I Believe in Works-Based Salvation

It’s Tuesday and, ironically enough, today’s excerpt from Evolving in Monkey Town comes from Chapter 15, entitled “Judgment Day."

from page 173:

I used to think that being saved from my sins meant being saved from hell. Salvation was something that kicked in after death, like a gift that had “Do not open until eternity” on the tag…It was something that happened once but applied for all eternity—once saved, always saved. 

From this perspective, Jesus was little more than theological dues ex machina, a vehicle through which my eternal security was attained. As my Sunday school teacher used to say, “Jesus was born to die.” The whole point was for Jesus to act as a sacrifice on my behalf. Everything that happened between the manger and the cross was interesting but not necessary. It held no inherent saving value. Jesus was like the conductor who handed me my ticket for heaven but left me alone for the ride. 

from page 174:

[But] Jesus came to offer more than just salvation from hell. I realized this when I encountered Jesus the radical rabbi and reexamined my life in light of his teachings. When I imagined what it would be like to give generously without wondering what is in it for me, to give up my grudges and learn to diffuse hatred with love, to stop judging other people once and for all, to care for the poor and seek out the downtrodden, to finally believe that stuff can’t make me happy, to give up my urge to gossip and manipulate, to worry less about what other people think, to refuse to retaliate no matter the cost, to be capable of forgiving to the point of death, to live as Jesus lived and love as Jesus loved, one word came to my mind: liberation

Following Jesus would mean liberation from my bitterness, my worry, my self-righteousness, my prejudice, my selfishness, my materialism, and my misplaced loyalties. Following Jesus would mean salvation from my sin. 

What I’m trying to say is that while I still believe Jesus died to save us from our sins, I’m beginning to think that Jesus also lived to save us from our sins. the apostle Paul put it more eloquently in his letter to the church in Rome when he said, ‘For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to hi m through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10). 

If it’s starting to sound like I believe in works-based salvation , it’s because I do. While I don’t for a second think that we can earn God’s grace by checking off a to-do list, I do believe that there is liberation in obedience. When we live like Jesus, when we take his teachings seriously and apply them to life, we don’t have to wait until we die to experience freedom from sin. We experience it every day as each step of faith and every good work loosens the chains of sin around our feet. It’s hard, and it’s something that I fail at most of the time, but it’s something I’ve experienced in little fits and starts along the way, enough to know that it’s worth it. Jesus promised that his yoke will be light, because he carries most of the load. 

How have your views on salvation shifted through the years? In what ways can we experience salvation in the day-to-day?

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"God Things"

It’s Tuesday.. Time to discuss Evolving in Monkey Town. Today’s excerpts come from “God Things”—one of the most talked-about chapters in the book. 

From page 147: 

The first time I heard someone call something a “God thing” was in 2005, the Saturday after Hurricane Katrina hit. A friend of mine was getting married in Dayton and expecting family from all around the country to attend the wedding. At the reception, I spoke with a member of the family who expressed thankfulness that the entire family had made it to the ceremony, despite some major airport delays across the South. 

“It was such a God thing,” the young man said as we waited in line for a piece of the groom’s cake. “It was like God had his hand on the weather. Clearly, he intends to bless this union.” 

I’d just spent the entire morning watching news footage of desperate families trapped on their rooftops awaiting rescue, so I couldn’t help but bristle at what he said. God had his hand on the weather? If God had his hand on the weather, then why didn’t he stop the hurricane from coming in the first place? Why didn’t he keep t he levees from breaking? Why would he go out of his way to help this family get to a wedding on time but leave thousands of people stuck in the Superdome without food or water?

Over the years, I’ve heard all sorts of things described as “God things”—scholarships, job opportunities, new cars, remodeled kitchens. Appealing to God things has an effect similar to appealing to “God’s will.” when a friend tells me that it’s God’s will for her to date a certain guy or buy a new car or go to a specific school, it’s difficult to object or ask questions without looking like I want to pick a fight with the Almighty himself. Similarly, when a friend hails her low interest rate or her airfare or her concert tickets as a God thing, it’s nearly impossible to get away with asking if she really needs a new house or a vacation or yet another Dave Matthews experience without seeming to rain on God’s parade. Every good Christian knows that the best way to insulate yourself from criticism or input is to say that God wants whatever you want. It has been done for centuries, from Constantine’s military conquests, to America’s ethnic cleansing in the name of Manifest Destiny, to the televangelist’s “love gifts. 

