Soteriology Part 1

Recently I’ve been trading e-mails with a friend of Jen Lemen’s who lives here in Nashville. The other day she sent me a message which had the following question:

I’ve been really thinking about something I thought you said about Jesus and how our salvation is about more than just his death on the cross. But, in going back I can’t find where I got that. Now I don’t remember if you said it or someone else. Anyway, any thoughts? Easter has had me thinking a lot about this. Like a good evangelical, I’ve always been of the belief that everything comes back to the cross. That the whole point of God and us is the cross, but I want to know if there is a perspective I hadn’t thought about. Maybe in focusing entirely on the cross, there is something of life, His life I’ve not experienced. I’d love to know what your experience and perspective has been.

I worked on a response to her question, but promptly lost it in the recesses of Eudora. As I’ve gathered my resources to write again, it occurs to me that the issue of salvation (soteriology, in seminary language) is probably a good series of blog posts, so that is what I’m going to take on the next couple of days.

I don’t know whether I made the comment that my friend attributed to me (that salvation is more than Jesus’ death on a cross), but I believe that. God’s redemption of the world, what we call salvation, has been an ongoing story in which Jesus’ death is a key plot element, but not the entire story. God’s work of salvation was present before Jesus walked on the earth, and God continues the work of salvation through modern manifestations of grace. Most of the focus in Protestant theology has been to connect salvation to an event (as in, “…I was saved at a revival on June , 1968…”) connected to a human decision to “believe in Jesus Christ.” Yet maintaining an event based notion of salvation loses the richness of understanding that God redeems us day by day by day.

One reason for our event focus is the tendency to what to boil down salvation to dualistic categories: in or out, saved or unsaved, heaven or hell, holy or extra crispy. Whether it is the influence of modernistic categorization or simple sinful human nature, we want to know whether we have jumped through the hoops to be saved. Salvation is boiled down to a set of principles or laws (thanks Bill Bright) so that we can easily identify whether our butts are in heaven (thank Dallas Willard) or not.

It’s not unlike the high school students I once spoke to. I had been invited to come to speak this group of United Methodist youth with the understanding that I would (as the chair of our conference’s Board of Church and Society) be speaking on and answering questions about our Social Principles. However, when I arrived I descovered that what the youth had been told was that they were coming to a program titled “Hot Topics: Answering Your Questions About Sex.” So I found myself standing before 200 kids for some three hours talking about sex. Here’s what was interesting. On the surface the questions appeared varied, dealing with things like oral sex, anal sex, etc. But when you came back to the core issues what the kids really wanted to know was “How far is too far?” Basically they wanted me to draw a line in the sand so that they could definitively know whether they were sinning, or engaged in healthy exploration and fun.

We too have the same tendency. We want to know the parameters of salvation so that we can meet the requirements. Yet to define salvation in these ways is to preach a lowest common dennominator gospel. It is to focus on the bare minimum and ignore the possibility of an abundant life that is fuller, richer, more robust. This lowest common denominator gospel is one of the reasons that we have lots of converts but not many disciples.

“But Jay,” I can hear some say, “salvation by definition is a dualistic enterprise. After all you are either saved or not. You can’t be saved and more saved.”

The point is well taken. Yet maybe, just maybe, the problem is the language that we use which reflects our needs and desires rather than God’s. You see Jesus didn’t talk much about salvation as we understand it. Instead Jesus spoke more about the Kingdom of God, and descibed values of the kingdom. As we are learning in Iraq “kingdom building” is rarely based in a single event. The establishment of a kingdom is an ongoing process which involves relationships that are messy.

I’m off to my next appointment. We’ll continue this later.

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