Jesus is an intentionally troublesome figure. He said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This was an outrageous claim when it made it and remains so today. Through the history of the Christian faith people have struggled with this hard truth and have sought some way around it. The Pelagians, rationalists that they were, taught universalism. Francis Turretin (1623–87) mentions several more modern examples of universalism (i.e., the denial of the necessity of a personal faith in the Christ of Scripture for salvation). He mentions a Dutch Anabaptist group, the followers of David Joris (c. 1501–56), sometimes referred to as the “Davidists”,1 Libertines (those who deny any fixed moral law), Socinians (rationalist biblicists who denied the Trinity, the atonement, and the deity of Christ), and some Remonstrants who denied the proposition “no one can be saved who is not placed in Christ by true faith.” Jacob Arminius, in his Apology, and his successor, Episcopius (who spoke for the Remonstrants at Dort) admitted “Gentiles and others to salvation, holding that by a right use of the light of nature, the light of grace can be obtained and by grace admission to glory.”2 There have been Romanists (and arguably Vatican II) who have taught the same. Is this not an implication of the Franciscan maxim: “To those who do what lies within them, God denies not grace”? In the modern period it has become a liberal or modernist commonplace that, of course, salvation is available to all apart from true faith in Christ. Anyone who denies universalism in public is bound to be denounced as a bigot of the worst sort. As I say, Jesus, taken on his own terms, is a troubling figure.
The Apostolic message was as clear about this as Jesus’ own declaration:
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12; ESV).
In Scripture the “the name” is a powerful expression. In Genesis 4:26, when people began to call upon “the name of Yahweh.” This passage is widely understood to refer to formal, organized worship of the God revealed in nature and Scripture, who had spoken creation into existence and who had promised a Redeemer to come through the line of the woman. To call on his name is to call on him. Thus, God’s name is blessed (Dan 2:20). This is why the third commandment (Ex 20:7) forbids us from using the name of Yahweh, which I take to mean any reference to him (e.g., Elohim, El, El Shaddai), in vain, i.e., carelessly and certainly in any false oath.3
Matthew 1:21 says, “You shall call his name Jesus (Ἰησοῦν), for he shall save his people from their sins.” It’s not their sins that were the threat. It’s divine judgment that the sins bring. His name is who he is to us. We see this relation between the sign (the name) and the referent (God).
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” (Ex 3:13–14).
Moses wanted to know God’s name. He was asking “who are you to us?” and “How do you intend to relate to us?” and “What sort of God are you?” In contrast to the Egyptian gods, he is the sort of God who simply is. He isn’t becoming. He isn’t any more or less today than he has been from all eternity or than he shall be from all eternity. In contrast to us humans, he just is. In contrast to us creatures we must be. We might not be. We exist at his good pleasure, for his glory.
We should bear these things in mind as we come to Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 29:
29. Why is the Son of God called JESUS, that is, Savior?
Because He saves us from our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in any other.
The catechism has briefly and quite traditionally discussed the doctrine of God and under it the doctrine of the Trinity and divine providence. Now it turns to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son but it since it has already discussed the Trinity and since it will handle other Christological questions later it moves immediately to the incarnation (taking on true humanity) and his work for us as Savior.
In the 16th century context the church had been tempted to turn its eyes to a plurality of potential intercessors, mediators, and saviors. Popular piety was devoted to the saints and the blessed virgin Mary. Jesus was widely regarded principally as a king and judge. So, the Reformed had a job before them to convince Christians that though Jesus is king and a judge, for those who believe, whom the Father has given to the Son from all eternity, for whom he came to die, who’ve come to faith because they are beloved and elect and who’ve been raised to spiritual life by the sovereign grace of the Spirit, he is a Savior.
For the medieval church as for many Christians today, it was tempting to think that Jesus had made salvation possible for those who do their part. In that scheme Jesus was not so much a savior as a facilitator. In such a scheme he is reduced to a cosmic doorman, who allows us to enter the presence of God but who leaves it to us to stay in. This is the fundamental weakness of the so-called New Perspective(s) on Paul—which aren’t new at all, they’re as old as the rabbis, the semi-Pelagians and many medieval theologians—and the self-described Federal Vision movement. We might add to this list our Remonstrant/Arminian friends who have it that Jesus has done is part, now we must do ours.
No, the biblical picture is to the contrary. Jesus is not a facilitator. He is a Savior. He actually, successfully accomplishes what he set out to do: save his people, those whom the Father gave to him, for whom he voluntarily ca,e (see John 10; John 17). He laid down his life for his sheep. All those for whom he intentionally laid down his life, for whom he took it up again, those he saved.
We all know what is meant when people ask, “when were you saved?” What they mean is: when the Holy Spirit bring you to faith? When did he apply the work of Christ to you? When did you appropriate the person and work of Christ by faith? Truly, however, we should think that we were saved when Christ laid down his life. It was finished—not inaugurated. It was accomplished. It was applied to us in our own lives and experience and it will continue to be applied by the Spirit until Christ comes again but all his people have been saved, are being saved, and shall be saved.
He shall save his people. That’s his name. That’s who is to us: our Savior.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
1. See also this post.
2. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.4.1.
3. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) summarizes the Reformed understanding of the Third Commandment:
99. What is required in the third Commandment?
That we must not by cursing, or by false swearing, nor yet by unnecessary oaths, profane or abuse the name of God; nor even by our silence and connivance be partakers of these horrible sins in others; and in sum, that we use the Holy Name of God in no other way than with fear and reverence, so that He may be rightly confessed and worshipped6 by us, and be glorified in all our words and works.
100. Is the profaning of God’s name, by swearing and cursing, so grievous a sin, that His wrath is kindled against those also who do not help as much as they can to hinder and forbid the same?
Yes truly, for no sin is greater and more provoking to God than the profaning of His name; wherefore He even commanded it to be punished with death.
Thanks for posting this. It is very timely. Maybe at some time in the future you can write about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. Jesus seems to teach (at least to some people) that some people will be saved by their works. I don’t think that is taught there, but I have a friend who believes it. Also, the perpetual question, “What about those who have never heard?” is raised.