Salvation: what it isn’t

By Derek Olsen

A year or so back, I was in a wonderful Sunday School class studying the Paul’s letter to the Romans. One of my comrades brought in a tract that he’d been handed or had been left on his car (I forget which) that asked in big bold letters on the front “What do you have to do to get to heaven?” The inside sheets were filled with possible answers like: be a good person, get baptized by sprinkling, get baptized by dunking, etc. If I recall correctly the tract’s intent was that all of these were wrong and that verbal confession of a special formula was the point a la Romans 10:10, a passage we’d been discussing. Needless to say, in a group of Episcopalians this tract made for some interesting discussion and for a while the class wrestled with how to answer the question. What jumped out at me the most wasn’t how they chose to answer, but the fact that we had let the tract set the question. And as far as I’m concerned it’s the wrong question.

Getting to heaven and what we have to do to get there is not the point of being a Christian.

“Getting to heaven” has become cultural shorthand for Christian salvation. But Christian salvation is fundamentally not about getting to heaven.

It’s Easter time which is the perfect time to re-orient and get a hold of ourselves and remember who we are and what we’re about. Easter is about life. It’s about the abundant life that flows from God and the divine love which is (as St John reminds us) an integral part of who and what God is. The creeds insist that on that Easter night Jesus rose, not just as a fond remembrance or a fuzzy memory, but as a physical body bursting with life, filled with the life of God. As the Easter Vigil hymn reminds so beautifully:

“This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave…How blessed is this night when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God…”

This hymn, the Exultet, is the dedication of the Paschal Candle, the first great symbol of the Risen Christ which is then directly connected through ritual word and act to the baptismal font—to which the service naturally flows. Because baptism is about life. Paul insists in Romans 6 that while we share in Christ’s death spiritually in baptism, drowning the old Adam, the new life we receive is actual. It’s the real thing.

Being a Christian isn’t about getting to heaven. Being a Christian is about participating in new life, in divine life, sharing in the very life of God. In baptism we have been—in my favorite phrase from Paul—“hid with Christ in God.”

This is both the point and the purpose of Christian salvation. It’s not about waiting around to go somewhere or existing in some state after we die; it’s about participating in the life of God both now and later. Life is the point. Opening our eyes to and taking hold of what God has done for us in creation, in incarnation, in the crucifixion and the resurrection—that’s the point. The purpose is no less clear. It’s to live that life and to share it, to help it expand to others.

It’s to live a life hid with God in Christ.

And I’d tell you exactly what that phrase means, except that I’m not sure myself.

Oh, I have some ideas. One revolves around how much the New Testament uses the word “abide” as an activity that God does with Jesus and Jesus does with God and that we do with Jesus and therefore we can do with God and so on and so forth. Abide. Sometimes I think it means just lying in the presence of God in prayer and sometimes I think it means walking in love as Christ loved us and sometimes I think those are just two small parts of the fullness of what it really means. I’ll keep working on abiding…

Another idea has to do with our good ol’ Anglican worship. It’s how certain moments catch me and throw me—sometimes in church or sometimes days later—and give me a taste, a moment, that I can put my finger on and say, “Wow—that definitely connects to the life of God.” Worship doesn’t just fit us for the life of God but gives us moments and examples with which to see the slow yet steady spread of the lushness of God’s life and God’s will into our life that twines around the pillars of our hearts and with its soft, seeking roots cracks through calcified compassion.

In short, I’d tell you—but I think it’s got to be lived not told.

This Easter enjoy life, embrace life, share life, and live out a life hid with Christ in God.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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