Presbyterian Panel: Majority Believes Jesus is Only Savior, But See Different Paths to Salvation


According to a recent Presbyterian Panel survey of Presbyterian Church (USA) pastors and members, “Most Presbyterians believe that Jesus is central to salvation, but members and teaching elders disagree about how this works.”

The August 2016 Presbyterian Panel Theological Reflection survey was sent to 2,576 panelists: 1,121 panelists received a paper questionnaire in the mail; while 1,455 participated in a web-based version of the same survey. The panelists include two representative sample groups of PCUSA teaching elders (pastors) and PCUSA members. The survey’s response rate was 38 percent for members and 56 percent for teaching elders.

Click on chart to make it larger. Figure 9 is from the Presbyterian Panel Report: Research Services, Presbyterian Church (USA). Theological Reflection: The Report of the Volume 3: 2016 Presbyterian Panel Survey. Louisville, 2016.Salvation


The 2016 survey showed that 74 percent of members and 73 percent of teaching elders (pastors) “agree” or “strongly agree” that “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord,” but the pastors and members have different ideas about the paths to salvation.

When it comes to salvation, the survey found that “nearly half of members believe that people choose Christ as their Savior, while half of teaching elders believe God chooses who is to be saved through Christ. Almost three in ten members and teaching elders hold the view that God saves everyone.”

Half (50 percent) of the pastors surveyed believe that “God chooses who is to be saved through Christ;” while 29 percent believe that “God saves everyone;” and 15 percent believe “People choose Jesus Christ as their Savior.”

For members, most – 46 percent – believe that “People choose Jesus Christ as their Savior.” Twenty-eight percent of members believe that “God saves everyone;” while 20 percent believe that “God choose who is to be saved through Christ.”

Carmen Fowler LaBerge

Six percent of both members and pastors believe that “God saves everyone,” which is also known as universalism.

Carmen Fowler LaBerge, President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee responded, “Presbyterians have historically been people of the Reformed faith.  That faith has actual content and doctrine. The beliefs expressed by many of the respondents to this Presbyterian Panel would not be considered representative of Reformed Christianity.  One of the tenets of which is election.  The respondents who believe that people choose salvation by choosing Christ and those who believe that everyone is saved – which is basically universal election – may be ministers and members of the PCUSA but they’re not classically Presbyterian.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith and its attendant Larger and Shorter Cathechisms clearly express the historic Reformed theological tenets including what are known as the five points of Calvinism. The acronym TULIP captures the essence of those ideas:

  • Total Depravity
  • Unconditional Election
  • Limited Atonement
  • Irresistible Grace
  • Perseverance of the Saints

The latest Presbyterian Panel reveals that in 2016, many PCUSA pastors and members no longer believe in “Unconditional election” which holds that God predestined some individuals — the elect — to be saved, not on their merit, but because of His love and mercy.

Again, LaBerge comments, “It is possible that those answering the Panel survey have discerned that the Bible does not teach, and they should therefore not uphold, the theological tenet of election.  It is possible that living through the ‘me and Jesus’ evangelical era of American Christianity in the late 20th century, and in the selfie culture of today, an Armenian view of salvation is more palatable. But it is also possible that the nearly 30% of pastors and members who believe that everyone is saved understand, preach and teach a different Gospel from the one where Jesus is the once for all, all sufficient, fully necessary atoning sacrifice for the salvation of those who will be saved.” 

Baptism/Lord’s Supper

The survey also asks about panelist’s views on the Lord’s Supper, and whether baptism should be required for participation. 

Click on chart to make it larger. Figure 16 is from the Presbyterian Panel Report: Research Services, Presbyterian Church (USA). Theological Reflection: The Report of the Volume 3: 2016 Presbyterian Panel Survey. Louisville, 2016.

PCUSA presbyteries have or will vote on two separate amendments to the denomination’s constitution – or Book of Order – both of which seek to “decouple baptism from the Lord’s Supper by removing the requirement of baptism for admission to the table.” Each was approved by the 222nd General Assembly in June 2016 and now must be ratified by a majority of the presbyteries.

In a June, 2016 General Assembly analysis, LaBerge, wrote “According to Reformed theology there are three marks of the true church: where the word is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered and church discipline rightly applied. The first and third marks have been at issue among American Presbyterians since the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the 1920s. But to this point, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been maintained, at least in the denomination’s documents, with integrity. The new Directory for Worship adopted by the General Assembly effectively decouples baptism from the Lord’s Supper by removing the requirement of baptism for admission to the table.”

One of the amendments seeks to change the verbiage of the Theology of the Lord’s Supper found in the PCUSA’s Directory of Worship. The second one is a complete re-write of the denomination’s Directory of Worship.

