Friday, July 5, 2013

Salvation Is Now

I posted the following image on my Facebook page a while back, and it has attracted some interest. I think this image communicates beautiful truths in a clever and artful way. It is from Greg Boyd's ReKnew ministry.
ReKnew Poster
When I posted this image, I really didn't expect it to offend anyone who is a Christian. Apparently there were two statements on this poster that were more controversial than I ever thought they would be. I'll deal with one in this post and the second one later. You can see the image on my Facebook page and read the discussion at this link.

The first statement that caused some controversy was this: "Salvation is about your now life, not your afterlife." I think some people concluded from that statement that I don't believe in an afterlife. I really hate that confusion arose because of that. Let me be as clear as I know how to be. I believe in eternal life for the saved. God will raise the bodies of believers and give us an immortal body that is not subject to sickness, decay, or death. I can't really think of any other points that are more clearly set forth in the Bible.

So, what is the meaning of "salvation is about your now life, not your afterlife"? I believe that the reward of salvation is a very misunderstood concept. Yes, eternal life is a reward, but in what sense is it a reward? We often think of a reward as some sort of pat on the back for doing a job well. Whether that "pat on the back" is a bonus for going above and beyond at work or giving a treat to my cat for fetching (yes, my cat does fetch), we often think of a reward as something someone gets for doing something good. That is certainly a correct sense in which to use the word, "reward". However, when we consider the reward that accompanies salvation, that sense of the word falls incredibly far short, maybe even to the point of being inaccurate. When we treat the reward as arbitrary, as separate from the good work, we misunderstand both the work and the reward.

If your brain works at all like mine, there is something very distasteful about being a Christian just for the sake of what you can get out of it. When you consider what being a Christian is about, serving others expecting nothing in return, it makes even less sense to be a Christian for the "reward". And being a Christian just to avoid the punishment of not being one, that even approaches utter nonsense to me. It's a complete contradiction. How can self-preservation be the main reason I follow a Man whose ultimate act was completely giving of Himself for the good of others? It's nonsense. Being a Christian is NOT about self-preservation.

So, in what sense, then, can we say (as the Bible says, yes even as Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, says) that there is a reward to following Jesus? The reward of Christianity is organically, intrinsically connected to the work. I'd like to use a couple of analogies to help make this point.

First, consider marriage, and marriage is a prominent analogy for God's relationship to His people in Scripture. The reward of marriage is intrinsic to the relationship. I do good for my wife, not so that she will say, "Well done," or so that she'll do something good for me, but because I genuinely want to do good for her. The reward is in the doing! The relationship itself is the reward. And I enjoy when she does good for me, not primarily for the good I get out of it, but because I know she wants to do good for me and it brings her joy to work with me in our marriage for the good of our family. If she stopped doing good for me (something I can't imagine, but let me set it forth as a possibility), then I would still want to do good for her and would still find that rewarding. My marriage is NOT about me, and neither is my relationship with God.

Another analogy is my running. At my level, what is the reward of racing? I once won a 5k race and got a big trophy. I'll keep that trophy as long as I live. But that trophy, while a reward, is not THE reward for running. That trophy is not why I trained and competed. My reward is intrinsic to the running itself and the accomplishments that come with the running. And, this analogy is also Biblical. In 1 Cor. 9:24-25, Paul compares the crown of winning a race to the imperishable crown of working for the sake of the gospel. Just as the physical, perishable crown isn't the only (or even the truest) reward for winning a race, the imperishable crown isn't the only reward for working for the gospel. This is made more emphatic by considering that 1 Cor. 9:24-25 is in an overall context of giving up of oneself for the sake of others. That is a lesson that the Corinthians desperately needed, and chapters 8-10 are all about giving up yourself and your rights for the good of others. The reward of giving up yourself is intrinsic to the giving up of yourself.

The reward of being a Christian is not a disembodied soul fleeing to heaven. The reward is not an arbitrary pat on the back unrelated to the work that was done. As we have seen, the reward is in the doing itself and it is far and above any direct or equivalent payment for doing the work. And yes, being a Christian is work. It's a relationship, and relationships require work. Anyone who thinks that you can be a Christian without working at it misunderstands the nature of relationships and the nature of following Jesus.

The eternal reward, then, will include serving God and serving others and reigning and doing so in a resurrected immortal body. I don't know exactly what that will look like, but I know it will be much better than I can imagine. And there will be work to do and it will be rewarding. To be sure, what happens in our afterlife is extremely important. My intention isn't to set that aside. The Bible has a lot to say about the afterlife. But my point is that the afterlife is not an arbitrary pat on the back for doing good in this life. The afterlife is intrinsically connected to the now life. Here are a few verses to chew on that show that salvation is indeed about our work in our "now life". A half dozen passages come to mind without much effort... Rom. 6:4; 2 Cor. 6:2; Eph. 2:10; Col. 3:8-15; Gal. 5:25; 1 Cor. 15:58; etc.

Having clarified what I mean by "Salvation is about your now life, not your after life", I think that most of the confusion came from a figure of speech. By saying, "not your afterlife", the poster used hyperbolic contrast to emphasize salvation in the now. This is actually a very common figure of speech and it occurs often in the Bible, most often in a "Not... But..." construct.

Notice a very similar figure of speech that Jesus used. In Matt. 10:34, He said, "I came not to send peace but a sword." Now, we know that Jesus is the Prince of peace (Is. 9:6) and that He came to bring peace (Luke 2:14). But in this context Jesus is emphasizing that there would be strife within families because some would believe and some would reject Him. This is to be expected and is not a sign of defeat and the disciples on this limited commission need not be discouraged by it. Jesus likens this strife to the sword. "Not peace but a sword". Jesus wasn't saying that peace was not part of His message. Indeed it is and is a very important part of it. Similarly, rephrasing the statement on the poster to parallel Jesus's words in Matt. 10:34 yields "not your after life, but your now life." It's a figure of speech, emphasizing the truth that salvation produces tangible and radical change in your life right now.

This type of figure of speech appears throughout the New Testament and throughout language in general. Paul, after saying that he had baptized some in Corinth says, "God did not send me to baptize but to preach." Clearly baptizing was part of what Paul was to do. Peter told Ananias and Sapphira, "You have not lied to men but to God." Well, actually, they had lied to both. Jesus said "Do not lay up treasures on earth but in heaven." He didn't mean that we can't have a savings account. I could go on and on, but you should see that this is a very common figure of speech with biblical precedent.

I wish that hadn't caused confusion, but I really thought that was obviously a figure of speech. I had no idea that someone would interpret that to mean that I don't believe in an afterlife. I don't even know of anyone claiming to be Christian who teaches that.