Dan says I’m far too cynical. He says that Christians talk about God things in an effort to show sincere gratitude to God, to remind themselves and others that the good things in their lives are not earned or deserved but are gifts…

I know he’s right. I know that, deep down, my problem isn’t with Christians who celebrate their blessings but with a God who seems to bless arbitrarily. What bothers me about God things is that they remind me of the cosmic lottery—that sobering dichotomy between the world’s rich and the world’s poor, between the lucky and the unlucky—which has always been a sticking point in my own fitful walk with God. If God’s goodness is qualified by how much stuff he gives out, I reason, then he’s not especially good. He might be good to that family that made it to the wedding on time, but he’s not especially good to orphans like Kanakarju.

I couldn’t quite piece it together at the time, but in India I began to suspect that the problem lies not in God’s goodness but in how we measure it. Laxmi and Kanakaraju and the women and children at the AIDS ministry, they prayed for basic things—food, shelter, health, peace—and they did not always receive. Yet I saw in their eyes the kind of joy and spiritual connectedness most Christians I know long for…

Maybe we aren’t the lucky ones after all.

From page 151:

It seems that in the kingdom of heaven, the cosmic lottery works in reverse. In the kingdom of heaven, all our notions about the lucky and the unlucky, the blessed and the cursed, the haves and the have-nots are turned upside down. In the kingdom of heaven, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16)…

To be present among [the least of these] is to encounter what the Celtic saints called “thin spaces,” places or moments in time in which the veil separating heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material, becomes almost transparent. I’d like to think that I’m a part of this kingdom, even though my stuff and my comforts sometimes thicken the veil. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—these are God things, and they are available to all, regardless of status or standing. Everything else is just extra, and extra can be a distraction. Extra lulls us into complacency and tricks us into believing that we need more than we need. Extra makes it harder to distinguish between “God things” and just things [read more].

Have you encountered the expression “God things”? What do you make of it? 

How can Christians talk about the good things in our lives without confusing temporal stuff with true blessings?

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"I wanted others to share in my storm…"

We’re back into our normal schedule, and this Tuesday’s excerpt from Evolving in Monkey Town comes from Chapter 9, entitled “Survivor’s Guilt”:

Some Christians are more offended by the idea of everyone going to heaven than by the idea of everyone going to hell. I learned this the hard way, as reports about my faith crisis spread around town and rumors that I’d become a universalist found their way back to me in a wave of concerned emails and phone calls. Once news of your backsliding makes it to the prayer chain, it’s best just to resign yourself to your fate. I knew my chances for winning another Best Christian Attitude Award were all but extinct when a former professor asked me when I’d started studying Buddhism. 

Privately, I felt frightened and lost. I cried out to God night after night, begging him to “help me in my unbelief.” I pressed my face into my pillow, trying to will myself out of doubt and back to faith, only to wake up the next morning with puffy red eyes and a spiritual numbness that left me absent and disconnected from the world. I hated going to church because things like communion cups or kids’ choirs or fundraising announcements triggered paranoia about brainwashing and pyramid schemes. I couldn’t seem to read the Bible without bumping into something I didn’t like or didn’t understand. Praying grew harder and harder, and I felt myself starting to give up. 

Publicly, I grew obstinate and incorrigible, ready to debate family and friends whose easy confidence baffled and frustrated me and gave me an excuse to be angry at someone besides God. It bothered me that other people weren’t bothered. I couldn’t understand why no one else was stressed out about the existence of hell or angered by all the suffering in the world. I feigned surprise when my friends got annoyed that I raised such topics at bridal showers and poker games. Wherever I sensed a calm sea, I sought to rock the boat; I wanted others to share in my storm. 

There’s a chance this may have alienated me from some people…[read more]

Have you ever experienced a time like this in your faith journey? How did it affect your relationship with other Christians?

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Jesus, God in Sandals

It’s Tuesday! Today’s excerpt from Evolving in Monkey Town comes from Chapter 8, entitled “Jesus, God in Sandals.” 

