p.ost

(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The biblical argument about salvation (my soteriology)

Emi sent me an email a while back, and because I have been slow to reply, she posted the whole thing as a comment. She notes that I argue in What must a person believe in order to be saved? i) that the mission of the church is not to save as many people as possible; and ii) that when ‘people today become part of God’s new creation people, they are “saved”… from the final judgment of death on human sin’. Isn’t that a bit perverse? If you accept that people who become part of the church are saved from the final judgment of death, why would we not go all out to save as many as possible? This is how she makes the point:

I don’t see how the falsity of the concept that our mission is to save people from hell means it is not our (ideal) mission to assimilate all cultures and peoples into God’s new creation, if still, non-Christians are at risk of the wrath of death come the final judgment.

In order to answer Emi’s astute question, I will try to set out in a more or less methodical fashion how I understand the biblical argument about salvation—my soteriology, in effect.

1. The existential premise for our understanding of salvation—part of the stage-setting in my version of the Five Act Play hermeneutic—is that people suffer and die. This basic “fact of life” is framed at one end by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, which leads to expulsion from the garden, physical hardship, and death (Gen. 2:17; 3:16-19; cf. Rom. 5:12), and at the other end by a final judgment on all humanity according to what they have done (Rev. 20:11-15).

2. There is, I would argue, no salvation story at this existential or creational level: the Bible does not tell us how God saves humanity or creation from the original sin that was introduced by Adam and Eve and propagated throughout the species. Sin and death remain an ineradicable part of this world until it is finally replaced by a completely new heaven and earth.

3. To understand “salvation” in scripture we have to put the historical existence of Israel as a community at the centre of the argument. It is not, in the first place, individuals who need to be saved, whether non-Jews or Jews, at any moment in human history. It is the people of Israel—as family, tribal confederacy, or nation—that needs to be saved, at particular moments in its history.

4. Israel needed to be saved from slavery in Egypt, from starvation in the wilderness, from the Philistines, from attack by Assyria, from exile in Babylon, and from Antiochus Epiphanes’ efforts to suppress Jewish religious practice, and so on.

5. This is not just an Old Testament story. It carries over into the New Testament: in fact, it creates the problem that the New Testament solves. Israel needed to be saved from annihilation by Rome. So, for example, John the Baptist asked the Pharisees and Sadducees who turned up for baptism, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7; Lk. 3:7).

6. Gentile nations and kings may be saved from judgment by the one true living creator God, in the course of history, by repenting of their idolatry and unrighteousness and by acknowledging his glory and power (cf. Jon. 3:10; Is. 45:22-25; Dan. 4:34-35).

7. The salvation of ordinary individuals from whatever threatens their well-being and existence—illness, enemies, natural or man-made disasters—is of secondary concern in scripture. Only occasionally does the Bible speak of the physical salvation of non-Jews in this respect (e.g., Rahab).

This “salvation” does not get us to heaven. It gets us into the people of God. Faith in Jesus makes us members of the has-been-saved covenant community.

8. Sometimes the salvation of out-of-the-ordinary individuals plays a critical role in Israel’s story: the salvation of Isaac from being sacrificed, the salvation of Joseph from the pit, the salvation of Moses from the Nile, the salvation of David from his enemies on numerous occasions.

9. Sometimes the salvation of a faithful part of Israel, such as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 or the community represented by the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7, plays a critical role in Israel’s story.

10. This narrowing of salvation to a representative individual or community becomes of great importance in the New Testament. The salvation of Israel from final and complete destruction is entailed in the “salvation” of Jesus from death at the hand of his enemies. Jesus suffers and dies on behalf of, or for the sake of, the many—that is, the “many” of Israel, not of humanity (cf. Mk. 10:45).

11. But the salvation of Israel is also entailed in the salvation of the faithful community of Jesus’ followers from their persecutors. The churches, by being “in Christ”, by sharing in his suffering and vindication, are the historical means by which i) the people of God attains a new future and ii) Jesus gains the sovereignty over the nations that formerly belonged to Caesar.

12. In the New Testament Gentiles will be “saved” from the wrath that is coming on the Greek-Roman world by virtue of their belief that God raised his Son from the dead and gave him authority and power to judge and rule over the nations (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10). They will find themselves publicly justified by this faith.

13. A person today who believes the story about Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father, who receives the Holy Spirit, becomes part of that redeemed people. The qualification for membership is the same as in the New Testament: faith lived out in communal-missional life, not any community-defining works.

