Sunday, March 16, 2014

Saved—from what?

Evangelicals—at least evangelicals in the ’60s and ’70s—were fond of asking, "Are you saved?" They would probably be perplexed at this 2010 comment from Barbara Brown Taylor: “The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do” (from An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith).

I saw this quote a year or two ago on the big screen at church. It was provocative then, and I remembered it recently when thinking about Colossians 2, which says that man-made rules—“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (2:20)—lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (2:23). The passage brought up for me the question of what it means to be saved. Why? Because it suggests that we at least need saving from sensual indulgence. And Taylor's remark makes me wonder, what should we talk about, when we talk about being saved?

The Apostle Paul writes that we were once "foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, spending our days in malice and envy…" (Titus 3) but that God saved us by his goodness and mercy. He also writes that God has saved us from the power of darkness (Colossians 1:13) and brought us into the kingdom of his dear son. In 2 Timothy 1, Ephesians 2 and elsewhere, Paul writes again and again of salvation as an accomplished fact.

But Paul also writes that Jesus saves us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10); he says that God "will rescue me from this body of death" (Romans 7:24–25), and that we eagerly await the redemption of our bodies (8:23–25). All this is about the future. Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ himself said, "He who stands firm to the end will be saved." (Matthew 24). And in 2 Corinthians 3:18, we read that we are being transformed into his (Christ's) likeness with ever-inceasing glory, which is something that continues throughout our lives here on earth. Which brings me to Colossians 1:9-12:

9For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. 10And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.
Colossians 1:9-12 NIV
Now there's a picture of a good life: fruitful in good works, knowing God more and more, and so on. Something I notice about this passage is that Paul doesn't simply say: "Live this way"; rather, he prays for God to do something to make the God-pleasing life even possible.

What that tells me is that this kind of life isn't just difficult; without help from God it's impossible. Put differently, we need to be saved from the life of ignorance of God's will, the life of folly and fruitlessness, of distraction and impatience—the joyless life of the spoiled and entitled child.

Besides all that, I also need to be saved from my foolish impulses and tendencies. It is true that the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5) includes "self-control" (other versions say "sober-mindedness" and the like), but the promise around temptation is that God will provide a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13). This suggests that our self-control is limited, that willpower is overrated.

But I need more than just a way of escape when tempted, more than just protection from doing something stupid. What I need is to be transformed, to be changed. I want to be the kind of person who isn't tempted in the first place. I want my mind and heart to be filled with the knowledge of God's will so that I naturally give my heart to heavenly things (Colossians 3:1–2).

Returning to Colossians 2:23 and the need for restraining sensual indulgence, I think Paul is telling us that sensual indulgence isn't just some activity we do or don't do; rather, it's a force that, if unrestrained, will halt our spiritual growth so that we remain children permanently, infants tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming (Ephesians 4:14). We need to be saved from these waves and winds.

And do we sit by idly while being saved from these things? A better idea would be to follow Paul's example and press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward (Philippians 3:14). And, as the author of Hebrews tells us, to

…throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and…run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
from Hebrews 12:1-3
Paul gives us a terrific encouragement along these lines, from Philippians: “[W]ork out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (from Philippians 2:12–13). In other words, as we press on toward the goal, as we throw off everything that hinders and run with perseverance, God works in us to want to keep going, as he also saves us from the useless life we might otherwise live.

1 comment:

Collin said...

Just saw this on theatlantic at

I think religion should be taught in college. I’m not talking about “religious studies,” that is, the study of the phenomenon of religion. I’m talking about having imams, priests, pastors, rabbis, and other clerics teach the practice of their faiths. In college classrooms. To college students. For credit. I think religion should be taught in college because I believe it can help save floundering undergraduates. I’m not talking about “saving” them in Christian sense. I’m talking about teaching them how to live so they do not have to suffer an endless stream of miseries.