Elements in the Acquisition of Salvation
As we have repeatedly pointed out over the last couple of weeks, Jesus quotes the Old Testament when he associates the acquisition of salvation with love for God and love for neighbor. Obviously, faith in God/Christ is also part of the soteriological equation, as is illustrated by a whole host of biblical texts (cf., for example, Genesis 15:6, John 3:16, Acts 16:30-31, Romans 10:9-13, Galatians 2:16, Ephesians 2:8-10). But what about the other elements that we have discussed? From a New Testament perspective, do contrition, obedience, and practicing justice and faithfulness/mercy have anything to do with it?
The evidence is not unambiguous, but I think that we can say with a fair amount of confidence that they do. We have already seen in our analysis of 1 Samuel 15 and Psalm 51 that God values a sincere admission of wrongdoing; it is hard-wired into His nature (cf. Isaiah 57:15). Admittedly, contrition is not a prominent theme in the New Testament, but the related idea of repentance is. Repentance, like contrition, is associated with salvation in the Old Testament (cf., for example, Isaiah 30:15 and 59:20), and it stood at the heart of Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:14-15). Moreover, it formed the basis of how Jesus characterized his ministry (Luke 5:32), and it was one of the two requirements that Peter laid on the hearers of his first sermon (Acts 2:37-39).
It is a little easier to see the connection between obedience and salvation. In John 8:51, Jesus himself claims that those who obey him will not experience death. In John 14:23-24, Jesus argues that to love him is to obey him, and, in context, it is implied that obedience to Jesus opens the way to the eschatological blessings of life and the Spirit.
By contrast, the connection between the concerns of Micah 6:6-8 and New Testament soteriology are a little more opaque. Nevertheless, I think that, given everything that we learned about the prophet’s message, we can easily see it replicated in the command to love one’s neighbor. Indeed, both Micah 6:8 and the command to love drive at a broader point. Salvation has genuine implications for human character.
The mechanics of this relationship can be seen in the argument of Galatians. In 3:25-4:7, Paul works hard to re-configure his readers’ understanding of themselves in light of their adoption into God’s family. That adoption has real consequences for who they are, as the contrast between “works of the flesh” and “fruit of the Spirit” in 5:19-23 illustrates. It is important to note that Paul warns his readers that they cannot pursue a life oriented around “works of the flesh” and still have a part in God’s Kingdom.
Relating the Elements to One Another
So far, we have seen that love (especially for God), repentance, faith, obedience, and character (especially manifest in love for neighbor) are all associated with the acquisition of salvation in the New Testament. But how are these elements related to one another?
One way to think about salvation would be to conceive of it as a process in which there are clearly defined stages. We have already implied this possibility in previous posts. For example, we could argue that the first stage would be love for God. Next would come an awareness of sin that leads to repentance and faith in Christ. Faith would lead to obedience, and, over time, obedience would (through the work of the Holy Spirit) produce character (e.g., love for one’s neighbor).
This way of thinking about salvation works for a lot of people, but it also raises some questions. For one thing, is there a normative order? We have already seen that Paul’s Gentile converts would not have necessarily started from love for God. They might have revered the divine, but some of them, at least, did not know enough about Israel’s God to love Him. Their first step might well have been to believe Paul’s testimony about Christ, and then they would have worked their way both backwards (towards repentance and love) and forwards (towards obedience and character) in the process.
Another question would be, what happens if the process gets interrupted? The most obvious biblical example is the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), but I think that we all know people who died before the whole “process” could be completed. Are they lost? The thief’s example would suggest that they are not, but Hebrews 11:6 reminds us that it is not possible to “please God” (and, therefore, to acquire salvation) without faith. So, how far does someone have to get in the process before their salvation is assured?
A related issue presents an even bigger problem for this way of thinking about the acquisition of salvation. Remember that Jesus did not just command his followers to love God; he commanded them to love God with every fiber of their being. As those of us who have been his disciple know all too well, that kind of love takes a lifetime to build in most of us. Likewise, faith and character are manifestly progressive in nature, and even repentance and obedience are practices that deepen over time. At what point has someone sufficiently mastered one stage of the process to move on to the next, and what does it say about our salvation if we have to go back and work on a stage that we thought we had mastered?
Perhaps the questions we have asked up to this point should prompt us to reconsider our mental drawing of the salvation experience. Maybe instead of thinking about salvation as a chain of events, we should think about it as a wheel with spokes or a star with planets. It is worth remembering that Jesus characterized love for God as the most important command for anyone who wants to obtain eternal life. For this reason, it seems to me that we would be well advised to place it at the center of our soteriological wheel, with repentance, faith, obedience, and character connected to both the center (love for God) and to one another.
The implications of this re-conceptualization of salvation may not be immediately apparent, but they are nevertheless important for how we live and preach the gospel. When we invite people to be saved, we are not merely inviting them to place their trust in Christ. We are certainly doing that, but we are doing a lot more. We are inviting them to love the Triune God and to express that love by renouncing their old life and by committing themselves to a new life under the lordship of Christ. Moreover, we are saying to those who already claim a part in God’s Kingdom that love, faith, repentance, obedience, and character are of a single piece. It is not possible to genuinely love God without trusting Christ (a point made repeatedly in John’s Gospel), and it is not possible to genuinely trust Christ without renouncing the evil things that we have done.
This way of describing the phenomenon of salvation has the advantage of taking into account the full witness of the Bible on salvation. It helps us understand the complex and transformative operation that God performs on us when we come to Him, and it is easy to add more spokes to our soteriological wheel as we engage with more biblical texts. Nevertheless, this mental diagram also faces questions. For example, is love for God really the center, or is faith in Christ now the focal point of God’s soteriological schema? The writer of Hebrews certainly seems to think so.
Maybe what we need instead is a matrix in which all of the elements are of equal importance. After all, is there one of the elements that we have listed so far that you would say is unnecessary for salvation? But, then again, are all of the elements really equal? After all, we have already noted that, according to Jesus, love for God is more important than anything else, and there are all those passages we listed earlier about faith.
In this blog post, I am leading us to perform a thought experiment. I have put a lot of texts and a lot of ideas on the table, and I have raised a lot of questions for us to consider. My goal is to get us thinking—and talking—about how we construct the gospel. Why do something that could be so upsetting to some people? Because I believe that greater clarity about what the Bible actually teaches could help us be more effective witnesses in our twenty-first century context and because I think that a more robust soteriology could help us build healthier congregations as we move into an increasingly post-Christian era.
There are still some issues that we need to discuss. For example, the Bible seems to proscribe certain concrete steps that people must take in order to be saved—things like baptism or the Eucharist. Do these texts teach a works-oriented, merit-based understanding of salvation? If not, then what do they mean? These are the questions to which we will turn next week.