Receive, Believe, and Obey (and a bunch of complicated stuff about Salvation) Mar 11, 2018
On April 13, 2007 we received a phone call that I expect we will never forget. It was shortly after 11 pm, and I had just nicely arrived home from a fairly uneventful church council meeting. It was one of the council members, and he immediately asked us if our son Mike was living in group home in the Capilano area. We affirmed that he was, and then came those chilling words, ”you might want to put your TV on, for it looks like that house is on fire, and I’m watching it live on CTV news” (or something like that). We immediately ran to the TV and turned it on to catch the last minute of broadcast. Smoke was still billowing from the charred remains, a group of neighbors were huddled outside, and the announcer stated that one person was killed in the fire, and the name would not be released until authorities had notified the next of kin.
Well, you can imagine our shock as we watched these events unfold, and you can imagine our utter joy as we finally confirmed that Mike had survived the fire and had been transported to a safe location. Upon seeing him, true to his form, he retold the events of the night as if it were just “another day at the office”. There was however one thing that really bothered him as he watched the news reporting on this event, and that was the mention of valiant efforts of the firemen to “save him”, and the other resident. “Saved”, he responded indignantly. Nobody saved me! I was the one who drove out of that fire…I saved myself!!!
As I think back on his comments from that day, I am reminded of one of the theological debates that has faced the Church over the centuries (and to this day), and it too centers on the topic of being “saved”. One would think the Christian church would have a somewhat universal understanding and teaching about this essential doctrine of the faith, but sadly this is not the case. Talk to any diverse group of Christians and some will posit their salvation at the day of their baptism. Another will dismiss this offhandedly, and state emphatically that in order for a person to be saved they must say the “sinner’s prayer” (or some equivalent), and make a “personal decision” for Jesus. And yet another still will contest that there is absolutely nothing one can do in regards to their salvation, as this rests completely in the will God. It is God alone that destines (or predestines) a person unto salvation, and not only that, it is God alone who predestines an other to damnation. Both for the initiate, and the seasoned scholar, the topic of salvation can be a complicated and confusing topic.
If we ever had texts that would direct our thinking about salvation, those texts are before us today. A couple of these texts actually serve as “prooftexts” for groups listed above. For those of us who are “dyed-in-the-wool” Lutherans (and I count myself in this number), we tend to resonate well with the text from Ephesians 2. St Paul describes the condition of the unbeliever as one who is “dead through our trespasses and sin”. Although I can’t speak from experience (as I have never been officially physically dead before…close a few times …but never officially dead), one can well imagine that being “dead” would significantly limit one’s ability to save oneself. It would be pretty tough even to faintly whisper the sinner’s prayer, or crawl to the podium of a Billy Graham-style crusade if one was actually, factually “dead”. Perhaps another could drag you there, but left to your own resources (which are by now pretty limited), as a dead person, you can’t really do much of anything. Luther used this text (and others like it) to develop his theology regarding God’s action in salvation in works like The Bondage of the Will (a must read for Kieran, and all other would-be theologians). For Lutherans, the emphasis on salvation falls squarely on the “shoulders of God” (and not the one who is lying dead in their sin).
The text however from Numbers 21, and John 3, provide “ammunition” for the Arminians (named after Jacobus Arminius (1560—1609), and your homework this week is to read up on him and the school of thought that bears his name), who place more emphasis on the capacity of the human will, and would look to the texts from the book of Numbers and John as “proof” regarding their theological understanding of salvation. In Arminianism, it is indeed up to the individual to hear the call to repentance from the old way of life, and to say the sinner’s prayer, respond to the altar call, and “give your heart of Jesus”. The minute (or even second) one does this, salvation is now theirs. Various strains of Arminians differ as to whether one can ever lose their salvation, but most would suggest not. At funerals for Arminians, their eulogies will consistently mention the day, month, and year, when they gave their life to Christ. The late Billy Graham is probably the best known Arminian-Christian the world has ever know (with John Wesley being a close second).
Although not represented much in these texts, Sacramentalists (of which I tend to be one as well), look primarily to Baptism as their salvation day/event. Although their testimony sounds pretty “lame” (and even suspect) to Baptists and Pentecostals, when asked, “so when were you saved”- I know of no other answer to give than at the moment of my baptism. I truthfully can never remember a time that I did not consider myself to be child of God…and as such a bona fide Christian. Certainly there have been times when particular understandings of salvation, justification, sanctification, etc have become clearer and more meaningful, I simply wouldn’t know want else to say to that question about the time of my own salvation than at the time of my baptism.
Although according to the Bible, our calling/salvation has originated in eternity past, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” Eph 1:4,5, it was made manifest at the time of my baptism at one month of age in July of 1957. As Peter says in his epistle, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” As with Arminians, there are some Sacramentalists (which could include, Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Reformed), who believe that the salvation that comes through baptism (or election), is “irresistible, and thus can never be “lost”. Lutherans (for the most part) believe that one can in fact walk away/reject baptismal grace, and thus lose their salvation.
