A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Presbyterian Distinctives, Part 1: The One & Only
January 23, 2014
Few things we believe or do as Presbyterians are entirely unique to us. “Presbyterian Distinctives” derive from things we especially emphasize, rather than practices or confessions we singularly hold. While not exclusive to us, our distinctive emphases shape a unique and compelling way of understanding and living the Christian faith.
We begin with distinctives of belief, rather than of mission or governance. Those are important Presbyterian markers also, and cannot be divorced from our faith; but the wellspring of our particular Presbyterian identity is our theology.
Theology seeks to engage essentially three questions: 1. Who is God? 2. What does God do for us? 3. What does God ask of us? Presbyterian theology is notable for its thoroughgoing emphasis on the majestic, holy sovereignty of God. Every good gift of creation and salvation comes from God, and from God alone. God alone is ultimate. Our chief end and purpose, as the Westminster Catechism has schooled Presbyterians for generations, is to glorify God and God alone.
Presbyterians hold that the fundamental human problem is our failure to acknowledge that God, and God alone, is first and last. Instead, we live as though what matters most is anything but God – wealth, power, pleasure, nation, self. It is all idolatry.
Only God is Creator. We are no less able to create a good life for ourselves than we were able to create our own lives in the first place. We have no more right to destroy life than we have the capacity to create it. It is all God’s work, God’s gift. We are called to enjoy and to be good stewards of all that God has made.
Only God is Savior. And we all need a savior. We all mess up, and we cannot stop. We cannot save ourselves from constantly violating God’s intention, no matter how hard we try. But what we cannot do for ourselves, God does for us through Jesus Christ. And God saves us not because of how deserving we are, but only because of how good God is.
Only God is Shepherd. We may think ourselves capable of charting our own pathway, or that we are subject to the whims of others. But in all of life’s most important aspects, God is the one who leads us – and for that we should be thankful, because God promises our good. That’s not to say our way will be easy, by any means. Far from it. But God will never leave us. Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise, as his parting words to his disciples testify: I am with you always! (Matthew 28:20)
Presbyterians are not fatalists, as some have erroneously mistaken our emphasis on divine sovereignty to indicate. We believe human choices matter greatly. But they do not save us, or render us more or less beloved. Rather, they are responses to God’s grace outpoured on us. Knowing that God loves us and embraces us unconditionally, we delight in pleasing God. We seek diligently to make a positive difference in the world precisely because we believe such actions comport with the will of the One who creates, saves, and makes a way for others also, not just for ourselves.
Because every person is a beloved creature of God’s loving hand, we dare not turn away from anyone as though God thinks less of them because they do not conform to our ideals. If the Creator is sovereign and holy, we have no right to demonize anyone, break fellowship with anyone, to judge anyone as unworthy of our love.
Presbyterians are most true to their distinctive character when they are generous toward others. At our best, we are a big-tent church. We believe in opening our hearts and doors to everyone, not just to a narrow slice of folk that look like us, think like us, or act like us. Presbyterians have always been at the forefront of ecumenical and interfaith engagement, and have led the church in mission to the world. We embrace and assist without anyone having to pass a qualifying exam, because we believe that a Sovereign God is as lovingly inclined toward others as toward us.
Some folk consider salvation something we have to meet God half-way on, as though God’s offer of salvation is conditional on our deciding for God. The Reformers resisted such thinking strenuously, much as Paul did in the early Christian church. Presbyterians likewise affirm that our salvation and destiny lie in God’s hands alone – and those hands are good. Perfectly so! Thanks be to God.
With gratitude to the One and Only,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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