Wednesday, November 17, 2010

FAQ 4: What is Salvation?

I'm currently preaching through a sermon series called "Frequently Asked Questions".  The premise is that I'll take the most common questions that people have about God, Faith, etc., and respond to them.  I'm not attempting to definitively answer these questions, per se, but I am publicly interacting with them.  I've dusted off my blog and I'm writing a post that interacts with each week's question.  So, without any further introduction, I give you my 4th question:  What is Salvation?

Salvation.  It's one of the most basic and fundamental concepts of Christianity.  Do you have it?  How can you get it?  Can you lose it?  What is it, anyway?  Ask 7 Christians and you may get 7 answers.  Most of the debates that revolve around the subject reduce salvation to a thing to be possessed or a status to maintained, and the general assumption seems to be that salvation is almost completely related to one's destination in the afterlife. 

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that is translated "salvation" literally means "rescue".  As a Biblical concept, it finds its dominant expression in the Exodus,where the enslaved Israelites called out for generations to God, who eventually delivered them from their oppression.   Most Biblical references to salvation seem intended to evoke this imagery again and again.  Another prominent idea found in the Old Testament is that God IS Salvation.  The New Testament relies heavily on the Old Testament imagery of Salvation, but there are a few subtle differences.  In these texts, Salvation (rescue) takes place by Grace (unmerited), through Faith (trust, confidence) in Jesus. But even this short overview might lead one to an individualistic, escapist understanding of Salvation.  Such an understanding would be deeply mistaken and profoundly unbiblical.

I have less than no interest in the debate between "Once Saved, Always Saved" and a Salvation that is called into question by the commission of a sin or the misunderstanding of a concept.  The extremes at both ends of that spectrum are equally ridiculous, and frankly I question the spectrum itself.  In Galatians, Paul seems to call out the Galatian church for thee distorted version of Salvation they were promoting.  He says:

 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. 
-Gal. 5:4-6 NIV

 That's right.  The infamous phrase "fall from grace" actually originates in a passage that is arguing against trying to justify yourself by law, as if you were "paying off the god".  He essentially says that to do so is to fall from grace...seemingly because you don't recognize it, and you don't believe you need it (or that it's sufficient in the first place). Salvation is not payment for services rendered.  It is a gift from God. no Don't miss the next thought though:  "The only thing that counts if faith expressing itself through love".  Paul refuses to choose from their options.  Instead, he transcends them.  To do anything else is to reduce grace to a commodity and Salvation to a status game.

I've come to believe that the Christian concept of Salvation is rooted in the Hebrew concept of Shalom.  Shalom is a word that the ancient rabbis used to describe both the original condition of the world in the Genesis creation narratives, and God's intention for how the world should be.  It means something like "harmony", and the rabbis argued that it exhibited itself in 3 ways:  Harmony between God and people, harmony between people and other people, and harmony between people and God's creation.  They argue that what we normally refer to as "the fall" in the Genesis 3 narrative is not merely meant to indicate a break the relationship between God and people, but rather the breaking of Shalom in all three of the dimensions we've discussed and a new trajectory towards chaos.  It can be argued that all sin can be traced back to the breaking of harmony in these 3 areas. It can also be argued that sin isn't a matter accumulating demerits so much as it is a matter of further distancing yourself and the world from the harmony God intends for it.  Salvation then, is rescue from this situation by the God who is most clearly revealed in Jesus.

This re-framing  has been profoundly helpful for me.  However, there is another aspect of Salvation that I believe may be just as important and just as overlooked.  Paul articulates it well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.  So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! …

Notice the language of "Creation" and "New Creation" here, and how resonant it is with what we've already discussed.  Paul isn't the only one who makes this connection (and this isn't the only place he does it).  In the Gospel that bears his name, John structures his telling of the story of Jesus after the Genesis 1 Creation narrative.  He names 7 days (in order) in the course of the narrative, and lists 7 signs/miracles (each of which can be tied to the parallel day of Creation).  On the 7th day, Jesus "rests" in the tomb.  He is resurrected (in a garden, no less) on the first day of the new week, indicating that New Creation has begun.  Although I could certainly keep going down that rabbit trail, I want to get back to Paul's argument in 2 Corinthians, because the next part of his argument is fascinating:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God

