The meaning of salvation (part 2)

One of the first things I was told I needed to do as a new Christian was share my faith. Since I preferred the company of books to people, and I rarely expressed my thoughts to anyone if I didn’t have to, this was very difficult for me.

One of the first and most difficult conversations was telling my mother about my new beliefs, as I knew my parents had a pretty low opinion of fundamentalist Christians. (I don’t remember telling my father anything; I assume my mother told him about it.) They had always insisted that my sister and I were to make our own choices, however, and they were surprisingly accepting of my going over to the fundamentalist “side”, if not exactly supportive.

In his comment on my previous post, modestypress says he “would feel less aversion to Christianity (or other religious beliefs) if there were less obsession with guilt (about our imaginary original sin Adam and Eve ancestors) and with an imaginary Hell, and with condemnation of people who do no harm (e. g. non-believers and homosexuals).” I’m sure my mother’s aversion to the fundamentalist version of Christianity was for much the same reasons.

To someone who believes in the innate goodness of people, certainly the “good news” offered so enthusiastically by evangelical Christians appears to be nonsense. (I do not know whether modestypress believes that, but my mother did.) If people are not born with a “sin nature” and are not condemned by their sinfulness to eternal punishment, why should they desire salvation? And if evangelical Christians persist in emphasizing people’s sinfulness and their terrible prospects for eternity, in an effort to get them to desire salvation, it’s not surprising that many unbelievers (and those who consider themselves Christians but do not share the same views about sin and salvation) develop an aversion to being “witnessed to.”

As for myself, I never became comfortable with the role of doing the “witnessing.” In part, because I have always found it difficult to meet new people and engage in conversation, regardless of the topic. In many of the evangelistic activities I participated in, it was also because the intended recipients of the good news were generally not interested, if not outright antagonistic to the idea that they needed to hear it.

Much of my discomfort, however, was also because I found it difficult to point to what, exactly, my faith had done for me that was so wonderful. The idea of “witnessing” – the reason that word is used – is that, just as an eyewitness in court tells what he has seen and heard, the Christian tells of his own experience in receiving salvation. I looked at myself, and wondered why anyone would want to be like me.

In church and at Bible school, I learned that salvation can be seen as having three aspects – past, present, and future. At the time I came to faith in Christ, I was saved from the penalty of sin, in having my sins forgiven and having the righteousness of Christ imputed to me (in theological terms, justification). Throughout the rest of my life on this earth, I am being saved from the power of sin, as I repent of sinful ways of thought and action and, by God’s grace and power, I learn to think and act in godly ways (sanctification). After I die and am with God in heaven, I will finally be saved from the presence of sin even within my own heart (glorification).

I am deeply grateful for the forgiveness of my sins, and I look forward to one day being free of sin altogether. But I understand that, to someone who does not share my beliefs, pointing to those as benefits of salvation is an unsubstantiated claim, a matter of faith rather than experience. But my testimony is not one with a sharp contrast between my life before and after conversion.

Certainly, my life changed after June 27, 1986. I left the church I had grown up in and became very active in the fundamentalist church. I participated in the church youth group and finally had friends. I pushed myself to do things that were difficult because I believed they were the right thing to do – including going out handing out tracts and trying to tell people how they could go to heaven. I abandoned my plans for a career as a writer because I believed I should become a missionary.

But unless one is already convinced that becoming a fundamentalist Christian is a good thing, those changes are not necessarily evidence of God developing holiness in my life. I had been troubled by my lack of love for my parents, before my conversion, but I can’t say my relationship with them was much better afterward. I wasn’t rebellious – they didn’t make rules for me to follow, so what could I rebel against? (Other than their religious beliefs, which I had not found helpful in leading me to faith and which I came to see as deeply mistaken.) But I felt no closeness to them, and attempted to be a loving daughter out of duty rather than affection.

I struggled with food cravings and felt terrible guilt over my failures to maintain healthy eating habits. (Some of this I have to attribute to my mother’s own obsessions about health and food – it was many years before I was able to stop feeling sinful for eating “junk food” even if I did not overeat.) I was depressed most of the time – I probably would have been diagnosed with clinical depression if I had gone to a doctor about it. (I did not because I had been taught at church to interpret my depression as a spiritual problem which a doctor could not help with.)

But over time, things did change. God brought people into my life who cared about me. People who cared enough to be friends because I needed a friend, not because I was such a great person to be around. People who cared enough to tell me ways that I needed to change, and to be patient with me as struggled to change longstanding patterns of behavior.

Someone who does not believe in God could easily say that such changes are a natural part of maturing. One doesn’t have to have a conversion experience, or even to believe in God at all, to develop wisdom and a more mature character over time.

From my point of view as a Christian, this is an example of “common grace” (i.e. grace that is common to all people). God gives many gifts to all people, regardless of whether they believe in Him, starting with life itself. He gives us resources, abilities, and the companionship and support of human society.

I don’t know a way to distinguish between what God has given me as “common grace” and what He has given me as part of salvation through Jesus Christ. But it’s no longer something I feel a need to be able to separate, either. Salvation encompasses those past, present, and future aspects that I learned about as a teenager. But it’s also more than that.

I’ve attended a variety of churches over the years, and visited or read about the beliefs and practices of an even wider range. I’ve pondered questions about the role of human will in salvation, and the relation between grace and works. I’ve come to recognize as fellow Christians people who would have been viewed with suspicion at the church I attended as a teenager because of their views about the Bible or salvation or worship.

One thing they all have in common, however, is that salvation is normally seen as being about individuals receiving forgiveness and the hope of heaven when they die. The people who receive salvation may do things that affect a wider circle of people, but the importance of such effects is generally seen in how they may bring more individuals to receive salvation.

Recently I have read a couple of books that challenge this view. Not that they deny the application of salvation to individuals, but they see that as only part of a larger picture, a picture that is often too fragmented to be properly seen at all. My next post will be about the ideas expressed in these books.

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