Dazzled by Salvation’s Splendor

Let us be careful how we use a weighty word in the Christian vocabulary.

Healing_of_a_bleeding_women_Marcellinus-Peter-Catacomb - Version 2

I don’t like to bash Evangelical Protestants. They are my family heritage. But there’s one way Evangelicals talk that bugs me a lot.

It is their habit of talking about salvation. When they ask, Are you saved?, they generally mean, Are you going to heaven when you die? For many of them, salvation is chiefly a form of eternal fire insurance.

Such an understanding of salvation is not necessarily false. It’s just that, from my study of the New Testament, I find this way of characterizing salvation constrained and spiritually anemic.

First of all, it is highly egocentric. The focus is on my own personal fate in the hereafter. Certainly the gospel offers a promise to each of us as individuals, but my fate is not the central concern of God’s saving action. God’s salvation is concerned with the completion of God’s creative work, a work that embraces the whole cosmos.

The completion of that work is the uniting of the whole cosmos in Christ. Here I give central importance to what the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 1:9-10:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Each one of us has our unique place and significance in God’s plan. We are not, however, the center of that plan.

Message in a Healing Miracle

Second, that Evangelical way of talking strikes me as constrained, because it grounds its evangelism in fear, a fear of what will happen to us when we die. In this respect it drains its evangelism of the rich and broad ways the New Testament talks about salvation.

As a case in point, let me call attention to the story found in Mark 5:24-34. This story tells of a woman who has suffered from a blood hemorrhage for 12 years. No doctor has been able to cure her.

When Jesus visits her town, she creeps up behind him and touches the hem of his garment. She is instantly healed. Jesus senses power has gone out of him. He stops abruptly and asks, Who touched my garments? The terrified woman confesses that she has done so.

Jesus does not rebuke her. Instead he responds, Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease. [Revised Standard Version]

The Greek verb that the RSV translates as made well is the word sozo. Sozo can certainly mean to make well, but it can also be translated to save. The sentence can be rightly rendered your faith has saved you.

In this story, salvation is understood as healing, as being made whole physically. But we must always recognize that the gospel writers often use words with more than one reference. In the context of the whole New Testament, the sentence points to an extended meaning of salvation, which is the experience of being healed or made whole spiritually.

Salvation as Wholeness

This leads me to ponder the meaning of salvation as wholeness. As I do, I remind myself that being made whole has many dimensions:

  • Physical wholeness: Our bodies function healthily. Everything works as it is intended to do. We suffer no disorder from disease or injury. Physical healing is one dimension of salvation.
  • Psychological wholeness: Our disordered and fragmented emotional lives are brought into harmony and integration. We do not suppress our desires, but we know how to govern them.
  • Social wholeness: Our broken and troubled relationships with other people are brought into harmony and integration, both in our personal relationships and in the wider spheres of the economy, politics, culture, and international relations. Races, classes, and ethnic groups respect each other and live without violence towards each other.
  • Ecological wholeness: We live in a harmonious relationship with other creatures in the world and with its natural processes. We forego exploitation of the earth in ways that destroy it as a home not only for human beings, but also for all living creatures.
  • Spiritual wholeness: Our broken and troubled relationship with God is healed through a process of forgiveness, reconciliation, and transforming union. The battle between flesh and spirit comes to an end.
  • Cosmic wholeness: The great hope of the Christian gospel is our looking ahead to a time when the fullness of God’s purpose is realized in that cosmic transformation alluded to in Ephesians 1:8-10. In that day, the whole cosmos will realize its divine destiny. Death is banished forever.

The Book of Revelation sees that day as a time when the promise of God’s incarnation in Jesus becomes a reality for the whole cosmos (see Revelation 21-22). God will dwell with us. Heaven and earth will be united. The ancient church fathers summarized this state of salvation in the statement: God became a human being in order that human beings might become divine.

