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The Transforming Heart of Christianity

IV - Salvation

The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

March 26, 2003

In our previous two lectures we made a crucial Christian distinction. We are not God. Likewise the world in which we live, the bodies which we inhabit, and the desires that drive us are all different from the eternal world for which we are destined. God is holy, perfect, and eternal. We are not. Whether we view ourselves as fallen, broken, or simply incomplete – there is a void in us that comes from the absence of God. It is sin, an ever-present product of our mortality that pulls us away from the holy and toward the mortal and imperfect.

If we were to stop there, this would be a pretty depressing series. We would be trapped in our mortality, unable to bridge the gap between us and Holy God. Fortunately, the story does not end there. Linking the Christian understanding of ourselves and the Christian understanding of God is the doctrine of Salvation. Through Jesus Christ, we are “saved” – we are rescued from the limitations of our mortality and transformed into our full potential as beings created in the image of God. This is the essential, unique doctrine of Christianity.

To be so central, you’d think we as Christians would be more unanimous about what it means. We are not – despite attempts by some Christian groups to create very precise, formulaic understandings of the nature of salvation. As a result, we will not look at one doctrine of salvation but rather several approaches to the concept, each of which has enjoyed varying levels of prominence in the Christian Church at different points in history. Each of the approaches attempts to answer the two fundamental questions related to soteriology: “What did Jesus have to do to save us?” and “What do we have to do to be saved?”.

What all Christians can agree on is that Jesus had to die. We see this echoed in all of the Gospels [Mt 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; John 3:14]. For whatever divine reason, Jesus – God – had to suffer, die, and be resurrected [ John 20:9].

The deeper question is why? Why did Jesus have to die? Those of you who come from conservative evangelical environments are probably twitching in your seats to give the answer. You may be surprised to learn that the quick and easy explanation printed on millions of tracts and drawn on countless baptist Sunday School chalkboards is only one answer that Christians have traditionally given. We will look at it, as well as several others [I am indebted to Bruce Demarest and Josephine Massyngberde Ford for providing fundamentalist and liberal (respectively) definitions of these various approaches].

A key image used by the early Church to understood the need for Jesus’ death is that of Ransom. Building primarily on Mark 10:45early theologians such as Iranaeus postulated that our sin placed us in the debt and control of the Devil. Jesus’ death, they theorized, paid the purchase price for liberating us [see Gal 3:13]. The Ransom theory envisions essentially a cosmic struggle between God and the Devil in which we chose our team by sinning and God bought us back.

This was the dominant view for the first millennium of Christian thought. As Graham Walker points out (class notes), an oppressed underclass could relate to the concept of being personally victimized by a ruthless oppressor. Their hope, likewise, was one of liberation. If the Devil could hold them down, God could lift them up. (Early twentieth-century theologian Gustaf Aulén would build upon this view by writing of the cross as the ultimate victory in a cosmic war between God and the forces of darkness.)

The chief complaint of later theologians against the Ransom model was that its underlying dualism gives too much power to the Devil. If a debt was owed, it must have been to God instead. Consequently, medieval theologians such as St. Anselm redefined the atonement along a model of Satisfaction. In this system, God is like a feudal lord who has been dishonored by our sinful behavior. There is no way to compensate God for the wrongs we have done, so God pays the debt for us in the person of Jesus Christ.

It is not coincidental that the most popular theory of the atonement for any era is built around the predominant social structure of the time. When Christians suffered in bondage, Christ was their ransom. When Christians lived in a medieval society where powerful monarchs held absolute sway over life and death – God became an injured warlord. By the time of the Reformation, however, jurisprudence had arisen as a significant arbiter of people’s fate.

Consequently, Reformation theologians used the language of the legal system to define Jesus’ death as an act of Substitutionary Atonement. The logic behind this model goes something like this. According to the Levitical Code, God requires an offering for all sin [Lev 4:29]. In other words, the reality of sin is so dramatic that it requires giving up what we value the most: life – vitality – being. In addition, there is a provision in that code for all the sins of the priests and the people to be placed on an unblemished “scapegoat” in a ritual sacrifice [Lev 16:1-34]. Jesus therefore becomes the perfect and final scapegoat whose death atones for all of the sins of the world. This is substantiated particularly by two key verses in the Epistles [Rom 8:3-4; Heb 2:17], and implied in many of the other passages on salvation.

As those scriptures testify, the ultimate penalty of sin was death [Gen 3: 19; Rom 6:23], and Jesus bore that penalty in God’s own legal system so that we would not have to. Because of its (at least superficial) logic, Substitutionary Atonement carries a particular appeal to modernists. It is also simple enough to be a natural tool for evangelism. Consequently, in the past few hundred years viewing Jesus as the perfect sacrifice provided by God to meet God’s sacrificial requirements has become normative among conservative evangelical Christians.

