Over the years, a constellation of questions, common to some Christian traditions, increasingly makes me cringe. And to be honest, I used to ask them.
- Are you saved?
- Is he/she saved?
- When were you saved?
I know what is intended. We were identifying ‘saved’ with the moment I ‘invited Christ into my heart’ through the faith confession expressed in ‘the Sinner’s Prayer.’ We would even write our names and the date of our conversion/salvation in the back cover of our Gideon New Testaments. If that is how and when I was saved, I suppose you could say I was ‘saved’ when I was six-years-old. That’s when I personally and consciously responded to the grace of God.
So why does that give me the heebie-jeebies?
Was that when I was saved? Or has the question itself become to loaded for further use? Let’s pause and explore how various Christians use the term “salvation” or “saved,” and how the New Testament does so, too.
The issue arose afresh when Paul Young wrote in his book, Lies We Believe About God
Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? Do you believe in universal salvation?
That is exactly what I am saying.
Yet Paul also says he is not a Universalist. So then, what does he mean? He continues:
Every person who has ever been conceived was included in the death, burial, resurrection and ascension in Jesus. When Jesus was lifted up, God ‘dragged’ all human beings to Himself (John 12:32) and that Jesus is the Savior of all humankind, (I Tim 4:10). Further, every single human being is in Christ and Christ is in them, and Christ is in the Father (John 14:20). When Christ died—the Creator in whom the cosmos was created—we all died. When Christ rose, we rose (II Cor. 5).
The context of salvation involves three dimensions. First, prior to the foundation of the world we were all included. Saved in eternity (II Tim 1:9). Second, in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus we were all included (II Cor 5:19). Third, within the context of our own experience a present tense on-going active participation to work out what God has worked in (Phil 2:12-13). Although we didn’t do anything in the accomplishment of our salvation (except to kill Jesus), our participation in the working out of this salvation is essential. Our ongoing choices matter.
So, is everyone saved? Depends what you mean.
Does salvation include everyone? It would seem so.
But then is our willing response necessary? It’s essential!
On this note, I had a fantastic discussion with Paul and some other scholars about his approach (which I affirm). What follows are two contributions I made to that theological soirée.
Part of the problem is the way the word “salvation” is bandied about. Paul Young’s critics are, no doubt, still thinking in terms of the Evangelical “saved” which means little more than “what happened when I said the Sinner’s Prayer—namely, that I booked my ticket for heaven.” Now there’s a really bad assumption.
The NT speaks of “salvation” in multiple other ways:
- Everyone who was healed or delivered by Jesus in a Gospel story was “saved” (sozo– saved/healed) in that moment by Jesus from their specific malady.
- Christ appeared as the Salvation of the world (he IS the salvation and the Incarnation is that appearance).
- Christ died for all without exception, so humankind is enfolded into the salvation worked through his death and resurrection (‘universal salvation’, not universalism). Rom. 5 – While we were still enemies, Christ died for us and in Christ, God reconciled the world to himself.
- Those who participate in that universal salvation through the confession and practice of their faith “have been saved [at the Cross] and are being saved [theosis].”
- And there is the future salvation (from death): our final resurrection when we pass from actual death into our incorruptible state.
Regarding “salvation,” I’m starting to distinguish more clearly between the road and the ditches – I’m trying to weave my way between the two most common Evangelical ditches:
In the one ditch, there is the Neo-Reformed crowd who make salvation so much about God’s sovereign decision that he unilaterally elects some to be saved and others, by default, to be damned … and because it’s all grace, even our response is predetermined. For them, salvation was established prior to our birth, our creation and for some, even prior to God’s foreknowledge of any response on our part. Why? Because for them, salvation cannot be contingent on anything or it is not pure grace or God’s pure will.
Some in the Grace Movement are tempted by this as well, because they put all their eggs in the “identity in Christ” basket and are fearful that any human participation is “works,” so they end up with a very low anthropology.
In the other ditch, mainstream Evangelicals are often so fixated on “getting saved” and “getting others saved” that salvation is de facto entirely all up to the individual, who must make the right personal decision through saying the correct prayer. For them, salvation is established upon confession of faith through the Sinner’s Prayer.
Prior to Augustine, the early church avoided these ditches. I believe the answer is rooted in the Apostle Paul and echoed by St Irenaeus, St Athanasius and St Hilary, if I’m reading them right. They hold to a very high Christology in which Christ—in his incarnation, death and resurrection—gathers all of humanity into his life far more than Adam ever did in his death—and they affirm a high anthropology in which we are given the dignity of being freed to respond to the gospel as the Christ opens our eyes to the love of Abba. Our will was darkened, not eradicated, by the fall, and beholding Christ (however and whenever that happens) both empowers us and requires us to respond freely to God’s love.
This salvation was established at the Incarnation (Christ’s life, death and resurrection included) and we participate in it as we come to see it with the opened eyes of faith.
The first two ditches are at the opposite wings of Evangelicalism. This third way is, in general, the historic Christian faith prior to Augustine … let’s call it “apostolic orthodoxy” for the moment.
The toxic reactions I saw to The Shack reinforced my sense that Evangelicalism (as a capital E ideological –ism) is a breakaway sect from apostolic orthodoxy, and it is one that now also recoils from apostolic orthodoxy when it appears right in front of them on a movie screen or is described for them in the Gospel in Chairs. This signifies how far the movement has veered into one of the two ditches.
If the nones (non-affiliatied) and dones (done with church) are abandoning those ditches, hopefully some will head back to the Jesus Way rather than wandering even further afield. And that’s where I hope my latest works (A More Christlike Way, A More Christlike God and IN: Incarnation & Inclusion may play a helpful role.