Monday, April 20, 2015

Salvation Made Simple: The Mystery Revealed

The idea of salvation has been complicated on one hand, and overly simplified on the other. Take a moment to define salvation for yourself. . . . chances are you came up with a statement like 'accepting Jesus', 'asking for forgiveness', 'asking Jesus to be your personal Lord and Savior', or 'saying the prayer of repentance.' What do these actually mean, and how does that actually save someone? Too often we think we are saved by some weird sort of allegiance we give to 'Jesus'.  As if our small amount of will power in positioning ourselves alongside Jesus changes God's perspective about us.  Let me be clear, Jesus is not calling us to have faith in Him in order to change God. Jesus is God's mind made up about us, and it is our faith that allows us to see it. 

 What are we saved from? Again answers are given  that are vague and elusive. 'Saved from the devil', 'saved from our sins', 'saved from hell', again these statements aren't wrong, but don't necessarily give us the depth of understanding how this actually plays out in our human experience.  Let's just say it is hard to 'nail down' what salvation is really about, thankfully that has already been done for us.  

I want to try and simplify what it means to 'be saved', and at the same time I want to show how it is shrouded in such mystery that our pat answers barely scratch its' surface. Jesus Christ is the 'mystery revealed' (1 Corinthians 2:7), and it is in Him that we find the true meaning of salvation. 

Jesus says it this simply, "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3). What is eternal life? Knowing the Father. There is only one problem with that, "No one knows the Father (Matthew 11:27)."  They definitely knew a God, and related with Him throughout the Old Testament, but Jesus is very clear in saying that nobody actually knows the one true God.  It is here that we start our journey into understanding salvation. God's will for mankind is for us to come to know Him, which proceeds the fact that we do not currently know Him. God accomplishes this by entering into our world to reveal Himself in the midst of our confusion and brokenness.

This is the essence of what Jesus came to accomplish on earth, to reveal God to us. "All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matthew 11:27)." Being saved then, is coming to know who God actually is! Who did we think He was before? And how does knowing who He is now save us? Well to answer that we must go back to the very beginning

In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth.  Elohim is plural, the first sign that the center of God's being is relational.  We see the Spirit hovering over the waters, and John shows us that in the beginning was the Word (Jesus) and the word was with God (John 1). Jesus also talks about being with the Father before the world was created in John 17. The apostle Paul goes further in telling us this, "For in him (Jesus) all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him (Colossians 1:16)." Creation started with a relational God; it is the Father, Son, and Spirit that collaborate together to bring things into being. 

This is essential, for we see later in Genesis that God created humankind in His image (Genesis 1:26). In what way are we made in His likeness? We were created to be in relationship, both man and woman He created us.  We are created to have unbroken fellowship with a God that knows nothing but connection, wholeness, and safe relationship; out of this flows the relationships we have with other people. The 'fall' then, was the breakdown of these relationships.  Satan deceived humanity by planting a seed of doubt about God's goodness. He imputed to us insecurity by telling us we could become 'like' God even though we were already made in His image. The fall keeps progressing further when Adam blames Eve for their mistake, causing a rift in their perfect connection. No longer can they stand naked and unashamed, instead, realizing their nakedness they are filled with shame.  

Adam and Eve flee to the bushes. Filled with self-loathing, shame, pride, and hurt, they now perceive God through a lens of their own making. God walks right into the Garden looking for them, but they, in their own brokenness can do nothing to please the god they believe Him to be. So instead of fessing up to their mistakes and asking for forgiveness, they make excuses, play the victim, and cast blame. In an act of mercy, God sends them from the garden so they do not eat of the tree of life, which would cause them to stay in their brokenness forever. Out of their brokenness, shame, anger, and selfishness, humanity created a God in their own image; a distant, solitary, deity that demands some sort of act on their part to appease him.  In comes pagan religion, volcano gods and other nature gods that inspire fear, obedience, and sacrifice in order to receive blessing or to escape destruction.  This is what God has to work with, and work with it He does. 

