Friday, October 21, 2005

What Is Salvation?

In my experience, the concept of salvation is typically presented as an individualistic enterprise in North American Christian culture. It seems to me that the message presented in most churches and in most “Christian” broadcasting is that “salvation” is about the saving of individual souls from Hell after death, or stated more positively, into Heaven after death. In this message, Jesus is often presented as a “personal Lord and Savior” (a term found nowhere in scripture). While these ideas (or some form of them) are certainly a part of the Biblical idea of salvation, they are just as certainly not the whole of it, nor arguably even the main points. For a more developed explanation of salvation, we once again return to the narrative of scripture.

The Story
In the beginning, creation was characterized by peace and harmony, (the Hebrew concept of shalom), between a) God and human beings, b) human beings and other human beings, c) human beings and creation. God charges human beings with caring for this world (in His Image). In Genesis 3, that harmony is shattered and the world begins to plummet into disharmony. (It can be argued that sin is the breaking of “shalom” in any of these afore mentioned areas…See Bell and Grenz) Years later, as the project has gone further and further off course, God commissions a man named Abram and his descendants to be ambassadors of His harmony in a world gone astray. God will bless them so that they may bless the world. However, these ambassadors frequently lose sight of the full scope of their mission, often getting bogged down, among other things, in their own self promotion and struggle for power (or at least the desire for these things). Even so, God never gives up on His dream for His world. Eventually, God (the Son) becomes a human being. He is the “true human”, the perfect example of what humans were meant to be. He is God’s ambassador of shalom. Interestingly, instead of promoting himself, He lays His life down. Instead of grabbing power (which was actually offered to him quite a few times), He poured out His power for the benefit of the world. He eventually dies a “sinner’s death” though He was without sin, somehow taking the consequences of the world’s sin on himself. In His resurrection from death, He thus opens the way into a new (or renewed) reality characterized by harmony with God, each other and Creation, free from the consequences of sin. He then commissions those who would follow him, the people of God (no longer just the descendants of Abram), once again become the ambassadors of God’s reality in the midst of a world that has created it’s own.

In light of this telling of the story, salvation becomes much more than just “being saved from Hell after death”, or even “being granted admittance into Heaven after death”. As Brian McLaren points out in Adventures in Missing The Point, “If you had asked the apostle Paul, ‘If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you would be with God in heaven?’ I’m certain Paul would have said yes. But he probably would have given you a funny look and wondered why you were asking the question, because to him it missed the point. To Paul, the point of being Christ’s follower was not just to help people be absolutely certain they were going to heaven when they died. Paul’s goal was to help them become fully formed, mature in Christ, here and now—to experience the glorious realities of being in Christ and experiencing Christ in themselves.” Grace, it would seem, is not an end unto itself. Rather, it is the means of our returning to the reality that God intended and to our becoming a catalyst for that reality breaking into our world. As seen through the lens of this telling of the story, salvation is by no means a primarily individualistic enterprise. As Stan Grenz explains in Theology for the Community of God, “We are alienated from God, of course. But our estrangement also taints our relationships with one another, with ourselves, and with creation. Consequently, the divine program leads not only toward establishing individual peace with God in isolation; it extends as well to the healing of all relationships—to ourselves, one another, and to nature.” Our individual salvation is a fact, but as Grenz says, “the church is far more than a collection of saved individuals who band together for the task of winning the lost. The church is the community of salvation.

