Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 11 – Assurance of Salvation or What Sort of God Do You Worship?

Posted: July 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

In the Christian circles in which I move, a question of “assurance” often surfaces. That was never a question that troubled me, so it took me a while to discern why it seemed to be an issue for so many. I finally realized that, like so many other questions, it was a matter of how you viewed ultimate reality and how you perceived God. To return to the metaphor of the two-story house, the assurance many people seem to be seeking is the assurance that they will be allowed onto the second floor instead of being locked in the basement. In this picture, God is thus perceived as the ultimate arbiter deciding who goes where. He might be an angry God who will let you sneak onto the second floor if you’re hiding behind his son so he can’t see you. He might be a fair arbiter measuring the balance of good and evil in your life. He might have a checklist and will let you onto the second floor if you have the right boxes checked. Or he could be the arbitrary and capricious God of hard Calvinism who had the secret lists of “saved” and “damned” drawn up before the whole show began. But in this conception of reality, some sort of God like that is at work. And in the face of such a God, people seek assurance that he isn’t going to throw them in the basement.

But I don’t believe in that God. I’ve never believed in that God. As I’ve outlined in this series, I believe there will be a time when all creation is renewed, the veil between heaven and earth is no more, and God is fully revealed as all in all. Most importantly, I believe in resurrection and everything that resurrection implies. I believe in the good God who loves mankind. I believe in the God who became one of us so that we might be healed and be able to be one with him. I believe in the God who is not willing that any should perish. I believe in the God who has done and is doing everything that can be done in love to save every human being. I believe in a God of uncompromising love. I believe in the God we see in Jesus of Nazareth.

But as love does not seek its own way and does not coerce, since I’ve become Christian I’ve understood that the question is not and has never been whether or not God loves me and wants me. God’s answer to that question is and has always been an unchanging and unqualified yes. The question I must answer with my life is whether or not I love and want God. And that’s a very different question indeed. I have believed many things over the course of my life. I have changed my beliefs more than once. I know I want to want this unique God. But I also know myself too well to be “assured” that I will never change. The more I get to know this God, the less likely such a change seems, but I can’t have present certainty about my own future choices and decisions.

My particular group of Christians has a belief which, in the vernacular, is often rendered, “Once saved, always saved.” I think I’ve come to understand that what they actually mean is that once God puts your name on the guest list letting you onto the second floor, he’ll never scratch it out. And I suppose, if that’s your perception of God and reality, it might even be a comforting idea. You don’t have to worry that your name will be taken off the “nice” list and placed on the “naughty” list for something you have or haven’t done.

But I’ve never found the “once saved, always saved” idea anything less than appalling, though it took me some years to understand the underlying reasons I reacted so differently. To me, this concept portrayed first a God of love who extends an invitation to all human beings and freely allows them to respond as they will. So far, so good. But having once given your assent to this God, he then forces you to want him from that point onward. He changes from a God of love to a God of coercion. It’s as though that one-time assent becomes permission to rape my will from that point forward. We are supposed to find true freedom in Christ, but this is not freedom.

I’ll also note that the sort of absolute assurance people seem to be seeking doesn’t exist in our Holy Scriptures. It’s not because God changes or hides anything from us. It’s because we change and we lie to ourselves. A theme we often see in Jesus’ parables is one of surprise by everyone in the end. There will be people “saved” who never fully understood that the life they lived was one of service and love for Jesus. And there will be those who had convinced themselves they wanted Jesus only to discover that they really never wanted him at all. That lack of certainty has never bothered me. In fact, I see it as inevitable. It doesn’t reveal anything arbitrary about God. In fact, that’s the only view that sufficiently allows for both the love of God and for our own free will and capacity for delusion.

As a final thought on this topic, I’ll note that while the truncated view of God and salvation may have “worked” to some extent over the last few hundred years, it’s losing any effectiveness it might have had in our increasingly pluralistic world. It once was true in our part of the world that the perception of reality as a two-story house with a basement was something of a cultural default. And as such, all you really had to do was convince people to take whatever actions you thought needed to be taken to punch their ticket to the second story. Those days are fading and we are entering a period that in some ways is more like that of the ancient world. Before I became Christian, I believed different things at different points in my life, but none of them included the caricature of heaven and hell from the two-story universe with a basement perspective. Most of the time I believed in some form of transmigration of souls. In my more Hindu periods, I perceived the fact that we are reborn more as a problem than not. At other times, I perceived eternal rebirth as a beautiful cycle of life. Regardless, though, the question, “Do you know where you will go when you die?” never had much impact on me. Nor does it have much impact on me now. I simply don’t believe that question has anything to do with the Christian concept of salvation.


