Experiencing Salvation, Practicing Grace
The Experience of Salvation: In infinite love and mercy God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, so that in Him we might be made the righteousness of God. Led by the Holy Spirit we sense our need, acknowledge our sinfulness, repent of our transgressions, and exercise faith in Jesus as Lord and Christ, as Substitute and Example. This faith which receives salvation comes through the divine power of the Word and is the gift of God's grace. Through Christ we are justified, adopted as God's sons and daughters, and delivered from the lordship of sin. Through the Spirit we are born again and sanctified; the Spirit renews our minds, writes God's law of love in our hearts, and we are given the power to live a holy life. Abiding in Him we become partakers of the divine nature and have the assurance of salvation now and in the judgment. (2 Cor. 5:17-21; John 3:16; Gal. 1:4; 4:4-7; Titus 3:3-7; John 16:8; Gal. 3:13, 14; 1 Peter 2:21, 22; Rom. 10:17; Luke 17:5; Mark 9:23, 24; Eph. 2:5-10; Rom. 3:21-26; Col. 1:13, 14; Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 3:26; John 3:3-8; 1 Peter 1:23; Rom. 12:2; Heb. 8:7-12; Eze. 36:25-27; 2 Peter 1:3, 4; Rom. 8:1-4; 5:6-10.)
Hypothesis: Adventism has largely forgotten that the gift of grace assures our salvation. Remembering this central truth liberates us to practice a here-and-now human kind of salvation of others.
1. The forgotten truth: Salvation is the gift of God’s grace.
My Sabbath School class recently studied Stuart Tyner’s excellent book, Searching for the God of Grace. I owe much of this article to Tyner, because through that book I discovered for the first time that grace is central to our Adventist belief system. You’d think I would have known. I’ve been in the Adventist community all my life, after all. I took my first breaths at an Adventist Hospital, and I’ve been through the mill—Angwin, Loma Linda, the mission field, Home Study International, boarding academy, Pacific Union College, and even a self-supporting institution somewhere along the way. And yet I had never before understood grace, that essential core of our doctrine of salvation.
It’s not because I haven’t been listening all these years. I have been listening, but grace hasn’t been talked about much. What I heard was something else—something less reassuring, more complicated, and ultimately discouraging. What it sounded like was, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” or “In order to receive salvation, we must…” For a generation or two, whether by negligence, distraction, or carelessness, Adventism lost its focus on grace. That nucleus, that fundamental center of our faith slipped out of its place, and some of us grew up without it, without understanding that grace is what transforms the rituals and laws of our religion into a vibrant faith. Grace is as essential to our faith as water or light to life, and some of us have never experienced it.
It’s not that grace isn’t in our doctrines. It’s right there, sewn delicately into each of our fundamental beliefs. Much to my surprise, it’s even in our official doctrinal statement on salvation: “This faith which receives salvation comes through the divine power of the Word and is the gift of God's grace.” Even Ellen G. White herself—who, for many of us, is the patron saint of salvation by works—asserted the significance of grace in statements such as this: “We cannot purchase anything from God. It is only by grace, the free gift of God in Christ, that we are saved” (That I May Know Him, by Ellen G. White, p. 83).
Furthermore, according to Tyner, Ellen White distinguished between justifying grace (the grace that saves us) and sanctifying grace (the grace that transforms us). The grace that saves us is the gift of God, no strings attached. The grace that moves us to strive to be like Christ and requires something of us does not save us, and ought not be confused with justifying grace.
The equation is not salvation = grace + x, but rather, it is simply salvation = grace. Severing that mental link between what we do and how we’re saved changes the entire landscape of our faith. We struggle with this, obviously. We look often and hard for a loophole in this divine gift, for the small print that will tell us that salvation isn’t really free. But it is. Though Adventism has perhaps failed to emphasize this, it is.
“When the kindness and love of God appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we have done but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7, NIV) That’s the truth that has been lost, at times, in the debate about distinctive beliefs that are in fact animated only by grace itself. Adventism must remember this forgotten truth, prize it, and restore it to its central place in its faith practices, or it will have lost one of its most fundamental beliefs.
2. The comforting truth: Because of grace, our salvation is assured.
“We must strive for perfection so that God will save us.”
“God has a boiling point, after which he will no longer work with us to save us.”
“The phrase ‘shall be saved’ means that salvation is in the future. We are not yet saved. Being saved is an ongoing process for eternity.”
“It’s only through repentance that we’ll get into heaven.”
“God will be there for you—if you’re there for him.”
Right now, these teenagers are in that somewhat self-conscious, impressionable, searching age during which the groundwork for individual faith is being laid, but soon, they will be Sabbath School teachers, church board members, conference and union leaders, parents, pastors, and evangelists. They will be the ones passing on the Adventist faith to the following generation—if in ten or twenty years they haven’t left the church altogether, of course. What is the nature of the faith we have communicated to these young Adventists? How did we fail to pass on the assurance of our salvation? Somehow the beliefs we nurtured in these particular young Adventists didn’t include an understanding of grace. Somehow we gave them instead a tenuous salvation experience in which God’s grace is conditional, uncertain. Already, there’s a hint of weariness and anxiety about their faith.
