What I said last week is that salvation isn’t an insurance contract, it is participating in the divine nature. It’s not merely a hedge against calamity, it is an available reality I can step into today.
Today I want to continue to expand on this vision of salvation. We’ve taken salvation from contract to covenant, from paperwork to participation. But we also need to take it from individual to communal.
Again, I think it is one of the most important aspects of gospel ministry to carefully think through. If we get this wrong, the whole trajectory of our leadership veers off-course.
Let’s dive in.
Naming our cultural assumptions
So, salvation is not an insurance contract. Instead, as the Apostle Peter put it, it’s participating (now) in the divine nature (2 Pet 1).
One reason we are so tempted to view salvation as an insurance contract is that we carry consumeristic assumptions about life that we inherit from our culture.
This leads us to assume that we live through consuming. We take resources and relationships and consume them in order to live. Relationships become a kind of mutual using of one another to meet our needs, rather than a deep covenant sharing filled with mutual submission, sacrifice, and love.
We can’t help it, it’s the water we swim in. We bring these assumptions into every interaction and relationship unless we begin to name them and pay attention to them.
Now, if it’s our consumeristic cultural assumptions that lead us to believe that salvation is basically about exchange, our individualistic assumptions lead to us to believe that salvation is basically about me.
Our individualistic assumptions lead us to think of ourselves as essentually “self-contained” decision-makers who “influence” others with our actions (that come from “within” us).
These assumptions lead us to believe that salvation is essentially an individualistic reality. We think it’s a contract we sign as an individual that secures our place in heaven after we die.
And even if we are starting to make the turn to defining salvation more along the lines of participation in the divine nature, we will tend to think about that participation individualistically!
Plural pronouns, y’all
For example, read this excerpt of 2 Peter 1, which speaks of what it looks like to participate in the divine nature:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ…
Now think about what it would look like to follow those instructions. If you’re anything like me, your first thought goes to how I, as an individual, could “add to my faith.”
And while there would undoubtedly be some good that would come of that, I would be mostly missing the point.
Why? Because all the pronouns in that passage are plural! Every time you see a “your,” Peter is talking to the whole church! It’s a lot more like the phrase I began using when I lived in South Carolina for a couple years: “y’all.”
For me to think about my participation in the divine nature as mainly an individual thing is to rip salvation out of its historic and biblical context.
Salvation is communal
That context means we must think about salvation as participation, not insurance. It also means we must think about salvation as necessarily communal, not just individual.
Salvation means we participate in the divine nature, but that by necessity means that we participate as members of the body of Christ.
- Salvation happens in the space between people as they interact and exchange energy.
- Salvation happens among us as we gather around the table of Jesus to enjoy and extend his hospitality.
- Salvation happens together as submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
(Try practicing mutual submission by yourself sometime and you’ll notice the necessity of the church.)
A kind of belonging
Now listen to the passage again, but this time revealing the plural pronouns to our English-speaking ears. (Say it with a southern drawl for added affect!)
For this very reason, make every effort to add to y’all’s faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if y’all possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep y’all from being ineffective and unproductive in y’all’s knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ…
Doesn’t that open up a totally different imagination for how to put it into practice? Suddenly I’m not just thinking about me and my prayer time. I am thinking about the church! I’m thinking about the specific people I see week after week. I’m thinking about how we can add these qualities to our faith, so we don’t become unproductive…
Brian Zahnd said it well in a sermon I listened to recently: “Salvation is best understood as a kind of belonging.”
Not as an insurance contract, payable upon death.
Not as an individualistic ascension to the heights of holiness.
That’s why we can’t really experience salvation by ourselves. By its very nature, it reaches out toward others in community.
Salvation is participation in the divine nature, and we participate by practicing belonging with the new humanity, Jew and Gentile together, the body of Christ.
Some questions for reflection
- What evidence do you see in your life of individualistic assumptions about salvation?
- What evidence do you see in your faith community of individualistic assumptions about salvation?
- What would change if most people in your church began to think about salvation as participative belonging?
Stephen Lockhoff says
This is right on , Ben. Hugh Halter wrote about this as well. In addition to Consumerism we also need to address the ” demons” of individualism and materialism. All these ” isms” . Thanks for the reminder . We need to allow The Spirit to empower the ” one another’s ” spoken about in the Word . Peace & love , Stephen Lockhoff P..S. Iam working with Al Giles . Perhaps you might even remember meeting at one of L. C.
Stephen Lockhoff Thanks for commenting, Stephen. I’ve heard that “isms” are good things that have become ultimate things/idols. I’m sure I would remember your face if I saw you – good to hear from you!
Jay Gamelin says
Part of the “rule” we established at my last place was “Faith is whole in community.” Much like what you write here, I lean in to the need for the many to make me, the individual, whole. Further, I may even say that I actually require the community to experience the fullness of the good news. I think of the paralytic lowered through the ceiling. Jesus brings healing, but not because. Jesus forgave not because of the paralytic’s faith but the friend’s. We are told over and over how important community is- working out Y”ALL’s faith in fear in trembling, or Paul’s constant reminders that we are a body and need every member, etc. etc.
I know I appreciate community most when, like this Sunday, I did not feel like singing or praying or praising, despite all the music telling me that I am going to “sing despite my hard heart” (too hard for that song I guess), it was then the community sang for me, prayed on my behalf, perhaps believed for me when I’m feeling hopeless, knowing that Jesus, seeing my community’s faith, proclaims forgiveness for me and my hard heart.
Is it just me or does this abruptly end midway through its final sentence?
Ben Sternke says
Fixed! Not just you 😉
Jay Gamelin Yes Jay! You can’t be the body of Christ by yourself.
@Dan Fixed that! Thanks.
Lim sern wang says
Hi, im writing on a topic about communal salvation. can you suggest to me a few bibliography about the community sense in salvation?
Ben Sternke says
Good question! I can’t think of any books that address it directly, but my thinking on this has been heavily influenced by N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Dallas Willard. Really necessitates a re-imagination of what “salvation” actually is, too – which is more “being caught up in the life of the Trinity” than “going to heaven when I die.”