Salvation is Bigger than Forgiveness

What he is claiming is that the “the broadest picture of redemption” in Christian thinking “is adoption.” I was a bit surprised by that but it made more sense when he explained adoption as “union with God” or as “oneness.” This makes redemption radically relational, and it makes redemption both vertical and horizontal — and it means that redemption is ultimately about the union of love, love of God and love of self and love of others.

What happens, I was asking myself, to evangelism when the focus is on union, or adoption, or on oneness? What happens to “discipleship classes” when the focus is oneness — with God and others? What happens to preaching? to Sunday morning worship? to music? to .. all sorts of dimensions?

Back in the 80s a well-known NT scholar argued that the central image of salvation in the Bible is reconciliation, and not a few griped that the scholar was caving in because the center was justification. The scholar was right, so I think. Reconciliation is a variant on union and adoption and oneness, and that scholar joins hands in some ways with Kyle Strobel and therefore with Jonathan Edwards whom Strobel is sketching. Yes, that Jonathan Edwards, the one everyone connects to that sermon. Edwards saw redemption as the admission of the church “into the society of the blessed Trinity” (Strobel, Formed for the Glory of God, 38).

Life, then, is a pilgrimage. To heaven. But heaven needs some new clothes if we go along with Edwards: heaven is about union with God and others; heaven is about God’s grace work in us; the pilgrimage is a journey, not an anxiety ridden endeavor; it is a journey into the very life of God. And heaven is for Edwards, remember this, a world of love. Christ has already made that journey, that ascent; ours is to enter into his journey by being “in” Christ. The journey is about communing with Christ, about indwelling Christ, about union with Christ. The journey is the journey of learning to love.

Now to glory, one of Edwards’ most famous words. Edwards saw glory in three elements: first, the inner life of love in God. Here again we brush up against the perichoresis of Eastern theology though Strobel does not connect this to the Easterns. Second, when God creates God does so as the fountain of glory and love and creation is the expression of that love and glory. Third, humans participate in these streams of glory flowing from the fountain of God’s love. That is, humans participate in God’s own glory. These streams of glory lead us into the love of God. All in all, God’s glory is life abundant. God’s glory is our happiness.

Now to beauty, another one of his favorite words. In the journey toward the Beautiful One we become beautiful through transforming grace. God is beautiful and defines what Beauty is. Knowing God in love is to be drawn into the glorious beauty of God, and this drawing is a transformative drawing. Fear of God does not transform; the beauty of God does transform. All things good and beautiful in this life are Eikons leading us to the Beautiful One. “True beauty is God and his infinitely perfect life of love” (50).

Beauty, like glory, then is a term of relationality. Where the Spirit is there is Beauty.

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  • mark

    Back in 1972 John Ziesler published what was, if I recall correctly, his doctoral dissertation: The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul: A Linguistic and Theological Enquiry. His overall thesis was that dikaiosune, as applied to the believer, is best understood as bringing the believer into a new relationship with God. My contention is that this understanding is key, not only to understanding Paul’s theology, but to the entire Christian understanding of “revelation” in its global context–the context that Paul attempts to sketch out in the introductory chapters of Romans.

    Sadly, the Church lost this understanding to a great extent, adopting instead (especially in the West) the non-biblical doctrine of “original sin.” The “Reformation,” from a theological perspective, far from reforming this emphasis that had already done so much harm, doubled down on it, leading to further incalculable intellectual and spiritual harm to the West.

  • Eric Weiss

    What is communion but representational (or some might say, appropriational) of our union with Christ and with each other? “Because there is one loaf….”

    “Union with God” might sound dangerously “mystical” to some Evangelicals, but it, and the accompanying building up of the many-membered One Body in love, is the heart and goal of the Christian life and of our salvation, as well as how God and Christ become all and in all.

  • Mark, it seems a tad sloppy to invoke little more than common assumptions about the doctrine of “original sin” and the lay the blame at its feet. (And it appears as a non sequitur in your comment.) Biblically, there’s no denying that (for St. Paul at least) we’re somehow wrapped up in Adam’s disobedience—it’s just to what extent that’s often in dispute (e.g., are we inclined to sin as a result of our being in the lineage of Adam without being guilty of his sin, or is imputed guilt for it a part of the package?).

    I’d also add that if original sin is the foil, why is it that some of its most strident supporters, not least those who think we’re also guilty of Adam’s disobedience, precede or follow Edwards’ thoughts on this score as described in post above? Apparently it doesn’t undo the doctrines of adoption, union with Christ, or a relational understanding of redemption, etc.

