We continue our sermon series on developing your personal beliefs. The idea is to present ways different Christians think about the essential matters of faith. There is always a spectrum of thought on any matter and what’s important is not so much what other people think, but about how you form your beliefs. What makes sense to you? What resonates with your experience?
Today our topic is salvation. In the Bible salvation is one of those richly complex words that has different senses. It comes from the same word as wholeness. It implies a wholeness of spirit, a wholeness in relationship with God and others. Interestingly it is also related to the word for healing. Think of the word salve, a healing ointment. Maybe there is some area in your life that needs some healing, some salvation. Christians agree that Jesus brings us some kind of salvation.
Jesus helps us heal the brokenness especially with God. We have a fancy word for this, too. It’s the word atonement. Write it down and you will see it’s the combination of 3 words: at, one, ment. It’s the process of becoming at one with God. How does this happen, you ask. Great question! Again there is a wide diversity of opinion on this subject. You see the Bible isn’t like a car manual where you look up a topic and it tells you what you need to know. No the Bible has stories and teachings and poetry and it is all over the place with little bits and pieces of the answer and you have to piece it together and that’s why there is such diversity.
Option #1 Substitutionary Atonement
We are fallen and sinful creatures from birth. Some people say it’s original sin, that infects us from the fall of Adam and Eve. We have a sinful nature and cannot do what is right. Even our good deeds are tainted by some degree of selfishness. One might say, I did that good deed because of how I feel, how people might think of me, the praise I may get.
The doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement begins with the premise that God is holy and cannot abide anything that is not holy. Sin must be punished. The book of Romans say the wages of sin are death. Believers in this view maintain that humanity would be destined to eternal torment/hell if it were not for Jesus.
In order to forgive people God requires a perfect blood sacrifice. Instead of us dying for our sins, Jesus died in our place. Because he was perfect, and God’s son he could do that. We no longer have to have the consequences of sin but are saved by grace. Jesus took the rap for us. Suffered a horrible, gruesome death to satisfy God’s demand that sin cannot be forgiven without a blood sacrifice.
But faith is required. Saved by grace through faith. That’s why John 3:16. Is the most quoted and recognized verse of scripture. If you believe you will be saved. No hell, but God will receive you into heaven when you die.
Formula for salvation: if you accept your own sinfulness and inability to be perfect, confess it to God AND your accept Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior (or guide for how to live your life) then you will be forgiven. Sinner’s prayer. For many, this is a date you always remember. Where, when, how, the feeling before and after. Like an anniversary. Part of your Christian id. In some circles it is an important moment and they will tell you the story. I was saved at a Bible camp on July 10, 1993.
It’s not about how good you are, but about how good God is.
Only those who believe this will go to heaven when they die.
That is why there is an urgency to proclaiming the gospel, the good news that we have an escape from hell. Folks who hold this notion are very sincere when they ask you about your faith. They really believe that unless you believe the right way and say the sinner’s prayer that you are going to go to hell when you die. They are your friends. They love you. And they don’t want that for you.
There are variations of thought on whether this mark when you accept Jesus in your heart is something that can be taken away. Is it “once saved, always saved” or can our sinful behavior screw it up. That is, what good is it to say the sinner’s prayer, get yourself off the eternal hook and then go around acting like a big jerk for the rest of your life and going to heaven when you die.
Answers vary: some will say, yes. Once saved always saved. Some will say if you continue to commit egregious sins after your salvation, you may not have been sincere in turning your heart and life over to Christ and you should do it with more sincerity. (Baptist churches have moment of coming forward to get saved. Lots of people do it many times in their lives).
Some will say that you can lose your salvation and need to make constant confessions to God. Some traditions hold that if you have any unconfessed sin on your record when you die, you are out of luck and no matter what you’ve done or prayed previously, you are in deep doo doo if you croak before you ask for forgiveness for what you’ve done.
Option #2 Universal Salvation/Accept that you are Accepted
The second view is says yes to most of what substitutionary atonement says, except it is not so black and white on many of the items. This view says, we may believe this is how God operates in most cases, but God is God and in the end can save whomever God wants to save. Indeed, in John 3:17, we find that the will of God is that no one should perish.
They point to scripture like Philippians 2 where it says at the very end of it all, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess faith in Jesus. It points the way to saying whether in this life of the next, God’s will to get everybody saved is going to win out, somehow.
This group reads Romans and finds evidence that what Jesus did on the cross is good for all people at all times. Salvation is not about what we do, but about what Jesus did. It has nothing to do with us. Through Jesus we’ve all been saved whether we realize it or not. If someone were to ask you, “When were you saved?” Your answer should be, “I don’t know exactly, but it happened on a Friday nearly 2,000 years ago.”
The idea is that through the sacrifice of Jesus we’ve all been accepted by God. Someday we will all be part of the whole of the human race throughout history proclaiming the goodness of God through Jesus Christ.
