My buddy Jason Micheli recently wrote about the gap between the Christianities of conservative evangelical journalist David French and Episcopalian presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. He was quoting an article in which French was trying to explain the difference between his evangelical faith and Buttigieg’s mainline faith. The main point of distinction French saw was in their understanding of salvation.
French quotes Buttigieg in a Rolling Stones interview saying, “My faith teaches me that salvation has to do with how I make myself useful to those who have been excluded, marginalized, and cast aside and oppressed in society.”
French explains his understanding of how evangelicals view salvation differently:
In the Mainline formulation, Christ is less an instrument of salvation and more a vehicle for inspiration. The Mainline vision of salvation is alien to the Evangelical mind. Most Evangelical Protestants understand salvation not through works of compassion but rather through faith alone, by the grace of God alone, working through the atoning sacrifice of Christ alone.
Those of us who have studied church history might recognize here the basic distinction between two prominent medieval understandings of atonement: Peter Abelard who taught that Jesus’ cross saves primarily through the love that it models and inspires in Christians and St. Anselm who believed that Jesus’ cross saves primarily by making satisfaction for the dishonor shown to God by humanity’s sin. So who’s right? What is Christian salvation?
In the Wesleyan theological tradition to which I belong, we describe Christian salvation as having two components: justification and sanctification. Justification refers to the way that Jesus conquers and atones for our sin through his cross, thus setting us free from trying to prove that we’re right. As long as we’re trapped in self-justification, we are going to resist God’s transformative love and we’re going to turn every good thing we do into a reason that we’re right, which makes us into bitter, self-righteous, unteachable people. Christianity teaches that the best way for people to become loving, humble, generous, and grateful is to know that they’re often wrong but that Jesus has paid the price for their sin so there’s nothing to be defensive about. We forgive, repent, grow, repeat.
Sanctification refers to the second part of salvation. Having been justified by Christ so that we stop being defensive, God can then work in our hearts to grow the fruit of the spirit which is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). The goal of sanctification is to grow towards the asymptotic, seemingly impossible state of being perfected in love. So responding to everyone and everything with nothing but love because we have been so radically rescued from our egotism and pettiness.
In my understanding, Wesleyan theology considers perfection in love to be the purpose of Christian salvation. This is indeed completely foreign to the evangelical gospel as I understood it in my teenage years, in which salvation was about going to the great Disneyland in the sky after you die if you believe hard enough that Jesus died for your sins. I don’t believe any longer that salvation is primarily focused on God letting me into heaven after I die, but that it’s the means by which God brings heaven to earth through the body of people who have been rescued by and united with Christ. Salvation is the process by which God wins us over with his mercy shown through Christ so that we will carry his mercy into the lives of others.
So who’s right? Buttigieg or French? I agree with Buttigieg that God’s ultimate goal in saving Christians is to bring justice and reconciliation to all of humanity, especially the marginalized. Paul says that we are ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18); that is our vocation as disciples. It’s not a side thing we do to give our churches good PR so more people will get baptized and become tithers so we can buy a bigger sound system. God shows us his mercy and makes us his mercy for the sake of healing the nations.
I have tended to find that in mainline contexts, justification is de-emphasized because there’s not enough of a coherent articulation of why it matters. I recoil as mainliners do at the crude caricature of salvation as afterlife insurance necessitated by a God who hates imperfection so badly that he has no choice but to torture people forever for falling short if they haven’t adequately performed a “faith” that is earnest enough to change their eternal status.
I do not however disbelieve in hell as many mainliners do. I believe that hell is self-justification, in this life and eternally. I believe in this hell because I still live there too much of the time. Every time my self-justification sabotages God’s love from manifesting itself in my relationships and I harm people in order to protect my ego, I make hell for myself and others. I am someone who requires a lot of saving, and thankfully God has infinite grace to apply to my salvation.
What about David French? He says, “Most Evangelical Protestants understand salvation not through works of compassion but rather through faith alone, by the grace of God alone, working through the atoning sacrifice of Christ alone.” I consider this statement on point in what it affirms, but wrong in what it brushes aside. It’s true that we are not justified before God by works of compassion but through God’s grace alone. But justification is not the entirety of salvation (as many evangelicals seem to believe). French is saying essentially justification, not sanctification, when what he should be saying is yes sanctification, but not without justification first.
Ephesians 2:8-10 captures the relationship between justification and sanctification as one package of salvation:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
We are not saved by our good works, but we are absolutely saved in order to do good works. When evangelicals operate with a justification-only version of salvation, it caves in on itself. If sanctification is not the purpose of justification, but only a sort of confirmation of justification, then sanctification gets warped into a sort of correct behavior that establishes one’s distinction from the unsaved (no cussing, no dancing, no card games, no gay sex, etc) rather than a pursuit of perfection in love (generosity, patience, humility, etc) for the sake of participating in God’s reconciliation with humanity. Insofar as evangelicals are fixated on proving their distinction from non-Christians and “fake” Christians at every point, their justification is under threat.
Part of the problem is that many evangelicals don’t understand Christ’s atonement as God persuading us to stop proving ourselves to him but as Jesus giving us a way to prove ourselves to God by demonstrating enough “faith” for him to accept us (a form of faith which creates Christians who anxiously justify themselves by showing that they are sufficiently distinct from the unsaved). Unless we are saved from proving ourselves, we have not been justified. When salvation reinforces our self-justification instead of delivering us from it, then we are doubly lost. Until we are justified, we cannot be perfected in love because love that is trying to prove itself saved cannot avoid being tainted with bitterness and anxiety.
So I think Mayor Pete and David French each need a little bit of what the other one has to offer in order to have a complete vision of Christian salvation. And even though United Methodism is about to split up, I continue to believe that the best summary of Christian discipleship is John Wesley’s still controversial claim that it’s all about seeking perfection in love. Christian salvation is both God winning us through his mercy and us becoming God’s mercy for the world.