I’ve agreed to write a chapter on “Salvation in Christianity” for an edited study that compares Christianity to a competing faith system. In preparation I’ve surveyed the many uses of “saved” and “salvation” in the Bible. From my reading came a set of questions I’m still trying to process. What, for instance, are we saved from? From Satan, or death, or God’s judgment? Maybe all three? Maybe more than those?
And, in a related question, who saves us? Is it something we can accomplish on our own? If, for instance, we speak of someone being saved from a burning building we might mean that they were saved because an alert person set off the building fire alarm so that the saved person knew to rush out of the building just in time. Or, in the same sort of scene, we might speak of a person rendered unconscious by smoke who is saved by a fireman wearing a respirator who carries that person out of the building. The first of these two people was helped by the fire alarm but, in a real sense, saved himself by taking the alarm seriously and then rushing down the stairwell to get out of the building. But the second person was utterly helpless and needed to be saved by the skill and bravery of the fireman.
Another question has to do with the outcome: what are we saved “to”? In other words, does the Christian story of salvation deal mainly with avoidance: how to avoid the fires of hell? Or is it more relational—like the story of the prodigal son who is saved from his degraded lifestyle by returning to his father’s loving embrace? Or is it mainly a utilitarian theological exercise that pits the elect who are saved over against the reprobates who aren’t, with both displaying God’s glory via his mercy on the one hand and his justice on the other?
I suppose we could analyze all the questions and the possibilities I’ve just raised, then try to chart them to see if the biblical evidence promotes certain options more than any others. But I’m hesitant because it’s not the way God approaches the topic in the Bible. As he moved the many Bible writers to address “salvation” they almost always offer rescue stories or brief aphorisms, psalms, or proverbs that speak of troubled settings where a divine rescue is needed.
So let me offer a brief storyline here that helps me, and perhaps can help others, probe the question.
The triune God is the star of the overall Bible story. He existed in an eternal communion of mutual love and glory, speaking of how to share this triune love. How? By creating a universe with relational beings (the male-female “man”) created in his own image. Why? Because the Father wanted to share his Son with others in order to spread the goodness of their own shared love and glory, and to offer his Son a beautiful bride, perfectly suited to him.
So God created Adam and Eve, the inaugural pair, to be bonded to each other and to him in love. Their union was meant to prosper in just the same way that God’s own triune communion prospers as an unending union-of-love. But God also knew that love by its very nature—as wholly other-centered—can never be imposed. It breathes the air of free and spontaneous reciprocity in mutual devotion and delight.
God also knew that his own creativity would be expressed in and through this new “man” and with that creative impulse a hideous option would be taken sooner or later: the exploration of independence from God. It did come: in the simple act of looking away from God and others in order to look simply at oneself in love. This, as God knew would be the case, led to a living death because his Spirit departed from the man’s soul in the instant the man looked away from God, his first love, and made himself into a replacement for God.
The bond of God to his created man was the man’s basis for life: he relied in God’s indwelling Spirit to give life to his own human spirit, as well as to the spiritual bond of the husband and his wife. Eternal life, after all, is something that only God has, and which humanity only shares by union with God in his Son and by his Spirit. The Spirit who had bonded him to God was grieved by this betrayal of love and instantly fled from Adam’s soul.
And, as God knew would happen, the first couple were instantly enslaved by self-love: Adam had no greater desire than to care for—to protect, nurture, and please—himself. Adam was now dead in his sins; and so were all his offspring as they were all born as Spirit-less people. Nothing could save him from the black hole of self-love except a love far more attractive than self-love. That would be God’s love.
God, then, was determined to draw some—yet it would never be all—back to himself by sending his Son with the offer of restored life and escape from the tragedies produced by self-love. This was his great offer of love because it would send the Son to the cross to die for our sins.
Here’s what happened next. God invited all to come to the wedding feast for his Son. But not a single RSVP arrived with a “yes”. Instead everyone was busy in their self-concerned pursuits. Yet not all were successful in their pursuits. In fact, while the more able and impressive people were able to succeed—often at the expense of their poorer and weaker neighbors—many of the poorer were broken and despairing. Many, in fact, had discovered the emptiness of sinful independence from God. But nothing could save them from the state they were in.
So God the Father—determined to go forward with the wedding feast and to find a bride for his Son—then began to draw to himself mostly the poor, the weak, the foolish and sinful of the world to be his elect. Those who are forgiven much loved much, and they became his targets. Many responded and were saved—they became children to the Father and a bride to the Son. None was ever forced to love him, but all had turned away from their self-love when the beauty of the Son captured them. The Spirit came to pour out God’s triune love in their hearts and they couldn’t resist him. They had tasted independence and now despised it. But for all the others who were more successful in their self-love . . . well, God finally gives them over to what they want.
Some will live happily ever after. This is salvation. Many won’t. This was by their own preference—a judgment God accepts and sustains. The End.
Thank you Ron. And those of us who have accepted His love are called to share it with the rest of the world. I think it is part of His love that He privileges us to often be the hands and feet of the very Love that saved us. I know I have most often felt the Father’s love through the actions and care of brothers and sisters.
Thanks for this Ron. The bible often reminds us of our need to take a look at and remind ourselves of what we have through Christ Jesus the author and perfector of our faith and through whom we have rightness with god. We all too often forget this (even from morning to evening). What you have written refreshed and lifted my soul. A reminder in all things to give thanks for our Lord Jesus Christ who has given us access to the throne of God, yes God himself. Amen 🙂
This brings to mind Proverb 1.