I've argued that Salvation is essentially reconciliation...rescue from the trajectory towards chaos...a return to the harmony (Shalom) that was broken, in all of its dimensions.  Now, Paul lets the other shoe drop.  Those who have been (are being) reconciled have also become agents of reconciliation.  Those who have been saved/rescued by God become agents of salvation.  It's not that you "have" salvation.  It's that salvation has you.  The writer of Ephesians makes a similar argument:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do
-Eph. 2:8-10 NIV

To be clear, I'm not arguing for a works-based Salvation. This text (as well as many others), deconstructs any such argument before it can even get started.  However, I am absolutely arguing for Salvation-based-works.  To be rescued is to become involved in the rescue.  Individual Salvation is not an end unto itself.  It is a means, by which we become active participants of what a living and active God is doing in the world.  Biblically, Salvation isn't just a status to be claimed, it is a vocation to be embraced.

Salvation is the delightful surprise of having your little life caught up in the purposes of God for the whole world.
-Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon


    Keith Brenton said...

    Faith is God's gift to us, as you rightly note in Ephesians 2:8-10. And our "salvation-based works" (excellent phrase), as it also implies, are God's gift to others through us:

    "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose." ~ Philippians 2:12-13

    Unknown said...

    Dear Adam,

    12 If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw,
    13 the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one's work.
    14 If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage.
    15 But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.
    16 Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
    17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
    (1Corinthians 3: 12-17)

    In these passages - 1 Corinthians 3:12-17 - Paul is talking about how God judges our works after death by using a string of metaphors (we are God's building; works are good and bad materials, etc.).

    Paul says that if a person builds with good materials, he will receive a reward (verse 14). If he builds with a mixture of good and bad materials, his work is burned up, but he is still saved (verse 15).

    If he only builds with bad materials, he has destroyed the temple, and God will destroy him (verse 17).

    These passage demonstrates several things. First, it demonstrates that our works serve as a basis for determining our salvation.

    This is contrary to the erroneous Protestant belief that, once we accept Jesus by faith alone, we are saved.

    Protestants have no good explanation for why Paul is teaching the Corinthians that our works bear upon our salvation.

    Second, the verse demonstrates that, if a person does both good and bad works, his bad works are punished, but he is still saved.

    The Greek phrase for "suffer loss" (zemiothesetai) means "to be punished" (Purgatory).

    This means the man undergoes an expiation of temporal punishment for his bad works (sins) but is still saved.

    The phrase “but only” or “yet so” (in Greek, houtos) means "in the same manner." This means that the man must pass through the fire in the same way that his bad works passed through the fire, in order to expiate himself of the things that led him to produce the bad works in the first place.

    Keith Brenton said...

    Michael, your interpretation is unique in my experience. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul seems to be talking about how God builds His church through believers working together for the purpose of the Cross, rather than at cross-purposes (v.9). It would not make sense for Apollos to have more weight in the process than Paul; both are servants of Christ. One plants; the other waters ... one builds on the foundation of Christ; the other builds more. What God is building through them is a church (again, v.9, plus v.17). The setting for your citation is very specific: building the church in partnership with God ... not a discourse on Christian works in general. It's a prophetic passage, comparing the loss of the temple (which Jesus prophesied) with the testing by fire of God's new temple, His people.

    The results of God's labor through us - new believers - will be revealed with fire (v. 13) and the wage (as I see it!) is fellowship with that new sibling in Christ (v.14). With fires of persecution ahead for all believers, some will suffer loss of life, but still be saved (v.15). Believers are that temple (v.16), and are to keep themselves - and each other! - holy (v.17).

    I can't see that this passage says anything about how "our works serve as a basis for determining our salvation." Faith in God through Christ alone does save; the error is in thinking that "faith" is simply mental assent or a single confession; faith IS work! It is an ongoing confession by words and works - but those works are done in partnership with God, through (as I understand it) His Holy Spirit living and working in us.

