Is Jesus saving the world from us? It’s a different way to talk about salvation, but honestly it’s the gospel that I’m hoping to be true as an evangelical afflicted by what Rachel Held Evans calls “the scandal of the evangelical heart.” When did we become the Pharisees Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being? How many of us have been secretly asking that question in our minds? How many of us need to be saved from a toxic salvation? I really feel that we are in the midst of a great awakening. The legion of demons that poisoned our gospel for so long is running off a cliff in a herd of hateful pigs, leaving us to wake up in the graveyard where we chained ourselves. We are discovering that Satan is our accuser and oppressor, not God. We are realizing that our need to be right and justify ourselves has kept us inside a tomb whose stone was rolled away by Jesus. So I wanted to share five things God has been teaching me over the past few years about what Jesus saves us from and what He saves us for.
1) Jesus saves us from sacrifice for the sake of mercy
“Go and find out what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice'” (Matthew 9:13). This is what Jesus tells the Pharisees when they criticize him for partying with tax collectors at Matthew’s house. In America, we are people of sacrifice. It is the foundation of our economic order. Not only do you get compensated for making a sacrifice of a certain quantity of labor, but your rate of compensation gains its moral justification from the years you sacrificed getting whatever college and post-graduate degrees you have.
Sacrifice is about transaction. If I give you the allotted time or money designated by whatever agreement we have made, then I can say to you “paid in full” and move on to the next thing in my life. Many of us view salvation as the sacrificial transaction by which God can be “paid in full” so that we can move on. The other dimension of sacrifice is that if I overpay, then it gives me power (at least morally speaking) over the person to whom I have made the sacrifice. Many evangelical Christians today use our self-perceived overpayments of sacrifice as the basis for putting ourselves on higher moral ground than all the lazy, selfish people we’re surrounded by.
God wants to convert us from being bitter, self-impressed people of sacrifice to being grateful, humble people of mercy. This is why He offered the ultimate sacrifice through Christ in order to rescue us from trying to justify ourselves through our own sacrifices. But living under God’s mercy is disempowering and humiliating; that’s why many evangelicals prefer to make the faith by which we are saved into a work that earns God’s favor (through the many doctrinal loyalty tests that we devise for ourselves and our rivals) instead of recognizing it to be the trust that God really wants to show us mercy.
It’s important to name that God’s mercy is not a banal omnidirectional benevolence that makes no demands; it is a sovereign forgiveness which commands our own mercy. It confronts us with the rhetorical question that Paul asked the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). The Hebrew word for mercy, hesed, means the “steadfast love” within a family. God didn’t send Jesus to pay Himself off for the things we’ve done that ripped us out of communion with Him. He sent Him to put to death our self-justifications that keep us from being one family under His mercy. And He wants to use us to make His family bigger. When we are filled with God’s mercy, He transforms us into dependent vassals and dependable vessels for accomplishing His righteousness, which is to reconcile the world to Himself as children to a loving Father.
2) Jesus saves us from performance for the sake of worship
As a pastor of a contemporary worship service, I am often wrestling with the question of whether I am performing or truly worshiping. I think evangelicals have a big misunderstanding of the difference between the two. Usually the distinction we make is between being obvious divas who shamelessly glorify ourselves and being “humble” by saying all the right things and making all the right gestures to show that “it’s all about Jesus.” But just because you point to God while you do your end-zone dance doesn’t mean that you aren’t really making an exhibition of yourself.
I would say you are performing anytime you are thinking about how other people are evaluating you. If there is a panel of judges in your subconscious, you are performing. If you are worried about worshiping God in the “correct” way, then you are performing (which is different than worshiping God in a way that is hospitable to your fellow worshipers or worshiping God in a way that you experience Him richly). If you talk loudly to other people about how great God is and how worthless you are, then you are performing. If you need to clarify for others over and over again that it’s “all about Jesus” for you, then you are definitely performing.
Worship means pure delight in God. It means you’ve tasted something amazing and you want more of it. It’s when you hear the voice that says “I love you” every time you touch something in God’s creation. The highest encounter that we can have with a work of art is not to make judgments about it, or use it to make money, or consume it in some kind of way, but to experience the love of the artist who made it. That’s what we do with the world when we worship God. The reason we come together each week to sing, pray, hear God’s word, and share the sacraments is so that these pieces of God’s poetry will make us live in God’s “I love you” as we walk through the world and be filled with gratitude, not because somebody is watching to see whether we’re making an adequate performance of thankfulness but because we are mirroring God’s light in the beautiful dance for which we were created.
