We request a definitive answer from the National Church regarding whether everyone goes to heaven is contrary to the Confessions of the Church. Submitted by Bethany Lutheran Church Woodstock, Ontario.
Article XVIII, Section 8, in the ELCIC constitution provides for "questions of doctrine or conscience" to be referred to the court for its counsel and the opinions of the court are then submitted to the convention for scrutiny and decision. The court in its rules of procedure has understood that questions referred by the convention would be on issues arising during the convention. The court does not see itself as a theological commission nor the magisterium of the church in doctrinal matters. Such matters have usually been handled in a collegial manner with assistance of the seminary faculties and other theologians.
In considering the referred resolution, the court questioned whether it was proper to deal with this matter inasmuch as this was the issue when the court was convened to hear the appeal of the pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church concerning the disciplinary action of the Eastern Synod. The court rejected the appeal of the pastor and, according to the constitution of the church, no further appeal is permitted. The evidence supplied to the court from the Eastern Synod would seem to be sufficient for answering the congregation's question and, had the convention been so informed, a referral to the Eastern Synod may have taken place. However, the court has, after consultation, prepared a response to the referred question.
The matter initially appears straight forward. The Athanasian Creed states that those who do not maintain the faith "whole and undefiled" will perish for eternity. Further, the Augsburg Confession, Article II on Original Sin says our "inborn sin" condemns to "eternal wrath" those who "are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit." The same Confession in its article XVII, On Christ’s Return to Judgment specifically rejects those such as the Anabaptists who teach "that the devil and condemned men will not suffer eternal pain and torment." Further, the Athanasian Creed, which is part of our confessions, is categorical in its assertion that "whoever does not guard [the catholic faith] will doubtless perish eternally" and "one cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully."
While these are selected statements, they reflect the consensus of all the confessions to which our church subscribes in their understanding that it is the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ which brings us eternal salvation. There is here an underlying assumption that God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ who died for our sins and rose again for our justification. There is a further assumption that had God not undertaken such an initiative, we would be condemned to an eternity apart from Him.
The motivation behind Martin Luther’s articulation of justification by grace alone through faith alone is that we should trust in God for our salvation not in our own efforts to save ourselves from condemnation. It thus appears that the confessions clearly teach that those who trust in Christ will be given eternal salvation, and those who do not will be condemned.
Having stated what the confessions have to say to the question, and since confessional Lutheran theology is based on the Holy Scriptures, more can be said in response to the congregation’s question. Romans 1:16 asserts that the gospel "is God’s powerful way of saving all people who have faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles." (CEV) John 3:16 says that, "everyone who has faith in Him will have eternal life…" (CEV) and 1 Timothy 2:4 informs us that "God wants everyone to be saved…" The desire of God that all should be saved through faith receives special recognition in Lutheran theology in its assertion that faith itself is a gift of God.
If thus it is God’s desire that all should be saved and that God grants the gift of faith which trusts in Jesus Christ as the one through whom salvation comes the question becomes "Are all indeed saved and if not then why do some receive the gift of faith and others not?" The problematic is further heightened by such passages as Romans 3:23–24: "Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by His grace as a gift." and Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace are you saved through faith and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God." (NRSV)
The Formula of Concord in its Article XI Of God’s Eternal Election (Solid Declaration) even speaks of the eternal election of God as "a cause which creates, effects, helps, and furthers our salvation and whatever pertains to it." (Tappert edition, p. 617) Luther in his contention with Erasmus on the matter of free will argued for the absolute sovereignty of the grace of God with respect to salvation. In response to Erasmus’ assertion that the notion that God necessitates all things removes all human responsibility Luther said: "Why do you not restrain yourself, and discourage others, from prying into matters which God wills to keep hidden from us, and has not made known in the Scriptures?" (The Bondage of the Will, Fleming H. Revell, 1957, p.99). In other words there are mysteries concerning the destiny of humanity in relation to God that remain hidden in God’s counsel.
It is not possible on the basis of Scripture or the confession to simply assert that "everyone goes to heaven." Indeed there is both Scriptural and confessional warrant for asserting the judgment of God on sin. On the other hand, both Scripture and the confessions teach that salvation is purely a gift of God’s grace. We confront a mystery here that will be understood only at the revelation of the last days. It is not possible to provide a definitive answer to the referral of an issue that must ultimately be left to the counsel of God rather than to the proximate conclusions we may reach. The words of 1 Corinthians 13:9–10 and 12 are apt and should move us to act on the referral with both care and humility.
"We don’t know everything and our prophecies are not complete. But what is perfect will someday appear, and what is not perfect will then disappear… Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see Him face to face. We don’t know everything, but then we will, just as God completely understands us." (CEV)