Wiley provides clarification on Presbyterian Panel survey question on Jesus Christ

PMA theologian explains response to ‘Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved’

January 11, 2016

Presbyterian Mission Agency theologian Charles Wiley III presenting at Big Tent 2015.

Presbyterian Mission Agency theologian Charles Wiley III presenting at Big Tent 2015. —Taylor Gash for Presbyterian News Service


Ever since the publication of the results of a 2011 Presbyterian Panel survey, many questions have been circulating across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) concerning the response to the statement, “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved” [see page A-10].

The Presbyterian Panel is a representative sample of nearly 2,000 Presbyterians— members, ruling elders, pastors, and specialized ministers—who serve on the Presbyterian Panel for a three-year period and respond to mailed questionnaires four times a year. The Panel provides a way to listen to and collect information about the general practices, beliefs, and opinions of Presbyterians.

Because the Rev. Dr. Charles Wiley III, coordinator of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Theology and Worship, says the survey’s findings on this issue are still a “live” issue for congregations that may be considering leaving the PC(USA), he has written the following statement.


On the Presbyterian Panel Survey Question on Jesus Christ
Charles Wiley, Office of Theology and Worship
January 2016 

One of the questions I deal with regularly in my job is the problem that came from a 2011 Presbyterian Panel survey that asked about the necessity in belief in Jesus Christ for salvation. Many Presbyterians have been shocked by the fact that among Presbyterian ministers surveyed, only 41% strongly agreed or agreed with a statement on salvation through Christ alone. This has disappointed many Presbyterians as an indication of a weak Christology, a weak affirmation of salvation in Christ.

This may be true of some who answered neutrally or the negative to this question, but the criticism of the response also betrays a lack of Reformed theological understanding among Presbyterians broadly. The problem is in the very form of the question. Those surveyed were asked whether or not, “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” The subject of the question is “followers.” Calvinists 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. Calvin spoke about needing to have faith that he was saved, and then only because of the author of salvation, Jesus Christ. We Calvinists emphasize salvation as a work of Christ—our following is an act of gratitude for salvation.

This emphasis on salvation as a work of Christ is evidenced in “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” endorsed by the General Assembly in 2002:

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 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.

What you see in this quotation is a Christocentric, traditionally Calvinist reason to answer no to the question in the Presbyterian Panel survey. This no comes not from a weak Christology, but precisely from a strong Christology. It is a strong Christology that resists reinterpreting the faith in light of American Voluntarism that determines our salvation on the basis of our visible following rather than the work of Christ.

The proper form of the question should have been, “Is Jesus Christ the only Savior and Lord?” To that the clear answer is yes. To the statement on the survey, “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved,” the orthodox answer is no.

Wiley가 예수 그리스도에 대한 장로교 패널 (Presbyterian Panel) 설문조사의 질문을 명확하게 설명하다

Lea ‘Esperanza en el Señor Jesucristo’ en español.

  1. Followers are not always believers. Some people follow Jesus Christ as a great teacher or reformer, not believe in him as Savior. The important issue for salvation should be, "What is your personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the only Savior and Lord?"

    by Jong Lee

    January 22, 2016

  2. Charles, I appreciate your nuanced reflection upon the concern about responses to the Presbyterian Panel question. I greatly value "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ" and its emphasis on salvation as a work of Christ. But in my experience many of those who do not affirm that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved" are not Calvinists at all. As far back as the early 90s a teaching elder told me that he could not say that Jesus is Lord, but he could make a pro-Jesus affirmation. There are many in the church today who don't even bother with Calvin, in part, because they have rejected the plain meaning of John 14:6.

    by Rob Weingartner

    January 14, 2016

  3. Or, the Reformers I know really, really well would say, “Of course, only followers of Jesus can be saved! No matter how or when you find yourself following Jesus you will ultimately find that when you cross into the eternal Kingdom that you followed Jesus to get there—or, you’re somewhere else.” The real problem with the PCUSA is our capacity to spend five years pondering the ambiguity of an 8 word statement in a survey. This is precisely why we have such an anemic witness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Regardless of a “Reformed” interpretation of this statement, or otherwise, I will continue to strongly recommend becoming an active, aware, overt, conscious, conscientious, faithful, devoted follower of Jesus Christ sooner rather than later and certainly in preference to any other alternative—and not be shy or apologetic about it. (Why would you want anything less for anybody you truly care about?). As my primary go-to theologian in these matters, John Calvin, says, “True it is God alone that saves; and not even the smallest portion of his glory can lawfully be bestowed on men [or women]. But God parts with no portion of his glory when he employs the agency of men [and women] for bestowing salvation.” I continue to pray my PCUSA friends and colleagues really get this.

