A précis of my religious beliefs

Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word; and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man's heart glad, and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy: as when David had killed Goliah the giant, came glad tidings unto the Jews, that their fearful and cruel enemy was slain, and they delivered out of all danger: for gladness whereof, they sung, danced, and were joyful. In like manner is the Evangelion of God (which we call gospel; and the New Testament) joyful tidings; and, as some say, a good hearing published by the apostles throughout all the world, of Christ the right David; how that he hath fought with sin, with death, and the devil, and overcome them: whereby all men that were in bondage to sin, wounded with death, overcome of the devil, are, without their own merits or deservings, loosed, justified, restored to life and saved, brought to liberty and reconciled unto the favor of God, and set at one with him again: which tidings as many as believe laud, praise, and thank God; are glad, sing and dance for joy. William Tyndale

The early English reformers

The early reformers grappled with the key questions of salvation, faith and good works: for me, Tyndale's Pathway into the Holy Scripture and his Prologue upon the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans are key texts. Eventually there emerged the Calvinist doctrine Americans now abbreviate as TULIP, and all Protestants ought somehow to respond to these five points in clarifying their own beliefs.

Here is my starting place: I believe, with the reformers, that our understanding of matters of faith must be based solely on our interpretation of the Bible. The Old Testament sets out God's law; the New Testament explains God's promise. God's law is a law that applies not just to our outward actions, but our hearts; and it is a law so strict that, after the Fall, no-one is capable of living up to it; this is the meaning of total depravity. God's promise is that despite this, by the Grace of God, we can still be saved, redeemed by Christ's death; this is the meaning of unconditional election. Regarding the rest of TULIP: There are convincing Catholic arguments against the doctrine of limited atonement; for example, John 4:42 refers to Christ as the 'Savior of the world' and I Timothy 4:10 describes God as the 'Savior of all men, especially of those who believe' (the additional teachings of Roman Catholic doctrine are not relevant to me here). The notions of irresistible grace, shared by Thomists and Calvinists but not by all Catholics, and of the perseverance of the saints will be discussed shortly.

Arminianism: Methodists and Catholics

I was brought up a Methodist, and I must therefore confront the Arminianism inherent in Methodist doctrine: see John Wesley's definition of Arminianism, his statement on the perseverance of the saints and his response to the Calvinists in 1744. Note that even ostensibly Calvinist churches in the US today show strong Arminian tendencies in practice, since the strict doctrine of predestination, combined with limited atonement, is so unpalatable, seems so inhuman, to most Americans. Arminians believe in conditional predestination: God chose to save those who believe, conditional upon their belief. Thus, we can resist God's grace; and by falling from grace, we can forfeit salvation. This is the part played by free will, according to the Methodists.

The Roman Catholics have explained why this does not imply semi-Pelagianism, which thay have rejected. In short, they accept the Arminian position that free will plays a part, and argue that it works together harmoniously with grace: to say that one cooperates with God by virtue of preceding grace is not to fall into semi-Pelagianism. But even though Methodists and Catholics may not be semi-Pelagians, their view does seem to lead inevitably to the position that 'it is in the power of man to make his ways evil', as stated in Trent; which contradicts the thesis of total depravity, that man is inherently unable to live up to God's law.

My belief in universal salvation

Thus, I cannot believe that salvation can depend in any sense on our cooperation with God, nor that it is possible to fall from grace. Christ died for all, and all are saved; our role in getting saved is purely passive. This is how I read John 4:42 and I Timothy 4:10, cited above. In addition, I Timothy 2:4 states that God 'desires all men to be saved'; and according to Psalms 115:3, God 'does whatever he pleases'. And finally, if we are all, equally, totally depraved and can only be saved through God's grace, not through our own qualities or actions, then to believe that some but not all will be saved is to disbelieve that God is just.

But this does not mean that free will is meaningless; the decision to accept God's offer of faith and to live as a Christian, has a significance of a different sort. I understand the role of faith and of good works as follows: All are saved. But only faith in God grants me the secure knowledge that I am saved. Without faith, I cannot know this. And only through God's gift of grace is it possible for me to have this faith. This, then, is the role of faith.

As for good works: The early reformers saw that we cannot ensure our salvation through our works. Indeed, if one has faith in God one should carry out good works freely, untainted by self-interest. Faith in God implies the desire to live a Christian life, and this means living a virtuous life and undertaking good works without thought of reward. But one can say more than this: The ‘obligation to do good works’ is in fact a gift to the faithful, in the following sense.

All of us are weak and prone to lapse. An abstract faith is a faith that cannot be sustained; doubt always creeps into the pure realms of the intellect (are my beliefs coherent?) or the emotions (do I deserve salvation?). But backsliding from faith means the return of uncertainty and fear. The only faith that can be securely held is a faith accompanied by a sense of obligation to live a Christian life; because in living such a life, one offers oneself daily proof that faith is there, transforming us even when it is not in the front of our minds. Living a Christian life offers comfort and reassurance in this sense.

This view is not Pelagian or even semi-Pelagian since, remember, all are saved in any case. The distinction to keep in mind is that between the objective fact of salvation and our subjective ability to be certain of this fact. Only faith in God can give us this ability.

This understanding of the significance of living a Christian life, in obedience to God's laws, also explains why a belief in universal salvation does not imply a crude antinomianism: even though all of us are predestined to salvation, we remain bound by the moral law. But obedience to the law is not what entitles us to salvation, nor are transgressors denied salvation. For ever since the Fall, all of us are bound to transgress, and thus to rely utterly on God's mercy.

To conclude:

God has certainly promised His grace to the humbled: that is, to those who mourn over and despair of themselves. But a man cannot be thoroughly humbled till he realises that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, counsels, efforts, will and works, and depends absolutely on the will, counsel, pleasure and work of Another - God alone. As long as he is persuaded that he can make even the smallest contribution to his salvation, he remains self-confident and does not utterly despair of himself, and so is not humbled before God; but plans for himself (or at least hopes and longs for) a position, and occasion, a work, which shall bring him final salvation. But he who is out of doubt that his destiny depends entirely on the will of God despairs entirely of himself, chooses nothing for himself, but waits for God to work in him; and such a man is very near to grace for salvation. Martin Luther
Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you. John 15:16
God has chosen all of us; but it is still up to each of us to realize this, through faith in God to perceive the certainty of our salvation, and to rejoice in it.