We have to notice that there is an exclusiveness about Christianity. It asserts, quite emphatically, that there is only one way of salvation. This is the consistent message of the New Testament.
Peter boldly declared to his interrogators: “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name, under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.” This is a vigorous declaration of the exclusiveness of Christianity.
The Uncompromising Rigidity of Some
Like all great truths, the acceptance of this strong New Testament message created, in the case of some writers, a falsely rigid view.
The Pelagian notion that any man could, simply by the exercise of his own efforts, attain to everlasting life, led to a distinction on the other side, of this great truth.
There arose a tendency to substitute the Church for Jesus Christ and to attach eternal salvation to a visible connection with those who professed faith in Christ and had received, at least, the sacrament of baptism.
Augustine, in his zeal against Pelagian error insisted that all unbaptized infants were undoubtedly lost. Calvin, who is often charged with this rigidity, distinctly repudiates the idea, He writes: “But it is alleged, that there is danger, lest a child, who is sick and dies without baptism, should be deprived of the grace of regeneration. This I can by no means admit. God pronounces that he adopts our infants as his children, before they are born, when he promises that he will he a God to us, and to our seed after us. This promise includes their salvation… infants are not ‘excluded from the kingdom of heaven who happen to die before they have had the privilege of baptism.” (Inst. Bk. IX, cxvi. Secs. Xx and xxii.)
The Language of the Article
In the light of these conflicting views it is desirable to direct attention to the precise language of the article. “Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.” The word rendered in English “set out unto us” means “declare publicly or formally.”
The article, we may believe ‘designedly, avoids any discussion of the means of salvation beyond the essential, primary one, that Christ Himself is the only Mediator, and it is only through Him that man can approach to God. The word “Name” always, in scripture, when applied to God, stands for His Person and work.
The Article confines itself strictly to the assertion that apart from the work of our Lord Jesus Christ there can be no salvation for the sins of men. It refrains, with admirable restraint, from entering into the related but subsidiary questions as to how that gift of salvation can be communicated to the soul.
It is strange to notice that many commentators on the Article have missed this salient, outstanding fact.
Possibly the strong words “They also are to be had accursed” is a relic of the message of St. Paul in the Galatians: “If any man preach any other gospel unto you, than that ye have received, let him be accursed. “It is an outrage on the dignity of our Lord Jesus Christ to suggest that the approach to God’s mercy may be secured on any other ground than His atoning work. But it is a distortion of this professed truth to declare that one way of approach must be clearly understood and undertaken by all recipients of God’s mercy. Anxious problems like the fate of the earnest heathen or the salvation of the unbaptised are not discussed because they are not directly relevant to the main theme.
The Necessity for the Article
It might seem at first sight that the strict limitation of the article to the assertion that the work of our Lord Jesus Christ is necessary, if any are to be saved, renders the article unnecessary. The cheap retort may be given “Everyone knows that”. On the contrary, however, a little reflection enables us to see that from’ the very beginning of the Christian message, the natural heart of man revolted against this sublime truth. The Galatians were led astray, into the fancy that they could contribute by circumcision and obedience to the law, a certain necessary quota to the merit required for salvation. It is not merely the essential truth of the statement, it is also the perverse opposing tendency in man, that leads to the oft reiterated statement in scripture that it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done” that God in His mercy saves us. Nor has the lapse of time, nor the explicit declarations of Scripture, removed that innate opposing tendency. We often hear today “after all nothing matters but sincerity.” We need to be on our guard against the facile theory that any faith if it is only genuine faith, is sufficient for salvation. Some people justify their indifference to conflicting opinions by asserting “we are all making for the one end.” The article is emphatic in declaring that, no matter how earnestly we strive to follow the teaching of our particular law or sect, there is no possibility of salvation except through Jesus Christ our God.
It should be our main endeavour therefore to bring those with whom we come in contact into an anxious and definite acceptance of this fact. All palliatives should be cast aside, and we should seek for deliverance from sin and power for holiness from the only source that God has provided.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, September 26, 1957. This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.