Disciples of Christ and the Nature of Salvation

 With this essay, I am picking up my ongoing exploration of Disciples of Christ theology (knowing that Disciples have struggled with the entire idea of doing theology). With this post I explore in brief the concept of salvation, a posting that picks up from the previous conversations on sin.  


               The Disciples of Christ identity statement defines the Disciples as a “movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” This identity statement is understood to be a reframing of the Disciple commitment to Christian unity to envision a broader commitment to engaging in ministries that bring healing and wholeness to the world. Without naming sin as a problem, this statement embraces both the reality of sin (brokenness) and the call to be witnesses to God’s gracious provision of salvation in Christ, a provision we celebrate at the Lord’s Table. This vision is missional in intent, and connects the call to the table with Peter’s invitation to repentance and baptism as expressed in Acts 2:38, a passage that has deep roots in Disciples experience. The message is simple, if one wishes to be saved, then one is called to repent, be baptized, so as to receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

                If the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world, and if this identity statement is an expression of God’s provision of salvation, what might this look like? I’d like to explore three biblical images that might help us better define what salvation might entail: new creation, restoration, and healing. this might mean for us.

  • New Creation/ Born Again

I’ll begin with the idea of new creation, which in John is expressed in the phrase “born again.” The concept of being born again is derived from John 3, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he isn’t “born again,” (or born from above) he “cannot see the kingdom of God." Although this phrase is overused in contemporary Christianity, and is often linked to a specific brand of Protestantism, it is still an important image. That is because it speaks of starting over. It speaks of new beginnings. Nicodemus had difficulties understanding what this meant, but Jesus helps him understand that transformation requires a spiritual rebirth. There is a similarity between the idea of being born anew and being a new creation, which is Paul’s term for what happens in the encounter with Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

  • Restored Relationships

The idea of restoration has played a prominent role within Disciples tradition. In fact, parts of the tradition speak of a Restoration Movement. While, this phrase is most often used to speak of a restoration of New Testament practices, it can also speak to relationships with God and humanity being restored to their proper position. When we speak of a fragmented world, we speak in relational terms. Sin is a distortion of the human relationship with God, with humanity, and with creation. The message of salvation is that this distortion can be reversed. Another way of looking at this question is through the lens of restoration. The image of God, which has been defaced by sin, is restored to its original condition—thereby enabling us to resume our relationships with God, with humanity, and with creation. This is the message of this passage from Paul, who writes powerfully that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). Although, we maybe alienated from God because of sin, the good news is that God has restored us to right relationship in Christ (Rom. 5:10-11, Col. 1:19-20). To experience restoration in these facets of our existence is to embrace the two great commandments: Love God with our entire being and love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mt. 22: 34-40). The two statements have both spiritual and social implications. As we read in 1 John: “If you cannot love your brother or sister, who you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see” (I John 4:20-21). 

  • Healing

There has been a tendency among Christians to define salvation in terms of paying a debt to God so that we can experience the afterlife. This is the point of “penal substitutionary atonement” theory. Put simply, we owe a debt we cannot pay. Jesus pays a debt he did not owe (with his blood), so if we will accept this payment we’ll get into heaven (though we deserve hell). While this vision is widely held, I’m not sure it is the best way to understand what happens in Christ. I think that the Biblical definition is much broader, and has this world application. The Greek word for salvation as used in the New Testament (sozo) can refer to both physical and spiritual healing. Consider that in the story of the healing of the hemorrhaging woman. What we hear in Luke is that the woman’s faith made her well (sozo). Immediately afterward, Jesus tells Jairus that his daughter will be saved (Luke 8:48-50). The implication here is that she will be restored to physical life. In another case, the word refers to the healing of a leper (Luke 17:19). Of course, the term is used in terms of forgiveness of sins (Luke 7:50), but even here the idea is relational. 

