I was raised to believe if I didn’t read my Bible, pray my bedtime prayers, and do the right things (don’t curse, don’t drink, don’t think about girls, do what my elders told me to do) God would be angry and I might end up in hell. My faith was built on guilt and shame and the fear of God’s punishment. You had to be good enough to get into heaven and if you weren’t or you did something “bad”, well, the picture the church painted of hell was pretty darn scary. If you grew up in northwest Iowa or in the Bible Belt, you know what I’m talking about. I think it’s time to find a more liberating understanding of salvation.
I used to go to a lot of Christian rock concerts when I was in high school…and they all had one thing in common…the altar call…a time in the concert when you could go forward, pray a prayer, and accept Jesus into your heart so if you died on the way home, you wouldn’t spend eternity in hell. I’ve gotta be honest, I was saved so many times, I think I’ve got salvation to spare. But still, for the longest time, it used to bother me…I worried about whether I was really saved. Then I read Paul’s words in Ephesians 2 and my perspective began to change.
Salvation is NOT about us! Paul says in Ephesians 2.4-10: “4 but God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
“For by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”. Salvation is not a transaction between us and God. God is actually the focus of salvation. “But God who is rich in mercy,” Paul says. Salvation isn’t something we earn; it’s God’s free gift to us. God gives it to us simply because God loves us for who we are…not for who we might become if we get our life straightened out…not because we do the right things or pray the right prayers or say the magic words…but because God loves us unconditionally and forever, no strings attached. All we have to do is receive the gift.
And what does that look like? Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5.17-20: “17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, but entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”
In Ephesians 2.10, Paul says we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Yeah, the “ministry of reconciliation” is what he means. Suddenly, salvation isn’t about heaven and hell; it’s about living a transformed life…a reconciled life…and engaging in the work of reconciliation now.
The world is falling apart around us…pain and suffering are real…and some Christians are more worried about getting people into heaven (especially themselves) than caring for their neighbors. The truth is you can be so heavenly minded you’re of no earthly good. You can read your Bible every day, say the right prayers, recite every creed from memory, and believe all the historic doctrines the Church has ever known and still not be transformed.
Marcus Borg puts it this way, “You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”
Heaven and hell…the afterlife? That isn’t what salvation is all about. Purity of doctrine doesn’t equal salvation either. Living a transformed life does; being reconciled to God and to each other does; loving and caring for one another right now does; working to build the Beloved Community in this time and place does. That’s what salvation is all about…reconciliation with God and God’s creation…liberation from the bondage of this world…freedom to live the abundant life we receive in Christ Jesus. And it’s a gift of grace we receive from a God of love. All we have to do is accept it and live like it.