The Nature of Salvation

I regularly visit a website titled “Act 3: Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium,” which is the website of John Armstrong, a former pastor, church-planter, and an author of a number of books as well as being an adjunct professor at a few colleges in the Chicagoland area. A few years ago, when a friend of mine, John Espino, recommend that I read Dr. Armstrong’s blog, whom he referred to as the head of Reformation and Revival ministries, I honestly wasn’t interested, as I had been processing ideas from the Reformed tradition in light of what I was learning about the theology of the Early Church, and I also had some issues with what seemed to be the authoritarianism of some Reformed scholars.

A number of months ago, under circumstances, and for reasons I cannot quite recall, I visited Act 3, and was deeply impressed with Dr. Armstrong’s theological reflection on various cultural issues. Though he affirmed his Reformed roots, he clearly had a more comprehensive vision of the Xian faith, and was passionate about the Missional Movement, which places an emphasis on the Church as being the sent people of God who know that proclamation of the Gospel requires an authentic embodiment of Jesus’ message. John expresses this ethos time and again in his blog as he consistently draws upon the larger Xian tradition when he reflects upon such diverse issues of discipleship, racism in America, the current campaign for the Presidency, and a host of other spiritual, socio-cultural, economic and political issues. All of this to say that I recommend you read Dr. Armstrong’s blog.

This endorsement, however, is not the purpose of this post. Instead, I recently read a series of posts by Dr. Armstrong’s about A.W. Tozer and the question of whether there are conditions to salvation. This was, to say the least, challenging. I have always had feelings toward A.W. Tozer similar to what one might feel toward an O.T. prophet: respect mixed with the sense that you might not want to hear what is coming because it is likely to be challenging. In short, Mr. Tozer’s conviction is that there are conditions to salvation, which are as follows: repentance and an acknowledgment of our inability to save ourselves, commitment to following Christ, a progressive growth in Christ likeness, a turn from idolatry and the false consolations of the world, an embrace of prayer and worship, an increasing desire to serve others, active involvement in the Church. In reading and processing this post I gave the following responses to Mr. Armstrong’s blog.

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I have read Tozer and been prompted by awe to praise God, and I have read Tozer and been driven to my knees for fear that I hardly know Him. Off hand, I would say that this indicates that Tozer is a prophetic figure, as any encounter with God’s word is apt be a disorienting and reorienting experience, and Tozer has that effect.

As far as conditions of salvation are concerned, I think it is helpful to acknowledge the distinction that systematic theologians mark between objective and subjective soteriology, wherein the former focuses on the ministry and person of Jesus Christ as the ground and embodiment of salvation, and the latter has to do with how each person appropriates the reality of salvation that is in Christ. Regarding subjective soteriology various traditions and denominations have worked out an “ordo salutis” or “an order of salvation” wherein the steps to salvation are named and arranged. In reflecting on all this, however, I find it interesting that the Catholic Church during the Seven Ecumenical Councils (the Councils prior to the split between East and West, and the manifold splits of the West) never articulated how one lays hold of the salvation that is in Jesus Christ. I know I am being speculative, but it seems to me that though we can assert that no one comes to the Father but through Jesus, we cannot establish a formula for how one genuinely comes to Jesus. The bondage of humanity to sin is universal, but how each person is broken as a result of that bondage is perhaps as unique as our thumbprint. If this is so, then maybe how we come to faith, and begin to genuinely follow Christ is just as unique.

I know that this is perhaps too open ended, and perhaps intellectually sloppy for some, but it seems to me that mystery is an inherent part of the Christian faith, and if it is, then there will always be something we cannot give an account for in our schemas and doctrines, as helpful and important as they are.

