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Simple Faith, Plain Truth

Thomas J Parlette

“Simple Faith, Plain Truth”

1st Timothy 2: 1-7

9/18/16

There is a story told about a group of seminary students in Victorian England that went to visit the grand and historic Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, where the renowned preacher Charles H Spurgeon delivered the word to thousands of people on Sunday mornings. When they entered the huge building, they happened upon a gray-bearded gentleman sweeping and fussing about in the pews, whom they assumed was the janitor. He cheerfully offered to give them a tour of the church and answer any questions they had.

They walked through the sanctuary, stood in the pulpit and looked down from the balcony. When they had seen just about everything and had asked every conceivable question they could come up with, their tour guide asked them a question.

“Would you like to see the great secret of this grand church?”

They students looked at each other in surprise and anticipation. What was he talking about? Were they about to see some mysterious secret chamber, maybe a chapel deep underground that housed the bones of a saint or perhaps the fabled Holy Grail – what could it be? What was the secret of this great Temple?

So they followed the old man down a narrow stairway to an open area just beneath the pulpit. Before he opened the door to show them what was inside, the old man said, “My friends, behind this door is the secret of this great church. Everything that happens upstairs starts down here.” He swung open the door to reveal 3 dozen people kneeling in an intimate chapel area, praying fervently. Then the old man introduced himself as Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher himself, and thanked them for visiting the Tabernacle. Spurgeon always insisted that the secret of any church, big or small, was the prayers of the people. It was Spurgeon who famously said, “I would rather teach one man to pray than ten men to preach.” Charles Spurgeon believed that all the good work of the church starts with prayer.(1)

Paul would whole-heartedly agree. In his letter to his young associate Timothy, Paul hands over the reins of leadership of the church in Ephesus. And it won’t be an easy task leading this church. There have been some issues. In some of the other churches Paul founded, the worshipping community faced persecution from outside forces, but here in Ephesus, the conflicts are with the church’s own elders. One of the problems is that the leaders of the church appear to be heavily influenced by the ideas of Gnosticism – the idea that salvation and spiritual knowledge is available to only a select few. Paul is very against this idea, and you can hear it immediately from the very beginning of this letter. He moves very quickly into offering his warning to Timothy to watch out for the false teachings, specifically naming two individuals – Hymenaeus and Alexander – as ones to watch out for.

Then Paul settles into offering his best pastoral advice, his best words of wisdom about how to lead the troubled church in Ephesus. I like the way Eugene Peterson translates this passage in The Message. He writes:

“The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Savior God wants us to live.”

“God wants not only us but everyone saved, you know, everyone to get to know the truth we’ve learned: that there’s one God and only one, and one Priest-Mediator between God and us – Jesus, who offered himself in exchange for everyone held captive by sin, to set them all free. Eventually the news is going to get out. This and this only has been my appointed work: getting this news to those who have never heard of God, and explaining how it works by simple faith and plain truth.”

You may have noticed in this passage that Paul uses the phrase translated as “all” or “everyone” at least three times- pray for everyone, God wants everyone to be saved and Christ gave himself as a ransom for all, for everyone. This phrase “all” and “everyone” is important for Paul, first, in talking about our prayer life. And second, Paul uses it to express the idea of God’s universal salvation. He is doing this in direct opposition to what some of the Gnostic-leaning elders in Ephesus were apparently teaching. Our concern in prayers is not limited to those in our community, but extends to all, to everyone. Likewise, God’s salvation is not limited to a select few with special knowledge, but is for everyone. God wants to save everyone.

This idea of praying for everyone sounds good on the surface. It sounds like a no-brainer, it should be easy to do. But that’s often not the case. It’s difficult to pray for someone we find repulsive or just downright evil. It’s hard to pray for our enemies or people we just disagree with.

For instance, Fred Craddock tells about the time he attended a worship service during the Gulf War after Sept. 11th. The minister asked for prayer concerns and someone mentioned that we ought to pray for the innocent people who might be killed in the next days bombings. The Pastor agreed and included that in the prayers.

After the service, as people were leaving the sanctuary, one irate worshipper complained to the Pastor about the prayer and asked, “Are you supporting Saddam Hussein?”

And the pastor said “No, we prayed for all the innocent people of Iraq, the women and children not involved in the war, who might be affected and possibly killed in the bombings.”

“Well, you prayed for the wrong people,” was the hasty retort.(2) Prayed for the wrong people. I understand the reaction. It is difficult to pray for our enemies. It’s hard to pray someone you bitterly oppose. But Paul says, pray for all. Pray for everyone. That is what pleases God. As John Chrysostom would write just a few centuries after Paul, “No one can feel hatred towards those for whom he prays.” And that absence of hate is pleasing to God.

The second part of Paul’s words to Timothy might be even more controversial. Paul says God desires everyone to be saved, that Christ gave himself as a ransom for all.

Throughout the history of the church these verses have raised an important question related to salvation – “Who are the recipients of God’s salvation?”

This question has been hotly debated in Protestant circles for years. This was at the center of the conflicts between strict Calvinists and the Arminians that took place in 17th century Holland.(3)

The strict Calvinists argued that God, divine decree, elected some persons for salvation and some for reprobation. They also argued for limited atonement: “it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross…should effectually redeem…all those, and only those, who were from eternity chosen.”

So, how could they explain these verses here. Well, John Calvin himself interpreted “everyone” to be “classes” of people, not individuals. In other words, Calvin said that God desires the salvation of those from all classes, from rulers to peasants. Unfortunately, there is little textual evidence to support that idea, Calvin is really on thin ice with that interpretation – but it did allow him to uphold the effectiveness of God’s will to save the elect while arguing that God does not save all people.

Over against this idea of predestination, a man named Jacobus Arminius placed an emphasis upon the divine foreknowledge of those who would believe and those who would not. For Arminians, while God makes salvation possible for all people, God elects for salvation only those who God knows will believe in Christ. Thus both views uphold the effectiveness of God’s will to save those whom God elects, and both deny that God saves all people. This has always been a problem in Protestant theology – reconciling Paul’s words with the idea of predestination.

In the modern era, the debates surrounding the question “Who are the recipients of God’s salvation?” have shifted away from concerns about predestination, and toward the question of universalism. Now there are three broad perspectives on universal salvation. There are Exclusivists – there are Inclusivists – and there are Pluralists.

Exclusivists believe that both truth and salvation are located exclusively in Christianity.

Inclusivists would affirm that while Christianity is the one true religion, it is possible for people to reap the benefits of that religion without explicit knowledge of it’s truth. In other words, and inclusivist would hold that the gospel is objectively true and salvation comes from the one true God, who works through all religions to draw people to God through the Holy Spirit.

Pluralists argue that truth about God or the ultimate reality can be found in all religions and that all religions provide roads to salvation in their own ways.

So when Paul says “There is one God. There is one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all” – you can support the exclusivist view with that, of course. You can also support the inclusivist view as well. But you can’t really take the pluralist view if you affirm what Paul says here.

Our simple faith is that there is one God, and one mediator, Christ, who offered himself as a ransom for all.

And the plain truth is this – We should pray for everyone, because God desires everyone to be saved.

That is our simple faith, and the plain truth.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.                           Clayton A. Lord, Jr., God is Rock Solid, CSS Publishing Inc. 2006, p. 317.

2.                           Gary L. Carver, Search for Serendipity CSS Publishing Inc. 2003, p. 369.

3.                           For this discussion of the history of the debate about predestination and the shift to universalism, I am indebted to an article by Stephanie Mar Smith in Feasting On The Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 86-90.