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Presbyterian Panel study shows Presbyterians agree on the centrality of Christ for salvation

Survey revisits concept of salvation with new questions

by Pat Cole | Presbyterian News Service

John Calvin.

LOUISVILLE – In a recent denominational survey, nearly three-quarters of Presbyterians said that “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord,” a finding that stands in contrast to an earlier study on Presbyterian views of salvation.

In 2011, a Presbyterian Panel study found only 41 percent of respondents agreed, “only followers of Christ can be saved.” The use of the word “followers” in the earlier study probably accounts for the different results, said the Rev. Dr. Charles A. Wiley III, coordinator of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Theology and Worship.

“Presbyterians have never been comfortable talking about salvation from the point of view of the followers—we’ve never been terribly optimistic concerning human ability to follow Christ,” Wiley explained. “John Calvin, the founder of our tradition, said that he couldn’t have certain knowledge of his own salvation. He needed to have faith that he was saved. And the certainty of his faith was grounded in Jesus Christ, the author of his salvation. The strength of his faith was not enough.

“We Calvinists emphasize salvation as a work of Christ—our following is an act of gratitude for salvation,” he continued. “The very different answers to the two questions is consistent with a strong Christology that emphasizes the work of Christ.”

The most recent Presbyterian Panel study found 73 percent of teaching elders and 74 percent of members believe “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord.” The results are from 1,209 panelists–750 teaching elders and 459 members—who were sent questionnaires in August. The findings of the study, conducted by the Research Services office of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, were published online last month.

Despite agreement on the centrality of Christ, the survey showed Presbyterians hold diverse beliefs regarding the roles God and humans play in the salvation process. Among teaching elders, half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that God chooses who is to be saved compared with only 20 percent of members. Members were three times more likely than teaching elders to say that salvation through Christ is a human choice. “People choose Jesus Christ as their Savior” was the view of 46 percent of members while only 15 percent of teaching elders agreed with that statement.

The two other statements about the path to salvation drew about an equal percentage of agreement between teaching elders and members. “God saves everyone” was the position of 28 percent of members and 29 percent of teaching elders, and six percent of each group said, “salvation is an outdated concept.”

When asked about grace and God’s sovereignty, two concepts closely related to the traditional Reformed/Presbyterian view of salvation, an overwhelming majority of the sample rated both as “very important.” Among teaching elders, 95 percent said grace is very important, as did 82 percent of members. The sovereignty of God was considered very important by 86 percent of teaching elders and 72 percent of members.

Other Reformed/Presbyterian principles considered very important by a majority of both members and teaching elders included:

  • Ruling elders and teaching elders lead the church together (66 percent of teaching elders and 58 percent of members).
  • Stewardship (57 percent of teaching elders and 52 percent of members).
  • Priesthood of all believers (78 percent of teaching elders and 51 percent of members).

Four Reformed/ Presbyterian principles were seen as very important by a majority of teaching elders but were viewed as less important by most members:

  • Promotion of social righteousness (60 percent of teaching elders and 49 percent of members).
  • Calling (76 percent of teaching elders and 37 percent of members).
  • Connectionalism (53 percent of teaching elders and 30 percent of members).
  • Covenant life (52 percent of teaching elders and 25 percent of members).

Two traditional Reformed/Presbyterian principles were not considered very important by a majority of either teaching elders or members. Forty-six percent of teaching elders and 19 percent of members said that belief in the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny was very important. Meanwhile, the doctrine of election was considered very important by only 27 percent of teaching elders and 16 percent of members.

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