Sunday, February 24, 2008

Christian Unity and the Nature of Salvation

The Bishop preached this morning and he used the Old Testament text: Exodus 17. The very last verse of that struck me, v7:

He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Is the Lord among us or not? This has been a theme very much on my mind of late in relation to my dealings with other people – well, other Christians, to be precise. At college the other students are mainly Anglican, although there is also a Methodist and of course, me, holding up the honour of the Lutheran Church. When I look at the Anglicans, there are students representing all shades, from High Church to New Expressions via Evangelicalism and with at least one student from alternative Episcopal oversight and a no–women-in-ministry parish. There is, in short, no specific Anglican identity and a variety of liturgical and theological positions. Nevertheless we get on extremely well and the challenge of the variety and different perspectives is enriching.

It strikes me that the respectful and supportive group dynamic derives from the fact that we meet regularly and face to face, both in lectures and in social time. It is hard to fall out with someone who differs from you when both of you have a commitment to finding the wider areas of common agreement rather than dwelling on the small areas of disagreement. Do we agree on the precise nature of the theology of the Eucharist? Probably not. Baptism? Again no. The role of women in the Episcopate? Not a universal common view there either. Do I assume then, that because we don’t agree with each other – or more to the point that they don’t agree with me – that they can not really be Christians and therefore not saved? Unequivocally not. There can be few other people whose call to Christian service has been tested as much or for as long as a group of ordinands.

Equally, though, I would not make that assumption about any other Christian and this has raised the question asked of me and by me of others recently in the blogosphere:

What is the nature of salvation?

There seem to be a number of positions in the New Testament and the one I favour is “Believe and be baptised.” (Mark 16.16) but that raises other issues such as “Believe what?” or “Believe in what?” So here goes:

• Rom 3.23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The premise of sin, old fashioned as the vocabulary is, is surely impossible to argue against if we have any self awareness.
• John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” This goes for me with John 14.6: “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”
• Eph 2.8-9:”It is by grace you have been saved through grace…not because of works lest any man should boast.”
• John the Baptist preached a gospel of repentance and salvation as did Mark in Mark 1.15: “Repent and believe in the Gopel.”
• Rom 10.9:”If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

So we come to an awareness of our fractured relationship with God and the need to put it right. Except we learn we can’t put it right on our own and the mechanism has been provided for us by God, the subsitutionary death of God himself in Christ to atone for our sins. The innocent suffering for the guilty. Herein lies the interface between the prompting of the Holy Spirit and Free Will. Will we listen and believe? Of course herein also lies the justification for evangelism. Some people hear and believe, some seem not to hear but come to faith later, often much later, and some hear and reject the Gospel, which is the teaching of the Parable of the Sower.

So, assuming there has been a conversion experience, what do we expect next?

• I am a great fan of Philippians 2.12-13:"Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling." There is a terrible responsibility on each of us to seeks God’s will and guidance.
• James 2.18: "I will show you my faith by my works" So there is an outward demonstration of that saving faith. This is not about good works but about obedient discipleship. This is backed up by Galatians 5.22f which lists the fruit of the Spirit, which offers some areas where we should see change.
• Yet we are still human and fail constantly. This side of the grave there is no perfection and temptation takes its toll as we continue to make mistakes and get it wrong. We are, as Luther would later put it, saint and sinner at the same time, saved yet sinning. We can not continue to indulge in sin without open remorse, yet our fallen natures often get the better of us. Heb 12.8: The Holy Spirit always convicts the believer of unrepentant sin.

Now there may be more, but for me that sums it up. In short: repent, believe, be saved by grace, show the change in your life but recognise that you are still vulnerable to temptation. Be open to the spirit, continue to repent and seek the strength of the Spirit to grow more into the likeness of the Saviour.

Wow, I have turned my blog into a tool of evangelism.

Now then dear guest: over to you. Have I got this right? Would you disagree (not so much with the text as with the theology)? What have I missed? What would you add or remove? Are these ideas common to different denominations or even within the same denomination depending on churchmanship.

What are the fundamentals of our common faith to you?

He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord saying “Is the Lord among us or not?”