By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
God's grace and God’s reconciling love are the same spiritual power, but Christian theology has restricted that universal truth. The grace of God that provides salvation is not limited to Christians. It can be shared by all people who seek to do God’s will (Mark 3:33-35). All who accept God’s love and share it with others can know the peace and joy of eternal life.
Jesus taught that God’s will is summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves. It’s taken from the Hebrew Bible, was taught by Jesus and has been accepted as a common word of faith by Muslims. Jesus was a maverick Jew who never promoted any religion, not even his own.
There has been continuing debate during the history of Christianity over whether Paul’s atonement doctrine and concept of justifying grace (see Romans 3) gave precedence to faith in Jesus Christ as the alter ego of God of faith over acts of love for salvation; but James reversed Paul’s priorities and gave precedence to deeds of love over exclusivist beliefs (see James 2).
During the Reformation, Martin Luther emphasized faith in God’s grace as the only means of salvation. John Wesley shaped a version of grace for Methodism in the 18th century described by Bishop Kenneth Carder. If not for the concept of exclusivist salvation embedded in Christian theology on grace, it would describe God’s grace as a form of God’s universal love.
The concepts of grace promoted by St. Paul, Martin Luther and John Wesley reveal the distinctions between the universal teachings of Jesus on altruistic love and exclusivist church doctrines on grace and salvation. They remind us that Jesus called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him. Jesus was a Jew who knew that any claim of divinity would be blasphemy.
The early church knew that Christianity would never be popular if discipleship was essential to salvation. The cost of discipleship was too high, so the church promoted exclusivist beliefs in Jesus as a Trinitarian form of God as the only means of salvation. That made discipleship optional, and enabled Christianity to become the world’s most popular religion.
Grace through belief in exclusivist creeds never taught by Jesus became the Christian means of salvation. Popularity has long been the measure of success for the church, and when it became the world’s largest religion, the cheap grace of exclusivist beliefs became resistant to reforms based on the more costly forms of discipleship taught by Jesus.
The church lost its legitimacy when a majority of white Christians elected Donald Trump President in 2016. Today those clergy whose livelihoods are dependent on a popular church and Christians who ignore the cost of discipleship and think their salvation depends solely on belief in Jesus Christ as their personal savior are on a sinking ship. The church is declining and should consider the cost of discipleship as a price it must pay to salvage its legitimacy.
The Prayer of St. Francis describes the reconciling power of God’s love in this life and the next: Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. See https://www.loyolapress.com/catholic-resources/prayer/traditional-catholic-prayers/saints-prayers/peace-prayer-of-saint-francis/ife.
On A Wesleyan understanding of grace that describes prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace, by Retired Bishop Kenneth L. Carder, see https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/a-wesleyan-understanding-of-grace#:~:text=Wesley%20described%20prevenient%20grace%20as,are%20all%20givens%20or%20gifts.
For a comprehensive PRRI survey of Religion and Congregations in a Time of Social and Political Upheaval taken from findings of a 2022 Health of Congregations Study, see
On Ross Douthat’s commentary on What Has Trump Cost American Christianity?, see
On Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Divinity and Moral Teachings of Jesus, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2019/05/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on.html.
On Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? See http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.