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To give a little personal context to my previous comment, there have been times in my life where I have wondered if I ever really knew the Lord, and this is exacerbated by having a degree in theology where the tendency is that the head outpaces the heart in knowledge. In the midst of processing this matter, I have often read books about genuine faith and salvation often trying to find where I plot out in the schema of that particular book. Through this, however, I began to sense the Lord saying to me that such endeavors were more about me trying to work out a formula, as opposed to genuinely trusting in him. This may be simplistic, but as I thought about this it seemed to me that genuine trust and obedience are organically related, as disobedience is what happens when we don’t really trust God’s wisdom and goodness, and thereby take a course of action according to the limits of our own understanding.

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If I may be permitted, I would like to interject some words from another evangelical mystic, George MacDonald.

“The Lord never came to deliver men from the consequences of their sins while those sins yet remained. That would be to cast out the window the medicine of cure while still the man lay sick. Yet, feeling nothing of the dread hatefulness of their sin, men have constantly taken this word that the Lord came to deliver us from our sins to mean that he came to save them from the punishment of their sins.

This idea has terribly corrupted the preaching of the Gospel. The message of the Good News has not been truly communicated… The mission of Jesus was from the same source and with the same object as the punishment of our sins. He came to do more than take the punishment for our sins. He came as well to set us free from our sin.

No man is safe from hell until he is free from his sin. But a man to whom his sins are a burden, while he may indeed sometimes feel as if he were in hell, will soon have forgotten that he ever had any other hell to think of than that of his sinful condition. For to him his sin is hell. He would go to the other hell to be free of it. Free of his sin, hell itself would be endurable to him.”

Taking what George MacDonald so eloquently expressed, and summarizing it, I would say that salvation is most essentially from sin itself, its power and presence in our lives. As we are delivered from sin, we are naturally delivered from its consequences, the ultimate of which is hell itself.

Using this to directly respond to Tozer, I would say that Tozer’s “conditions of salvation” might be better understood as signs of salvation. We know we are saved, and are being saved, when we obey the Lord, when we no longer seek the false consolation of the world, when we repent of idolatry, when we genuinely seek to commune with him.

I once read somewhere that MacDonald said in a sermon something to the effect that he did not consider himself saved, and that he would not consider himself so until by the grace of God he had been brought into the perfection that God desires for him in Jesus Christ. For MacDonald, this movement toward perfection is something we should experience here, but would not be complete until the age to come.

This kind of challenges our modern evangelical notions of salvation, doesn’t it?

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Well, this is where I currently am in processing the nature of salvation and what conditions, or expectations we may have when we use that word. Anyone care to weigh in with their ideas? If so, it may be a good idea to read the couple of posts on Dr. Armstrong’s blog, but it is not necessary.

14 Responses to “The Nature of Salvation”

  1. tom  

    First of all I think we over systematize salvation far too often. How many of have “prayed a prayer” multiple times as a child/teen because we wanted to make sure we got it right and that we didn’t miss anything. The simplist expression of salvation is the thief on the cross next to Jesus. What did he do? Nothing, except for sort of believing that Jesus might be the guy he says he is. Jesus confrims his salvation and his place in eternity by declaring that today he would be with Him in paradise. He didn’t “prayer a prayer” or hit all the right points, he put what little faith he had in Christ and “boom” that’s all it took.

    Now, if he hadn’t died on a cross, then certainly we would hope/expect something more of his life then before. Wesley was far more concerned about “what we are saved for” then what we have been “saved from”. Certainly we need to reclaim the idea of sanctifictaion and in the Welsyean Spirit the idea of sanctifying grace. That grace that makes us more and more like Christ until we are enter eternity.

    As for the idea of perfection (in this life) (not being perfect), this is another Weslyean concept that I am still wrestling with.

    That’s all I’ve got at this hour. I will ponder more.

    P.S. Tony, Samantha replied to your email. Check it out.

