274. thoughts on salvation
Thanks to everyone who commented on part 2 (all of the comments are on the MySpace version of the blog). Theology isn’t something that should be done in a vacuum. To the contrary, rethinking theology by one’s self can lead to really bad places like Waco, Texas or Jonestown. So to keep me from starting my own cult, please feel free to comment, critique, or complain about anything in this series. Or pass a link along to someone who might be interested.
I’ve wrestled with this topic before in my blog (see post 191 and 251) and each time I’ve mentioned the fact that I don’t have a complete understanding of what exactly salvation entails. As a kind of preface, let me say that this post won’t be my last word on the subject but let me share my most recent thoughts.
Linking to my previous posts about salvation has been interesting for me because while rereading those posts, I was able to see a kind of progression. In post 191, I wrote about salvation as being freed from slavery to sin. In post 251 I talked about…actually, I’m not exactly sure what I was getting at but I think I was trying to say that in addition to the personal component of salvation, there is a societal aspect to the Gospel – that what Jesus ultimately wants to do is not just save individuals but also to save whole societies (and that’s a loaded statement which I’ll unpack later…perhaps in another entry).
I think both those posts are useful but they don’t really get at answering one of the big questions I have about salvation. This question has to do with the first century church – a church that had to endure lethal amounts of persecution. As a christian, depending on where you lived, you could be subject to assault from the Romans who saw this new cult as a threat to the Pax Romana or from Jews who considered the teachings of Jesus to be blasphemy. Despite the fact that declaring one’s self to be a christian could get you killed, christianity exploded across the continent such that a mere three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Christ, the emperor of Rome, Constatine I, legalized the worship of Christ with the Edict of Milan.
So my question is, what was it that those first christians found so compelling about the Gospel that they were willing to die for it? Because to be honest with you, if I had been living in an area where christians are persecuted today (places in the Middle East or South Asia, for example), I don’t think I would have accepted Christ with the messages I heard here in America – that Jesus died so that I could have a “personal relationship” (a metaphor that I’m not entirely comfortable with – see post 270) with God. I mean, that would have been cool but I don’t know if that would have been enough for me to adopt a life where I would likely be disowned by my family and ran the risk of being tortured and/or killed if my conversion was reported.
Or think of it this way. If I were a missionary in Sri Lanka, what would I be telling them about Jesus that would convince them to risk all that they hold dear?
That question, what is it about the Gospel that people then and now believe in such that they are willing to lay everything (every thing) down for it, has been a kind of litmus test for me as I’ve tried to rethink salvation. If it wasn’t worth death then it wasn’t good enough.
Now before I risk disappointing you all, let me state up front that I’m still working through this issue, but I’ll share my current thoughts on it. And while I can’t state with absolute certainty that I would die for my new understanding of the Gospel and salvation (because who can be certain until they’re staring at the business end of a rifle), I can say that it has made the life I live now more meaningful, and that’s a good start isn’t it?
Okay then, here we go.
I think the best way to understand salvation is to think of it as signing on to be a part of a revolution – a movement to upend a world that has lost its way and to set things right again. That is the good news of the Gospel.
In the first two chapters of Genesis, God creates the cosmos and it is good, perfect, flawless. And then in chapter three, Adam and Eve, duped by the serpent, eat fruit off the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
And then the shit hit the fan.
Every instance of injustice, of betrayal, of meaningless suffering, rancor, and defeat can be traced back to that little taste. Pride, lust, envy, and every other dark need that drives us entered the scene, poisoning even our best intentions. Large to small, top to bottom, everything in the world that’s not as it should be is torqued because of the fall. Everything from national stories like the racism that seeks to unequally punish the Jena Six or the incomprehensible fact that in the richest nation in the world, two years after the fact, New Orleans is still a tragedy; to international issues like the genocide in Darfur, the never-ending dispute in Israel, or the megalomaniacal government of Burma; down to the little nuisances of everyday life – drivers who don’t know how to merge, people with fifteen items in the twelve item grocery line, stupid workplace situations.
All of these things because of the fall in Genesis three. As a result, everything else in the Bible from Genesis four through Revelation twenty two has to do with God helping us to get back what was lost. And this powerful play goes on and God commands us to contribute a verse!
Yes, Christ died so we could be freed from slavery to sin and be reconciled to God but that is ONLY THE BEGINNING. As precious as this freedom is, it’s kind of like a fringe benefit or a signing bonus. It’s not the point of accepting or following Christ. To me, the part of the Gospel that is worth more than life itself is the idea that through the work of Christ on the cross, we become a part of God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation. It’s like we’re given a transfer from the wrecking crew to the repair crew. All the things that are wrong with the world – we become partners in God’s plan to set all things right.
And it took me a long time to figure this out, but this work of repair happens on a variety of scales. Very few of us have the resources to tackle global or national problems but wherever we are, in whatever way we can, we are given the task of making our little piece of the world a better place
– a place more in line with God’s design for it.
A couple months ago, I wrote about how I realized that even though most of my day is spent with boxes and files, keeping those boxes and files as neat and organized as I can is as valid a way of living out my calling as any other (at least until this band thing gets played out). And writing this blog. Although it may not seem like it, I’ve probably put in close to ten hours on this entry, trying out different ways of saying things – exploring avenues, jettisoning whole sections that were superfluous or not getting at what I wanted to say. I write because it’s a tool that God has given me and for me to not use it is simply sin.
Is the idea that we are saved into the task of remaking the world back into what it should be worth dying for? Is this something like what those in the first century church (and those in areas today where persecution still runs rampant) believed such that they were willing to be torn apart by lions or stoned to death? I don’t think it’s as simple as that – each person must have their own reasons for the faith they hold, but at least for me, it makes christianity something more (far more) than just a Sunday morning show. For me, this means that even though I have very little personal interaction at my workplace, keeping things in order even if nobody notices, even if I don’t get any credit, even if the next person just goes in and messes things up again, I am doing my part to make my little bit of the world more like it would have if the fall had never occurred.
You know, having come this far in this entry, I realize that it’s not that I want to redefine salvation. It’s not that the Four Spiritual Laws are wrong – to the contrary, it is a clear way to explain some key theological concepts – it’s just that, well, to be frank, it’s too clean and clinical. It doesn’t give me anything to sink my teeth into. It doesn’t tell me how my life is supposed to change after accepting its statements.
To be fair, back when I was trained to use the Four Spiritual Laws tract, I was told to try to invite the person I was counseling to my church or get them hooked up with a church close to where they lived so they could establish deeper roots. Um…I don’t mean to diss, but most churches (at least most that I attended) focus on what my pastor has occasionally referred to as spiritual narcissism – focusing so much on one’s own spiritual health that one fails to be the blessing that they’re called to be.
I don’t want to be saved onto a treadmill of studying the Bible for the sake of looking like a know-it-all at church. I want to be saved into a mission to change the world for the better. And how does that happen? Well everyone’s calling is unique but basically it involves doing whatever you can (with whatever you have, wherever you are) to make the world more like it would be if the fall had never happened or the way things will be when Christ comes again to set things right once and for all.