Scriptural Salvation: Loss-Gain Analysis

In the last couple of posts,* I’ve outlined what I find scripture to say about salvation … and what it doesn’t say. I do not read it saying that everyone who does not hear the gospel of Jesus Christ is automatically lost and doomed to an eternity of torment – any more than it says that in the final judgment, everyone will be saved.

Those are extreme readings of scripture. Both require some rather torturous logic to reach them. The truth, I believe – as is almost always the case – lies between the extremes. But where?

Where scripture has led me is to a God who judges through His Son, and who judges the works of all. Those who have heard and believe in Jesus, the Christ and Son of God, have faith and the gift of His Spirit to inspire them to good works, which testify to their faith as surely as their words do. Those who have not heard still have a kind of built-in moral compass which should lead them to deduce the existence of God from the good works He has created, and to desire a life marked by good works as well.

Still, there will always be those who will turn their backs on everything good – whether they know the Name for it or not – and live a life full of self … which ultimately becomes self-destructive.

What do we as believers lose and what do we gain from adopting these conclusions, as opposed to more traditional extremes?

We do not lose conformity with scripture.

We do not lose the urgency of the great commission; the importance of the gospel.

We do not lose the sovereignty of God, nor His justice, nor His mercy, nor His desire that we choose the One who has chosen us.

We do lose a picture of a “God” who vengefully tortures – eternally – those who have never heard of Him, or do not fully understand him, even though they may have led very moral and generous lives marked by very few sins of a temporal nature and influence. This is a picture which sees only His justice, but little or none of His love and mercy.

We also lose a view of a “God” who capriciously says He was just kidding about justice for martyrs or victims or slaves; who yawns that it doesn’t really matter what you did or what you believed or how important you thought you were; who winks that you’re loved now and you have the right perspective about Who’s in charge and so you’re saved. This is a view which describes only His mercy, but little or none of his righteousness and justice.

We gain a glimpse of a God who perfectly balances justice and mercy; a God inarguably fair; a God who – even when meting punishment – does not over- or under-prosecute. (See Luke 12:35-48 regarding how unfaithful servants are to be treated. It does not speak of those who are not servants.) Nor does He over- or under-reward, since the work of salvation is His work. (See Matthew 20:1-16 regarding how servants working for short or long spans are to be treated.)

And, I believe, that glimpse is a much more balanced, realistic, accurate – and heart-winning – conception of God. Yet, the fact is, He has chosen to do that winning through us when He could have done it any way He desired.

So another thing we have to lose is our arrogance. (And I mean we have to lose it. We’ve got to.) We can no longer hold it over the heads of those who have not heard the truth of Christ that we have something  they can’t have unless they do what we tell them to do. You see, it too often sounds like that to someone who has not yet heard the full Story. It sounds like a power play. It sounds judgmental. It sounds exclusive rather than inclusive. And it does not sound genuine. (No wonder. It’s not.)

At the same time, the other thing we have to lose is our own complacency. Not everyone is going to be saved. There are those who will themselves not to be saved, as well as those who are most willing if they only knew why and how and Who. And the Story of Jesus, the perfect example of selflessness and self-sacrifice, when humbly shared has great power to turn hearts toward God, toward good, toward belief and a life marked by good works that draw still more to Christ. It is important, because to those who have heard and believe, the promise of salvation is sure, written in blood.

So the final thing we should and must lose is self. We have to become the Story (Galatians 2:20). We have to learn to balance love/mercy with justice/righteousness in our own lives. All of our words alone will not do what must be done, nor are all of the good works we can do sufficient to communicate the Story. We must tell it. We must live it. If we who believe and act justly and love mercy will commit to walking humbly in this way with our God (Micah 6:8), we have something extraordinary to gain:

The fellowship of the souls around us whom we love – and whom God loves even more.

He has given us everything we need to live and speak the truth in love and win them, even the time in our days. Yet that time is a limited commodity:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. ~ 2 Peter 3:9

I believe they have a chance, even not knowing Him. But the odds of repentance and therefore salvation weigh so much more heavily in their favor when the possibility becomes a promise.

____________

*Salvation: The Short Course and ‘Except Through Me’

Salvation: The Short Course

It is a sure thing for those who believe in Christ (Ephesians 1:13-14) and repent (2 Corinthians 7:10) and love and obey (1 John 3:10). That certainty is stated in the form of a promise (Mark 16:16) which is conditional – because those who do not believe will obviously not repent nor love nor obey.

