The Malady of a Second-Rate Salvation

Have you ever met someone who was “saved” but not healed?

Someone who said the sinner’s prayer and yet two weeks later was mired right back in the same lousy behaviors they were in before, be it bigotry or boozing, self-righteousness or self-hatred? Have you ever met someone who understood salvation to be a future, “up there”, after-I-die reality…and nothing more?

They’re saved but not healed. They only have a second-rate salvation.

Jesus longs to offer us more than mediocre deliverance. Jesus wants us to be saved and healed. Jesus longs to offer us more than mediocre deliverance. Jesus wants us to be saved and healed. Click To Tweet

Much of the malady of second-rate salvation comes from faulty views on the atonement. We define sin too narrowly, we cut off the importance of the birth, life, and teachings of Jesus, and we sidestep major portions of the biblical library in our efforts to make salvation simple with three easy steps. But the price we pay is staying stuck in our sin. We receive forgiveness, which is great, but we never experience restoration. Or as Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation describes it, we need to “rewire our habitual patterns of stinking thinking.”

Atonement and Sin

When we define sin too narrowly, we tend to define salvation too narrowly. If the only effect of sin is a broken relationship between God and us, then that’s the only thing that needs salvation. But losing this crucial relationship or presence leads to broken relationships in three other areas: with others, our inner selves, and the physical world. Take the Adam and Eve story. They ate the forbidden fruit, and in their disobedience broke their relationship with God. If only the effects of sin had stopped there! They started blaming each other, harming that relationship. They felt shame over their naked bodies, illustrating the broken relationship we have within ourselves. The physical world also suffered; the ground was cursed and child-bearing became painful.  

If sin breaks these major categories of relationships, then the work of Christ—what we call atonement—must bring deliverance from all categories. And if our view of atonement doesn’t address all this brokenness, if we’re just getting to heaven after we die, then we’ve got second-rate salvation. If our view of atonement doesn't address all this brokenness, if we’re just getting to heaven after we die, then we’ve got second-rate salvation. Click To Tweet

Lesslie Newbigin, a British missiologist who served for many years in India, explained the dilemma in this parable: if you’re drowning in a well and another man jumps into the well and rescues you, while he himself is drowned in the effort, then there can be no doubt about that man’s love. He has given his life for you. But if you’re attacked by a tiger, you need a different kind of help. Your friend may jump into the well and drown himself, but that will not rescue you from the tiger. In that case, even though your friend gave up his life, you cannot say that he loved or saved you. Christ gave up his life on the cross, but how does that save you? How does it rescue you from your sin? Unless there is some connection between Christ’s death and your sin, you will find it difficult to believe that Christ’s death is proof of love for you, or that it has saved you from sin. Clearly it is not enough simply to say that the cross is a revelation of God’s love unless we can answer these questions.

Newbigin was onto something. Unless there is a clear connection between the death of Jesus and our problem with sin, the cross is as meaningless as a person jumping into a well to save someone being attacked by a tiger.  Unless there is a clear connection between the death of Jesus and our problem with sin, the cross is as meaningless as a person jumping into a well to save someone being attacked by a tiger. Click To Tweet

Atonement and Jesus

A second atonement mishap comes when we see the cross as the only important work of Christ. We may be too polite to say it so directly, but it’s as if this were the only date on his calendar book. The cross is of utmost importance, as I strive to claim in my book, Why Did Jesus Have to Die?, but to see it as the only event that saves us is to misunderstand Jesus and atonement. 

First, all of Jesus saves us. His birth to commoners in Nazareth challenges our stereotype of poor people, and in that way helps heal our relationship with others. And surely the incarnation is proof of such immense love that we can begin to love and forgive ourselves as well. Jesus offers a salvation that cares for our physical needs as well as our spiritual needs, as he heals the blind and feeds more than 5,000. So too the resurrection heals the physical world’s greatest enemy: death. The Holy Spirit comes in a mighty way at Pentecost, and not only does the Spirit bring healing between us and God but also works to heal every other relationship as well. 