A Multi-Colored Coat

Each of these dimensions of wholeness form a part of the total package that is the New Testament understanding of salvation. This is the glorious cake the Christian gospel offers. The belief in a life after death is only the icing.

This vision of salvation excites and inspires me. It makes me want to sign on with the work force in the world who seek to work with God in realizing God’s vision. It also evokes a sense of awe. I want to join my voice with those of the heavenly choirs who laud and praise this God of grace and expansive love.

Wholeness is not the whole understanding of salvation that the New Testament offers. We also find in its pages an understanding of salvation as liberation, as transformation, and as the gift of shalom (Hebrew for peace). We need to be aware that in the Christian vocabulary the word salvation is a very weighty word. Like the multi-colored coat Jacob gives his beloved son Joseph, the concept has many dimensions. And those dimensions allure us not by activating our fears, but by dazzling us with their splendor.

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The image of Jesus healing the woman with a hemorrhage comes from an early Christian catacomb in Rome.

The Question that Christians Need to Stop Asking

We are not the judge at the Last Judgment. God is.

Note: This posting continues a discussion I began in my last posting, Where Does Jesus Fit in Inter-Religious Dialogue? You may want to read it first.

In my last posting, I argued that we cannot understand the animating spirit of historic, orthodox Christianity if we limit Jesus to being just a great teacher or a great prophet. We have to broaden our minds to grasp the historic Christian proclamation that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

Saying that fundamental tenet of our faith, most Christians then go on to presume that only explicit Christians will be saved at the Last Judgment. Only Christians (whether baptized or born-again, depending upon how different denominations define Christian) will enter into the Kingdom of God. All others will be cast into the fiery pit of Hell.

This means that one of the most common questions Christians are constantly asking of themselves as well as of others is: Are you saved? Where will you spend eternity?

The Pastoral Distress of the Question

I believe the time has come for Christians to stop asking this question. It has caused untold emotional and spiritual distress, if not abuse, through the ages. I believe we need to excise the question from our Christian speech.

It has caused great anxiety for countless Christians themselves. What evidence is there, they ask of themselves, as to whether I belong to God’s elect or not? Was my born-again experience genuine or not? Or, if we are Catholic, have I committed a mortal sin that will invalidate my baptism? What if I don’t feel happy as a born-again Christian is supposed to feel? Does that call in question my salvation?

I have seen this worry intensify the grief of families mourning the loss of a family member who showed no interest in Jesus or the church, or even vehemently rejected them. Grieving a death is bad enough, but grieving when you think your loved one has gone to Hell is agony for such families.

The presumption that only genuine Christians can be saved has also caused constant tension in Christians’ relations to other religions of the world. Other religious people find such Christians arrogant and judgmental. Christians, on the other hand, obsess about saving their lost friends, neighbors, and all of humanity.

Commenting on this obsession, Leslie Newbigin, a prominent, 20th century missionary in India, once said: “In the debate about Christianity and the world’s religions it is fair to say that there has been an almost unquestioned assumption that the only question is: ‘What happens to the non-Christian after death?’ I want to affirm that this is the wrong question and that as long as it remains the central question we shall never come to the truth.”*

To Leslie Newbigin, I say, “Amen.” I have come to the same conclusion through my own life experience and discussions with many others in inter-religious dialogues.

Why It’s the Wrong Question to Be Asking

I consider it the wrong question for three reasons.

First, when most Christians ask that question, “Are you saved?”, they presume an anemic understanding of salvation. They assume that salvation means that you will go to heaven when you die.

But when we soak ourselves into the whole message of the Bible, we find the concept of salvation we meet there is far deeper and broader than just that one limited meaning. Salvation is a very expansive concept, not a restricted one. It involves healing, reconciliation, harmony, prosperity, and unity as well as life after death. It is the experience of God’s creative and redemptive purpose coming to its fulfillment at the end of the age.

I have tried to expound upon this more expansive meaning of salvation in my blog posting of April 21, 2014 titled “Spacious Salvation.”

