“Will you please talk to him? I’m worried about his salvation…”
I hear that a lot. I hear it from spouses of people who identify as skeptical/unsure/agnostic/atheist. I hear it from people who have friends who believe or think differently from them. I hear it from people who are worried about their gay/transgendered/pierced/tattooed/(insert other conventional taboo here) relative.
I hear it a lot.
And, I don’t question their sincerity. The church has trained people to be concerned about this. I just want to question that training…and that concern.
We’ve been conditioned to speak about salvation as a product. It’s gotten, acquired, assured…what have you.
The problem that I have with this line of thinking, indeed with this concern, is that it implies that somehow we have a say in the matter. And I realize that there are, indeed, some Christian circles that do believe that humanity has a say in the matter of salvation. I heard a whole sermon by a prominent pastor at a huge church who assured the gathered congregation that they had to say “yes” to the Christ knocking at the door or else their salvation was in jeopardy.
In fact, I’ve heard scores of such sermons. And, perhaps at one time, shared their thinking and nodded in agreement.
And believing that we must respond to the gracious invitation of God to reap salvation benefits is a stance that can be intellectually defended. It’s transaction based. We love transaction based models: they’re concrete, every party gets to do something, everyone gets to act.
But I don’t see how you can hold a transaction model stance and then, in the same breath, utter that salvation “can’t be earned.” Every time I hear someone say that salvation can’t be earned but then say, “and yet you must accept Jesus in your (pick your location: heart, life, worldview, marriage)” my brain starts going crazy.
We run into a problem when we try to parse the word “earned,” but in the business of transaction, “earning” something is providing payment or appropriate satiation. I think a person who believes that you can’t earn salvation and yet must say “yes” to have salvation is not being intellectually honest.
Is not even a “yes” payment, in this instance?
Some might affirm that idea; some might reject it. Frankly, I don’t see how it can not be an instance of payment. We’re not talking about passivity here; we’re talking about action, the act of saying “yes,” the act of assenting.
Smacks of earning. I think it is.
And this is where people start to get nervous. They start saying, “Well, salvation is a free gift from God, but you can choose to accept it or not.” And, in some ways, that makes sense, right? If my local coffee store offers free coffee, I can choose to take a coffee or not. In fact, proponents of the “free but accept” concept love to use examples just like that.
And that works if we’re just talking about coffee, cars, or other goods and commodities.
But are we? Do we really want to lump salvation into the category of cars and candy bars? Because, whether or not we want to, I think that we have. There are many books that point out this fact, Rob Bell’s Love Wins is but the most recent. I think he does a decent job of exposing how we’ve cheapened salvation by using this transaction model, and in the process have actually ended up limiting God’s grace instead of, as the usual argument goes, limiting free will.
Theology nerds out there will want to blame Anselm at this juncture; I would encourage you not to do so.
It’s not Anselm we need to blame. His atonement theory has not held sway over the Christian story just by luck or chance: it’s the theory that provides Christians with the most control over the field of life. We should blame ourselves for reducing salvation to the same kind of transaction as buying a dishwasher.
Now, at this point Christians start to wring their hands and say things like, “Wait…then everyone has salvation? I don’t need to worry about my atheist/agnostic/questioning/tattooed/Mormon/Muslim neighbor?”
I want to point out here in no uncertain terms that I’m not claiming everyone has salvation. Any sort of claim I might make on the subject wouldn’t use that phrasing, as I don’t think it’s helpful.
But, in response to the question, I’d ask them to define “worry.” Do I think you need to care for them? Yes. Do I think you need to be salt and light for them and for this world? Yes. Do I think that their lives will/would benefit from being in a relationship with God and others who are asking important questions about life, meaning, love, and purpose through the lens of Jesus?
Yes. Unequivocally, yes.
Do I think you need to wonder in the late-night-sweating-anxious-pondering way about what will happen to them after they die?
No. I can’t say that I do. Because I don’t think there’s anything that you can do about it.
Truly, I don’t think you can.
I think it’s dishonest to worry about people because you want them to adopt your worldview. I think it’s dishonest to worry about people because you’re unsure of whether they’ll go to heaven, hell, Pluto, or Middle Earth after their last breath. We should worry about people for the sake of their life now, not after death. Millions of Christians go without feeding the Christian poor because, well, we care more about their salvation than we do their stomachs. Likewise, millions are spent on Christian missions where bellies aren’t attended but “souls” are.
Pass out bread and keep the Bible. Or, better yet, live the scriptures and pass out bread.