Clearly, those who have believed and obeyed must have heard or otherwise encountered the truth they have accepted (Acts 4:4; Romans 10:14). But there is no scripture I’ve found which excludes from salvation those who haven’t heard and therefore could not believe. They can have no hope of it, since they have not heard of the promise to believers. But believers and those who don’t believe will be judged in the same way – by what they do (2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Peter 1:17).

Salvation is something Christ has finished (John 19:30), but it is also something He has not yet returned to bring to those who are awaiting him (Hebrews 9:28).

So, while it begins in the here and now (2 Corinthians 6:2), it is also not something fully delivered until hereafter (Hebrews 9:28). In the meantime, we who believe are shielded through faith until that salvation is revealed (1 Peter 1:5) – and yet, in another sense, we are receiving it (1 Peter 1:9). So we work out that salvation, with God working it in us (Philippians 2:12-13). In fact, we who believe are to wear it and the hope of it like a helmet (Ephesians 6:17 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:8). The day of its delivery grows ever closer (Romans 13:11).

Salvation continues to be offered to all people (Titus 2:11). That doesn’t say it will be given to all people; but it is offered. God would like for all to be saved … but in scripture, salvation seems to be conditioned upon repentance (2 Peter 3:9; Acts 11:18). We demonstrate our penitence by what we obediently do (Acts 26:20), so that all are ultimately judged according to what we do by the Lord (Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 20:11-15).  It’s the same basis on which we who believe are judged by those around us, whether they believe or not – and if they have seen good works, will glorify God. (Matthew 5:16; 1 Peter 2:12).

Sadly, there is only one prospect for those who hear truth yet reject and disobey Christ: there will be wrath and anger (Romans 2:8); they will not see life (John 3:36); the words of the One whom they have rejected will condemn them (John 12:48). Their destruction (Galatians 6:8 ; Philippians 3:19 ; 2 Thessalonians 1:9 ; 2 Peter 3:7) is in a lake of fire, the second death (Revelation 20:11-15), in which only the devil and his angels are tormented forever (Revelation 20:7-10). Disobedient, impenitent mortals will be consumed by its fire (Hebrews 10:27). “Destruction” is a word which is oppositional to “preservation.” “Death” is oppositional to “life.” Those who have eternal life are preserved; they live forever. Nothing I’ve found in scripture speaks of eternal life being given to the disobedient, to be endured in never-ending torment.

However, scriptures which speak of eternal life for those who inherit it are abundant: Matthew 19:16-30 , Mark 10:17-30, Luke 18:18-30; John 3:15-36, John 4:14, 4:36, 5:24, 5:39, 6:27, 6:40, 6:47, 6:54, 6:68, 10:28, 12:25, 12:50, 17:2-4; Acts 13:46-48; Romans 2:7, 5:21, 6:22-23; Galatians 6:8; 1 Timothy 1:16, 6:12; Titus 1:2, 3:7; 1 John 1:2, 2:25, 3:15, 5:11-20; Jude 1:21 .

The promise of that, offered through Christ, is something worth sharing!

Those are my conclusions. You need to reach yours.

Read about it. Pray about it. Live toward it.

I’ll see you there!

‘Except Through Me’

I am not a universalist. I do not believe that God will save everyone. He would have liked that (2 Peter 3:9), but that same verse makes it obvious that “not perish” is conditional upon “repentance.”

However, I am not fully convinced that when Jesus says ….

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” ~ John 14:6

… that He means “If you have not heard of me and therefore have not believed and done all the other things that a church tells you to do to express your belief in Me, you are forever lost and condemned to eternal punishment.”

What if He means by “no one comes to the Father except through Me” is that He is the one who decides who’s in and who’s out?

Romans 2:16 and 2 Timothy 4:1 strongly imply that both God the Father and Christ the Son are involved in judgment at a day yet to come. Acts 17:31 agrees. While “the Lord” could refer to either of them a few verses down in 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul specifies which Lord, the Lord who will be appearing: Christ Jesus. And in 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul speaks of the “judgment throne of Christ.” Without doubt, Matthew 25 puts Jesus on that throne – in His own words.