Beyond Justification 6 – What about assurance?

Posted: May 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 6 – What about assurance?

This will likely be the last post in this series. In it I want to explore something that is not actually a question or concern of mine, but which is a concern I’ve heard repeatedly expressed by a wide variety of people in various settings throughout my last decade and a half associated with Christianity. The question sometimes goes under the label “assurance of salvation”. At its core, it seems to be a question about how one knows with certainty that you are “saved”. And it seems to carry with it a great deal of stress for what seems to me to be many people if anything said about salvation threatens the basis for that certainty. The attentive will have noticed quite a few “seems” and similar qualifiers in this paragraph. That’s because the entire mindset that seems to be required to raise this as an issue is foreign to me. As such, it’s certainly very possible that some of the things I say will be off-base to one degree or another. Feel free to correct me where you believe I’ve misunderstood the concern.

By any measure, this is a pretty modern concern in any faith, not just Christianity. By and large, the idea that one could somehow manage any god so as to be absolutely certain of a given outcome seems strange. My guess is that as people came to believe they could take certain things discovered by modern science with absolute certainty (an idea I would question in all but relatively simple matters) they looked for the same thing from their faith. Also, given that Western Christianity largely reduced salvation to a juridical declaration, a verdict if you will, of guilty or not guilty, it may have seemed possible to know the verdict of the judge in advance. I will note that it strikes me as a little presumptuous, even under this reduced vision of salvation, to say that you know with certainty the verdict a judge will pronounce before the judge has actually made that pronouncement. But I’m sure those are my postmodern sensibilities intruding. 😉

However, given that salvation is truly defined in terms of relationship and orientation, there is little in the way of this forensic certainty while you are on the journey. I do not know my future. I do know that in the past I have moved both toward worshiping the God made known in Jesus and away from him, often deliberately following other spiritual paths. Since it is clear from our scriptures that, while our bodies will be made new and there will be an act of new creation that renews our identity, we will still be continuous with the person we have shaped ourselves to be in this life. If I turned from Christianity today and embraced a path worshiping Brahman (or perhaps a Deva such as Vishnu) in what sense would I ultimately necessarily still be shaped as a human being able to stand in the uncreated light of the love of the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth? I don’t anticipate making such a turn again, but then twenty years ago I never expected to be Christian. For good or ill, my ongoing life as my body sleeps for a time will be in some sense continuous with my life now. I cannot be one person now and some entirely different person then.

Does that mean that we, as Christians, have no assurance? Nonsense! We have the greatest assurance possible. We have God himself making his life a part of our lives, a part of who we are. He is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. And he is constantly working to relate to us. We have the God who loves us. Intimately.

But that is not some forensic certainty tied to some particular mental assent we may or may not have made to some set of ideas at some particular point in space and time. It’s the sort of certainty we develop in relationship. Here is the analogy in the terms in which I approach this question.

I know my wife loves me. I can’t prove that my wife loves me in the sort of way that some want to pin down God’s judgment of their lives. Heck, I can’t prove my wife’s love in any objective terms at all. But I have great assurance about her love. How?

Time together.

We have spent two decades now together with many more hopefully on the horizon. We have raised children. We’ve endured legal battles and extreme financial difficulties. We’ve had children doing great and we’ve had children struggling. We’ve been with each through all sorts of health issues. We share so much and are tied in so many ways that I have no doubt she loves me.

That’s the same sort of assurance I have that God loves me. Ours has not always been an easy path. We haven’t necessarily seen eye to eye (usually because I haven’t really understood him). But I look back and see all the love and care he has lavished on my life. I see in hindsight where he was at work to bring good even out of great evil over the course of my life. I trust him. How could I not? Can I prove it? No. Could I be mistaken? I suppose. But I don’t believe I am. I’m confident that he loves me.

And that’s the best answer I can give to the question of assurance. If you aren’t certain about God, practice a rule of life that helps you spend time with him, get to know him, relate to him. He’s a good God overflowing with love, kindness, and mercy.

Love God. Love others.

I wager you’ll find by living those two things out all the assurance you need.