So, finally, what do I think about salvation and having/not having it? I go back to an ancient model, a model of promise. Christians cling to an eternity spent with God based on a promise.
Nothing more, nothing less.
The Christian doctrine(s) of salvation, heaven, and hell that have cropped up over the last 2000 years have been largely a disservice to the message of Jesus. People set their eyes on post-life and begin to ignore this life, or people begin to think they have salvation in the bag and then stop engaging or critically thinking. Or…well, I’ve mentioned some of the other “or’s.”
It’s a travesty.
Part of the benefit of living on a promise is that you take it for granted. The promise, that is, not the relationship.
I think we need to continually foster a relationship with God, and that we need to foster a relationship with others that asks questions about God, life, and salvation. And I do so not because I hope to get something, but because I think it is good.
But the promise of salvation? I leave that up to God.
And with God, nothing more than a promise is needed, actually. It’s in human transactions where we feel the need to deal with payment and satiation; guarantees and insurance are for human transactions. God has always operated on promise and covenant.
“But what about them? What about those that don’t believe or say “yes” to God’s invitation?”
Yes, what about “them?”
Whenever I do pre-marital counseling, I always do the “faith” discussion with the “sex” discussion. I feel like the attitudes of both our sexuality and our spirituality need to be similar: we invite; we don’t coerce.
We can’t coerce someone into having sex with us. That is a terrible use of power, and makes the choice ultimately not their own. “You’ll do it if you love me,” is neither a real invitation nor attractive. “Believe in Jesus or your salvation is in jeopardy,” doesn’t seem all that different. It’s not honest or attractive.
And truthfully, when someone says to me, “Please talk to them; I’m worried about their salvation,” I have to wonder what they think I’ll be able to do.
I can only do what they can do: invite.
You can’t argue your way to faith (or out of faith, actually, despite many of the New Atheist writings of today). It has always happened by invitation, promise, covenant. And to dangle the idea of salvation as a reality or non-reality based off of belief/response seems pretty coercive to me (not to mention intellectually dishonest).
I believe that a life lived in relationship to God is life-giving. It’s salvatory here and now, in this life. I believe that salvation after death is real and a mystery; as mysterious as the paradoxical cross I stare at every Sunday that testifies both to humanity’s hate and how God turns humanity’s hate into an act of love.
And, like all mysteries, it’s not to be gained or attained, mastered or bought. It’s to be held, contemplated, treasured…and in doing so, lives are changed.
I’m a reluctant Christian at times because we’ve turned salvation into a business transaction, and one that’s focused on death rather than life. It breeds panic, unhealthy evangelistic practices, and pietistic but baseless concern.
So, before we begin to be concerned over someone’s salvation, perhaps we should take a step back and think of our own. Did our saying “yes” to Christ save us? If so, then aren’t we what got us our salvation? Wasn’t it our yes?
And if the thought of that makes your stomach turn, as it does mine, then perhaps we need to lift our salvation up to God and say what I think is the most intellectually honest statement about this subject, “You take care of it.”
And then go back and begin inviting people into a relationship with God that has more to do with the here and now.
We blew up our TV threw away our paper
Went to the country, built us a home
Had a lot of children, fed ’em on peaches
They all found Jesus on their own
Haha. Well, hopefully they also found community because, while I have trouble with organized religion, I think it’s awfully hard to foster a relationship with God apart from other people. Every time I do God always ends up looking a lot like me…
“I’m a reluctant Christian at times because we’ve turned salvation into a business transaction, and one that’s focused on death rather than life.”
Isn’t turning the focus of salvation on death a necessary outcome when you believe in eternal life? Our life on earth is more or less irrelevant in the face of eternity. Wouldn’t you agree? How to achieve this thing called salvation is a top priority, and we’d better get it right.
I don’t agree, actually. In fact, I read a wonderful article on this subject this very morning (posted below). And if you know anything about me or this blog, “getting it right” isn’t something I’m really in to.
I think the Christian world is really messed up on this point.
Thanks for reading and posting!
‘Cognitive dissonance’ indeed: I find myself nodding in agreement in the early and late sections of your post, and shaking my head and wondering how on earth you got to what you seem to be saying in the middle. This is doubtless a good thing in a blog post as it makes me think.
On consideration I think the point where I boggle is where you represent saying ‘yes’ as being necessarily part of a commercial transaction: the exchange of one product, ‘salvation’, for another, ‘acceptance’.
