+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Many of you know that one of my passions is the study of historical theology, particularly looking at theological trends in reference to the social, political, and intellectual contexts of various periods of the church’s life over the last 2,000 years. One of the issues which has come up time and time again, especially over the last 500 years, is the question of whether or not we can be assured of our salvation.
Nineteenth century hymn writer Fanny Crosby seemed to have worked it out. You might have heard her words before if you grew up in a different Christian tradition (it’s sadly never been in our hymnal tradition):
assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
submission, perfect delight!
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels descending bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
Ms. Crosby might have worked it out, but the man who started her own Methodist flavor of Christianity, John Wesley, could not. While he taught that humans could have some level of assurance, he – who though not having Crosby’s visions of rapture and of angels descending, had felt his heart strangely warmed in a moment of conversion – could not ultimately confirm that he was certain he had been saved. Perhaps he had backslid back into his high church Anglicanism.
Puritans (like Bunyan whom many of us are reading and like those who would emigrate to New England and have such an impact on our own American culture) had similar concerns. While you’re not likely to hear it preached down at First Presbyterian (as our reformed brothers and sisters have understandably deëmphasized the theology of John Calvin), those of the reformed tradition – Puritans and more moderate Presbyterians alike – believed that we couldn’t have assurance of salvation, but only clues (signs of election they called them) based on things like domestic tranquility and personal wealth – blessings from God which suggested to them that they were favored and thus saved. The result was the development of the Protestant work ethic (you’d work hard to evince these signs of election for your own surety and the recognition of your coreligionists) which works out well if you’re trying to establish a peaceable and productive society, but you alse get a bunch of people worried that they are sinners in the hands of an angry God.
Likewise, a case can be made that the Protestant Reformation itself began less because of Roman Catholic abuses (selling indulgences and the like, as important as that was as a tipping point) and more because good old Martin Luther was so terrified at the church’s ambivalence on the matter of salvation that he needed to create a system which provided more certainty to the believer that he or she was heaven-bound rather than damned.
Folks, I’ve got some good news for you. You don’t have to worry yourself to death; or maybe put better, the fact that you may be worried might ironically be the best evidence that you needn’t worry that you’re going to Hell. You have been been saved by Christ’s one sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction on the Cross. you have been saved in the regenerative waters of Baptism. You are being saved as you continue to receive the Grace of Christ’s Body and Blood and as good fruit is borne through your faith by the work of the Holy Spirit, even if your own participation that is simply sincerely saying “God, work through me though I am too weak to do your will.” Now this is dangerous information to give out. It’s dangerous information, because people who are afraid of Hell can sometimes behave a lot better. Geneva, when Calvin was more-or-less in charge was one of the most peaceful, prosperous, democratic places in the world.
And as much as I hate to admit it (and as I implied just a moment ago) the Puritan history of our own country’s early years had much the same effect. While our Anglican forebears on this continent were growing fat and lazy and treating humans like property in the Southern Colonies, the Puritans up in New England were creating communities of mutual responsibility and laying the foundations for a country that could get on without a king, because they were so darned law-abiding and committed to equality. And, contrary to popular fiction, they even killed fewer purported witches than our spiritual forebears did. Unfortunately, they were so good at obeying law and setting up the foundations of modern civil society because they were afraid that if they didn’t they’d go to hell quite literally. One takes the bad with the good, I guess.
The theological truth is socially dangerous, because people realize that they’re not going to burn just because they’re bad, because we’re all pretty bad by nature thanks to the fall and only good by the grace of God. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Or maybe I do, but thank God I’m not God. I’m certainly not as loving and gracious and forgiving as God. In today’s Epistle, we get a pretty broad, generous view of salvation. We are all children of Abraham, and God has reckoned us all worthy of Salvation because of the Blood of Christ. In his conversation with Nicodemus, the only litmus test Jesus gives is that we be “born again” or, to use a better translation of the Greek “born from above.” He says we must be born of water and of the Spirit, which is to say (at least as I read it) we must both be born physically and then receive the New Birth of Baptism. Most of us (myself included) receive that new birth when we’re too young to understand its nature, and we are merely passive recipients of God’s Grace. But that I think is ideal, infant baptism being normative just means that we’re being honest about the nature of the Sacrament and of Salvation, because even baptism of those of riper years, as older prayerbooks put it, is essentially a passive reception of God’s Grace, which we can only will in part to be recipients of.
So the good news is that we don’t have to worry. We’ve been saved. God’s promise is irrevocable. The difficult news, though, is that we’re not off the hook.
Okay, you’re not going to hell. So what? For about the last half millennium we’ve been obsessed with the question of justification and its mechanics. Who’s saved? Who’s not? How does it happen? What if I’m not saved?
I don’t mean to be flippant, but this is not really the question we who are not systematic theologians need to spend all our time and energy sorting out. God has saved us through the blood of His only Son. We didn’t deserve it. We’ll never earn it. We got it anyway. The precise mechanics of how it works are interesting, and I love being a part of those discussions as an academic exercise, but the God’s honest truth is that you don’t have to listen to my expositions on Greek verbs to be saved.
The really interesting stuff is what comes afterward. God loves you. You are baptized into Christ’s Body. You have been born anew, born from above, born again whether you knew it or not. You have a mission. Faith without works is dead, says St. James. That doesn’t mean your or my inadequacy in doing as many good works as we might will send us to Hell. So what?
The reality of being saved and not doing anything about it seems worse to me, somehow. It means you’ve been given something and haven’t done anything with it. And it’s so simple to take that gift and use it. You’ve just got to love your neighbor. As I’ve said before, that means a lot more than having warm feelings for them. You don’t even need John Wesley’s strangely warmed heart. There are people I deal with in life who don’t get the cockles of my heart much above absolute zero. But I love them. Or at least I try to do. And that’s what we’ve all got to do. To be loving. To return the gift of Grace which we’ve been given. As absolutely wretched as we may be, as much as we may spurn or resent God or take Him for granted, He still loves us, so we ought to do the same for our sisters and brothers.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.