The result of the “one trespass” and the “one act of righteousness” (Rom. 5:18) are inexplicable. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). The question of how this happens is left totally unanswered. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).
With premise B we need not speculate about how those who are dead in sin are made alive in Christ. Those who are in Christ are “a new creation.” We are told that God created; we are not told how God created. We know that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). The only exceptions to this “good news” are those who willfully, persistently, and finally reject or remain indifferent to God’s will as it has been made known to them, as discussed in Chapter 2. p65p
What is at stake here is not the sort of technical question of doctrine that is significant only for theologians. At issue is the eternal lot of mankind. The teachings of the Scriptures concerning the grace and judgment of God are not something that we may leave to professional theologians. The message of salvation is at the very heart of the gospel and what one believes about it will have broad implications and far-reaching consequences for every aspect of the Christian life. It is judicious to go back to the early church to be instructed in this important matter.
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