Is salvation conditional? And more on pastors’ pay — Q&A, pt. I

I’ve been receiving various questions from readers. I promised to try to answer some of them in a series of posts. I chose two questions that are poles apart for part I. I’ll have several more to get to in part II. And please feel free to email me yours.

“My question is 3-fold:

1) Do you personally believe our salvation is conditional according to the Scriptures?

2) In your view, what Scriptures support this stance?

3) How to maintain our salvation then?”

Someone who says she has “just been persuaded of this position” sent that question. As a result, she said she joined the Methodist Church last week.

Yes! I do believe our salvation is conditional. In fact, I think that’s good news. This is a place where I disagree with my Reformed/Calvinist friends. (And yes, they are friends. We can disagree without animosity.)

No small amount has been written on this subject. Rather than write a whole booklet, as Wesley did, or an entire book, like this from Walls and Dongell, let me give you my simple version.

We start here:

TULIP - ALL1. God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

My Calvinist friends begin to object here. They want to qualify that “everyone.” In their framework, God gets whatever God desires. It doesn’t make sense to them that an Almighty God could desire something that doesn’t happen. So they claim “everyone” means every people group, not every individual. But the same Calvinist friends also say that if you read the Bible at face value, you have to agree with them. So let’s acknowledge at the start that we’re all qualifying certain statements in Scripture. And to qualify “all” and “everyone” is no minor nuance.

2. Everyone can be saved. We have a mediator, Christ Jesus, “who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6) “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). His atoning death is sufficient for all to be saved.

More of that pesky “all” and “everyone” language. See my note above.

3. Not everyone is saved. The biblical witness is clear on this.

I believe this is what has run aground several of my Calvinist friends. By their logic, God would save all whom he desires to save. That leads them to two options: universalism (everyone will be saved) or limited atonement (Christ did not die for everyone).

4. Everyone who believes is saved. Christ’s atoning death is effective for all who accept it.

That is to say, Christ’s atoning death is universally sufficient (see #2) but conditionally effective. 

Here’s how Paul put that condition: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,” [a break to note that this is, by definition, a conditional clause] “you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Paul lays out the conditions of salvation plainly in Acts 20:21: “turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” If we accept that much, we should spend some serious time looking into repentance and faith. What do those words mean in Scripture and the Christian tradition? I said “everyone who believes is saved” above. Please don’t accept that for the simple, “Sure, I believe in Jesus” faith common in our culture. Repentance and faith mean much more.

That’s a start. I could point to many more passages, along with most of the Christian tradition, on these points. My Calvinist friends will, of course, have opposing verses to share. I’ll not attempt a full defense of those here. They don’t deny #3 above, and I believe their arguments against #1 and #2 are strained. I believe the witness of Scripture, the Christian tradition, and our own experience all favor a view of salvation as conditional.

To your final question about how we maintain our salvation… Be alert, on guard, disciplined! Because the devil prowls like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Practically, I’d especially encourage those means of grace encouraged throughout Scripture and church history: participate in the life of the Church and its sacraments, search the Scriptures, pray and fast.

The notion that we could lose our salvation may scare people. But it shouldn’t need to instill more than a healthy fear. God is good, and God is faithful. The faithful married person, for instance, doesn’t go around in constant fear that their loving spouse will leave them. But they also know that they’re not guaranteed security in that relationship if they’re unfaithful. Just as the devil can entice you to be unfaithful to your spouse, he can entice you to be unfaithful to your God. Both of those infidelities can lead to shipwreck. We need to be vigilant! But we needn’t be afraid.

“You’ve written several things about pastors’ salaries and talked about being paid part-time. But you also have a coffee shop where I assume you make money. For full-time UMC pastors, that’s not an option. Do you think that difference should be part of the equation?”

That’s a good point. I hear this has been a conversation for some pastors in my conference, so I think it’s best for me to be transparent. I know this kind of public discussion of personal finances can seem distasteful, so I’ve hesitated to do it. If it’s in bad taste to you, you might just stop now.

I am a partner in a coffee shop here in Lexington––a fun little venture. Two quick notes about your question, though: 1) I’ve been talking and writing about pastors’ salaries since before that shop existed, and 2) I’m not an employee. The UMC prohibits full-time pastors from working other jobs, but they don’t prohibit pastors from being partners. So that particular venture hasn’t influenced what I’m saying, and it’s a possibility for other UMC pastors, too.  I’d encourage it for more pastors, actually. It has been a good learning opportunity and a different way to bless the community and be involved in it.

As for finances, between the church, the coffee shop, and a few other small sources of income, my total income is about $21,000 less than our conference’s minimum package.[note]That number will decrease next year––my church is giving me a generous raise.[/note] That coffee shop might be able to replace my income one day, and I’d celebrate that. But for now, it’s just a nice supplement.

I could stop there, but I should also acknowledge our family has had other advantages. Our parents have been very good to us––we rarely pay for babysitting, get to go on family trips that we don’t pay for, regularly receive clothes and other things for the kids, and even got our first mini-van from them. When we went to Spain, 40% of our cost for the year was covered by the generosity of our church, family, and friends. I was also able to work the whole time I was in seminary and paid as I went. No seminary debt has been a huge advantage.

We have a number of advantages and unique circumstances. In all, though, I don’t think our situation prevents me from being able to speak about clergy pay.

Note that I’ve never called anyone else to receive less than full-time minimum or claimed that our minimum-paid pastors are making too much. I have asked, for the sake of integrity, that we quit acting like our pastors live like paupers. Even our minimum-compensation pastors are in the top 27% of all U.S. income earners,[note]That figure includes their housing, as I’ve argued it should.[/note] with a very generous retirement and insurance plan on top. The average pastor in Kentucky is in the top 14%, and our director-level positions are in the top 8%. I would venture that never in Methodism’s history have our pastors been so highly compensated relative to our society.[note]I haven’t run all the numbers on this, but see the chart in my interview with Wesley Sanders for a representative sample.[/note]

Our pastors are good people. They work hard and have hard jobs. In the business world, many of them might be highly compensated for their work and talent. But the church is a different entity, and the church’s offering is no ordinary source of revenues. If John Wesley himself were among our highest-paid UMC pastors, I would be questioning his pay. Though I doubt I would need to. I think his voice on this issue would make mine sound weak and soft.


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