  • Scot, I was also recently following closely to this trajectory when reflecting on a tweet from Richard Rohr the other day: “Forgiveness in the teaching of Jesus is not for the sake of moral purity; it’s quite simply for the sake of a future.”

  • chrismayeaux

    I think you’ve stumbled across the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation as union with God, theosis and deification. Forgiveness of sins is one side of the coin while our ascent to all we were created to be is the other side. One of the main reasons I converted from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy. Great post.

  • mark

    Chris, I’ve actually posted on this topic in greater detail in the past, and didn’t want to be repetitive–at least not except for the main point.

    Re your objections, therefore, I’ll simply point you (as I have others in the past) to a multi-part and detailed exposition of my arguments–or at least several parts of it. As you’ll see, if you choose to explore my views, there is excellent reason to deny that Paul shared the views that you espouse:

    Paul and the Yetzer Ha-Ra

    Early Christian Thought on Original Sin

    Original Sin: The Later Fathers

    Augustine and the West

    Chesterton’s Thomist View of Myth

    There’s lots more to be said–and I’ve tried to say it, if incompletely–and I’m trying to say it. At any rate, thanks for engaging on this important topic. I do note that you’ve thought about it seriously.

  • mark

    IMO, Ziesler’s work points in that direction, too.

  • Tu-jur

    My apologies if this is an odd question but who is “he” in the first sentence?

  • fb

    not odd at all. i wonder if this was a cut-and-paste error, as we seem to have been dropped into a discourse a bit after the original beginning. i feel confident that dr. mcknight will clarify.

  • Kyle Strobel

    Edwards held to a view of theosis and a distinction between essence/nature that parallels Palamas’ essence/energies distinction. This is somewhat standard in Reformed theology actually, but Edwards definitely pushes it a bit. If you are curious about how this plays out for Edwards or some of the historical issues involved, see my chapter “By Word and Spirit: Jonathan Edwards on Redemption, Justification and Regeneration” in Jonathan Edwards and Justification ed. Josh Moody and my article “Jonathan Edwards and the Polemics of Theosis” in Harvard Theological Review 105:3 (July 2012).

  • chrismayeaux

    Yes, but like all Protestants, he held to a forensic view of justification rather than an ontological one as the Orthodox do.

  • Thanks, Mark.

    For my part, I do prefer (along with the Orthodox), the concept of an “ancestral” sin that does not include imputed guilt but does explain our inclination toward sin by virtue of our relationship to the “first” pair (however that’s explained). Being a good Anglo-Catholic, I further affirm that for those who are baptized into union with Christ, sin is no longer their master (and thus death has no sting).

    I’m enjoying what I’m reading on your site thus far (from the first two posts). My main nit still stands, however: it remains to be seen how one’s views on original sin really and truly subvert the relational dimension of redemption as described in the above post. Put another way, the one reformer who is well known for incorporating (understatement) the doctrine of union with Christ in his theology is the same guy who’s often the center of the storm on the “doubling down” you mention above—namely, Calvin.

  • mark

    My main nit still stands, however: it remains to be seen how one’s views on original sin really and truly subvert the relational dimension of redemption as described in the above post.

    That would undoubtedly be an interesting place to go, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. I should make it clear that Ziesler uses the term “fellowship”–through faith and in Christ we enter into fellowship with God. That’s what justification is all about, and IMO it’s pretty hard to see fellowship in the Augustinian/Calvinist doctrine of original sin. Relationship, in a sense, but not fellowship. Nor, I have to say, do I see how the Orthodox version “explains” “our inclination toward sin.” My view is that both versions suffer from a failure to understand the nature and purpose of Genesis’ Adam and Eve narrative–a failure that, as I try to show, neither Paul nor the early Church shared. It’s much simpler to accept Paul’s (and Jesus’) version of the Judaic idea of the two yetzers, which rests on our experience of the necessary imperfection of human nature–necessary because created/finite. This is why I say that “doctrines” of a fall, etc., as traditionally presented are unbiblical, unnecessary, and frankly harmful.