    by Jim Witherow

    January 13, 2016

  4. Being new to the PC-USA, the wording of the queston is very problematic as far as I'm concerned.

    by Steve

    January 13, 2016

  5. So perhaps there are two distinct possibilities that explain the question’s formation: 1. It is a poorly worded attempt to probe our ranks for universalism, or 2. it is really about who is in charge of salvation. I believe it is the former, albeit perhaps poorly written, it was not intended to probe for nuance in our role in receiving God’s grace. I suggest that we can look at another question that has raised eyebrows. The question asking respondents to agree or disagree with the statement, “All the world’s religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth” is surely testing the breadth of non-doctrinal thought, is it not? If the answer to this is “agree”, then don’t we have some uncomfortable scripture to attempt to explain away? Yet conversely, if the answer is “disagree” then the whole of scripture begins to speak in beautiful harmony on the topic. Other questions in the survey ask, “How often do you pray and read the Bible?” and a potential response is “less than weekly”. It seems clear that these theology questions are probing for the theological state-of-the-union. The “follow Jesus” question probably ought to be re-written if it causes us to miss the point of the question. A blog that I did on the topic and why it is concerning to me is here: http://findingourwaythroughpcusa.blogspot.com/2014/07/survey-says.html

    by Rob Harbison

    January 12, 2016

  6. Before I retired from PC(USA) Research Services in 2013, I was often asked to comment on the results of this question. These inquiries came from people in congregations that were threatening to leave the PC(USA), or from presbytery execs working with such congregations. It was clear that this question had taken a life of its own and was being used as a proof text by folks who had already decided that the PC(USA) was irredeemable and it was time to leave. I’m fine with what Charles has to say and, were I still Panel Administrator, I would welcome the opportunity to ask his question on a Presbyterian Panel survey. At the same time, let’s not make too much of this matter. The question was one of several in a series on theological matters. Most people, given a check-the-box question, read it and respond without much pondering, then move on to the next question. Nevertheless, however non-reformed this question my be, I’d argue that the results do tell us something: that Presbyterians, like other Americans, are increasingly aware of good people who are non-believers, and these Presbyterians don’t want to think that those non-Christians are beyond Christ’s saving grace. (See American Grace, by Putnam and Campbell, for some evidence on and discussion of this issue.)

    by John Marcum

    January 12, 2016

  7. Interesting that the question "the only absolute truth for humankind is in Jesus Christ", which had been used in previous surveys, was dropped in the 2011 survey. When can we expect release of the 2014 survey and was that question restored? For the record - 58% of members, 68% of ruling elders, 66% of pastors and 44% of pastors in specialized ministry agreed or strongly agreed with that statement in 2008.

    by Steve Salyards

    January 12, 2016

  8. Presbyterian Panel, please ask Dr. Wiley's question “Is Jesus Christ the only Savior and Lord?” in your next survey. Many would be interested in how Presbyterians would answer that question.

    by Nathan Rolofson

    January 12, 2016

  9. I have always appreciated our Presbyterian DNA — corporate standards of understanding the faith journey, while embracing individual integrity for living into one’s own journey in community. While some are concerned with creeping universalism and/or heterodoxy among Presbyterians, I am more concerned when a focus on belief systems promotes disputationalism — that is, arguing about which shading of the truth is truer. Disputationalism deflects the energy, resolve, and commitments of the church and its members away from being the body of Christ, away from engaging the world of need (spiritual, social, political, economic, …). We must remember that we are likely never going to get all the questions right, let alone discern all the answers.

    by Bart Brenner

    January 12, 2016

  10. Excellent clarification. When asked questions about eternal salvation, who is in and who is out, I always say, "that question is above my pay grade!"

