Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
“What must I do to be saved?” The question was posed to Paul by a jailer in Acts after an earthquake had freed Paul and Silas.[i] “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question was asked of Jesus by a rich young ruler. [ii]
There are two ways of doing religion. There’s the subjective way: I do it because I like the way it makes me feel. I enjoy it. It relaxes me and helps me cheer up. That approach to religion began in the psychologically obsessed 20th Century, reflecting what Philip Rieff called “the Triumph of the Therapeutic”.[iii] Liturgical Christians didn’t discover it until the 70s, but we then swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. Then there’s the objective way. Religion is about something that really, seriously matters, and not just to us, but also to the world around us. That was the dominant if not only approach to Christianity for centuries. When we Christians talk about that real deal, something is actually at stake here, this actually matters kind of religion, we use the language of being saved or eternal life.
But Paul and Jesus gave quite different answers – or at least answers that at first glance seem very different -- to questions that look a lot alike. Paul said we are saved by believing in Jesus. Jesus said we inherit eternal life by acting morally and achieve perfection by giving up our possessions and following him. Different answers are ok if this is all a matter of what makes us feel good. But if something more important is riding on our religion, we need to get it right and different answers make us nervous.
Christians all agree that Christianity is first, foremost, and essentially a way to be saved. But the denominations differ as to how that works. That is nothing new. The Early Church offered different answers. According to Pelagius we have complete free will so we can choose to be perfect and are therefore required to be so. We are saved by our moral conduct, which is vindicated by a just God. Augustine said our free will was compromised by the power of sin dominating us, that our will is freed up somewhat by God’s grace, and that we are saved by the mercy of a loving God.
Roman Catholicism, especially in its medieval form, said salvation depends on membership in the Church and mediation by the Church.[iv] Lutherans rejected such mediation, saying salvation was an individual thing achieved through believing the right doctrines. Hence, Mozart’s quip: “The problem with Protestantism is that it’s all in the head.” We are apt to say far less witty and decidedly unkind things about each other’s ways of salvation. We Christians are prone to vituperative judgments of each other’s how to be saved doctrines and to cling tenaciously to our own as we suspect we have a lot riding on getting it right.
But most of us don’t give enough thought to what it actually means to be saved. We assume rather quickly that being saved is as opposed to being damned. The saved are the ones whose sins are forgiven so they go to Heaven when they die. Those who are not saved are condemned for their sins (which may include theological mistakes like being of the wrong religion or even the wrong Christian denomination) and are therefore condemned to eternal torment in Hell upon their deaths. The Scriptural case for this assumption is not strong.
In none of the Gospels does Jesus say very much about being saved in the sense of not being damned. In the three synoptic Gospels, he does not seem much interested in our beliefs about him or anything else.[v] His concern is the Kingdom of God, not a place we go when we die but God breaking into the world to overthrow the powers who are now in charge, so that there will be good news for the poor, release for the captive, freedom for the oppressed. Where he does speak of reward and punishment, as in the parable of the sheep and the goats or the story of Lazarus and Dives[vi], believing in Jesus is irrelevant. Salvation turns on kindness to the poor, precisely the kind of good works some Protestant theology abhors.
John does not have much of a sense of Hell and punishment, but he does make eternal life depend on believing in Jesus.[vii] Until the Farewell Discourse, John shows markedly little interest in morality at all, but then (and in his Epistles) makes everything turn on love of Christ but it is Christ in each other we have to love.[viii]
Paul is, as Peter said, “sometimes hard to understand.”[ix] He speaks of the coming redemption of the whole cosmos from corruption caused by sin. He sees sin and death as partners in oppressing life. Sin is not so much wrong choices freely made as enslavement, more an addiction than malevolence, and salvation is liberation through the power of the resurrection granted to the elect. Yet, he certainly spent his life urging people to believe “Jesus is Lord” and wrote endlessly about how to be transformed by the power of love actively practiced in a community.
What Does It Mean To Be Saved? Most people start with these assumptions about Christianity:
1. The world is divided into the saved who will go to Heaven on death and the damned who will go to Hell on death.
2. The purpose of religion is to get oneself in the saved group and stay out of the damned group.
That kind of religion inherently makes God coercive. If “God” means the greatest Good, the deepest Truth, the most sublime Beauty, our Source and our Destiny,[x] the Meaning and the Purpose of all reality, do we actually believe those things about coercion? Do we worship coercion? I hope not. I hope God is better than that.
