Simple Questions. Simple Answers? Can God Save Non-Christians?

From August 27, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

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“Can God save non-Christians?” That’s the question we are asking and answering in week2 of our series: Simple Questions. Simple Answers?  In this series, I’ve promised to give you simple and direct answers to these questions, and I’ll get to that in a moment.  But first, a reminder about why we are doing looking at these questions.

It’s important to ask these questions and answer these questions.  Because these are questions that we have as Christians, but for people outside the church – they often feel like they know how we Christians will answer these questions. This is why people say things that aren’t so flattering about the church. “Why do Christian think science is bad?” “Why do Christians think God will punish everyone but them?” “How can you believe in a God that is so punishing?”

We Christians, as a group, have done a lot to misrepresent God and to misrepresent our faith.  And it’s important to answer these misconceptions directly, understanding how they might have come about, but being unwilling to let them continue.

So, our question this morning, “Can God Save Non-Christians?”  Yes.  But this question needs a whole lot of unpacking to understand why we say the answers is “yes.”

Let’s begin by trying to understand the question a bit more specifically. “Can God Save Non-Christians?”  What do we mean by save?  The language of salvation, being saved, Jesus saves, is common in Christianity, and usually what is meant is the idea that all humanity, every one of us, starts as a sinner, a sinner who has sinned against God and is condemned to an eternal fate of separation or punishment from God.

And the only way a sinner can be spared from that fate is to become a Christian. To place trust in Jesus and commit one’s life to following Jesus. In many Christian traditions, this is synonymous with saying a prayer “inviting Jesus into your heart.”  It is this moment of accepting Jesus that marks when one becomes a Christian.  And at the end of time, on judgment day, God will save Christians from the eternal punishment that all of us, as sinners, supposedly deserve.

This is the most common understanding of what it means to be saved. It may or may not be the most complete or correct understanding. But when the question is asked, “Can God Save Non-Christians?” what is meant is usually “when someone dies who isn’t Christian, whether that’s someone of another faith or no faith, can God spare them from eternal punishment, can they go to heaven?”

Now I want to point out that this is merely one understanding of what salvation may mean.  And there are some larger problems with it.  The Bible speaks with different voices and images of what the endgame of Christian faith is.  Certainly, there is language about an afterlife and places called Heaven and Hell. The Bible also talks about the Kingdom of God being already among us, but not yet complete, and that it is this here and not yet here but coming Kingdom that encompasses salvation. Other places in scripture talk about a new earth at the end of time, not an otherworldly afterlife.

Within the next few months, we’ll be doing a sermon series on different Biblical understandings of salvation, the kingdom of God, the afterlife, revelation, and the ultimate end for Christians. But for this morning’s purpose, let’s stick with the typical understanding of being saved, so we ask will only Christians be spared an afterlife of eternal punishment or separation from God, or “Can non-Christians be saved?”

And again, I assert that our particular Christian tradition answers that with a solid “yes.”

In a 2002 PC(USA) study paper entitled “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” the following is written:

Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, for “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” [Ephesians 2:8]. No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.

“we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”

“we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith.”

Essentially, the authors of this paper fall back on a fundamental Presbyterian belief found in scripture, that God is 100% in charge, God is the ultimate power in all creation, and God can do whatever God wants to do. So, if God wants to save non-Christians, then God absolutely can.

But far be it from me to have anyone take the word of a committee, even though we Presbyterians love our committees, let’s go to the biblical understanding that underlies our answer.

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ*—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.


For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing”

 Let me give you one piece of background on the book of Ephesians that is important to our message this morning.  This letter is attributed to Paul, but most scholars today believe that it was writing after Paul’s death, most likely by a student of Paul or a follower of Paul’s theology.  One of the reasons biblical scholars think this letter is not from Paul, as well as several other supposedly Pauline letters in the New Testament, is because of the shift in the understanding of Jesus’ return.

In Paul’s early letters Paul writes as if Jesus will be returning to gather his followers within his lifetime. He writes as if he and the other early Christians will still be living when Jesus returns.  But in these later letters, there is an understanding that Jesus hasn’t returned as thought and that it may be a while.  So while Paul seems to assume that Jesus will be coming soon, and who is saved and who isn’t will be pretty clear before too long. These later letters assume that it could be a long time before Jesus comes and resolves these questions, so there is more attention placed on who is saved and how we are saved.

So in this passage from Ephesians,  the author makes pretty clear that being saved is nothing that we do, and has everything to do with God’s action.

“for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing”

 This is not your own doing. That’s pretty clear, but early in the passage it is even more clear.  The passage begins by saying “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.”  “You were dead.”  If we were dead, and God gave us new life, then we didn’t do anything to deserve it, earn it, or bring it in any way, shape, or form to us.  Now, often Christians want to nuance this by saying, sure, we didn’t do anything to earn or deserve God’s grace, all we have to do is accept it. But even accepting it is doing something, isn’t it?

