Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Personal Salvation

It’s not about you.
The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness.

So begins that modern mogul of megachurches, Rick Warren, in his bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life." He's right, of course, though I wish he would have expanded the thought in more directions than he did. But I'm afraid that though millions bought (and presumably read) his book, the Purpose Driven (tm) People haven't gotten the message. Whether it's in the old hymns of the faith:

I once was lost, but now I'm found
Was blind, but now I see. (Isaac Watts "Amazing Grace")

Or the spectacular navel-gazing of that new "praise chorus" "Marvelous Light:"

Lift my head and spin around
See the marvelous light I've found

Whether learning to claim Jesus as your "personal savior" or acknowledging that He died for "my sin," the stuff that comes across the pulpits and sound stages of churches new and old is most definitely "about me." And when the subject is sin, it usually falls into the camp of the stuff "the world" does, unless, like the various "Promise Keepers" and "Quiet Battles" and similar ministries, it deals with the private demons of addiction, sex, porn, etc. I find it interesting that most "sin" the church talks about is either sex, or voting Democratic (and Democrats like sex), but I digress.

I've been griping about this individuality for a long time, and the response is usually something along the lines of "of course, you're right," whereupon the hearers go back to their worship (another word that's been badly distorted, but one thing at a time) and that's the end of it. Meanwhile the gospel continues to be taught as basically Jesus' solution for each of our individual sinfulness, and if there is any collective or greater good to be had, it pretty well disappears into the self-contemplation of the devoted "saved." I came across a highly relevant passage this past week in N.T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope" that, I believe, clarifies the issue better than I ever have done. Consider:

" insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question--to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world--may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake that both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to this question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all."

This, I believe, gets fully to the point Paul was making in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 (or 21) that God in Christ reconciled us to himself and then gave us the ministry of reconciliation. We are saved, rescued, reconciled, not for any benefit of our own, but so that we, in turn, might become Christ's ambassadors and save, rescue, reconcile others. To the extent our faith is "personal" (by which I mean "private") it is irrelevant to God's purpose.

By this I do not mean to deny our own accountability for our actions. I do not mean to suggest that we don't at some point need to confront the reality that either Jesus is Lord, or he isn't. But acknowledging his lordship is supposed to take us out of ourselves. . .not just give us the quiet assurance that, for us at least, it'll be all right.

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