The ruins of the ancient city. Shivta, Nabataean Town on the ancient spice route in the Negev Desert, Israel
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Not too long ago, a colleague and I got into a discussion of saved by faith vs. saved by works. Though not the only issue at stake, salvation through faith or works was one the primary battles and division during the Protestant Reformation. While the Roman Catholic Church of that time emphasized the importance of human effort (works) in salvation, Luther rebelled with a doctrine of saved by faith alone, which is given by God’s grace alone. The forefather of the Presbyterian Church and its offspring, John Calvin attributed salvation to the sovereignty of God alone, with the elect being chosen irrespective of works or faith, although the faithful would likely exhibit good works as a result of their election to be saved. Two-hundred-fifty years later, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement within the Anglican Church, held that we are saved by grace. He also expected Christian faith to be a life of good works, and in fact, was once advised that he should “preach faith until you have it.” That counsel does not fit in any of the standard doctrines of salvation by faith or grace or works that we typically use, but it proved effective counsel for Wesley. Really, it’s good advice for all of us. Practice being a Christian until you become a Christian…
At root is the question, “Do I have enough faith to be saved?” and/or “Do I do enough good works to be saved?” It is the perennial question posed by the rich, young man, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Actually, Scripture answers the question in a variety of ways. We must be born again. (John 3:7). We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). We are saved by our works. (Matthew 25:31-46; Protestants are really uncomfortable with the idea of salvation by works, though Jesus never once mentioned faith as a factor in the separation of sheep and goats.) We must confess with our mouth and believe in our heart. (Rom. 10:9, in contrast to Jesus’ teaching about sheep and goats and new birth.) And, my personal favorite, Paul claims spouses and children are saved and/or sanctified by the faith of one of the parents. (1 Cor. 7:14) As the last five centuries of preachers show, we create theological pretzels trying to answer the question of how we are saved, when really, the answer is simply that we are saved by God’s mercy.
God’s mercy expresses itself in myriad ways, and trying to find that one moment, that one thing needed to assure our salvation, is a misguided search on our parts. We are saved because our Creator is merciful, and we are a mess, and continue to be messes, from which we need to be saved. Every action God has ever taken has been for our good and for our blessing, irrespective of our human perception, opinion, and judgment.
Salvation entails the abandonment of all that is wrong with us and the entrance into the life God wants for us. All things considered, the dominant thread throughout the New Testament (and building on the old covenant) is that of new birth and new creation. We must be born of God. (cf. John 1:13). Although we use the language of born again, though not as frequently as we once did, even our understanding of new birth must be expanded and enriched before we encounter the life of the new creation God forms in us.
Early Christians understood Baptism to be the primary expression of salvation, the sacramental rite through which salvation was made official, if you will. The ancient understanding is richer and broader than we realize, and we can learn much from what is revealed in the act itself. Whenever possible, early Christians were baptized by going down into running water, i.e.: a river or creek in which they could be submerged, signifying living water. The presbyter then dunked them under the moving water and baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” after which they came up out of the water and exited on the opposite side. As Christianity spread, baptismals were dug and formed in the shape of a cross where water ran. For Baptism, the baptizand’s clothing was removed before they stepped down on one side of the cross bar, were baptized, and rose on the other side to be robed in white. The rite itself reflects multiple passages and themes from Scripture: living water, the Cross of Christ, the multitude robed in white before the Lamb and the throne.
Perhaps most significantly, the Early Church believed that we truly die in Baptism and are raised to new life, resurrected life, with Christ. From that point on, Christians lived as those dead to the world and alive to Christ. Stop for a moment and compare that understanding of salvation to the idea of saved by grace vs. saved by works. Surely, grace and works are part and parcel of salvation, but they hardly define the fullness of God’s intent in Jesus Christ, nor do they reflect the whole teaching of Scripture. We are dead to the world, and our life is hidden in Christ. (Col. 3:3)
Why is this so important? Why do I repeatedly return to this issue from different angles? Because we have forgotten who we are… We live predominantly secular lives, comforted and assured by our faith in Jesus’ love, and trusting in the knowledge and values instilled by a non-believing, secular mindset. Not only do we diminish our salvation and marginalize our God to only those times when we need Him, we are wrong. This world is not our destiny. We have only to consider honestly the reality of suffering – of disease and death, of cruelty and evil, of broken promises and broken dreams, of hurts inflicted and hurts we inflict – to recognize this world is not all it promises to be.
Statistics show an-ever increasing percentage of people with no religious affiliation who claim to be “spiritual.” The idea of “spiritual” has no content but expresses the human soul’s yearning for God, and the utterly tragic truth is that Christians no longer exemplify truly satisfied souls. Instead, we look as worldly and as secular as just about everybody else, starving souls who believe in God yet far too commonly never taste of His great banquet of life.
Lent starts next week. The time has come to prepare for Pascha, for Jesus’ final days, His crucifixion, and His Resurrection. Those events are our life as Christians, but most of us are not really sure what we are trying to accomplish during the Lenten season. If we do not begin with the understanding that we are dead to the world and alive in Christ, Lent cannot hold much meaning for us; it cannot be transforming and life-giving. The one thing that will truly satisfy us, give us delight and joy even, is not found in this world. As Pascal wrote, “the infinite abyss of the human soul is in search of an infinite Object, that is, God Himself.” Those words are as true today as they were when he penned them. We have only to look around us to see the fruit of the infinite abyss of human souls.
You, my brothers and sisters in Christ, have been given the privilege of “participating in the Divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:3-4) Do you know what that means? Do you understand how that is real in your own life right now? Are the riches of this authentic spirituality visible to your family, friends, and neighbors? Know this: dying to this world and being raised with Christ is the definition of authentic humanity. We want to know what it means to be human, and we want to know our purpose and find our happiness. The answers are found when our old self is buried with Christ in death and raised with Him in new life. Only the new life is truly and fully human.
What should you do to be saved? As Lent approaches, begin to pray that the riches of our salvation will be revealed to you so they may be manifested in abundance in your life.
In Christ –
© SFCM, 2018