For our purposes I’m not going to rehearse the various atonement theories. As Disciples, we are invited to hear scripture, and scripture does not provide any definitive atonement theories, least of all penal substitutionary atonement. William Robinson, writing for British Churches of Christ (as Disciples were known in England at the time), makes this clear:
So far as the work of Jesus Christ, accomplished through the Incarnation and the Cross, is concerned, emphasis has always been placed on His redeeming work. But Churches of Christ have refused to make theories of the Atonement part of the Faith. The fact that Jesus died for our sins has been accepted by all, but no theories have been advanced. [What Churches of Christ Stand For, (The Berean Press, 1946), pp. 90-91].
The many atonement theories, ranging from ransom to satisfaction, seek to explain the claim that the cross has redemptive properties. How that occurs is not altogether clear, nor is clarity here needed. The point being that ultimately what we call salvation is rooted in the grace of God who continually reaches out, seeking to restore broken relationships, including the divine/human relationship. It’s also clear that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is part of that outreach.

                The Disciple mission statement speaks of being a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world. We have defined our mission in terms of restoring broken relationships with God and humanity. We affirm our place in God’s outreach. We do not save, but we bear the message. That message has universal import. While some Disciples are universalists, by which I mean they believe that in the end all of creation will be restored to God’s purposes—no one will be lost—not all take this view. What is true for Disciples, traditionally, is that however we understand atonement, it is universally available. In other words, God has not chosen some for salvation and damnation for others.

     The question that confounds us, especially we who are actively engaged in interfaith/interreligious dialog, is whether salvation requires confession of faith in Christ (as seemingly required by a strict reading of Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name by which we must be saved.”).  In interpreting and applying the text, the differences have centered on the concept of election. For some, especially those who take their lead from Augustine, Luther, and Calvin—God determines who will respond in faith. There are others, linked in part to people like James Arminius, John Wesley, and Alexander Campbell, who would suggest that the offer is open to all, but all must make the choice for themselves.

Christians have understood the question of salvation in diverse ways. For some, the way to God is narrow, and Scripture affirms such a vision (Lk 13:22-30; Mt. 7:13-14). On the other hand, there intriguing passages that suggest a broader view. Consider for instance a passage such as this from Paul: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18). One could read this in such a way that Paul believes that even as the first Adam plunges us into sin, the Second Adam restores humanity to the pre-fall state of relationship to God. The emphasis here falls on the word “all.” Even as all share in the first Adam’s fall, we all share in the Second Adam’s act of righteousness.”

                The argument for universal salvation ultimately rests not on a specific set of biblical texts, but rather upon one’s definition of God’s nature.  If it is assumed that God is love, then is it possible that God would, in the end, discard anyone? To put it another way, if God is portrayed as a loving parent, can we truly believe that God would reject one’s own child—no matter what. So, when it comes to our ultimate destiny, we might take to heart this word from Disciples theologian Joe Jones, who writes of our experience of divine grace: “Being raised to life beyond death is a gift of God and is neither a natural attribute of being human nor an earned reward for a righteous life.” He goes on to write:
When all things are subjected to the work of Jesus Christ, they will be subjected by the transforming power of the triune God who incarnately and ultimately refuses to count the sins of the world against it and who graciously redeems all creatures. Joyfully, God’s power and grace are the final and ultimate determiners of the meaning and destiny of human life. God speaks and enacts an unceasing triumphant yes to the world. [Joe Jones, “Salvation,” in Chalice Introduction toDisciples Theology, Peter Goodwin Heltzel, ed., (Chalice Press, 2008), p. 202.] 

                The question of salvation, in all its ramifications, will continue to garner our attention as Christians. It is clear, however, that even as sin is more than individual transgressions, salvation is more than a means of gaining entry to heaven. It is also clear that the way we understand salvation will be determined by how we view God. From a Disciples perspective, there is no definitive answer as the meaning and nature of salvation. The Disciples tradition points to Scripture as the key to answering the questions, with each person invited to engage scripture in conversation with the community, in light of tradition, reason, and experience.  


JesseHanson said…
Very detailed and informative article on the topic. i know it is not easy to write on this topic, but i am impressed with your effort. Keep up the good work folks...

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