Soteriology revisited.

This first entry is written from a loosely Christian perspective, and deals with this rift-causing idea that has come to be known as “salvation,” and, given some of the presuppositions that come with this belief system, where it really comes from, and how it’s been distorted over the centuries.

Oh boy, if I hadn’t committed heresy before, I’m sure I have now.

First, a little deconstruction.

There’s a question that lingered in the back of my mind since I was 13. I wanted so badly to excel in my faith, but the questions began. I couldn’t ignore them. To proceed with critical questions unanswered would be to continue in ignorance. Truth is priority, not loyalty to a preconceived notion. Yes, the thought of admitting my life is built on a lie is a scary one, but no good thing comes without risk.

Unless I could let go of my obligation to believe, I would never truly know whether I believed out of faith or out of fear. Being told that getting it wrong will send you to Hell will do that to you. And yes, of course there’s the “once saved always saved” bit, but then I had this other voice saying “If you can stray that far, maybe you were never saved in the first place.”

Every night I sat in my bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking, praying. Questions, answers, taking all the pieces of the puzzle and arranging them to see how I could make them fit.

I rarely spoke of these things aloud. After all, I was taught that doubt is a sin. To call doubt a sin is downright pernicious. Doubt should be faced, it should be confronted, not buried. If God is there, if he has revealed himself, what fear should he have of being questioned? Faith, trust, respect–these things are not taken through coersion. As John put it, there is no fear in love. If we believe that God is love then we cannot believe that he would use fear to keep us believing.

I’ve delved into alot of questions in the past ten years, and I’m glad to say that so far I’ve found answers that work for most of them. Many of these answers have taken me to places that make some people question my very sanity, and my salvation, but now I know what I believe, and am no longer ashamed to talk about it, as I was when I believed out of obligation.

So, in this first entry of the new blog, I’m going to cover what has been a very vital issue for me in the last few months. Salvation. Perhaps I should have started with what salvation is, but that topic is a still a little fuzzy to me, so I’m beginning with how I believe a person is saved.

Before I can continue, we’ll need a brief rundown of a certain conclusion I’ve come to regarding the idea of Scripture’s inspiration. I believe Scripture is inspired. But I part ways with most modern Christians on what I consider to be Scripture. The Bible has a great deal to say about the value of Scripture, but none of the verses used seem to support the assumption (several listed here) that the Epistles are included under the Inspiration umbrella.

This becomes problematic, because it seems modern Christianity likes to quote Paul more than any other author. He had no shortage of great things to say, no doubt, but the more I go back to the words of Jesus himself (which, of course, I believe to be word-for-word inspired), the more it seems that alot of Paul’s theology and thoughts regarding salvation don’t always agree with what Jesus taught.

Before I get to what I feel Jesus was saying, I have one more question to pose.

First and foremost, I was always taught that salvation is by faith, not works. The quickest canned argument for this idea is one simple question, how good do you have to be? Is there a magic line where you’ve done enough, and God lets you into Heaven? (I don’t believe salvation is about Heaven, but I’ll get more into that in the next post). Faith seems like a pretty good alternative to attempting and failing at living a holy life.

But a similar question must be asked regarding faith. What faith saves, and what doesn’t? Can you believe that Jesus is a separate entity from God, but still given God’s authority and made unable to sin, so that he could be the perfect sacrifice we needed? What if you believe that Jesus was completely human, that Mary wasn’t a virgin, but God chose him to be exempt from man’s sin nature, so that he could show us the way of love and, again, be the perfect sacrifice for all humanity? What if you believe that the Catholic church distorted the Bible to overstate his divinity because they didn’t believe that Jesus’ work could speak for itself? And what if you believe that he is exactly what the current widely-held Christian view is, but also believe he came to America and had a ministry here?
No two Christians agree 100% on every issue. There are mixed messages everywhere we turn, and several logically sound conclusions that do not agree with one another, yet are based on Scripture, because none of us can completely understand the meaning behind every word and phrase. It’s a limitation we must strive to overcome, but we must also admit that we will never know it all.
So the question to be asked of the salvation-by-faith view is, how far can a person stray from the absolute line of truth (which eludes all of us) before they’re disqualified from Heaven? Can there be a point where God says “Sorry, the ideas you believe regarding me aren’t accurate enough”? I feel this is nothing less than cruel, not to mention the oft-fumbled question of what remote tribesmen and those unlucky enough to be born in Muslim, Hindu and pagan countries are to do (yes, I know what Paul said in Romans 1, I’ll get to that in the next entry).

But the more I study the teachings of Jesus, the more convinced I am that faith alone does not save a person. I believe there was a time when it did, but that time is over (again, the reasons why will be in the next entry). This is about the current state of things, the new manifesto laid down by Jesus.

