What is Salvation?

I’m working my way backwards through Romans chapter one.  Paul says the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.  I remember a song from back in the 90’s–when her career was just taking off and before Lance Armstrong broke her heart, Sheryl Crow sang,

I took the I-95 down to Pensacola,

All I found was a bunch of holy rollers,

They don’t know nothing ’bout saving me.

I think she was referring to a revival going on down there where people were getting slain in the Spirit–falling down backwards during the services.  This was about the same time people up north in Toronto were receiving the Toronto Blessing of uncontrolled laughter.

If you look on the map you’ll find that I-95 doesn’t go to Pensacola.  But maybe Sheryl had a point–you can’t get there from here.

What is salvation all about anyway?  It doesn’t matter whether you are a holy roller, a stone-cold Lake Wobegon Lutheran, a frozen and chosen Presbyterian–or something in between.  Christians often speak glibly about salvation, but what does it mean?

Very simply it means, in the first place peace with God.  There is a peace that comes simply from the confidence that there is a God.  Everything fits together; there is a purpose for the universe, and I have a place in it.  What we do on earth matters; there will at least be someone who will remember it.

Of course Christian faith is more than that.  It means believing that God loves me and that God accepts me.  It may be a cliche, but it is still true–God loves me just the way I am–but he loves me too much to leave me the way I am.

Second, salvation means I will have a place in what Judaism calls “the world to come.”  Salvation is bigger than me.  It is what God has planned for all of creation.  One of my colleagues says God’s eternal purpose has always been to have a people for himself, a people who will receive and respond to his love in praise and obedience.

I think God’s purpose is bigger than that.  In the short term, God is content to have a remnant, a few people who will faithful serve him and receive his blessings.  But a remnant is not the ultimate goal.  The ultimate goal is the redemption of the whole world.  The world to come is a world where peace reigns, where all of creation is perfected, where we share in and reflect God’s glory.  Salvation means that we have the hope of participating in that world.

The third aspect of salvation is that God is getting us ready to participate in the world to come.  That means he is renovating us from the inside out.

My son just bought a house at a great bargain.  It was a renovation project that someone else gave up on.  It was too much work.

But Eric knows how to do the work, and he has friends to help him.  I was there with him this past weekend, along with his son and my grandson Elijah.  All three of us can see the work left to be done–but we can also visualize the results.

Those of us who are now experiencing God’s salvation know that we are a major renovation project.  But God can visualize the results and he is not going to give up.

Dirty Little Secret

I take it that when Paul says, “Those who do such things deserve death,” he is thinking of the punishment appointed to Adam and Eve in Genesis.  Paul is not calling for vigilante justice or state-sponsored execution of those guilty of hate speech, arrogance, and greed.  He is pointing to the fact that we all are under the sentence of death; none of us deserves to live forever.  His point is not that some deserve to die more than others, but that we are all in the same boat.

But I still want to come back to the idea that Paul expects his readers to agree that all those guilty of the vices he catalogs deserve to die.  Paul is not teaching morality here: he is not trying to persuade anyone of the evil of “murder, envy, rivalry, deception, malice” and so forth.  He assumes they all agree, they will all say Amen!

By overhearing Paul, I might learn that hate speech, slander, character assassination, whether whispered or shouted, is seriously evil.  But Paul isn’t teaching, he is appealing to common beliefs in his reader.  The list is organized for rhetorical effect; the words are organized according to alliteration or assonance, words that rhyme or begin with the same letter are linked together.  For example:

adikia poneria pleonexia kakia . . . phthonou, phonou . . .

asynetous, asynthetous, astorgous, aneleemonas

But here’s a puzzle:  If you read any classical literature (from Gilgamesh to the Greek and Roman poets and philosophers) you find that same-sex love was highly praised in the ancient world.  Against this background, Paul’s rejection of same-sex behavior is almost an anomaly.  Is it the influence of his Jewish upbringing?

