Talking About Salvation
Speaker: Gene C. Miller
I don’t often hear about salvation in our church any more, so I was glad to hear a bit about it when our Colombian brother, Ricardo Esquivia, was here earlier this summer. He opened a door and I hope to nudge it open a bit further.
So why don’t we talk about salvation? I suspect it’s because the revivalist tradition has hogged the word and claims to own it so that if you’re going to talk about it, you have to talk about it the way they do.
Well, I’m here to pound on the pulpit (metaphorically speaking) and say “That’s not so!” In fact, the revivalist sense of salvation as being “accepting Christ as your personal savior” or “letting Jesus into your heart” is actually fairly new. I mean, you don’t find it in, say, Menno Simons’ writings. Does that mean he wasn’t “saved”? And I took some time a few weeks ago to poke around a bit in the sermons of D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday, and guess what: I didn’t see it there either.
Fortunately for me–and “fortunately” in the sense that it means I didn’t have to do all the reading–someone named Paul Chitwood wrote his doctoral dissertation–at Southern Baptist, no less–about what is called “The Sinner’s Prayer.” There are four basic elements to the “Sinner’s Prayer”: recognition of sin, statement of belief, repentance, inviting Jesus into one’s heart. Many of us have been taught that it is the only way to “become a Christian.” Chitwood went back through the gospel tracts that were distributed by the American Tract Society–and he couldn’t find an explicit version with all four parts before about 1945. So maybe there weren’t any Christians before 1945? Altar calls themselves weren’t invented until about the time of evangelist C.G. Finney, who died in 1875. And he didn’t really have the modern Billy Graham-style “invitation.” Rather, he pioneered what was called the “anxious bench”, which was a bench in the front of the meeting where people who were anxious about the state of their souls could come and sit and then receive counseling after the service. (I grew up in the revivalist tradition and part of my inheritance is that I have my own personal “anxiety bench” that I carry around with me everywhere I go. When I learned about Finney’s “anxious bench”, it occurred to me that I need to build a real bench that I can then set fire to and burn to the ground.)
D.L. Moody’s style was also one of providing one-on-one counseling after services. The Moody Bible Institute was founded precisely to train these counselors.
And it’s about here that we Mennos come in. A young Mennonite (not Amish Mennonite) named John F. Funk, who was born in Bucks County, PA, moved to Chicago right before the Civil War. He fell in with D.L. Moody–attracted no doubt by Moody’s anti-war stance during the run-up to the Civil War–and was converted at a Moody revival service. He came back to Elkhart and was determined to bring progressive revivalism to the Mennonites, whom he saw as sunk in a deep spiritual torpor. He championed mission work, started the Mennonite publishing company, and nurtured evangelists and evangelism.
At first the Mennonites resisted revivalism: it was highly individualistic in that it glorified the individual religious experience; it was both emotional and theatrical, which was anathema in Mennonite worship. It also seemed to ignore some core beliefs and practices of Mennonites: to wit, that we have a living faith that is manifested in our actions throughout our daily lives, that living in the context of the gathered body is essential to our living faith, and that we are to live sober, humble, and quiet lives, not seeking what was termed “vainglory” or being filled with pride. The emphasis is on “living” not on “talking.” While we do have our spiritual tradition, we also have a strong material tradition. Our material tradition takes very seriously the warning issued in Matthew 7:21: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” Our material tradition calls us to action, not just to beliefs or “internal states of being.”
Well, I don’t think I have to tell you that good old American individualism and stagecraft won the day: the revivalism that Mennonites initially rejected became the cornerstone of the denomination within a few decades. Excepting the Old Order Amish of course: they still don’t accept it. And they certainly don’t accept the revivalist claim that going through these steps assures you of entry into heaven. They know their Bibles better than that.
So how can we modern individualistic liberal Mennonites talk about salvation? What I hope to sketch out should be taken as a beginning of a conversation, not the ending. For I think we still do have a lot that we can talk about.
