Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Salvation (Page 1 of 2)

Repost: Salvation Reimagined

[My blog has many more readers now than it did a couple of years ago. With that in mind, from time to time I like to repost things I wrote some while ago. This post was originally posted in June 2014.]

A few months ago, I wrote a post called On being saved, in which I sought to address the question “What must I do to be saved?”. In other words, it was a post about the how of salvation.

Today I’d like to think about the question “What does it mean to be saved?”. In other words, this is a post about not the how but the what of salvation. Another way we could ask the question is “What are we saved for, or what are we saved into?”.

If you asked a random sample of western believers what is the purpose of salvation, I’m pretty sure a high proportion would give as their first answer something involving eternal life and/or “going to heaven” after you die. We see salvation largely as a kind of status that secures benefits for us that kick in once our time on this earth is done – a celestial insurance policy, if you will. Of course, there are also some benefits to be enjoyed now, but these largely revolve around the assurance of knowing that we are included in the group whose eternal destiny is sorted and secure.

This “now versus future” duality is so deeply ingrained in our western psyche that it’s hard for us to be aware of, let alone shake off.

In almost thirty years of being a Christian, I’ve sat through more evangelistic services than I could possibly count. The vast majority of them have operated on the premise of “selling” the benefits of eternal security in order to get people to “make a commitment” today. Often no apology is made for using extreme psychological and emotional pressure to get people to “pray the prayer”. The justification is apparently quite sound: when someone’s eternal destiny is at stake, you use any means you can to get them to sit up and take notice.

If I sound uncharitable about those who practice this approach to evangelism, I don’t mean to. In most cases, they are deeply sincere and loving people who genuinely want the best for those they are addressing.

But I’ve been thinking. Specifically, about Jesus and his ministry. If you measure evangelistic efficiency by the number of appeals or altar calls made, Jesus wasn’t much of an evangelist. He didn’t go around trying to convince people to tick the right boxes so they could be saved. He mostly just encouraged people to repent and follow him. Which could be paraphrased “Change the way you think, and do like I do”.

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Resurrection as a map for the journey

Darkness to lightToday I’m delighted to feature a guest post written by my good friend David Jenkins. David posted it a few days ago in a Facebook group I belong to, and I liked it so much that I asked his permission to repost it here in slightly edited form.

In my deepest wound I found you, Lord, and it dazzled me.
(St. Augustine)

It seems hauntingly apparent that there can be no resurrection unless there is death. Yet this is, historically, something I have attempted to avoid, preferring instead a victorious, suffering-free version of resurrection. And indeed, this death can be avoided, if Jesus only achieves resurrection for us and does not invite us to walk in his steps. But if we consider resurrection as “a map for the journey”, our relationship to it becomes far more participatory; it becomes a great pilgrimage into the unknown.

Jesus says that true life is found in losing our life. One way I have understood this is my need to learn to embrace the reality of my powerlessness and failure. In order to find this life or resurrection he offers, it seems there must be loss. I feel myself drawn back to an ancient Christian practice, but from a different angle: that of constant confession of sin; not in a legalistic, self-flagellating, fearful, begging kind of way, but as a repeated filial confession of weakness, doubt, anxiety, and so on, and the acceptance that I can do nothing to save (heal) myself.

I also think of loss in terms of laying my life down for others and suffering loss for the sake of love. Whatever appears to be the path of descent can also be understood as the path of death. We need only do the dying, the losing, the giving in, the confessing of weakness; resurrection itself is beyond our ability to influence. So I think we take the path of descent and hope that God will be there at the bottom. Jesus assures us, “I am the resurrection and the life”. If we meet God “at the bottom”, maybe that is where we also meet “the resurrection and the life”.

I guess this is where faith comes in. For me, faith is better understood as trust. Personally, it often feels like blind faith – trust when I have nothing left.

No strength of conviction or confidence.

A trust born of desperation rather than bravery.

A surrendering to the darkness.

So we learn, day to day, to seek out this downward humble path of trust and love; of prayer and confession; of vulnerability, honesty and weakness. We do this and we pray, “Whatever happens, happens. Lord, I am in your hands and my only hope is you now”. Resurrection in my day-to-day life is the finding of life in the depths of loss; faith in the abyss of doubt; God at the bottom, waiting for me in my deepest wounds.

