Salvation, what is it?
The teachings of the Christian faith are often studied under the six divisions of, the doctrines of
- the Church, and
- the Future.
"What must I do to be saved," the Philippian jailor cried, and Paul didn't even ask whether he understood what "saved" meant. Perhaps we may assume a kind of universally felt need or sense of misery which automatically gives meaning to the desire for salvation. Would not everybody then be seeking redemption? Or could it be that the knowledge is latent and awaits only an existential jolt? Let the foundations be shaken and the sinner will cry out! Professor Berkhof told us about a careless unbeliever who fell and was badly hurt. Would he now change and be saved? "But, you see, it takes more than a bump on the head to be saved," the professor concluded.
Evangelicals used to speak of "coming under conviction." It was this which gave experiential knowledge and personal meaning to salvation. Coupled with this subjective side there was a fairly uniform objective description among orthodox Protestants as to what this salvation involved. Is this still true today?
Why has "born again" replaced "saved" in describing a Christian? What has happened to the knowledge of sin and the need for true saving faith? Has there been a shift in the concept of salvation? Theological confusion and doctrinal indifference conspire together to blur the older concepts. "Orthodox" has been replaced by "conservative" and this in turn has yielded to an even more nebulous "evangelical." Theologically we may well ask, "Whatever happened to soteriology?"
Practical considerations shape the contemporary concepts of salvation. The Jews, including the apostles, were looking for an earthly kingdom. Jesus, therefore, was supposed to fit into their program. And so every age and circumstance has first built the cart and tried to fit the horse before it. The deliverer may thus be seen in a variety of roles — conqueror of the evil spirits, healer, national liberator, social reformer, friend, or forgiver.
The temptation to seek the convenient Christ of our bidding is not new. Kittel observes that the early church preferred the name Kurios (Lord) to Soter (Savior) because the latter was open to both Jewish and imperial perversions. Things are much worse today. The Gospel has been philosophized, psychologized, sociologized, and politicalized.
Sometimes this secularization has been done openly, as by Bultmann and his crowd. Kuitert speaks frankly of abandoning the old concepts and replacing them by new ones. The conscious reconstruction is then done in the name of modern philosophy and is supported by a new interpretation of the Bible. The historic doctrines and old realities of sin and hell, personal devil and divine judgment are thus lost in the realms of myth. But out of our modern understanding of man and a new view of the Bible there come all kinds of ideas of salvation.
Rudolph Bultmann has developed the most influential, profound and fascinating combination of demythologizing hermeneutics, existential philosophy and psychological soteriology. Surprisingly he credits Karl Barth, with whom he differed radically, with furnishing him with his most effective tool, namely, the existential or function concept of the truth. His most profound and perhaps most dangerous concept is his identifying Paul's teaching about the old and new self with a modern existential experience. Salvation is then pictured as the bringing into existence of the authentic self (existentially understood). Most remarkably for him, this can be achieved only and solely by the preaching of the Gospel (demythologized). Pure existentialists have been few in the U.S. but more abundant amongst German theologians. His influence lingers, even though he has been superseded by liberation theology.
In America the psychology of religion has entered many a pulpit in simpler forms. We have our powers of positive and possibility thinking, pandering to the longing for success. Karl Menenger, himself a psychologist, complains that "sin" has been obscured by sickness or crime. Guilt has become "guilt feeling" and you're OK and I'm OK. One of the more comprehensive efforts to psychologize salvation may be found in a book by Bovet, a Swiss psychologist, with the intriguing title The Road to Salvation. It claims to show us how to overcome "the powers" and become a "whole person."
We need not disparage the psychological importance of salvation while we point out that the reduction of salvation to something basically, if not exclusively, psychological is a perversion of the Gospel.
The social gospel has an even older history than the psychological gospel. Its modern and resurrected form is called liberation theology. As advocated by Jurgen Moltmann, the father of the theology of hope, it repudiates the importance of any stress on personal salvation. Even Bultmann comes in for severe criticism because of his neglect of the social and political aspects of religion. In fact, Moltmann's disciples also criticized him for putting the hope too far in the future and making it too much the work of God. This indeed made him take a more activistic stand in which he approves both Marxistic revolution and socialistic gradualism. He anticipates a better world by the cooperation of the gradualism of the West and the revolution of the East.
Like Bultmann, he and some other liberation theologians have succeeded fairly well in giving a comprehensively reworked soteriology to fit their program. Although he presents a theology of hope without a personal immortality, he has many followers. In fact, liberation theology dominates the World Council of Churches, was accepted at the World Mission Council at Bangkok, and has swept the Third World.