The writer of Ephesians says that we were dead in sin, can dead people accept gifts?  Imagine someone swimming at the ocean. He is out in the waves and a big one sweeps him under and he loses his breath, inhales a lungful of water and goes unconscious.  Fortunately, there’s a lifeguard on the shore who sees this and she swims out and reaches him just in time.

Imagine if the lifeguard said to that unconscious person, “I need you to swim back to shore, please.” Does the lifeguard wait for the person to accept help? No, the lifeguard brings him back to the shore, with no help or assistance from the unconscious person.  When the lifeguard gets to shore, does she say, “Sir, I know you’re unconscious but I need you to start breathing please?” No, she begins mouth to mouth resuscitation and gives him new life with her own breath.

This is our understanding of how God saves. It is not our own doing. There is no God’s part and our part. There is just God. We were dead to sin. Dead people don’t help the doctor.  Richard Carlson, a New Testament professor at Lutheran Seminary, looks at the grammar of this passage to make this point. He writes:

"You have been saved by grace." Here the Greek use of a passive, perfect periphrastic participle bears comment. The use of the passive voice underscores how we are totally passive when it comes to being saved. God's grace has accomplished our salvific reality. The use of the perfect tense and periphrastic participle emphasizes the duration of our being saved. It was accomplished in the past and remains our reality into the coming ages.

 Ok, I admit, one reason that I read that was just to say, “passive perfect periphrastic participle.”  But the point he is making is that the tense of the Greek indicates that our being saved happened a long, long time ago, and that it is ongoing into the far future.  Our being saved, happened before we could ever have anything to do with it.

Martin Luther, in a debate with the great humanist, Erasmus, illustrated this idea another way. Erasmus pictured God’s rescue like this. It was like a mother helping a baby learn to walk. She holds the baby’s hand, steadies the baby’s little body, let’s the baby take a few unsteady steps, and then catches the baby when she falls. No, said Luther, with characteristic bluntness, it was like a caterpillar surrounded by a ring of fire. God reached down and plucked the helpless creature from certain death.

So, we don’t do anything to deserve, earn, or receive our salvation. It is by grace, it is completely not our doing. And so, if God can save us independent of our belief or actions, then why can’t God save anyone else, even non-Christians, independent of their beliefs or actions? This is why we say, yes, God can save non-Christians.

Now here’s the catch, just because God can does not mean God will or has to. Remember the excerpt from the study paper:

we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith.

God is sovereign, God’s in charge, we don’t determine what God must or mustn’t do.  In fact, we try to stick to the things that we know about God and what God wants from us. Another passage from the Hope in Christ Alone study paper reads:

Christians find parallels between other religions and their own and must approach all religions with openness and respect. Repeatedly God has used the insight of non-Christians to challenge the church to renewal. But the reconciling word of the gospel is God’s judgment upon all forms of religion , including the Christian. The gift of God in Christ is for all. The church, therefore, is commissioned to carry the gospel to all, whatever their religion may be and even when they profess none.

“The church, therefore, is commissioned to carry the gospel to all, whatever their religion may be and even when they profess none.” Just because God can save non-Christians, we are not relieved of our call to share the gospel message of love and justice with others. There is a strong Biblical message that says the job of Christians is to be bearers of good news throughout the world. We are to talk with people about our faith, sharing what God means to us, wanting others to experience the blessings and joys of faith that we have experienced.  It may be possible that there are other paths to God that we don’t know about. But as long as we do know about the path that Christianity shows us to God, we are called to invite others to walk that path with us.

Here’s how I like to think of it.  When I met my wife, Carrie, in seminary. Her parents, Richard and Nancy, lived in Ashland, KY. Her dad was serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ashland.  We would visit them in Ashland with some frequency, and eventually we were engaged and got married in Ashland. Ashland is right off of interstate 64 where Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia come together, it’s on the bank of the Ohio River, and it’s in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, and it’s quite confusing to navigate in. 

Most of the roads don’t go straight, but wind through the foothills. I grew up in Iowa. It was flat and most of the roads were in a grid, so when this midwestern boy was dropped in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, I got lost pretty easily.  But eventually, I learned how to drive from Carrie’s parents’ house to downtown. And I was pretty proud of myself.

But then Carrie would say, “There’s a faster way if you go down this street.” Or “If you’d like there’s a neat way to downtown that goes by the hospital…”  And each time I would say, “No, thank you. There may be faster ways. There may be better ways. But there is one way I know, and I know it will get me to where I need to be. I will stick with that.”

I think this is how we can approach Christianity. Our faith is a path to God, it is a path to salvation.  There may be other paths to God, there may even be better paths to God, but this the one path we know of, and we know it will take us where we need to go. So rather than speculate on other paths that may or may not lead to God, we are called to share the one path we know for certain does lead to God.

So, can God save non-Christians? Yes. This is one of several reasons that we are called to treat other faiths and people of other faiths with respect. But this doesn’t lessen our call as Christians to share, with respect and love, that path that God has shown to us.