But it the meantime, it does make a difference what we believe. It was first explained to me like this, so don’t read too much current politics into it, the point is theological, not political. Suppose you are an alien hiding out in the desert. Your life is defined by your attempts to allude detection, just getting by, a sense of loneliness and fear. One day congress signs and the president signs a bill declaring that all immigrants are now full citizens with all the rights, privileges and duties of anyone else. You don’t have TV or newspaper or Internet. Someone walks along and tells you one day, you are free, dude. Check it out.
Then you have to decide. Am I going to stay in my cave, or am I going to take a chance that this might be true? If you walk out of the cave, you may discover that it is true, that you do belong, that you are a full citizen. Except in this case you are a full citizen of the kingdom of God now and forever. You don’t have to hide you don’t have to live your life in shame. Come out and walk around and see what it’s like. But the choice is yours. You can keep hiding in in there for as long as you wish. But those who accept the fact that they are are already accepted by God because of what Jesus has done, find a whole new wonderful way of relating to their world, an abundant, full life.
So the plea is come out of the cave. Not so you can go to heaven in the end, that is already going to happen. Come out so that you can live the abundant, free, life that God always intended for you. A life where you find that it is more blessed to give than to receive, that the things of love and grace and peace make for a purpose-filled life.
Option #3 Progressive/Process Theology
The third position is one that views scripture quite differently. They say that some of the key passages that undergird the theology of substitutionary atonement stretch scripture beyond their original context and meaning. They point out that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement was first put together by a medieval monk named Anselm a full 1,000 years after Jesus. So for the first 1,000 years of Christianity no one talked about salvation in the ways that we’ve just explained. Although the verses came from scripture, it wasn’t conceived of in that way for half of church history.
A good treatment of this option is found in the book, Instead of Atonement. It’s a position that says the God of Jesus is a God of mercy and if we make God out to be one who demands violence for salvation then it’s too easy for humans to wind up justifying violence toward each other.
The way…On the way of discipleship, we discover that we are saved from a life bent in on itself to a life that makes a difference.
The progressive theology and process theology accounts say that it isn’t really fair nor accurate to portray God as a divine being who cannot find a way to forgive people unless something, particularly an innocent person gets killed. If we are called to forgive people who hurt us without something dying, why can’t God do the same? The point about sacrifice isn’t the blood, but the commitment.
In progressive theology the point isn’t so much about escaping hell and going to heaven after death. It’s about living a quality faithful life that makes a difference, that aligns itself with God’s purposes in this world. We live as good and faithfully as we can and trust in the promise that God takes care of us in the next life, if there is one.
This focus is on living according to the example and teaching of Jesus. Are we willing to lay down our lives for a higher purpose? Are we willing to practice spirituality, hospitality? Do we live lives of compassion for the least and the lost?
Salvation is a process of following the way of Jesus which from the outset is difficult. Things do not always turn out pretty. There will be opposition. All our prayers are not answered in the way that we want. But we give of ourselves and find that in doing so we are transformed into something we want to be. People of grace and love and hope. Process theology says that one of the key scriptures for substitutionary atonement says that faith in Jesus is what saves us. They point out that it is a matter of translation. It more likely means that it’s the faith of Jesus, that saves. And faith isn’t just about what you come to believe about Jesus, but it means trust.
The question isn’t so much for you to identify the day you decided to start believing in Jesus. It means that you trust that his way of living is the way that saves us. If asked,
“When were you saved?” The answer would be, “It happens every time I open myself up to God and my life to the way of Jesus. It’s an unfolding, daily process.”
We are saved from meaninglessness. We are saved from loneliness. We are saved from wondering if “this is all there is.” We are saved from thinking we have to go it alone. We are saved from the futility of a life turned in on itself to a life that says we truly find a fulfilled life by giving of ourselves for others.
So, there is a wide spectrum amongst faithful Christians about what we mean when we talk about salvation. All of them affirm the centrality of Jesus in the act of salvation. And I’ve outlined three of the major ones today. I know at Bay Shore Church we have people who believe passionately in each one of these and I know there are folks who’ve never give it much thought at all. So, the question is, what do you think? What rings true in your experience? Maybe you want to pick and choose elements of all three, we have that, too.
If you are primarily concerned with the question about where you will spend eternity, you may lean toward substitutionary answers. If you are concerned about a faith that finds a way to say in the end God accepts everyone regardless of what prayer they’ve prayed or what they believe, the accepting you may lean toward the accepting you are accepted option. And if you are concerned about how to live a meaningful life that looks for transformation of your life and this world, you may lean more toward the process/progressive end of the spectrum.
Personally, at different times of my life I’ve found my beliefs in each of these camps. And I really can respect people who are at different places than I am today. I’ve been there. Each has something deep and meaningful in making me who I am today.
I love that a core value of Bay Shore Church is a sense of humility that we are all seeking truth and we allow each other freedom of interpretation as to what that means and what it looks like. Personally, I believe that it’s good to be in conversation with people along the spectrum. We learn from each other and learn to respect differences.
Jesus saves. I wonder what that means for you and I hope you can find in him even more than what you think you are seeking today.