In Spite of Christianity?

In response to a recent sermon that outlined the person and work of Jesus Christ, a discussion arose surrounding the topic of salvation. In particular, the question was asked: does Christ’s work extend beyond those of us labeled as “Christians”? Well, my response was, “I sure hope so…”

I base my response on the simple fact that it is foremost not Christianity that saves, but “the gift of God…expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:7-8 NIV). And considering the unfaithfulness of God’s followers throughout the biblical account and subsequent history, I would go even further and say Christ’s salvation—his work of complete reconciliation of all creation—occurs in spite of Christianity. How many times have our strategies of success actually hindered the work of God, turning people away? Or people’s erring interpretations of scripture led to horrible neglect of human rights? Or our interpretation of God’s blessing as comfortable North American life resulted in an absence of justice in our world? Really, the list is endless. And so I say adamantly, I sure hope God saves in spite of Christianity, because if he’s relying us, we aren’t doing too well…

Yet we are still stuck with the fact the whole biblical account commands a communal representation of God’s kingdom to the world. Somehow God keeps forgiving our unfaithfulness and creating good out of our brokenness. And so the easy option—railing against all forms of organized Christianity and forming your own ‘personal’ faith—isn’t really a valid option if you’re attempting to take the Bible seriously (a big if for some, I realize). So we can take heart that God is bigger than our brokenness and unfaithful representation of his salvation in this world, but we are still confronted by the often baffling reality that God still chooses to work through the exact community that so often fails him, however broken and unfaithful that community has been and will surely continue to be.

I like how Eugene Peterson translates Ephesians 2 in The Message:

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It's God's gift from start to finish! We don't play the major role. If we did, we'd probably go around bragging that we'd done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

The key, I believe, is the order in which we understand salvation. God’s salvation through Christ is an invitation to continue the good work of reconciliation already taking place. If we make salvation an either\or issue (God or us, in or out, etc…) I think we simplify the work of God too much. Sure, God can and likely does save in spite of our failings, but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal or the norm (the New Testament is pretty clear on salvation involving a life-changing encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, however that may look). Reconciliation, as the sermon which started this whole discussion rightly asserted, is a messy endeavor culminating in selfless sacrifice, most wholly represented in the person of Jesus Christ, but then continuing in our own lives as Christians only by the grace of God working through us. The challenge, I find, is realizing our own limitations in the salvation process, accepting our brokenness as churches and a Christian community on a whole, and then accepting God’s grace as the empowerment we need to overcome our failure and represent his kingdom in this world. A tough task indeed…

And so, God may save in spite of Christianity, but I don’t think he saves without it…

3 comments:

Darren said...

Dave ... a great topic for discussion - thanks. You finished your comments with - "God may save in spite of christianity, but I don't think he saves without it".

I'm wondering if you meant that you don't think God saves without Christ rather than saying without Christianity. You may well mean it the way you said it - and it's a very valid position, but I think it needs clarification. 'Christianity' simply being our understanding or expression of the (only) way to God, through Christ - is imperfect and limited because it has to pass through our human filters. It is only our understanding of perfect truth revealed, not perfect truth in itself - that's part of the reason I would say that while there is no salvation without Christ, there could very well be salvation outside of Christianity.

Jesus said that "no one comes to the Father but by me", which could be understood as 'because' of me. Perhaps God might save some because of Christ, but not necessaily because of what we sometimes call a 'saving knowledge' of Christ. When/where/how that may happen I am quite unsure, but like you I am here with imperfect understanding saying 'I hope so'. For the sake of billions of non-christians - I hope so.

dwark said...

Hey Darren, thanks for the comments. My last phrase ("God may save in spite of christianity, but I don't think he saves without it") was my attempt at summing up the tension between salvation not being dependent on our human understanding, yet at the same time not exclusive of human participation.

I agree there is the possibility of salvation outside the bounds of our imperfect knowledge of truth (still through Christ, I agree), but I think God's ideal is to still use the church as his vessel for salvation's presence in this world. This doesn't mean salvation is dependent on people's 'saving knowledge,' just that God would prefer if all people could encounter his real presence in their lives and in this world. Unfortunately that reconciliation continues to be misrepresented. Perhaps on occasion people would even be better off not knowing our incomplete definitions of salvation. I am not sure...

But while we lament our failures as the Christian community, these failures should only drive us to a better understanding of Christianity's role in salvation as God intends. Now, that actual role is probably another whole discussion...

Darren said...

Good summation Dave - you've said it well.

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