[ Image: Hartwig HKD ]

The answer to sin

Forgive prisonEarlier this week I wrote a post suggesting that we can often fall into the trap of viewing Jesus’ death on the cross, and the sacrament by which we remember it (commonly referred to as communion or the eucharist), as a kind of repeated scapegoating of Jesus. Just as ancient Israel’s sins were expunged by symbolically transferring them onto a goat that was then sent out into the wilderness, so we deposit our sins on Jesus and trust him to carry them away.

Now, we know that Jesus only died on the cross once: we’re quite happy to state with Peter that Jesus died once for all. However, when we treat Jesus’ death and our remembering of it as outlined above, in effect it’s as though he were having to be put to death again and again, each time we need our sins carried away and our consciences salved.

This, to me, is the fundamental problem with any theology in which salvation is essentially an abstract one-time event: it doesn’t deal with our ongoing sin problem. We may feel temporarily relieved of our burden of guilt, but — all other things being equal —the same patterns of sin continue to entangle and ensnare us, leading us back over and over to the same need for absolution… and thus the need for Jesus to be symbolically re-crucified again and again. Rather than being a journey of progressive transformation into the image of Christ, the Christian life thus becomes a continual cycle of guilt management.

Another way of stating the problem is that salvation has become detached from sanctification. Salvation is commonly understood to mean a place in heaven for us when we die, secured by means of a transaction in which God acquits us of our guilt by declaring Jesus guilty in our place. However, salvation conceived of in this way can do nothing, in and of itself, to free us from the grip of sin in the here and now. It might give us some kind of mental assurance as to our eternal destiny, but it is powerless to effect change in the present. So we end up struggling on in the same old ruts while trying desperately to feel like we’re saved.

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Of sin, law and sacrifice

GavelFollowing on from my recent post Salvation reimagined, I had an interesting discussion with a friend at church about what an updated perspective on salvation might do to our understanding of certain Old Testament practices, including in particular law-keeping and sacrifice. I thought it would be good to unpack this a little here on the blog.

My contention is this: whether we’re aware of it or not, our understanding of sin and salvation is closely tied to our understanding of Old Testament law and sacrifice.

The discussion with my friend was triggered by a disconnect. On the one hand, he found the idea of seeing sin as a form of sickness or brokenness, rather than simply as wrongdoing, inherently appealing. On the other hand, he found it hard to completely let go of the notion of sin as legal offence, mainly because of the huge Old Testament emphasis on law and sacrifice.

I think this is a problem for very many Christians. In my experience, many believers instinctively resonate with the idea that sin is better understood as a condition we suffer than as legal offences we commit. The reason people resonate with this idea is that it makes sense in the context of their own lived experience and the flaws and defects with which they personally struggle. But they very often run into the same brick wall my friend did: given that so much of the focus in the Old Testament is on law-keeping and sacrifice, surely sin must to a large extent be legal in nature, mustn’t it?

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Salvation reimagined

SONY DSCA few months ago, I wrote a post called On being saved, in which I sought to address the question “What must I do to be saved?”. In other words, it was a post about the how of salvation.

Today I’d like to think about the question “What does it mean to be saved?”. In other words, this is a post about not the how but the what of salvation. Another way we could ask the question is “What are we saved for, or what are we saved into?”.

If you asked a random sample of western believers what is the purpose of salvation, I’m pretty sure a high proportion would give as their first answer something involving eternal life and/or “going to heaven” after you die. We see salvation largely as a kind of status that secures benefits for us that kick in once our time on this earth is done – a celestial insurance policy, if you will. Of course, there are also some benefits to be enjoyed now, but these largely revolve around the assurance of knowing that we are included in the group whose eternal destiny is sorted and secure.

This “now versus future” duality is so deeply ingrained in our western psyche that it’s hard for us to be aware of, let alone shake off.

In almost thirty years of being a Christian, I’ve sat through more evangelistic services than I could possibly count. The vast majority of them have operated on the premise of “selling” the benefits of eternal security in order to get people to “make a commitment” today. Often no apology is made for using extreme psychological and emotional pressure to get people to “pray the prayer”. The justification is apparently quite sound: when someone’s eternal destiny is at stake, you use any means you can to get them to sit up and take notice.

If I sound uncharitable about those who practice this approach to evangelism, I don’t mean to. In most cases, they are deeply sincere and loving people who genuinely want the best for those they are addressing.