So here it is, the two little words I’ve become very cynical of:

Saving knowledge.

Knowledge doesn’t save you, so why is this phrase thrown around so much? Fair enough, you might say it is knowledge that leads to salvation. And I still ask, how? What is the difference between simple knowledge, and this idea of “faith”? As a child I was given the facts about Jesus and God, and all the Bible stories, and eventually told that I had to believe them as well as mean it in order to go to Heaven when I die. Even though I never doubted the story for most of my life, I was always in question as to whether I “meant it” as much as I needed to in order to qualify.
Add to this guilt trips from evangelists, seemingly hellbent on pushing up conversion numbers, and poisonous slogans such as “If you’re 99% sure, you’re 100% lost!” My cynical side says they like to have bigger numbers to show off when it’s time to send out support letters, but I’d like to think most of them, at least, had good intentions.

Don’t worry though kids, because if you think my distrust of this “saved through faith” thing (Paul’s teaching, not Jesus’s) would be enough to disqualify me from Heaven, it’s okay, because I believed it once, and this idea goes hand-in-hand with the whole once-saved-always-saved idea right? So I’m in the clear.

Anyway, enough negativity. I’ve been going back to the words of Jesus recently, and the picture he paints of salvation is much different than what we’ve been teaching. It seems pretty clear-cut. I know I don’t have the final answer on everything, but I’m failing to see how the currently accepted ideas could be extracted from his words.

Here’s one of his later parables, toward the end of his ministry on this plane:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-44

Review question: In this parable, what made the difference between salvation and death?

Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.

Matthew 24:12-13

That was taken from what is known as the Olivet Discourse, when Jesus talks about the end of the age.

I could go on (and if I find it necessary I will do so in another entry), but these passages alone are enough to at least conclude that this idea is worth examining.

Here’s the impression I’m getting. Following Christ is vital because it leads to a life of loving God and others. But if it fails to lead you there, it has no saving power whatsoever. No matter how strongly you believe Jesus died for your sins, and that there is a complete Trinity, and that the Bible is inspired, and the virgin birth, and that the earth is 6,000 years old, it is worthless to God if you don’t love others.

Theoretically, even an atheist could follow Christ without realizing it. If such an individual wishes to live a life in service to others, he unwittingly serves God, and is better off than many Christians.

The good news is, unlike how Christianity sees it, you don’t need to agree with me in order to be saved. It is only imperative to love. You can go on believing that your faith in Jesus saves you, and if that leads you to a life of loving and helping those around you, then it’s all just as well.

The bad news (or good news depending on how you view it) is for all the Christians who don’t love others. We all know how tragically prolific they are, and sadly, I usually find much higher concentrations of unloving people when I’m surrounded by Christians than when I’m not.

I understand that I will be getting alot of negative feedback for this, but bear in mind that this blog is only a tiny piece of the picture I’m painting. So feel free to bring questions and criticism, just remember that I do have alot more explaining to do.


~ by burnbeautiful on April 15, 2008.

3 Responses to “Soteriology revisited.”

  1. You have a lot of ‘splaining to do, mister!

    Good first post. I’m a big fan of the Paul, but you are right that it’s easy to pick out a lot of prima facie differences in Jesus and Paul’s theology. I just really, really want Paul to be authentic. (Quite a weakness when tying to be even-handed.)

    And I totally agree with you that there are many atheists who are better Christians than many Christians.

  2. Kyle,
    Wow! It is going to take some time to read through this and understand it. I Read through it just now and it is the echo of a voice from the past…myself. Please understand I am minimalizing your positions at all…in fact it is important to embrace these existential crisis that we encounter when all around is failing and there doesn’t seem to be much hope. Deconstruction is imperative in the “Ivory tower” that is modernity. Let us not forget though that we were never in that tower, but the elite ( i.e. pastors, evangelist, businessmen, moral majority, etc) who lord over those on the outside( the poor, the doubting, the sick, the weak, etc). I am sorry if that is too flowery but it captures an image in my mind.
    As I have said, Deconstruction is imperative. I am not sure where you stand on your deconstruction phase, but know that I am here. If you get a chance check out NT Wright’s “Paul in Fresh Perspective”. Wright shows that if we would have started in Ephesians when reading Paul we would have had a different outcome.
    With you on the journey,

  3. At least this journey you’re starting to take is healthier then your previous ones. Enjoy the sights on your trek, you may learn something. And you may find yourself back where you once were many many years ago. Just in a different place.

    How can you pour more water into your cup, if it’s already full? You must empty your cup before you can fill it again.

    Glad to see you refilling your cup.

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