“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” You may have come across this statement attributed to Johann Tetzel, papal seller of indulgences. Whether or not Tetzel ever uttered these words, Christians have often thought of salvation as a financial transaction. Is salvation a financial transaction? Does the Bible speak in these terms?
Romans 6:23 states, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23; ESV) Matthew 18:21-35 records Jesus using a story of a servant refusing to forgive his fellow servant’s debt even though their master had forgiven his much larger debt. As a result, the master imprisons him until he pays the full amount. Jesus warns us that his heavenly Father will do the same toward all who do not forgive their brother from their heart for the wrongs committed against them. In each case, the financial terms (“wages”—Romans 6; “forgave him the debt”/”pay the debt”—Matthew 18) are commandeered to convey relational meaning. In Romans 6, Paul contrasts “the wages of sin is death” with “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” In Matthew 18, the focus in on the need to forgive people—not holding grudges, but forgiving them from the heart.
Even though the Bible commandeers such financial language to convey relational meaning, we often revert back to thinking and acting out about salvation in financial, quantifiable terms. We easily turn salvation into something rather than someone with whom we share life.
How often do you and I approach salvation and relationships in material, quantifiable, terms? In the Matthew 18 text, Peter is recorded as asking Jesus how often he should forgive his brother—seven times? Peter wishes to quantify forgiveness. Jesus perfects the number—seventy-seven times. There is no magic number, just a supernatural gift called costly gracious love and forgiveness that never runs out. You and I cannot put a price tag on relationships. But do we try? Do we try and buy or earn a relationship with God and measure other relationships by way of costs and benefits? If we are honest, I believe we would acknowledge that this is a common practice or inclination.
Why are we tempted to quantify salvation or pay for it? What about our talk of having a personal relationship with Jesus? Do we even try and quantify it or transfer and commodify it, using it for something else? Is it only certain TV preachers who do this? Is it only Depeche Mode and Marilyn Manson who employ references to “Personal Jesus” in quantifiable and financial ways for getting things, whether it be sex or money? (here I am thinking of their videos for the song “Personal Jesus”)
What does God’s non-quantifiable, indulgent, gracious love look like? Here I call to mind Lee Strobel’s reflections on Christmas and God’s generosity. In “Making the Case for Christmas,” Strobel retells the story he wrote as a journalist for The Chicago Tribune. At Christmas time one year, he had been given the task to write about the ordeal of an extremely poor 60 year old woman with debilitating arthritis and her two granddaughters who had been burned out of their roach-infested tenement building.
“This is wonderful; this is very good,” she said, gesturing toward the largess. “We did nothing to deserve this—it’s a gift from God. But,” she added, “it is not his greatest gift. No, we celebrate that tomorrow. That is Jesus.” To her, this child in the manger was the undeserved gift that meant everything—more than material possessions, more than comfort, more than security. And at that moment, something inside of me wanted desperately to know this Jesus—because, in a sense, I saw him in Perfecta and her granddaughters. They had peace despite poverty, while I had anxiety despite plenty; they knew the joy of generosity, while I only knew the loneliness of ambition; they looked heavenward for hope, while I only looked out for myself; they experienced the wonder of the spiritual, while I was shackled to the shallowness of the material—and something made me long for what they had.
Or, more accurately, for the One they knew.
Whether we are trying to earn our salvation with money or see money or other things as salvation, we need to move beyond indulgences and indulging in various surface pleasures to indulgent, gracious and sacrificial love. May we turn over a new leaf and turn from salvation in something to salvation as someone—as Jesus—with whom we share life.
The quotations are taken from Lee Strobel, “Making the Case for Christmas,” found at ChristianPost.com. See http://www.christianpost.com/news/lee-strobel-making-the-case-for-christmas-86965/. The article is based on The Case for Christmas: A Journalist Investigates the Identity of the Child in the Manger (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).