A while back, a Presbyterian pastor named James Ayers wrote in Presbyterians Today a helpful story entitled “What Presbyterians DON’T Believe.” He cited eight ways in which Presbyterians, while generally being committed Christians and followers of Jesus Christ, hold some beliefs different from what some other Christians believe.
Let’s take a moment to test ourselves. Where do you stand on each of these eight topics?
1.) Good Works or Grace? Conventional wisdom says that good people go to Heaven and bad people go to Hell. Are you good enough for Heaven? Are you sufficiently righteous to go to Heaven when you die? Presbyterians have always insisted that, as we are all sinners at birth, so no one is good enough to deserve salvation on their own, regardless of their life-time good works.
We are saved only by God’s Grace. Despite our failures in life, God already has decided to save us as evidenced through the incarnation, death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ.
Presbyterians believe that we do not earn God’s love – it is given to each of us freely. We live in gratitude for what God will do. We mortals love because God first loved us. And it is that love – that gratitude for what God does – that sends us out into the world to give back, to work for a society that shares in the liberation, dignity, justice and Grace given to us through and in God’s earthly son Jesus Christ.
2.) Self-Formed Fate or Pre-Destination? Some believe that every event may be caused by previous events that are not in our control. If so, they say, it is an illusion to suppose that your decisions actually change anything. If you do a good deed, that is what you were fated to do. If you do something evil, that is just the outworking of your pre-determined fate.
This is different from the Presbyterian doctrine of pre-destination, which says God chooses to redeem us or not, long before we could even understand what that might mean. Because God chose us before the formation of the world, that means we are pre-destined to life That does not take away from our freedom or ability to choose – we must make many free choices every day. So the notion of Pre-destination teaches us that God has given us a new and bigger freedom – the freedom to make choices that can fulfill what we see as our personal destiny.
3.) Reincarnation or Eternal Life? Some Eastern religions say that after we die, we are reborn as another person or as an animal. They believe that the world is in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. Therefore, that one continually gets “another chance” until we finally get it right.
Presbyterians believe that Scripture does not teach reincarnation. Instead it points us toward eternal life in the presence of God. Think about it – isn’t belief in reincarnation a very severe form of believing in righteousness by one’s own works, as one lives over and over until we have attained a certain level of goodness.?
4.) Alter or Table? An alter is a place where a sacrifice is offered, and it is then viewed with special reverence. In the traditional Roman Catholic understanding, during Mass the priest re-offers Christ on the alter as a sacrifice to God. Presbyterians believe the sacrifice of Christ has already been offered, once and for all. The sacrifice needs no repetition, and the action of a priest cannot make it occur again. Therefore, Presbyterians see the Lord’s Supper as taking place at a table, rather than at an alter. Although many communion tables are rather ornate, the table itself holds no particular significance or holiness.
5.) Purgatory, Heaven, Hell. Where do people go when they die? Many people would say “Heaven or Hell”. Yet in the Middle Ages people thought that if Heaven is where the Saints stand in the holy presence of God, and Hell is where the wicked are sent, what about all of us sinners who have been forgiven? Our lives are still impure when we die, so how can we exist in Heaven along side the holiness of God? Thus, the doctrine of Purgatory was created – a place where the remainders of our sinfulness would be purged.
Presbyterians believe God will indeed redeem us and cleanse us from all our sins, and we will be readied for Heaven, without imagining that we go to a third possible place when we die.
6.) Authority Figures. Where is the authority of the church based? Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopal churches believe it is carried in the office of the Bishop. The doctrine of the “historic succession of Bishops” means that Bishops receive their authority from previous Bishops, all of whom received their authority from still earlier Bishops. Catholics and some Anglicans trace this authority back to the Apostles themselves.
Presbyterians believe church authority is not carried in individuals this way. Instead, church leaders can declare the will of God merely on the authority of Scripture.
7.) To Whom Do We Pray? When you have problems, you may ask your friends to pray for you. But why restrict yourself to present-day friends? Why not also ask radiant Christians from previous centuries to offer up their intercessions on your behalf? This is perhaps the most positive way to think of praying to the saints. Yet, there is a problem here. Asking Mary (the mother of Jesus) or Saint Joan to pray for you becomes praying to Mary or to Saint Joan. But, for the Presbyterian, praying is an act of worship and devotion, and thus should be offered only to God.
8.) Ranking Sins. In Roman Catholic thinking, when you die you are carrying the guilt of all the sins you have committed since your last Confession. If your sins are venial (relatively light), you will now work them off in Purgatory. A mortal sin, in contrast, cannot be resolved in Purgatory. An unconfessed mortal sin means you are damned to Hell.
Presbyterians do not believe that sins can be graded this way. Sin is sin. Forgiveness is God’s free gift in Christ. Confession and assurance of pardon are not what enable God to forgive us, but rather what enable us to recognize or feel or experience that we are forgiven.
As Pastor Ayers says, these eight brief explanations are not meant to antagonize people of other faith traditions. Rather, they are intended simply to mark off some of the distinguishing features of being a Presbyterian.
Now that you have taken the test, how “Presbyterian” do you think you are?
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC’s Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you to pursue some personal spiritual growth this winter at CPC.