  2. Roger Green  

    I may come back to your main point, but I wanted to note a couple things.
    As someone in the Reform tradition, I’m curious about what in that you thought was theologically suspect.
    Also, I spent 15-20 minutes with two Jehovah’s Witnesses at my front door yesterday. (Poor Xian hospitality on my part; I didn’t invite them in.) I always find it useful to be able to test one’s faith against another interpretation of the Word.
    I was interested in that “a new survey finds most Americans don’t feel their religion is the only way to eternal life — even if their faith tradition teaches otherwise.”
    http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=5225997

  3. Kevin Benson  

    Very stimulating post, though perhaps not as stimulating as your post from April 8. ;) I have spent a couple of days thinking about salvation and this is what I have come up with so far.

    It seems that you are emphasizing the place of sin in your discussion. While this is an essential part of the discussion, I don’t think our salvation from sin is the main point. We are saved from our sins in order that we might be in relationship with God. Jesus came that we might have life, and that this life is “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3). As Armstrong states when discussing Tozer, it is really about union with Christ. This understanding of salvation is emphasized more in the Eastern tradition than the West, which tends to focus more on sin.

    Understanding salvation as union with Christ and as a process, rather than as a one time deal, provides a better context for understanding Tozer’s conditions. For example, if I want to grow in my relationship with my wife I need to spend time with her, get to know her friends, have sex, share significant parts of my life, and empty the dishwasher now and then. If I don’t do these things I might still be married in name, but I won’t be in a marriage. I won’t know my wife and there will be zero intimacy. One might say that the actions in the list above are conditions for marriage because two people cannot become “one flesh” apart from those actions.

    The same is true of our relationship with God. We might say the sinner’s prayer just as we might say our marriage vows, but is this truly salvation? No! It may, perhaps, be the start of that process. Salvation is a journey with God in which we grow in our intimate “Knowledge of the Holy.” Only by participating in those seven conditions Tozer lists can we enter more deeply into relationship with our Creator. Forsaking our sin, committing our lives to God, being part of a faith community, etc. These are signs of our faith, yes, but they are more than that. They are the means by which our salvation (union with Christ) is actually realized and apprehended. In the Celebration of Disciple Richard Foster speaks of these as Means of Grace.

    A final thought. As someone from the Reformed tradition I have to be sure to mention that none of this precludes the grace of God. It is God who has initiated relationship with us and it is the Spirit of God that makes it possible. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Php. 2:12-13). Even in the midst of pursuing God we must never forget that it is God who transforms us and draws us into communion.

  4. Anthony Velez  

    Roger – Let me begin with the issue of where I stand regarding whether my religion is the only way to eternal life. Very simply, and perhaps audaciously, I say, “yes! I do believe it is the only way to eternal life.” Now, having said that, let my provide some nuance and possible caveats. First, when I refer to my religion, I am referring to Christianity in contrast to the specific beliefs of the denomination through which I express my Christian faith. Second, by Christianity I mean that body of beliefs and practices that has been considered essential to the faith across denominational lines and lines of tradition, what C.S. Lewis refers to as “Mere Christianity”. Third, the basis upon which I make this exclusive claim is not on the merits of the religion itself, its structure, beliefs, or practices, but on the basis of who Jesus is and what God has uniquely done through him. Jesus constitutes salvation for humanity, and insofar as Christianity emerges from who he is and what he has done, insofar as it carries his ministry into the world, brings his very being and work into the world, it is uniquely salvific. Apart from this, Christianity is an empty husk that has a form of godliness without any genuine power to transform and save. Finally, regarding the standing of people in other religions, I have long entertained Karl Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian”, which basically states that people could potentially receive the benefit of Christ, without explicitly knowing it. I should say more about this, as it requires further explanation, but that would be quite lengthy, and look at how much I have already said.

    As far as what I thought was theologically suspect regarding the Reformed Tradition, on the level of sensibility, I have a problem with the kind of doctrinaire approach to the faith that seems to prevail. No doubt, Calvin was a brilliant mind, and there have been many sharp thinkers in the Reformed tradition whom I have appreciated and from whom I have received edification. However, again, there seems to be a kind of doctrinal smugness, a kind of “we got it right intellectually”, that lacks appropriate humility. As I mentioned, at the time that my friend John Espino recommended John Armstrong’s blog, I was reading the theology of the Church Fathers, and though I could see that elements of what would become Reformed theology was present at that time, it was not a full blow system. The Fathers were more diverse in their thinking, more incarnational, more sacramental and liturgical, and though they fought tooth and nail over theological matters, they also affirmed the limits of human understanding in working out the mystery of the Xian faith.

