Posted by: michaelhanegan | September 21, 2008

Re-Examining Salvation (?)

Darrell Guder in his book The Continuing Conversion of the Church writes that people by their very nature desire to have a religion and a god who are manageable and can be fully defined and understood. He goes on to say that such an inclination results in “gospel reductionism.” I think that perhaps this is the most dangerous kind of heresy (in the sense that the truth isn’t taught, it’s distorted, it’s minimized) that we would find in our churches today if we were to examine ourselves in light of the Gospel. There are two major “reductionisms” that I think are very damaging to the church (and will continue to be so until we re-examine ourselves and our positions on these things). These two major reductionisms I would refer to as Event-Oriented Salvation, and Small Gospel Syndrome. In this post I only with to deal with the first one.

Event-Oriented Salvation
In my previous discussion of bounded and centered sets I tried to bring to light some of the thinking behind the mess that we find ourselves in. I have been privileged to serve in churches of various sizes and shapes. Some were small and could barely keep the lights on, and others had multiple services and thousands of members. The thing that was common to them both? They had a high percentage of people who were “nominal”, barely involved, or completely empty spiritually but needed the soothing of their conscience that could be found only in their attendance. Would it be fair to say that a church would be thrilled and would be the exception to the rule if they had 40% of real involvement from their membership? I can think of more than a few churches where ten or fifteen percent would be a cause for celebration. But why is this such a pervasive problem? My contention is that it is one of the side effects of a bounded set mentality. One of the causes (if not the cause) of all this mindset can be traced back to an understanding of salvation as an event.

Here’s what I mean by an “Event-Oriented Salvation”:

  • A soteriology (theology of salvation) that focuses on baptism as the entrance and reception of salvation only. (Note: This is not to downplay the importance and theological richness of baptism. In fact, I think that it is to do more justice to the importance and content of it that we find in Scripture. To suggest that baptism is my “ticket” is in my opinion one of the reasons that our churches are full of people who exhibit little or no commitment to their congregations or ultimately to the mission of God through Jesus Christ.)
  • We teach that baptism is a participation (point action – a.k.a. with a beginning and end) event. Once we have been baptized we have participated (notice the past tense) in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. I believe that such a view predisposes us to an understanding of salvation and sanctification that doesn’t require the continuing (as opposed to the past tense I just pointed out) transformation of the believer. We must re-examine our understanding of baptism and understand that our salvation is an ongoing process that will last until the end of our lives and will ultimately be concluded at the Judgment Day.
  • Romans 6 and its “original context” (the Exodus narrative) teach us that salvation is an ongoing process. It is continuing to participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It means that we continue to die to ourselves, bury the actions and attitudes that we had before coming to Christ, and being raised in the power and leading of the Holy Spirit in increasing holiness and maturity. It is frightening that many (or all) of these facets of baptism are missing in many of our churches.

So what does our soteriology need to look like? First of all, I don’t have all the answers but I do believe that the current conception that many accept without thought or reflection is theologically flawed and in need of both theological and textual study. The following are some of the major points that are currently developing in my understanding of soteriology along the lines that we have discussed thus far.

We need to be more conscious of the “now but not yet” dichotomy of Scripture.
We must be conscious of passages in Scripture (specifically the New Testament) that imply that salvation (a.k.a. a right relationship with God) is a process that has a definite beginning but the end comes only after a long process of growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)

“…that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion on the day of Christ Jesus…”
(Philippians 1:6)

It is passages like these (and others) that give us this sense that those who have died to self (and continue to do so) in baptism are people who are “being saved”. (1 Corinthians 1:18 and 2 Corinthians 2:15) The writings of the Apostle Paul for example have numerous references and allusions to this “now but not yet” dichotomy. Passages such as (2 Timothy 4:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:10) suggest that this was formative in shaping his theological understandings of salvation. We find this concept in the words of Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46) and in the words of John (1 John 4:17)

A healthy understanding and appreciation of the “now but not yet” can help us in doing the following, which could prevent or reconcile many of the problems that so destructively plague our churches today:

  1. An emphasis on continuous spiritual growth of both a corporate and individual nature.
  2. The ability to shape a more biblical eschatology in the sense of urgency to be about the mission of God. (For more reading on this subject specificaly for Churches of Christ you can look at Reclaiming a Heritage.)
  3. The prevention of a “holding down the fort” or “preventing corruption or change agents” mentality that will free the church to be creative and orthodox in its witness and ecclesiology.
  4. We will be able to call people to join us on a journey to a place where we ourselves have never been…closer to Christ and more faithful to his commission for our lives as a corporate body and as individual believers.