The Presbyterian Panel asked panelists about this issue, “not to try to influence the presbyteries one way or the other, but so future church leaders might have a snapshot of denomination-wide opinions on these issues as part of their discernment,” the report states.

It found that 59 percent of pastors and 53 percent of members “definitely” agree with the idea to “to authorize participation of those not baptized in the Lord’s Supper, followed by an invitation to be baptized later.”

Those saying “Yes, possibly” include 23 percent of teaching elders and 26 percent of members. Saying “No,” was 13 percent of pastors and 11 percent of members. Five percent of teaching elders and 11 percent of members weren’t sure.

“Among members, more of the theological moderate-to-liberals than of the conservatives affirm the new approach. Among teaching elders, more moderate-to-liberals than conservatives and more women than men endorse the approach,” the report said.

Click on chart to make it larger. Figure 7 is from the Presbyterian Panel Report: Research Services, Presbyterian Church (USA). Theological Reflection: The Report of the Volume 3: 2016 Presbyterian Panel Survey. Louisville, 2016.

Other results found in the report include:

  • 56 percent of members and teaching elders “agree” or “strongly agree” that “Jesus was born of a virgin.” (See Figure 7 of the report)
  • 69 percent of members and 89 percent of pastors “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement “As a church committed to Reformed theology, the PCUSA must take sin seriously.” (See Figure 7 of the report)
  • Half of the members surveyed and 57 percent of the pastors “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “In the realm of values, the final authority about good and bad is the Scriptures.” (See Figure 7 of the report)
  • 63 percent of pastors “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that “Being witness to the good news of Jesus Christ to people who practice a different religion should be a primary goal of the PCUSA;” 19 percent “disagreed” or strongly disagreed” with the statement; while 18 percent neither agreed or disagreed. (See Figure 3 of the report)
  • “Fewer than three in 10 members or teaching elders “agree” or “strongly agree” that “The Bible cannot be reinterpreted according to the changing circumstances in which we read it.” (See Figure 7 of the report)
  • “The five listed spiritual resources that the most members and teaching elders cite as being very important to them are: Jesus Christ’s teaching, life, or example; The leading of the Holy Spirit; God’s will; Scripture; Jesus Christ’s leading through prayer.” (See Figure 10 of the report)
  • “Grace is very important to the most members and teaching elders. Also very important to majorities of members and teaching elders are: The sovereignty of God; Ministers and elders lead the church together; Stewardship; The priesthood of all believers.” (see Figure 13 of the report)
  • “Large majorities of both members and teaching elders strongly agree or agree that God elects us for service, and not just for salvation, and that they have tried to pursue a vocation that best uses the talents and gifts God has given them. Nine in ten teaching elders—but only six in ten members—hold that their entire life’s work is a calling to honor and glorify God. (See Figure 17 of the report)
  • Asked about how often the panelists feel guided by God in the midst of daily activities, “Roughly one-third of members (35 percent) and one-half of teaching elders (52 percent) feel guided at least daily.” (See Figure 21 of the report) The report goes on to say that “More of the theologically conservative members and teaching elders than of their moderate-to-liberal peers feel guided daily by God. Members and teaching elders who feel guided daily tend to be older than those who do not feel so guided.”

For a look at how these results compare with a survey of the U.S. population, see the The State of Theology study conducted by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research. The white paper can be found here, and the research here.

Open-ended questions

The survey also asked panelists several open-ended questions. In answer to the question “In your opinion, what is distinctive about Reformed/Presbyterian theology?,” PCUSA pastors answered, in part: (To read more verbatim answers, see Appendix C at the end of the online report.