14. We may say that a person is “saved” today if we think of him or her as having been delivered from a society or culture or way-of-life that faces divine judgment—destruction, obsolescence. That preserves the eschatological perspective of the New Testament: people are saved from a “wrath” to come.

15. Otherwise, I suggest that the emphasis should not be on salvation but on election: we become active members of God’s chosen people. We can only do so because Jesus’ death i) atoned for the sins of Israel and ii) removed the dividing wall of the Law. We repent and are forgiven by the grace of God for our previous lives of God-denial. We leave behind our old ways of being and learn to live as part of God’s new creation, empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit. We may choose to call all of this “salvation” in a general, personal sense, out of respect for evangelical tradition. But the main point is that we thereby become part of a community chosen to serve the interests of the one true living creator God.

16. Does this mean that we have been saved from death? My view is that in the New Testament it is the martyr church that is raised as Christ was raised, to reign in heaven with him throughout the coming ages. A new creation people must surely experience something of the new heaven and new earth that is described in Revelation 21:1-8, but as far as I can tell, Christians should not expect to go to heaven when they die. We should expect to be dead for a while, and to be raised from the dead at the final judgment. If my name is found written in the book of life, I will not be consigned to “the second death, the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14-15).

So here is my answer to Emi’s question. Sure, we should enthusiastically recommend “salvation” in the sense considered here to all people. But some qualifications or caveats need to be added:

1. This “salvation” does not get us to heaven. It gets us into the people of God. Faith in Jesus makes us members of the has-been-saved covenant community.

2. This salvation also carries with it the assurance that we have become members of a people that will survive all future crises and setbacks—a community which will have an eternal viability and relevance, which I think is a matter of considerable importance for the church today.

3. This is salvation for a purpose: we are saved in order to serve the interests of the one true living God as a priestly-prophetic people. In other words, this is salvation with strings attached.

4. It is a natural corollary of the previous point that we will face a final judgment according to what we have done. God’s servants will be held accountable. That needs to be reckoned with before we get too excited about life after death.

Comments

“Slow to reply” *snicker*

Thanks for this article, Andrew. Occasional summary posts like this are very helpful (to me, at least) in terms of aggregating the ramifications of the work that has come before in your other posts, and they also help me look back on those posts and understand their direction in a manner that might have been more ambiguous at the time they were written.

I´m lost … sorry …

Andrew - the more comprehensively you summarise your beliefs, the more I find them difficult to swallow! However, your presentation of an entirely new belief system is to be admired.

It’s the details that begin to make me suspect it’s not entirely an accurate reflection of scripture or history. For instance, you say: “Israel needed to be saved from annihilation by Rome”. I suspect the opposite is true, that whilst Rome made sporadic if intense attempts to annihilate Christians (not Israel), the very effort led to the spread of the faith, which eventually toppled the empire as it had been known.

You also say: “A person today who believes the story about Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father, who receives the Holy Spirit, becomes part of that redeemed people”. Again I’m not convinced, for important as story is, I’m much more impressed by the NT emphasis on being joined to a person (Christ) rather than simply a story about him. As a pastor and university chaplain, it is this which gives my ministry effectiveness when counselling people.

I could add further details, but just wanted to add that, contrarily, I do find myself arguing for a position much like yours when in debate about scriptural interpretation (such as last night, for instance). In my head, I’m frequently resorting to arguments and snippets picked up from Postost, or going back to them for reference. So I’m not totally doomed for believing the wrong things, and may even be one of the elect and get into the Postost new creation on this basis.

However, your presentation of an entirely new belief system is to be admired.

No, I am merely recovering the New Testament belief system. The fact that it is unfamiliar to people is an indictment of the church’s lack of narrative-historical imagination.

Jesus predicted clearly enough that Rome would destroy Jerusalem and slaughter the inhabitants of the city (cf. Lk. 19:43–44). In view of that, it seems pretty obvious that the family of Abraham needed an alternative narrow road that would lead to the life of the age to come. Yes, you missed a link in the chain.

I would suggest—given the time of year—that your argument about God starting something new makes nonsense of the Advent/Christmas stories, which all present Jesus as a continuation and fulfilment of Israel’s story.

The other thing to take into account, of course, is Paul’s insistence that the existence of the churches is grounded in the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs. Gentiles are grafted into the rich root. They are not just stuck in the ground in the hope that they will take root on their own.

I would say that in the New Testament context the being-joined-with-Christ theme has to do with participation in his suffering and vindication. It presupposes the context of persecution, which, as you point out, led to the toppling of the empire.

“Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

Just a further reflection: I may have missed a link in the chain of logic in referring to the spread of Christian faith under attempts by Rome at annihilation. I think your reference to annihilation may refer further back in the story to the provision of Jesus as a way of avoiding annihilation by following the narrow way etc etc.

If this is the case, another issue would arise, which is whether it was God’s intention to preserve Israel from annihilation (in a continuation of the Israel story), or whether God was doing something new, which Israel only foreshadowed. I argue for the latter, with heaps of NT evidence, beginning with Hebrews.

Just a thought.

Thank you so much for an ENTIRE post, Mr. Perriman! I was so happily surprised that I didn’t know what to do with myself when I saw that an entire post was dedicated to my question. I truly appreciate the thorough explanation of fundamental parts of a faith formed upon narrative-historical interpretation of Scripture, but it still leaves me with a lot of questions.

It makes the most sense to me, even on merely the level of plain instinctual morality, that the redeemed people of God face a final judgment too, as you state in the article’s conclusive points. But earlier you say, “We may say that a person is ‘saved’ today if we think of him or her as having been delivered from a society or culture or way-of-life that faces divine judgment—destruction, obsolescence.” *Quick note: when I quote you, it is never, ever for the purpose of mocking, and only for clarity and accuracy.* My questions:

1.) Who is part of “a society or culture or way-of-life that faces divine judgment”? 2.) Is the “divine judgment” (upon non-Christians) always and only destruction and obsolescence? I’m still a good deal perturbed because if the answers are 1.) anyone who isn’t Christian, and 2.) yes, then anyone and everyone who does not believe is imminently damned to the ultimate punishment meted out by God’s wrath.

Do you think my revulsion towards this possible truth arises from a righteous compassion or a short-sighted, human-centric perspective? Do you think sufficiently supported conclusions concerning the judgment and fate of all people, especially outsiders to God’s chosen community, can be drawn from the Bible?

Also, 3.) how is there a difference in the fate of non-Christians and the fate of Christians if the former is divine judgment and the latter is also divine (you use the word final, but I interpret them as the same) judgment? 4.) Is it not also possible for Christians to be damned to destruction and obsolescence if that is what justice commands in response to their actions?

Thanks again/eagerly awaiting your reply :),

Emi

Also, what is the best way to reach you? If you would much rather I email you and you respond via email, I’d be happy to do so! :)

Who is part of “a society or culture or way-of-life that faces divine judgment”?

#14 was only intended to raise the possibility. I’m not sure if we can speak in such terms or not. Biblically, I think it may be necessary to say that the narrative about “wrath” ended with wrath against the Greek-Roman world. That’s where the old covenant finally terminates—wrath against the Jew, wrath against the Greek.

On the other hand, we may come to the conclusion that our culture—Western culture—is unsustainable, under attack from global forces beyond its control, facing environmental melt-down. If that’s how we think, then it may not be inappropriate to say that this constitutes a process of “handing over” to negative behaviours, with their negative consequences, similar to the process that Paul describes in Romans 1:18-32.

Is the “divine judgment” (upon non-Christians) always and only destruction and obsolescence?

In scripture yes, though judgment does not necessarily come in the form of violent destruction. It seems to me that the expectation in Revelation is that pagan Rome will be brought down by the witness of the churches. Obsolescence, of course, does not entail violence.

We are probably too quick to hear “wrath” and “judgment” as expressions of divine violence, whether against societies or individuals.

Divine judgment means that God steps into history and puts things right, primarily with respect to and for the sake of his people. That could mean all sorts of things, depending on context.

Do you think my revulsion towards this possible truth arises from a righteous compassion or a short-sighted, human-centric perspective?

You tell me.

Do you think sufficiently supported conclusions concerning the judgment and fate of all people, especially outsiders to God’s chosen community, can be drawn from the Bible?

As I’ve said before, I think that the wages of sin—the natural outcome of the fallen life—is death. No one can really argue with that.

How is there a difference in the fate of non-Christians and the fate of Christians if the former is divine judgment and the latter is also divine (you use the word final, but I interpret them as the same) judgment?

That’s a good question, and I an inclined to leave it at that. We are servants of the living God and we will be judged as such.

Is it not also possible for Christians to be damned to destruction and obsolescence if that is what justice commands in response to their actions?

Quite possibly.

Andrew,

What is your opinion on the subject of assurance of salvation (or to be more precise, assurance of final salvation)? Can we have confidence now, or is the Christian life one of dreaded uncertainty, hoping we manage to do enough to merit being part of the final ressurected people of God?