Christian doctrine of salvation

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Protestants usually present the Christian doctrine of salvation in personal terms:  believe that God forgives you, honour Him and His Son, and you will go to heaven.

But St Paul saw salvation in cosmic terms, and perhaps others in the early church did too.

He knew that, according to Genesis, all the evil in the world was the divinely ordained punishment for sin.  Because of their deliberate disobedience, Adam and Eve were excluded from the Garden of Eden, which was presumably a perfect creation, and from the Tree of Life, which was the eternal life of God himself.  Instead they suffered pain and hardship, nature produced “thorns and thistles”, and they would die. (Gen. ch.3).

Paul also knew that throughout the rest of the Old Testament, when dreadful things happened to God’s chosen people, it was always interpreted as God’s punishment for their sin.  Indeed, in Deuteronomy etc it is written that those who obey God’s commands would be rewarded, and those who disobeyed would be punished. (Study the details of the rewards and punishments:  making sense of their daily experiences.)  The most famous cases of national punishment, of course, were the invasions of the Assyrians and Babylonians.  (Did they later see the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in AD 70 as punishment?)

So Paul, and indeed the Jews in general, saw all natural, national and personal suffering and death as punishment for sin.

Paul, steeped in Jewish tradition as a former Pharisee, was also familiar with a sacrificial system as the means of assuaging God’s wrath against sinners.  It is not surprising, therefore, that he regarded the crucifixion of the perfect man Jesus as a perfect sacrifice, that would reconcile God and humanity for ever.  He explains his theory clearly in Romans.  For instance Rom.5:18:  “just as the result of one trespass [Adam’s] was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus’ sacrifice] was justification that brings life for all men.”

In the early chapters of Romans, Paul explains how those who know themselves forgiven, through faith, can come to enjoy the eternal life of God’s Holy Spirit.  But later in the letter he expects that, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice, the whole of creation will be redeemed.  E.g. in 8:21 he writes of his “hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

This is where the resurrection of Jesus comes in.   Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the first sign of God’s plan to reverse the condemnation meted out to Adam, the condemnation of all people to death.  “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (v.22)  He goes on:  Jesus will return [as the promised Messiah] to put everyone and everything under his authority.  “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (v.26)

Just as Jesus was given a new resurrection body, so, Paul says, those who follow him will be given a special body, not subject to death. (vv.50-53).  I Thess. 4:13-17 makes it clear that Paul believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, to establish his new kingdom on earth.  In II Thess. Ch.1 he elaborates on the judgement Jesus will execute against the wicked on earth “in blazing fire with his powerful angels.” (v.7)  As the years passed, and Jesus did not return, Paul seemed less certain of the time but no less certain that it would happen.

So, according to Paul, through Jesus’ “sacrifice of atonement” (Rom.3:25), those who believe that God forgives them will avoid the punishment of Adam and all sinners who lived after him, and enjoy eternal life.  And just as Jesus was given a new body after death, so too will all who believe in him. This will occur when he comes again to judge both the quick and the dead, destroying the wicked and establishing a new kingdom upon earth not subject to death, suffering and decay.

This doctrine is not really credible, for several reasons.

1.            Jesus has not returned as predicted.  The creation continues as it always did. If God is reconciled to the world through the death of Jesus, why delay in setting up the new kingdom?

2.            The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is unintelligible:  it assumes a God who both hates us for our sins and would kill us for them, and a God who love us so much that he will suffer ours sins and forgive us.  It also assumes that God is just, in wanting to punish the wicked, but is unjust in that he accepts the punishment of a perfectly innocent person in place of the wicked.  I have offered an alternative interpretation of the cross elsewhere.

3.            It is not true that those who disobey God suffer punishment in this world, and the obedient are rewarded.  Often wicked people flourish, and the good suffer.  Look at the fate of Jesus and his disciples, many of whom were cruelly killed.  The doctrine that interprets death and suffering as punishment for sin is absolutely implausible.

I should develop an alternative theory of salvation.

Mine would focus upon the process of spiritual regeneration outlined by St Paul, but see that as driving a transformation of social relations on earth.

God’s loving Spirit is ennobling and transforming, enabling us to value people as they deserve.