    by Louis S . Lunardini

    January 12, 2016

  11. I appreciate Charles Wiley's comment and would add that most presbyterians I know do not hold a high view of God's sovereignty. But in reading other comments here, I have to ask, is Universalism, the biblical notion that Jesus died for the entire cosmos, really a problem? Really? Do we really want to balk at who and how our Lord identifies and pays his workers. Do we really think that our control of the "keys" is really a statement of Jesus, or just the Church fathers (sic) staking out their turf? Clearly there are passages that don't indicate a universal salvation, but there are also passages that do. I believe God will do as God wishes, no matter what our doctrine.

    by David Moon-Wainwright

    January 12, 2016

  12. Whoa! How did we miss this critical point: The only way to the Father is through the Son; the only way to salvation is following the Son. With this words we constantly access our actions, our loving actions, our Christ centered actions, our healing actions, offered to our neighbor and all of creation, as being the only way we will survive and continue to rest in the presence of God. This is true for us believers and for everyone else. There is no other way to make community. If you find this reality disturbing, sorry. Our Christian views are not ideology, but reality, how the world works!

    by De Xie

    January 11, 2016

  13. Interesting that this emerges now. I was one of the pastors on the Presbyterian Panel that year, and this is exactly the reason why I answered in the negative. No one controls salvation except God, and I'm certainly not in a position to limit it.

    by Beth Appel

    January 11, 2016

  14. The question, as you pointed out, was deeply flawed. I agree with the respondent who questioned why it took so long to respond. The response was superb and indeed very slow in coming.

    by Larry Pease

    January 11, 2016

  15. An excellent answer from Charles Wiley. The problem his critics (see above comments) have is that they are no longer Calvinists, but Arminians or Anabaptist in their theology. As most Americans are. When I saw that question, my first thought was that God - and only God - decides salvation. It was never up to my "following." God will save whom God chooses to save, no matter what I (or others) may think. Despite the self-righteous posturing of some who have commented here, it remains true that Presbyterians have never thought it wise to presume to know more than God does.

    by J. Shannon Webster

    January 11, 2016

  16. Oh I get it; it was a trick question! Perhaps you are technically/theologically correct. To me it seems like the obvious intent of the question is to explore the creeping Universalism in our midst, and attention to quantify that or perhaps discredit it. Instead, panel respondents appear to equivocate in a basic doctrine. Reason 101 why I left PC(USA) after 30 years. I have no problem claiming Christ as the narrow gate regardless of how you spin the question.

    by Rob Harbison

    January 11, 2016

  17. While I appreciate and agree with Charles Wiley's clarification, why did it take 5 years to issue it?

    by Jerry Van Marter

    January 11, 2016

  18. Charles, I fear this explanation is too little too late. The damage has been done with the news that 59% of PC(USA) pastors surveyed believe salvation and eternal life apparently may be found through some universalist blend of religions outside of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. These "disappointed followers" are following each other out our sanctuary doors. More than clarify an opinion, reaffirm a call! Remember Jesus recruited his disciples by the simple invitation, "Follow me."

    by Bob Battenfield

    January 11, 2016

  19. My problem is that although you are right about this question, " “Is Jesus Christ the only Savior and Lord?” making a difference it doesn't cover the big problem of universalism that the PCUSA and others are really overwhelmed by. Believing that the death of Christ automatically saves everyone is a problem, so there needs to be a question that divides the answer around that, because otherwise we can say that Jesus saves the Buddhist and others without the Holy Spirit ever leading them to Christ.

    by Viola Larson

    January 11, 2016

  20. Thanks for this, Charles. A good answer to this question required more than a bumper sticker slogan. Your reminder that God's wisdom is always deep and never simple-minded is needed and welcome.

    by Robert Johnson

    January 11, 2016

  21. And excellent so I make sure and answer. We are all in your debt not only for this comment but for your work on the Presbyterian panel. Thank you.

    by Larry D Spencer

    January 11, 2016

  22. Charles, I seem to remember being on that survey ... and you described my thoughts as they wandered through to a 'disagree.' Thanks for this!

    by John Oerter

    January 11, 2016

  23. Thank you for this well written explication. This was my understanding of the question and therefore I was not surprised with the survey results. Thank you for helping us see how we can read the meaning of the same words differently and how the most faithful people can come to opposite conclusions of what the right answer "should" be. I hope this brings some peace to the hearts of those so concerned with how "wrong " the Christologies of so many of the clergy appeared to be based on a first glance of the survey results.

    by Amy Jo Hawley

    January 11, 2016