The Importance of Preaching Salvation

In a comment to Bonald’s post Dives in Hell, Bruce Charlton says, inter alia,

A near exclusive focus on the binary event of salvation/ not salvation simply fails to capture the broad characteristics of the Gospel. The Gospel must be GOOD news, it is about saving sinners, it is joyous, hopeful, positive; but on the other hand and equally, universal/ compulsory salvation is not consistent with the Bible.

Theosis is necessary because if (as I believe) salvation is ‘easy’ and straightforward (because Christ made it easy for us) then salvation is not the focus of the Christian life for most people who live beyond their conversion – the focus then should move to theosis – which is where things like sacraments, good works, Good Living (marriage and family) come in (in a word – Love).

Charlton is right that salvation is, so to speak, ‘easy.’  It can occur in an instant, when we repent and trust Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. It is not like sanctification, which is worked out over a lifetime.

But there is a problem with his next step (apparently a reasonable deduction) that therefore salvation ought not to be the focus of the Christian life.

The problem is this. All people, including Christians, naturally believe that religion is about trying to please God by being enough of a do-gooder. Even those who have been properly instructed in Christianity are prone to fall back into this belief. Therefore if we are not constantly reminded about our salvation coming by grace alone, through Christ alone, based on who he is and what he did, and that we receive this salvation through repentance and faith and not through works, we naturally fall into unbelief, even if it is pious unbelief.  Pious unbelief is thinking yourself a Christian because of your good works, and not because of your faith (trust) in Christ.

Therefore is it always of the utmost importance that Christian pastors and teachers constantly remind their flock that their salvation is only through Christ and his work.

Furthermore, the motive power, the gasoline in the engine, of sanctification (another word for theosis) is knowledge of our salvation. Without this assurance, we cannot pull ourselves up by our theological bootstraps.

As a side point, Christian pastors and teachers are constantly tempted to emphasize the need for works over the need to know and believe the gospel for two basic reasons. Firstly, man does not naturally want to hear that he is a sinner who cannot save himself. Secondly, it is relatively easy to manipulate parishioners by telling them what they (allegedly) can do themselves in order to be blessed by God. That’s what man naturally wants to hear. If a pastor is ambitious and wants to attract a large flock, by far the best way to achieve this goal is to emphasize what might be termed “pseudo-sanctification:” How to have a better marriage, how to raise better children, how to be financially successful, how to avoid feeling depressed, and so on.  These topics have little if anything to do with genuine sanctification (at best, they are results of sanctification, not its focus), but they are, if presented in an attractive and pious-sounding way, topics about which people naturally hunger to hear.

For these reasons, and many more, organized Christendom is perennially tempted not to teach what it ought: faith in Christ through Scripture and sacraments, for your salvation.

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22 thoughts on “The Importance of Preaching Salvation

    • Although the error is somewhat understandable, especially coming from an atheist, I did not say that Christendom should not teach how to live. My post concerned emphasis, and the necessity of avoiding the error of neglecting salvation,

      • Well, whether I’m an atheist or not does not bar me from questioning for understanding. Thanks for the distinction that I seemed to have missed. Do you plan on covering the life teaching part?

      • I think those concerned with their own salvation are falling prey to this verse:

        “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”

        That is, we are to sacrifice our own self-centeredness and give our lives to God for His service:

        “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

        To live for God is salvation, to live for self-centeredness is hell in and of itself, both in this world and the next. Christ came to save us from our own selfishness, to show us that to live for God is life, and to live for our own sinful nature is spiritual death.

  1. @Alan – “Therefore if we are not constantly reminded about our salvation coming by grace alone, through Christ alone, based on who he is and what he did, and that we receive this salvation through repentance and faith and not through works, we naturally fall into unbelief, even if it is pious unbelief. ”

    I see this as a matter of tactics, not strategy; some people in some contexts need ‘to be constantly reminded’ – but I do not regard this a always the case by any means.

    I am fairly familiar with the tactic of being “constantly reminded about our salvation coming by grace alone” – since this is the normal way that (conservative) evangelical churches function: they are almost-wholly salvation focused – and teaching is primarily about conversion and about grace.