My second reason for considering it the wrong question is related to the first reason. The question keeps the focus of salvation on the individual person and his or her fate at the Last Judgment. This keeps the focus on me and my ego needs and worries.

Individuals are important to God. Jesus assures us that if God has all the hairs of our head numbered, then we need not worry that God cares about each one of us individually. But salvation is not all about the saving a vast mass of isolated individuals. It’s about the saving of individuals within God’s creative and redemptive work within all the cosmos.

For the apostle Paul, the kingdom of God is about nothing less than the unifying of the whole cosmos—the natural order as well as people–under the lordship of Jesus Christ. (See the first chapters of both Ephesians and Colossians.) Our salvation is our being brought into our own special place in this grand and glorious order. None of us can experience salvation in its fullness until the whole of the universe experiences it as well.

If we are going to ask, “Are you saved?”, then we need to raise our sights to include more than our individual fate at the Last Judgment. Let us seek to understand our individual place within the social and cosmic order that the Kingdom of God will be.

The poet Dante got it right in Canto 100 of the Divine Comedy. There he has a vision of the triune God as the unifying center of a vast cosmic rose composed of the myriads upon myriads of saints and angels, all facing and praising God, and reflecting the glory of God. We, too, must raise our vision of salvation.

The Criteria for Judgment at the Last Judgment

And three, I consider the question “Are you saved?” the wrong question to ask, because none of us is ultimately the judge at the Last Judgment. None of us is ever in any position to answer that question definitively for either ourselves or for other people. God is the judge. And we can never presume to know how God will decree.

The gospel message is that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. As a Christian minister I believe that and I preach that. But I am in no position to say just how precisely everyone is to believe in him.

The gospel references to the Last Judgment make clear that there will be lots of surprises at that moment. People who thought they were safely in will find themselves on the outside. And those who thought they were on the outside will find themselves welcomed into the Kingdom.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is very clear that just calling Jesus “Lord, Lord,” will not guarantee entrance. It is those who do the will of his Father in heaven who will enter in (Matthew 7:21-23). And in Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, both the sheep and the goats are surprised by the judge’s judgment. There the decisive factor is not the creed the individuals profess. It is whether they did acts of compassion for “the least of these my brothers [and sisters].”

A Different Slant on a Reformation Principle

In both passages, the decision about individuals is based primarily upon the individual’s actions, not his or her words. The acid test is doing the will of the Father. This raises troubling questions for a Protestant like myself raised on the Reformation principle of salvation by faith alone. We are saved by faith, not good works.

Yet these passages suggest that if we are to retain the Reformation principle, then we must rethink the meaning of faith. Faith must mean more than reciting a creed or making a personal decision for Christ. It must be understood in the way that Paul describes it in Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus…the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” In some way, faith and works must be understood as one integral whole.

That’s why I don’t trouble myself unduly with the eternal fate of the non-Christian. God can be merciful to whom God wants to be merciful. I take seriously what the apostle Peter says to the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10:34, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Does this undercut Christian evangelism? No, not in my understanding. We can truly believe that in the gospel we have a message of good news that applies to all people. I’ve always loved the way the Ceylonese evangelist D.T. Niles expressed the character of evangelism. “Evangelism,” he said, “is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

We can be confident in sharing what we believe and have experienced. And we can trust that the God we have experienced in Jesus will be merciful to us when we come to the Last Judgment, for we have the assurances of the Bible to give us hope. But we are never given the infallible certainty that allows us to pronounce God’s judgment on ourselves or on any other people in advance.

It is perfectly appropriate to share the good news of the gospel with others and to invite them to share in its liberation by becoming a disciple of Jesus. What we can’t do, in my opinion, is browbeat people into commitment by a heavy-handed use of the question “Are you saved?” Most of us cannot ask that question with humble compassion. And because we cannot, we undermine the very good news that the gospel is.

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* Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989. Page 177.

 

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.