The Four Alls of Methodism - 2/4
All can be saved
“All can be saved” - the second of the ‘Four Alls’ - is a key statement for Methodists. It expresses a doctrine which has been important right from the early days of Methodism while at the same time challenging us today whenever we consider the task of evangelism.
When we look back to John Wesley himself, we find that he was involved in a real debate with Calvinist ideas of predestination. Such ideas stressed the sovereignty of God in such a way that they led to a belief in God’s eternal decision to save some and not others. Such an understanding seems to leave little space for the expression of human freedom or choice. In the late sixteenth century, Jacob Arminius had challenged such ideas and claimed instead that Christ had died for all, not merely for the elect. John Wesley stood in this Arminian tradition, and proclaimed that the grace of God was offered to all people. We can see this same emphasis in many of the hymns of his brother Charles. A hymn such as ‘Father, whose everlasting love’ (HP 520) contains the word ‘all’ in every verse and ends with the line ‘And all shall own thou diedst for all’.
The theological debate between what are often described as ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ theologies, continued through the centuries, and is still an issue for some people today. The document An Anglican Methodist Covenant highlights what it calls ‘Two Remaining Tensions’, one of which is “…whether human beings have freewill to respond to the gospel; whether divine grace is irresistible; whether Christ died for all or only for the elect…” (Paragraph 113). The second of our Four Alls –“All can be saved” - is a strongly Arminian statement which expresses well John Wesley’s conviction that all individuals had the freedom to choose to respond to the grace of God.
This Arminian theology challenges our evangelism today, because it invites us to see each person we meet as someone who can be saved. I was powerfully reminded of this some years ago now, when I attended a Conference in Birmingham which was addressed by some of the leaders of the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Their simple but challenging phrase ‘Everyone Matters to God’ was used to focus on evangelism (in an American idiom) in the sentence “You have never ‘locked eyes’ with someone who does not matter to God”. So everyone we see – at home, at work, in the street – is someone who matters to God and someone who in this Arminian understanding ‘can be saved’.
The problem is, of course, communication. We live in a rapidly changing world in which the gap between the culture of the church and the culture of society at large is increasing almost day by day. If we believe that ‘All can be saved’, we must learn ways in which the message of salvation in Christ can be disentangled from the cultural limitations of much of what we call ‘church’. We must find ways of enabling the message to reach those whose lifestyle, culture and values are not engaged by many of our current attempts at evangelism. This will involve a cost for us, as it may involve moving away from a form of church that we are comfortable with and which has been part of our lives for many years.
Martin Robinson in his book A World Apart (Monarch 1992) described returning to a chapel where he had been many years before. The community around the chapel had changed beyond recognition, but once through the chapel doors he was transported back in time to a bygone world. The problem was, of course, that the community around found it increasingly difficult to jump the cultural gap and to become part of the life of the church. As Robinson wrote in a sentence which continues to live with me, “It is as if the chapel folk are silently saying to the community, ‘To become a Christian you not only have to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, that he died on a cross and was raised from the dead on the third day; you also have to find a way of living in a culture that no longer exists in everyday life’”. I find those words very challenging when I consider much of our church life. Putting ourselves in the imagined shoes of a visitor on a Sunday morning is not easy, but when we try to do it, it does raise some serious questions about our public presentation of what we believe.
On an individual level, we need to understand the phrase ‘All can be saved’ as an invitation to see all our friendships and contacts as opportunities to bring Jesus into that relationship through our words and through our actions. Levi responded to the call of Jesus to follow him (Luke 5:27-32) but he did not loose contact with his old group of friends. Luke tells us how Levi held a banquet at which “a large crowd of tax collectors and others” were present – but Levi had invited Jesus as well. The problem for many of us who are deeply involved in the church is that all our close friends are other churchgoers. We need to develop friendships with those who are not yet aware of the love of Jesus so that the friendship reaches the point at which issues of faith can be discussed and the Good News shared. How about going for a walk with a neighbour, joining an evening class with someone you know at work or perhaps inviting them to share some skill or expertise they have with you? Then pray that God will provide that moment when you can introduce Jesus within the context of that developing friendship.
‘All can be saved’ is a central theological statement which has been important in Methodism since its beginning. But it is also a challenge to our evangelism, for if all can be saved, then we need to develop ways as churches and as individuals through which the Good News of Jesus can be received by everyone we meet.
The Rev Dr Christopher Blake is Chairman of the Cornwall District.
Headline, Spring 2003 pp 6-7.