A quick caveat to start this post: it’s about theology. If you prefer not to go there, you can skip this post and wait for the next.
This post was inspired by my blogger friend Linda, who recently posted about the differences in theology between the Orthodox and Protestant views of atonement (or as she puts it, the eastern and western views). I began to leave this as a comment on her blog, but realized it was sort of a tangent on a different point she was making, which was that today’s evangelical view tends to overemphasize our alienation from God, rather than His plan of reconciliation (which overall I agree with). I also thought the tangent itself might warrant its own discussion–so I decided to create a post about it here.
As Linda clarified her own beliefs, I was particularly struck with how she described a concept called “transactionalism”:
If you…, then God… Typically stated, IF you repent of your sins and believe Jesus took the punishment on your behalf, THEN you can be saved.
What God has done in Christ to reconcile the world to Himself is an accomplished reality. It is not a transaction contingent upon your response. Your response does not in any way affect God’s stance toward you. His gift is unconditional; faith is not the action that makes it a reality.
Repentance is not self-condemnation; it is to turn and to see things in a new way. This will occur when one comes to experience and understand the love of God. Faith, acceptance, and belief are vital to how we grow and experience life with God as we encounter the reality of His kingdom.
There are a few things about this quote that ring true with me–but not all. If salvation and atonement are truly a “done deal,” and if it is not a “transaction contingent on our response,” then we can draw that line all the way to universalism, which basically says everyone will be saved in the end, no matter what we believe or how we behave. All roads lead to God. I know of a number of (former) evangelicals and emergent folks who have drawn just such a line, and I’m sorry, I can’t go there with them. Jesus made it far too clear that He is the only way to the Father, and if any old belief system will do, then there really was no need for a Bible to begin with. (Why would God waste His time and ours revealing Himself in Scripture if it didn’t really matter, and we’d all figure it out in the end anyhow?)
At the same time, I do understand how the “if you-then God” mentality underscores alienation, and I think at heart, that’s wrong, too. I do think the Scriptures make it clear that Christ redemption is in effect a completed work, that Christ’s sacrifice was “once, for all.” (The Scriptures also indicate that the process of redemption working out in our lives is an ongoing effect of that completed work, but that’s for another post.) Jesus Himself said that we can’t even approach the Father unless the Holy Spirit first draws us. The “if you-then God” mentality doesn’t really work because our sinful state has left us helpless and powerless to make the first move. If there is a transaction involved with salvation, then God must be the initiator of the transaction, not the other way around.
So what I see is that these belief systems are two ends of a spectrum, both of which swing the pendulum too far in one direction. I think the truth may lie somewhere in between. To illustrate, let me use a rather primitive analogy:
Let’s say someone knocks on my door, and says, “Congratulations! You’re the contest winner, and you’ve just won a brand new Porsche! Here are the keys.” I look out the door, and I see the Porsche parked by the curb. I look at back at the guy, smiling at me, the keys in his hand, just waiting for me to take them.
Now, as of this point, that Porsche is mine. I had to do nothing to obtain the full rights to said vehicle. All the benefits of Porsche ownership are mine for the taking. But regardless of all this, I will never know nor enjoy the benefits of Porsche ownership unless I do one thing. I have to take the keys.
My point is that I believe that God, in fact, has completed His act of redemption in Christ, and all the benefits of that redemption are surely ours without our having to earn them. But He has also given us free will, and we must freely choose what He offers in order to benefit from it. Anything else would construe a violation of the free will He gave us, the same free will that empowered man to sin in the first place. “If you…then God” is admittedly backwards. God already has; now it’s our turn to respond. But I believe without a response, the benefits of salvation just sit there. We have to take the keys if we’re going to drive that car.
Let’s apply this idea to how we tend to think of “eternal life” only regarding the afterlife, rather than participating in divine life right now (another thing Linda touched on in her post). I completely agree with the concept that eternal life is not simply about heaven or hell–eternal life begins now. But assuming this is true (and assuming, again, that atonement/salvation is a completed work), have you noticed how many people on earth do NOT partake of that divine life? If it were an automatic thing, why isn’t everyone enjoying the benefits of salvation right here and now? My belief is that they do not partake because whether out of ignorance or rebellion–for whatever reason–they have not “taken the keys.” If this dynamic is true in this life, why would it not be true in the next?
Now, I realize that (as is the case with so many theological subjects) this idea probably raises more questions than it answers. What about young children who simply have no knowledge or understanding of their alleged sinful state? What about people around the world who have simply never heard the gospel, who have grown up under a completely different worldview and have not even had the opportunity to “take the keys?” Is their lack of response a one-way ticket to eternal punishment?
The short answer is, “I dunno.” 🙂 The longer answer is that God is just; God is love; and God knows the hearts of people (including children). I think theology is important, but as I’ve said many times, I’ve come to hold my own theology loosely. I think God is big enough and wise enough to know when someone’s heart is turned toward Him, even if their knowledge base of Him is limited (or even if that person’s situation doesn’t fit neatly into my theological beliefs). Let’s just say I’m glad God is the One who gets to make that call.
That said…it doesn’t change the fact that when He reveals His will to us, we are accountable for that knowledge, and it calls for a response on our part. It also doesn’t change the fact that for all the love God extends to us, there will still be some people who shake their fist in His face and want nothing to do with Him. We do have a free will, and some use that free will to reject God utterly–and I believe God honors that freedom of choice. There have been far too many examples of people in history who consciously moved toward evil and refused to repent for me to believe that everyone will be saved in the end. This is also one reason why I can’t join with some of my emergent brethren in questioning the existence of hell. We might be surprised at the end of the age to discover who is (and is not) saved, but that doesn’t mean God will override mankind’s freedom to choose Him or reject Him. (And don’t be fooled into thinking that everyone would choose Him if they only knew the truth about Him.)
So…to sum up my thoughts on this:
Is salvation a done deal? Yes.
Is there still a transaction involved?
We have to take the keys in order to drive the car.
That’s what I think, anyhow. 🙂