The most startling thing I noticed as I grew more acquainted with the Gospels was that Jesus had a very different view of faith than the one to which I was accustomed. I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime in my late teens or early twenties, it was as if Jesus packed his bags and moved from my heart into my head. He became an idea, a sort of theological mechanism by which salvation was attained. I described him in terms ofatonementlogosthe object of my faith, and absolute truth.  He was something I agreed to, not someone I followed…

But Jesus rarely framed discipleship in terms of intellectual assent to a set of propositional statements. He didn’t walk new converts down the Romans Road or ask Peter to draft a doctrinal statement before giving him the keys to the kingdom. His method of evangelism varied from person to person and generally involved a dramatic change of lifestyle rather than a simple change of mind. To Jesus, “by faith alone” did not mean “by belief alone.” To Jesus, faith was invariably linked to obedience…

...Needless to say, that was a strange summer. It wasn’t the summer that brought an end to my doubt, but it was the summer I encountered a different Jesus, a Jesus who requires more from me than intellectual assent and emotional allegiance; a Jesus who associated with sinners and infuriated the religious; a Jesus who broke the rules and refused to cast the first stone; a Jesus who gravitated toward sick people and crazy people, homeless people and hopeless people; a Jesus who preferred story to exposition and metaphor to syllogism; a Jesus who answered questions with more questions, and demands for proof with demands for faith…a Jesus who healed each person differently and saved each person differently; a Jesus who had no list of beliefs to check off, no doctrinal statements to sign, no surefire way to tell who was “in” and who was “out”; a Jesus who loved after being betrayed, healed after being hurt, and forgave while being nailed to a tree; a Jesus who asked his disciples to do the same…

It occurred to me that if my faith managed to survive all of these doubts then this radical rabbi, this God in sandals, would require more from me than ever before. This radical Jesus wanted to live not only in my heart and in my head but also in my hands, as I fed the hungry, reached out to my enemies, healed the sick, and comforted the lonely.  Being a Christian, it seemed, isn’t about agreeing to a certain way; it is about embodying a certain way. It is about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God. It is about being Jesus…in tennis shoes. 

How has your relationship with Jesus changed over the years?

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Why I am a Christian...

It’s Tuesday! Time to discuss Evolving in Monkey Town.  Today’s excerpt comes from Chapter 7, “When Believers Ask”:

When I was a little girl, if someone asked me why I was a Christian, I said it was because Jesus lived in my heart. In high school, I said it was because I accepted the atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross for my sins. My sophomore year of college, during a short-lived Reformed phase, I said it was because of the irresistible grace of God. But after watching Zarmina’s execution on TV, I decided that the most truthful answer to that question was this: I was a Christian because I was born in the United States of America in the year 1981 to Peter and Robin Held. Arminians call it free will; Calvinists call it predestination. I call it “the cosmic lottery.” 

It doesn’t take an expert in anthropology to figure out that the most important factor in determining the nature of one’s existence, including one’s religion, is the place and time in which one is born, a factor completely out of one’s control. I happened to be born in the United States of America in the twentieth century to Christian parents whose religion I embraced. Had I lived in this very spot in the Appalachian mountains just two thousand  years earlier, I know for a fact I would not have accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, mainly because I would have never heard of the guy. Or let’s say I got the century right but the location wrong. There’s little doubt in my mind that if I had grown up in a modern Muslim household in say, Afghanistan or Turkey, I would have faithfully honored the teachings of my parents and followed Islam like everyone else. We don’t choose our worldviews; they are chosen for us.

This part of the book was largely inspired by Adah Price, a character in Barbara Kingsolver's excellent novel, The Poisonwood Bible. Adah puts it this way:

According to my Baptist Sunday-school teacher, a child is denied entrance to heaven merely for being born in the Congo rather than, say, north Georgia, where she could attend church regularly. This was the sticking point in my own little lame march to salvation: admission to heaven is gained by luck of the draw.

At age five I raised my good left hand in Sunday school and used a month’s ration of words to point out this problem to Miss Betty Nagy. Getting born within earshot of a preacher, I reasoned, is entirely up to chance. Would Our Lord be such a hit-or-miss kind of Savior as that? Would he really condemn some children to eternal suffering just for the accident of a heathen birth?…Miss Betty sent me to the corner for the rest of the hour to pray for my own soul while kneeling on grains of uncooked rice. When I finally got up with sharp grains imbedded in my knees I found, to my surprise, that I no longer believed in God.

So how would you respond if someone asked why you are a Christian? 

Can you relate to these concerns about the “cosmic lottery”? Is one's faith determined by luck of the draw?

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