Even among those who claim an aversion to the use of big theological terms there is a tendency to use little terms, phrases or language that go unexplained – christian-ese, like some have called it. From an ex Engineer where there are a million and one ABVs and terms that people throw about like they’re in a ping pong championship final and their ability is judged on how many of these they can use p/m. And so we have ourselves non-theological or even anti-theological theologians who use terms like “covet your prayers“, “fellowship“, “communion“, “born-again”, “saved”… (the last on the list prompts the question – saved from what ?)
Technically, every Religion has its own take on Soteriology (doctine of Salvation), although I suspect the term itself is owned by Christianity and only became applicable when theologians began to recognise that the other faiths also in a sense have their own take on how we can obtain it, with it being their own version of the good life. All however recognise that whatever this good life is, we as a humanity are not currently in the possession of it and it remains an ideal to be attained through various means. The solution therefore depends on what the problem is. If pain, as in the case of Buddhism, the highest good, is to be rid of pain and this can be achieved through the prescribed means of meditation and self denial in order to achieve the blissful state of Nirvana. If moral deficiency as in the case of Islam then, constant repentance and the performance of all five of the pillars of the religion in order to gain the favour of the Deity whom in the end has the final prerogative of accepting or rejecting one’s efforts.
What is Wrong
In the case of the people of the cross, the problem has a name – Sin. Not merely moral bankruptcy, for to use that term will simply not be enough to encapsulate what it is that Christianity claims is wrong with the world, a question to which Chesterton famously replied – “I am”. Spufford in his book didn’t quite put it so politely when he diagnosed humans with HPtFTU – Human Propensity to F**k Things Up. Chesterton did eventually write a proper response to the question posed to him and his longer response contains the following remark.
…the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right
I cannot argue with him, but the question of what we are aiming for, for now I’ll leave and assume it is something like Peace and Love, like the purple ones think. Come to think of it (so called) ISIS too have their own ideal. Still, Peace and Love, right.
Yet, with keeping the aim so ridiculously simplistic, almost as if we just need to travel on a straight road for a mile and we’ll be there, our destination still seems unreachable even with the aid of a satnav – the latest and best in current modern technological aid.
If Sin, then what from the Christian viewpoint can cure us and why speak of the cure in ‘saving’ terms, for to save implies that that the victim is somewhat helpless to drag itself out of quicksand or earn enough to contribute towards the development of a cure through human collaborative efforts, with the issue being within and the cure external, a simple malfunction that needs fixing in order to save. Sin, however thought of as a disease is only ‘metaphorically’ so, since it cannot be thought of as simply a virus that latches onto ones being and needs to be extracted. Sin rather is a doing, we are not being saved from ourselves as some have wrongly thought, although this is also somewhat true but only derivatively so. At the core Sinning is what we do and Sinners are what we are, not by design but by our loss of what is right as Chesterton suggested
What is Right?
To deduce that your Television isn’t working is to know that your Television is made to be showing moving pictures, but it currently isn’t i.e. what is right for the Television is for it to be showing moving pictures, Wrong cannot be determined without Right. “Futility of the mind” is a phrase used in Ephesians to describe the state of man as a Television that dispenses hot coffee, great, but that isn’t what it is meant for. The “you shall surely die” warning in Genesis has been rightly recognised as having a threefold fulfillment in – the eventuality of death as an end to unmitigated decay, the hellish existence of the second death and finally as being cut off from a source of life. The final of these can be likened to a leaf being cut off from a tree might as well be called dead as it cannot survive for long; or a Television with its power supply cut-off. This is in a sense the spiritual deadness of man, cut off from the source of Life – God. What is right then is not what is right in an abstract sense of right, since a self determined right as in “man now determines right apart from God” (Gen 3:22) instead of Right as a stated purpose in the mind of the maker. As aptly stated by a famous Catechism – “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever“.
Saved from what?
