Getting Saved?

3 11 2010

How to explain the fullness of Salvation to a church culture which has, for a hundred (maybe even a thousand!) years, reduced it to God’s forgiveness given through the cross?  To put it more boldly, the expression, “I got saved when I was seven,” communicates the erroneous notion that the sum total of salvation occurs when one is lead to repeat the “sinner’s prayer” (or something similar).

Here is a parable, based on the Prodigal Son, that may help:

(We take up the story where the now destitute son has seen the error of his ways and has begun his journey back home) . . .   The father sees his wayward son in the distance and runs to him.  The son, seeing his father drawing near, begins to humbly ask if he can return as a servant since he is no longer worthy to be called his son.  The father quickly hushes his son and tells him none of that matters.  All his son need do is ask for forgiveness, admit his fault and the hopelessness of his situation, and he will be forgiven all the wrongs he has committed against his father.  The son promptly does this, even kneeling at his father’s feet.  When he has finished, the father raises him to his feet and proclaims, “My son, I forgive you!!”  The son weeps with joy and begins to lead his father in the direction of home.  The father asks where he is going.  “Home,” the son replies.  “Oh, but you can’t go there yet, my son.”  The young man replies, “What must I do first father, name it, anything, I’ll do it.”  The old man smiles and says, “My son, have no fear, all that is mine is yours– the house, the land, the animals, the servants, all of it.  And as soon as you turn 65 and retire you can come and move in and enjoy it all!  Until then, go!  Live in the world and do your best to be good, and tell everyone how I have forgiven you.  I will always be in your heart, ok?”  Dumfounded, but eager to earn his father’s approval, he turns to go, vowing to do all his father has asked.

How long will this young man remain on the path of righteousness?  What good is the forgiveness he has received if he cannot participate in the full life of son-ship?  Can the father and son be said to be truly reconciled if they are not abiding together and sharing life with one another?

Dallas Willard, in the third chapter of his The Spirit of the Disciplines, asks this shattering question:

Why is it that we look upon our salvation as a moment that began our religious life instead of the daily life we receive from God?

The chapter is entitled “Salvation is a Life”.  As Willard builds his case, he posits:

One specific errant concept has done inestimable harm to the church and God’s purposes with us– and that is the concept that has restricted the Christian idea of salvation to mere forgiveness of sins.  Yet it is so much more.  Salvation as conceived today is far removed from what it was in the beginnings of Christianity and only by correcting it can God’s grace in salvation be returned to the concrete, embodied existence of our human personalities walking with Jesus in his easy yoke.

Once salvation is relegated to mere forgiveness of sin, though, the discussions of salvation’s nature are limited to debates about the death of Christ, about which arrangements involving Christ’s death make forgiveness possible and actual.  Such debates yield “theories of the atonement.”  And yet through these theories the connection between salvation and life — both his life and ours — becomes unintelligible.  And it remains unintelligible to everyone who attempts to understand salvation through those theories alone.  Why?  It is because they are of no use in helping us, as the apostle Paul puts it, to understand how, being reconciled to God by the death of his son, we are then “saved by his life.” (Rom. 5:10)  How can we be saved by his life when we believe salvation comes from his death alone?  So if we concentrate on such theories exclusively, the body  and therefore the concrete life we find ourselves in are lost to the redemption process.  And when that happens, how else could we see the disciplines for the spiritual life but as historical oddities, the quaint but misguided practices of troubled people in far-off and benighted times?

Willard argues that the New Testament “knows nothing of a purely mental ‘faith'”.  To be saved is infinitely more than having ones sins forgiven so that he can go to heaven after death.  Salvation is a move from one world to another, two worlds which have radical and irreconcilable differences between them.  For example, Colossians 1:13 defines being “saved” as being “delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the Kingdom of his dear Son.”  This must, of necessity, cause a marked change in the way daily existence is live out.

Looking at Luther’s insights as a potent example of someone who sees salvation as a life,  Willard describes faith as “powerful life force” that reveals itself in the New Testament in three ways:

  1. The presence of a new power within the individual, erupting into a break with the past. . .  (Acts 5:31, Rom. 2:4, 2Tim. 2:25
  2. An immediate but also a developing transformation of the individual character and personality (2Cor. 5:17, Rom. 5:1-5, 2Pet. 1:4-11)
  3. A significant, extrahuman power over the evils of this present age and world, exercised both by individuals and by the collective church.  (Matt. 28:18)

The next time you or I invite the “unsaved” to come to Christ and be “saved” we need to be very wary that we are not offering something significantly less than what Christ intended.  To do so makes as little sense as what the “father” in our little faux-parable offers to his repentant  son.  If that is what we are, in fact, offering, then we are failing to be the body of Christ– the continuing presence of the risen Lord in the world.




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