There are, however, other ways to look at the nature of Christ’s death. Running in parallel to medieval images of a wrathful God whose anger must be assuaged by bloody sacrifice are views of Christ’s death that emphasize the effect of the Cross on us rather than on God. Abelard, for instance, thought of Christ’s death as the perfect Example of God’s love for us and how we should love one another [e.g. Rom 3:26; 5:5]. One of the biblical supports for this is found in John’s gospel, where Jesus expands on his teaching of love as the greatest commandment by saying that we are indeed his friends, and that there is no greater love than to die for one’s friends [ John 15:12-15].

Abelard’s Exemplarism focuses on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the completion of God’s revelation to humanity. More recent liberal theologians have expanded on this understanding and applied it to various theological approaches. They point out that sacrificing the innocent Son of God is – in essence – no different from the sacrifice of children to Molech, something that is harshly condemned in Leviticus [Lev 20:2-5]. In addition, it seems unbelievably cruel for God to create a system in which the only way humanity can find union with God is through the brutal murder of God’s own child.

Josephine Massyngberde Ford offers a fine example of one of the alternatives embraced by contemporary liberation, feminist, and ecological theologians. As she describes it, salvation has two components. One is God’s decision to participate in the human condition by experiencing suffering and death. The other is our participation with Jesus in the restoration and reconciliation of a broken world to Holy God (Ford 203).

I find that approach particularly beautiful and appealing, but using it exclusively can cause us to ignore the reality of our own sin. As an alternative, I again offer the neo-orthodox approach which balances the necessity of Christ’s suffering and death with our understanding of God’s love. The Neo-Orthodox approach (as exemplified by Karl Barth) takes seriously the reality of sin – it leads to death, and is intrinsically tied up with suffering, grief, and loss. It also recognizes the strong biblical language that indicates that Jesus’ death was for all of humanity and all of creation [ Col 1:15-20; Rom 5:18; I Cor 15:20-28; Heb 2:9; I John 2:2].

In this model, Jesus’ death then was the necessary moment whereby a broken and sinful creation was restored with the Holy God who loves us. God as Jesus stepped into the reality of our mortal circumstance, and having walked through its absolute consequences is now eternally reunited with us. This view recognizes the necessity of Christ’s death, while seeking to avoid superimposing human models for retribution and justice onto a holy, loving God. Jesus did not die to save us because God demanded it. Jesus died because our salvation can only come from full union of God with humanity. That union involves suffering, death, and resurrection. To be human is to die, and Jesus had to be fully human to be the person we need him to be.

The danger in Barth’s view is that it somewhat begs the other question we are asking, What must we do to be saved? If all creation is restored through Jesus’ death, then what should we do – if anything?

The biblical record is extremely mixed in this regard. We’ve already named the significant texts which address the idea that Jesus’ death restores all of creation. We must balance them with Jesus’ own teachings that to be saved we must try to enter the narrow gate that few can pass through [Matt 7:13-14; Luke 13:23-24]; and that many are called but few are chosen [Matt 22:14].

When a wealthy man asked Jesus what he should do to be saved, he was told to follow the commandments and give everything to the poor [Luke 18:18-27]. Yet Paul tells us that we are saved only and exclusively by grace through no action of our own [Eph 2:1-9], that we were saved not by our righteousness [Titus 3:5]; and that salvation is a free gift [Rom 5:15]. To muddy the waters even more, James then tells us that our justification is through our works, not our faith [James 2:24].

So what must we do to be saved then? Give up our possessions? Do nothing? Do good works? How do we gain access to the blessing of the atonement, however we define it?

Interestingly, the usually very conservative Calvinists of the world and the (more liberal) neo-orthodox followers of Jesus would agree that we in fact do nothing at all. According to both groups, our salvation is a given – either for some (per the Calvinists) or for all (per Barth). The Christian life, therefore, is one of gradually unpacking the meaning of our salvation and moving into a deeper relationship with God.

Those who take an Arminian approach to salvation would argue instead that we must choose to accept the gift of salvation if we are to receive it. Romans 10:13 tells us that “all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” The trick, then, is getting people to call upon that name.

Of course, the obvious counterpoint to such a formulaic approach comes from the words of Jesus. In Matthew, he tells us “ Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” [Matt 7:21-23].

Is this confusing yet? It causes me to have some sympathy with the Roman Catholic concept of sanctification. In that understanding of salvation our sins are justified by Jesus death [2 Cor 5:19] but we are obligated to work to transform (or “sanctify”) ourselves through the sacraments of the Church and the obligations of Christian morality. In that approach, we are “…working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” [Philippians 2:12].

So we do nothing to be saved. Or we call upon Jesus to be saved. Or we do good works to be saved. Or we receive the sacraments to be saved. All of these approaches are justifiable biblically, and they all have an established place in the views of many Christians. Likewise understanding Jesus’ death as a substitutionary atonement, or a ransom, or a product of sin, or simply an example of love. Any of these views are possible within the framework of Christianity.