I can see how the opening question can be treated as arising from such a view, but I don’t think that is the only way of characterising a need for a positive choice. People and relationships are, I think, a very different kettle of fish from goods, products, and free cups of coffee.
Some twenty seven years ago a young woman I knew and loved was daft enough to agree to marry me: I still had to go through the ‘I do’ stuff – the positive public choice – before we were actually married. Doubtless it is possible to characterise the process as a series of product transactions from my ‘popping the question’ all the way through to …. well, now really – marriage having turned out to be more of a process than an event. It is possible to look at it that way, but I really don’t think that is true to the reality.
So, what about the “I’m worried …” question? Sometimes relationships need time and space to develop, sometimes a simple introduction or opportunity to meet helps, but rarely is incessant nagging by a bystander beneficial. But really it’s down to those involved to make the relationship work – or not – although supportive friends and community in times of trouble can help.
The great thing about a relationship with God, though, is that, once underway, we’ve got eternity for it to grow and develop. If that rather unhelpful term ‘salvation’ means anything, surely that is it.
My two-penn’orth – rather extended I’m afraid, but it was a thought-provoking post.
Hey blackphi, I see what you’re saying, and I would actually welcome the language of process over transaction. But I don’t think that’s a conventional view.
Marriage, as opposed to buying coffee, might be a more helpful example. That being said, what about a parent/child example (just as Biblical, I think). No transaction there.
The bit I’m chomping at, though, is that we must take seriously the assent of the person as a transaction, and we need to be intellectually honest about what that might mean. Is it necessary? Or, as you offer, might a better example become the norm and language?
Thanks for commenting. Looking forward to your response.
I guess the more conventional soundbites are “salvation by faith” versus “salvation by election”, with the former making it all down to us, and the latter all down to God without even asking our consent. Both are rather unconvincing to me; salvation (whatever that may be) is surely by God’s grace.
Pinning down just what that means isn’t easy, of course, but then most truths about God don’t pin down well, I find – it’s probably something to do with His reality being bigger than the inside of my head.
One can argue about the associated “through faith” – whose faith, mine, God’s or Jesus’, and is the focus on some intellectual process of assent or is it a near-instinctive response of trust. Nevertheless, I go with the Rob Bell example that you quoted, that in the end there always has to be the freedom to say ‘no’, otherwise the whole thing is simply abusive.
My take on this is inevitably coloured by my own background: raised agnostic, atheist by conviction, Christian by conversion. My experience is that there was a point when I had a choice: I could say ‘yes’ or I could say ‘no’. But it wasn’t really ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something called ‘salvation’, it was more along the lines of “here’s God, He’s real, he’s offering me a place in His family, do I want in?” Well, “of course I do” – in one sense it wasn’t so much a choice as a simple, reflex response.
Maybe my experience links into your parent/child example, but with adoption. It’s not obvious why anyone would not want to be adopted into God’s family, but it’s still good to be asked.
I think what I am moving towards, in my roundabout way, is two thoughts. Firstly I don’t think I see salvation as a one-off event, but as an ongoing process that keeps us safe in an ongoing way: it’s the John 10 thing – life to the fullest starting now and continuing through eternity.
Secondly, the after death/resurrection aspect of it is less dependant on some ‘sinner’s prayer’/baptism/other-denominational-ritual event than is generally presented. My picture is that Jesus offers his hand to help as we are about to be swept away and we either take it or we don’t. Hopefully if we have been following him for a while, it’ll be easier to recognise and respond to him, but someone who has avoided all church and churchiness throughout their lives still gets the same opportunity at the end. It’s only a picture, of course, but it’s a picture in which the salvation process remains open to everyone, right up to the very last moment.
I’m not sure if this really answers your questions, but I do thank you for prodding my brain into gear to try to clarify some of my thinking in these tricky areas.
I’m very frustrated by the notion that faith can be reasoned and that salvation can be assured. We have to work out our own with fear and trembling, and, if one seeks assurances, then I’m sure God will grant that person peace if they should seek it in him, but to desire that assurance for others is a ludicrous notion to me. To me, if a person I love is not in a relationship with God, then all I can do is try to be a vehicle for God by which to bless that person. If I am in that person’s life, and if God is in mine, then God is in their’s too. That is all I can do. Faith is most often a choice based on experience, and the ones that I have seen which are based on syllogisms are often frightening.
I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. It keeps me thinking, and that’s very important to me. Not to question what one believes is not to believe truly, I think. Thanks.