It seems there are two kinds of Christians: those who think the world needs to be saved from some villainous other like Muslims, gays, or liberals, and those who think the world needs to be saved from Christians. I belong to the latter category. Let me explain what I mean by that. I don’t think Christians are necessarily worse people than anybody else. I just think as a Christian that I’m more responsible for helping Jesus save the world from Christians than any other people group. That’s why my first book is going to be titled How Jesus Saves the World from Us: Twelve Antidotes for Toxic Christianity.
To me, the most basic definition of a Christian is someone who believes Jesus needs to save the world from him or her. That’s what it means to say that every Christian is a sinner on the path of redemption, or to put it more crudely, a recovering asshole (sorry to offend anyone, but it helps reach some people to hear a pastor cuss). Christians should not ever claim to be morally superior to other people. The one thing that should distinguish us is that we know we are assholes without a leg to stand on, aside from the fact that Jesus loves us enough to take the blame for our sin.
For me to faithfully represent Christ in the world means that I should enter every interaction with another person deeply suspicious of my own sinful nature and deeply aware of my complete dependence on Christ for every ounce of goodness that I am blessed to participate in. Self-righteous Christians should not exist, because self-righteousness is what we are supposed to be saved from. When so many Christians have become what Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being, it’s indicative of a massive theological failure and a complete misunderstanding of what our salvation is supposed to accomplish.
In recent decades, white evangelical Christianity has promoted a very individualized consumeristic account of Christian salvation. Basically, salvation has been made into a product that could be called afterlife insurance, whose marketing exhibits the molding of an age obsessed with selling insurance of all kinds. According to this salvation product description, God’s “justice” demands that every human be tortured in hell forever after they die as punishment for their sin, so the only way out of this terrible fate is to get a heavenly hand-stamp from the blood of Jesus by believing that he died for your sins emphatically enough, accepting him into your heart sincerely enough, letting him “take the wheel” decisively enough, obeying all his teachings enthusiastically enough, saying the official sinner’s prayer loudly enough, or some confusing combination thereof.
The one place we don’t see this jumbled up, anxiety-inducing so-called gospel message is in the actual teachings of Jesus, Paul, or any other Christian evangelist in scripture. When the apostle Peter pleaded with the crowd listening to his first sermon at the Jerusalem temple to “save yourself from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40), he never asked them “If you die tonight, do you know whether you would go to heaven or hell?” Because to Peter, salvation wasn’t about afterlife insurance. It was about being detoxified from the corruption in the world around him. 1 Peter 1:22 describes the goal of this salvation: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truthso that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeplyfrom the heart.” Genuine mutual love is not just a pleasant byproduct of getting into heaven; it is heaven.
Similarly, when Jesus confronted Saul on the road to Damascus, he didn’t say, “Accept me as your personal lord and savior, or else you’ll be tortured forever after you die.” Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus’ offer to Saul wasn’t a heavenly hand-stamp to secure his admission into the right afterlife. Jesus offered Saul an invitation to stop being an asshole (and thus leave hell). Saul accepted this invitation, changed his name to Paul, and became an apostle. In the process of becoming Paul, Saul wasn’t saved from anything outside of himself. Rather, Jesus saved the world from Saul by turning him into Paul. The world is saved from each of us who become Christian in a similar way.
The Wesleyan branch of Christianity to which I belong emphasizes two aspects to salvation that are described in the Bible: justification and sanctification. Neither of these need to be understood in terms of a cheap and crude doctrine of afterlife insurance. In fact, it makes more sense to understand them in terms of Jesus saving the world from me. Justification describes my process of coming to trust that Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins on the cross has removed my need to constantly justify myself and deny my flaws. Self-justification is the reason I behave like an asshole when I do. If I fully embraced the grace I have received from God, then I would fully embody grace in how I treat others.
Though mainstream Wesleyan theology often narrates justification as happening instantaneously the moment you “accept Christ,” my experience has been otherwise. I continue to fall into self-justification, which reveals that I have not fully accepted Christ as my savior. I don’t think I am in danger of spending my afterlife being tortured, but I do believe that my need to prove that I’m right and defend every choice that I make alienates me from God and other people, which is to say it is my hell. The more deeply I am invested in my own autonomy and infallibility, the more thoroughly I have trapped myself in hell. Self-justification is an exhausting, miserable hell that I haven’t yet fully escaped, but I trust that Jesus will ultimately deliver me from it.
The more that I have accepted Christ’s justification, the more I am able to receive the Holy Spirit’s sanctification, that is, the actual transformation of my character into “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). The way that I sabotage this transformation is by getting too enamored with myself and forgetting that godly character is God’s gift rather than my achievement. If I can maintain a posture of humble gratitude, then the Holy Spirit will gain the access to reshape my soul. Sanctification is contingent upon justification because the nature of the spiritual transformation we must undergo is more than just a kind of self-discipline. We need to be emptied of our egos in order to be made into God’s love (c.f. Philippians 2:5-8).
If Christians really grasped and embraced our own gospel, then we would be the least toxic people in our communities and also the least likely to notice this or point it out about ourselves. We would be so focused on asking Jesus to liberate us from our own sin that we wouldn’t have any interest in being a special interest group or powerful voting bloc or triumphal praise stadium. We wouldn’t be talking about “taking our country back” because we would be too preoccupied with asking God to conquer our own wickedness. We wouldn’t be caught up in fighting all the agendas that we have to save the world from, whether it’s the gay agenda or the Muslim agenda or the liberal agenda, because we would be too busy asking Jesus to save the world from us.