Let’s start with rethinking what it means to live religiously. What I mean here is “What does it mean in our time to experience life from a religious perspective?” This is a key question to me. Our religious ancestors thought that disembodied spirits animated everything in the world, and that what we call “causality” was just the spirits at work. When things happened, it was a spirit that made it happen.
But many of us moderns don’t really experience the world that way. When the sun rises, it’s not a sun god; it’s the rotation of the earth on its axis. If we get sick, our first recourse is no longer to the spirit world to find out if we have given offense to one or another spirit; rather, we have our vital signs taken, blood work done, x-rays taken and so on. If you have a cold, it’s a virus, not a snotty spirit.
With all of these mechanical explanations available to us, it’s much harder to think in terms of spirits. And yet some of us experience the world religiously. It’s not a question of intellectual agreement with a creed or statement, or holding some abstract belief about the nature of the Trinity. Rather, we experience the world as more than just a mechanism. We experience the world as pointing beyond itself to some greater or higher reality: to the possibility of transcendence. And it is this possibility of transcendence that in turns imbues our daily world with meaning. Experiencing the world this way can be so powerful that we refer to it as sacred.
Of course, not everybody experiences the world religiously. But isn’t that what faith is about? If the world were such that faith were compelled, it wouldn’t be faith any more. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but certainty.
Now there are many ways that we experience the world as pointing to transcendence. I was so pleased a few months ago to hear our Brother Ricardo Esquivia talk about art in the context of salvation. He quoted Dostoevski: “Beauty will save the world.” And I would heartily agree with him: art–particularly music–is one of the things in the world that points me toward transcendence. It not only points toward but in some sense participates in it. After all, the notion that truth is beauty is quite possibly a theological notion, isn’t it? And I would love to hear some of our musicians talk about their relationship between music and the sacred. I once pestered Janet Peachey that she ought to give us a sermon sometime about the relationship between aesthetics and theology–but maybe our accompanists here are doing their most effective preaching simply by playing.
There are other kinds of ways in which we can open ourselves to the sacred: perhaps in the joy of physical expression like dance. Or maybe yoga. Anything that jolts us out of our daily grind, so to speak, and awakens us to new possibilities and connections for ourselves and for others. Perhaps we can even agree with our revivalist siblings after all that the heavens declare the glory of God?
But we as Mennonites know of another component to salvation. As Hans Denck said “To know Christ truly is to follow him daily in life.” I find it most interesting that when Jesus talked with people about right living or even eternal life, he didn’t tell them they had to take him as their personal savior. Look at what he told the young lawyer: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” That’s it: that’s the whole story. He didn’t say that there was some extra incantation or formula to be recited. Or when the rich young ruler came by and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus didn’t say anything at all like “Well, you need to take me into your heart.” No, he looked at the young ruler and said, “You? You need to go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor! Then follow me!” The story of the rich man and Lazarus we heard just a few weeks ago was the same: the rich man was in eternal torment, not because he failed to “take Jesus into his heart.” He was in eternal torment because he failed to care for the beggar at his doorstep.
So salvation clearly requires us to do more than just to hold certain beliefs. It requires us to act. And for us Mennos, it takes place in the context of a community of belief and practice: the gathered body of believers. Here is where we align ourselves with our tradition and with our siblings in faith and action.
But one more aspect of salvation. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. He saw what Jesus was doing among the people and heard him teach, but he didn’t get it. He didn’t see how Jesus was attempting to point people beyond the world of rules, contracts, and obligations. Jesus told him: “You can’t see it because you haven’t been born again.” Say what? Born again? Nicodemus couldn’t see because he was stuck in the mechanical world. He couldn’t see the possibility of transcedence.
Let me suggest something: there are times in our lives when our world becomes so charged with meaning and we are so deeply touched by it that we ourselves are transformed. That’s really all that “born again” means: we’re transformed. It’s not going to be the same for all of us, and it certainly can’t be reduced to a formula like the “Sinner’s Prayer.” And yet we know without question that we have touched the sacred and we know that it has changed us forever.
It sounds like salvation to me.