Because He is love, God (Elohim) can only be purposed towards one end, to reconcile humanity to Himself. He seeks to break into humanities fallen identity to accomplish three goals. 1) To reveal Himself to be who He is in all goodness, love, and wholeness. 2) To reveal to humanity who they actually are, bearers of His own likeness who are created to live a life of abundant freedom. 3) To help people see and treat others in accordance to their divine origin and not with their current worldly standard.

In order to help us see these things in truth, God needed to work with us in our fallen state. He needed to use a form of communication that we would understand and that could eventually lead us to see Him as He actually is. In comes the Levitical law, the practice of sacrifices and burn offerings, and the order of the priesthood. God works within the constraints of the brokenness of His children, by allowing them to have kings, to build a temple for Him to live in, and to ultimately create a system within which, they feel comfortable to engage Him in.  All this God allows and uses in order to reveal Himself later on. 

We see a beautiful picture of this early on in the Old Testament. God starts his redemptive work with a pagan named Abram, who He later names Abraham. Abraham means 'Father of a multitude' (imagery of God's true identity already being expressed).  God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, who was born according to a promise from God Himself.  Although this is a very challenging request, it would not be unusual for Abraham's understanding; all god's required sacrifice and obedience in order to be appeased. Abraham chooses to obey god. Abraham takes Isaac all the way to the mountain, and at the apex of his religious obedience God stops him. You see, God needed to take Abraham to the deepest part of his misconception about God.  He needed to get real and personal. Abraham's lost mentality was never so evident as when he became willing to kill his own child out of religious duty. It is there, and only there that Abraham would have a chance to see God for who He actually is.  God, with a prophetic act of things to come, provides the sacrifice rather then demanding it, a ram caught in a thorn bush (Christ with a crown of thorns). He breaks apart the pagan understanding of an angry deity in the sky, revealing himself to be the provider and lover of the human race. 

This is Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice that brings an end to the whole system of works. A system put in place only as a way to communicate to a confused and lost humanity. God set humanity up, constantly working with His children to speak in a language we would understand. He provides the final sacrifice and brings an end to the curse of our perpetual struggle. Jesus, the lamb slain before the foundations of the world, enters into our brokenness, stretches His arms wide, and with His dying breath, pulls our old selves and our old perception into the grave with Him. With His resurrection we rise with Him in newness of life, our old selves have been put to death with Him, and we become new creations in Him. 

"Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?  Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves (John 14:6-11)."

Jesus came to reveal the Father whom nobody knew. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15). When we see Jesus we see the Father in truth, and He definitely challenges the way we think god ought to be. God is not an angry deity wanting us to jump through the hoops of religion and moral reform in order to gain His pleasure; He is a God of other centered love who has always been in relationship with us His children. We see in Christ that God would do anything to reconcile us to Himself.  Because of our fallen state God needed to meet us in our brokenness before we would be able to see Him in all his completeness; He does this by doing the very opposite of what we think a god should do.  Rather than demanding our subservience, He submitted Himself to us and embraced us at our worst point. 

Jesus let go of His divinity and God stepped into the world as a man (Philippians 2:6). He came to reveal Himself to those who did not seek Him, to a people who did not know Him (Romans 10:20). He submitted himself to the harsh judgement and brokenness of His own children. "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:11)." Our shame, brokenness, and insecurity did not know how to deal with a God who showed mercy instead of justice, a God who came to meet man rather than demanding man meet Him. Out of our own bondage the human race persecuted, tortured, and murdered a God they could not understand or accept; and in their act of judgement, God united Himself to humanity. The very act of our damnation was the occasion for our salvation. In one fell swoop God took all the sin of the world by using it as the necessary ingredient of our inclusion in Him. "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6)."  