    Our works don't save us; they save others. They testify of Christ and speak of our faith in Him to others. Without doing, we're just saying. That's how others judge our faith - and if I understand Matthew 25, that's the standard by which Jesus will judge our faith:

    Whether we went and let Him work through us to bring His good news to the world - or just sat and chatted about how nice the news was while waiting for Him to come back.

    Mike L. said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Patricia said...

    Adam, I gained a greater understanding of our treasured gift that we have received from God after reading this blog entry. After reading the following, I felt such a sense of joy, responsibility, and insight. I am "rescued" and because of that, I live as such striving to rescue the lost. "To be rescued is to become involved in the rescue.Individual Salvation is not an end unto itself. It is a means, by which we become active participants of what a living and active God is doing in the world. Biblically, Salvation isn't just a status to be claimed, it is a vocation to be embraced."
    You also mentioned the scripture that is commonly used by churches of Christ regarding "falling from grace." I have read that scripture so many times - through the eyes of what I had been taught all of my life - however, when I read it yesterday with your comments...I saw it in a whole new light. It led me to a lengthy study on "Grace" yesterday. I now see, with blinders off, what the true meaning of the scripture is and how it has been abused and used to teach a false doctrine.
    Thank you, Adam.

    Mike L. said...

    Thanks for the really well written post. It helped clarify a couple of points and raised a few questions for me.

    1) Early in the post you distanced yourself from an "individualistic, escapist understanding of Salvation". I assume that means you don't think salvation involves something that happens to individuals after they die (i.e. going to heaven or some kind of rewarded status or improved experience in an "afterlife"). Is that correct?

    2) Do you think salvation includes (partially if not entirely) some kind of "afterlife", either as some physical existence (i.e. NT Wright's notion of a physical body or physical bones/flesh/molecules reconstructed on Earth in new form) or as a Cartesian dualistic ghost, spirit, or disembodied consciousness? I'm glad you said what it is "not", but you never really defined what it is. You can tiptoe around the 800 lb gorilla in the room, but eventually doesn't any definition of salvation have to at least address life after death? It seems that you'd have to either affirm the traditional (almost universally accepted) definition of after-life, deny it, or reform it with a new position. By standing against "escapist theology", are you standing against life after death, or do you simply mean to change the location of such a life from "up there" to "down here"?

    3) You said, "Salvation is essentially reconciliation...rescue from the trajectory towards chaos...a return to the harmony (Shalom) that was broken, in all of its dimensions." Those are fairly abstract concepts. Do you think it is possible that this language was originally intended, by the authors, as a symbolic reference to real concrete situations in their own particular experience?

    You seem to be interpreting the old testament's use of salvation as meaning something very concrete involving the literal physical need to be "delivered them from their oppression" (Of course we could question the historicity of the Exodus story, but that's another topic for another day). When you moved to the new testament, you seemed to imply (correct me if I'm wrong) that the same type of language about "salvation", "reconciliation", "deliverance", and "shalom" was more of a general concept and not supposed to be understood as poetic representation of the author's specific physical need for deliverance from their real physical social, political, and economic situation under Roman rule. The Roman Empire was clearly the most pressing need of salvation for these people as they struggled to survive impending daily treats of death and torture. To ignore that context is like discussing the Diary of Anne Frank without mentioning the Holocaust.

    Anonymous said...

    Hi Adam,

    I like your emphasis on salvation as rescue. I think of salvation also as becoming. For a long time now I have not thought of salvation on Lutheran terms; what I would call Grace vs. Works.

    Just before the verses you quote from Galatians Paul says something quite interesting, "If you become circumcised you are obliged to keep the whole law." This statement as my friend Mark Nanos pointed out to me once would have fallen on deaf ears if his readers were Lutherans. Surely an astute Grace oriented reader would reply, "But Paul, you are circumcised and you don't keep the Law."

    But if as the weight of the argument seems to imply, Paul was keeping the Law then the whole idea of Grace vs. Law seems to have gotten the discussion off on the wrong foot.

    Warm Regards,
    Rick Carr