In his forthcoming book Prototype, my brother Jonathan Martin relates his experience as a child riding his bike around the neighborhood in a world that still said “I love you” everywhere. His basic thesis is that God wants to take us back to that place of pure delight from which we have fallen. Jesus tells us in Mark 10:14 that the kingdom of God belongs to children. That’s because children delight in God without knowing that’s what they’re doing. But at some point, we lose that delight. We eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge just like Adam and Eve and our eyes are opened to our nakedness (Genesis 3:7). We become people of shame and fear who are putting on a performance for our invisible panel of judges.
We can repress our awareness of the mistakes we make in our performance or we can be crushed by them. Either way, our spirit is deformed as sin after sin accumulates behind the mask that we’re wearing for the judges. It is only by trusting that all of our flaws can be put on the cross that we are liberated from performance and restored to worship. We can never regain the innocence of children, but we can delight in God again, this time aware of the object of our delight. The paradox about worship is that when we delight in God doing the thing that He has gifted us to do, our performance is actually much more excellent than when we are trying to perform for our invisible panel of judges.
3) Jesus saves us from dread for the sake of wonder
Much of what is ugly in the evangelical church can be described as a conflation of two fears that are found in the Bible.The fear of the Lord is described all over the Bible as a positive thing. Proverbs 9:10 says the fear of the Lord leads to wisdom. Psalm 19:9 says the fear of the Lord is pure and endures forever. Acts 9:31 says that the new church grew because of their fear of the Lord and confidence in the Holy Spirit. Isaiah 11:3 says that the messiah will delight in the fear of the Lord.
Many evangelicals seem to think that the Bible’s praise for the fear of the Lord means that it’s good to be afraid of God. But being afraid of God is paradoxically the opposite of the fear of the Lord that gives you purity, confidence, and wisdom. When you’re afraid of God, you hide in the bushes like Adam and Eve when God comes walking. You become like the third servant in the parable of the talents who said to his master, “I knew that you were a harsh man… so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours” (Matthew 25:24-25).
People who are afraid of God hide their talents in the ground because they want to make sure that they can give God back exactly what they owe Him. They want to know the safest route to heaven, and they want to be absolutely 100% sure they’re going there. The curse of the “Once saved, always saved” formula that predominates popular evangelical Christianity is that it creates a neurotic obsession with the subsequent behaviors and attitudes which confirm that your “Lord Jesus, please come into my heart” was really sincere. And if you misunderstand the fear of the Lord to say that you’re supposed to be scared of God, then the way that you prove your sinner’s prayer was really sincere is by zealously proclaiming the scariest God you can imagine.
The fear that predominates so much of the evangelical church is actually the fear that 1 John 4:18 is talking about in the negative: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” I would call this fear dread, because is a fear that hides from God. The good fear of the Lord doesn’t hide from God; it rather describes the inherent, inescapable speechlessness we experience when we come in contact with God’s infinite. This good fear is best described as wonder.
It is very hard to live in wonder in our modern world because the concept of beauty has been so denigrated and wonder has to do with beauty. The values of the ancient world were centered around the triad of truth, goodness, and beauty. In a lot of ways, I blame capitalism for the death of beauty. Beauty has no place in a world where every object of creation is re-purposed into a commodity which conforms to a quantifiable system of measurement. You can have a concept of goodness because you can compare two commodities to determine which one is “better” according to particular metric. You can have a concept of truth because every exchange that happens in the marketplace is supposed to involve the “truth” of equity between payment and product, even though the goal is always to game this “truth.” But beauty is definitively unquantifiable. An object whose value can be reduced completely to a number might be pretty or useful for creating a certain ambiance, but it isn’t beautiful.
In any case, popular evangelical Christianity often works with a theology shaped by our capitalist context in which God’s goodness is reduced to quality control standards of flawlessness and His truth is reduced to intolerance for any unpaid debt. God’s beauty is not allowed to have a voice in shaping our systematic theology, even if we use the word “beautiful” in the songs we sing about Him. In a world that tries to quantify and systematize everything, there simply isn’t space to encounter the God who transcends our explanations of Him. So we bury God’s treasure in the ground by creating a God in the image of the market and worshiping that instead of the unexplainable One. There could not be a better deity for the free market than a God who demands perfect products and has zero tolerance for unpaid debt.
