Christian Salvation: More and More Questions (Part 2)

Ted Grimsrud—February 8, 2012

Our understanding of salvation seems an important enough issue to warrant continuing reflection  and conversation. I appreciate comments that have been written in response to some of the thinking I have been doing on this topic.I want to respond to some further thoughts from Philip Bender in this post and will return again shortly with thoughts in response to Al Steiner’s comments.

My earlier pieces since December 2011 have been: “Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?”, “Jesus’ Death and My Salvation,” “Does Paul Agree with Jesus About Salvation?”, “Christian Salvation: Do the Questions Never End?”, “Are All Sins the Same Before God?”, and “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions.” I write these current reflections as a preliminary effort to revise and complete a book on salvation, the first draft of which was called Mercy Not Sacrifice: The Bible’s Salvation Story.

Philip Bender, in his latest in a series of thoughtful responses to my posts, raises several important questions.

How are theological and political beliefs related?

His first question is about the connection between our beliefs about God and our political/social philosophy. “Does one’s view of God lead to one’s world view in other realms of life?” or is it more that “one’s social and political ideology…shapes one’s view of God?” Specifically, what do we make of the apparent correlation between “a strong satisfaction atonement theology and [belief] in a quite vengeful God” and “very conservative and reactionary social, political, and economic views”?

This is a complicated question in that partly how we think of these issues depends on our definitions of key terms such as “politics” and “theology.” It does seem to be the case, in a general sense, that—for example—self-identified evangelical Christians in the United States (who presumably would tend toward a “strong satisfaction atonement theology”) as a rule lean toward the political right (supporting, for example, a “strong military,” capital punishment, and “free market” economics).

Numerous scholars have shown a correlation, both historically and currently, between “strong satisfaction atonement theology” and retributive criminal justice practices. And, in the United States in the past 40 years or so, the retributive criminal justice approach has become heavily politicized.

But what comes first, the belief in a punishing God or the politics of retribution? I guess I would say the theology comes first. Our true beliefs about God tend to be reflected in our politics. But, of course, our political context shapes our beliefs about God. So, an effort to affirm and put in practice a politics of compassion will require a theology of compassion. But a theology of compassion will also require practical embodiment. So it’s not really either or.

It is frustrating for those who read the Bible as clearly advocating for an ethics of compassion—and as basing this emphasis on compassion on a portrayal of God as compassionate—to see so many “biblical Christians” advocating an ethics of retribution. I believe that we must challenge those Christians on biblical and theological grounds, though. We dare not cede the Bible to those who in actuality turn its theology on its head and turn God and “godly politics” into a buttress for violence.

Taking human hard-heartedness seriously

Philip raises a second kind of question: He asks, in effect, whether the “moral influence” of my argument might not be too simple. Is it not the case that “eyes and ears and hard hearts” are more resistant to the message of God’s mercy than I am allowing for when I write “God breaks through idolatry’s blinding dynamics in the witness of Jesus”?

This is a great question. I actually do think my position takes the problem of human hard heartedness more seriously than the satisfaction views—at least in the sense of more directly addressing them and proposing a solution to the problem. I think the big difference between my position and the satisfaction views is not in how seriously we take the problem of hard heartedness, but where we locate the solution to the problem of alienation caused by this hard heartedness.

I am saying that the problem, deep and profound as it is (I don’t think my position in any way minimizes the actual problems of brokenness and alienation in the world), lies exclusively on the human side. The satisfaction view sees the problem on God’s side (not in the sense that God is the problem but in the sense that the problem keeps God from healing and must be addressed in the relation to God to be resolved).

So, in a genuine sense, the problem is simple: Human beings trust in things other than God (idolatry), and such trust corrupts human life. But, of course, this is a very complicated problem as well, in that once we trust in false gods we empower those “gods” and they, in effect, become actors in the drama themselves. That is, the idols lure and seduce humanity. The story of Jesus’ death is the story of three of the very most potent idols (the empire, the temple, and religious legalism). The hold of these idols is profound—they are active in demanding human loyalty (and punishing disloyalty).

So, when as a consequence of Jesus’ resurrection and his followers’ affirmation of him as the Christ, the story of his death becomes the antidote par excellence to the problem of idolatry—because it exposes the most powerful idols for who they are. Like nothing else, this exposure, when combined with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and communities of resistance, makes healing from hardheartedness possible like never before. But it’s not easy—especially since the idols have taken up residence in Christian structures and even Christian theology (see my response above to the first question). Still, the answer does remain simple and straightforward: trust in the true God, the God of Jesus, and not in idols. That’s all it takes (“Repent and believe in the good news,” Mark 1″15).

Spiritual disciplines

I will respond more briefly to Philip’s third question—whether I might not be too “harsh” in my characterization of “spiritual disciplines.” Here I think I simply need to clarify my point. I am critical of “spiritual disciplines” insofar as they “have at their root efforts to make us acceptable to God.” Insofar as spiritual disciplines empower us to accept God’s mercy and live faithfully out of gratitude to that mercy, they seem all to the good. I am not condemning spiritual disciplines as such.

I did do some writing on spirituality many years ago and just recently put it up on my PeaceTheology website. I haven’t even reread it yet, so I don’t know how much I still affirm it. I did have one piece on prayer that is part of this.

2 thoughts on “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions (Part 2)

  1. Thanks Ted, for this look again at Salvation questions.

    I have become amazed at how much I rely on my early teaching, and the beliefs of those who seemed to have it well together, so I am amazed at people who can change their orientation about how to deal with anger and retribution. I tend to think it is our orientation that makes us understand and tend toward believing in a God that fits our orientation, even if that belief really twists what God really said.

    On the other hand, I have met those who are repulsed by the thought that Jesus had to die on a cross because that’s what God wanted. I don’t agree with the view of a vindictive God, a God who must have a sacrifice in order to allow us back into a relationship of communion with him. But on the other hand, I understand the good news to be that God loved us so much that He died on the cross to bring us back into community with God. God died that we might turn around, away from our own selfishness, and idolatry back to the open life which God for which we were created.

    I’m impressed by this from “The Message” Ephesians 6:12: “This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.”

    I myself cannot ignore the references to the “Wrath of God” which to my mind could be stated the “Wrath of Jesus”, but somehow I have to see these within a belief that God’s overarching action was that of love not of vengeance, that judgments then and now come from God as a means of bringing us back from the path of destruction. And I want to keep focused on the “good news” that Jesus came to bring which was not a message of vengeance.

    May the light of God’s good news lead all of our lives.

  2. I just had to add what I read this morning in The Message: 1 Cor 13:12-13:

    “12We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

    13But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.”

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