  5. Roger Green  

    Maybe it’s me, but what I’ve read, and more to the point, what I’ve experienced in my Presbyterian life of six or eight years (long story) is a desire to just try to live the Gospel without assuming the rightness of their position. In fact, because the Presbys are such a P-R-O-C-E-S-S -oriented group, they seem to go out of their way to be “theologically smug.” Or maybe that’s, in part, my own imprint on it. Since I grew up in the Wesleyan tradition, what Tom said about “what we are saved for” more than what we’ve been “saved from” resonates more with me. Or maybe it’s me balking at all the “hell” talk I grew up with; “be saved or go to hell”, as opposed to “be saved because it’s a great gift.”

  6. Kevin Benson  

    Interesting. My experience in the Reformed (PCUSA) tradition is that it is anything but doctrinaire. The Presbyterian Book of Confessions is designed to be a guide but scripture is the final authority. The sacraments are mysteries: it is clear that God works through them but the rest is a mystery. Salvation is understood to be through Christ, but the final authority on who recieves eternal life is in the hands of God, not a theological system. The church is open to the moving of the Holy Spirit and how the Spirit is working in the current culture (perhaps too much concerned with culture, in fact). My experience in the Baptist tradition was far more dogmatic than anything I have experienced in the Presbyterian Church.

  7. Anthony Velez  

    Tom – I really liked the idea of “what we are saved for” instead of “what we are saved from.” Filling in the details, we could say that we are saved for fellowship with God, for perfect love, for glory. This emphasis on what we are saved for is innately more comprehensive in its concept of salvation because it naturally implies holiness or sanctification, insofar as drawing near God requires we become more like him; love in order to be genuine is intimately bound to purity, and glory implies the very life of God in us, which is a life that overcomes sin, death and the devil.

    I too struggle with Wesley’s (and a number of other’s) concept of perfection. However, it struck me not too long ago that I very clearly limit what God can and is willing to graciously do in and through me by my low expectations and past experiences, which conditions my sense of the possible. So, I am working (with God I hope) to undo this stronghold in my thinking. On the other hand, I want to be realistic about what we can expect in this present age as we wait for the completion of our salvation in the age to come.

  8. Anthony Velez  

    Kevin – Similar to what Tom was saying, I like the emphasis on the telos or goal of salvation: what we are saved for. I also like your critique of the West’s emphasis on sin. As you said, the Eastern tradition focuses on union with God, as opposed to forensic justification, which has made it easier for them to organically conceptualize our new standing before God, together with the process by which we become more like him. On the other hand, at the end of the day (or our lives actually) since we will not have become perfect, I can see why the West has been concerned with understanding how we will stand before our perfect and holy God.

    One thing that I see as critical in all of this is that in order to have a relationship with God we must be creatures of a particular quality. Sin incapacitates our very being, breaks us and perverts us, such that we don’t have the capacity to relate to God. It is as if God is an astoundingly wonderful and glorious symphony, and we are all tone deaf, or just plain deaf, and thus we cannot really hear it and enjoy it. Turning from the metaphorical toward the literal, hearing the song (relating to God) requires more than just a healing or restoration of a defective organ. God is the song that requires our whole and entire being to hear, and thus healing and restoration of our entire being is what is required if we are to have a genuine relationship with him.

    Using my analogy, I think this is why effectively dealing with sin is a critical matter in having a relationship with God. Using the forensic model, we could say that God accepts us on the basis of what Christ has done, but that is not much of a salvation if we are still essentially creatures that cannot relate to him, respond to him, hear him both literally and in the metaphorical sense above. We must become like him in order to relate to him, for as the Scriptures say, “deep calls unto deep,” and unfortunately many of us are far from the deep that God calls unto.