    Such churches are excellent at winning converts; however, once converted the main purpose of love becomes winning more converts (evangelism and mission). While this is essential, it is also extremely narrow – and for some people (for example introverts, or people with a mystical nature, or those who get much help from liturgy) this focus on conversion/ grace is so partial as to be demotivating.

    The problem is that a near-exclusive focus on conversion/ grace leaves unanswered the question of ‘what should I do with my mortal life’, since there is a circularity to the notion of becoming a convert in order to make more converts.

    Indeed it suggests that the best (or safest) thing would be something on the lines of dying (and attaining salvation) an instant after being ‘born again’ – because after conversion the situation is very risky; there is much (everything) to be lost, but not much to be gained by living.

    I am exaggerating a bit to make my point – but I think this is a serious problem with the kind of focus you describe. A conversion/ grace focus is *not wrong* – certainly it is compatible with a very strong Christian faith – indeed I would go so far as to say that perhaps the best modern Christian in Britain have had this evangelical/ mission focus (for instance the nonconformist Martyn Lloyd Jones and the Anglican JM Packer). But for many people, including myself, it is so narrow and monochrome as to induce something like despair!

    • Fair enough. I wasn’t so much arguing against you, but using your comment as the occasion of cautioning against an approach that is widespread within evangelicalism and also seriously mistaken.

      Ironically, a lot of evangelicalism has a poor focus on salvation. They spend a lot of effort trying to manipulate people into making shallow “decisions for Jesus,” instead of preaching the faith in Christ that not only saves sinners, but also sanctifies believers.

  2. Mr. Roebuck, I gather that you are of the Reformed faith? Have you tackled the issue of predestination on this site or another before? It is something I’ve been thinking about and would like to hear your understanding of it.

    • Yes, I’m Reformed. And I have written about predestination here. It’s just a preliminary discussion, but it makes what I think are the most important points.

  3. Bruce’s point is exactly right.

    And it’s also entirely biblical.

    “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.”

    I think the main problem is that most Christians have misconstrued the meaning of “Heaven” to only refer to life after death. Heaven is a condition of the soul and being in this world as well as the next, it is also called the Kingdom of God. That is, it refers to a soul who has offered up his own will in exchange for God’s will. Who has obeyed Christ’s commandment:

    “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” That is being born again into the Kingdom, not a mere pronouncement of belief in Him unaccompanied with a wholehearted commitment.

  4. Pingback: The Importance of Preaching Salvation | Will S.' Miscellany

  5. Is it correct, in the first place, to distinguish between salvation and sanctification?

    One who is saved, is going to be sanctified, sooner or later. To be saved is the same as to be sanctified. I may have faith that I will be saved, but I do not know.

    • As I understand it, salvation refers to the Father having chosen someone before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), and perhaps that moment that His grace saved us wretches (to paraphrase Amazing Grace), while sanctification refers to the working of the Holy Spirit in us throughout our lives, leading us away from sin and towards God.

    • ” To be saved is the same as to be sanctified.”

      Yep.

      This is the reality.

      Salvation is orientation away from our sinful nature and towards Christ.

      As we keep ourselves oriented towards Christ, we will become sanctified. And it is real work that requires faith and courage and painful self-examination and dark nights of the soul and everything else.

      Anyone promising salvation without sanctification is telling you to build your house on sand and not on rock. In the end, those who refuse to keep orienting themselves towards Christ will discover they have in fact wasted their lives:

      “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

      And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

  6. Alan, the case of Zecharias and Elizabeth seems (to me) to be difficult for Evangelicals. Specifically, the way they are described in scripture:

    “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. “

    No reference to faith counting for righteousness. Can you explain the Reformed understanding of this verse?

    • Scripture also refers to others in much the same way. Noah, for example. But Scripture also says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) But then the very next verse says that they are justified freely by his grace, not by being relatively sinless.

      And this applies even to those who lived before Messiah was revealed. God justified the Old Testament believers by faith too. It’s just that they had faith in God, not in Jesus of Nazareth, who had not come yet.

