Well, Mr. Lough…
I am more than a little intrigued by the final paragraphs in your last letter, so if that was your intention, you succeeded admirably. As you know, a description of human salvation like the one you summarized there is at the very heart of evangelical Christianity. Aren’t you concerned that raising questions about something as basic as how to understand the idea of salvation and how to relate to Jesus as savior will further weaken your ties to the evangelical community?
Still, if you are willing to risk that, I’d like you to say more about your new perspective on this important subject.
First of all, no, I am not concerned that what I believe and write about the subject of salvation, or any other topic for that matter, will weaken my ties with evangelicalism. I have skirted the periphery long enough. It is time for me to verbalize, as succinctly as I can, how my thinking has changed in specific areas—even, or especially, those regarded as most essential or most controversial. I won’t be deliberately provocative, but neither will I any longer sacrifice honesty to diplomacy nor candor to ambiguity.
As the term is used throughout the Hebrew scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), salvation describes an act of God to rescue people from evil or danger. God steps in to the human situation and compassionately gets involved in order to liberate and protect his people both from adversaries and, at times, from themselves.
As Brian McLaren puts it in A Generous Orthodoxy, God saves by judging (i.e. bringing truth and justice into our deceived and oppressed world) and by forgiving. Here’s how he puts it on p. 104.
Judgment without mercy is not salvation but condemnation. It doesn’t lead to reconciliation and peace; it leads to alienation. The good news of salvation is that God sent Jesus not to condemn but to save: to save by bringing justice with mercy, true judgment with true forgiveness. First by exposing our wrong (judging) so we can face our wrong and turn from it… and then by forgiving our wrong. God intervenes and breaks the chain of cause and effect, of offense and alienation, so we’re truly saved—liberated, rescued—from the vicious cycle (a.k.a. the mess) we created.
But, according to McLaren (and many others, I am coming to find out), salvation is still more than judging and forgiving. It also includes teaching.
To say that Jesus is Savior is to say that in Jesus, God is intervening as Savior in all of these ways, judging (naming evil as evil), forgiving (breaking the vicious cycle of cause and effect, making reconciliation possible), and teaching (showing how to set chain reactions of good in motion). Jesus comes then not to condemn (to bring the consequences we deserve) but to save by shining the light on our evil, by naming our evil as evil so we can repent and escape the chain of bad actions and bad consequences through forgiveness, and so we can learn from Jesus the master-teacher to live more wisely in the future.
So you see, Kathryn, salvation means far more than merely providing a means through which individuals, by giving mental assent to a theological proposition, can escape hell and damnation after death. It is a much fuller, much richer, much more robust reality into which we can enter right now, with implications and consequences for all of humanity in the present and in the future.
This is a key part of what the Bible, especially the New Testament, means by the term the kingdom of God. The kingdom is not a spiritual existence outside the realm of time and physical matter. It has already come wherever people experience the salvation of God and set themselves to working to make this world a better place, a place that reflects—in and through its inhabitants—the selfless, loving character of Jesus the king. And in that way, we can think and speak of Jesus as the savior of the whole world. That salvation will be known and experienced, to an ever-increasing degree, through the efforts of the citizens of the kingdom to live out the principles of the kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit of God.
It is altogether appropriate, Kathryn, for us to be thinking about these matters during Lent. And as we approach Holy Week, culminating in Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we will have many more opportunities to address issues that pertain to salvation, including the purpose for Jesus’ crucifixion and the benefits of his resurrection.
I think I will turn our attention more pointedly toward the kingdom of God in my next letter, Kathryn. Take care.
All the best,