Salvation

To make up for missing a post last week, you get two posts this week!

In researching and writing my last post, I kept asking myself, “Will Osama bin Laden be saved?” If you ask most Christians, the answer would be a loud, resounding, NO.

There are a few ways of approaching the issue. John Calvin, the father of the Reformed tradition, taught double predestination: that is, God chooses some to be saved, and chooses others to be damned. The righteous are elected to go to heaven, the wicked are condemned to damnation. The Roman Catholic Church famously teaches that “outside the church, there is no salvation.”

What do Lutherans believe? Well, that depends on who you ask. First, I present a few quotes from the Book of Concord* which address the issue.

It is also taught that our Lord Jesus Christ will return on the Last Day to judge, to raise all the dead, to give eternal life and eternal joy to those who believe and are elect, but to condemn the ungodly and the devils to hell and eternal punishment.
The Augsburg Confession, Article XVII

That doesn’t sound very helpful. But what about other parts of the Book of Concord?

“God imprisoned all in unbelief that he may be merciful to all,” and that he wants no one to be lost but rather that everyone repent and believe on the Lord Christ [Rom. 11:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; cf. Ezek. 33:11; 18:23].
Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article XI: Election

Therefore, we reject the following errors:
1. When it is taught that God does not want all people to repent and believe the gospel.
2. Likewise, that when God calls us to himself, he does not seriously intend that all people should come to him.
3. Likewise, that God does not desire that everyone should be saved, but rather that without regard to their sins–only because of God’s naked decision, intention, and will–some are designated for damnation, so that there is no way that they could be saved.
Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article XI: Election

And we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his power.
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article IX: Concerning Christ’s Descent into Hell

It seems to me, then, that salvation is not quite so black-and-white as some Christians make it out to be. What the Formula of Concord outlines could be considered to be an almost-but-not-quite form of universal salvation. This teaching is commonly called a heresy, but from what I can gather, this may not be the case. The Second Council of Constantinople did condemn Origen and a form of apocatastasis, the “restoration” of all things, but scholars are divided on whether Origen actually believed in universal salvation. More research is required here.

Regardless of what Origen did or did not believe, many Christians today consider universal salvation to be heresy. And it doesn’t take too much effort on the internet to find out that lots of people believe that the ELCA teaches universal salvation and condemn us for it (among other things).

Not withstanding the fact that the ELCA website is difficult to navigate–I used to say impossible until I ventured onto the Vatican website–I have found that the ELCA teaching is in line with the Formula of Concord: we teach and believe that it is truly God’s will and desire that everyone be saved. But are they?

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” We are praying that, no matter how often we screw up and try to sabotage it, God’s will will ulimately, in the end, will be done and brought to fruition. If I believe that the redemptive work of Christ on the cross was complete, then I am forced to conclude that salvation should be for everyone. Nothing can outlast God’s will.

However, we don’t know. Lutherans are particularly comfortable with not understanding every mystery of God. Martin Luther’s advice was to simply not worry about it. We don’t know who (if anyone) is saved, who (if anyone) is damned, and how the end of the world will look.

Instead, we hope. We have hope that God will get what God desires. We have hope that God’s will will be done, that will that desires all to be saved. What we don’t know, we take on faith. Is that universal salvation? Perhaps. But it is Lutheran.

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*The Book of Concord is a collection of Lutheran documents, including the paramount Augsburg Confession, along with Apology of the Augsburg Confession, The Smalcald Articles, Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, The Small Catechism, The Large Catechism and Formula of Concord. The documents outline and explain Lutheran theology and are considered to be faithful interpretations of Holy Scripture. They themselves are not scripture, and are not to be held on the same level. Adherence to the Augsburg Confession is generally accepted as the requirement to be considered a Lutheran Church. The ELCA accepts the entire Book of Concord as a faithful witness to the Gospel, and ELCA Pastors are required to teach in accordance with it.

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The Solemnity of Death

It’s been a few days now, but I wanted to express my utter surprise at the responses to the death of Osama bin Laden I have seen in the last few days.

When I heard the news, my first thought was, “Well… now what?” I didn’t feel any different. I’m sure the soldiers in the operation felt different, but I wonder how that long that lasted until they went to sleep and woke up the next day, still in a war zone, still fighting the same battles they’ve been fighting for the past ten years. Did anything really change?

