What must I do to be saved?
I had someone ask me that question once. Not exactly in those words perhaps. She probably said something more like, how do I become a Christian? Or, what does it mean to be a Christian? It was kind of scary to be asked straight out like that…you don’t normally expect such a blatant opportunity to ‘share the gospel.’ But, I had my answer ready. I told her the story of the fall, and how all humans were sinners, destined to face the wrath of God. But that Jesus, who was the Son of God, died on the cross receiving in our place God’s anger against sin, so that whoever believed in him would have eternal life…a personal relationship with Jesus now, and heaven after death.
I don’t know if this woman decided to become a Christian. But I do know that when I hear myself saying those words now about what it means to be saved, there’s no longer any resonance there with my experience of the Christian life. I don’t think I would tell the Christian story in the same way any more. Today is my attempt to re-frame an answer to that question, ‘what must I do to be saved?’
I’ll start with a couple of ‘not’s…that is, things I think are red herring pathways to eternal life. There are some popular, and current ways of talking about salvation that I’m becoming increasingly wary about. They sound good. They sound particularly appealing to our comfortable Western ears. But I think they’re a fake gospel. One is the idea of salvation as more or less the same as therapeutic healing. The counsellor or psychotherapist is the new priest, mediating wholeness, or wellness to us. And gradually, salvation is being defined in terms of personal happiness, or freedom from unhelpful feelings of limitation, guilt, or grief. God wants to make us well. Healing, not holiness, is the goal. Many churches are now using the language of therapeutic wellness to frame the Christian message.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of therapy. I think people almost always benefit from counselling when they’re walking through the painful times of life. I also rate happiness…I want more people to experience it. But I don’t think that the spiritual life is the same thing as emotional or relational wellness. They’re intimately connected, but one does not equate to the other. What counselling tends to effect is the healing and strengthening of our ego-selves, improving our capacity to live effectively in the world as it is. I believe Christ wants to take us beyond our ordinary ego self into a new identity, a new life, lived in union with God, and with a view to transformation not just of ourselves but also the world in which we live. This is ultimately a process of Spirit. And it involves a very counter-cultural kind of death to the self we think we are, or want to be.
The second caution I have is about the gospel of personal potential. In this gospel, salvation consists of ‘being all that we can be’, using the power and love of God as a means to our self-actualisation. Sometimes, this takes the form of motivational teaching toward success and excellence. Sometimes, it takes the form of reminding us that actually, we are God, we just forgot, and that the way to freedom is to throw off any limits we have around traditional morality, or ideas about God’s separateness from us. The Neale Donald Walsh series of books on ‘Communion with God’ is an example of this kind of thinking. This model gives us the personal freedom to express our own divinity. In this way of thinking, there is no evil, only fear, and forgetting.
The objection I have to this model of salvation is that it offers no challenge to the prevailing attitudes of our culture, with its emphasis on self, and personal freedom. God is subordinated to ‘me’ as the primary being of interest in the world. Nor does it provide for any morality, or ethic beyond self-fulfilment, which is a slender platform on which to build a lasting social order, or systems that promote justice for the weak. And finally, I don’t think it provides an adequate response to the reality of evil. Humans are capable of the most horrendous acts of cruelty to one another, and to other parts of the creation. It seems abundantly clear to me that we are not able to transform ourselves or our society just by pursuing our own good. Call it what you will, it seems we are beset by a collection of internal and social drivers that tend toward harm. Let me be traditional for a moment and call that tendency ‘sin.’ For me, any notion of salvation has to offer an adequate response to that problem in our human experience.
I haven’t really thought much about this notion ‘salvation’ for a few years, because I have been trying to get away from dividing the world into the ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ - those who know God, and those who don’t. And, if I no longer see eternal punishment as the outcome for those who don’t believe the same things I do, I have a situation that begs the question…does anyone need to be saved, and if so, from what? What I have come to, is that actually we need to be saved from ourselves, and our capacity to do harm …saved from the things that prevent us and others from living a life in connection with God. Saved, if you like, from sin.
I don’t really like to use the word sin. It smacks of all the things that people in churches say and do to manipulate, demean, judge and frighten people in their personal lives. It feels like a relic from another age, a previous set of theological emphases. But the more I live in this world, and the more I live with myself, the more I feel the need for the concept to describe what I see and experience.
Let me read you a few headlines from a recent Herald newspaper: “Drink charge over multiple car smash…Teenage girl charged after another dies in street fight…Dismal view of violence to women goes to UN…Well-off child a new breed of school bully… Accused defrauds investors of $29million…”
All these are situations involving normal human beings, born into this world as babies, and through some combination of inheritance, environment, and social systems, ending up in situations of damage, violence, or fraud. There, but for the grace of God, goes any one of us. I believe we all make similar choices to the people whose stories end up on the news, it’s just that our choices are made in contexts where the consequences are smaller scale, and more inter-personal, than the ones that we designate as public crimes, and they’re buffered by certain kinds of character development and moral teaching that comes from reasonably fortunate environments. And, I believe we all participate in the structures that ensure that some people, rather than others, are more likely to end up in vulnerable situations, by the elaborate, systemic ways we advance ourselves at the expense of others. The lack of will to bring change in the world is in itself an outworking of sin. As are the daily ways we protect our own psychological wellbeing by judging, criticising, manipulating, deceiving, putting down or ignoring those around us.
