Doctrine of Salvation in the Thirty-Nine Articles
will go to heaven and how? These are important questions. Indeed,
although we rarely acknowledge it, they are the most important
questions that face us in this life. Yet there is great confusion
on the answers not least in the churches.
One particular area of
controversy is what we believe as Christians about the fate of
those who hold sincerely and steadfastly to other religious views.
Many who accept the teaching of Jesus that He alone is the way
of salvation do not want to close the door to heaven to sincere
believers of other faiths. Such a view, which is really quite
widespread, was reported by the national newspapers to have been
articulated by Archbishop Rowan Williams.
The Daily Telegraph gave
the following report of the Archbishop's comments at the Greenbelt
Dr Williams said that
neither he nor any Christian could control access to heaven. ?It
is possible for God's spirit to cross boundaries,? he said. ?I
say this as someone who is quite happy to say that Jesus is the
way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except
by Jesus. But how God leads people through Jesus to heaven, that
can be quite varied, I think.?
In a world of hatred and
division such a sentiment can seem very laudable, it allows us
to believe what we believe without saying that others are wrong.
But is it true? In the end this is not a matter of opinion; either
people will be, or they will not be, in heaven.
The obvious thing to do
is to find out not what an Archbishop has to say on the subject
but what God has said in His Word, the Bible. The problem with
this approach is that when we follow it criticisms immediately
begin that we are misrepresenting the Bible or failing to read
it in the context of its time or in the light of our modern understandings
of the world and ourselves.
Therefore, a different
approach will be taken here. The doctrine, or teaching, of the
Church of England is defined in the law of the land and in Canon
law. This doctrine is grounded in Holy Scripture etc, but it is
to be found ?in particular in the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion,
the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal' (Canon A5 / Worship
& Doctrine Measure 1974). The intention of this article is
to ask what does the Church of England believe about how you can
go to heaven and to do so by looking at what the 39 Articles teach
on this subject? It is my conviction, as it was the conviction
of those who drew up our Articles, that this is exactly the same
answer as is given by Holy Scripture but it is more concisely
and systematically presented.
Son of God
Our articles begin with
God, asserting that God is Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit
(Article 1) and that the Word, the Son of God, was made man (Article
2). The obvious question is why was the Son made man and Article
2 provides an initial answer to this: to reconcile His Father
to us and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but
also for all actual sins of men.
Right from the start therefore
the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) is in view, because it
is inseparable from the doctrine of Christ (Christology). Christ
came to reconcile His Father to us, to be our sacrifice and to
deal with our sin and guilt.
can we know?
Many works of systematic
theology logically begin by asking the question ?how can we know?'
Equally logically our Articles begin with the person and nature
of God but they soon turn to the question of how we can know about
why Jesus came and how we can be saved. Article 6 famously states
what true Christians have always believed - that we can only know
about these things because God
has told us about them
and what He has told us is recorded for us in the Bible. Specifically
therefore, Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to
The Article goes on to
explain that the only things we or any person need believe about
salvation are those things which the Bible itself teaches or which
can be clearly proved from the Bible. Therefore, with regards
to salvation Scripture provides sufficient and complete knowledge.
If someone claims something that the Bible does not teach or which
cannot be proved from the Bible, then they are wrong.
Article 7 follows up the
theme of salvation in the Bible. It asserts that in both the Old
and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind through
Christ. But, more than this, the article states that Christ is
the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and
Man (cf. 1 Tim 2.5). Here is the heart of the uniqueness
of Christ in salvation. There can be no other saviour because
salvation requires that the mediator be both God and Man and yet
there is no other who fulfils this requirement.
To be fair, many are not
questioning this point. In the quotation from Rowan Williams given
earlier Jesus' famous words from John 14 were alluded to: ?I
am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father
except through me.? He suggests that it may be possible
for those of other faiths to go to heaven through Jesus. We will
return to this.
we need saving?
We have seen that the
Son of God was made man for our salvation, but why? The main reason
for our need of a saviour is set out in Article 9, which speaks
about original or birth-sin. This is a teaching that is often
misunderstood and misrepresented. Our articles affirm that every
person born into this world deserves God's wrath. It is not simply
a matter that we sin against God, though we clearly do, but that
when Adam sinned against God, the whole human race fell. Therefore,
our very nature is corrupted. Part of the reason we struggle with
this idea is that we have a very individualistic understanding
of what it is to be human. But the Bible has a much deeper view.