But I’ve been thinking. Specifically, about Jesus and his ministry. If you measure evangelistic efficiency by the number of appeals or altar calls made, Jesus wasn’t much of an evangelist. He didn’t go around trying to convince people to tick the right boxes so they could be saved. He mostly just encouraged people to repent and follow him. Which could be paraphrased “Change the way you think, and do like I do”.

Read More

A restoration project

Salvation is a restoration project, not an evacuation project!

— Brian Zahnd, A Farewell To Mars

On being, doing, sin and salvation

Christ healingA few weeks ago I suggested that it is perhaps time for us to find some new ways of understanding sin. Today I want to take that thought a little further.

Many believers understand that the Christian life is about being, not doing. In other words, it’s not the things you do or the actions or duties you perform that make you a Christian; it’s your status in Christ that makes you a Christian. Your status as an adopted heir of God is given to you as a free gift, and cannot be earned by any amount of performance.

With this I wholeheartedly agree.

On the other hand, however, many believers seem to understand sin primarily as something we do or commit. After all, sin is by definition wrongdoing, isn’t it?

It seems to me, then, that there is often a contrast between how we understand sin (doing bad things) and how we understand salvation (being made right with God/given a new standing before God). This divergence doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

The basic problem is this: if sin is simply the bad things we do, then all we need do to be saved from sin is stop doing those things. Yet Jesus made it clear that sin goes much deeper than external actions: sinful words and deeds flow out of a sinful heart. It follows that the remedy for sin is not behaviour modification but heart transformation.

This is why I find it much more helpful to think of sin as a kind of sickness than as simply offences that we commit.

Why then is the view of sin as “crime” so widespread and the view of sin as sickness so relatively shunned? Allow me to suggest two reasons:

1. The whole notion of God as a retributive judge requires us to maintain this primary view of sin as crime (against God and our fellow human beings). What do we do with criminals, especially those who keep on offending? We catch them, drag them to court and sentence them to punishment. Now, as a Christian, you might well believe that Jesus took God’s punishment in your place; but the fact remains that what you have is a penal/retributive understanding of God and his justice.

However, if we start to see sin not as a crime but as a sickness, it’s immediately clear that retributive justice is both unfair and unhelpful. We don’t punish people for being sick; we treat them so they are freed from their sickness and all its evil effects. I would say the same goes for sin: if salvation is simply a courtroom transaction in which our deserved punishment for wrongful acts is dealt with by Jesus, this does absolutely nothing to heal us of our underlying sin-sickness. But if salvation is something that heals the sickness of sin with which our hearts are infected, then we are both made whole on the inside and freed from the compulsion to keep doing sinful things on the outside.

2. Many people feel that understanding sin as a form of sickness rather than as a crime somehow lets us off the hook and means we are not held responsible for our sin. While I understand this concern, I don’t think it’s very well founded.

Think about it this way: imagine a person infected with a highly contagious disease that is deadly but treatable. Now imagine that this person refuses all offers of treatment. The consequences are twofold: not only do they condemn themselves to death, but in the meantime they go around infecting everyone around them. They live in a way that knowingly spreads death to everyone they come into contact with. The fact that they are sick through no fault of their own does not in any way diminish their responsibility for hastening their own demise and passing on their sickness to others.

Of course, we could choose to punish this imaginary person for their crime of spreading a deadly disease. That would certainly remove the immediate problem (i.e. the risk of them infecting others). But we could not honestly say that punishment would address the underlying issue, which is the fact that the person is sick in the first place. Ultimately, what this person needs is not punishment but healing.

The conclusion I’m coming to nowadays, then, is this: seeing sin as forensic in nature – i.e. primarily a legal offence that requires a legal response – is unhelpful to the sinner’s actual condition, tends to make salvation into a legal transaction and helps maintain an understanding of God as a divine dispenser of retributive justice. Conversely, seeing sin as ontological in nature – i.e. a matter of being rather than doing – enables us to understand God in Christ as first and foremost a healer rather than a judge, with salvation as an invitation to open ourselves up to God’s healing and transformative love rather than simply the offer of a legal certificate bearing the words “not guilty”.

To me, there is a stark difference between these ways of looking at sin. It’s the difference between saying “I do bad things that deserve punishment” and “I’m sick and I really need to be healed”. The first of these approaches is likely to leave me feeling even more condemned by my sin and failure than I already feel, while the second gives me hope and inclines me to submit myself to God’s healing work, however painful that may be.

[ Image: Lawrence OP ]

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