So what would the opposite perspective actually “look like” in our churches? What would it take (or at least what would help) to make it a reality? A couple of concepts maybe that could be considered:

  • Redefining Membership. In all the churches I have been a part of the most rigorous program to place membership was saying that we wanted to be members and sitting down with a couple of elders and them asking if we had any questions. Oh, and we picked up our church directory. Is that really all it means to be a part of the body of Christ? One friend of mine who was born and raised in another country was telling me recently that those who would skip out on church for more than a week had to publicly explain where they were. He said that it was their responsibility (that sounds like such a tough word in our churches) to be there and support the church. Basically, being nominal, absent, and/or immoral were all grounds for repentance. Sounds a lot more biblical than what we have now. Regardless of the specifics I think it is important that in some major ways we redefine church membership to more than a name tag, a written card, and a church directory. Aren’t we supposed to die in there somewhere?
  • Redefining Spiritual Growth and Health. Some people in our churches really believe that coming to class and/or listening to a sermon amounts to spiritual growth and health. One of the things that is so fascinating to me about the book of Psalms is how much it permeates the rest of Scripture, more specifically the New Testament. According to the apparatus in my Greek New Testament there are over 560 quotations or allusions to passages in the Psalms. How amazingly different would it be if we were seriously committed to immersing ourselves as individuals and as missionary communities (a.k.a. the church) in God’s Word. Coming does not equal growth. Maintainence is not faithfulness. We must take a bold stand or risk our eventual drift into ignorance, error, and irrelevance in a world that so desperately needs the very words that we claim to adhere to. We need to find a way to develop a heart like this.
  • Reclaim the Biblical Concept of Salvation/Sanctification. It’s not an event, it’s a process. If you remember the Exodus narrative (which I firmly believe is the theological context of Paul’s discussion of baptism, salvation, and sanctification in Romans 6) you will see that God didn’t just lead them out. It was a process. God prepared his people before he led them out, he brought them through the water, and then began to lead them on a journey to the Promised Land (are you seeing the metaphor?). It’s not about “saved” or “unsaved”. Instead I suggest that it should be about “being saved” and “not yet being saved”. (Remember bounded vs. centered sets?)

While there is much more that needs to be said about this (and much more that I need to learn and understand) these are the things that I think are going to be substantial in determining our effectiveness or lack thereof in creating missionary communities who understand and respond to the fact that God saves us unto a mission. We are not simply in heaven’s waiting room. We have been recruited and have joined the very mission of God. It’s time we start acting more like it.

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Responses

  1. Michael, overall I think you’re correct in what you say about our understanding of salvation. I would say that “event-oriented salvation” is a misnomer for our approach. It is “single-event-oriented salvation” that we are guilty of. I don’t think it’s our actual theology but we have so emphasized baptism that we forget to plan for any real growth beyond baptism except for showing up at services. I do think we ought to think of salvation as event oriented since the foundation (or merit) of salvation is found in the “Christ event” (death, burial, resurrection). The Exodus began with an event (Passover), continued with an event (Red Sea – baptism), and then continued with various events up to the entrance into the promised land. So our salvation is historical and event oriented as well. God’s foundation is event oriented and our entrance (I don’t like that term but it conveys the basic thought) is event oriented (baptism). The problem is that we haven’t emphasized enough that we have God’s promises but we don’t – we are still waiting for the return of our savior. I like your usage of the Exodus (Passover, Red Sea, wandering, inheritance) image as a key to our life as God’s people in the new covenant. This is why I preach a lot from the Old Testament.

    I would caution you using the word “process” although I agree with what you are trying to get across. Process sounds to “programmatic” to me. Sort of a step by step thing. People might get the idea that salvation is a “stage” process. I complete this stage and go on to the next. I think people might get stuck on the idea that it contains levels. Once we’re in, we’re in but we are required to walk and grow in our walk. I like the journey image as well.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents for now.

  2. Michael,
    It is no accident that Jesus and his disciples taught the “new birth” as an accurate picture of the process you talk about. It begins at conception (first exposure to the Gospel), thru gestation (learning about being a disciple: confession, repentance–both of which are life-long–, body life, etc), culminating in the “watery birth of baptism.” Being now a member of God’s family, continued learning about how one lives in God’s family and the world.


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