If this is what religion is about, then any of the methods of salvation is problematic. In the right belief model, God who supposedly loves us makes our eternal bliss or eternal torment depend on our getting the right answer on a tricky multiple choice test which the overwhelming majority of us fail. If it turns on election/ predestination, then God is arbitrary and capricious (saving or damning us on his own whim without regard to who we are or what we do) while making our choices and the actions that constitute our lives meaningless. Would the Meaning of reality render our mortal lives meaningless? If salvation turns on our good behavior, how good must the behavior be since none of us is perfect -- and what handicaps are figured in? Some of us have the advantage of loving healthy homes while others grow up battered then are shuffled into the school to prison pipeline. Is that also the pipeline to Hell? More fundamentally, placing the Heaven carrot and Hell stick over our heads corrupts us, turns our good deeds into self-serving transactions to buy our way into Heaven while our brothers and sisters are off to Hell. How loving is that? The better the person’s actions, the more corrupt his motives. Salvation through good works is indeed incoherent.[xi] None of these models work!!!
Thank God, such a religion is not the best reading of our Bible. Luke the Physician is the main source of the word saved in the New Testament. His Greek word is not a legal term for pardon. I am not saying we do not need to be pardoned. God knows I do. But that is not what the word means. It is a medical word, the root of salve. It means to heal, but that does not quite get it. It does not mean just to patch up but to make whole. It suggests we have come apart somehow and need to be put back together. Salvation is wholeness – of body, mind, and spirit – a wholeness to our lives that are apt to be so divided and scattered. It means getting it together and having our brokenness set right. In the New Testament, this happens in various contexts and various ways. In Luke, Jesus heals 10 lepers, one returns to give thanks and Jesus tells him his faith has made him whole.[xii] Note the other 9 had their leprosy cured – they were patched up -- but this one was made whole. Likewise, a woman with a hemorrhage is told, “your faith has made you whole.”[xiii]
But just verses later, look what happens: Jairus’s daughter is dying and Jesus says “Do not fear but believe and she will be made whole.”[xiv] The problem is: what about the daughter’s faith or lack thereof. It doesn’t matter. Someone else’s faith can make her whole. Faith seems to be the sine qua non of wholeness – no faith no wholeness as faith is the missing spiritual glue -- but what faith means and even who has to have the faith seem variable.
What, if anything, does this healing, this wholeness, this salvation have to do with “eternal life?” These sound like completely different categories. But there’s a clue in the story of our rich young ruler who asked how to achieve eternal life. Jesus told him to live according to the law, the halacha, which means “the way of life,” then went on to say if he would be perfect, to sell his good and become a disciple. Perfect in our minds connotes spotless, without a fault, and is pretty intimidating. But the word Jesus used that we translate as perfect means complete, like a circle. It means whole. And to be saved is to be made whole.
Remember Jesus’ message wasn’t about earning our way into paradise or avoiding perdition. It was about the Kingdom of God. He had seen the Father’s dream for our world -- the dream of good news for the poor, healing for the afflicted, freedom for the captive – and he loved that dream. His first petition in the simplest of prayers is “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” He invites us to participate in the Kingdom by doing God’s will. God’s will is the way of eternity. It is the cosmic order.
A life outside of God’s will is fractured and futile. That isn’t a punishment. It’s just how it is. A life lived for some other purpose – for example to amass a fortune which we will lose when we die[xv] and someone else will waste it as it says in Ecclesiastes – is simply a wasted life. But to live in God’s will is to live in eternity. Eternal life by definition does not begin when we die. It happens now, and now, and now again. Eternal life is in each moment when we are doing the will of the Father. The trick is we don’t do it for what we can get out of it, because that isn’t doing the will of the Father. It’s ingratiating ourselves to get an advantage. That’s why the rich young ruler had to give away his precious possessions. We do the Father’s will because we have seen his dream for the world as Jesus did, love it as Jesus did, and lose ourselves in that loving. “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.”[xvi] It is when we lose ourselves (our egos which are the dividers, the fracturers of our souls) that we fall into the wholeness of Christ.