A man and woman in marriage become one flesh and a Christian believer
is united to Christ. These are not mere words, they describe a
deep spiritual reality and there is a connectedness to the human
race so that when our first father, Adam, rebelled we were caught
up in that rebellion. As a consequence we are under the wrath
of God, which is the right and proper response of a holy God to
sin and rebellion.
can we do?
What can we do about
our plight? The shocking answer is that we can do nothing. Article
10 explains that we cannot turn and prepare ourselves by our natural
strength and good works, to faith and calling on God. What is
more, we do not have the power to do good works that are pleasant
and acceptable to God, unless the grace of God by the Lord Jesus
Christ goes before us. Our Articles teach, as the Scriptures teach,
that left to ourselves there is nothing we can do to gain salvation.
Does this mean there
is no escape? Of course not because at the very beginning our
articles assert that the Son of God was made man for our salvation.
Article 31 explains this further.
The Offering of Christ
once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation and satisfaction,
for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual;
and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone.
Redemption has to do with
being bought back, set free from slavery to sin. Propitiation
means, as Article 2 says, that Christ came to reconcile His Father
to us. God is a holy God, His honour is offended by the rebellion
of His creatures and wrath is the just response. But God's justice
is satisfied through the saving death of Christ.
All this brings us to the
same point, that we can only be saved because Christ came into
the world, and He is the only saviour - there is no other satisfaction
for sin. But this does not solve our problem, indeed it opens
up the possibility that all may be saved because, as Article 31
asserts, Christ's offering was sufficient ?for all the sins
of the whole world, both original and actual'.
For the particular issue
at hand, the fundamental question is how the saving work of Christ
applies to a particular individual. (To use the jargon - the application
of the work of redemption). How do the benefits of his death become
ours? The answer is to be found in Article 11: We are accounted
righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour
Jesus Christ by Faith, and not of our own works or deservings.
Salvation is not automatic, nor because of our merit or
our works, or because we deserve to be saved, rather we are saved
by faith in Christ. What is more, this is the only way. Jesus
said ?he who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and
he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath
of God abides on him? (John 3:36)
What light does this shed
on the commonly held view with which we began: ?I am quite
happy to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and
no one comes to the Father except by Jesus. But how God leads
people through Jesus to heaven, that can be quite varied, I think.?
The Church of England teaches, as God teaches in His Word
the Bible, that this is wrong. There is only one way by which
God leads people through Jesus to heaven - by faith .
The fact that faith is the key to how Jesus saves ought to be
obvious from Scripture not least in the gospel of John where John
asserts that the whole
purpose of the book is to convince people to
believe in Christ so
that they might have life in His name (John 20.31). Remember too
that the context of Jesus' words about being the way, the truth
and the life were to do with believing (trusting) in God (Jn14.1),
believing that Jesus is in the Father and the Father in Him (v10),
believing Him (v12) and believing in Him (v12). Faith is not an
It is important to recognise
that this is not a matter of academic debate or curiosity, it
concerns eternal life and death. It is a terrible thing to deceive
people with regards the way of salvation. Article 18 sets out
the stark reality: they are to be held accursed that presume
to say that every man shall be saved by his law or sect which
he professes. For holy Scripture holds out to us only the Name
of Jesus Christ by which men may be saved. (cf Gal 1.9)
they are good people.
Some will no doubt argue
that this is unduly harsh. We see some people who live very good
and noble lives, who shine by any standard. How can we possibly
say that they will not go to heaven? We saw earlier that the problem
of the fall and our own sin is too deep for us. Our work, our
merit counts for nothing. Moreover, Article 13 asserts Works
done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit,
are not pleasant to God. (cf. Hebrews 11.6).
The whole scope of salvation
is set out in Article 17 (see Cross?Way 88 Spring 2003).
In the end salvation depends
entirely upon God and upon His secret counsels .
He has chosen in Christ
those who he will bring by Christ to everlasting salvation.
This is His sovereign and
secret work, yet in His time we see the outworking of it.
- Those whom God has chosen will be called ... by His Spirit
- Through grace they will obey the calling .
- They are justified freely .
- They are made sons of God by adoption .
- They are made like the image of Christ.
- They walk ... in good works (remembering that
real living faith willalways result in good works, so that faith
without works is dead).
- In the fullness of time by God's mercy they come to eternal
This is what the Church
of England holds. It ought to be what all its ministers teach.
It is neither vague nor uncertain. There is only one mediator
- Christ - and there is also only one means of salvation –
faith in Christ.
This article is based on a Cross†Way
article (no. 94 2004) which is available for download.
Also see 'The
Way of Salvation' web page for more on this subject