At the very least then, the breadth of such views (and their biblical support) should demonstrate that we really do not understand the concept of atonement and salvation. It is as much of a mystery as the existence of evil and the holiness of God. Having looked at the many ways in which Christians try to comprehend that mystery, we will turn instead to what lies at its center: the themes that tie all of these views together.

That is not as difficult as it might sound, since in practice all of these views amount to the same expectations for us in our day-to-day lives. Whether our salvation is already accomplished, in process, or the result of our faith – we are faced with the reality of Christ’s deity, death, and resurrection. We accept it because it is true, not because we are seeking an eternal reward.

Whether we think they will save us or not, we do the things that Christ taught us to do. We feed the hungry. We protect and nurture the weak. We sacrifice ourselves for those we love. We do these things because God loves us enough to do them for us.

Whether we think it is part of our sanctification or not, we worship and pray and are baptized and celebrate the Eucharist out of obedience. We do not need the carrot of eternal life or the stick of damnation to goad us into them. There is no guarantee that they will save us (and there is no real guarantee that they will not). They are, however, part of faithfulness.

This leaves us with some ambiguity, and that can be a bit discomforting. It can be especially troubling since some people are taught to evangelize others by asking, “Do you know for certain that if you died this very moment you would go to Heaven? Why?” Anyone who doesn’t give an immediate “yes” is clearly not “saved” in their book.

To be quite frank, I’m not sure that we should claim the kind of certainty that they want to hear. Jesus’ own words (already cited here) offer considerable caution in taking our salvation for granted. Used appropriately, Jesus’ teachings counter our hubristic desire to know things for certain.

On the other hand, in those times of doubt, weakness, or fear, we can likewise remember that Jesus’ listeners heard his instructions to the wealthy man and were concerned that no one could ever be saved. To them Jesus replied, “For mortals, it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” [Matt 19:23]. Likewise in John, Jesus tells us that, having given us eternal life, no one can snatch us from his hand [ John 10:29] and Paul comforts us by saying that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God [Rom 8:28-29].

We are fickle creatures, and our needs as Christians change from day to day and from moment to moment. There is a clear tension, even a contradiction, in our Scriptures about how we receive (or attain) salvation. Again, in practice, any of the many possible understandings can lead us to do the things that are expected of us as Christians. Yet when our spirits need humbling, the texts of challenge can bring us balance. When we need comfort, the assurances of our salvation can bring us hope [see as well I Cor 3:11-15; Eph 1:13, 4:30].

All of which works very well for those of us who are Christians, but what of those who are not and never will be (or never could be in the time before Jesus’ death)? What about their salvation? Barth and other universalists would offer that it was provided for in Jesus’ death and that non-Christians are merely at various levels of realization of that salvation. Even conservative evangelicals like Clark Pinnock and Paul Knitter would agree, and we have the texts already listed about the salvation of the whole world to back them up. Their view is certainly not new among Christians. Universalism can be traced back as far as the third century in the writings of Origen.

On the other hand we have the repeated teachings of the New Testament that there are two groups of people. Sometimes they are divided into healthy kernels and chaff [Matt 3:12]. Sometimes they are divided into wheat and weeds [Matt 13:37-40]. Sometimes they are divided into sheep and goats [Matt 25:32-33]. Sometimes they are divided into the righteous and the eternally damned [ Rev 20:11-15]. (It should be noted that in those last two examples, works is the determining factor.)

I don’t think there are easy answers to the questions of universalism, and there certainly are not any that I can provide in this limited format. The bibliography includes a couple of excellent resources on the topic, and I would encourage you to read further as you have the time. Our focus, though, is on the transforming heart of Christianity. Regardless of what we believe about the eternal destination of others; as Christians we must believe that a relationship with God through Jesus will transform us and can transform anyone who seeks it.

In II Corinthians Paul writes, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” [II Cor 3:18] Whether we believe that salvation comes at the beginning of that journey or the end, being a Christian means stepping into that process through the recognition of the reality of our sin, the holiness of God, and the hope present in both Jesus’ death and his resurrection. Our confidence is not in the belief that we have done the right things to ensure our salvation. Instead, we place our trust in the faithfulness of God, that where sin abounds grace will abound all the more [Romans 5:20].


Aulén, Gustaf. Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. Trans. A. G. Herbert. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Bloesch, Donald G. Jesus is Victor! Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976.

Demarest, Bruce. The Cross and Salvation. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997.

Erickson, Millard J. How Shall They Be Saved? The Destiny of Those Who Do Not Hear of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996.

Ford, Josephine Massyngberde. Redeemer, Friend, Mother: Salvation in Antiquity and in the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997.

Okholm, Dennis L. and Timothy R. Phillips, eds. Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

Troeger, Thomas H. Are you Saved? Answers to an Awkward Question. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979.