In fact, the whole of Romans 2 deals with the subject of people judging each other and how unwise that is in view of the fact that God’s judgment through Christ awaits us all. He will judge based on truth (v. 2) – and we know that Jesus is the Word, the Truth (John 1:14; 17:17; and 14:6 above).

He is also life itself, and like God, gives it and renews it to whom He wishes (John 5:21). (In fact, read the whole of John 6 for a fuller picture. Add to that reading list John 10:28 and John 17:2 and Romans 8 for more about by Whom and how that life is given. And throw in 1 John 5 for good measure.)

Is it possible that when Jesus says “no one comes to the Father except through Me,” He is talking about Who He is, what authority and influence and power He has … rather than something that is required of people in response to a truth they perhaps have not even heard, or maybe just haven’t fully understood?

A Short Post About Hell

I can’t really wade into a discussion about hell, because my theological hip boots don’t go high enough.

The Bible doesn’t say a lot about hell, and in it, Jesus says more than anybody else.

That’s kind of how I’d like to leave it. Hell isn’t for everybody, we can be sure, and it doesn’t seem to have been designed for any of us – but rather for the devil and his angels: An eternal place of punishment for eternally rebellious beings. That doesn’t describe us mortals whatever amount of rebellion we display; among us, one day, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess and rebellion will end.

To date, the most persuasive item I’ve read about hell is Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes, and I understand that a more comprehensive edition is in the making. Even so, it was more about hell than I wanted to read – and somehow, in high school, I struggled through Dante’s Inferno! Edward has a soteriological scuba suit, compared to my little yellow galoshes, and that suits me just fine. Paraphrasing Karl Barth, I’ve often said that my theology rarely goes deeper than “Jesus loves me; this I know” … and it rarely needs to.

Which brings me to my point, since I said I’d try to be short.

I don’t like to think about hell. I don’t want it to ever become a motivator for my good behavior.

I want to go back to the childlike innocence that I had when (I can still remember) fighting back tears before the very first smack of a spanking or harsh word of reproval reached me because I knew I had disobeyed – and disappointed – someone I loved and respected.

I don’t want to even have to imagine looking up into the big eyes of the big God who loves and gives Himself for me – even to death on a cross – and knowing even for an instant that I’ve turned my back on that love and walked away; gone my own way instead of His; hurt people I love and whom He loves more.

I want that singular, hopefully hypothetical microsecond of unfathomable regret to be hell enough for me, and forever enough for anyone.

So I’ll keep talking about what Jesus talked about, far more than hell or sin or failure or remorse: a Father in heaven who loves without ceasing and gives without measure and forgives without a second thought or the slightest capacity to hold a grudge.

I’ll keep on describing the God who gives His Son, His Word, and His very own Spirit to help us understand how good He is … and how good it is to give until you are nearly emptied of self and filled with His nature and character.

I’ll go on talking about the God who runs to the returning prodigal, shoulders the cross, receives the nails and breathes His last surrender to supply what we desperately need the most.

There may indeed be people who are at least temporarily beyond the reach of love, and must first be drained empty of self by the evil that is sucking life out of the world around us.

There may be people who need to understand the ultimate consequence of evil and insist on having the reality of sinleadstodeath sinleadstodeath sinleadstodeath rubbed in their own eyes and faces by their own hands until they have seen enough hell on earth to want no atom of it in eternity.

There may even be some who, to their dying breath, would echo Milton’s consummately selfish motto for Satan, the Accuser: “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”

But I sure as hell don’t want to be one of them.

At What Point Are We Saved?

This question, perhaps above all others, has caused contention and division within the body of Christ – His church – for the better (or worse) part of two thousand years.

Are we saved at the moment we believe? The moment we repent? The moment we confess Christ as Son of God? The moment we are baptized? The moment we receive the Holy Spirit?

It’s important to those who want to be contentious and divisive because the moment at which one is saved may be the key to which aspect of our salvation they wish to promote above all the rest – as if one were more important than the others; or as if the steps along the path toward God in Christ must be taken in a certain order; or as if taking a certain number of steps is all up to us and does not involve grace at all until after we alone have taken them ….

It’s important to them so they can establish their own beliefs as uniquely right, correct, and holy – and their own fellowship sharing those beliefs to be uniquely approved by God and saved, and all others heretical and condemned to hellfire.

May I suggest that Jesus describes the moment we are saved in Matthew 25?

That it’s the moment when the Master, the King – when Jesus Himself – either says “Well done, good and faithful servant!” or “Throw that worthless servant outside into the darkness!”?