  7. Pingback: The Basis of Our Salvation | The Orthosphere

  8. I’m trying to figure out why I am psychologically incompatible with these kinds of writings. Anything that the more rigorist people on the Orthosphere write about Hell, I perceive as a strong and almost overwhelming temptation to the sin of despair. Repentance does not accomplish nothing in this regard, because only one in 100,000 people are saved (that article was also a huge stumbling block to me), and I have no basis to presume my repentance is more genuine than anyone else’s among the 99,999; or because, according to Church dogmatics, it will not save my already-dead neighbour, whom I have grievously wronged and yet been forgiven by him, but who will apparently be damned anyways, even for unrelated reasons. Certainly I can’t imagine going to Heaven, beholding my damned neighbour, and repaying his forgiveness by rejoicing at his suffering, which is apparently in accordance to the justice of God. Most likely, if God has any true justice, either we will both be restored, or this will certainly be held against me at the Last Judgment.

    So the only real way out is to say to myself; indeed, I am certainly going to be damned, the dogmatic and logical evidence is overwhelming. My task, then, is to be properly grateful to God for the short existence He has granted me on this Earth; and to treat the gift in accordance with this gratitude. From this follows the whole Christian struggle and ascesis, confession of sins, struggle to do better, and not to be a damnation to yet others in my path… so, because repentance accomplishes nothing in the sense of my own salvation, yet it is absolutely imperative, I *need* these other reasons to repent. If, ultimately, God wants to save me, or bring me up out of my despair, that would be His decision. It is certainly within His power to save or damn me as He pleases, but I cannot presume on it, or even make struggling for _salvation_ (as opposed to struggling for mere humanity) a central goal of my life. I can’t do it, without falling immediately into despair.

    (Then, other days it is impossible to disbelieve that God is good, and will be all in all. I was standing in line for the bus the other day, happened to glance at a person in front of me playing some puzzle game on their phone — when at the top of the phone’s screen flashes, apropos of nothing, “God demonstrates his love!”. The person playing the game completely ignores this message, but I’m struck as if with a thunderbolt. Certainly a miracle! I was practically walking on air for the rest of the day. Then I spend half the next day staring at the immovable wall of dogma, with the feeling that nothing can turn out right. Remembering that earlier event just now takes the edge off my cynicism. Truly mysterious.)

    In the end I ask myself, based on all this, though I have despaired of my salvation _unless_ I ignore Church dogma (which I’m not capable of doing), do I have faith in God, or do I not have faith in God?

    • Arakawa, don’t despair!

      You believe the Bible, don’t you? Consider 1 John 5:13

      I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.

      According to Scripture, you can know that you are saved.

      Your comment shows you have a strong sense of your sinfulness. You know that you’re a dirty, rotten sinner. And so am I. I’m a dirty, rotten sinner too. If it was up to our own efforts, we would have no chance.

      But the Savior is stronger than our sins. Man is saved not by avoiding sin, but by trusting in, by believing in, by having faith in, Jesus Christ. Salvation is because Jesus lived a perfect life and then bled and died to take away our sins. It’s not because we’re sufficiently good do-gooders, or because we obey the regulations and rituals of our sect.

      [Do-gooderness and obedience have their place. But not for Salvation.]

      Somebody speculated about how many will be saved. Never mind the statistics. Nobody knows how many will be damned. Trust the Word of God:

      “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. [John 3:16—18]

      You ask at the end of your comment if you have faith in God. If you believe what God has said in the pages of the Bible then yes, you have faith.

      • Thank you for those words.

        I suppose, to tie this back to the blog post (the importance of preaching this, that, or the other thing), it’s in general necessary to know one’s own moods and the proper response to them. When one is feeling overly optimistic, and in danger of carelessness, there is a very stern set of warnings; for the opposite mood of despair, there is also a very concrete set of God’s promises. Trying to reconcile the warnings and the promises into one logical (what Dostoyevsky called “Euclidean”) system is not for the faint of heart.

        Also, sometimes the evil mood itself must be endured; after all, it’s only when you are tested that you get some idea of whether you _do_ have faith, or not, or whether you just think you do. Thank God we are not all tested as sternly as God tested his servant Job.

  9. Pingback: Reformed Linkage | Will S.' Miscellany

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