Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ranting about salvation

I'm ticked off about salvation.

I'm not upset that God wants to save us. I'm not frustrated that Jesus came to "seek and save the lost" by his death and resurrection. I'm not angry that someday God will welcome his faithful ones into a heavenly dwelling because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. All that is good and right and biblical.

I'm ticked about the fact that you and I are worried about whether we're going to heaven.

It's not our business.

I believe that what we have done with salvation is a crime against God and against ourselves. We have made this word, "salvation", about me, and about me going to heaven when I die. I can't tell you how many times I've dealt with people's questions about how much do I have to do, or will this sin keep me out, or how can I be sure I'm going there and not to hell. I'm not happy about it, because as a church culture we have TOTALLY MISSED THE POINT.

(By the way, this is one reason why the world outside the church is totally blowing us off these days, because the idea of heaven is no longer a convincing idea to most people outside the church. Ditto for hell.)

Here's the basic problem with salvation. Most of Christianity -- popular Christianity, anyway -- makes "me getting to heaven" the entire point of the Christian life. Witnessing to others, doing good things, avoiding overt and shameful sins, attending worship services, sponsoring a kid in Africa -- all these things and much, much more is done by many, many people so that they will go to heaven when they die and (in the best cases) so that they'll take a lot of people with them.

We have so missed the point.

Listen to what Jesus said about being saved:

"If you want to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, and for the gospel, you will find it."

Many Christians, and much of the popular imagination about Christianity, and in fact George Barna's whole system about classifying Christianity into several helpful categories, turns on the business of being "born again." This term comes from a conversation Jesus had with a Pharisee named Nicodemus who came to him in the dark to talk about Jesus and his identity. (See John 3). Jesus turned the conversation on Nicodemus and said, "Truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Did you hear that? Jesus never says, "If you are born again -- by which I mean you must pray the sinner's prayer and turn your heart and life over to me and accept me as Savior and Lord -- then when you die I'll let you into heaven so you get the double benefit -- you avoid the fires of hell and eternal punishment and all that nasty stuff, and you have pleasure and self-indulgence and the joy of seeing God's face for ever and ever."

No, Jesus says that we won't see the kingdom of God unless we are born again. Or, to use the alternate meaning of the Greek word anothen, born "from above." So Jesus is not even talking about heaven, at least not some after-death paradise of a heaven. He's talking about seeing the kingdom of God.

Here's the tragedy: There are hundreds and thousands and probably millions of people who consider themselves born-again Christians, who went down on their knees and prayed the sinner's prayer and accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, who couldn't see the kingdom of God if it parked in their driveway. So if Jesus has it right -- and I'm pretty sure he does, always -- whatever they did in that transaction, it did not involve being born "anothen," born again / from above, at least not in the way Jesus meant the term.

The question really comes down to this. When Jesus talks about us being "saved" what does he mean? We seem to think that has something to do with being saved from the fires of hell. But is that what Jesus thinks?

I did a search on the term "hell" in the gospels. I found eight references in Matthew, three in Mark, and one in Luke. Most of these have to do with the passages where Jesus says, "If your eye (or hand or whatever) offends you, get rid of it -- it's better to enter heaven with one eye than to go to hell with 20/20 vision." I'm paraphrasing, you understand. Jesus never -- NEVER -- says, "believe in me so you will not go to hell."

If we had it right, if this was really the point of believing in Jesus, don't you think he'd at least have said that once? But he doesn't. Ever.

What about heaven? Shake the cobwebs off your preconceptions and think hard about this. Forget your kindergarten understanding of a place in the clouds with glow-in-the-dark Jesus standing by God's big chair. The Bible talks a lot about heaven, but it doesn't describe what you are thinking of.

The gospels use the term "heaven" or some form of it 138 times. Matthew again has the most occurrences -- 75 times he uses the term "heaven" or "heavenly." Most of the time he's using the term to describe God somehow -- Jesus talks a lot about "my Father in heaven." Maybe that's about location, or maybe God the Father being "in heaven" says something about his eternal qualities or his spiritual authority or contrasts him with the corrupted nature of things here on earth. Matthew also cites Jesus talking a great deal about "the kingdom of heaven" which in Luke is usually "the kingdom of God." Here heaven is used to describe whose kingdom it is and what it's about. Jesus doesn't say, "Here's how you get to heaven, which is a place where my Father has his throne set up." The closest I can find to this sort of a statement is where Jesus says in John 14, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me." Notice he's not talking about you getting to a place of perfect delight, he's talking about getting to the Father. Which, throughout the Old Testament anyway, was a place guaranteed to get you killed because God's glory would blow you away in a heartbeat.

Fact is, there is very little support -- almost none -- in the Bible for the way we talk about "being saved," as though Jesus was going to save me from hell so I could go to heaven where I'll be happy.

Now, understand, I am totally in favor of salvation. But I want to understand what Jesus means by it, and if I'm going to set my sights on a goal, I want it to be the goal Jesus wants me to focus on. So what does Jesus mean by salvation?