It was inevitable that celebrations would rise in the streets. We Americans are nothing if not fanatics when we put our mind to something, and this is something we have put our minds to for the last decade. Politics were abuzz with statements from Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, and everyone in between trying to get into the spotlight.

What surprised me, however, was the Christian response. I woke the next morning to find Facebook inundated with quotes from the “Prayer for Our Enemies” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and the Book of Common Prayer. In case you are unfamiliar with it, it goes like this:

Gracious God, your Son called on you to Forgive his enemies while he was suffering shame and death. Lead our enemies and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

It was quite the shock indeed. My friends and colleagues all had the same thought. I used this prayer in Morning Prayer on Monday. Dr. Feyerherm preached its idea at Tuesday night’s Anglican Eucharist; which, to my surprise (and hers) elicited a cry of AMEN! from the assembly. Dr. Schroeder mentioned it again today.

Today, I checked the websites of the ELCA and its full communion partners. The ELCA, ECUSA, and UCC had all released official statements calling for the same sense of solemnity around the occasion (links below). Others had links to blog posts with the same message. The Vatican released a similar statement.

For comparison, I attempted to find statements from well-known right-wing evangelical leaders, such as Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, John Hagee, Billy Graham, etc. If they are talking, they aren’t doing it in a place where I can find it.

Can it really be that the dominant American Christian response to this event is a call for reflection, contemplation, and love? It may be too good to be true–there will be plenty of people “on the ground” who will disagree with their church’s position, perhaps even more than agree. But on a church level, Christians have stood up and denounced the celebrations of human death. I find this extraordinary.

Maybe there is hope in this world after all.

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Bin Laden death calls for ‘solemn remembrance,’ says ELCA presiding bishop
Episcopalians contemplate implications of Osama bin Laden’s death
Celebrating the Death of Osama bin Laden?
A call to prayer for the pathways to peace
Vatican Statement on Bin Laden’s Death

Mid-Week Lenten Services

On the east side of Columbus, OH, a group of churches and pastors have formed the East Side Fellowship Ministry. The group consists of two Lutheran churches, an Episcopal church, a Presbyterian church, a Disciples of Christ church, a Methodist church, and the OSU chaplaincy. The churches are all African American city churches, which was culture shock for me when I was first assigned to Hope Lutheran church for my Ministry in Context.

One of the most prominent ministries for the ESFM is mid-week Lenten services. Each week, the service is held at a different church. The host pastor does not preach, instead inviting one of the other pastors to do so. That means that over six weeks, I was privileged to hear six very different sermons on what it means to love our neighbor. I witnessed altar calls, dancing (by the one preaching, no less), gospel choirs, and a VERY high church Episcopal Eucharist.

There were times when traditions flat-out clashed. The Lutherans cringed every time a sermon picked up works-righteousness (and boy, some of them actually relied on it). More than a few people were put off by the elaborate ceremony and ritual of the Episcopalian Ash Wednesday Eucharist. No one dared step forward themselves or send anyone else up during the altar calls. It was no secret that certain people deliberately chose not to show up to certain churches.

Seeing these pastors and churches gather, however, was an experience. Eucharist was shared twice during the season–once at the beginning and once at the end. While some of us had “oops” moments when we realized we’d eaten the bread too early or what have you, my observation was that most people shared it. Look back at the list of churches in the ESFM. Some of them don’t have full communion agreements with each other.

Full communion agreements matter on a regional/national/international level. But what effect do they have at the local level? The churches of the ESFM weren’t going to let church politics (some of which are quite beneficial) interfere with their mission and ministry in this part of Columbus, where crime and poverty are everyday norms. The Good Samaritan text was preached more than once this Lent, and the message was taken to heart. In the grand scheme of things, what matters is not who we agree with, but who is in need. These churches come together to take care of the people in their area. They are motivated by love of neighbor. Doctrinal differences are not about to hold them back from caring for their community.

Pastor Bob from Hope Lutheran Church was one who preached on the Good Samaritan. He asked, “Who are we in the story?” We like to think we are the Samaritan. We are afraid that we are the priest or the Levite or the robbers. Some times we even feel like the man beaten and left on the road. But, he said, no one ever thinks about the innkeeper, the one charged with the long term care of the beaten man. Maybe it’s time to start being innkeepers for our neighbors.