Sin is another word to describe the wrongness we often feel in relation to ourselves and the world. A concept of sin allows us to say that the way things are is not always good. Often things happen that should not happen. And that rather than seeing the problem as ‘over there’, we recognise that the root of it is in ourselves, as well as in ‘others.’ A concept of sin allows us to say that we are responsible for our actions, no matter how much we also consider ourselves to be the victim of other people’s actions.
The idea of salvation, then, starts with an alternative vision for how the world could be, and the sense of wanting to find some alternatives to the kinds of damaging and distressing things that frequently happen in our world. It is the Christian contention that Jesus provides, and in fact, is that alternative way. Salvation, in a Christian worldview, deals with the problem of sin by inviting us to follow the Way of Jesus, and to be transformed into his likeness.
I suspect that the nature of salvation is actually a lot broader than the evangelical church has tended to suggest. Jesus had multiple encounters with multiple people, all of whom in one way or another needed salvation. To some he said ‘keep the commandments’. To others he said ‘go and sin no more’, to others he said ‘your sins are forgiven,’ to others he said, ‘your faith has healed you,’ and to others he said, ‘give all your wealth to the poor.’
However, I think that there are some key statements from Jesus that together form an answer to the question ‘what must I do to be saved?’ And these statements hold within them a vision of salvation and the Christian life that compels me.
The three statements that I consider particularly important are:
from Luke chapter 10: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself…do this and you will live.’
from John chapter 3: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ [some translations have ‘born again’]
And from Mark chapter 8: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’
This last passage is repeated in both Matthew and Luke as well.
I want to be so bold as to claim that taken together, these three statements are all we really need to know to enter life with God, which is eternal life. Of course, as soon as we start to dig into the ideas, we need to call on the resources of the rest of Scripture and Christian theology, but I think they’re a very helpful, simple starting place.
To run the ideas together, we have something like this: God calls us to love God, and love other people as ourselves. This is in itself, a sufficient description of what it means to be saved. However, the ‘self’ that desires communion with God and others needs to be transformed, so that this love of ours increasingly reflects that quality of love that God has, instead of being constantly corrupted or de-railed by sin. This transformation is a process that involves being ‘in Christ’…renewed in our selves so that our former identity gives way to a new identity infused with God’s Spirit. This is such a shift that it can be described as a new birth. The transformation process also involves following in the Way of Jesus, which is a Way of self-renunciation, of embracing the pattern of death and resurrection that lies at the heart of Jesus’ experience and message.
Dying and rising are central images in the New Testament. They are very closely aligned to the image of re-birth. As well as our physical death, we all need repeatedly to experience the death of old ways of being, so that we can be born into a new identity...an identity centred on God, and attuned to the Sacred, rather than one obsessed with what it takes to make it in this world as it is. Jesus Christ crucified, and risen, is the physical embodiment of this process that is at the heart of the Christian life, of dying to a former self and rising to a new one.
Matthew, Mark and Luke each include that statement of Jesus’ that to follow him is to take up a cross…that is, to follow in the path of death. Luke adds the word ‘daily’… ‘daily take up your cross’, emphasising how walking in this path is a lifelong process. The apostle Paul picks up on the centrality of this idea…with his statements in Romans, Galatians, and Corinthians, about dying and rising with Christ. He says things like ‘I have been crucified with Christ, so that it is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me.’ He draws on the imagery of baptism to illustrate how we die with Christ and then live again in Christ.
This death, I am convinced, is not anti Self. I don’t believe that God has any interest in wiping out the unique creatures we each are and replacing us with a Jesus clone, a simulacrum. The problem is not that I am me, but the way I have made ‘me’ into an object separate from myself…a thing to be protected, and made into something I think people want, in order to secure my happiness. What needs to die is our investment in who we think we are, what we think we have achieved, what we plan for ourselves, and all the compensations, habits and defences we use, often unknowingly, to enable us to live independently in this hurtful world. What needs to die, then, to put it in the old language, is the self that is bound up in sin.
What is offered instead is life ‘in Christ’, a phrase Paul uses 165 times in his letters. It is life as a new creation, life lived in harmony with God’s Spirit, and with other people. Life ‘in Christ’ is a life oriented to saying ‘yes’ to God, and where my core is open to the presence of God, the love of God, and the influence of God on my actions and choices. Life ‘in Christ’ is also participation in a common life that transcends the divisions of society… ‘in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.’ This statement suggests how the Christian vision of salvation also potentially addresses the kinds of systemic social and cultural sins that pervade our world. Salvation is not just an individual concept. It is a concept that needs to address the whole of humanity, and the interdependent groups and structures through which humans exist.
This process, as Luke says, is a ‘daily’ one. Some may have a moment where they point to it all starting. But to follow Jesus, we still need to take up our cross daily…that is, to choose again this pattern of dying and rising that is the enabling force behind our capacity to love God, and to love our neighbour.
I realise that what I’m saying is all a bit conceptual…a bit abstract. Where it is worked out though, is in our spiritual practices, as we deepen our relationship with God, and our openness to God’s Spirit working in us. And it’s worked out as we try to live each day as people who love God and love others. In a few weeks I hope to speak a bit more about the kinds of life practices that flow on from this understanding of what salvation means.
But to end today, here are some images of salvation, which I have borrowed from Marcus Borg, who’s borrowing from the gospels:
This new life in Christ is good news. “It is the life of reconnection with God. It is the life of the returned prodigal, welcomed home from exile; the life of the healed demoniac, restored to his right mind and to community; the life of the bent woman, standing up and restored to heath; the life of the woman of the city, redeemed by her love; the life of Lazarus, raised from the dead.”
It is the life of freedom, joy, peace and love. And the greatest of these is love.