Second, Jesus forgave sins before he died on the cross. As early as Mark 2, Jesus claims that authority to do so. If the cross and only the cross makes forgiveness possible, then these stories seem out of place. Jesus also told us to carry our crosses before he died on one. The cross has to mean something more than a sinless, perfect sacrifice for sins, because if that’s it’s only meaning, I can’t carry one. I can, however, be willing to suffer for my obedience to Jesus. 

In short, when we see the cross as the only salvific event, we diminish our call to discipleship. Jesus died on the cross and Jesus was killed on a cross. He was killed because he dared to threaten the injustice of his day, and he was committed to challenging it nonviolently. We are called to this same mission. When we see the cross as the only salvific event, we diminish our call to discipleship. Click To Tweet

This doesn’t mean the cross isn’t important. Just because it isn’t the only date on Jesus’ calendar book doesn’t mean it isn’t the most important day. I believe the cross was and is necessary because Jesus had to face the worst evil could do. Jesus had to enter into the vortex of cruelty and even in that immense pain and hatred, respond with love. This broke the system, unmasked it for what it truly was. The Scriptures give us many metaphors to describe the cross because this truth is so deep. The cross did cleanse us and does work within us, transforming us, freeing us, showing us how to live.

We needed the cross. But I’m not so sure God did. 

Atonement and the Bible

The third way we settle for a second-rate salvation is when we accept as truth a few select verses from the Bible about the atonement and think we have things figured out. We choose one metaphor as the primary way to understand the cross and we miss its complex beauty. Worse, we forget that Jesus and Paul use metaphors to describe this complex truth, and we start to make the metaphors do things they’re not meant to do, mean something they’re not meant to mean. 

And this leads to an angry God, a God who needed the cross in order to forgive us.

Paul uses a number of metaphors to help explain the atonement. They’re beautiful in their richness: adoption, sacrifice, recapitulation, redemption, reconciliation, justification. 

But some have taken the justification metaphor and called it king. This preference is the foundation of two atonement theories that fall short of the complex truth of the gospel: satisfaction and penal substitution. “Cousin” models, they both lead us to an angry God, one who is unable to forgive us even if God wanted to. God’s honor must be satisfied (satisfaction theory) or God is the angry judge that must have a payment before we can be set free (penal substitution). 

Is this the same God who “so loved the world that he gave his only son”? (Jn 3:16) Is this the father of Luke 15, the one who forgives and lavishes love on his wayward son before he can even spit out his words of repentance? God asks us to love our enemies and then is unable to do so himself?

Another problem with these two atonement theories is that they justify violence. The logic is clear: if God had to use the violence of the cross in order to secure our salvation, then surely at its core, violence has redemptive value. 

The justification metaphor is clearly shown in the writings of Paul; it has merit. And it creatively dances with the other metaphors so that we don’t box God into something similar to the pagan gods of old. But when a metaphor starts to become literal and when we favor one metaphor over the others, we begin to shape God into our own image. And an angry God doesn’t heal any relationship. 

It matters how we understand the cross. Faulty understandings lead us to a mere fire insurance against hell, a life sentence of broken relationships that will only get healed “someday.” They validate retributive justice, and like the angry God, we too demand a pound of flesh. Sometimes we even misunderstand our own call to follow Jesus and we make it either all about earning our salvation (though we’d never say this out loud) or we think our ethical lives don’t matter because the payment’s already been made. 

And in all this, we settle. We settle for a second-rate salvation. 

Atonement is a complex truth. And it’s a truth we’re called to live into as much as we’re called to comprehend. Maybe it’s only when we start to live it, with the help of the Spirit, that we can begin to understand it. And maybe, as we start to live it, Jesus comes to us and begins to not only save us but heal us. And what a sweet first-rate salvation that is and will be!

To experience a Good Friday journey specially designed by Michele Hershberger for individuals or groups, please visit our Holy Week at Home page with resources for you and your church.

For more information on Michele’s book Why Did Jesus Have to Die? from Herald Press, please click here.

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