Before reading this post, please go over to my 8 Things To Know About My Blog.
“…the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure” – Revelation 19:7-8.
Here’s a common narrative… If you understand your sinfulness, if you recognize your need for God, if you repent and accept Jesus into your heart (or if you repeat a prayer), then you will be saved, and you will avoid your soul’s punishment in an eternal hell because that is what you deserve apart from the grace God could give to you. What’s at stake is your soul, your eternal life, your personal well-being, your life. If only we can count the number of individuals that God saves, then we can measure our success, by the number of “yous” that pray a prayer for yourselves.
And there’s more…
What is of paramount importance in my decision to accept Jesus into my heart becomes my own eternal destination, heaven or hell. I do this for me, so that I can save my own self from the punishment that awaits me otherwise. As I ponder my own life, and my sins, and my guiltiness, and the gift that could be offered to me, I may decide to individually prayer a prayer so that God can save me. Next comes a personal relationship with Jesus Christ where I can talk to Jesus about my needs, and he can help me on my walk with him. If I’m in trouble, he will assist me. Salvation is about you, your relationship with God, your eternal destination, and your own spiritual well-being.
you. you. you. you.
Now, I’m not a sociologist or psychologist so I can’t try to diagnose the self-centeredness of this version of the gospel by an appeal to our modern culture of individualism and how it impacts the theology of some churches. I can’t explain the connection merely by discerning how consumerism has affected the way we view the transaction between us and God that results in our personal salvation. I know the connections exist, but what I know even more than those is the fact that this self-centered gospel is NOT the way things in the Church should be.
In what follows, I’d like to discuss a few of the ways this problem presents itself as well as a couple of new ways to think about salvation and the Church.
First, I think a lot of this problem has to do with the way we read the Bible. We must have our own quiet time so that it’s just us and God in a room. Of course, I am not saying that reading the Bible alone is bad or that one should not spend private time with God in prayer. What I am saying is that our environments of an individual nature often times make us read texts in an overly-personal fashion. In other words, we read texts addressed to groups (nearly every text included in the Bible!) and change their addressees to our individual selves. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians becomes my own guide to how to change my personal situation and impact my personal relationship with God, when really, Paul addressed an entire Church! He was meaning to deal with the issues of that Church as a whole. The text concerned inter-personal relationships and that community’s needs in their collective relation to God.
When you come to a text, you must realize the intended audience. Often times (if not the overwhelming majority of times), when the scripture’s authors use the word “you” as it’s translated into English, they are referring to a plurality of persons, not one individual. Many of its words are directed to the entire nation of Israel. I think this also influences the way we understand salvation texts. When the New Testament authors make statements about salvation in the plural, we interpret them in the singular as if they were only referring to us. The problem however, is that salvation has a largely communal aspect to it. When we are saved, we are saved… 1. Into the Trinity with its own plurality of persons Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and 2. Into the body of Christ, itself made up of a diverse kind and quantity of people. We all know that our actions affect others in profound ways, but we also must take this mindset with us into the Church. Sometimes God interacts with groups of people and not just individuals. God wants to save us together, not just me or you alone.
In the OT especially, though God made special appearances with individuals like Abraham or Moses, God’s covenants were with the people of Israel as a whole. It was God relating to Israel all together. Today too, the limits of salvation to only the people of Israel have been removed by Christ. The walls between Gentiles and Jews have been eradicated through the Gospel. But now, the relationship does not go from a whole nation back to relating to individuals. On the contrary, the gospel opens up the whole world as the place of interaction with God. It is now, not individuals, and not just Israel or other individual nations, but all of humanity together that God interacts with and opens to the Gospel. In short, the gospel does not individualize the offer of salvation, but rather pluralizes it to more people than the past limitation to Israel alone, as an offer to the world.
A second way in which this problem manifests itself is through the evangelical church’s way of doing baptism. It has become a personal outward expression of our inward faith. It is a symbol to the Church that we have made a personal life change and it shows them our personal commitment to our personal relationship with Christ. It has no meaning beyond merely a public statement of our own faith. While this public statement is good to maintain accountability, the historical Church did not think this way at all! To contrast, the Church has always affirmed that baptism is the very means by which we become incorporated into the body of Christ. It has also affirmed its salvific elements as the act of baptism represents the life of Christ on earth and its successful transformation onto our own lives through the Church’s death to sin and resurrection to life in Christ. This sacrament of entry is important for us to remember today because it displays the communal nature of our salvation. We aren’t saved merely for ourselves, but for others as well, and the Church as a whole.
The temptation to understand salvation as primarily personal is strong in our current day and age, but it does not need to be the norm. As we begin to develop our own understanding of scriptural texts and regain an appreciation for the sacrament of baptism, we can together reclaim the territory that has been thus far lost to individualism.
To close, in Revelation, John the Revelator depicts a vision in which the Bridegroom receives the Bride for a great banquet, representing the communal nature of meals in that age. This event is not described as God’s welcoming of us as individuals to the table, but one in which we are all counted as one together, a single Bride. While ourselves as individuals will be present, the focus is not on us, but on humanity’s shared redemption through the working of the gospel.
I hope these brief words encourage you to think more about how the gospel is about us, not merely about me or you by ourselves. The Church is the Church not merely because it is made up of individuals, but because all its people unite in their salvation and common goal of emulating the shape of Jesus’ own life on earth through our inward and outward acts of benevolence. It’s not just my gospel, it’s our gospel. Individuals are important. God does save individuals, but it’s for the sake of the whole not just the one. We’re all in this together as a Church.
As always, if you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends as you begin to think about the Church and salvation slightly differently. While you’re at it, be sure not to miss out on my previous post on Toleration between different Christians.