Soteriology is the study of the doctrine of salvation. It has arguably been the dominant doctrinal concern for Protestant Christians over the past 500 years. One side of the soteriological equation deals with how God made it possible for people to be saved. It asks questions like “Why do humans need to be saved in the first place?” and “What does Jesus’ death have to do with our eternal destiny?”
The other side of the soteriological equation has to do with the human response to God’s saving activity in the world. It asks the question made famous by the hearers of the first Christian sermon and Paul’s jailer in Philippi. “What must we/I do to be saved?” It is this second aspect of the doctrine of salvation that will be the focus of our attention over the next several weeks.
A Consensus Emerges
Since Martin Luther, Protestant Christians have largely (though not entirely) been of one mind about what a person must do to receive salvation. Theologians, pastors and laypeople alike have read texts like John 3:16, Romans 10:9-13, and Ephesians 2:8, and they have detected in them a common theme. Like their Catholic counterparts (cf. Session 6 of the Council of Trent, esp. Canon 1), they have argued that salvation is an undeserved gift that God made available to humanity simply because it is His nature to do so. In apparent contrast to the Roman Catholic Church (cf. Canon 2 of the same document), however, Protestants have argued that this gift can only be appropriated by placing one’s faith in Jesus Christ.
Of course, the Reformers and their heirs understood that one’s affirmation of faith as the mechanism by which salvation is appropriated to the individual cannot be properly understood unless it is thoroughly grounded in Christianity’s affirmations about God, Christ, grace, etc. Moreover, they understood that even the statement that salvation comes to people by grace through faith alone is full of deep meaning (cf. for example, The Westminster Confession of Faith, esp. Chapter XI and Chapter XIV). Nevertheless, much of the subtlety that has characteristically accompanied the best articulations of Protestant convictions has been lost when the doctrine is presented in sermons, songs, and evangelistic tracts. In turn, this truncated understanding of Protestant soteriology has (in some quarters, at least) become the standard for how the doctrine should be understood.
A Consensus Questioned
Construing salvation in terms of a transaction between God and the individual based on that individual’s faith (sometimes understood as assent to a specified set of propositions) has had far-reaching theological consequences. For example, other ways of talking about the salvation process are sometimes pushed to the background—or ruled out of order—for fear that they encourage a works-based understanding of salvation. Restricting the soteriological imagination in this way has produced an unfortunate tendency among Protestants to bifurcate matters of eternal destiny from matters of ethical concern.
Over the past century or so, a small but strong chorus of voices has arisen to augment (or even correct) the Protestant construction of the gospel. Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasized the importance of obedience as the only mechanism by which the individual can even understand what faith is (much less exercise it), whereas C. S. Lewis emphasized the importance of self-abandonment and even self-mortification (though not the dissolution of the self as in certain eastern traditions) as both the goal and the unavoidable result of the salvation process. Dallas Willard has conceived of salvation as a process of discipleship, whereas N. T. Wright has spoken of it as the process of becoming the people of God.
Hearing the Call
The approaches that these giants of the Christian faith have taken to the issue at hand are different, but the effect of their work is the same. Each of them—and many others beside—calls us to a deeper, richer, and more sophisticated understanding of the gospel. Each of them challenges us, in the words of the Apostle Paul, to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
To that end, we are going to take the next several weeks to examine some biblical texts from outside of the soteriological mainstream. I do not know with any certainty where our explorations will lead us. All I know for sure is that they will certainly be challenging and will probably be uncomfortable. Some sacred cows may have to be sacrificed, and people (maybe even me) won’t like that. Still, I am convinced that this is the road that we need to take.
I have no intention of embarking on such a wild ride alone. So, if there are specific texts that you would like for us to discuss, suggest them here on the blog. And, as always, leave your comments on what I write. As you certainly know by now, I am not infallible. I need your input just as much as—or more than— you need mine.