It is not sinners in the hands of an angry God, it is God in the hands of angry sinners (Baxter Kruger). God  is love in the purest form, because of that He is willing to submit to the rejection of His own creation in order to convince us of His good pleasure towards us.  Jesus is God's ultimate yes to mankind, and in Christ the Father displays His true nature and character.  Jesus' Father is a God of love, mercy, forgiveness, joy, and purity; He is for us, not against us, and nothing can separate us from His love. He is the lover of the entire world, and the redeemer of every person. He has already met us in our weakness, He has already united Himself in our own brokenness. "He died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8)."

You see, our faith is merely coming to know who God actually is. Knowing Jesus is knowing the true nature of God and His commitment and love for us, as opposed to thinking He is a disapproving score keeper who keeps us at arms length waiting for us to break a rule.  Our salvation is the salvation from our own dead works of religion, our striving and straining to please a God that we believe is distant and eternally disapproving. Our faith acknowledges the fact that God is for us, that He isn't keeping tabs, and that He remembers our sin no more.  When we believe in Jesus we are saved from a lifestyle of religion, of self effort, and of perpetual insecurity. 

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father (Romans 8:15)."

Not only does Jesus show us the true nature of the Father, but as in a mirror we see our true nature reflected in Him. "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children (Romans 8:16)." The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus in us, He helps us to see our holiness, our purpose, and our unbreakable, unchanging union with God. In Jesus our old way of living and self-perceptions fall away because they can no longer co-exist with the truth we now recognize.  Our minds are renewed to see God in truth, and as we gaze at Him we see ourselves in truth as well.  

Now our 'Christian' journey is one of discovery, of moving from Glory to Glory as we are increasingly transformed into the image of Jesus. Or, in other words, we are realizing and becoming who we were meant to be all along. "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.  But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)."

Just like there are three persons in the trinity, there is a third reality that is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The incarnate God also reveals the true nature of all humanity. God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the cosmos to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). He didn't just die for my sins, or meet only me in my depravity, but He 'died for the sins of the whole world.' Now we see no one according to the flesh, but according to Him and who He has revealed us to be (2 Corinthians 5:16).  Since we now know the one true God as revealed by Jesus, we can proclaim the good news of our reconciliation; inviting people to participate and experience God for who He actually is. "For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died (2 Corinthians 5:14)."

 As a result of our union with with the trinity our whole lives take on new qualities like love, peace, joy, and hope. This is what makes us the light and salt of the world.  Knowing the truth about who God actually is sets us free, and we are able to live in that freedom. That freedom permeates our lives which in turn announces the glorious good news of Jesus Christ to those around us.  What does that freedom look like? It looks like a life lived without fear, anxiety, and worry.  It looks like making decisions that are grounded in wholeness and truth. It looks like hope and an expectation for good. It looks positive, inventional, and joyful relationships; filled with wisdom and thanksgiving. Faith looks like the object other centered love. 

Thinking of faith in Jesus and salvation is this way, helps us understand hard scripture passages like in 1 John where it says, 'If we do not love our brother then the love of Christ is not in us.' Or 'If we keep on sinning we make Him out to be a liar and the truth is not in us.' These passages are not demanding us to try to will power our way into a free and loving lifestyle, they are simply emphasizing the reality that in Christ we necessarily see the world differently and live in accordance to what we see. We have complicated so many things about Christianity by trying to simplify it into a system we can easily 'apply' to ourselves. The Gospel cannot be applied it can only be experienced.  The Gospel doesn't demand faith it produces it. 

The Christian life is not about asking Jesus into our hearts, it is about realizing the fact that He has wrapped us up in His heart  "If it is our job to get Jesus into our lives then we will spend our entire life trying to get Him in; and the rest of it, trying to convince ourselves that He is actually there (Baxter Kruger)." When Jesus talks about returning to the Father so that the Holy Spirit can come He says, "On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (John 14:20)." The Holy Spirit's job is to show us our true redeemed image, and to know that our Father has been with us, and for us all along. We all will see it, and we will all realize how much we have gotten it wrong.