The way that God brings wonder back into our field of vision is to smash the idols that we have projected onto Him. The problem is that we often respond to God’s idol-smashing with dread and retreat to a more tightly-controlled space with an even smaller, simpler idol. We are never going to be comfortable with watching God smash the idols that we thought were Him, but the degree to which we don’t run away and hide when He does that is the degree to which we are inhabiting the fear of the Lord. Living in the fear of the Lord is refusing to get out of line for God’s roller coaster even though we know that we’re going to scream when we go down the big drop.
The other dimension to this fear of the Lord is a kind of integrity in which we do not repress the intuitions we receive from God that do not immediately conform to our systems of describing Him. These intuitions are often ridiculed as “feelings” by people who have no concept of beauty and make no distinction between their explanations of God and God Himself (a.k.a. people who don’t fear God). People who fear the Lord will be perpetually dissatisfied with every caricature of God that they encounter even if they cannot put their finger on exactly what the problem is. That is the blissful agony of wonder, but it is such a richer divine encounter than the white-knuckled dread that sticks to safe and simple.
4) Jesus saves us from privilege for the sake of brokenness
James 4:4 says, “Friendship with the world is enmity with God.” For most of Christian history, friendship with the world has been understood as privilege, the comforts and attachments that make us reluctant to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. But in the last thirty years, evangelical Christianity has pulled off a sleight of hand by which “leaving the world” (which used to be leaving privilege) has become the validation of privilege instead. We have accomplished this by redefining “the world” that we are supposed to leave as sex, drugs, and rock and roll (even if we never lived there in the first place). The way in which we escape the corruption of sex, drugs, and rock and roll is to retreat into the gated communities where we live in our $700K single family homes, whose privilege is completely off our radar screen as a potential obstacle to authentic Christian discipleship.
The problem with privilege is that it warps our perspective about the world around us. It makes us cynically “pessimistic” about the possibility of making the world a better place. It’s pretty farcical to say that you’re just a “pilgrim passing through” this planet which isn’t your “true home,” but while you’re here, you might as well as live comfortably. The apocalyptic longing for the better place of heaven makes sense coming from the desperately poor people who wrote the Bible and the people in the Global South who live in analogous conditions today because those of us who are privileged think that it’s immoral to pay too much for what they make in their factories. But we’re pleading with God to send the rapture soon because we’ve lost our cultural hegemony (which isn’t the same thing as persecution!).
We need for our privileged circumstances to make sense, so we come up with narratives to justify the economic disparity between us and other people. One of the most popular narratives is to say that we are wealthy because we are sexually chaste and the poor are poor because they were not. If there were not any truth to this narrative, it wouldn’t stick. It is true that when you get knocked up without any resources at age 15, the odds of your ever making more than minimum wage decrease drastically. But the self-justification needs of privilege cause middle-upper class evangelicals to obsess over sexuality to an unhealthy degree, because if your daughter gets pregnant, that collapses your explanatory system for why you deserve to be rich and others deserve to be poor (please understand that I’m not eschewing the importance of sexual chastity; I am naming one way that it can become an unhealthy obsession) Privilege describes not only having advantages that others don’t have, but the need for good talking points that can justify the existence of these advantages.
The opposite of privilege is what I would call brokenness. Brokenness is the strange blessing described by Jesus’ Beatitudes in Matthew 5 by which the poor, the meek, and the persecuted paradoxically experience greater happiness. Whereas privilege describes a farcical state of being whose shameful injustice must constantly be repressed and rationalized, brokenness describes an authenticity which is discovered in humility. You don’t have to go through devastation to be broken. It just means that you have somehow gained the knowledge that you are nothing without God.
The best description of brokenness I’ve found is 2 Corinthians 4:7-10: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” It is not that we wallow in our inadequacy, but rather that we become comfortable with the knowledge of our utter dependency on God.