    So, in reflecting on what you all have said, and in responding to it, it seems to me that when Tozer is talking about conditions of salvation he is talking about what kind of creatures we must become in order to have a genuine relationship with God. Conditions in this sense is like characteristics that describe a particular kind of being, the kind of being that we must be (I originally wrote this sentence as “the kind of being we must possess.” but you don’t actually possess being. It is what you are.)

    Again, in processing all this, it strikes me that “conditions” is a problematic term, insofar as it could be read as something you must do to earn. However, I currently don’t see Tozer saying this. Rather, he is using conditions in terms more synonymous with the word “characteristics. So, picking up what I said earlier, Tozer’s conditions can be seen as signs of our becoming, signs of salvation in our life. They are signs because they point beyond ourselves to the work of God, a work that is working in us. On the other hand, they are conditions because we cannot really have a relationship with God unless these conditions are met, which is to say unless we have these characteristics that enable us to genuinely respond and relate to him.

    Thank you all for helping me think this through.

  9. Anthony Velez  

    Kevin & Roger – In reading your responses to my characterization of the Reformed tradition, I find myself in a place of tension. Even my own experience being raised in a Presbyterian church (as you well know Kevin) bears witness to what you both are saying about it being process oriented, at home with mystery, and not being doctrinaire. And yet, along the way, I have encountered in person, in print, and in the testimony of others, a kind of Reformed authoritarianism and smugness that tasted quite ugly to my heart and soul. As I think about it, this phenomena is more prevalent among the Modernist, Evangelical, Reformed variety, those who get caught up in the culture wars, and who seem to resent the fact that Christianity (particularly the Protestant variety) no longer holds cultural hegemony. I, on the other hand, welcome this position of marginalization, as it might encourage us to more deeply see that it is in God that we collectively and individually live, move, and have our being, and not in the power structures, and institutions of this world.

  10. Kevin Benson  

    Tony – I think I would add one thing more to your conclusion about Tozer’s conditions. It is true that these are signs and that they describe the people we must be in order to commune with God. However, these are also actions, things that we must actually do; not to earn salvation but to become, by the transformative grace of God, the people who possess these characteristics. Paul makes this point when he speaks of training like an athlete that he may gain the prize. It is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith. Only by God’s initiative and grace do we have union with Christ. Equally true, only by participating in that grace by actively pursuing God (eg – through Tozer’s conditions) can we have union with Christ.

  11. Roger Green  

    Oh, what the heck.

    How does one respond to this question? (Posted to my Times Union.com blog, BTW) http://blogs.timesunion.com/rogergreen/?p=64

    It would seem that your church life is a basic part of your social structure and that you have a need to belong, which will cloud you to the reality that the beliefs your religion espouses are the accumulated myths and superstitions of your ancestors, that have been dogmatized, institutionalized and mounded into a colossal pile of bilge they claim is somehow ultimate truth. Your infantile attachment to this institution can only stunt intellectual development and cause you to not realize the human potential to learn and progress. Personally, I would hate to exist at such a delusional level and wonder how people can think ignorance could possibly be bliss, or if they can comprehend that concept at all. Either way, what a waste.

  12. Anthony Velez  

    Roger – I went to your blog and responded to whoever it was that commented on your Time Union blog. I am afraid I was a bit of a jerk toward that person, but I get tired of the variations on religion as “the opiate of the masses”, or the Freudian, religion as infantile wish fulfillment argument.

  13. Roger Green  

    Thank you. I do love your response. Don’t take this wrong, but you talk religion a whole lot better than I.

  14. Roger Green  

    Oh my goodness – i didn’t expect THREE replies to Mr. Mine! Thank you again. I am fascinated how my little benign story generated so many words betwixt you two.