When the Apostle Paul realizes the truth of the Father, he doesn't say he was 'converted'; he says that 'God was pleased to reveal His son 'in' me (Galatians 1:16). That is salvation, that is the mark of a believer. We do not make it happen, our faith does not save us.  Salvation is simply to know Jesus.  To know Jesus means to know that he is God's stamp of approval on us as His children, no matter what we have done. Knowing Jesus is to know that our silly failures and even sillier performances do nothing to change his perspective on us. Salvation is not a transaction that we participate in. 

 It is not as if our verbal, emotional, or spiritual 'allegiance' to Jesus makes God change His mind about us. When we think like that we are rejecting the very essence of who Jesus is! Allegiance mentality is basically paganism; it is thinking that if we offer God something worthy He will treat us different. It is this mentality that Jesus proved is absolutely wrong about God! An allegiance mentality causes us to think ridiculous things like, 'if I go to church God will treat me better', 'if I say my prayers Jesus will bless me'. We then start getting cross tattoos, putting pictures of Jesus on our walls, and making sure we say 'under God' extra proudly when we say the pledge of allegiance.  We think if we 'live by the bible' and politically align ourselves with people who say they are Christian we are doing God some sort of service. It is disgusting.  When asked, 'are you a christian', our system of allegiance has people believing they are if they 'go to church', 'pray', or 'went through confirmation'.  We understand belief in Jesus to be some sort of mental assent, when if we actually believed in Jesus we would see that God was never in the condemning business to begin with, and that not only is he satisfied with me but he has rested from all of his works!

This altogether 'simple' way of looking at salvation has given us an 'us and them' mentality that is a religious breeding ground. Faith in Jesus should produce in us hope, love, joy, and goodwill towards everyone; instead we often see 'Christians' battling over petty arguments, defending Jesus as if God is in danger from the world, jumping on a political bandwagon, and creating a lifestyle rooted in elitist pride. We see insiders and outsiders, feel proud for making 'our choice for Jesus', and miss the boat when it comes to what Jesus has revealed about the true nature of both God and humanity. Listen, all of our religious striving, all of that activity motivated by fear, envy, pride, and shame, find their end when we believe in Jesus.  When we see Jesus, we see the Father, and all of our comparison driven lifestyles fall away and are replaced with peace and joy. When we see Him we are at rest, when we know Him we are set free. "The Gospel is nothing more than laughter and joy (Martin Luther)."

Likewise evangelism is not some work that God needs us to do on His behalf. It is the natural consequence of our own realization of reality. We love because He first loved us. We do not produce or manufacture it Godly character or love, we just reflect it (2 Corinthians 3). 

So rest in Him today.  Allow your mind to be renewed to who God actually is; a loving Father who knows nothing but unencumbered, unconditional relationship. A Father who has united you to Himself at your worst, a Father who has displayed Himself to you through His son, and a Father who has invited you to participate in His life and love through His Holy Spirit; truly a life of abundance (John 10:10).

Are you still interacting with Him as if He is far away and solitary. Are you seeking to please Him by posturing yourself a certain way, thinking you need to sacrifice your life in order to get Him to bless you? Do you picture a god not interested in your affairs, and demanding you to jump through certain hoops in order to get him to intervene on your behalf? He does not demand our worship, our prayers, or our wimpy attempts at mustering up faith. He is inviting you and I to see Him in truth, to see ourselves in truth, and to watch His life permeate our own. Knowing the Father is eternal life, our salvation is simple and yet very mysterious. Jesus, the mystery hidden for ages, has been revealed as the savior of the human race.  Our salvation is far more real and tangible then we could ever hope to imagine. 

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him (John 14:6-7)."

To dig deeper, read Jesus prayer in the garden in John 17 before His crucifixion.  It is quite powerful with this perspective.