A thought that I’ve been working through recently is the nature of salvation in Christ. What is the essence of salvation? What should our invitation for others to experience salvation employ? Is the way we generally think of salvation today, more or less, what the churches through the centuries thought of it, as well?
In this area, one could speak very technically, examining the nature of salvation through the different eras of the church. We could examine how the basic plot of the doctrine of atonement has been altered, from Christus Victor to Penal Substitution, as it passed through different social and cultural epochs. That would probably be a ‘dandy’ of a paper for some, but not for all. So, I thought it would be better to reflect on my own story. It really isn’t salvation in 2 stories, but 2 parts of one story that, and as I think further, presents 2 ideas of the nature of salvation.
Salvation as a lone Journey, a Personal Walk
Although my parents took me to church from when I was young, I didn’t seem to take much to it. I thought that it would be better to stay home and sleep. In high school, I went to a friend of mine’s first sermon that he preached at his dad’s church. It was moving. I remember being asked by someone if they could pray for me. I said, “I want to be a better Christian.” However, I felt that I really wasn’t one, after all. After that day, I knew that I needed Christ and that I needed a change in my life.
Shortly after that, I joined a youth group at a growing evangelical church. I have to admit, that I felt out of place. The majority of these folks seemed to know the Bible and were sure about their faith. I was a new Christian, and I might have been the first new Christian they ever had around. Though it was of no fault of their own, I felt like the project; the new guy. On my first youth trip, the only seat in the church van that was available was the passenger seat in the front next to the youth pastor… it was a set up.
This is the first story of salvation. Many times the way salvation is presented is a person’s lone journey to Jesus. The “Footprints” poem more or less highlights this idea. “Being saved” is Jesus and I walking together, sometimes we are walking side by side, and other times Jesus is carrying us. I often wondered, Where is he taking me? Did Jesus die so I could walk through life with Him?
I felt that it was the case. So, I spent the next several years working on my “walk” (which is a good evangelical word, by the way. The first time that someone asked me how my walk was going, I wasn’t sure what they were talking about). I tried to use better language, treat people more kindly, read as many books as I could to increase in my knowledge and effectiveness in the walk. I didn’t want to be the new guy any longer. I didn’t want Jesus to have to carry me all of the time. For me, Christianity was like an al a carte vocation center; pick your path, you’re on your own, God’s got a plan for your life so go find it and do the best you can…
Salvation as Story
After a while, the ‘new guy’ label started to wear off in this youth group. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, I began to grow in passion and devotion to Jesus. I learned how to pray, how to share my faith with friends, and how to live more like a Christian should. During a night of extended prayer and worship at a youth group meeting, one of my friends and a long-time Christian came up to me and said, with tears in his eyes, “Joe, I’m thankful that you are part of this youth group. You are an important part of us. You make us a better youth group.”
So salvation is really “us” and not “me”.
Perhaps the appeal for someone to be reconciled to God is not from a posture of “come find God’s personal will for your life,” but “God is writing a pretty awesome story, here. Instead of condemning the world, He is claiming it as His own. We (the people of God) are part of that story that is unfolding. There is definitely room for you; come be a part of this story, with us!”
Salvation as story slays 10,000 demons, including the self-centered spirituality that impedes discipleship, taints our collective witness, and provokes divisions among us. Though the oft quoted axiom may be technically true, “If you were the only one that Jesus had to die for, he would have,” that is not the story that the Bible shares. Instead, Jesus died not just for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2) This story is a lot bigger than us; we are not the lead role in this story, but are among a host of supporting actors who get to be a part of the huge story!
The way we share of salvation as story would certainly change. Instead of dangling listeners over the prospect of hell, leading them to only choose Jesus so they get out of hell and not because they really want to follow the way of Jesus, we would share the invitation to be a part of life that is truly life. We share of a loving and gracious Father who searches for us, embraces us, stops us during our litany of excuses and self-condemnation, throws a robe around us, puts the ring of sonship or daughtership on our fingers and demands that a huge party is thrown because we are home. (Luke 15:11-32)
The story is that now, not only later, God is invading this present world with eternal life, a richness of life with God’s presence and those who would desire to jump into the story can because mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)
This is a story that you and I would want to be a part of.