The notion of salvation, as we have said is a comprehensive wholeness. Eternal life, I believe, is a part of that, a subset if you will. It is not about the fate of our souls but the meaning of our actions, the value of our life by which I mean the things we do. Salvation comprehends our lives by making our actions meaningful, a part of God’s eternity. That happens when we “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.”[xvii]
How Are We Saved? How then does God graciously act to restore wholeness to our broken hearts, minds, spirits, and lives? Our greatest Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, used salvation as a comprehensive term to include three processes that occur at different times. God and we have different roles in each of these processes.
1. Justification comes first. It means forgiveness and reconciliation, restoring us to our status as God’s beloved children, washing away the stain of sin, redeeming us from the powers of this world that would corrupt and destroy us. God does this as a solo act. It does not depend on our actions, our beliefs, our membership in any community, or even our sacraments. Baptism according to Hooker is a seal placed on what God has already done. God did it in Jesus on the cross before you and I were born. It’s a done deal. The victory is won.
The question is did God do this for all or for only a chosen few. There are two opinions about that. Great theologians have said God elected some for salvation and others for perdition. But others like Origen and Frederick Dennison Maurice have taken the Universalist view, which I find far more consonant with the God I worship. That means we have all been redeemed whether we like it or not. There is no deserving about it – not even believing the right religion or belonging to the right Church. I find a key in the words Jesus used at the Last Supper. “This is my blood which is shed for you and for (here the word is dicey) for the forgiveness of sins.” We usually translate that word as “many” but it is really not a restrictive. It is an inclusive word that would be better translated as “all.”[xviii]
St John said, “We are God’s children now (that’s the justification part); it does not yet appear what we shall be but when he appears, we shall be like him. (That’s the sanctification part).[xix] This is where we come in as active participants.
2. Sanctification means transformation into holiness. The adage goes: God loves us the way we are. But because God loves us, he doesn’t leave us this way. The New Testament is rife with instruction and inspiration for our being “transformed from glory unto glory.”[xx] “We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.”[xxi] “Do not be conformed to the ways of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”[xxii] “We are God’s children now. It does not yet appear what we shall be. But when he appears we shall be like him.” In some Christian traditions, we speak of Christification, which means to become Christ-like, and of Theosis, which means to grow in godliness.
So who does this work of sanctification? Hooker says it is a joint project, a partnership with God. God will justify us whether we like it or not. We do not get to choose whether God loves and forgives us. But God will not coerce and dominate us into holiness, will not destroy our personhood (which is his image in us) by overriding our wills. The metaphor for that would be God pulling our strings like marionettes. But the metaphor for sanctification is not a marionette show. It is a dance. In fact the ancient image of God from the 4th Century Cappadocian Fathers is of the Cosmic Dance. We do not become godlike by becoming puppets. We become godlike by becoming dancers with divinity. He leads. We follow.
When does this process happen? Now. This is what the mortal life is for. I will come back to the ongoing salvation process in a bit more depth soon but first let’s see where this is all leading.
3. Unification. The state of mystical union with God is our destiny.
In monistic religions, the goal is to obliterate the self in the whole, like a drop of water falling into the ocean. That is a beautiful and compelling image. But the Christian image of God is as the unity of all things (the Whole) but a unity that delights in proliferating diversity. God loves us in our diversity, our personhood, and our individuality. In unification, God does not obliterate our separate consciousness but integrates is into a cosmic harmony.
When does unification happen? Not in this life. In the Resurrection. Who does it? After a life of praying each day “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done” – week after week lifting our hearts (meaning our wills, not our feelings[xxiii]) – our wills are so joined to God’s that the distinction has fallen away.
Stages Of The Salvation Process In This Life. Back when I lived in the evangelical South, people would occasionally ask my former Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Frank Allen, “Are you saved?” He would answer, “Yes. I have been saved. I am being saved. I hope someday to be saved.” He had read his Hooker. The being saved is the process that is ongoing during this mortal life. I give this special attention for two reasons: 1. It’s breaking news, what’s happening now. 2. It’s the part we can do something about.
