Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Salvation is Societal

I wrote this back in February of 2010, so apologies from the outset to those who are allergic to reblogging.  But a lot has happened since then.  When I wrote this, I was still a Protestant Evangelical Charismatic ordained Presbyterian minister and SIM missionary teaching at a conservative Evangelical Kenyan theological college.  Now I am none of these.  Instead, driven by astonishment over what I was discovering about God and salvation and me, even after all these years, I made the very costly decision to leave all that behind and become an Orthodox Christian.  It has been hard, hard, hard and on multiple levels.  But knowing what I now know, I am where I must be.  Anyway what follows is a snapshot of one of the steps in the process of what turned out to be my conversion.

Rublev's The Hospitality of Abraham, or, The Holy Trinity


Archimandrite Innocentios Byatakunga began his homily last Sunday at Nairobi’s Orthodox Cathedral of Sts Cosmas and Damian, following the gospel reading from Matthew 25 of the parable of the sheep and the goats, with this three-word sentence:  ‘Salvation is societal.’  This was unexpected.  As was his next sentence, which tied our salvation directly to the very essence of God as Trinity.  Just as God himself is a society of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, just as humanity reflects God’s society and capacity for love in that the created image of God in humanity is both male and female together, just as sin is ultimately the rejection of the choice to love, and ultimately the rejection of the Trinitarian society of love, so salvation is humanity’s reintroduction into the life of the Trinitarian society of love, humanity recreated in the resurrected Christ with the capacity and vocation to love restored. 

Ok, I’m of good Protestant/Presbyterian/Evangelical/Charismatic stock, a 1970s graduate of both the Four Spiritual Laws and Evangelism Explosion and 1980s-IVCF’s Ten Steps to God and the then nascent so-called Church Growth movement, but I aint never heard the gospel presented like what I heard last Sunday!  You see, as a card-carrying Evangelical, and, even worse, a theology faculty member at an Evangelical theological institution, I and my ilk have been taught and continue to teach and preach that salvation is about me being right with God, about me responding to the gospel, about me being ‘born again’, about me trusting Christ to save me from my sins and believing that his death purchased my salvation from condemnation and so therefore I am saved.  In other words, salvation is about me.  It doesn’t help matters that I come from one of the most me-centered, individualistic, self-absorbed cultures ever produced in human history.  Nor should it surprise anyone that many attempts to make Christianity ‘relevant’ to such a crowd focus primarily on Christianity’s supposed advantages in the hunt for self-fulfillment, prosperity and success.  Words and phrases like ‘suffering’, ‘discipline’, ‘dying to self’, ‘crucified with Christ’, ‘cost of commitment’ have all but disappeared from the sermons, web pages, magazines, books and TV programs of the most popular preachers, churches and ministries.  It suddenly strikes me that a case could be made that in most conservative and popular churches in my country of origin, the gospel long ago ceased to confront the cultural assumptions of the majority but has increasingly become identified with them, even married to them.  Not only does it not cost anybody to become a Christian anymore where I’m from, but by all accounts it will be to your material advantage and physical well-being to get right with God. (Yes, yes, I know that there are exceptions to the picture I’m painting here, but might not our own defensiveness here itself a symptom of our over-much concern for our own reputations?)  By these lights, God longs to ‘bless’ me, he yearns for my success, he’s just waiting to set me free from all those things that prevent me from being all I’m meant to be.  And then on top of all that, I get to waltz into heaven on account of my wonderful Savior.  It all sounds so good.  It’s a message that’s seemingly guaranteed to fill your church and force you to display just how successful your ministry is by having to build a new ministry center just to manage all the crowds.  The only problem is, according to Fr Innocentios, that this version of Christianity simply isn’t Christian.

In all fairness, there have been Evangelical voices making the same critique for years.  David Wells, my old theology professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has been sounding alarm bells on precisely these issues for years, but to seemingly no avail.

When it comes to salvation, at the very least we Evangelicals suffer from a confusion of language.  To describe the experience of being reconciled with God through the death and resurrection of Christ, most Evangelicals (at least) have adopted a kind of short hand lingo to explain what has happened in their lives.  We give ‘testimonies’ about our ‘conversion’ and talk about when we were ‘saved’.  All fine and good.  Except that too many of us have forgotten that these are simply short-hand expressions describing the actual biblical process of salvation.  In fact, most so-called ‘conversion’ narratives are talking about a personal apprehension and application of the New Testament idea of ‘justification’.  Again, all well and good.  But what has tended to happen is that for many of us, what the New Testament describes as ‘justification’ has in fact for us become ‘salvation’, as if now that we have our legal issues sorted out between us and God thanks to the intervention of Jesus and his willingness to ‘die for our sins’, ours is simply to believe the good news and so be ‘saved’.

Perhaps our best theologians know better, but nearly everybody else I’ve talked to recently believes that justification is what gets them into heaven.  Never mind for now that the goal of salvation in the New Testament is not ‘going to heaven after I die’, but the New Testament simply does not teach that justification is salvation.  The distinction is crucial.  The New Testament (and most of early Christianity with the exception of a rather dire spell in the Western medieval Catholic church) understands that none of us are ever justified before God by our own efforts or ‘good works’.  Justification is entirely by the grace of God and accomplished entirely by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  But justification isn’t the end, it’s simply the beginning.  It’s the door one must go through to enter into what it means to be saved.  And what it means to be saved is to enter into the transformative relationship of love with the Holy Trinity, a relationship that realigns our hearts and requires our own response of love, both to God the Trinity and to our neighbor. 

In this sense, faith is not belief; rather, faith works by constantly demonstrating our trust in God’s promises of love by learning how to love in response, which means becoming increasingly like Christ as we live as members of God’s new family and God’s irrupting Kingdom, seen mainly in how we treat one another and those around us.  But even if our legal problems are resolved by Christ and our character problems are being resolved by the Holy Spirit, we still all have a death problem. 

Death is the negation of God’s gift of live and of God’s intentions when he created humanity.  And until death is undone, and not just death in the abstract, but my bodily death and yours, conquered so that you and I are released from its corruption and dissolution and raised to a new life by the power of the New Adam who himself came to engage not just sin but death itself and slay it by bursting its bonds through the power of his own resurrection—until we see our Savior with new living eyes in our own resurrection body, we cannot say that we have been saved yet.  This is the hope of the gospel, the hope towards which the New Testament points.  And a ‘salvation’ that does not involve a transformational relationship with the Holy Trinity, the fruit of this relationship of love in our lives and the actual rescue of our sin-corrupted bodies from death into the resurrection life of the new humanity and new creation of the New Adam, such a ‘salvation’ is a hell-inspired parody.


Me-centered Christianity is an oxymoron.  Too many ‘gospel’ presentations are clever sales pitches designed to appeal to self-interest, which, when one thinks about it, is not too far off the strategy used on Eve by the serpent in the garden.  Instead, we were created to love.  And only when I realize just how far I’ve personally missed the mark will I then realize that repentance is my only hope.  Christ then becomes in my eyes the door of escape from my self-induced hell into a new way of living, in relationship with God and in relationship with one another.  This is the way of salvation, the way of Christ.  No longer are we talking about abstract theology, but real relationships and real deeds of love.  ‘Then the righteous (!) will answer him, “But Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, and gave you food, or thirsty, and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing.  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the King will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”’  (Matthew 25:37-40)

Salvation is societal because salvation is love; and that’s because God, as Trinity, is nothing if not love.