Well yes.  It is pretty clear that Paul understands marriage to be a life-long commitment between one man and one woman: a partnership in serving the Lord together and in bringing up children dedicated to the Lord.  Any other expression of sexuality he considers a serious aberration.

But is there more than that here?  After all, Paul had a live and let live attitude toward the promiscuous behavior of unbelievers (1 Cor 5:10).

Most of Paul’s readers were either slaves, former slaves, or slave owners.  The dirty little secret that cultured Greeks and Romans never talked about directly–they did wink and hint at it–and the dirty little secret the New Testament writers must have been aware of but never mention directly is the sexual exploitation of slaves.

Slaves had no dignity, honor, or virtue to maintain.  Masters owned the bodies of their slaves and used them as they pleased.  Both male and female slaves were at the disposal of their masters and mistresses.

I know several women who have been raped.  My gut reaction to the perpetrators–Christian discipline tells me I have to overcome it–but my gut reaction is to regard the violators as subhuman monsters who deserve to die.

Many of Paul’s readers, male and female, had experienced subjugation and the repeated violation of their bodies by those with the power to get away with it.  They would have also experienced various forms of belittling and humiliating hate speech.  They might have agreed with Paul that “those who do such things are worthy of death.”

(Some of these thoughts were inspired by Robert Jewett’s Hermeneia commentary on Romans and Carolyn Osiek’s A Woman’s Place).

Peace in an Age of Brutality

That’s the theme of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, as I see it: peace in an age of  brutality.  Of course, for Paul, it was most important that we have “peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  We ‘ll come back to that later.   Paul also believed that those who find peace with God find peace with each other.  I’ll have more to say on that later too.  Right now, I want to make one point: Paul lived in an age of brutality.

Paul was born in the early days of the Roman Empire; the empire that began with the reign of Augustus, and was followed by the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero.  It was a time of relative stability and absence of wars, but the Pax Romana was enforced by the use and threat of brutal force.  If you saw the HBO special “Rome” you saw plenty examples of that. As Tacitus put it, “the Romans make a desolation and call it peace.”

But in case you are not convinced, I’ll offer two facts in support of the thesis that the first century was an age of brutality.  The first fact is the popularity of gladiator contests.  Gladiator shows were fights to the death, and no public festival was complete without one.   One historian recently undertook a serious study of this problem:  what did they do with all those bodies?  His conclusion was that they threw them in the Tiber.

The second fact is a statement of Paul’s in Romans chapter one.  It is so subtle that it is easy to miss.  Paul presents a list of sins and vices, and then says those who do the nasty things in the list agree that “those who do such things are worthy of death.”  The vices in the list includes, among others “disobedience to parents” and “slander.”

In our day, we may not like it when children are disobedient or when senators shout out to the president, “You lie!”–but we aren’t in favor of killing the offenders.  And yet, Paul evidently expected none of his readers to blink when he said, “those who do such things deserve to die.”

Was life so cheap in the Roman empire that everyone agreed name callers and rebellious children deserved to die?

Or is that what Paul really means?

Blogging as a Spiritual Discipline?

The title is not original with me–I saw it somewhere else; in fact I think I didn’t get around to reading the post, but it got me thinking.

Many people keep journals as a spiritual discipline.  The ancient genre of the “Confessions” is a form of this.  I am about to begin reading St. Patrick’s “Confessions.”  According to Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, Patrick is more cheerful than the more famous confessor, St. Augustine.  I’ll see if that comes through.

So, I’m not exactly going to begin confessing all my sins here; but I am going to begin writing a series of meditations on St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  It won’t be a commentary–Romans is already the most commented upon book in the world.  It will be reflections on passages that strike me.

I may intersperse some comments on Genesis as well; since I am also studying some of the themes in that book as well.  The fact is, I think Romans in many ways represents Paul’s meditations on Genesis, so may that will work out alright.

Meditation one comes tomorrow.