Spacious Salvation

Have you stuffed your idea of salvation into too narrow of a box?

Scripture text: Psalm 66:10-12

For you, O God, have tested us;

            you have tried us as silver is tried.

You brought us into the net;

            you laid burdens on our backs;

you let people ride over our heads;

            we went through fire and through water;

            yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

Well-meaning Christians sometimes come up to me and ask, “Are you saved?” I find more often than not that they are asking from a narrow understanding of salvation. What they mean is: Where will you spend eternity? Will it be in heaven or in hell? Salvation is thought of primarily as a spiritual form of fire insurance.

This understanding of salvation stuffs salvation into a too restricted theological box. It ignores the richer and more expansive understanding of salvation that I get from reading the Bible.

Yes, the Bible encourages us to hope that when we as believers die, we will be “with Christ,” as the apostle Paul expresses it (Philippians 1:23). The promise of eternal life to each of us as individuals is a precious promise of the gospel. But that does not exhaust the meaning of salvation.

Reclaiming Old Testament Roots

It is helpful to remember that the concept of salvation has roots in the Old Testament, especially in the Exodus story. First and foremost salvation deals with rescue and liberation. When a person or a people are in deep danger or bondage, a savior is the one who comes and sets them free.

God becomes such a savior when God comes and liberates Israel from bondage in Egypt. God leads them out into a new life, a life of freedom. Israel is set free from the constraints that keep Israel from being the people God calls them to be.

Those constraints are political. Pharaoh’s claim on them must be broken. The constraints are social and economic. Israel must be delivered from the literal bondage of slavery. The constraints are psychological. Israel must acquire a new mind-set. They are to live as responsible free people, not as passive slaves.

And the constraints are spiritual. Israel enters into covenant with God, a covenant that calls them away from all forms of idolatry. The first commandment is that “they shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

In the Old Testament salvation has a clearly this-worldly and communal quality. It is fundamentally an experience of liberation.

Salvation Is Enriched in the New Testament

When we get to the New Testament, none of this Old Testament understanding is abandoned. Salvation continues to have its political, economic, social, and psychological dimensions. But the concept of salvation is enriched. For what has happened since the Exodus event is that spiritually sensitive minds have come to realize that the constraints that hold human beings in bondage are more than political, economic, social, and psychological, important as they are.

What ultimately holds human beings in bondage is spiritual. These bonds are sin, spiritual powers of evil, and ultimately death. Against these powers human beings prove helpless. We need someone to set us free, to save us. That is the mission of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, as the Samaritans acknowledge him in John 4:42.

Jesus does this by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This is the saving work of Jesus. The Nicene Creed acknowledges this when it begins its recital of Jesus’ saving work with the opening phrase “for us and for our salvation.”

There are many dimensions to salvation as we encounter it in the New Testament. For one, it is certainly spiritual. Sins are forgiven. We receive reconciliation with God. We are adopted as God’s children to enjoy an intimacy with God.

But it is also much more. When Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage in Mark 5:25-34, he tells her that her faith has made her well. The Greek word translated “made well” can also be translated “saved.” In her healing she is experiencing liberation from her ailment, and in that physical sense she is experiencing salvation.

When Zacchaeus responds to Jesus by saying that he will change his ways as a tax-collector, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:1-10). Salvation embraces the dramatic change of mind-set and behavior that Zacchaeus has adopted.

Salvation = Shalom

I think the best synonym for salvation is the Hebrew word shalom, which we translate as peace. But the English word peace is an anemic translation. The English word usually means “a cessation of conflict or of war.” The Hebrew word is much more expansive in meaning. It embraces not only cessation of conflict, but also wholeness, prosperity, and social harmony. It is well-being in its many dimensions.

For the New Testament writers the greatest enemy of mankind is death. It is the one oppressor that no human being can break free from. So the ultimate gift of salvation is the gift of liberation from death. That is what the apostle Paul is celebrating in the glorious 15th chapter of First Corinthians:

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

            “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

            “Where, O death, is your victory?

            Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The Cosmic Dimension of Salvation

But I want to suggest that this final liberation from death does not exhaust the dimensions of salvation that we find in the New Testament writings. Salvation exceeds even the ultimate destiny of human beings. There is a cosmic dimension to salvation.

Two passages in the apostle Paul’s writings weigh heavily with me here. The first is in Romans 8:19-23. There Paul talks about all of creation awaiting its own liberation, a freedom from the bondage of decay, a freedom mirroring that of the children of God.

Human beings are not the only ones held in bondage to death and decay. All of creation is as well (as evidenced by the scientific law of entropy). In the day of final salvation, the whole of creation will share in God’s liberation. Our salvation as human beings is part of a much bigger story, a story that embraces all of the universe.

