A Moravian Understanding of Jesus as Savior
Craig D. Atwood
This is a critical moment in the Moravian Church. Yes, we are dealing with doctrine, but doctrine is more than slogans and memorized catechisms. Doctrine is our self-understanding as the people of God. Our doctrine and our practice must be in harmony. The history of Christianity is filled with examples of churches that established doctrinal purity and lost their faith, love, and hope. Too often the phrase “Jesus is the only way to heaven” becomes in practice “Agreement with my preaching is the only path to God.” Too often the concern to save some is distorted into the desire to condemn all who disagree with us.
There has been a great deal of discussion and even argument in recent years over the Moravian understanding of Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life.” Throughout its long history, the Moravian Church has proclaimed that Christ is “the source of our salvation.” We know of no other way to abundant life in this world and the next. Moravians have also proclaimed Paul’s message that “through Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself.” In other words, we teach that it is because of the on-going work of Christ that humans can be restored, forgiven, and brought into a grace-filled and loving relationship with God and all of God’s creation.
It is very important that Moravians understand that we teach that salvation is the work of God alone. It is God alone who saves us. Moravians have traditionally recognized that Jesus and Paul repeatedly warn people about the dangers of self-righteousness. It is the sinner rather than the Pharisee that is justified in Jesus’ parables. When we turn salvation into a work that we do or when we believe that we are somehow worthy of salvation, then we reject the grace of God and turn our backs on Christ. We then seek salvation apart from Christ and lose what we seek. We cannot save ourselves. We do not save others. All that we can do is recognize that we are indeed sinners saved by grace and in doing so become agents of God’s infinite mercy to others.
The Ground of the Unity makes a useful distinction between the saving work of Christ and the “fruits of salvation.” We believe that the redemptive work of Christ is an objective reality, much as the work of creation is an objective reality. The fruits of salvation, on the other hand, depend on our acceptance of the gift Christ offers. Moravians have always understood that we respond to God’s work of salvation in Christ through faith, love, and hope. These are the only spiritual gifts that truly matter, as Paul informed the Corinthians. Faith means trusting in God’s promises and the reality of Christ’s redemption. Love means seeking the good of others in concrete acts of mercy and acceptance. Hope means that we do not despair about the future but look for a better world for all of creation. It is essential in the Moravian Church that our preaching and teaching about salvation increase our faith, love, and hope.
If in our zealous preaching of salvation through Christ we slip into anger, bitterness, or hatred towards those who do not receive our message or whose understanding of salvation differs from ours, then we are in danger of rejecting our own salvation. To paraphrase Jesus, what have you gained if you convert the entire world but lose your own soul?
As to Jesus’ statement that he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” it is wise not to place too much stress on a definite article. The word “the” is not the focus of the text. The focus is on the words “way, truth and life.” One way to interpret this verse is that Jesus himself shows us the way to God through his own life, teachings, work, and sacrificial love. In saying that Jesus is the way, the Gospel of John is restating Jesus’ teaching that we are to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. It is important to note that this verse does not say, “Belief in Jesus as the Son of God is the only way to the Father.” It simply says that his followers must follow his way.
In all of the controversy over Jesus being the way to the Father, we are apt to miss the essential point that Jesus is also truth and life. This means that the path to the Father is the path of truth. All that is true comes from God. It is Satan who is the father of lies. When Christians resort to deception in their effort to convert people, they are following the way of Satan rather than Christ. Moreover, Christianity embraces truth even when it comes from sources other than the Bible. It is vitally important that we do not allow our zeal turn into a fanaticism that denies plain truth and hard facts. Any religion or church that teaches that scientific facts are contrary to faith is not Christian. Jesus is the truth; therefore if we turn from truth we turn away from Jesus.
Jesus is the life. Clearly this means that following Jesus brings life in this world and the next. This is consistent with the rest of Scripture. The word “salvation” comes from the word for health. Therefore if our preaching and teaching diminishes life and destroys people, then we have ceased to be Christian. Salvation in Jesus does not mean hopelessness, misery, destructiveness, abuse, or malice. When churches resort to psychological or physical violence to enforce belief in Jesus, they lose their own salvation.
Jesus said that no one comes to the Father expect by him and we do doubt this statement.
There are, however, reasons to doubt that this verse is talking about salvation. Jesus says that he is the one who can show his disciples who the Father is. In the Catholic tradition, this refers to the Beatific Vision that is reserved for the saints. All those who are saved are in paradise, but not all of them will see the Father. Protestants acknowledge that this may instead refer to mystical experience, such as Isaiah’s vision of God. For Moravians, this verse has traditionally meant that Jesus is the most complete revelation of God that we experience in this life. If we desire to know God and God’s will, we look to the Gospel record of the life of Jesus. The followers of Jesus can be confident that when we look at Jesus we see the Father revealed.
The basic problem in the current controversy is over the word “only.” Moravians have always and continue to proclaim that Jesus is the Savior of the world. There is no reason to doubt that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Nor should we doubt that by believing and following Jesus we shall experience eternal life with him. Moreover, our missionaries have courageously taken this simple message of God’s self-giving love to those whom the world despised and rejected, such as slaves. This is consistent with the witness of Scripture and our experience of Christ. There is simply no need to go beyond Scripture and insert the word “only” where it does not appear. We must remain true to the plain sense of Scripture, common reason, and our experience of God in Christ.
There are many dangers in going beyond Scripture, particularly when we begin to preach and behave in ways inconsistent with Christian virtue. There is a real danger that we will become the older brother in the parable and reject our own redemption by objecting the father’s mercy. There is a danger that we will travel over land and sea to make a single convert and make him a “child of hell” rather than a child of God. There is a danger that in shutting the kingdom of heaven to others, we shut it to ourselves. This is not a minor issue. Our approach to salvation defines who we are as Christians and as a Church.
