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.