  • God gave us capacity to faith, but it includes (and in no way excludes) thinking, questioning and seeking.
  • Grace God’sSoverignty
  • All things represented by the Nicene & Apostles Creeds.
  • Reformed and always reforming (Stated often in various ways in the pastor’s answers)
  • The idea that we are always being reformed by the Holy Spirit – and therefore may realize from time to time that we need to change our practice or opinion. It is also fairly distinctive that our polity requires that we do almost all things by group (committee, governing body, congregation, etc.), which I interpret as a strong theological statement of community.
  • Our communal interpretation of scripture in light of current circumstances, tradition, prayer and humility.
  • The reformed understanding of human depravity/sin reminds us that neither the church nor the Christian community is to be glorified but God. We are simultaneously sinners and saved, who need continual conversion; and this should mean that we stand in solidarity with all of humanity rather than seeing ourselves as set apart.
  • being a place of moral discourse; taking into consideration the culture and history as scripture is understood and interpreted; Jesus is a living God and therefore present in newness as the Holy Spirit guides us
  • Safe space to live in the tension, listening to each other for the Spirit, applying critical thinking and sound theology leading to moving together guided by the Spirit as the body of Christ–this core process keeps us reformed and reforming and is reflected in our PCUSA constitution.
  • Deep humility, lifelong learning/exploring/questioning, desire for compromise and willingness to find ways that different voices can be held together, a belief that the means matters, God’s sovereignty, grace-grace-grace
  • Reformed and always reforming, guided by the Spirit in our daily context
  • The emphasis on God’s sovereignty, and grace. It is not our decisions or worthiness, but God’s gracious and loving choice which saves us and makes us God’s children. The acknowledgement that sin and evil are real and powerful in our world and in each of our lives (total depravity), but yet God loves us still. I lean toward a universalist understanding of salvation, but see that as being in line with the ‘good hope for all’ as it is called in our confessions. Our ecclesiastical understanding of the priesthood of all believers and leadership of elders and ministers also is a way of expressing our belief that God works through humans in community, not isolation. Our love for one another is our response to God’s love for us.
  • Reformed theology encourages the development and constant reexamination of one’s encounter with God throughout life. There are few ‘standard answers’ and there is a realistic approach to all of the inconsistencies in life. By dialog with other believers, study, prayer, worship, and involvement in mission; ours is a living faith that can mature and change over time to make us more faithful servants of God’s ways with other people and the care of all creation.
  • Trusts group decision-making to discern God’s will. God alone is Lord of the conscience. Always seeking to be reformed. Commitment to social justice. Humility – we don’t claim to be the only church with all the answers.
  • Focus on the 5 solas, which has led us historically to make God’s concern for and primary purpose to bring all peoples to himself in Jesus our main focus

Teaching elders also answered the open-ended question “In your opinion, what does this say about the relationship of Baptism to the Lord’s Table.” Those answers include in part: (To read more verbatim answers, see Appendix G at the end of the online report.

  • Christ would have never stopped people and asked whether they were baptized, therefore ‘worthy’.
  • That it is not our table. We have no business saying who can eat at God’s table.
  • To call it ‘the Lord’s table’ is to say that it isn’t mine. It seems as if, by restricting one Sacrament as accessible only after another Sacrament, we are putting a fence around it that we control and not Christ.
  • a weakening of the relationship, also gives the false impression that to follow Jesus is easy and takes no commitment.
  • I don’t agree with the premise of the question. I see it as an issue regarding the relationship of sacraments to faith and discipleship. Baptism takes time; it’s a planned thing that requires votes and liturgy and making sure someone fills the pitcher with water. The Lord’s Table, if baptism is not required, could foreseeably become a more ‘spontaneous’ experience of the divine to someone who is seeking. We live in an increasingly unchurched world and the Table is an incredibly powerful experience of grace. I’ve never known anyone to shy away from religion because Communion was too readily available; I’ve known too many to leave the church entirely because they were refused Communion.
  • Baptism is one act, but communion is an ongoing opportunity to become closer to Christ
  • In Baptism we identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If I have not identified with the one who invites me to the table, to eat his body and drink his blood, it is meaningless.
  • Both are sacraments. Does it matter which order they are received. I think not!
  • Jesus asked us to remember him in this way through this meal. Children and adults need to understand Christ’s sacrifice and their understanding will increase with age and maturity. We have been entrusted to pass on faith and when children and adults are baptized we make those promises to help them grow in faith. The two can go hand in hand, but I would lean towards baptism first and then communion.
  • I believe that the Lord’s Table is Biblically a feast of inclusion. It is transgressed when it is used to strengthen social barriers, especially those related to class and race. Unfortunately, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a historically white and affluent denomination. This fact means that many of our requirements for participation (such as baptism) exclude people of particular racial or socioeconomic backgrounds, though without particular malice. As long as we remain a primarily white and affluent denomination, I do not believe that we have the right to exclude anyone from the table.
  • Baptism is required for Lord’s table
  • I see that Christ invited all to the table, breaking boundaries all the time. It is the invitation to the kingdom of God. It makes sense that baptism follows such an invitation.
  • I think they are related as mysteries, as things that are bigger than theology or creeds or denomination or even religion, they embody the wideness and love of God, events in the life of the church that are fuller when experienced, not just talked about or specifically defined in confessions, they are central to the life of the church and unite not only a particular church, but all people, strengthening them to more fully share the love of God with the world. It should be added, I don’t think election is about salvation, but rather being elected to participate in God’s Grace, and to share God’s love as Christ’s hands and feet
  • That Baptism is not a ‘work’ to be performed in order to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation. It’s related to the reason why we no longer demand confirmation/church membership for our children in order to receive the sacrament.
  • I think this could very well break the traditional understanding of the two, a relationship that has been closely identified though experience and history. The two definitely help to inform each other, and really should not be separated
  • If this passes it will separate being baptized into God’s family from sharing in the family meal. It may be more true to what is already happening in many churches
Paula R. Kincaid