I have reduced my book to seven chapters and have given it a new title: Mercy Not Sacrifice: Salvation for Recovering Evangelicals. It may be too bold; I almost feel like checking the sky above me for lightning. My brother John Meunier had challenged me to come up with a unifying theme, and last night in Bible study we read about Zacchaeus where Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.” So it hit me this morning that there’s one question that evangelicals think we know the answer to but really ought to step back and reconsider: What is salvation? I propose 7 answers.
The most important thing to say about salvation is that God does not save us from Himself; God saves us from trying to be our own gods. That was the original trespass of Adam that has cursed the world with death. Our eyes have been opened to our nakedness and closed to the providential goodness of our Creator. Having this as our foundation, we live according to the law of survival of the fittest instead of the Biblical mercy and justice that creates a community which takes care of all its members. When we are our own gods, eternity in inescapable communion with the real God whose love subordinates and humiliates us is the torture of the lake of fire and the isolation of the outer darkness. We have to be refashioned from our default state in order for eternal communion to be the ecstatic delight and intimacy God intends it to be.
1) Salvation is mercy not sacrifice
When we are awakened to the realization of God’s mercy for us, we are filled with mercy for others. This mercy is not just forgiveness but steadfast loving-kindness such as a father shows for his children. We are saved by God’s mercy from a mode of being in which we use “sacrifice” (whether it’s religion or hard work or reciprocal “gift” giving) to fulfill our obligations to God and put us above other people.
2) Salvation is worship not performance
Worship is delight in God that has lost all self-consciousness and anxiety. The reason Jesus says that the kingdom belongs to children is because they worship without knowing that’s what they’re doing. When we lose our innocence and discover our “nakedness,” we stop worshiping and start performing which either locks us into a tyrannical perfectionism if we’re successful or a despondent nihilism if we fail enough. Trust in Jesus’ sacrifice allows us to stop putting on an act and simply delight in God.
3) Salvation is deliverance not payment/punishment
I can’t decide on the second word here. In this chapter, I will talk about atonement. We have an ontological (?) need to be delivered by seeing Jesus pay the price for our sins and rise from the dead. Our account of the cross and resurrection must account for our need of deliverance. It is not that God needs to be paid in His Son’s blood for His sake; we need to see our offenses against God’s honor satisfied for our sakes. The retribution of the cross is not its end but the means toward our deliverance from the logic of retribution by which Satan keeps us at war with each other.
4) Salvation is communion not correctness
The righteousness that God seeks in us is not a technical standard of correctness abstracted from human relationships. It is what John Wesley called Christian perfection: love for God and love of neighbor that fashions us for communion with God and each other. The beliefs which cultivate the Great Commandment in us are “correct” because of the communion they produce. In Jesus’ parable of the weeds, what gets removed from the kingdom are the two things that destroy communion: skandala (stumbling blocks) and anomia (disorder). Heresy is that which schismatizes God’s communion through “controversial speculation” (1 Tim 1:5).
5) Salvation is mystery not certitude
To fear the Lord in the right sense is to embrace God’s mystery. This is the opposite of the miserly dread which drives Christians to need to put God in a box. Certitude cannot avoid idolatry because idolatry means worshiping a finite “graven image” of God rather than the infinite one who can only be described in analogy. Mystery gives God the authority to reveal His wisdom to us as He chooses rather than giving us absolute authority over what the Bible is allowed to say since we presume it to be self-evident.
6) Salvation is restoration not escape
The escapist version of Christianity in which we presume the world is going to be burned up and we go someplace else is the product of lousy eschatology and a lack of faith in the power of Christ’s resurrection. If we believe that God did indeed raise Christ from the dead, it should follow that God doesn’t have to hit some nihilistic absolute reset button to fix our world like He did with Noah but can actually transform it into a new creation.
7) Salvation is brokenness not privilege
Jesus’ beatitudes declare to us the mysterious blessing of brokenness. Brokenness describes those who know they are nothing without God whether they have gone through rock bottom times to produce this realization or if it is simply the mark of a humility that knows God’s holiness. Privilege in contrast describes the oblivious delusion by which we trust in our self-reliance and affirm that the systems of the world are reasonable and not oppressive to anyone. We are rescued from privilege by embracing brokenness and becoming beggars who approach God’s table with empty hands to be filled by His mercy.