Hey folks–I’ve spent two nights at Kawhaka Lodge, a small flyfishing hideaway run by Marj and Tony Allan near Hokitika.
The work: Tony is planting cranberries in huge rectangular sand beds. (When I asked him why he got interested in cranberries, he gave a mysterious and very Kiwi answer: “There’s a guy growing ’em up in Westport. So I went to take a look at ’em, and said, ‘That’ll be alright.'”) Like so many other Kiwis, he’s also had a diverse career life: chartered deep sea fishing in French Polynesia, sailing instructor, pioneer of fishnet manufacturing business based in Christchurch, and now private flyfishing guide and lodge owner. Marj, his other half, whips up some amazing smoked fish pie (= casserole) and has an extensive garden.
My quarters are in a cabin with it’s own primitive kitchen and bathroom–and wonderfully peaceful deck, which I spend as much time on as I can, given the sandflies’ taste for flesh. (Folks from Houston: sandflies are about ten times worse than mosquitoes.)
I worked from about 8am to 6pm yesterday, so Marj told me to take today off. So I tramped up Mt Tahua, near Lake Kaniere (about 30 minutes from Kawhaka Lodge), and caught my first glimpse of the Southern Alps–that most epic of mountain ranges.
As I hiked, I listened to a Tim Keller sermon called “Real Security and the Call of God.” TK was preaching on the life of Abraham in Genesis (particularly chapter 12). His main point was that the call of God is powerful, radical, and decisive (that last is my word–I stole it from Dostoyevsky) in the life of a believer. I began to think about a conversation I had with my friend Mark in Nelson–about how the phraseology of “getting saved” as a way of speaking about starting a relationship with Christ is no longer compelling (in fact, it is repulsive) to a lot of folks in my generation.
I think there are two good reasons why we should ditch the phrase “getting saved” as a description of starting a life with God.
First I’ll deal with one reason for its effective use: it is “biblical.” It comes from Romans 10:9: “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But let’s think for a moment how often and in how many different ways the Bible uses the words “save” and “salvation.” In the Psalms, “salvation” is primarily of a military character–God will save the army of Israel from its foes. These words are also used (in the Psalms, as in other OT and NT books) to speak of God’s ultimate act at the end of history, whereby he will restore blessing to Israel and to all nations through Israel.
Notice how Paul talks about being “saved” in the future tense: “you will be saved.” It is rather Jewish (Kim, Thomas–correct me if I’m wrong) to conceive of salvation as a future event, the agent of which is a radically free and gracious God. Note further the emphasis on the character of God. God is radically free, which means in his freedom he can choose to save anybody–not just those who think they are his “people” (consider John the Baptist’s words in Luke 3:8); and God is gracious, which means salvation comes by an act of grace–not an act of free will on the part of the individual.
While most folks who use the phrase “getting saved” to talk about conversion would agree to this characterization of God, they might not agree with the future aspect of salvation. This is not because they don’t buy the Jewish theology behind it; rather, it is because they have a perfectly natural inclination to affirm the sense of security that stems from thinking about salvation as a past event. I agree that it is important not to play the Puritan on this point: we don’t want to dangle eternal security in front of believers’ eyes and cause wonder and consternation about whether or not one has been eternally predestined to salvation or damnation. And I imagine Luther’s doctrine of justification was just this sort of project. Over against the Medieval emphasis on the status of one’s soul in God’s eyes at the time of death–which produced much agitation in the hearts of the German peasantry–Luther defined salvation as firstly justification in the sight of God, which occurs at the moment of faith. Now modern theology (both of the Rob Bell/emergent sort and the liberal mainline sort, though in different ways) has tended to emphasize the present tense of salvation over against this (now labeled) “fundamentalist” past tense. But why not shift it one tense over into the future? Why not make eschatology the locus for God’s decisive (there’s that word again…) act toward us? It is, in very fact, the decisive one precisely because it is the last one…
Alright–back to the call. My proposal is that using the phraseology of “the call” and “responding to the call” is a better way to talk about the Christian phenomenon of conversion than “getting saved.” Two reasons.
Number one. “The call” is a more biblically consistent way to talk about conversion. It spans the OT (think Abraham; think the introductions to all the prophetic books; think David called out of anonymity by Samuel, God’s prophet and priest) and the NT (think Jesus approaching Peter and the sons of Zebedee on the shores of the Sea of Galilee; think Saul on the road to Damascus), whereas “getting saved” is spoken of only intermittently and mysteriously to describe conversion or the beginning of one’s life as a follower of God.
Number two. It is more consistently descriptive in experience. Talk of “getting saved” always raises the hairy issue of apostasy and/or hypocrisy. If you’re “saved” once and for all, does that mean you have to live like a Christian? What if you renounce your faith–are you still “saved” once and for all? Granted: there are somewhat sophisticated answers to these questions from the standpoint of the “getting saved” phraseology (I’m sure at least Mark could come up with some…). But the point is that talk of “the call” and “responding to the call” is simply more effective in these circumstances.
Three events tested Abraham’s response to the call of God: leaving his father to set out for Canaan alone; Sarah’s barrenness and then conception; and the sacrifice of Isaac. At each one, Abraham could have scorned God’s call on his life and done something different. Does that mean he would have lost his “salvation”? Who knows?!–Only God. So why talk about it in those terms? Leave questions of salvation to God alone, and talk concretely on terms of responding to God’s call.