So who is right regarding this essential doctrine of salvation? Or who is even mostly right? They certainly can’t all be right can they? Well, let’s quickly review what these texts for today seem to be saying. Numbers 21 speaks of a reoccurring theme for the children of God both then and now. It is God who calls them to be his children- who first called Abraham, and then the other Patriarchs. It is God who delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh, and spared the life of their firstborn, and led them out of Egypt through the Red Sea. It is God who will give and lead them to the Promised Land. They themselves are not the originators of anything in relation to God (including salvation). This reality seems to favor us Lutherans. In this account however, there is a “but”, that involves some “grumbling against God” …which is regarded as “sin” (interesting how the people say that they have no food, and the food that they don’t have doesn’t taste all that great). The consequence of this sin is manifest in a judgement by poisonous snakes. The people repent and call to God for deliverance. God responds by commanding Moses to fashion a bronze serpent, raise it on a pole, and instructs the people to look upon that serpent, and in doing so they will live. Although God is the originator of salvation (again, that favors us Lutherans), Moses and the people must engage with their “wills” and obedience where Moses must first make the bronze serpent on the pole, and the people as an act of their will and obedience must look upon that serpent to be saved (which seems to favor the Arminians). No matter what these people believed about the bondage of the will, election, double predestination, or baptism, if they didn’t turn their heads in the direction of the serpent on the pole…in the direction of God’s salvation…they would die. It was a simple as that.
Although not necessarily a text referring to eternal salvation, Jesus links it to one that is, in his discourse with Nicodemus in John 3 (more homework for this week, and that’s to read the entire chapter). Nicodemus comes to Jesus looking for answers to the big questions in life (like salvation). Jesus states that unless he is born of water and the Spirit (baptism) his questions will never be answered. He then goes on to cite the text from Numbers 21 as a type (picture) of his own body which is about to be lifted onto a tree. In looking/believing in Him, the one who looks with the eyes of faith will be saved. Similarly, as in the snake-infested wilderness, the one who does not look/believe will be condemned.
It’s interesting that many of us can quote vs 16 of this chapter, but not nearly as many vs 17 and following, “17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” So which group does this text favor the most?
Historically the Church has divided itself into these various camps (with any number of variations within) and has either decided to call curses down upon the other, or at least learned to coexist, knowing full well the other has it wrong, and God will deal with them in due course. As I read the Holy Scriptures however, particularly on days like today when seemingly contrary perspectives are read side by each, we must admit that each has a point (and verses they can readily cite to prove it). Unless God originates the plan of salvation, the people in the wilderness all die of snake bites, and we all die in and because of our sins. At the same time however, unless the people look to that saving image, and believe in that saving God-man hung on a tree, neither will they be saved, even though God has provided the means.
Similarly, unless God gives us a new name, and a new identity in Holy Baptism, our old name, and our old identity prevail. That being said, unless we present our children (and ourselves if we have not been baptized previously) to the baptismal font, we continue with that old name and identity in spite of God’s provision. I suppose we can pick and choose the verses that best support our particular theological persuasion, but as we engage the totality of Holy Writ we must come to the realization of what that totality of God’s Word says regarding salvation. At one and the same time the Word of God tells us that we are “dead in our trespasses and sins”, and that same Word calls us to “look”… to “believe”…and to “be baptized. Although not easily harmonized, we may well have to get used to living in a degree of tension regarding these various perspectives. Perhaps it’s more a question of emphasis, or a matter of “both (or all three and) …rather than “either/or”.
To get back to Mike’s account of “saving himself” from and through the fire… there’s a bit more to that story than he recounts. For starters, Mike, for virtually every night since he came to that group home, was made ready for bed at 7:00 (as this was the time of shift-change, when two workers could help with lifting disabled adults). On this particular night however, a birthday of one of the residents called for a donut celebration that lasted until 8:00. Had the “normal” protocol been in place that night, Mike would have most certainly died. As it was, he was still in his chair wheelchair when the smoke and flames started coming through the heating ducts in his room (for whatever reason, the smoke alarms never did go off), and he began to head to the exit to “save himself”. On his way the fire had advanced so quickly that he stated that the floor was beginning to get “spongy” beneath his wheels. Upon arriving at the exit door, for whatever reason, the solid all-weather door (which swung into the room) was not shut, but rather wide open. On a cold April night, there was no reason for that door to be open. The screen door was shut however, and as he drove into that door for all he was worth, the latch gave way, and he drove himself down the ramp, as flames literally licked through the basement windows around his tires. Were it not for these two “coincidences”, Mike in no way could have saved himself, and the fire would have consumed him. There was more to his “salvation” that night than his own cool, calm, reasoned actions…but that was indeed a factor. He may think he “saved himself” (and in one sense he did)…but there was more to the story than he was aware.
Over the years as a baptized Christian who posits my salvation squarely at the feet of Jesus and his death and resurrection, by His grace I look to Him daily both for forgiveness and for salvation. I try and engage Him daily in His Holy Word, and weekly in His/this Holy Sanctuary among His people. Every other week I avail myself to partake of his body and blood in the bread and the wine, and in doing so receive His forgiveness, new life, and salvation. As near as I can figure, God has not called me to understand all the mysteries and nuances of His Word, nor to harmonize, systematize, nor edit them to fit my notions, but rather He has called me, as He has called you, to receive…to believe…and obey (and I hope I have the order right). Amen.