In our homes, our churches, our schools, and our communities—from the pulpit, in Bible classes, through our faith lives—we are passing on a spiritual inheritance. If we fail to pass on the assurance of salvation by grace, we pass on a cycle of continual striving and failure. Religion rewinds to a practice of sin and penance without hope, and we’re back with Martin Luther climbing that uneven stone staircase on our hands and knees.
“Abiding in Him we become partakers of the divine nature and have the assurance of salvation now and in the judgment,” our official doctrine states (emphasis mine). Grace must reenter our lexicon and inhabit our faith so that the spiritual inheritance we pass on is more than the empty laws of the Pharisees or the cultural habits of a peculiar people. Why? Grace transforms the methodical, formulaic life of faith into one of joy and active participation in human affairs, and that is the spiritual inheritance we ought to be passing on.
3. The liberating truth: The assurance of salvation liberates us to share God’s grace with others for their eternal salvation and also to practice the here-and-now deliverance of others.
We have sometimes experienced our salvation as though we were on an airplane flight facing an impending crash, as if we knew that at some unspecified future point, the engines would fail and the plane would nosedive to the ground. We don’t know when, but we’ve studied the charts and timelines, and we have clues. Each time the plane hits a pocket of turbulence, we’re certain the end is finally upon us. We’ve memorized the in-flight safety instructions, especially that tidbit: “In the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will be deployed. Secure your own mask before assisting children or other passengers.” We’re concerned primarily about securing our own deliverance.
Grace liberates us from this scenario. Through grace, we know we’re survivors. We are emancipated from the spiritual slavery of fear and futility, and we’re given, instead, sanctuary. In the sanctuary of grace, the locus of our existence moves outside our self-centeredness to include those around us. Our circle of awareness widens. We awaken to the world around us and recognize the faces of defeat, isolation, want, pain, weariness, and suffering. We become concerned with the salvation of others—not only spiritual salvation, but also a physical, immediate, human kind of deliverance.
“Through the Spirit we are born again and sanctified; the Spirit renews our minds, writes God's law of love in our hearts, and we are given the power to live a holy life,” our official doctrine reads. I’d like to propose that a holy life is not primarily a life of refraining, fasting, self-preservation, or indifference to our world. The holy life is, instead, a life of doing—not in pursuit of salvation but in sharing salvation. Remember, the link between what we do and how we’re saved has already been severed, and this separation allows us to both rest in the assurance of our salvation and fully encounter our earthly community. Elie Wiesel says, “The opposite of love is not hate; it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death; it's indifference.” Divine grace shatters the shell. Divine grace toward us invalidates our apathy and compels us to engage in human affairs. Grace expands our experience of salvation vertically to connect securely to our assured divine inheritance and horizontally to meet humanity on this earth. We are no longer “neither here nor there,” no longer suspended for a human lifetime between heaven and earth, but are instead firmly rooted in both. It moves us from what Martin Buber described as the objectifying, detached encounter of an “I-It” relationship to the actualizing, alive “I and Thou” relationship in which our encounter with each human You actualizes our encounter with the divine (I and Thou, New York: Touchstone, 1996).
Grace asks us, first, to reestablish the liberating truth about salvation in its central place within our faith community so as to restore the quality of the spiritual inheritance we pass on. Secondly, grace asks us to practice an immediate human kind of salvation—the deliverance of living beings from suffering. Barbara Brown Taylor says it much better than I ever could: “In the Bible, human beings experience God’s salvation when peace ends war, when food follows famine, when health supplants sickness and freedom trumps oppression. Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name” (Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor, New York: Harper Collins, 2006)
What is the shape of salvation? Is it the rectangle of textbooks in inner city schools, the halo of mosquito nets in a Thai village, the circle of a bowl filled with hot food, the long line of a road to safety? What is the sound of salvation? Is it the silence of war in the Middle East, the click of cameras for children in a Calcutta ghetto, a long-lost family member’s voice, a choir of orphans? What is the taste of salvation? Is it the starchy flavor of steaming rice in a Cambodian village, the bitter liquid of AIDS drugs in sub-Saharan Africa, the taste of potable well water in a Peruvian community? What is the touch of salvation? Is it the cool, sleek cover of a $100 laptop for every child, the crisp sheets of a clean bed in a shelter, the rough woven patterns of a basket business built on a micro-loan in Bangladesh?
Salvation—the kind grace asks us to practice—is all this. It is rest from violence, preservation of life, educational opportunity, human rights, religious freedom, health care, financial and moral responsibility. It’s as large as peace, and it’s also much smaller than that—the size of a word or a coin. It’s global, and it’s local. Salvation is awareness, forgiveness, kindness, justice, restoration. Salvation is beauty, poetry, music. Against human suffering, the practice of salvation takes the shape of our faces, the sound of our voices, the taste of our tears and sweat, the touch of our hands, and it is our moral obligation to live out salvation from the corners of our homes to the war zones of Sudan, AIDS-racked Sub-Saharan Africa, flood-ravaged Southeast Asia, and the violent streets of Afghanistan and Iraq. Salvation—the kind grace asks us to practice—is creating light where there is darkness.
I leave you with the voice of poet Wendell Berry (from Timbered Choir, New York: Counterpoint, 1998)
But remember: when a man of war becomes a man of peace, he gives a light, divine
though it is also human.When a man of peace is killed by a man of war, he gives a light.
You do not have to walk in darkness.If you will have the courage for love, you may walk in light.
(Read full poem here.)
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4128