God Saves Us (But Not From God’s Self)

God Saves Us (But Not From God’s Self) June 30, 2021

In my last entry, I discussed a ridiculous Paul Washer quote about how God saves us from himself, by himself, and for himself (his simple and stupid way of summarizing his atonement theory). Because I didn’t really offer a better understanding of salvation in that piece, in this entry, I’m going to do just that.

Unbeknownst to some, the Gospel isn’t synonymous with Calvin’s (and by extension, Washer’s) penal substitutionary atonement theory. In fact, when thinking about atonement (how so-called sinners are reconciled to God), there are many theories. There’s Christus Victor, Moral Influence, Satisfaction, Recapitulation, Ransom, Scapegoating, Penal Substitution, and others (including different variations of the ones I just mentioned). For our purposes, we are going to keep things super simple and not really label things.

Now, put most simply, this is how I understand Christian salvation: God, in the form of Jesus, came to live as one of us to show us three things, 1) what God is like, 2) how we are to treat one another and, 3) how not to treat one another. Let’s break these three things down a bit.

I. What God is Like

The first part of this is the theological one. Forever, we have misconstrued what God is like. We have assumed God is sacrificial, that God is violent, that God demands quid pro quo. We have justified our wars with God on our side (to paraphrase Bob Dylan). In short, God has always been on the side of the victors. Jesus, however, expanding on his Jewish prophetic tradition, reorients these assumptions. Jesus tells us that God is for all people, especially the oppressed. God is not a blessing and cursing God (like Deuteronomy 28 says) but a blessing God . . . full stop (see Matthew 5). God is a peacemaker, not a warmonger.

By believing that God is like this, we are, in a way, saved. We are saved from our sacrificial systems that only demand more and more blood. We are also saved from bad thinking. When Jesus tells people to repent, he means for them to change their mind. That’s what the Greek word metanoia means. Changing our mind about God can be salvific, especially if the God we believe in is a monster (like the one Washer promulgates).

II. How To Treat One Another

This second point is the anthropological one. In addition to reorienting our view of what God is like, Jesus offers us an example of what humans are to be like. In many places throughout the gospels, Jesus says to “follow me.” Newsflash, literalists: he means it. He wants people to follow him in how he treats others. He wants us to show empathy for the downtrodden, for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, for the scapegoated. For the mimetic theorist, this is really, really important.

What mimetic theory teaches us is that our desires are derived by the perceived desires of others. This ultimately leads to violence (I’ve discussed this ad nauseam in many, many places). With Jesus, however, we have a model who doesn’t really engage in negative (or unconscious) mimesis. Instead, as he states all throughout John’s Gospel, he consciously only does what he sees the Father doing. In other words, the non-rivalrous Father is his model. In turn, Jesus can then be our model as he moves us away from treating others with malice and disdain. Like Point I, this too becomes salvific in that it saves us from being both the scapegoated and scapegoaters.

III. How Not To Treat One Another

Point III is very similar to Point II, but it focuses on the negative. Jesus’ life and mission, among other things, was an example of how to be truly human. The response to Jesus, then, is what not to do. When someone like Jesus comes along and subvert the power systems that run shit, we’ve got to do our best to listen. If we don’t, we’ll end up scapegoating (perhaps even killing) messengers of God. This is not a good thing. But for Jesus, it was super predictable. He understood the powers and principalities. He predicted his death, not because he had God in his ear a la Cyrano de Bergerac, but because he understood how human beings behaved. We are THAT predictable.

Knowing this, then, becomes salvific. We can be spared by the powers and principalities we allow to run things, often at the expense of our own human flourishing. The problem, of course, is that those at the top like the status quo (I’m talking to you, old straight white dudes). But just remember, there will always be prophets to call y’all on your shit.

Of course, these three points don’t include the ultimate salvific punchline: the Resurrection. Now, say what you want about the Resurrection (was it literal, bodily, spiritual, or whatever?), but I for one affirm it in some regard. I don’t know how the metaphysics work, but I don’t need to. For me, the Resurrection is the confirmation that Jesus’ life – what he taught us about God and how he treated those around him – is worth following. Put most simply, the Resurrection is the vindication of the victim. It’s also the rejection of the traditionally sacrificial (God takes our sacrifice of death and turns it back into a living sacrifice). Furthermore, the Resurrection also removes the neurotic death anxiety that plagues the human mind (to learn more about that, do some research on Ernest Becker). How so? If we affirm and trust it, we no longer have to fear death because upon Jesus’ return, he only breathed the Spirit of Shalom. Take solace in that.

Now, much more could be said about atonement, but that’s enough for now. If you want to read more, I’ve got plenty of books on the topic. I hope you enjoy them more than I enjoy reading Paul Washer quotes. It’s a pretty low bar, but hey, whatever.


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About Matthew Distefano
Matthew is a best-selling author, blogger, podcaster, long-time social worker, and hip-hop artist. He is an outspoken advocate for nonviolence, happily married, with one daughter. Outside of writing, his interests include gardening, hiking, and European football. He lives in Northern California You can read more about the author here.
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