There is strong evidence in the Bible that God works in many ways to bring salvation. Jesus himself told the parable of Lazarus in which Abraham and Lazarus are in paradise even though they died before Jesus’ atoning death. Hebrews strongly affirms the salvation of the faithful people of the Old Testament. Paul indicates in Romans that God keeps his promises and that the people of the Old Covenant are not rejected because Gentiles have been welcomed through a New Covenant. The Moravian Church has traditionally taught that children who die before making an adult profession of faith are also saved by God’s mercy. Would any Moravian pastor say otherwise at the funeral of a child? The repeated message of the Bible is that God is merciful beyond human comprehension.
It is consistent with the Christian tradition and Moravian theology to acknowledge that salvation remains one of God’s mysteries. Moravians should approach the doctrine of salvation in the same way we approach the presence of Christ in the Holy Communion. What is mystery remains a mystery. In the doctrine of salvation as in the doctrine of Communion we hold to the simple words of Scripture and proceed in faith. Sometimes it is more dangerous to say too much rather than too little.
Does it mean that we lose our motivation for missions if we acknowledge that God may save people who have not made a profession of faith in Jesus? It has not had that effect in the past. The most heroic period of Moravian missions was an era when the mystery of salvation was acknowledged. Moravian missions are not based on the desire to win some type of contest with other religions nor are they conducted to satisfy the personal ego of the missionaries.
Moravians engage in global missions because we love all of God’s children and want to be in communion with them. We proclaim the gospel because we have found our salvation in Christ and want to share the joy of Christ with others. We do not go in to the world to save people from the fires of hell. We go to offer people the joys of heaven and intimate fellowship with us. There are hundreds of millions of people in this world who are longing to be redeemed from their isolation. All we need is a renewed awareness that the Holy Spirit is preparing those who are ready to receive the gospel rather than falling into the unchristian belief that we can conquer the world.
In summary, the Moravian Church’s traditional understanding of salvation includes the following key points that we reaffirm:
1. We hold to the foundational Protestant conviction that salvation is by faith through grace. Salvation cannot be earned. No one is worthy of heaven. Those who are saved are saved out of God’s grace and suffering love not their own righteousness or even their doctrinal correctness.
2. We further believe that faith is formed by love. Love is the active component of faith and is essential to the Christian life and the Christian church.
3. We preach, teach, and live in the full confidence that Jesus Christ is our Savior and the Savior of the world. We affirm fully that “For God so loved the world, he gave his begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” This conviction is not shaken by current controversy.
4. We will resist the temptation to go beyond the simple teaching of Scripture in matters where there is much disagreement. While we enthusiastically proclaim that Christ is the Savior of the world, we will not alter Scripture by inserting the word only where it does not appear. We acknowledge that people of sincere faith and good will who seek to follow Christ in the way have different interpretations of Scripture.
5. We affirm strongly the biblical teaching that God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself. We believe that God’s redemption is an objective reality that does not depend on our response. We recognize that our knowledge is partial, our motives are tainted by sin, and our love less generous than God. We hold fast to the teaching that God can do more than we imagine.
6. We approach the great mystery of salvation in a way similar to our approach to the mystery of Holy Communion. This is a matter for awe and humility rather than rancorous debate and division. We acknowledge that the Scripture offers many perspectives on salvation, including the possibility of an eventual redemption of all souls in the eschaton. We feel called to proclaim the Good News of salvation in Christ, but we will not presume to call into question the mercy of our gracious God.
7. We share God’s love for the world and we go in faith into the world as agents of God’s grace with the life-giving message of Jesus Christ. We acknowledge, however, that our Chief Elder may close certain parts of the globe to us and that we must follow his guidance rather than our own desires. The proclamation that our Lamb has conquered should not be twisted into a belief that we must conquer the world.
8 Since Scripture, especially the New Testament, is the primary authority in our church, we affirm along with the Gospels and the book of Hebrews that faithful followers of God, such as Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Miriam, Ruth, and unnumbered others were saved before the appearance of Jesus Christ. Thus we reject the notion that “belief in Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven” as unbiblical and confusing to people inside and outside the community of faith.
9. Likewise, in accordance with the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels and the teachings of Paul in his letter to the Romans, we affirm that God is faithful to the promise that he swore to Abraham, revealed through Moses, and reaffirmed through the prophets. The fact that Gentiles may be brought into relationship with God through the covenant of grace sealed in the blood of Christ does not affect the old covenant with the people of Israel. We are happy to receive Jews as brothers and sisters and are glad to share with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but we will not preach or teach that the children of Israel who do not accept Jesus as Messiah are condemned by God. Nor will we make Jews the focus of evangelism.
10. Through the centuries we have recognized the great danger of self-righteousness and judgmentalism. It is one thing to proclaim the Good News of salvation in Christ; it is another to proclaim that who disagree with us are damned. The first is a joyful response to our experience of God’s mercy; the second is pride and hate cloaked in the shadows of self-justifying piety.
11. There may come times when those entrusted with leadership in our church find that they can no longer serve in this church with integrity because their understanding runs counter to that of the community of faith. As Moravians we view such moments as a time for brotherly and sisterly council rather than a legal process. If separation or change of role in the church is deemed necessary, the transition should be conducted with mutual love and respect. Our utmost concern is for the well-being of the community as a whole.
12. We affirm our centuries-old understanding that the fruits of salvation are faith, love, and hope. Where these are lacking, there is no church. We also acknowledge that the effort to remove tares destroys wheat. It is imperative that in dealing with differences within our community of faith, as well as in our dealing with people in other religions, that we hold firm to the essential Christian virtue of love. If we cease to represent Christ in the world in our effort to convert the world, we have lost our faith without bringing others to faith.