I have discovered that a number of people have a difficult time with the concept of salvation, especially if it is to be understood as Jesus dying on the cross for our sins in order to satisfy God’s wrath against sin (someone’s got to pay for the penalty of sin?) or paying a ransom for humanity being “kidnapped” by the power of sin and death. The problem with these understandings, it seems, is that if God requires the death of his Son to bring about humanity’s salvation, then God is violent and abusive God guilty of divine child abuse.
The reason I am focusing upon the relationship between salvation and missional is that the community, in which I serve, is exploring the idea of salvation in the letter to the Hebrews. How do we understand the concepts of save and salvation, not as a “four-letter word,” but as life-giving and integrated with God’s missional purpose of making all things new? How do we not read into the text but allow the text to speak to us? In doing so, we are able to hear the story of salvation in a different way.
One of our conversation partners in this exploration is J. Denny Weaver’s work, The Nonviolent Atonement, in which he portrays God as not being violent, nor requiring the death of his Son for either satisfying God’s wrath, or as a ransom payment. Weaver expresses a view of the atonement which he names narrative Christus Victor. Narrative Christus Victor embraces not just the act of the cross in salvation, but embraces the whole of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection in coming to an understanding of Jesus as the atonement – i.e., in Jesus we are restored to relationship with God because Jesus came to bring life; Jesus did not come to die. (It is worth reading his book to get the whole extent of Weaver’s compelling argument).
The missional ramifications of salvation are important. If God is about making all things new, how are we as humans being transformed in order to participate in the fullness of God’s reign – how are we established as a new humanity, a new community in which we live being sign, foretaste, and instrument of God’s present and coming reign?
Salvation, it seems to me has more to do with transformation than it has to do with whether there is a need to pay for the penalty of sin. This paying the penalty for sin was more Anselm’s idea in the 11th century, than it is a biblical one. What Scripture tells us is that while we were enemies of God, opposed to God, not aligned with God nor God’s purposes giving allegiance to the non-reign of God, “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
The text in Romans expresses, “while were still sinners, Christ died for us;” it does not say that “because we were sinners, Christ died to pay the penalty for sin” – there is more to salvation than paying a “fine.” Paul in Romans describes that God’s love for us involved Jesus confronting the principalities and powers that enslaved humanity (cf. Romans 6 for a fuller explanation of this) and Jesus did this with all of his life, through his whole life and ministry. Jesus’ ministry was explicitly one of bringing life, of re-creating life in the hearts of humanity and within the structures of human relationships. In John’s Gospel Jesus declares that he has come to bring life and life abundantly, whereas the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy (cf. John 10:10). Salvation, then, has more to do with revealing and bringing the life, peace – the shalom – of God so that humanity might be restored to relationship with God.
So, how does death enter the picture? Jesus in confronting the powers, rather than using coercive or violent force to overcome the powers, takes the violence meted out by the powers upon himself for the sake of humanity. And Jesus did this while we were still complicit with the powers, giving our allegiance to the powers, being enemies of God, not giving allegiance to God (which is a great definition of sin) – Christ suffered the death and violence of the powers because of his love for us – “for us.” Not only did his death on the cross reveal the insidiousness of the powers and disarm the power of the powers by making a spectacle of them, and so triumphing over them (cf. Colossians 2:15), but especially through his resurrection it is revealed that death no longer, will never, have power over life ever again. In Jesus we are set free. In identifying with Jesus we are set free from the power of sin, the power of death. In Jesus, we are made new, we are a new creation. In radically connecting to Jesus, by believing Jesus, Jesus’ allegiance to God and God’s reign becomes our allegiance. In Jesus, our allegiance is no longer to the non-reign of God, but now we are set free and enabled to give allegiance to God and God’s reign by the power of Jesus’ Spirit.
Jesus’ life and ministry, brings about salvation because it disarms the principalities and powers which hold humanity captive. In Jesus, we are set free to embrace life and be embraced by life, rather than death having any kind of lasting hold on us. Salvation through Jesus is all about restoring us to the shalom of God – being in right relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves. Indeed salvation is at the core of God’s mission in making all things new because Jesus is at the core of our becoming new, creation becoming new, all things becoming new.