If our souls survive death, I cannot imagine what form they would take, or how they would relate to one another and to God.


Posted Leave a commentPosted in Credible Christianity

For all who believe in heaven and hell, it is important to know what you have to do to get into heaven. Protestants are often reminded of St Paul’s teaching in Romans, so important to Martin Luther, that people are justified by faith, not by works (Romans 3:28), that is not by simply keeping God’s law. Thanks to Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, we know that God is willing to suffer our sins yet forgive us, and offer us his friendship and Holy Spirit. The word “justified” implies “not guilty”: people who believe in God’s forgiveness discover that they are treated as friends by God, as though they were not guilty of sin. Of course they are guilty of sin, so “justified” is a slightly misleading term. I would say they are forgiven, rather than justified. God’s love is expressed in his forgiveness of sinners.

If people are justified by faith, that also suggests that they qualify for heaven. Surely only the truly guilty go to hell. But even Luther knew that more was needed for salvation, for example, baptism—of which more soon.

I prefer to talk about atonement rather than salvation, because it refers to being at one with God here and now, rather than being focussed on judgement in the hereafter. Forgiveness removes the barrier of guilt that keeps us from approaching God, but what about the barrier of sin that prevents us from accepting his will? To be at one with God we clearly need more than faith in His forgiveness. We need “sanctification”, which involves repentance: acknowledging our sinful nature and dedicating ourselves to the will of God. That is where adult baptism is so important: a public act of repentance followed by a symbolic act of cleansing and thus renewal, with the promise of grace to come. It commits one to a lifetime of repentance and renewal.

Will those who believe in God’s forgiveness but refuse to repent get into heaven? I have no idea. But if people reject the love and lordship of God, they would hardly be willing to worship him, so they would not be comfortable in heaven. So perhaps repentance as well as faith in God’s forgiveness is needed to enjoy heaven.

All this is quite familiar to most Christians. What is seldom explained are the verses in the Bible that say more is required. These are the verses that say God will not forgive people their sins unless they forgive those who sin against them. For instance Matthew 6: 14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Cp. Mark 11: 25) This teaching is supported by the parable of the unjust steward, who, having obtained forgiveness of his debt from his master, refused to forgive those who owed him money, so that his master changed his mind and put him in prison (Matthew 18: 21-35).

If God in his love forgives all sinners, only wishing them to turn from their sins and live well, will he not forgive those who fail to forgive others? Clearly the message here is that it is not enough to commit oneself to God, for example by and act of repentance or by saying the Lord’s Prayer. People must also obey his will to love others as themselves, and as much as possible, live by his Holy Spirit. The intention professed in an act of repentance must be followed by action, by seeking out God’s will for oneself and obeying it. In trying to obey God, Christians find themselves depending more and more upon the guidance and strength of his Holy Spirit. In that way they come to share in the life of God himself, and to express his will, his Word if you like, in their lives.

This interpretation of the challenging passages in Matthew is supported by other parables about who is admitted to heaven., the one about the sheep and the goats, and the other about Lazarus.(check)

So, if people fail to honour God in their deeds, they will perhaps act contrary to his will, causing more destruction and distress than God intended. Although God might forgive sinners, he would not be very happy with the behaviour of those who fail to do his will.

It looks as though admission to heaven depends on works after all, contrary to St Paul’s teaching. However, St Paul’s teaching on how to get to heaven is much more profound than some Protestant teachers have noticed. Entry to heaven depends upon being blessed with God’s life-giving Holy Spirit. He could not put it more plainly: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Çhrist from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Romans 8: 11)

So faith in God’s forgiveness is important, and repentance is important, but these are simply prerequisites for life in God’s Spirit. That is the grace that God most wants us to enjoy. St John interprets the sacrament of Holy Communion as an act of accepting Christ symbolically by receiving symbols of his flesh and blood, adding “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.” (John 6: 63). His parable of the vine confirms his conviction that unless a person is “in Christ” and “bearing fruit”, he or she will be discarded (John 15: 1-17).

The Christian gospel is about the love of God and his forgiveness of people’s sins. But it is more than that: it is also, and essentially, about the possibility of spiritual transformation, of holiness, and an eternal life. It is about being swept up into the loving life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.