If this little blog post is under your skin and you want to get to the bottom of this, Matthew 7:13-27 is pretty important. This is the tail end of the Sermon on the Mount, and it includes one of the places where Jesus talks about how important it is to enter through the narrow way. (Luke 13 is the other, where the disciples ask, "Lord, will only a few people be saved?" In response Jesus says, "Strive to enter by the narrow door.") Go read that Matthew 7 passage right now, or click on it at the top of this paragraph. Don't read from your own assumptions, but see what Jesus seems obviously to be saying.

Done reading? Good.

Did you notice the bit about false prophets? Judge them by their fruits, namely by their way of life and what it produces. Don't buy everything they tell you.

Did you read the part about building your house on the rock? Jesus says those who hear his words and do them are like people who build on a solid foundation.

Get it? Jesus is talking about a way of life here, not about praying some prayer that gets you through the narrow door. Read what he actually says! Entering through the narrow door has to do with following in the way Jesus walked (see 1 John 2:6 if you need this spelled out plainer).

Some of you are thinking, "Jeff! What are you saying?! Are you saying that we are saved by our works?! I know that's not right!" Stop it, okay? Stop making this about you getting in good with God. Stop making it about you going to heaven or hell. Stop making it about you. Nobody except you is talking about that!

Jesus is talking about a way of life that is full and glorifies God. In John 10 he calls it "abundant life." In John 15 he says that if you don't remain connected to him, you have no life in you. Now we are just beginning to see what Jesus means by "salvation."

Salvation is being connected to Jesus. Many people believe they have accepted Jesus into their hearts and they have done so only out of fear for their own hides. They can't even begin to see the kingdom of God (John 3 again) because they're not concerned about God being in charge of anything unless it keeps them out of the lake of fire. They are using Jesus to help themselves. Jesus says, "If you don't remain connected to me, you have no life in you." In other words, you might believe that Jesus is your personal-Lord-and-Savior but if you don't know him, if you're not connected to him, if you're not trying to build a relationship with him, you're fooling yourself.

Are you connected to Jesus? Are you listening to his words? Are you reading and rereading the gospels? Are you pondering what he did in allowing himself to be crucified? Are you wracking your brains to figure out what it means that he rose out of death? Do you watch him to figure out whether he's joking or pulling your leg or deadly serious? Do you pay attention to what he says? Do you try to get to know people who are close to him, so you can be close to him as well? If you are doing these things you are beginning to understand what Jesus meant by salvation. Because the closer you get to him, the more of his life he will pour into you.

And this will be hard, because the closer you get to him, the more your old ways of thinking and living are going to be exposed, and the more you will have to choose between Jesus and that dream vacation, Jesus and that promotion, Jesus and those lustful thoughts, Jesus and your self-centered security. Don't worry, you won't always choose Jesus. Sometimes you'll choose yourself, and he'll let you, and you'll be miserable. Eventually you'll come back and say, "Break me, Lord, I don't want to live like this anymore." And eventually he'll grant that hard request, but it takes time. Over that time, your life will begin to bear fruit that looks like Jesus is present. He'll work through you to touch the lives of others. He'll speak through you to bring comfort and healing to others. In the most desperate circumstances, he'll pour his peace into your soul and you'll be able to stand like a rock for others to hold onto. Part of the mystery is, most of the time you won't be able to see this fruit but others will see it and want to get closer to you, because unknown to you, you are starting to look more and more like him.

This is the beginning of what Jesus means by salvation. It has very little to do with what happens after we die and a great deal to do with how we live here and now.

Jesus used the term "eternal life," or maybe a better translation is "the life of eternity." The emphasis here -- John 3:16 among others -- is on "life." "Eternal" is just an adjective. Jesus wants you to have real life, and you don't get that by making a self-centered decision to save yourself from hell. You get that by being connected to Jesus.

So what about those who cry out on their death beds? You're worrying about who gets into heaven and who goes to hell again, but I'll indulge you this time. The tragedy is that they have waited so long and missed so much. But the joy and the excitement is that their last-minute appeal shows the depth and the width of God's grace, because he will never turn away a heart that wants to be connected to Jesus. And for those who throw themselves on Jesus like a drowning person grabs for a life preserver, there is now "no condemnation" (Romans 8:1). Even in the last moments of life, a person can -- and often does -- experience a fullness, a richness, of the presence of the Jesus they ran from all their lives.

If we are concerned about getting ourselves out of hell and into heaven, we've missed the point. We are not connecting to Jesus, we're just looking out for number one. If you try to save your life you're going to lose it. But if you lose sight of yourself and focus on Jesus, you'll find that in losing yourself you gain more than you thought possible. Jesus will start to live his life through you and in you.

That's what it means to be saved.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post, Jeff. Thought provoking for sure!!! A good reminder that Jesus came that we may have life abundantly here- in Him... This whole piece about abandoning our personal plans for our life has been a tough journey for me, but I'm getting there. And what I'm finding out, is that there is freedom beyond any human knowledge or understanding in complete surrender of my will- to His plan. And when that surrender happens He begins to do marvelous, glorious things!