Karl Barth has also influenced modern concepts of soteriology both positively and negatively. He called men back to the great themes of the Reformation. The essence of salvation is to be found in reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. Thus he protests vigorously against any horizontal, this-worldly secular concept of salvation. The gospel of salvation is the message of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. In his own peculiar way, he develops the universally effective reconciliation of all men. Christ has removed all the wrath of God. In fact, His wrath was His love. Thus dialectically man may be both elected and rejected, but the YEA will overwhelm any of God's nays.
Barth claimed to reject universalism. However, he goes to great length to show that even Judas was saved. We know no man who was lost, no man outside of Jesus Christ. We may hope that hell will be empty. Nor do we really bring about a reconciliation of the sinner with God. The reconciliation is already there. Hence the gospel is telling people that they are already reconciled whether they believe or not. Although Barth himself was enthusiastic about telling all men that they were already saved, his followers suffered from the logic of this position. They began to lose the urgency of preaching the gospel.
Influenced by concepts of universal reconciliation, some Barthians drifted into formulating the creed of reconciliation (Presbyterian, 1967). Here the logic of reconciliation went beyond Barth in seeking dialogue with, rather than conversion of other religions. The you're OK, God has accepted you as you are, you only need to know God loves you, and all you must do is to be reconciled with everybody; these and similar ideas controlled the idea of soteriology.
But what a shock was in store for the reconcilers! With a bang liberation theology burst upon the scene. It declared no peace but war upon the oppressors, The Exodus became the great myth, the Christ with the whip in the temple, the redeemer. Everywhere one hears that God is the God of the poor and the oppressed.
In evaluating the emphasis on liberation, especially of the socially and politically oppressed, we might remind ourselves that our fathers once sang "O Lord make us free" (Psalter Hymnal No. 312). And no doubt they meant from the Spanish tyranny! We praise the religious zeal for liberty of another day, while showing indifference to contemporary injustice. The Christian must be concerned and involved. We shall be involved, but not confused. And confusion reigns in liberation theology.
Back to the Bible
The contemporary secularized ideals of much modern soteriology can best be met by a renewed study of the Bible. There is a new hermeneutics which is fatal to the true doctrine of salvation. Men like Herman Ridderbos in his The Coming of the Kingdom have continued the kind of service once given by Gerhardus Vos. This is what we need — a sound Biblical theology. In the U.S. Biblical studies are, moreover, complicated by the prevalence of dispensationalism. Are there two salvations? One for the Jews and another for the Church? In fact, the way we apply Scripture to the present or the future will influence our soteriology.
What does "salvation" mean? There are many popular ways of expressing an answer. We speak about going to heaven or not going to hell. Others emphasize having one's sins forgiven or having eternal life. Perhaps in the language of the current fad, being "born again" is another way of saying being saved.
Many a preacher, no doubt, is most earnestly urging his auditors to be saved without telling them what it means. Mostly it seems to be something easily had with little or no knowledge or effort. In fact, it might not be as popular if its nature were better known.
In doctrine and creeds
Dogmatics calls the doctrine about salvation soteriology. In consulting Berkhofs Systematic Theology one finds many definitions but not one comprehensive one on what salvation is. Rather, we have to go back to Christology to find "the salvation in Christ" which becomes ours in the process of personal appropriation. To get the whole picture we would have to put together what is said about justification and sanctification and also take a glance at glorification. By this time we have become aware of a very real problem in studying doctrine by six loci or areas. I have not discovered a better way, but I sometimes have some difficulty putting the parts together. After all, the Christian concepts of salvation may truly be so deep and broad that no simple definition can do justice to it.
The Heidelberg Catechism gives a clear picture of what it means to be saved. One might almost be satisfied with the first answer. But soon we realize that there are some areas not covered in this most amazing summary of a Christian's comfort.
The Canons of Dordt contain the most elaborate statement about God's great saving work. The real concern here was not some philosophical position, but an accurate Scriptural description of how God's people are saved. The question was: Who saves and how? But here too the answer is neither simple nor concise.
Scripture contains many beautiful texts that come close to defining salvation. Here, too, much searching and study may be required: Ridderbos in his The Coming of the Kingdom has made an excellent analysis of Christ's teaching about salvation (pp. 211-284). Another great NT scholar warns us that it is not always easy to determine just what the Gospel means by "to save." Writing about the Saviour in the Self Disclosure of Jesus Vos says:
It is not, however so easy as it might seem to determine the sense connected by Jesus and the evangelists with the term 'to save.' 'Saving' is one of those conceptions which by its very commonness of usage have suffered attrition of meaning and have lost the sharp contours of their original import. The average sense connected with the term in the present day religious mind is the very general one of deliverance, without any very real reflection upon either the 'where from' or the 'where to'. On the whole, the negative sense predominates in a more or less hazy apprehension.
Self Disclosure of Jesus p. 256
Perhaps a consideration of Vos' and Ridderbos' study can help us penetrate this haze of generality!