Heaven and Hell
No explanation of salvation would be complete without touching on the issues of Heaven and Hell. In Scripture, the afterlife is discussed as a reality However, the main truth of Heaven appears to be less about people going there and more about Heaven coming here. As Rob Bell explains in Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith, “For Jesus, heaven and hell were present realities. He talked very little about the life beyond this one because he understood that the life beyond this one is a continuation of the choices we make here and now. For Jesus, the question wasn’t, how do I get into heaven? But how do I bring heaven here?” Jesus prayed to his Father “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Additionally, Paul, in Romans 8, seems to imply that creation itself has the same promise as the children of God. In short, the goal of God is not just the salvation of individual souls, but the salvation of the whole world.
As for individuals in relation to Heaven and Hell, Bell further explains, “And this reality extends beyond this life. Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people. Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. Hell is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust. Ours or God’s.”
  • Bell, Rob…Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005

  • McLaren, Brian D…Adventures In Missing The Point. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003

  • Grenz, Stanley J…Theology For The Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000


BASSakward Tales said...

Hi Adam,
Do you remember me? This is Ginny Stanley from TSU. I was roommates with Becky King Tucker. She told me you and Tony had blogs. I have really enjoyed reading your blogs. I have created one for my family. It is so awesome the work that you and Dana are doing. I never met Dana, but it sounds like you both are seriously high on Jesus. That is so cool. Keep up the good work! Ginny Bass

Anonymous said...

Adam...good thoughts about salvation. Just happened to stumble on your blog and thought I'd give it a look. Blessings on your ministry.

Anna said...

hope you feel better adam!

Keith Brenton said...

"Personal Lord and Savior" is an intrinsically funny term to me.

Like He would be impersonal about it?

But then all kinds of words are funny to me. Like "salvation." It sounds like "salivation." Something you're drooling in anticipation of, as well as relishing at the moment. Something already but not yet. That's a hoot to me.

I have a really weird sense of humor.

Lydia said...

very very good thoughts.

now how do we bring them into the world???

im glad im not the only one believing this, sometimes i feel so alone in it.

Adam said...

You raise an interesting question, and it is being answered in many different ways by many different people. From a "church" standpoint I see guys like Bell and McLaren who have decided to plant new churches that have this vision from the beginning. I know preachers and pastors who are doing the painstakingly slow work of changing the worldviews of their established congregations. I, not having that much patience, have thus far decided to approach it from a youth ministry standpoint. I get to help form the initial worldviews of the next generation of leaders within the established church. Subversive? Absolutely.
But what about people who don't "get a check from a church"? I think your call is to just do it. Be the gospel. Be good news. Go where Jesus would go and do what he would do if he were you. This has always been the plan. You are not alone and there is great hope.

cwinwc said...

Adam - good post. Perhaps if our people had the same kind of reaction to the hypothetical question that you posed to “Paul” in your post, we would have less “friendly fire” among our people because their journey would take them beyond the baptistery to spiritual maturity.

Derek said...

I like the idea that Brian McClaren gets at in one of his books in the "Different Kind of Christian" triology: if there were no heaven or hell, would you still be a Christian?

The thought highly iritated me,...then disturbed me...and finally, captured me.

"How dare he insinuate such an idea! Ludicrous! Heresy!...Umm, would I be a Christian if there were no heaven or hell? I don't think that I would. What kind of Christian am I?..."

Then, in the midst of a youth camp, God's glory was heavy and the band was playing "Better is One Day in Your courts than thousands elsewhere" and it hit me. Yes, I would rather spend one day in the midst of God's glorious, weighty Presence like this than I would spend thousands of days just EXISTING. That day, I was reminded of what it meant to know and experience God. I was compelled by the love and embrace of His Spirit. I would not trade that day for a thousand days of doing my own thing, my own way, with no fear of consequences.

And, I think this is the question that we all must wrestle with and answer honestly. If there was no heaven, is just being with and in God enough? Or, do we have to stick our hands in the candy jar of heaven for this whole Christianity thing to be worth it to us?

Now, don't get me wrong. I believe in heaven and hell. But, the test of our relationship [and I believe that God is relationship and calls us, on many levels, into relationship, that is, perichoresis (see Clark Pinnock, "Flame of Love")] is our answer to this question. If we cannot whole-heartedly say, "Yes, I would be a Christian regardless of whether there was a heaven and hell," then we have "missed the point."