Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Salvation, part 2

Hi - what a good conversation we started here. Thank you to all who responded to my last post either in person, email, or publicly on the blog.

At the extremes, there are two different approaches to the "who is saved" question. These approaches intersect in various forms throughout Christian doctrines and the Biblical witnesses (plural - as with most of our big questions, the Bible gives us critical guidance but doesn't give an easy, consistent answer). Different traditions have worked this out in doctrines and practices as varied as double predestination, universalism, forced baptisms or complex tracing of ancestry to save your relatives in past generations. It is a sticky, difficult question.

Here are the two poles, as I see them.

1) Something you do clinches your spot in heaven. At the extreme, this means that you must act in a way consistent with Jesus calling in order to go to heaven. This shows up all over: Be a good person, follow the way of Jesus, get yourself baptized, join a church, take communion, seek out forgiveness and absolution, have faith, serve people, give your money away. Gandhi is often lifted up as a non-Christian who it's hard to imagine in hell because he was such an exemplar of human goodness. There are a variety of actions that fall under this category and there is wide debate about what it is that you have to do to be saved. Residue of this exists in most people's faith consciousness and it can inspire fear for people who ask the question: Am I good enough to be saved?

2) God alone has power over your salvation. The extreme of this approach says it doesn't matter what you do, God will (or won't) save you. Based on this approach, people might argue that Gandhi is in heaven because God's grace would expand to include someone who grew up without the same opportunity to grow in faith as those of us marinated in Christianity. This also covers the vast numbers of people who grew up in the faith but for some reason or another couldn't, with integrity, come to believe. There are an awful lot of people out there who wish they had faith, but just don't and can't force it. The "God's grace is huge" approach doesn't hold those people responsible for not being given the gift of faith.

This is, I think, where people like Rob Bell end up. God is too loving, too gracious, too expansive in mercy to let anyone live eternally separated from God's love. God's power ultimately wins out.

The classic Lutheran (pauline) formulation is saved by grace through faith. This thread is found most clearly in Romans. Grace is the free gift from God, but faith matters because through faith you claim the grace that has already been offered.

Importantly, in Romans, Paul contrasts "faith" with Jewish heritage, not with lack of religiosity altogether. He's arguing that non-Jewish people with faith in Jesus are part of salvation history. As far as I can tell, he isn't exactly addressing the question we are. Someone who is a Biblical scholar, please correct me if I'm wrong on this.

There is always the risk of turning faith into a human work instead of a gift from God and Lutherans work hard to make sure they don't turn faith into a litmus test for salvation. But there is, as one blog comment noted, a wide gray area on this.

Luther is more nuanced on salvation many people give him credit for. Martin Marty interprets Luther in the chapter "Will non-Christians be saved" from book"Lutheran Questions, Lutheran Answers":
God is hidden. Then God is also revealed. Luther says that even when revealed, God remains hidden: who would look for God in the bread and wine of Communion, the water of baptism, smudged ink in a Bible...The startling thing confronts his readers when Luther goes on to say that God is hidden not only in revelation but behind revelation. This is a way of saying that God is God and we are not; the mind of God is other than the human mind; the treasures of wisdom of God are vast, boundless and ours are small and spare and sparse...Our decisions have to be based on the knowledge we have: to share the word of grace, to take the commands of God seriously, to relish and be joyful about the word of salvation that we have received. The rest we leave up to God.
The key concept here is humility in the face of God's grace and the mysterious mechanisms of salvation. Opening up the possibility of salvation to non-Christians doesn't need to threaten the faith of Christians who are convinced, because of our encounters with the living God, that Jesus is the saviour of the world. Could it be that God is hidden not only in bread and wine, but also the non-Christian neighbors we've come to love?

More thoughts??


  1. I suggest you start reading the New Testament and forget all the other books you're reading.

    Take a stand.

    You are saved by grace though faith. That faith is a gift and not anything of your doing.

    It's very simple.

    To say otherwise is leading people to hell.

    While no one can say for sure who goes to heaven and who doesn't. Why risk it?

    Are you really doing people a favor if you preach that as long as you are good you will go to heaven.

    You might want to change professions and do something else.

  2. Dear Anonymous - I don't think you and I will be able to have a productive conversation on this so at this point, I'm not trying to continue a conversation.

    But I want to clarify something just to make sure I've not written something that was misinterpreted:

    I don't preach (nor do I think) that as long as you are good you go to heaven.

    What I do preach is the importance of God's grace - which is a free gift and far wider in scope than our human minds can comprehend - for our salvation.

    Thanks -

  3. You haven't been able to say "the only way to heaven is through belief in Jesus Christ".

    I hope that you at some point in your life will be able to say that without all the extra words.

    Salvation is a free gift from God.

    Non-believers do not go to Heaven.

    I hope you are not hurting the people of your parish by misinforming them.

  4. I've just now been looking at some the blogs linked to our ELCA web site and I very much enjoyed reading and thinking about this post. You so eloquently put into words my thoughts and feelings. I can never know or truly understand the mind of God! If I try to think of exactly what his thoughts on how all of humanity may or may not be in relationship with him I will inevitably make God way too small! I can believe, I can keep getting up and showing up in life every day. I can receive him in the body and blood, and in the word. I can strive to love and help and pray and be thankful. I can offer my talents- I can fall, and frequently do. I can acknowledge that I am broken and then once again believe, and get up and show up..... But I just am not able to see the clear line where someone goes to he'll. And I have no desire to. Peace be with you.

  5. Maybe the silly auto correct on my iPhone knows best. Will not easily let me type hell.

  6. From another barefoot child of God:

    Hi, Sarah,

    I've yet to read the tutu book but I love the title. I have an idea that Our Lord denies being a Christian. With some of the Christians I've met - and it'd be too simplistic to say that they aren't Christians - I sometimes feel like doing the same.

    Who was it who said <> but the Herr Professor Marx himself?

    Love & Prayers

    Franciscan Jerry Hall
    London, UK

  7. More from the above:

    Sorry I'm posting as "Anonymous" but I can't make the computer accept me as Google or anything else.

    I thought I would be receiving your blog regularly when I signed up as a "follower"; and I don't understand what happened to my photo!

    More Love & Prayers



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