Since the 6th Century, we have thought of the spiritual life as consisting of three ways – purgation, illumination, and unification.[xxiv] Purgation is the reorientation of our hearts and minds toward love. Illumination is insight into the grace of God. Unification is the mystical union that was also stage three for Hooker. Some have written of these as three successive stages (as Hooker’s process of salvation is three stages). I think that is wrong. It seems to me purgation and illumination go hand in hand and proceed together. Glimpses of unification happen at moments along the way but come to flower only in the Resurrection.
The way of illumination is through study, reflection on experience, and much prayer. The way of purgation is where the faith community comes into the picture. Paul’s letters are overwhelmingly about the challenging spiritual art of relationships in a faith community. The famous Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13 is not about marriage, but being a congregation. It is lofty and hard. It will knock off our rough edges if we let it. This is the soul-shaping character-forming wisdom-teaching process of purgation, the purification of the heart.
Church exists for the purpose of this process, but the Church does not have a monopoly on it. Family life, work life, social life, public life, and – yes even this, perhaps especially this – politics all form the crucible for our purgation. Charles Mathewes in his Theology Of The Public Life reads Augustine as saying life in “the earthly city” is to be engaged and oft-times endured for the sake of preparing our souls “to bear the weight of glory.”
What then must we do to be saved? In one sense nothing, in another, a great deal – a great deal indeed, a lifetime’s worth of sometimes joyful but other times arduous loving.
[i] Acts 16: 25-31
[ii] Matthew 19: 16-21
[iv] That is of course a huge over-simplification. Thomas Aquinas taught that God’s grace empowers us to do good and the good we do “merits” salvation.
[v] In Mark 8, Jesus’ mind turns to, “Who do people say that I am?” There are various answers. But when Peter says, “You are the messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus does not say, “Right Peter. You win the jackpot of eternal salvation.” The answer leads to a prophesy of his suffering and a call to “take up your cross and follow me.” Belief is just the precursor to action.
[vi] This is the story of the rich man who ignored the plight of the beggar Lazarus then in the afterlife the rich man suffered thirst and longed for Lazarus to bring him water. It’s actually an older Egyptian story that the gospel writer may have picked up somehow. But it may also lend credence to Matthew’s account of Jesus having grown up in Egypt. He could have heard the story there.
[vii] There has been much ado in recent years about how wrong it was of the Early Church to exclude from our canon of sacred texts the Gnostic gospels, which make salvation turn on an intuitive grasp of a truth others are too dense to see. John was actually excluded from the canon at first because it was seen as a Gnostic gospel, making salvation turn on recognizing Jesus as God and the ability to see that is simply given to some but not to others. St. Irenaeus made the case to include John and was able to get John in the canon in part because John finally turns from an exclusive focus on belief to love in the farewell discourse. Irenaeus was trying to broaden the Church so that we might appeal to Gnostics by including John. But lest we be too hard on John, remember that believing in does not mean just holding an opinion in ones head. It is placing one’s trust. My doctor for example believes in a plant-based diet. I believe that the world is round but when Columbus sailed toward what (if he was wrong) would have been the edge of it, Columbus believed in a round world.
[viii] 1. John 4: 7-21
[ix] 2 Peter 3: 16
[x] “The whence and the whither” as Karl Rahner famously put it.
[xi] This is the double bind that triggered Martin Luther’s spiritual crisis.
[xii] Luke 17: 19
[xiii] Luke 8: 48
[xiv] Luke 8: 50
[xv] My friend Anna Marie Howell recently quipped in a sermon, “You’re never gonna see a hearse pulling a U-Haul.
[xvi] Mark 8: 35
[xvii] Ephesians 5
[xviii] Morna Hooker, Not Ashamed Of The Gospel, p. 55
[xix] 1 John 3: 2
[xx] 2 Corinthians 3: 18
[xxi] 1 Corinthians 15: 51. Two things to note about this. First, it would appear that the change happens in this life, not after death. Second, the change is in the passive voice. This emphasizes that we don’t change ourselves by the power of our own free will as Pelagius said, but rather the change is done to us or in us by another – but I will argue, not without our assent and active cooperation.
[xxii] Romans 12: 2
[xxiii] In Antiquity, when this prayer began, the heart was understood as the center of the will. Feelings came from the liver.