This afternoon marks the conclusion of our four-part Advent preaching series, entitled “Salvation Revisited,” in which we have been exploring the meaning of “salvation,” a concept that is at the heart of the Good News that Christian faith offers and proclaims. If you’ve missed any of the three previous sermons in the series – by Brothers Curtis Almquist, Geoffrey Tristram, and Mark Brown – you can read or listen to those sermons on our community’s website, www.ssje.org. This afternoon, our focus is once again on the meaning of salvation, this time asking the question: “Salvation: From What? To What?”
The very notion of “salvation” rests on the assumption that there is something wrong that needs to be put right; if all is well, there is no need for a savior. What is it, then, in the view of Christianity, that is wrong and needs to be put right? Frederick Buechner summarizes it when he writes:
I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated: God creates the world; the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which God created it.[i]
The problem is that “the world gets lost.” We are lost. The present state of the world, the way we treat one another, the circumstances we find ourselves in, do not, according to Scripture, reflect God’s original intention or design. We are lost, and we need to be saved, healed, and delivered. This is the work of God, the Bible maintains. God is setting right what has gone wrong with the world and saving us.
From what exactly do we need to be saved? For most Christians, the answer to that question is “sin.” It is sin, they would say, that has caused us to go wrong; it is because of sin that we are lost.
There is a great deal of confusion about sin these days, and it’s important that we reflect on what we mean when we use this word. Sin is described in a number of ways in the Scriptures: It is seen as disobedience, our failure to keep God’s laws. It is connected with human pride, our tendency to be self-centered and self-absorbed. It is a condition of separation and estrangement from God, the natural result of our choosing evil over good. It is marked by unfaithfulness and idolatry, the fruit of centering our lives on ourselves or on the things of the world. All of these words describe aspects of our condition. And all of us are guilty, or have been guilty, of them. The Scriptures are clear that we have all fallen short of the glory for which God created us. We have all sinned, and we are all in need of salvation. Sin refers to the deliberate choice to turn away from God, to disobey God, to focus on ourselves or on the things of this world to the exclusion of God. In the words of the confession which we will pray in just a few minutes, “We confess that we have sinned against you, opposing your will in our lives. We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves and in the world you have created.”
The Good News of the Gospel, says John the Evangelist, is that “God so loved that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, [says John], but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17). Paul echoes the theme in his letter to the Christians at Rome: “God proves his love for us,” he says, “in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
The early Christians used images and metaphors drawn from their daily lives to try to describe their experience of the salvation that had received in Jesus Christ:
The concept of redemption, for example, evokes the imagery of the marketplace. Redemption signifies a transaction where some item or person is exchanged for payment. Saint Paul uses the imagery of redemption (Rom 3:24, I Cor 1:30, Col 1:14, Gal 4:5) and declares that the price of our redemption was the blood of Christ, representing the divine life: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses…” (Eph 1:7). “The Son of man came not to be served but to serve,” Mark’s gospel tells us, “and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
The concept of justification is an image drawn from a court of law. To be justified is to be declared innocent by the judge; it is the state of having been acquitted and declared “not guilty.” Paul makes it clear that sinners are declared righteous not on the basis of their own merits or achievements, but rather on the basis of their standing “in Christ”: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ.
To be saved was also understood as being incorporated or adopted into the family of God (Gal 4:5-7). The image of adoption emphasizes the graciousness of salvation. Adoption pictures union with Christ in terms of enjoying all the privileges that come with one’s status as a child of God. We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17) as a result of what God has done for us in Christ.
Finally, Paul depicts the new situation of the saved with an image drawn from the domain of personal relationships. He speaks of reconciliation, a word that assumes a previous estrangement that has been overcome or healed. All people are by nature ”enemies” of God because of sin, Paul maintains, (Rom 5:10, Col 1:21), but the death of Jesus Christ has overcome sin and reunited us with God: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them,” Paul writes to the Corinthians (II Cor 5:19, see also Eph 2:16). Thanks to this reconciling work, one who is in Christ enjoys restored relations with God, and, like Abraham, may be called “the friend of God” (James 2:23).
Throughout the Church’s history, then, the problem of our separation from God has been seen chiefly (but not exclusively) as the result of sin. The Good News is that in Christ, God has reconciled us to himself, declaring us “not guilty,” forgiving our sins, and adopting us into God’s family.
The salvation that God offers us has a past, present and future dimension. God has saved us from the penalty of sin through Christ’s death on the Cross. God is saving us now from the power of sin, as we “hold fast” to the grace that has been given us and continue to “work out our salvation” (Phil 2:12). God will save us from the very presence of sin in that new heaven and earth that is yet to come.
The history of Christian thought about sin is filled with wisdom, but “sin” may not be the only way or even the best way to describe our predicament. Modern theologians like Marcus Borg are suggesting that we could better understand our predicament and its solution by employing a variety of other images to describe it. The Bible, Borg maintains, has many rich images for naming the problem, one of which is “sin.” It is a major image, to be sure, but may at times not be the right image to use in describing our plight.
The problem is not simply that we have been bad and have rebelled against God (though that may be true), [Borg writes], but that we are blind, estranged, lost, in exile, self-centered, wounded, sick, paralyzed, in bondage, grasping and so forth. Forgiveness doesn’t speak to these issues. But the central images of the Christian life as a “way” do: it is a way of return from exile, of reconnection; it is a way of liberation from bondage; a way in which our sight is restored; a way of having our hearts opened by spending time in thin places; a way that leads from being lost to finding and being found.[ii]
Borg goes on to say,
For some, the central existential issue is not a sense of sin. Yet, though the language of sin might not speak very powerfully to them, the language of blindness, exile, alienation, a closed heart, or captivity to culture may speak with great power… [iii]
I invite you to consider some of these images in your own prayer as you revisit for yourselves the meaning of salvation. What does the salvation offered in the gospel mean to you? What metaphor best captures your experience of “being saved”?
You might begin by meditating on the “I am” sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John:
Jesus says: “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:48). In what ways has he fed you and nourished you? What was the hunger you felt and how has knowing him satisfied it?
Jesus says: “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12). How has He enlightened you? In what ways might you have been trapped in darkness, and how has his light come to you?
Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11, 14). How has he led you, protected you, rescued you when you were lost, gently held and loved you?
Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25). How has he lifted you from death to life? What is the new life and the new identity you have found in him?
Jesus says: “I am the vine and you are the branches” (Jn 15:5). In what ways have you experienced a life-giving connection with him? How has he supported and nurtured you so that you could bear fruit in the world?
Images such as these stretch our understanding of salvation beyond the central image of sin and forgiveness, and may be far more accessible for many in today’s culture.
In this holy season, as await the birth of the Savior of the World, ponder the meaning of the salvation you have been offered in him, and embrace him with all your heart, mind and strength.
[i]Frederick Buechner, “The Good Book as a Good Book,” in The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction; (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992), p. 44.
[ii]Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith; (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2003), p. 169-170.
[iii]Ibid, p. 170.
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