That it’s the moment when HE decides, not when WE decide?

That it’s the moment culminating all the moments between “the hour I first believed” (Amazing Grace) and “the hour of my departure for worlds unknown” (Be With Me, Lord)? All the decisions we have made; the choices we’ve chosen; the steps we’ve taken; the acts of obedience and gratitude and trust in His grace that we have shown – all in partnership with God and Christ through the Holy Spirit?

That’s what I’d like to propose.

So, am I suggesting that we cannot know until then whether we are saved?

Yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting.

However, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is our seal of redemption (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30); we can approach God with confidence by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 10:19).

We believe that grace is real, and that is called faith not knowledge.

Through faith we are saved:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— Ephesians 2:8

… and that faith itself is not even wholly our doing; it is the gift of God.

So, am I suggesting that we have nothing to do with the process?

No, not at all! Our willingness to extend our faith – to believe, to stop pursuing evil and self and begin pursuing good and God, to confess His Son for Who He IS, to immerse ourselves in the water of living His life in this world by the power of His Holy Spirit – is absolutely essential to a salvation that begins in this life and never ends. As we receive His grace, we extend it to others; become channels of that blessing to those around us. We feed the starving; give water to the parched; show hospitality to the homeless; look after the sick; visit the imprisoned. We demonstrate that God cares about the whole person; in this life as well as the next.

That point of view takes the emphasis off of a minimalistic “five-steps-and-you’re-done” salvation. It restores the fullness of the gospel lived out rather than just intellectually acknowledged in a reduced-calorie recipe for redemption which has no salvific value at all if not demonstrated daily instead of displayed once on a Sunday in a church and fondly recalled as the-day-I-was-saved-so-that-now-I-can-go-back-to-living-the-life-I-want-to-live. That may be the moment our salvation begins, but it is certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of it.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. ~ Galatians 2:20

We can have absolute confidence – faith – in what Christ has done, even when we have lost faith in the flesh and in checklist-salvation and even in ourselves; our own ability to be-good-all-the-time-and-do-all-the-right-things-and-believe-all-the-correct-beliefs-and-obey-all-of-the-church-rules.

One more time: it is our faith in Him which saves us; not in ourselves.

But remember: it was His faith in us which led Him to the cross on our behalf.

And that deserves our whole-hearted, life-long response of faith, gratitude, and worship. It means being prepared, with lamps expectantly trimmed. It means knowing the Master’s desire for a return on his investment, and His faith in us as re-investors of the deposit He has made on our salvation. It means that faith-in-the-living separates the sheep from the goats.

That kind of service will bear fruit for His kingdom, bring others and ourselves closer to Him – and it will not go unrewarded; it will inevitably lead to the moment we are saved.

That’s the message of Matthew 25.

You can have confidence in it.

Salvation in Two Parts for Duet

I will tell you what I think.

I think salvation comes in two parts.

The first part Jesus accomplished at the cross, and by walking away from the tomb. There is absolutely nothing you can do to earn it, buy it, achieve it, deserve it, or merit it. It is finished. It is an overture that has been written. You just accept it as a gift and become immersed in its music. It is eternal, and it begins at that moment. It is life without end, life in God’s presence, life free of sin and guilt and death.

The second part you work out in partnership with God. You allow Him to do His work through you, and it matures you in Him – because you are not finished, and the draft of your libretto has rough edges. There is absolutely no limit to the potential that the partnership can achieve if both parties are willing. You do your share in gratitude for what He has done for you by His Son and through His Spirit. Some parts are recitative. Some are arias. Both carry the strong themes of the overture. This salvation song is temporal; it begins with physicality and continues in metaphysicality when Jesus takes you home. It is life in the maturing, life in the growing awareness of God’s presence, life in which sin and guilt are constantly overcome and increasingly conquered, displaced by the occupation – the passion – of singing His Story in this world.

Jesus wrote the melody with His life, His death, His resurrection. He invites you to sing a wondrous, improvisational duet with the harmony of your life, your death to sin, your resurrection to an endless life that He provides.

Together, you sing a life-lyric that praises God and gives Him glory for all eternity, where it joins in chorus with millions of voices, all tuned to the same chords and harmonies.

That’s what I think.

What do you think?