The second passage that rivets my imagination is Ephesians 1:9-10:

With all wisdom and insight, he [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Here Paul envisions that in the day of final salvation, all of the cosmos will be brought into a profound unity with Christ at the center as the one who unites all things together in peace.

This is about as cosmic as it can get. The kingdom of God, the realm of salvation, embraces not only human beings, but all of the cosmos, including its billions upon billions of galaxies and its many infinitesimally small atomic particles. Now that is breathtaking to me.

I’m not sure any human being has expressed the vision more expansively than has Dante in his final canto of The Divine Comedy. There we experience a vision of the triune God as the center and unifying force of a great mystic and cosmic rose that choirs forth God’s praise.

Spacious Salvation

I love the phrasing of Psalm 66 that I quoted at the start of this posting. It sings of the troubles that Israel has been through in its pilgrimage with God. They have passed through fire and water. But says the psalmist, God has brought them out into “a spacious place.”

I love that word “spacious.” It captures for me the whole vision of the Bible. What God is up to is nothing less than a “spacious salvation.” Now that is worthy of the jubilation of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Was Ancient Israelite Marriage So Patriarchal After All?

Scripture text: Genesis 2:24

It is an accepted truism in Christian circles that the society of ancient Israel was fundamentally patriarchal. Men ruled their families, their tribes, their villages. Women were second-class citizens.

One of the proof texts often claimed for this view of Israelite society is the story in Genesis 2 about the creation of Eve. God creates Eve by extracting a rib out of Adam’s chest. This seems to suggest that the female is derived from the male and must therefore be subordinate to the male.

That reading carries behind it the authority of none other than the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 11, he argues that women should wear veils in the worship assembly for exactly this reason that the woman was created from the male.

Time-hallowed as this reading may be, I have always been troubled by what appears a counter voice in Genesis 2:24:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. (RSV)

This is a reference to the practice of marriage. And in most patriarchal societies, marriage means a woman leaves her birth family and joins the family of her husband. When Rebekah marries Isaac, she leaves her family home in Haran and moves to Canaan to live with her new husband in Abraham’s compound (Genesis 24).

In first-century Judea, the wedding proper was the procession when the bridegroom led his betrothed from her father’s house to his. This is the social context for Jesus’ parable of the 10 wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25).

But in this verse in Genesis, we are told that it is the man who leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife. That’s not what I would expect an author infused with deeply patriarchal assumptions to write.

Now the text does not say the husband physically leaves his parents’ home. He may still live with them. Yet…and this is an important yet…in some way he is expected to leave his parents to form a new family entity with his wife.

Marriage counselors will appreciate the psychological wisdom of this statement. Many marriage problems are caused by a husband or a wife bringing their birth family into the new marriage in the form of expectations they hold or psychological bonds and hang-ups that they bring from their birth families. To become one flesh a husband and wife must make a transition from their birth families to the creation of their own new entity.

The ancient Israelite view of marriage may have been patriarchal. Yet, here in this one verse, I wonder if we don’t see the glimmers of an early Hebrew challenge to that social assumption. I’m curious what others of you think.  

Who Has the Last Word in Jonah?

Scripture text: Jonah, Chapter 4

 We tend to think of the Bible’s authors as just prophets, preachers, and theologians. But it is easy to forget that they can sometimes be great artists. And sometimes the daring of their artistry takes my breath away.

That happens every time I read the book of Jonah (one of my favorites in all of the Bible). The book is a searing judgment on the all too common tendency of God’s people to put the people they hate outside the circle of God’s love.

Jonah wants to see God bring down fire and brimstone on the Ninevites. After all, they were the ruthless imperialists who snuffed out the national life of Jonah’s own homeland, the northern kingdom of Israel. He is angry that God shows mercy upon Nineveh’s residents and so he goes off and pouts.

The book ends on a question. In fact, it is one of just two books in the Bible that end on a question. (Nahum is the other.) And in the question, God asks Jonah:

And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from the left, and also much cattle?

But the question I ask is: Who really has the last word in the book of Jonah?  On a very literal level, one can say God does. The book ends with God’s question. But who must answer that question? Is it not Jonah? And therefore does not Jonah have the last word?

Here’s where the author’s superb artistry comes in. Who in the end will answer for Jonah? Is it not every person listening to the story? I contend it is each one of us who is drawn into the question and asked to make a judgment on God’s action. We learn what we think by how we respond to the question.

What awesome writing! The author tells his story in a way than necessarily engages each one of us personally. We all become a part of the story.

Furthermore the story puts each one of us in the position of being a judge over God. We usually think of God being our judge. And rightly so. But here we are placed in the uncomfortable and possibly unwanted position of being a judge over God.

Unconsciously we do that all the time as we assess the justice of God’s ways in our life and world. (I owe this insight to the story William P. Young tells in his novel The Shack.) The book of Jonah, however, makes us conscious of the presumption that involves.