How do we respond to Gods love? As you said that Adam and Eve chose self love but Noah chose unending union-of-love with GOD.
As a Christian how do I show that unending union of love? I open my heart to GOD (Proverb 23:26), I sit down and pray to Him every day and moment by moment, I trust Him every moment of each day, I forgive others the same way HE has forgiven me. (Mathew 6:14-15), I show Love to my brother as God has shown His Love to me. I spread His word every chance when I am at the stores, on vacation, etc. (Mathew 3:10). I show Love to my Neighbor as He commands (Mathew 12:31,33).
I know that these verses show my fear of not obeying God. Because of the choice God gives me, I have chosen to Obey GOD. But I do these commandments because God loved me first. So I show my Love to GOD by obeying his word. (1John 2:5)
So when I see the beginning of the Bible and GOD gave Adam and Noah choices. God told Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge or he would die. Adam chose to eat of the tree of knowledge and was booted out of the Garden to die, but Noah chose to build the Ark without questioning GOD and was saved. I see this same theme over and over throughout bible, From the OT to the NT.
I knew when I wrote this, Bill, that the vexing issue of human choosing would be stirred: the question of who inaugurates salvation. You’ve picked up on that feature by suggesting that God’s love is something of a background feature in life available to all and, therefore is something that WE then choose to embrace.
But that’s not what I’m suggesting here, because it smells of self-love and a self-justifying version of faith: a faith that is MY effort. What I see, instead, as the key element is that we are responders and not self-moved “choosers” as the Stoics would have it. Our death in sin is such that we NEVER choose God. He then comes to those who are least captured by the benefits of self-love and draws them out of death into life by the captivating disclosure of Christ. In some texts we find out more about how God did this (as with Paul) and in other places we know less (as with Noah), but we can be sure of this: no one saves themselves.
First, what is your definition of responders?
In my paragraph 3, I show that I am responding to GODs love for me. I cannot do anything without first receiving His Love. Then I respond with the only way that I am able to show my Love towards GOD.
I became a slave to GOD when I responded and open my heart to him and started receiving His way. God’s way is not my way. I cannot perform any of God commandment and instruction without His lead. I am not looking at these as if I earning my way.
We must be fully aware of the action GOD asks us all to do. Faith in Christ is two way street. We either respond to His Love or we reject His Love. I gave up my slavery to the world and became a loving slave to GOD. I have taken off the heavy shackle and replaced with a very light shackle.
Everything that has happen in my life in the last 10 years is from GOD. I am not able to begin to accomplish anything on my own. Hopefully this explains my view on responding.
Let me comment, Bill, and then invite other readers to chime in: what you’re addressing is very important (and something we often talked about when we read through the Bible together).
My comment on responding had to do with the topic of this entry: salvation. Your response had to do with the post-conversion experience. In your speaking of the “two way street” of faith I’m concerned that faith might be turned into a duty-to-respond version of faith. The reentry of duty is my concern.
Paul was speaking to the Galatians about just this question when he asked, rhetorically, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” [in 3:3] By “flesh” he was referencing the works of a law-centered faith [in 3:2]. His point was clearly related to the motivational basis of faith: it’s either our response to the Spirit (whose presence births love, joy, peace, etc., in us, none of which ever violates the Law & therefore displaces the Law) or we’re back to being anthropocentric law-keepers. As he summarized his position, we’re all called to a “faith working through love” [5:6] in our spiritual walk as well as in our first conversion. It’s all about our focus: we’re either looking at our own emerging godliness as we work hard to get better; or we’re looking to Christ while others notice how we’re changing but we’re not particularly self-conscious. As AW Tozer once put it, faith is the gaze of our soul. So where are we looking?
Anyone else want to comment? This is a important issue and I appreciate Bill’s effort to get it right.
It’s Ironic Ron and Bill,
My Arminian friends at work, one sounds proud of himself virtually every day. The other one is more subtle: “I never got ‘Amazing Grace…wretch like me'”. He has never identified with the wretch label.
When I look at my self (hopefully it’s not a distraction) I see someone who does not drink does not chew, does not go out with boys (or girls) who do. I resist taking the Lord’s name in vain, etc. And more and more I feel loved by the Lord, and He walks with me through the filth and shame. I know He loved me first. I believe I love Him, but frankly, I blush to say publicly “I love the Lord”. The closer I seem to get, the brighter His glory the better I see my own sin, the less accomplished, much less meritted I feel. As sinful as I am, saying “I love the Lord so much” feels like self-worship. Maybe I loved the Lord relatively just as much 32 years ago when I was a new christian and really self absorbed. Logically, the more I am given the more righteous I ought to be right? “If you loved me you would keep my commandments”.
If the Gospel was kept to being His work through-out, a la the Galations message…
As soon as I got saved by faith alone through Christ alone, I stepped back off of the faith bus back on to the works treadmill, or one foot on the bus one foot on the treadmill, YIKES! That is where the church usually takes us in it reading of faith works.
Now, I believe that the more I bask in His Glory, seeing my sin, and believing He loves me anyway, and has forever, resting in His love as best I can, the better He in His Grace enables me to return that love, and spread that love.
But I believe that love is eternity ahead of me. LOOK! It’s already been some 32 years as a Christian, to finally be mostly convinced that He really loves me. I know others who believing as children have endured unspeakable abuse at the hands of people in church. How long will it be before they will feel secure in the love of Christ again?
If we think that any measure of our response to salvation is a measure to doubt our salvation, I fear we have much to learn.
We have begun by the Grace of God to receive His love. It continues by the Grace of God.
God judges the heart.