You don’t have to be poor to live in brokenness, but if you have wealth, you will live as though your resources belong to God rather than you. John Wesley captures this concept beautifully in his sermon On Riches: “Sit as loose to all things here below, as if you were a poor beggar.” To live in privilege requires being very adept at coming up with justifications for why you don’t need to change or give up anything about the way that you’re living. To live in brokenness means that you have divested yourself from all defensiveness so that God can be truly sovereign in your heart.
5) Jesus saves us from correctness for the sake of communion
The Greek word haeresis which transliterates to heresy in our language originally meant “faction.” Heretics in the original sense of the word were people who created divisiveness with their teaching. Paul says in Timothy 1:4 that the problem with false teachers is that they “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work.” He says in Titus 1:11 that the heretics “must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach.” In other words, Paul’s measure of a false teaching is the degree to which it divides a community, which is very different from many evangelicals today who look for reasons to call each other false teachers and divide communities in the process. We would rather be right than reconciled; we prefer correctness to communion.
We often forget that Paul did not have the same Bible that we have for his guidance. He made a whole lot of claims about God that involved very creative interpretations of the Hebrew scripture he had to work with and even some very significant innovations of his own. The Spirit-led development of Paul’s doctrine was shaped by the divisive teachings that he had to battle in the churches which he wrote and visited, especially the Galatians and Corinthians. Paul seems to describe this discernment process in 1 Corinthians 1:19, one of the places where he uses the word haeresis: “Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” So Paul’s discernment of truth in the gospel laboratories of his churches is based on an intuitive assessment of the “genuineness” of the witness, rather than the modern conception of truth as factual correspondence between an object and its representation.
Paul’s vision for orthodoxy is captured quite beautifully in Ephesians 4:14-15: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” Deceitful teaching is exuded by social chaos; love and truth are confirmed by the communion they create in the body of Christ. Truth is not a goal that exists in abstraction as it does for “objective” modern thinkers. Truth and love are instead the dual means to the end of communion: becoming the mature body of Christ.
The problem we have in modern evangelical Christianity is that we often eschew communion for the sake of correctness. I think this has a lot to do with power. Communion involves a renunciation of our power for the good of the group, while correctness is the justification of our power over others based on their relative incorrectness. This also has a lot to do with the information age, in which so much of our identity is forged in disembodied words. It’s very understandable that a world where people define themselves by what they “like” and “share” in virtual space would foster a preference for ideological correctness over communion-producing discipleship. Communion is a disappearing concept in a world where most of our relationships are mediated through screens.
In any case, I’m convinced that correctness is relevant only insofar as it relates to our ability to enter into communion with God and each other. Whatever misconceptions we have about God (which we all have) are harmful insofar as they cause “controversial speculation” and “disrupt households,” according to Paul (!). The “rightness” of our teaching is measured not by its perfect correspondence to “the facts,” but by its ability to cultivate the hospitality (love of neighbor) and worship (love of God) which perfect our capacity for communion. Jesus corroborates this in his parable of the weeds in Matthew 13. In his explanation in verse 41, he says that the weeds which will be removed from the kingdom of God are σκάνδαλα (traps) and τοὺς ποιοῦντας τὴν ἀνομίαν (architects of discord). The problem with both of these is clear: they sabotage communion. We create both when we seek correctness at the expense of communion.
So how are we saved from the ruthless pursuit of correctness? We are saved when we gain the faith that Jesus’ cross has made it okay to be wrong, instead of thinking that the “faith” which saves us requires believing all the correct things about Jesus. Do you see how those two conceptions of faith are polar opposites? The latter would be a good example of heresy, not because it can be proven so with Biblical proof-texts but because the zealous pursuit of correctness has been devastating to our unity as a church. People who don’t need to be right because they trust in the cross can build a community of love and truth where they grow into the mature body of Christ together.
6) So how can the world be saved from us?
The word yeshuah is the Hebrew word for salvation from which Jesus gets his name. It normally refers to a battlefield hero who saves his army from defeat. Too often, we are the enemy from whom Jesus needs to protect others who may or may not know Him. But Jesus is converting us from the toxic gospel that many of us received. Many of us have done considerable damage to Christ’s name by clinging to sacrifice, performance, dread, privilege, and correctness. But by the power of God’s grace, we are becoming merciful, worshipful, wonder-filled, broken, communion-seeking people. As this process continues, the world will continue to be saved from us and we can invite others to join us in embracing a salvation that is from ourselves and for the sake of the world.