    But let me take a very brief stab at your “nit.” Of course you and I believe (I’m pretty sure) that one of the important things about human nature–perhaps unique–is that we live historically. That’s one of the things I try to stress in my blog. At the same time, however, the attempt to transform Genesis into history violates another important aspect of human life: the immediacy of our lives under God. It violates the meaning of myth, which is intended to talk to us about our present existence rather than to provide history. I think that does harm to the relational “fellowship” nature of our salvation, as well as to the universal mandate of salvation. Here’s a link to a presentation that I find persuasive: Adam, Eve and Original Sin. It has drawn some flack in Catholic circles, but I believe it represents the strong trend of Catholic thought.



  • Christopher StClair II

    I keep hearing lots of talk about how this is so different from the evangelical mindset and yet this is exactly what was preached in the Independent-King-James-Only-Bible-Believing-Baptist-Churches that I grew up in. There was a massive emphasis on the union of the believer with God made possible by Christ’s mission of reconciliation on the cross. This wasn’t one random Independent Baptist Church, this was several of them. I think it is time that we stop treating the worst examples from a particular group as if they are representative of the whole group. It is time that we stop taking the misunderstandings and bad theology of a vocal few and equating them with the theological tradition that actually exists in evangelical congregations across the country. In the same way that there are numerous different theological strains within Catholicism, (and even within the Orthodox tradition) there are numerous different theological strains within Evangelicalism and Protestantism at large. Let’s stop trying to act like each group is a monolith with a single voice.

  • Teresa Greer Drew

    I have a question Mr. McKnight …..I watched some videos by you on Youtube on evangelism, atonement … one of them you stated that when you wrote the book “A community called Atonement” you didn’t know The Gospel is more than salvation. I am just finishing your book “A community called Atonement”. Sounds like to me from reading this book, you did know the Gospel is more than salvation ….can you explain the statement you made in the video? I am getting ready to write a paper on Atonement for a class ….and I am very interested in what you meant. Thank you.

  • Teresa Greer Drew

    Will Mr. McKnight answer my question? I have to start my paper Monday ……
    thank you

  • chrismayeaux

    Mark, my comments weren’t about an Augustinian notion of sin but a western legal and juridicial view of justification and the atonement in general. This has huge implications in the praxis of the church. In fact, for contemporary evangelicalism it is “the” issue on which the gospel stands or falls. Just walk into a Protestant church and the fruits of this theology are very evident. You’ll hear things like Jesus is protecting you from the wrath of the Father. Jesus paid your sin debt. You just have to receive salvation in a momentary faith transaction and the balance of Christ’s righteousness is immediately wired to your account. In Protestantism and Catholicism the focus is on transfering the merits of Christ to the believer. The only difference is the means. For evangelicals this transfer occurs in a momentary faith experience. For Catholics it occurs through participation in the sacraments. It’s still a bad premise that leads to flawed theology and praxis. In Orthodoxy there is not this legal emphasis. There is no one metaphor of the atonement. Salvation is a process and journey to the very heart of God. We see salvation as “becoming” like Christ and sharing in his death and resurrection. This involves synergy between the believer and God. Makes a huge difference haven been on both sides of the fence.

  • mark

    chris, I basically agree with what you’re saying. The reason that I stress the Augustinian background is that the evangelical view that you critique derives, in an historical genealogical sense, from Augustinian thought as it developed in the late Catholic middle ages. That Augustinian style of thought, while officially deprecated in Catholic theology, is still very much alive in much popular Catholic thought in forms similar to those that you mention with regard to Protestant thought (I think, for example, of the very popular Divine Mercy devotion).

    In this regard you might be interested–if you haven’t already–in reviewing some of the recent scholarship re the Pelagian controversy, in which Augustine played the central role. The Augustine narrative of this controversy is, of course, the only one that was available until recently. For example, most people would probably be surprised to learn that Pelagius was acquitted by an Eastern ecclesiastical court.

  • chrismayeaux

    I know many of Augustine’s views were upheld by the Synod of Carthage and later affirmed by the 3rd Ecumenical Council at Ephesus. Not sure about pronouncements on Pelagius himself. The main beef the Orthodox have with Augustine is the idea of inherited guilt.

  • mark

    chris, few things in history are simple. I don’t want to get into all the historical ramifications here–it would take far too long–but I’ll provide a link to Leszek Kolakowski’s fine book on some of the later historical developments of Augustinian thought (Jansenism and Calvinism). I particularly recommend the first review of the book, which gives a succinct summary of Kolakowski’s thesis:

    God Owes Us Nothing

    Of course, it would be unfair to attribute to Augustine personally all the positions of those who later claimed to be “Augustinians,” but the logical connections to Augustine’s own views should be disturbing to anyone.