Whosoever Will

Here are just a few reasons I can’t believe that the Bible teaches universal salvation; the salvation of everyone whether they believe, obey, seek God – or not:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” – Romans 8:28-29

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:12

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ ” – John 14:6

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. – John 3:16-18

“But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.” – Hebrews 10:39

I can’t deny that these verses exist. I’m not permitted to re-interpret them some way that I would prefer that they mean. I can’t explain them away, or ignore them, or pretend that they don’t exist. They say what they say.

God chooses us. We choose Him – or we don’t. As far as I can tell, God doesn’t force a relationship with Himself on anyone. Doesn’t kidnap someone and say, “Be my bride.” Never has.

Nearly as I can tell, never will.

“Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” – Revelation 22:17b

Are You Saved?

Sure, I know; that’s the line of almost every televangelist worth his or her salt.

And it’s a question that I don’t like as much as the one posed by S.M. Lockridge: “Do you know Him?”

But it’s the question that anonymous posed on my blog in response to the post A Universal Appeal. Actually, it was phrased: “So, are you saved, or are you condemned?”

Does anonymous visit your blog often? I occasionally get visits from anonymous, but rarely answer. This time, I did:

anonymous, I don’t generally make it a practice to answer folks who aren’t courageous enough to leave a name with their comments.

But yours is a fair question and deserves a fair answer.

My salvation is ongoing – a process that began when I turned my life over to the Lord. It isn’t just what happens to me when I die.

Tell me what you think of Paul quoting Isaiah in II Corinthians 6:2. Do you get a different picture?

It’s not a perfect answer, of course. I’d be making a lot more money and doing a different job if I could dispense perfect answers. And, of course, I can’t discern motives people have for asking such questions. That ability would lead to more lucrative employment, too, I’m sure.

Since my post does address the point of view that confidently affirms God’s universal salvation of all mankind, it’s possible that anonymous felt that someone who disagrees with it – like me – might have no good answer to the question. Perhaps just a shruggy, “Well, I hope so!” or “That’s up to God!” or “We’ll soon see, won’t we?” And all of those are acceptable answers …

… to the wrong question.

There is a sense in which salvation is still ahead. In Romans 13:11, Paul urges Christians to behave in love because “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”

Two chapters earlier, the apostle describes it as something already sent (past tense) to the Gentiles.

In Ephesians 1:13, the addressees were “included in Christ” (past tense) when they heard the word of truth – perhaps because their acceptance of it and obedience to it was immediate. (And perhaps not.)

And in Philippians 2:12, he expresses it as an ongoing process that we are to “work out … with fear and trembling.”

So those are more of the reasons behind my answer. Like the whole subject of eschatology and the triumph of God’s kingdom, salvation seems to be one of those “already-and-not-yet” blessings. He works it out with us; and we with Him.

Maybe the better question would be “Are you about your Father’s business of salvation?”

– That is, if you know Him.

A Universal Appeal

God saves whom He wills.

I believe that.

“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” He said that. Paul even quotes Him in his letter to Rome.

God wants to save everyone.

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Peter understood that. John said He wants it so much that it cost Him the life of His Son. It was His universal appeal, offering to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.

I believe that, too.

From the very beginning, though, He has offered people a choice. From Eden to Ararat to Sodom to Egypt to Canaan to Babylon to Bethlehem to Calvary to now; He has provided a gate to enter and a path to follow.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” Jesus said it. He also said: “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.” And Mark’s gospel adds, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

So I believe that, as well.

And while I love to read of the confidence we can have in God’s love and generosity throughout Paul’s letter to Roman Christians – not to mention His deep desire to draw all men unto Himself – I find the same promise in the middle of it: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And I find nothing that contradicts His long history of commanding all to repent – through all the prophets, through Christ, through Christian messengers – and His ongoing willingness to put an end to those who continue to rebel; to follow their own path away from Him and to the harm of themselves and others.

Therefore, I believe He will.

Because in describing His own full glory, His very nature, He said: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

He is just and righteous. Therefore He judges and punishes.

He loving and merciful. Therefore He forgives and redeems.

My late dad used to express this dual and dueling nature within God as His two arms: an arm of righteousness and an arm of mercy; an arm of justice and an arm of compassion.

To believe in a God who is only one or the other – who can only be one or the other – is to believe in a one-armed God.

I believe in a God who is mighty to save, and mighty to condemn.

And His universal appeal is not lost on me.