Being saved ordinarily means being formerly in bondage and Sin as a master is the worst of them all. Salvation then means being released from slavery to this demanding task master in which national Israel’s labours at the hands of a cruel Pharaoh give us a biblical picture of being enslaved to another. Indeed their release from Egypt was suppose to point them to the reality of a much pervasive chain they were in, their release was supposed to be for the purpose of serving another master, a beneficent rather than malevolent one. In the end, although released from physical bondage, their spirituals chains remained and though their Lord made covenant with them yoking himself to a stiff necked people, they still found themselves returning to this other master – both Egypt and Sin.
So, even though Salvation can be spoken of in terms of redemption from Slavery, it can also be spoken of as a reorientation towards God. Sin hurts us and others, but for all intents and purposes we seem to like this arrangement like a fat kid loves cake (50 Cent, 21 questions !). In order to be freed from it, we need to see it for what it is, as ugly, which is what the call for repentance means, a turn from inwards towards another – the curse hung on a pole as the anti-venom for the stung ones (Numbers 21, John 3)
There is however another more controversial look at what Salvation is. If what is right is to be in touch again with God, then part of what Salvation does is to provide for humanity reconciliation with God which then leads to the question of why can’t God simply reconcile himself to us and we in turn to him. Can He not simply accept us as what we are or what we have become as a result of the fall, should it not be easy for him to open his arms to us again and be done with it. This then leads to the answer to our question and also to the character or attributes of God in which we must determine what humans must be or rather do in other to be an associate of God to which we must answer that we must be Holy to be near Him, just as He is Holy. This however is everything we aren’t. Our sinning and saving from it isn’t just an issue of God’s display of mercy in saving power, reconciliation and restored fellowship with God – though all these things are true. The heart of the matter is our deserving Judgement in the hands of a Holy, Righteous God who cannot characteristically look on and just simply pass over our indiscretions. He must punish it. Not because He sadistically delights in meting out judgement as a harsh headmaster will or a despot, nor as a overly strict parent; instead, the picture we get is of a consistent God who just simply cannot overlook sin but has to punish it. His omniscience also compounds our problem, in that he is a witness to all of our rebellion. In the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book, Gospel in Genesis:
…the trouble with all this is that it is seen by God…This is the essense of sin. It was all happening before God, but the world ignored him. It said, ‘There is no God. And if there is a God, well, it doesn’t matter. He can’t do anything. He’s quite helpless. He doesn’t have any power at all’. And the people went on living like that under the very eye of God, with God looking down upon them, though they did not believe that“
Therefore, what we are being saved from ultimately is the wrath of God himself. Since the one who meted out the curse to Humanity, is the one who provides a way out as well.
By what means?
A quick recap of where we’ve come from and how we got here. Salvation means there is something wrong and that there is an ideal, which is an orientation towards God. Without this orientation we are a useless bunch of bad coffee dispensing Televisions. The problem is also compounded by the fact we quite love the bad that we do, you know the instant coffee dispensing, the remedy then has to be twofold in nature – a repair and a reorientation towards what we were made for to begin with. If mercy is to be displayed by the reconciliation of God with mankind again, the perceived hostility must be seen to have been dealt with, plainly and openly. And so Christmas happened, God came down without gloves, in flesh, His initiative and in a final display of Human cruelty loaded with meaning which those of a Jewish background should surely understand. This also means those whom it was initially displayed to should get it, implying the whole of humanity should too. The scapegoat was sent outside of the camp, taking on the Sins of the community and with it comes an announcement of Amnesty from God:
Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! All rebels, insurgents, dissidents, and protesters against the King! Hear the royal decree! A great day of reckoning is coming, a day of justice and vengeance. But now hear this, all inhabitants of the King’s realm! Amnesty is herewith published by the mercy of your Sovereign. A price has been paid. All debts may be forgiven. All rebellion absolved. All dishonor pardoned. None is excluded from this offer. Lay down the weapons of rebellion, kneel in submission, receive the royal amnesty as a gift of imperial love, swear [loyalty] to your sovereign, and rise a free and happy subject of your King.
– John Piper, “God is the Gospel”